Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 023/John Benton

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John Benton
NationalityAfrican American
Known forFederal Writers Project


John Benton was an African American man who lived in Charlotte, NC during the Great Depression. The Federal Workers Project interviewed him in 1939.



Benton grew up on a tenant farm in Union County, North Carolina. He was one of six children. After his mother died when he was fifteen years old, all of the children stayed home with their father to work on the farm instead of going to school. Everything they made went to pay for the seed and fertilizer for their crops. The only thing that they had left was the corn but they couldn’t sell that or they would have nothing to eat.


Two years after they got married, Benton and his wife, Laura, decided to move to the city of Charlotte, NC. They had four children, two boys and two girls. One of the boys died young from asthma. In Charlotte, they rented a small house for $3 a week. His wife disliked life in the city but Benton didn’t want to move back to the farm because he was able to make more money in Charlotte.

During World War II, Benton’s wages increased to $95 a month. The extra money helped Benton and his wife move to a bigger house. The rent for the new house was $6 a week. The couple was able to buy new furniture and even save some money each week. When the war ended, Benton’s wages went back down to $50 a month. The family had to work harder to pay all of the bills but they were able to make it because they were careful to never waste anything.

All of the Benton children went to school. Both girls and one of the boys finished school through the eighth grade. Benton wanted them to continue school but they were ready to quit school, so he let them do as they pleased.

The three surviving children got married. One of the girls, Delia, and her husband separated. She moved back home to live with Benton and his wife. The other daughter, Jobina, and her husband were already living with them. The living son and his wife also split up. Benton said that the younger people didn’t know how to work together to make the marriage last.

While living in Charlotte, Benton and Laura didn’t officially become a member of any church but they regularly attended the Methodist Church. In addition, when Delia and Jobina got married, they became members of the Methodist church. A man named “Daddy Grace” came to Charlotte to preach. Benton joined the church of Daddy Grace at a tent revival. Daddy Grace claimed to have healing powers and that he was able to visit heaven often. Many of his followers believed that he was God. However, Daddy Grace served sentences in jail for violation of the Mann Act. The Mann Act makes it illegal to transport people for the purpose of taking part in sexual activity or prostitution. Benton’s daughters disagreed with the teachings of Daddy Grace and didn’t like that their father was one of Daddy Grace’s followers. They tried to get Benton to leave the church but he wouldn’t. Benton said that he wanted to be a member of the church until he died.



During World War II, African- Americans who did not enlist in the military, had opportunities to work higher paying jobs in factories left by white soldiers. By 1944, the weekly wages were double the average wages paid in 1939.[1] Pullman, a rail-car factory located in Chicago, began to hire African American women for the first time to work on production lines in the shipyard. Before this time, African American women were only hired for cafeteria and custodial positions.[2] While the opportunity to make more money was helpful during the war, when the soldiers returned, they took back their old jobs, leaving the African-Americans making lower wages once again.[3].


Tenant farmers were people who did not own the land that they farmed on but rented it from a landlord. The famers had to pay rent for the land as well as, buy their own fertilizers, tools, and seeds[4]. Many of the tenant farmers had trouble just getting by. Most if not all of their money went to pay for the supplies that they needed to farm or to their landlord for rent. There was no left over money to save. Without extra money, farmers could not save up enough to buy their own land and had to keep renting from the landlords. This led to a cycle of poverty. The farmers could never catch up with the debt that they owed their landlords so they were forced to continue working for them. The Great Depression led to an increase in tenant farming. This is because many people were losing jobs and famers who had large farms could make more money by renting out their land to tenant farmers[5].

  1. Goodwin, Doris. 1992. “The Way We Won: America’s Economic Breakthrough During WWII.” Accessed January 3. http://prospect.org/article/way-we-won-americas-economic-breakthrough-during-world-war-ii.
  2. Anon. 1992. “Black Workers Played Role on the Home Front.” Accessed January 3. http://www.nytimes.com/1992/11/25/opinion/l-black-workers-played-role-on-the-home-front-796992.html.
  3. Oppenheimer, JR. “Wartime Changes for Women and Minorities.” Accessed February 24, 2016. http://tdl.org/txlor-dspace/bitstream/handle/2249.3/236/07_wartm_chng_wom_min.htm?sequence=25.
  4. New World Encyclopedia contributors, "Tenant farming," New World Encyclopedia, Accessed february 24, 2016. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Tenant_farming&oldid=992080
  5. Mokyr, Joel, ed. “Tenant Farming.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History 1 (2003). http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195105070.001.0001/acref-9780195105070-e-0737.