Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Depression Years in Attala County, Mississippi

Lelia Porter Branch and Clark C. Branch
Newport Community, Attala County, Mississippi, circa 1922

The picture here is the earliest picture I have of my paternal grandparents, Lelia Porter Branch and Clark Commander Branch. Lelia and Clark were married on December 9, 1922 in rural Attala County, and they began their life together in the Newport community located in Attala County, Mississippi near both families. Her family, the Porter family, lived near Sallis, and the rest of my grandfather's Branch relatives also lived near them in Newport or around McAdams. Their only child, my father, was born the next December, and his life, like the lives of my grandparents, was to change because of this Great Depression.

As you can see in the picture, my grandparents lived in a very simple house in a rural area of Attala County, on land they farmed. Their life must have been very hard, with no conveniences. They used kerosene or "coal oil" lamps, they had well water, and they heated their home with wood burned in an iron stove. There was no refrigeration, no electricity, and cooking was done on a wood stove. Living conditions such as this are almost impossible for most people my age to even imagine.

I thought it seemed "right" to write about the depression years at this particular time, since for several weeks now, our world has been filled with information about the troubled economic conditions that prevail now in our country. There is talk about a probable economic recession, and even talk that another Depression may be around the corner. My plan is to write a series of posts dealing with rural life in Mississippi, as it was experienced by my ancestors during the depression. Today is the first article in that series.

The post today is actually about something good that came out of that other period of dire financial circumstances, one that left genealogists like me with a wealth of information about how their relatives lived during those years. One of the parts of the New Deal program was a project designed to put unemployed individuals to work during the Depression. The name of this program was the U. S. Work Progress Administration or "WPA." Within the program was a project developed to put unemployed intellectuals to work, and it was known as the Federal Writer's Project. Materials written by those who worked in the Federal Writers' Project are housed in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, and it is part of a larger collection titled The U.S. Work Progress Administration Federal Writers' Project and Historical Records Survey.

This collection covers the years 1889-1942 and includes many topics about varied subjects. Approximately 300,000 items are contained in the collection, including correspondence, reports, essays, and oral histories. Included are life histories of men and women describing their feelings while coping with life during the Depression; studies of the social customs of ethnic groups living in the United States; records of interviews with ex-slaves describing life during the period of slavery; and drafts of publications produced.

The unemployed writer who may have participated in this project could have been a lawyer, a teacher, a librarian, or someone else who had experience writing when they were employed. Many felt during this time that the Roosevelt Administration could find more jobs for those who had an academic background than for those who worked in "blue collar" jobs. The project was not popular within the U. S. Congress and was referred to as the federal government's attempt to "democratize American culture," especially after it was approved for federal monies in June 1935.

The project continued into the late 1930's, but Congress remained critical and some opponents were intent on shutting down the project. Funding for the project ceased in late 1939, primarily because the Roosevelt Administration needed funding for an increased defense budget. After that, the project continued in a less active roll, funded on money given to the states, and it closed about a year after the U. S. entered World War II.

The result of this collection is that it contains genealogy records that allow us to have a snapshot of life as it actually was during these troubled years, told by real people who lived it.

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