Depression-Era WPA Interviews With Erwin Mill Workers

A part of our oral history of OWD.

The Jackson Family
715 15th Street
West Durham, N.C.

15th Street today.

September 14, 1938

The last of the summer petunias lent a splash of bright color to the small, smoothly-sown yard of No. 715, 15th St. On the porch, a lazy black cat curled himself against the leather cushion of the porch glider. The front door stood ajar and through it a mild breeze carried the refreshing coolness of an early September day into the living room to the right of the small entrance hall. The fresh [serim?] curtains at the windows stirred lightly with now and then a flurry when a cross current brought a stronger and chillier breeze into the room.

The day was Saturday of September, 1938. It was a good day of a good year for James Jackson. The day was good because only that morning he had made the last payment on his eighteen-months old Plymouth car. The year was good because in January he had been made second hand in the spinning room at $27.50 a week. The twelve percent cut which came in July reduced his wage to a little less than $25 but that left enough for him to live on comfortably. His wife worked in the mill until two months ago and made $15 a week.

They have been able to save for their first child which will arrive within the next month.

James is thirty-two and his straight, well-built body, clear complexion and bright eyes stand as proof of the good health he has always enjoyed. He and his wife now share their four-room house with his mother and his eighteen-year old brother, Clarence. The young Jacksons and Mrs. Jackson occupy the two bedrooms and Clarence sleeps on a cot in the roam which is used as a combination of kitchen and dining room. This three-purpose room has in it no space for storing the canned fruits and vegetables which the older Mrs. Jackson prepared during the summer. Consequently the jars have been arranged in neat rows across the corner near the fireplace in the living room and just opposite the upright piano. There are two hundred jars of beans, tomatoes, corn, peaches, pickles, and preserves. All the vegetables were gathered from the Jackson garden just back of the house.

James Jackson sat in his living room on this Saturday in September and discussed the company for which he works. "I don't know of a better company to work for," he declared. "The officials here have the worker's interests at heart. They've furnished us with a fine Auditorium where a person can find free amusement if he wants to. They order coal in big lots and sell it to us without profit for $6.50 a ton. They keep the houses in good repair and rent them to us for almost nothing. I pay $1.50 a week for my four rooms, bath room, and garage. If I didn't live in a company house I'd have to pay $5 a week for a house not kept in as good condition to this.

"There are very few people working in the mill who make less than $12 a week when they work full time. Some of the help's sent out now and then as much as a day out of a week to rest but never more than that. We make standard goods -- sheets and pillow cases, you know -- and we generally have orders on hand all the time.

"I feel like people living here at this mill have as good or better chance for a decent living as most people working in stores, in offices, and such places where they don't make any more than we do and have a sight more house rent to pay.

"Of course the company don't have enough houses for all its help. There's some working in the mills here that's paying $20 a month for rent because they caint get a company house. But the majority of us has the advantage over other working people when it comes to rent."

There was about James Jackson spirit of well-being as he talked of the company and of his own life. It seemed to spring from his conviction that he had worked for what he had gotten and had gotten what he had worked for.

James, one of eight children, was born on his father's small farm in Sampson County and lived there until he was ten years old. By that time his father, who had quit farming for railroad work a few years earlier, had decided that a steady wage was better than the uncertainties of farm production and farm prices. He moved his family first to Erwin Cotton Mill at Erwin, then to the East Durham Mill, and later to the West Durham will where James still lives. The elder Jackson died a year after his youngest child, Clarence, was born. Up to that time all the children of school age had been able to remain in school. James completed the eighth grade after which he began a course in bookkeeping. Convinced that he was not suited to the type of work he quit the course and went into the spinning room at the age of fifteen. There he has remained and availed himself of his opportunities to learn all he could about his work. He has attended a number of the textile courses offered in night school by the mill officials and he completed a correspondence course in textile work from the International Correspondence Schools.

Six years after the elder Jackson's death his widow decided to moved out into the country, but not too far for her children to drive into Durham for their work. She bought on time-payment a home and six acres at Bragtown, about five miles out, and here three of her children not yet old enough to work in the mill raised truck produce. The children who worked in town took the vegetables and sold them to certain stores which could handle all the small farm could supply.

After eight years the farm was paid for and the younger members of the family had secured work in the mill. Mrs. Jackson rented her farm and moved back to the mill village. Today all of her children except Clarence are married, and half of them live at the mill while the others live in the country.

Clarence who is now in the tenth grade has supported himself by working in the mill since he was fifteen. He quit school after finishing the ninth grade and after a lapse of three years he has decided to finish high school. He is one of the sixty-five students attending the Durham High School Co-operative Class, a class organized for working boys ambitious to complete their high school training. It is conducted so as to fit in with the working schedule of all of its members. Clarence who works in the mill from 3:30 in the afternoon until 12 at night attends classes in the morning from 9 o'clock until 12. "it's pretty hard," he says, "but I'm going to stick it through this year and two more. After that, I don't know what I'll do, but at least I won't be turned down for a job just because I don't have a high school education. I may stay right on in the mill and work up like James. There's not many jobs for the working man that pays more than $25 a week.

"And they don't come by just wishing for 'em" James told his brother, that Saturday he'd finished paying for his car.

source: Library of Congress

Ida Allen
15th Street
West Durham, N. C.

15th Street today (next to Greystone Baptist).

September 9, 1938

She seems hewn from rough granite, this woman who sits in her front room and talks while her slowly changing expression brings at long intervals a kindly, creeping smile to her ruddy face. Her features though definite and firm in outline have a roughness which makes one think the chiseler laid down his tools before the surface had been smoothed. Change and time have moved about her and brought age to her body, but her mind has remained impervious to change. The beliefs of her childhood are the mainstay of her old age.

A tiny light of learning come into her life as a child, and with creditable effort she clung to it and passed it on in such measure as she could to her own children.

I shall set down in her own words the story of Ida Allen as she told it to me the other day while I sat with her in her front room which contained a cheap settee, two chairs, a table, and a linoleum rug.

