Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 023/The Thompson Family

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The Thompson Family
BornFlorida, USA
NationalityUnited States of America


The Thompson family lived in Avon Park, Florida during the Great Depression. The family was made up of mother Allie, father Harris, their children Joey, Ruthie, Ellie, and Grace, as well as Allie’s sister Della and her son Johnnie. The family was very poor and lived in a shack in rural Florida. Neither Harris or Allie finished high school, choosing to instead work on citrus farms around Florida. The family could have chosen to work on the farms together, but the children wanted to go to school. School was not yet mandatory, so it was not unusual for the children to work instead of going to school.


Harris and Allie married young and spent most of their early years working on farms together. Harris was often dissatisfied with the jobs and before long would move on to the next farm with Allie. This continued until the birth of their first child. Allie did not want her family to grow up working on farms as she did, so she everything in her power to limit the family's movement. In order to bring in a source of income, Allie acts as a midwife, someone who helps deliver babies in rural areas where a doctor may not be present.

It was common at this time for families to work and live on the farms they worked on. Allie was against this notion, as she wanted her children to grow up without having to work as she did while growing up. Farms were a major source of employment during the Great Depression. At this time, there was a population shift from cities to rural areas, a trend opposite to what had been going on in the years after the Industrial Revolution in the United States.1

Labor Unions in the South[edit]

Labor Unions were a way for workers to have guaranteed wages and to make sure that they were not taken advantage of by the companies they worked for. However, membership to these Unions dropped the Great Depression for a number of reasons. One explanation is that there were less jobs available, so people were less picky about how much they got paid. This led to workers working more for less money with almost no guarantee that they would keep the job, as many people were willing to work for less.

In the years leading up to the Great Depression, labor union membership steadily rose. With the passing of the controversial Wagner Act in 1935, industrial production declined and lead to unemployment rates that matches those of 1931. Even though more workers were joining unions, unemployment continued to rise as well. This is credited to the fact that most workers were paid the same regardless of their qualifications. In response, any wage increase would lead companies laying of employees to protect profits. 2

Education During the Great Depression[edit]

During the 1930's, education was not mandatory like it is today. Many people quit going to school during middle school choosing to work instead. School was very expensive for most families. Not only did you have to buy books and clothes, but the family missed out on money due to the kids going to school instead of working. At this point in time, a high school degree meant about as much as a college degree does today.

Teachers were not better off than many of the students they served. In some cases, school janitors were paid more than the school teachers.3 At the beginning of the Great Depression, many teachers attempted to provide their students with aid and financial assistance in the form of clothes and food. At the same time however, teachers were not receiving monthly wages as there was not enough money to compensate them for their work. After months of not receiving pay, teachers began striking with little success.3


  • 1Boyd, Robert L. "A "Migration of Despair": Unemployment, the Search for Work, and Migration to Farms During the Great Depression." Social Science Quaterly 83, no. 2 (June 2002): 554-67.
  • 3Grossman, Ron. "Teachers Went Begging during the Great Depression." The Chicago Tribune, September 4, 2015.
  • 2Mix, Mark. "Labor Unions Prolonged the Depression." The Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2008, A15.