Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 2/Matthew Matthews

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Matthew Luke Matthews was born July 16, 1881 in Harnett County, North Carolina. He was interviewed by T. Pat Matthews for the Federal Writer's Project on November 27, 1938.


Early Life[edit]

Matthews was born the youngest of nine children in his family. His mother (Emily Matthews) and father (George Washington Matthews), both former slaves, stayed with their master after the Civil War and worked for him until they saved enough money to build their own home. Matthews played with white children growing up, saying that there was no one else to play with. According to Matthews, he and his siblings dressed well and had enough to meet their needs because his father made a lot on his farm.[1]

Adult Life[edit]

Matthews started working at sawmills and railroads as a young adult and was able to rent a place to stay while he worked. Matthews married Ida Dean McKay, a school teacher, in 1911. In 1918, Matthews and his wife bought their own home. They had no children because they decided that children would be too expensive a responsibility. Matthews was drafted into World War I in 1918, and it is unknown how long he served.

As an adult, he went to school for a few months a year, and finished the 5th grade by the time he started working for himself. He learned how to read, write, and do some math. After his education, Matthews bought and took care of his own farm while his wife remained a teacher. Matthews grew many vegetables, fruits, and even raised chickens. Additionally, Matthews picked cotton and barned tobacco.

Together, Matthews and his wife made around $3,000 a year, which was enough to meet their needs and add on to their home. Both Matthews and his wife were Republicans, but thought very highly of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's policies. Matthews and his wife belonged to the local Free Will Baptist Church, and believed it very important to attend the services.[2]

Matthews died September 28, 1957 in Lillington, North Carolina. His wife, Ida Dean Matthews, died March 12, 1981 in Lillington, North Carolina.[3]

Social Context[edit]

Jim Crow in the South[edit]

From the late 1800's to the 1960's, laws and customs that enforced racial segregation and discrimination, known as "Jim Crow" laws, affected every aspect of life for African Americans in the United States, and especially the southern states.[4] Jim Crow laws caused restrictions on "marriage, voting, education, employment, housing, travel, and enforced segregation in public spaces"[5] Some of these restrictions were written into law, while others became societal norms.

Despite the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, the Supreme Court established a precedent which allowed segregation and inequality during that time.[6] This precedent was solidified with the result of the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896. The Court ruled that "separate but equal" accommodations on Louisiana's railroads were constitutional. This ruling eventually led to the legalization of segregation in other forms, such as education, public park access, and libraries. [7]The "separate but equal" phrasing itself was used to justify segregation, for it suggested that African Americans, though separate, had "equal" access and accommodations that white people had.

A large section of racial inequality at this time came in the form of employment and education restrictions. Policies restricted access to education for Southern African Americans. This restriction handicapped their pursuit for occupational success. Jim Crow laws included discriminatory practices that forced "black workers onto the lowest rungs of the occupational ladder."[8]

For many white people in the south, a focus on keeping power over their African American counterparts was present. Threats of violence were important factors for southern whites to "institute and maintain white supremacy during the Jim Crow era."[9] One way that this was done was through lynchings. White southerners regarded lynchings as positive and exciting occurrences, and they even brought their children to witness them.[10]

African American Employment in the South[edit]

Many African Americans during the early 1900's worked as farmers, sharecroppers, and on railroads. For African American farmers, the goal was to own your own farm and home. Agriculture for African Americans was animated by slogans such as "own your own home- own your own farm", and emerged to fill the void caused by inequality.[11] These messages motivated African American men to save money and better not only themselves, but their families as well.

In farming, there was a large discrepancy between the farm sizes of whites and African Americans. In 1945, for example, the average black farm was 60 acres while the average white farm was about 156 acres.[12]

With labor unrelated to agriculture, African American men worked primarily as unskilled laborers while women worked in service professions, such as laundry and domestic housekeeping. The economic inequality between southern African Americans and their white counterparts was a reality that affected more than just occupation -- it affected every aspect of life.[13]


Federal Writers Project Papers. Coll. 3709. Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Kimberley S Johnson, "Racial Orders, Congress, and the Agricultural Welfare State, 1865-1940." Studies in American Political Development 25, no. 2 (October 2011): 143-161. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0898588X11000095. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/917424907?accountid=14244.

Margaret Hu, "Algorithmic Jim Crow," Fordham Law Review 86, no. 2 (November 2017): 633-696.

“Matthew Luke Matthews”, Ancestry Institution, accessed October 2, 2018, https://search.ancestryinstitution.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?qh=jFxwSh0iOh637UMLAMwkmw%3d%3d&gss=angs-g&new=1&rank=1&msT=1&gsfn=matthew&gsfn_x=0&gsln=matthews&gsln_x=0&msypn__ftp=Lillington%2c+Harnett%2c+North+Carolina%2c+USA&msypn=20687&msbdy=1881&catbucket=rstp&MSAV=0&uidh=yn9&pcat=ROOT_CATEGORY&h=126545020&dbid=60525&indiv=1&ml_rpos=2&hovR=1

Ritterhouse, Jennifer, Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Stewart E. Tolnay, E.M. Beck, and Victoria Sass, “Migration and Protest in the Jim Crow South,” Social Science Research 73 (July 2018); 13-30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2018.03.011.

Tuttle, Kate. “Jim Crow.” In Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition, edited by Henry Louise Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah. Oxford University Press, 2005. http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0002/e2085?hi=0&highlight=1&from=main&pos=1#


  1. Matthews, T. Pat (interviewer): We Make Plenty, November 27, 1938, folder 618, coll. 3709, Federal Writers' Project papers, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Ibid
  3. "Matthew Luke Matthews", Ancestry Institution.
  4. Kate Tuttle, Jim Crow
  5. Margaret Hu, Algorithmic Jim Crow
  6. Ibid
  7. Kate Tuttle, Jim Crow
  8. Stewart E. Tolnay, E.M. Beck, Victoria Sass, Migration and protest in the Jim Crow South
  9. Ibid
  10. Jennifer Ritterhouse, Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race
  11. Kimberley S. Johnson, Racial Orders , Congress, and the Agricultural Welfare State, 1865-1940.
  12. Ibid
  13. Stewart E.Tolnay, E.M. Beck, Victoria Sass, Migration and protest in the Jim Crow South