"I was born in Chatham County, the second of Sid Reagin's six children. Pa was a good man, always sober and a steady worker. He was thoughtful of Ma and took the best care of her he knowed how. Ma was a weakly woman and Pa seen to it that she stayed in bed for four or five weeks after each one of her children was born. He had a doctor with her every time too, and not all poor folks in them days had doctors.

"Before going to the field of a morning at such times when Ma was ailing, he'd lift her outa bed and set her in a chair. When she got weary of settin' I'd go and call Pa, and he'd come and put her in the bed agin.

"Before he was married Pa had fought to help free the colored people. He never believed that slavery was right and it taint. Pa never had much of a chance himself and he never learned to write his name. For generations we've been poor people and before me there was none in the family could read. Take Pa though; he'd been glad of a little schoolin' if there'd been any way for him to get it. I'll tell you why I know in a minute.

"Pa sent me to a four month's school that cost him a dollar a month. They wasn't free schools in them days and only a few got learning. But it was in me to learn more then I could get in them four months.

We lived on Stroud's place then and Mrs. Stroud was my Sunday school teacher. She seen how well I done my Sundry school lesson and she took to havin' me come to her house for school lessons. I got to where I could do fair readin' and writin' and figurin'. They was plenty in them days that got all the schoolin' they ever had from Sundry school teachers that was willin' to teach them for nothin'.

"Now comin' back to Pa and the reason I think he'd been proud of a little learning. I've never knowed a person that loved to hear readin' more than him. I got to where I could read any part of the Bible with fair understandin', and of a night after he'd gone to bed, tired out from a hard day's work, I'd set and read to him by the light of a light'ood knot. He loved most of all to hear about the kings of Israel.

"They wasn't any foolishness atall about Pa and his younguns was never seen at no sort of party. He said a party was a place where young folks got in trouble and he was goin' to help us stay outa trouble. Till this day I ain't never been to no party and to no picture show neither.

"Folks seem awful careless about love in these times to me. It taint a good thing for young girls to read these love story magazines and such like. Hit puts ideas in they heads that's got no business there. I've never read no love story of no kind. Love ain't nothin' to be trifled with, and as for goin' with first one and then the other I think its a pure sin.

"They was one boy that come courtin' me and I married him. Bob Allen and me played together when we was children, and then after we was both growed up he took to walkin' home with me from Sunday School of a Sunday. He was twenty-three and I was twenty when we got married. Bob was a wage hand then, gettin' twenty-dollars a month. He kept on at that job and I worked such little patches as I could get. When the children come along and was big enough to work I sometimes raised two bales of cotton a year. We had our own hogs and a cow, and we lived right well.

"Then Bob's health give away. He took down with the consumption and he knowed he didn't have long to live. He said that me and the children couldn't make a living on the farm and he wanted to move to the cotton mill where the children could take care of theyselves. They worked children in the mills them days. You know, little ones not more then nine or ten year old.

"We moved to Carrboro and the children went to work. They never made much but put together it was enough to feed us. Then I took in washin' for awhile till I got a chance to go to work in the mill. In less than two years Bob had wasted away with the consumption and died. We was a long time payin' for his buryin'.

"Eighteen year ago we moved to Durham. We worked some at East Durham and then got on here at West Durham.

"My children are all married now with families of they own -- all except Louise. Last week she drawed $9 from the mill and it's like that most times. They send her out for restin' pretty near a day out of every week and she don't have a chance to draw full pay. Me and her and my son's child live on that. My son Ned was killed on the railroad and he left his wife with five children. I took Annie, next to the youngest, to raise and since they ain't no way for me to make money the burden falls to Louise.

"I've got one son making $16 a week when he don't have to rest none but he's got six children to support outa that. His daughter Ella had to be operated on for the appendicitis in June and he's still payin' on her doctor's bill.

"They's not a child I've got that's really able to take care of me. I put in for the old age pension, and after a long time it started comin' and come three months. Now I don't get it no more. If I had education enough to put my reasonin' down on paper, I'd write a letter to Governor Hoey and explain to his that I'm almost compelled to have that $10 a month if I keep on livin'. None of my children can write it for me either because they ain't got no more learnin' than me. It was never so I could send them to school much, and most of what they know is what I learnt 'em myself. I've not got one that caint read and write some though.

"Old ones caint get jobs no more, you know. I'm seventy-two. Maybe if they caint get it straightened out about the old age pension they'll pass a law for doin' away with us old ones that's in the way."

Walter & Beth Jackson
Resevoir Street
West Durham, N.C.

Nearby house overlooking the old mill reservoir site.

(Reservoir Street once ran near the present-day entranceway to Erwin Square off Hillsborough Road. The large gravel parking lot at the corner today was the old mill resevoir.)

July 21, 1937

Reservoir Street leads to the town of Walter Jackson’s residence, and many other residences of families who work for the West Durham Cotton Mill. Walter Jackson is only forty-six, however his shoulders are beginning to sloop, his once brown hair is turning gray, and two front teeth are missing. He lives with his wife Beth and his sixteen-year-old son William, in a small three-roomed shanty. The house was once white but now is a dark brown from the chipped paint and the dark rotted wood. The planks are uneven, and in many places have holes or gaps. The kitchen/living room consists of a old corroded stove, a wooden table with three half-rotten chairs. The walls have the same appearance as the outside. The two bedrooms are simple and only consist of two beds and a beat up trunk.

"It has not always been like this," says Mr. Jackson, "We owned a tobacco farm in Wilson. We had a large white house, plenty of good food, good clothes,- then along came ole Roosevelt, and his Emergency Banking Relief Act. He closed our bank, and took all of our money, all of our hard-earned savings. We were forced to sell the farm, all of the land, and all of our belongings. We wondered the streets for months searching for work and shelter. Luckily, I heard about a job at a mill in Durham."

Beth Jackson is a woman in her thirties, has long brown ragged hair and wears an old stained blue and white dress everyday. Shortly after the Jacksons arrived in Durham, Beth received permission from the superintendent of the mill to learn how to fill batteries. She did so for three weeks, hoping she will be offered a position and be paid. Her prayers were answered on the third Saturday, "the superintendent called me over and said he was going to put me to work."

