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

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John Lowery
BornSouth Carolina
DiedYear Unknown
ResidenceCharlotte, North Carolina
SpouseMarried twice, names unknown
RelativesNineteen siblings


John Lowery was a black man living in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was born in South Carolina and moved to North Carolina when he was still young. The time of his birth is unknown, as well as the time and place of his death. In 1939 he was interviewed by The Federal Writers' Project.


Early Life[edit]

Lowery does not specify if he grew up in North or South Carolina, but he is clear that he lived on a farm with nineteen siblings. It is unclear if Lowery’s father had all of these children with one woman or multiple[1]. Because of the poor school system Lowery and his siblings only attended school four months of the year, and helped their father with the farm the rest of the year.


As an adult Lowery lived in North Carolina, moving to Charlotte in 1901[2]. That same year he began to work as a Pullman Porter. He worked there for over thirty years, and traveled the entire country and parts of Mexico and Canada. Through this work he was able to travel with the Presidential campaign for Al Smith. For Lowery’s first two years of work he was paid fifty cents a day, until the First World War when he had received enough raises to be paid three dollars a day.

A year after Lowery moved to Charlotte he married his first wife, and together they had ten children. When her health began to decline Lowery worked less as a porter to help with the children at home. His wife did not work at all. When he was not out on trains he would work on run-down cars. Lowery’s first wife passed when their youngest was six months old. He remarried a year later when he realized he needed help raising his children[3]. Lowery had four children with his second wife. At the time of the interview his first ten children were all married. He mentions one daughter specifically living in Virginia in a bad marriage. According Lowery she is always writing about how bad things are, and he states his intention to send her a train ticket home in response to her next letter. He says he does not care about whatever repercussions that may come so long as his children are happy and safe. He does not elaborate beyond that[4].

Lowery completes the interview praising his four youngest children for the potential to succeed in education, and states his hope to send them to college. He also talks about his satisfaction with how his life ultimately turned out[5].

Social Issues[edit]

Divorce in the Early 1900s[edit]

In the early twentieth century divorce was even considered highly scandalous, and there was a lot of disgrace surrounding the act of divorce. In one Washington Post article from 1930 divorce is described as “[nothing] short of a sordid, vulgar and most of the time reprehensible social ill ”[6]. It was very difficult for two people to legally get a divorce, and was not even an option in certain states. Divorce was a civil lawsuit in the early 1900s. In the proceedings the plaintiff would argue that their spouse had in some way broken the marriage contract, or the legal agreement made when they were married. The marriage contract could be broken through desertion, cruelty, adultery, and in some states alcoholism or other drug –related issues could be considered grounds for a divorce[7]. Abandonment was the most common grounds on which divorce was granted, the plaintiff would argue that their spouse simply left them. In several Southern states a divorce would be granted by default because a spouse, most often the husband, would not appear in court and defend themselves. Therefore, the judge would have to enter the plaintiff’s defense as evidence of a broken marriage contract and grant the divorce[8]. One of the more difficult grounds to get a divorce was that of abuse. In the 1920s and 1930s particularly victim blaming became a serious issue with theories of “female masochism” which stated that part of woman’s sexuality was to enjoy being hurt[9]. So even if a woman went into court with physical evidence of abuse by her spouse, she would have a lot more difficulty convincing the judge of her husband’s guilt.


Margret Sanger

In regards to contraception, during the First World War, there was a lot of mistrust surrounding the use of contraception, especially by men. It was thought that the use of condoms might alter sexual behavior[10]. For women there was also debate on the appropriate birth control method, one that they administered themselves or the practice of Social Eugenics. Eugenics was often practiced on women who were not considered intelligent enough to use birth control on their own. In an article with the Los Angeles Times in 1932, the Human Betterment Foundation is quoted to say, “Birth control by contraceptive methods…requires extreme care, intelligence, and practical biological understanding of the problem…Both sterilization and contraception have a place in modern society. Both…apply to different classes of people…”[11]. Regarding middle-class white women it was thought that birth control might turn them into sexual deviants. Advocates for safe birth control, such as Margret Sanger, argued for birth control rights within the respectability of marriage and morality. For impoverished women, their only access to birth control was through Eugenics practices, which would be avoided if possible. This restriction to birth control meant a higher birth rate that correlated directly with a declining standard of living[12]. Sanger and her supporters argued that control over one’s reproductive functions was vital for the equality of the sexes. Another birth control practice that was available was Social Eugenics. The thought was based on Darwin’s ideas of evolution, and scientists predicted that a better human race could be bred by only allowing certain people to have children. Not people of African descent. In the 1920s, Sanger and her colleagues supported this movement, feeling it was inappropriate for people of African descent to reproduce. The main goal was that middle-class white women of north European descent would breed more[13].

  1. Carol Bennett, “I’ve Seen These States” (The Federal Writers Project, 1939), 1.
  2. Ibid., 2.
  3. Ibid., 3.
  4. Ibid., 4.
  5. Ibid., 5.
  6. Fannie Hurst, What Is To Be Done About Divorce? (Washington, DC; The Washington Post, 1930), 1.
  7. Lawrence M Friedman, A Dead Language: Divorce Law and Practice before No-Fault (Virginia Law Review, 2000), 1500-1501.
  8. Lawrence M Friedman, "Rights of Passage: Divorce Law in Historical Perspective." Oregon Law Review 63.4 (1984): 660-661.
  10. Andrea Tone, Making Room for Rubbers: Gender, Technology, and Birth Control Before the Pill (History & Technology, 2002), 57.
  11. Fred Hogue, Social Euqenics (Los Angeles, CA; Los Angeles Times, 1936), 1.
  12. Inderpal Grewal, An Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World “Social and Historical Constructions of Gender” (McGraw-Hill, 2006) 3.
  13. Susan Davis, “Contested Terrain” (McGraw-Hill, 2006) 100-101.