Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Wilbur S. White
|Wilbur Simpson White|
Nov. 23, 1892 |
Jul. 26, 1977|
Wilbur S White was a South Carolina farmer and landowner. He was born in 1892 to a family of tenant farmers descended from landowners. During his life, he established himself as a prosperous landowner, supported his parents, and employed at least three other families on his 200 acre estate. He was married, had at least three children, and later retired, before dying in 1977 at 84.
White was born in either 1892 or 1893 to Charlie and Rebecca White. Wilbur as well as his sisters Blanche and Clara, lived with their parents in Marion, South Carolina, near the North Carolina border. According to White, the family had been prominent landowners before the Civil War, but had been dispossessed after 1865. As White later stated, "There's quite a bunch of niggers by the name of [White] scattered all over Wahee and Centenary sections of Marion County today who are more than likely descendants of slaves once owned by the [White] family". But with Emancipation the Whites were bankrupted, lost their land, and became tenant farmers. As a child, White attended the Palmer School, a local school for white children, until 1910 or 1911. Beginning in 1912, he claims to have attended a business school in Columbia, but left in 1913 to resume working in Marion.
WWI and Aftermath
White was drafted into the US Army in 1917, but was never sent overseas . During the war, cotton and tobacco prices rose dramatically, and when White returned home in 1919, he was able to buy 100 acres of farmland. The Depression of 1920 was hard on the White family, and in that year his parents stopped renting their farm and moved into his, where they both died the following year. In 1921, the economic downturn ended, and in 1923, White married Hattie Coleman. In that year he also purchased a Ford Model-T, his first car and a status symbol in the sparsely populated agricultural South. Five years later his first child, Mary Carol White was born, and he purchased another car, a Chevrolet Coach.
The Great Depression
While most of the country was hit hard by the Great Depression, evidence suggests White fared better than most southern farmers. The boll weevil mostly missed Marion, giving him and other farmers in the area a relative advantage in cotton production. White was able to buy two more cars in 1934 and 1936. He also bought another 100 acres of land in 1936, doubling the size of his property. During the 1930s, the Whites had at least two more children, Betty Joe and Douglas Carlyle. Another child, Joanne Leslie White, is named in his obituary and in a 1940 census, but further records of her are unavailable. In 1938, he gave an interview about his life to Annie Ruth Davis, a writer for the Federal Writer's Project, who also wrote extensively about slavery during that time. To protect his identity, his name was changed to John Black. The interview speaks mostly about his childhood and how he viewed the changing agricultural lifestyle of the American South at that time. In the interview, he also related his political opinions, which were in line with the politics of the Southern Democrats of the time. He claimed to be unhappy with the tenant farming system he had been raised in and which he believed had kept his family poor during that time. However, he also stated that government aid was destroying the local culture of helpfulness and sowing unrest among the (black) farm laborers.
Records of Wilbur White stop after a 1940 census until his death. It appears he remained farming in Marion until his retirement and eventually died in 1977. He is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Marion, next to Hattie, who died five years later in 1982. As he said, "Born on a farm, I expect to die on one".
Southern Agricultural Society
After the Civil War, landowners in the American South were left with large tracts of land, but no labor force to work them. By relying on the poverty of former slaves, they instituted a system of sharecropping and tenant farming, in which individuals would either lease land from or give a portion of the crops to a landlord. Although this system theoretically provided income and freedom to those working in it, most tenant farmers and sharecroppers remained perpetually cash-strapped or even in debt. This was largely the result of exploitative contracts created by landowners, which kept many farmers in conditions close to serfdom. As the system grew, sharecropping and tenant farming included both black and white farmers. By 1935, three quarters of black farmers, and half of white ones in the United States owned no land. However, the situation began to improve during the Great Depression as federal programs pushed to give poor farmers the means to purchase their own land.
Politics: Landowners and The Lost Cause Mentality
As the twentieth century progressed, white landowners felt increasingly put upon by northern public opinion, which painted them as not only poor and backwards, but also irredeemable because of the systems - particularly Jim Crow - that held southern social structures together. To deal with this, the white south adopted the idea of The Lost Cause in its defense. To proponents of The Lost Cause, the Civil War had been fought over states rights, not slavery. In the war's aftermath, they believed the Union had enacted policies designed to cripple and impoverish the south, whose society they viewed as being intensely noble. This view was especially prominent among the landowners of the south. They used it as justification to replicate many aspects of the class conscious pre-war society, including their control of government and the promotion of laws that gave landowners vast legal control over their tenants and sharecroppers.