Beth states that Walter is not content with his job. He is considered the best doffer in the mill, however during full-time work he makes less than eight dollars a week. "I once suggested that he should look into the WPA as a carpenter." However he responded angrily and in disbelief, "I will never work for the same people who took our money, our homes and our lives." The subject was never mentioned again. "I feel sorry for him." Beth says, "he used to be so well off, now he must be humiliated that he can barely support his family." He is a bright handsome boy, who is very loyal to his family. William constantly labors in the cotton fields, deprived from using knowledge he had learned previously. He now has no time for any sort of education. He returns home each day with meager pay, a black dirty face, and soars and filth covering his body. "I remember the days where all I had to worry about was school work," William recalls, "Now I pick cotton for thirteen hours a day, then return home being welcomed by a bowl of cold rice and cornmeal. The mill owner, James, is cruel and does not treat the workers fairly, however I need not mention any of this to my family, for it only causes more concern and depression."

Several groups of mill workers joined a Union and striked, however the mill owners destroyed the Unions. They fired the Union workers and blacklisted them. Just like the textile worker strike in September of ’34. "We know we are treated unfairly, however, we must think of the other over 150,000 unemployed North Carolinians and their families suffering and in despair." "I just hope this ends soon for I dread we will not be able to make it through this era of suffering much longer."

The Jacksons are not the only family suffering in this community, many other West Durham Cotton Mill workers are experiencing the same misfortunes. The only thing these men and women can do now is to be strong and pray this time of suffering shall end soon.

source: Library of Congress

Josephine Wallace
West Durham Cotton Mill
West Durham, N. C.

July 5, 1938

If you should meet Josephine Wallace you would more than likely say to yourself, "With a little more 'finish' she'd be a good-looking woman." She has a high forehead, well-shaped nose and mouth, and nice blue eyes. She keeps abreast of the styles--perhaps a little too well--and she is never without a permanent wave. Although she has worked in a cotton mill a good part of her life she does not look more than her forty years.

The ambition of Josephine's life is to keep her five children, more particularly her two daughters, out of the mill. She does not mind the hard work she does each day because it is to provide advantages for her children. She is making seventeen dollars a week and her husband twenty-two. They apparently dread the impending wage out more than some families of lesser means because they hate to curtail in any measure the standard of living they have worked out for their family.

If you should go to the Wallace home in all probability you would be greeted by one of Josephine's neatly dressed and well-mannered children who would enter into conversation with you as soon as you were both seated in the living-room. The living room is a cheerful, homey place despite the misapplication of color and the lack of taste in choice of ornaments. The door prop is a big china cat which curls itself in indolent laziness and manages to gaze at you no matter where you are seated. The mantel is adorned with two miniature covered wagons, one polar bear, a cat group, and a china center piece which features a little girl looking at a dog and asking, "Can't you talk?" Wherever you turn in the room you are likely to see a gaudy-looking piece of statuary but in a little while you do not mind. Even the too much greenness of the flowered rug which is vying with the colorful drapery ceases to annoy you. Inevitably you reach the conclusion that the people who live here have created for themselves a home.

The Wallaces are congenial among themselves and they find friends who share their interest in music. The bad-toned piano is the pride of the household. If Ira Belle, the 17 year old daughter, were to come in during your visit whe would ask you if you could play certain tunes and with a request that she play them for you should would respond readily. She might play Tippy-Tippy-Ten, a number or two from Snow White, several others from recent pictures, and almost certainly Duke University's song. Ira Belle will take from the music rack a number of hymn-books and hand them to you for your inspection. Among them will be a compilation by Gypsy Smith, a favorite of hers. Her grand-father Carrington who was born in England has told her that when he was a lad he ran away from home and lived for a while with the gypsy tribe to which Gypsy Smith belonged. When you put the books aside Ira Belle will play for you a number of hymns which she and members of her family have sung in duet and quartet combinations at the local churches during revivals.

The Wallace children are proud of their mother and father. Josephine has told her children that their father traces his ancestry back to the Wallace clan that saved the Crown of Scotland, and that gives the two girls a certain feeling of security as they attend the Durham High School. Ira Belle thinks that many more of the mill girls would go on through high school if they were not made to feel inferior by classmates who have had superior advantages. The past year she was secretary of her section, in which, as she expresses it "All the girls were nice, smart girls and none of them high falutin'." Both of the girls say that Josephine has always seen to it that they were as neatly dressed as anybody in their classes.

One point of pride with Josephine's children is the fact that their father who had very little grade school education passed a correspondence course dealing with arithmetic. Josephine herself went through the seventh grade because a certain security in her home made it necessary for her to start to work until she was fourteen.

Josephine Wallace is the oldest of five children born to David and Josephine Carrington. David, one of six children, was born in Bidston, Cheshire County, England. His father, a watchmaker and diamond setter, sent him to grade school from the time he was three until he was eleven. At eleven he entered Brassie's Shipyard and worked until he was fifteen. Joining the English navy then he served for eight years and came out a skilled mechanic. Service had brought him to the Atlantic Coast of the United States and in David's words he had become a "free-thinker and wanted to spend the rest of his days in the United States. England in those days was too conservative for me." Shortly thereafter, having made his way to North Carolina, he met and married Josephine Smith who lived in the backwoods country near Sanford. Josephine had to her credit only six months of schooling. Her father had come home from the War between the States crippled with arthritis and unable to do manual labor at all. His girls worked hard on the small farm which he owned and managed to subsist in a meager sort of way. David's skill as a mechanic, when a skilled mechanic was hard to find, made it possible for him to keep a job and make Josephine's life a little easier than it had been. Soon after he was married his pay was increased from seventy-five cents to a dollar and a quarter a day. When he told Josephine the good news she exclaimed "My Lord, that makes us rich folks for sure." She says that no money has ever made her prouder than that first week's wages with the raise for it seemed such a big amount after the lean., hard days she'd known on the farm. From then on David made a fairly decent living for his family and by the year 1912 he had a small bank account.

