Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Walter Corbett

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Walter Corbett
An African American tenant farmer looking over his land: June, 1939
BornMarch, 1876
Alamance County, North Carolina
DiedUnknown Date
Unknown Location
NationalityAfrican American
OccupationTobacco Farmer


Walter Corbett (born March 1876)[1] was an African American tobacco farmer in Alamance County, North Carolina. He was interviewed for the Federal Writer’s Project in late 1938.


Early Life[edit]

Corbett was born in March of 1876 in Alamance County, North Carolina. There is no record of who his parents were or the exact date and location of is birth.[2] As a child, Corbett worked for a neighboring farm owned by Charles Maynard.

His main job on the farm was to worm and transplant tobacco, but he also worked on in the house doing chores between farming seasons.[3]

Work and Family[edit]

In 1896, Corbett married Maggie Sellars and began sharecropping with a neighboring farm owned by F.P. Rogers. In 1898, after working for Rogers for two years, Corbett went back to working for Maynard as a sharecropper. He did this for nine years before purchasing some land of his own to work and begin paying off his land debts to Maynard. In 1909, Sellars passed away from unknown causes, leaving behind Corbett and their six children.[4]

Corbett married his second wife, Annie Liza Lee, in 1913. The same year, he purchased four more acres of land. Between the years 1915 and 1922, Corbett purchased 34 and a half acres of land total and repaid his debt to Maynard, making him an independent land owner.[5] With the purchase of so much land, Corbett “needed more hands to work in the field”[6], so he had nine more children with Lee, bringing the total to 15 children. Lee passed in 1929, right before the Tobacco Crash in North Carolina.[7]

In 1932, Corbett married his final wife, Edith Sloan, who he had no children with.[8] Shortly after, his eldest three children moved to New York to find jobs and get married while Corbett still worked the farm in Burlington. It is unknown when or where Corbett died.

African American Migration in the South[edit]

The Great Migration occurred because blacks in America were looking for new economic and social opportunities after the Civil War. While many travelled north, there were often fewer jobs for blacks than in the south. Because of this, a pattern emerged of “[blacks] going north [expecting] social aspects of their lives to be different. Their goal, along with that of economic improvement, was equality, or integration. But blacks who migrated to the south… [did so] to better themselves economically, not socially.” [9]

Land Ownership[edit]

Tennant farming, a system in which tenants rent land from a landowner to farm, and share cropping, a system in which farmers are provided a house and tools on a larger farm in exchange for labor, seemed more appealing to blacks in the south because it capitalized on agricultural and farming skills that they already had.

Those who moved north had to learn new skills and adapt to a new environment, and racism was still prominent in the north. This made it hard for blacks to get jobs in the north even when they were qualified. In the south, the economic divide still remained because blacks had not yet reached the social status of land ownership and simply worked the land instead of owning it.[10]

Tobacco Crash of 1930 in North Carolina[edit]

Traditionally, tobacco is sold in an auction setting with companies bidding on cured tobacco to use in their products.[11] This worked until American Tobacco began monopolizing the tobacco industry by buying out smaller competitors and outbidding companies that wouldn’t be bought out, thus running them out of business.[12]

"Negro farmer talking with warehouse man about price he received at auction for his tobacco" Durham, North Carolina: November, 1939

Once American Tobacco was the sole bidder, their employees would buy tobacco for a grossly undervalued price point. A pile of tobacco worth forty cents per pound would be sold for as little as five cents per pound.[13] Farmers couldn’t take their product elsewhere as tobacco loses too much value once transported to salvage a profit.[14]

The Agriculture Adjustment Act (AAA)[edit]

Following the Great Depression, President Roosevelt commissioned he New Deal, a program aimed at recovering the United States economy. One of the most prominent and controversial aspects of the New Deal was the AAA. In Congress, two sides emerged during the debate on reform. One focused on saving big farms while the other focused on providing relieve to small farms. The latter won by a handful of votes.[15]

The AAA in North Carolina[edit]

The price of tobacco dropped drastically in 1930 due to overproduction, so the US government provided incentives for farmers to produce less tobacco by paying them a small amount to lower their crop yield.[16]

The program worked short term and helped independent farmers regain some profits that were lost during the early stages of the depression, but larger farms with tenant farmers and sharecroppers suffered because less tobacco was produced. Landowners had to fire sharecroppers because there was not enough profit to sustain a farm with workers, and tenant farmers often had to move off the land because they did not make enough money from small yields to pay the landowner.[17]


  1. United States Census Bureau. “Census of 1900”. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Commerce. 1900
  2. Corbett, Walter. Federal Writers' Project. By Abner, John H. December 2, 1938
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid
  9. Evans, Arthur S. "Pearl City: The Formation of a Black Community in the New South." Phylon (1960-) 48, no. 2 (1987): 152-64. doi:10.2307/274779.
  10. Wadley, Janet K., and Everett S. Lee. "The Disappearance of the Black Farmer." Phylon (1960-) 35, no. 3 (1974): 276-83. doi:10.2307/274553.
  11. Corbett, Walter. Federal Writers' Project. By Abner, John H. December 2, 1938
  12. Funk, William H. "Brutal Saviours of the Black Patch." History Today64, no. 6 (June 2014): 21-26. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 27, 2017).
  13. Corbett, Walter. Federal Writers' Project. By Abner, John H. December 2, 1938
  14. Corbett, Walter. Federal Writers' Project. By Abner, John H. December 2, 1938
  15. Hunter, Robert F. "The AAA Between Neighbors: Virginia, North Carolina, and the New Deal Farm Program." The Journal of Southern History 44, no. 4 (1978): 537-70. doi:10.2307/2207605
  16. Ibid
  17. Corbett, Walter. Federal Writers' Project. By Abner, John H. December 2, 1938