- Annie Davis Ruth, "Tenant to Taxpayer," Federal Writers Program Papers, http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/1039/rec/1.
- "1900 United States Federal Census," Year: 1900; Census Place: Le Gette, Marion, South Carolina; Roll: 1535; Page: 7A; Enumeration District: 0076; FHL Microfilm: 1241535, 2004, accessed October 14, 2017, Ancestry.com.
- Davis, 2.
- Ibid., 3.
- Ibid., 8.
- "U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918," World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, 2005, accessed October 14, 2017, Ancestry.com.
- Davis, 8.
- Ibid., 9.
- Davis, 9.
- "1940 United States Federal Census," Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, 2012, accessed October 14, 2017, Ancestry.com.
- "Search Results from Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938, Federal Writers' Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 14, South Carolina, Part 2, Eddington-Hunter (mesn.142/)," The Library of Congress, accessed October 14, 2017, https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/?fa=segmentof%3Amesn.142%2F&st=gallery&sb=shelf-id_desc&c=20.
- Davis, 10-11
- Joseph D. Reid, Jr., "Sharecropping and Agricultural Uncertainty," Economic Development and Cultural Change 24, no. 3 (April 01, 1976): 550, JSTOR.
- "Sharecroppers," The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, accessed October 14, 2017, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/reconstruction/timeline-terms/sharecroppers.
- David E. Conrad, "Tenant Farming and Sharecropping," | The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, accessed October 14, 2017, http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entryname=TENANT%2BFARMING%2BAND%2BSHARECROPPING.
- Angie Maxwell, "Reactionary Fundamentalism," in The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness (North Carolina Scholarship Online, 2014), accessed October 14, 2017, http://northcarolina.universitypressscholarship.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/view/10.5149/northcarolina/9781469611648.001.0001/upso-9781469611648-chapter-4.
- James Oliver Horton, "Confronting Slavery and Revealing the "Lost Cause,"" accessed October 14, 2017, https://www.nps.gov/resources/story.htm%3Fid%3D217.
- Angie Maxwell, "A Knock at Midnight," in The Indicted South : Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness (North Carolina Scholarship Online, 2014), accessed October 14, 2017, http://northcarolina.universitypressscholarship.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/view/10.5149/northcarolina/9781469611648.001.0001/upso-9781469611648-chapter-6.
- “1900 United States Federal Census.” Year: 1900; Census Place: Le Gette, Marion, South Carolina; Roll: 1535; Page: 7A; Enumeration District: 0076; FHL Microfilm: 1241535, Ancestry.com, 2004, Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.
- “1940 United States Federal Census.” Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, Ancestry.com, 2012, Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.
- Conrad, David E. “Tenant Farming and Sharecropping.” | The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entryname=TENANT%2BFARMING%2BAND%2BSHARECROPPING. Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.
- Horton, James Oliver. Confronting Slavery and Revealing the "Lost Cause". www.nps.gov/resources/story.htm%3Fid%3D217. Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.
- Maxwell, Angie. “A Knock at Midnight.” The Indicted South : Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness, North Carolina Scholarship Online, 2014, northcarolina.universitypressscholarship.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/view/10.5149/northcarolina/9781469611648.001.0001/upso-9781469611648-chapter-6. Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.
- Maxwell, Angie. “Reactionary Fundamentalism.” The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness, North Carolina Scholarship Online, 2014. northcarolina.universitypressscholarship.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/view/10.5149/northcarolina/9781469611648.001.0001/upso-9781469611648-chapter-4. Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.
- Moore, Robin Pellicci. “Obituary for Wilbur Simpson White.” News and Courier [Charleston News and Courier], 1977, findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi/http%22/http/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=19905680. Accessed 11 Oct. 2017.
- Reid, Joseph D. “Sharecropping and Agricultural Uncertainty.” Economic Development and Cultural Change, vol. 24, no. 3, 1 Apr. 1976, pp. 549–576. JSTOR.
- Ruth, Annie Davis. “Tenant to Taxpayer.” Federal Writers Program Papers, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/1039/rec/1.
- “Search Results from Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938, Federal Writers' Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 14, South Carolina, Part 2, Eddington-Hunter (Mesn.142/).” The Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/?fa=segmentof%3Amesn.142%2F&st=gallery&sb=shelf-id_desc&c=20. Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.
- “Sharecroppers.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/reconstruction/timeline-terms/sharecroppers. Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.
- “U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918.” World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, Ancestry.com, 2005, Accessed 14 Oct. 2017.