At that time letters from England reminded him that his mother was ageing fast and her health was failing. David could not overcome the desire to see his mother again. He sold all of his property except his household goods and with his wife and three children went to England. After a month's visit among his people, David and his family returned to North Carolina on the Aquitania.

Shortly after his return David secured a job as a mill mechanic in West Durham and he has been there since. Josephine as the oldest of the children felt the need of contributing to the family at an earlier age than the others. Then, too, all the girls of her age that she knew had entered the mill. Her younger brothers and sisters attained the age of fifteen before their life in the mill began. One of her brothers is married to a nurse and one of her sisters whose husband owns two houses in Asheville is supervisor in a cigarette factory in Richmond. The other brother and sister are married and working in the same mill with Josephine.

Josephine is proud of her father and mother. She likes to tell you that the older Josephine, now sixty-one, got another permanent last week. She will look at the large photograph of her which stands on the piano, and say "That's a good picture but lot of folks have told me they didn't think it done mama justice." If her father's name is brought into the conversation she will probably tell that he is a thirty-second degree Mason.

Josephine's ambition for her children is hardly more pronounced than is her husband's. He is determined to educate his children so that they may make a living of which they will not be ashamed. Though Tom Wallace's father became Chief of Police of Burlington before his death, the older ones of his seven children knew many hard days and were glad of a chance to work in the mill when they were no more than ten or eleven years old.

The Wallaces have not saved any money during their married life but they have provided their children with a respectable home. If Josephine's health holds out and the mill continues to need them both they plan to send all their children through high school and to give the two girls business training to equip them for the profession of court stenographer.

source: Library of Congress

According to the Library of Congress, the Roosevelt Administration was concerned about the plight of unemployed writers, lawyers, teachers, and librarians. Many felt that the New Deal should offer more appropriate work situations for this group other than blue collar, construction jobs. In 1938, the Works Projects Administration hired Mrs. Ida L. Moore to interview mill workers living in West Durham.

The Haithcock Family
945 Case Street
West Durham, N. C.

Last house still standing on Case Street today (home near Duke School for Children once belonged to Guy and Eula Eubanks)

July 7, 1938

Down in Monkey Bottoms in a small four-room house there lives a family of four women, two men, and four children. The house in which they live is typical of the houses in this section of the mill village. Monkey Bottoms begins with a washed-out, hilly road, flanked on one side by closely-placed and disorderly-looking houses and on the other by a jumbled growth of hedge, scrubby trees, and briars. The road leads down into, a bottom and meets at right angles another road of like kind. The houses, of the second road, all located on its right side, maintain the same unlikely appearance. These two roads with their houses comprise Monkey Bottoms.

In the particular house already mentioned Haithcocks, Ways, Fosters, and Piners live in dreary confusion. One small room into which two beds are crowded serves in the daytime as a place for tagging tobacco sacks. The little available floor place is littered with strings and tags. Freida Haithcock and Hulda Foster sit in this room hours at a time, both fortified by a generous quantity of snuff, tagging the tiny sacks and dreaming of the day when they will again have a job in the mill. Together they share a tin can spittoon which is obligingly shifted from one to the other as the need arises. Flies swarm thickly about the poorly screened house and hunt out the bread crumbs scattered by the three oldest children.

The walls give one the impression that some member of the mixed family has made calendar collecting a pastime. Over the mantelpiece enlarged pictures of departed relatives hang crookedly against the wall. On the mantelpiece, the central feature is a large picture entitled "Christ in Gethsemane Praying." On one side of the picture stands a blue and silver tinselled combination with the words, "Book of Life; Is My Name Written There," and on the other, a simply framed assurance, "Jesus Never Fails."

This household grew around four of Perry Haithcocks' daughters, three of whom are now living. Perry, a tenant farmer, was the father of ten children. Their life on the farm was dull and hard and empty of promise. Perry felt that the cotton mill offered his family a slightly better chance than the farm had ever given. He took his ten children to the mill, and as soon as it would have them he put them to work. Of this crowd none went further than the third grade in school.

The youngest of the Haithcocks, Clara, is now twenty-five. It fell to her lot after her mother's death to stay at home and keep house. When the time arrived for her to go to work there was no job for her. Now a slovenly and disgruntled person, she stays on with the three of her sisters whom circumstances have kept together.

The daughter second to the youngest married Evart Piner and they began housekeeping in Monkey Bottoms. She died at the birth of her first baby, and soon after her death, not quite a year ago, her sister, Effie Way, with her husband and three children came to Evart Piner's house to live. The mill at which they worked had closed with no prospects of reopening in the near future and they hoped to secure work in Durham.

After weeks of waiting Effie was given a job and she now makes $16 a week. Her husband Tom has not found work yet and his health is such that it is problematical whether he will ever hold a job again. Kidney trouble, high blood pressure, and asthma, make it necessary for him to go to the doctor two or three times monthly. Effie comes home from the mill tired and irritable and she quarrels with her children so much that they have learned to treat with contempt the threats she makes against them.

The fourth sister, Freida, had been living with the Piners before the Ways moved in. Freida has had pneumonia three times and typhoid fever twice. At thirty-six she sits like an old woman, stooped and sallow and wrinkled, as she tags the sacks for which she receives weekly a dollar and a half. Up until a year ago she was a spinner in the mill and drew $15.98 a week. Her health became so bad that she was forced to give up her job. Each time when she goes back now to ask the superintendent to reinstate her he tells her that he is unable to make a place for her. Should he give her work it is doubtful that she could keep it, for she still goes twice a week to Watts Hospital to receive treatment.

Evart Piner, the only member of the household except Effie Way who is working, makes fourteen dollars a week. Out of that he pays board to his sisters-in-law for himself and young baby.

Besides the three sisters Effie Way, Clara and Freida Haithcock, the two brothers-in-law, Clarence Way and Evart Piner, the three Way children and the Piner baby, there is in the same house Hulda Foster.

Hulda was left an orphan at fifteen and she came to live with her neighbors, the Haithcocks. One senses in a little while that to Hulda the household owes whatever semblance of order there may be. At ten she went to work in the Belmont mills and there the rest of her childhood was spent. She tells you how glad she was as a little girl to hear the six o'clock mill whistle in the afternoons because it meant that as soon as she had eaten supper her playtime would begin. The hours from six-thirty until eight-thirty were her own. Tired as she might be from her ten hours of work she was not too tired to join the other children of the neighborhood in their games. As she grew out of childhood there was no form of recreation to take the place of those play hours. The sound of the mill became the one rhythm to which her life was attuned. She says that ever since she has been without a job she has missed the hum of machinery almost as much as she has missed the money with which to buy her food.

Hulda lost her job when the Haw River mill closed. She was then living with the Ways and she moved with them to Durham. A good spinner and a hard worker, she had high hopes of securing a job. A year of unemployment has dimmed her hopes somewhat, but hardship has not yet made her bitter. She sits there, unlettered but not unintelligent, tagging tobacco sacks, while with a quiet concentration she prays for the one thing life has not yet given her -- work.

Even though Hulda is unable to contribute financially to this confused family, one feels that she gives to it something which keeps it from sinking lower than its present depth. There is quiet humor in her eyes as she says "Yes, we eat beans and potatoes and hardboiled cabbage mostly. Most cotton mill folks is a fool about beans but here in this family they aint one of us that cabbage agrees with." She talks on in an effort to keep you from noticing too much the loud, coarse voice of Effie Way who, in the adjoining room, is quarreling with her children. Effie's wrangling makes the house seem dirtier and more confused than before. Hulda and Freida both look at the tin can spittoon and Hulda oblingingly passes it to Freida. After a while Freida speaks in a sickly, whining voice. "Time was when the mill was always needin' hands and a job was no trouble atall to git." Awed a little by the sound of her own voice she looks at Hulda who nods her head in support. In a manner more decisive than Freida's Hulda reaches her hand for another sack.

source: Library of Congress

Mary Smith
740 9th Street
West Durham, N. C.

740 Ninth Street today (now a Lebanese restaurant).

July 15, 1938

It was about two o'clock in the afternoon and Mary was still busy with her dinner dishes. She asked me to come back to her kitchen, and there I met her oldest daughter, Janie, who was with her mother for a two weeks visit. Mary continued washing dishes while Janie, after rinsing them in a pan of hot water, dried them. The kitchen was clean and orderly and the least disturbing of all the rooms in the house in which to sit. I was glad that Mary after finishing with the dishes did not suggest that we go into another room.

I had been told that Mary was ill and I expected to find her in bed. When I asked her about her health she replied, "Yes, I'm sick with diabetes most of the time but I try to stay up as much as I can. The doctors at Duke are treating me and I go in twice a week when I'm able. They tell me my body is suffering from the brutish treatment I've give it all my life. If they mean work I reckin I have done as much as the next one." Then Mary told me her story.

Mary Smith was born in Orange County fifty-seven years ago. Her father was a renter and he found it difficult to support his eight children on what was left after the landlord was paid. Not that the children didn't lend a helping hand. Mary cannot remember when she did not contribute her quota of work-hours toward her own support. At six she stood up in a chair to wash the dishes and prepare the scanty meals for cooking while her mother labored in the fields. There were then three smaller children who required the time left over from housekeeping duties. As she grew older there seemed no way to make a little time for school. She thinks that reading must indeed be a great pleasure. Many times she has picked up a book and sat with it in her hands wishing that she might know what was inside its pages.

When she was eleven the family income was supplemented by group participation in a relatively new industry. Smoking tobacco was gaining in popularity and the manufacturers of the product needed many small bags in which to pack it for distribution. The bag factories which grew up in answer to this need sent the bags out by the thousands into the surrounding countryside to be strung and tagged. During periods of slack in farm work Mary and her young brother walked the five miles into Durham and took back to their home two large sacks, each containing ten thousand small bags. She can remember sitting up all night on occasion during the rush season, each member of the family working as hard as he could to string these sacks for which they received thirty cents a thousand. When sleep laid such a heavy claim on her that she felt she could no longer stand it her mother sent her out on the back porch to dash cold water on her face that she might keep her eyes open yet a little longer. The year she was twelve her skill increased so that she raised the family income by several dollars, and her parents out of appreciation of her industry bought her two percale dresses instead of one.

By the time she was fifteen years old her father had decided his family would have a better living at a cotton mill than they could ever make for themselves on another man's farm. They sold the mule and the cow but they kept the twenty-six chickens for a while after moving to town. The nice fresh eggs came in handy because wages weren't so high that such things could be bought in plenty.

Mary began work at twenty-five cents a day. Her hours were from six to six but she will tell you that she doesn't believe the twelve hours then were any harder than eight hours now what with the speed-up system they have. Her man Jim comes in clean wore out at the end of a day, but of course she knows he's not a young man any longer. In fact, his working days are almost over because he's not so far from sixty and his body is none too stout.

When she married at eighteen she was making four dollars a week and Jim four dollars and a half. If it hadn't been for the installment plan she wonders if they ever could have bought the two beds and stove with which they began housekeeping. Nighttimes Jim made four chairs and a table. With so much furniture in their house they decided to take a couple of boarders to help with the installments still to be paid. The furniture wasn't more than paid for when Mary had to have an operation which cost Jim fifty dollars. That was three momths before her first baby was born and another baby was on its way before the debt was finally paid.

Sometimes when her health was too bad to work in the mill Mary took up her old occupation of stringing bags. The wage had increased to fifty cents a thousand and with steady use of her spare time she could do a thousand a day. In the course of time five children were born to Mary Smith and four of them managed to live past babyhood. Mary's last child was born in 1912. It didn't live but three days and the Smiths had to borrow the money to bury it. "That year was one of the hardest in my life," Mary told me that afternoon. "The doctor started comin' to see me in early May and there wasn't a day from then on until the middle of September that he didn't come to our house.

As soon as I was out of bed Jim took sick with the typhoid fever and for six solid weeks he wasn't able to work. Two of the younguns took the fever from him. If we couldner got credit we woulder starved. It was many a year before we ever caught up again. We was in such bad shape that the two younguns was forced to go in the mill though I'd hoped to keep 'em out until they'd had a little more chance for schoolin'."

The oldest boy entered the mill at twelve and the oldest girl at thirteen. The boy has been there since except for sick leaves in the past few years when he has been bothered with hemorrhages of the lung. He was such a scrawny, pale, little fellow that many a time when Mary went to rouse him on a cold winter morning she felt like turning away from the bed and letting him rest through the day. But she knew he might lose his job, and the money he made was badly needed. Sometimes now she wonders if his health wouldn't have held out better if she could have kept him out of the mill a few years longer until his body had been given more chance to grow.

This son married after thirty and he has three children, all too young to work, and a wife whose health is so poor she cannot work. He was brought home from the mill with another hemorrhage the other day and Mary is wondering how she can help him. It seems to her that the fourteen dollars a week Jim is making cannot be stretched over another need.

Mary paused at this point in her story and sat with her hands folded in her lap. Janie looked first at her mother and then at me. "If it hadn't been for Mama my younguns wouldner had no clothes atall the past year," she said. "The mill where my husband works aint give its help but four days' work a week in over a year. Tom makes eleven dollars and its all I can do to feed, let along cloths, my crowd on that. "My children is pretty good about not complainin'. They'll set down one day right after another to dried beans and potatoes without raisin' a row. Of course, that oldest one has got all manner of pride and she caused me a sight of trouble for awhile when she had to wear a old coat to school that never fit her nowhere.

"The worst hurt I ever seen her, though, was along 'bout the last of school when her teacher tried to collect rent for the school books she'd been usin' all the year. I thought the State was furnishin' 'em free but they say everybody is supposed to pay rent on 'em. Emma Lee kept after me but I never had the money to give her. One day she broke down in school and cried and told her teacher they wasn't a penny at her home to pay for book rent. The teacher told her to stop worryin' then, and she never bothered her any more. Emma Lee says she's not goin' to stop until she goes clear on through high school."

Janie's four-year-old child came into the kitchen and propped herself against her grandmother's knee. Mary put her arm about the child and seemed to forget for a while that she was there. "Well, she'll have plenty time to go through high school since the mill can't take 'em until they are sixteen or eighteen, I don't know which," she said. "Of course it's hard to say if things keep on like they are who's goin' to furnish the money.

"It's been a funny thing about my own family," she continued. "Pa didn't have a single child that wasn't willin' to work to try to get ahead and they aint a one of us that's got anything today. They aint never been a time when one was havin' trouble that the others was able to help him out of the bog. They's three of us livin' now. One of my brothers whose wife died last year is gettin' just two day's work a week and him with eight children. I don't know how on earth he's livin'. The other brother is makin' $8 a week and he has four children at home.

"This is my pet," Mary continued, changing the subject abruptly as she drew the child closer to her. "She come over a week before her Ma did and I never heard a whimper out of her."

"Is she the next to the youngest?" I asked, addressing Janie.

"No'm, there's two younger than her," Janie answered. "My lap baby is just three months old and the knee baby in yonder room with her is two year old."

"Six children and her thirty-three," Mary said.

"That's more children than a working man can take care of" I ventured.

A queer sort of smile flitted across Janie's face and she lowered her head. Presently she looked up at me and said slowly, "You are right about that."

Before I left, all of Janie's children had been in the kitchen. The oldest girl, twelve, looked pale and undernourished. Two of the younger ones played about with a great deal of energy. They would be considered pretty in any average group of children and as I looked across at Janie I wondered how it could be. At thirty-three she is fat, sallow, and unkempt with a look of forty-five at its worst about her face and figure. Good-naturedly she watches her children at play and thinks no further than the next feeding of her small baby. Mary, clean and not unattractive, smiles with patient affection at her daughter and her grandchildren. She has a capacity for thinking ahead that Janie seems not to have.

Mary looks back over her past life and can see in it no period in which she might have saved for the days that are ahead. She will tell you that she has on occasion spent a little money for foolish pleasure but she wonders if a person could stand all the ups and downs of life without giving over now and then to foolish things. Occupying a prominent position on her mantel in the front room is a rose-colored goddess edged in green, propping itself against a green scooped-out tray which serves miscellaneous uses. She bought it for herself at the fair about ten years ago and she's still proud of it. In no less conspicuous places in her front room are framed pictures of the Rock of Ages; Jesus, the Savior; and a bordered motto of her missionary society. A good many of her extra quarters have gone through the channel of the church to help the heathen in foreign lands to a better way of life.

She faces sixty with assets spent and liabilities yet to be reckoned with. Her chief asset in life has been her capacity for labor and from that, the one material asset she has saved for herself is something like two hundred dollars worth of furniture. The mill can no longer use her and she knows that Jim's days of usefulness are numbered. There has been talk on the hill in recent months about old age benefits. All that Mary understands out of that talk is that when Jim is sixty-five he will begin to draw a little money. She says it isn't reasonable the amount will be enough to keep them both. Actually Jim will draw with interest the 1.5% of his wage saved for him and matched by his employer during his work years beginning with 1936. If his fast-failing health will permit him to serve the mill for two more years he will consider that nothing but luck is carrying him on. He will be sixty-one then with only four more years to go before he starts collecting his old age benefits which with care would last him about six months.

Just before I left Mary's house she looked out of her kitchen window and across the hill. For awhile no one spoke and the hum of the mill was the only sound to be heard in the room. When Mary began to talk it was as if she thought that Janie and I, too, must have been thinking with her on the growth of the mill. "Yonder mill want one-tenth the size it is now when I first come here forty-two year ago," she said. "It seems like me and Jim's got old with the mill but age aint hurt the mill none. When it slows down it can git new parts and we caint. What's worse we soon aint goin' to have money to buy rations for feeding our wore-out bodies. The mill keeps makin' money but it has to give to them that's young and strong, I reckon, and even to them it caint give a regular livin'."

Mary would like to have a little place of her own on the edge of town where she might raise a garden, and small patches, along with chickens, hogs and a cow -- especially a cow. She knows the country can be hard, bitter hard, because she hasn't forgotten when she was six years old. But then she was working for the other fellow and she believes it would be different if the land and house were hers. Nobody knows better than Mary that such thoughts are but an idle dream. She says that all her life she has known nothing but half-living and she expects no miracle when her days of usefulness are behind her. She does wonder sometimes what kind of a life lies before her children and grandchildren.

source: Library of Congress

The Dunne Family
1001 Broad Street
West Durham, N. C.

1001 Broad Street today (now a music store).

July 12, 1938

Sally Dunne is the mother of thirteen children, three of whom are dead and three married. Seven of the children ranging from two and a half to eighteen live with their mother and father in an old, four-room, loosely-built house located a short distance from the houses belonging to the company which owns the mill where John Dunne works. Some of the people in the mill village will tell you that the Dunnes were asked to move off the hill because the near-by neighbors discovered that their coal was disappearing at night; others will tell you that they did not take proper care of the company's house. At any rate the Dunnes cannot rent a company house and they pay $13 a month for the dilapidated one in which they live. It is becoming increasingly difficult for them to find a house of any kind because there have been months when the rent was not paid. John Dunne makes fourteen dollars a week and on that the family of nine must live.

As you come to the intersection of Broad and C Sts. you will more than likely see Sally's smaller children playing in the little patch of front yard and when you ask them where she is they will answer readily, "Mama, is settin' out on the back porch." One of them runs ahead of you into the house and you walk uneasily through the confusion which is their home. The first two rooms are crowded with dirty beds and a few shabby chairs. The bedroom on the right contains a dusty table and a dustier radio. You look at the dirty floor and your mind is brought back to the fact that the woman who keeps this house is "settin' out on the back porch."

You find Sally out there on the small porch surrounded by three of her children who are helping her tag tobacco sacks. Her unwieldy body bulges over the sides of her chair and an enormous tumor gives her the appearance of permanent pregnancy. She tells one of the children to get up and give you his chair. She waits for you to speak and when you have made some introductory remark she says "I keep alookin' toward you but I can't hardly see you. They aint no sight atall in one eye and the sight in the other is gettin' dimmer fast."

She speaks of her blindness in a tone of such complete acceptance that you do not know what to say. You look into the dining room at the crude, home-made table with its ugly oilcloth and then at the icebox which is the other piece of furniture in the room. You decide to ask Sally about her work and soon she is telling you that she and the children tag 20,000 of the sacks a week and for it they receive $1.53. "It seems like that money goes further than John's wages," she continues. Sometimes we use it for clothes and now and again we buy somethin' foolish which I reckin we ought to get along without. I buy the "Durham Sun" for the children and it costs 15 a week, but they do love to read the funnies."

As Sally goes on to tell you of her early life you decide that even if her eyes were strong the paper she takes for the children would interest her very little as reading matter. She had time to go no further than the third grade, for her public work-life started at ten.

Sally was born in Arkansas on a 160 acre farm belonging to her grandfather, Josiah White. As a young man Josiah was a tenant farmer in Durham County and after he was married he moved to Mississippi, hoping to find there such conditions as would give him a chance to become in time a land-owner. Believing, after two years of hard labor, that possibilities of his becoming a land-owner in that State were remote he moved with his wife and one child into Arkansas. No other children were born to him and by the time his daughter, Molly, mother of Sally, was eighteen he had paid for his 160 acre farm and furnished it with live stock. Molly married a neighboring tenant who then came to live with her on her father's place. When he died eight years later he left Molly with Sally and three younger children. It was not long until Josiah died and his widow, after selling the farm and stock for $1,300, returned to North Carolina.

Near a bag factory in East Durham Molly's mother bought a four-room house for herself and Molly's family. While the grandmother looked after the three smaller children Molly went into the mill. She took Sally, then an energetic child of ten, along and found work for her at twenty-five cents a day. Molly made around fifty cents daily and on the combined wages of mother and child the family subsisted.

Sally had worked a long time before she was sixteen. When she reached that age she felt that life must indeed be half over. Work without any sort of recreation always had been her lot and marriage appeared to offer at least one advantage -- change. Child bearing began immediately and with it even more responsibility and less time for thoughts of recreation. It seems foolish to her today that grown people should want to go to ball games and picture shows. Her dislike of billiard parlors is pronounced but not nearly so much as her fear of liquor stores.

Before she has finished with her remarks about liquor stores it is obvious that John goes to the one just down the street a little too often. "If John was to get drunk and get himself arrested the company would fire him," Sally tells you in affirmation of what you are already thinking. She says that she has not forgotten the two months not more than six years ago when John was out of work and there was not so much as a dollar to buy the children food.

The mill at which John Dunne then worked was closed suddenly but it took the workmen some time to realize that the shut-down could be permanent. After two weeks John started on a trek through North and South Carolina to look for a job. Sally had gotten up early and made bread from the last dust of flour, and fried the last egg. John looked at the table and turned away. "I aint hungry" he said. "I'll leave what's there for the younguns." Sally sat there alone in the kitchen long after he had gone. She knew John was hungry. She knew, too, that his mind was miserable with doubt. He didn't know whether there was any job ahead of him and he didn't know how his family would get food.

Suddenly Sally stops speaking and a smile lights up her ugly face. With an abrupt jesture of her right hand she pushes her hair further up under the bonnet-like cap shading her eyes. Then she says, "We had neighbors close by who was workin' at another mill but my mind wasn't on neighbors that morning John left. I just kept settin' there while the little bit of breakfast got colder and colder. Then all of a sudden I heard a knockin' on the kitchen door. When I opened the door and seen about a dozen folks standin' there with their arms full of groceries I couldn't help but cry. Well, John stayed gone a month and they wasn't a day we didn't have at least one meal. He come back without a job and it was a good month before he got one at another mill in Durham. Them was hard, hard times. I was needin' cover that winter but they wasn't a chance to save ahead for it."

You know that any comment you might make would sound trivial. The silence gets deep and is broken only when a young woman you did not know lived here comes out of the house leading her two-year old baby. The child, dressed in a sunsuit, laughs gleefully as her mother puts him out in the yard to play. The woman sits down on a box in the corner of the porch and begins to smoke a cigarette. "That's my daughter Stella," Sally tells you and then adds "Her and her man both is out of work and they're stayin' with us a while."

Stella is drawn into the conversation and it is not long before she has told you of the furniture she tried to buy. When she and Bill were first married they selected a bedroom suite, a cedar chest, an upholstered chair, two linoleums, and a big fine oil stove. When she first saw the bedroom suite marked at $39.50, she thought it must really be the greatest bargain in town. When, after the sale was made, the proprietor began adding carrying charges which brought the price up to $61 she was a little baffled, but he explained to her just how easy the payments could be made. The bill for the furniture came to $200 and she and Bill had paid all of it but $80 at the time they lost their jobs. She doesn't see yet why they couldn't let her keep at least the bedroom suite. The subject of furniture is soon passed over and Stella tells you why she lost her job.

Stella lost her job when new spinning machinery was installed. The spinners retained were given eight sides instead of seven with a pay increase of two dollars a week. That sum was the regular wage paid heretofore for the operation of one of the old frames. The new Long Draft Machinery has around two hundred spindles and the old spinning frame contained 112 spindles. Stella has a friend still working who says she had never dreamed that eight hours of work could be so hard. Once she was able to catch up with her work and enjoy ten or fifteen-minute rest periods throughout the day, but since the installation of the Long Draft Machinery she stays continuously behind as much as fifteen or twenty minutes.

Stella's husband lost out when the doffers were asked to sign a paper stating that they were willing to do more work. Out of the sixteen then employed eight signed and they immediately began doing the work of all.

Stella and her husband have been living for the past six weeks on the unemployment insurance which they drew and will continue to draw for ten more weeks if their unemployment continues. They have spent a considerable part of it travelling from mill to mill in hope of finding a job.

Stella looks out into the yard where her baby is playing with her young sisters and brothers. "I hope I don't never have another one," she says. "I had a miscarriage from lifting a heavy tub of water when he wasn't more than a year old. I went to the doctor and asked him what a woman could do to keep from havin' babies. I'm tryin' to do what he told me."

A child runs through the house and says that he sees his sister, Sue, coming down the street. He leaves the screen door ajar and Stella reprimands him for it though there are plenty of holes through which any fly might find his way inside.

Sue with her two children arrive and you are told that she is another of Sally's married daughters. She lives with her husband in the near-by mill village. Her hair-style, voice, and mannerisms show a marked resemblance to Betty Boop. You begin to feel that Sally's prejudice against movies is not shared by her children.

Sue's two children, dressed in sunsuits, go out into the yard to play with Stella's baby. The two sisters discuss the amount of milk the doctor has prescribed for their children and indicate by their conversation that they try to meet the requirements. In the meantime you knock at flies. "I declare, I bathe that youngun every night before I put him to bed," Stella is saying "but he does get awful dirty." Sally joins in to say that she dreads Wednesday and Saturday nights because on those two nights all of the smaller children take their bathe and they make a great commotion dragging the tin tub back and forth from the porch to the kitchen where the bathing is done. You look out into the yard at Sally's children and decide that they do appear cleaner than the house to which they belong.

Sue mentions her grandmother, Molly, and when you manifest an interest in her Sally tells you that Molly still lives in the small house which she inherited when her mother died. With her are her unmarried son and her divorced daughter, who is the mother of two children. The son is a loom fixer with a weekly wage of $22.00. He not only supports his mother but also contributes toward the support of his youngest sister's family when her wage as part-time worker in a silk mill cannot meet their needs. Molly's fourth child married a tenant farmer and they have no children.

After a while you leave the over-crowded house of the Dunnes and as you go along you recall other things that Sally has told you. Into your mind there come certain conclusions as to how she feels toward her own problems.

With full awareness that her husband's wage can never cover the needs and can hardly touch the wants of her family, she is on the alert for any donations from the outside. She'd like for some of the older children at home to start working in the mill but since the mill cannot use them and the outside world does not need them she has been brought to the attitude that various organizations will have to help her with her problems. Her children had been attending the Methodist Church for a number of years but the kindness of the Baptist preacher at Christmas time last year converted them to the Baptist way of thinking. Sally says "There wouldner been any Christmas at this house if that man hadn't took a interest in providin' for my younguns. He brought a big goods box of things to us and I ain't never been much happier than when I was unpacking it. They was apples, oranges, candy, nuts, tops, dolls, trains, and little wagons -- plenty to divide amongst them still believing in Santa Claus."

The teacher which she likes best is the one who last winter bought her twelve-year old son a pair of shoes after he had been absent from school for three weeks on account of the cold weather. She hopes that by next year the school will furnish free lunches for the children and eliminate her problem of providing three meals a day. If you should manifest any interest in how she manages to provide food for her crowd, her characteristic answer is, "Every head I've got would go hungry if I didn't keep peas aboilin' in the pot all the time."

With continual acceptance of unsolved problems Sally has reached a state of lethargy which she does not or cannot disturb. There seems to be no appreciable effort to train her children in the tasks about the house. After the Dunnes have eaten, some of the children will wash the dishes in a hasty and slip-shod manner and then join the rest of the family in one of the two dirty bedrooms where the $12 radio is turned on at full-blast. Some of the children are good looking and as a group appear of average intelligence. With no direction of their energies they play a little, scrap a little, and live from meal to meal while Sally sits among them, usually holding a tobacco sack which she is tagging without being able to see it very well.

source: Library of Congress