Days Gone By - stories from the past

This is what life was like on a typical white tenant farm in Alabama

During the 1930s, Great Depression era, many writers were employed to interview people around the United States, so their experiences and life history could be recorded The program was named the U.S. Work Projects Administration, Federal Writers’ Project and it gave employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. This is a transcribed story by Ida Henderson of Monroe County, Alabama.


ED BROWN, TENANT FARMER (White)

By

Ida Henderson,

Perdue Hill, Monroe County, Alabama

January 7, 1939

In the Fall of 1934 Mr. Ed. Brown, his wife, six children and two grandchildren came to Perdue Hill to live. They had been living at Franklin, but their house and furniture were burned. A friend, knowing that Mr. Brown wanted to make a change of plans, said, “Why not see Mr. Deer?”, a large plantation owner at Perdue Hill. Mr. Brown came down and negotiated with Mr. Deer for a place known as “The Peach Orchard Farm” on a half-and-half basis. In the Fall the family moved into the tenant house which consisted of four rooms and a front gallery. A good well supplied water and a good spring nearby was available for the stock and for laundry purposes.

Deer’s Store – Post Office in Claiborne, Monroe, County, Alabama

Prepared the land

Mr. Brown and his son began to prepare the land for planting, and the daughters gladly helped with the farm work, as they appreciated the opportunity to get near a school. The landowner furnished cotton seed and fertilizer, mules and all farm equipment.

The mother and daughters made the yard attractive with flowers and vines, many of these plants coming from other tenant farmers’ wives on the plantation, and from friends in the village who were glad to help in beautifying the place.

Education for the children

Mr. and Mrs. Brown are delighted to have their home so near the village school, and the children are in the (there); later they will go to the high school in Monroeville, ten miles distant. Their own education having been limited on account of financial difficulties in early life, the parents are anxious for the children to have better advantages.

Mr. Brown said, “I feel that an education is the best possible legacy that I can leave to my children.”

When it became necessary to take a twelve-year old boy out of school, one of the daughters said, “No, I’ll take Powell’s place with hoe or plow until school is out, so that he can make his grade.”

The mother and several grown daughters joined the Home Economics Club, hoping through this contact to acquire information about balanced meals and the clothing of a large growing family. The mother did splendid work and was later made president of the club.

Instant Memory – The Way to Success

Typical old tenant’s house with bedding being aired and sunned. Coffee County, Alabama, Apr. 1939 by Marion Post Wolcott (Library of Congress)

Made all the clothes

The mother and daughter make all the clothes for the family, often utilizing white fertilizer sacks to make suits for the small boys. When these suits are well washed and ironed they can well be proud of their “Palm Beach Suits”, as the small boys call them.

When the vegetables and fruits and berries are ready for canning, the mother and daughters put up large quantities for winter use. They keep a large flock of chickens and turkeys, and when the Christmas season is drawing near there is no question as to “where do we get the turkey?”

The family makes cleanliness one of the major objectives in the household, knowing that sanitation and system are necessary in handling the work in a small house, and a large family.

Typical old tenant’s house with bedding being aired and sunned. Coffee County, Alabama, Apr. 1939 by Marion Post Wolcott (Library of Congress)

Drove wagon to church

Mr. and Mrs. Brown are members of the Baptist Church, and regularly attend the Sunday School and church services. They consider an automobile unnecessary in their present financial condition, and when the family wants to go to church at night or to the village store, the mules are hitched to the farm wagon, and as they drive along the road, give anyone going their way a lift, or kindly bring back packages from the village store.

The children are active in community affairs and entertain their guests at home, or at the community house.

When the crops are gathered, Mr. Brown gives to the owner of the land one-half of all cotton and corn raised. He pays for any advances for his family out of his half of the crop. The family is always neatly dressed.

After harvesting the crop Mr. Brown and his son work for other people to make every penny they possibly can to supplement what they have left from the farm.

They have increased their flock of chickens and hogs until they play an important part in the family income, furnishing meat and lard for the family.

ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS Immigrants: Lost & Forgotten Stories includes some lost & forgotten stories of their experiences such as:

  • The Birth of Twickenham
  • Captain Slick – Fact or Fiction
  • Vine & Olive Company
  • The Death of Stooka
  • President Monroe’s Surprise Visit To Huntsville

ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS Immigrants: Lost & Forgotten Stories (Volume 5)


By (author): Donna R Causey
List Price: $11.77 USD
New From: $11.56 USD In Stock

About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and www.daysgoneby.me All her books can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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73 comments

  1. Laurie Harris Norman

    Funny about that “white privilege” thing!

    1. You are so right, Laurie.

  2. Beamon Bryson

    My mom grew up in Alabama in this manner. Her family consisted of 8 children and they were tennant farmers without even the modern conviences of the 30’s. She was always proud of their love of family and helping their neighbors. White privilege…not hardly. BTW, my mom got her GED at age 50 after raising five children on a farm. She instilled hard work and education in us. She always insited we got a good education as that was the only thing that could not be taken away from you and if you lost everything else, you could go on and recover.

    1. Gail Bryson Simmons

      She was also 50 before learning to drive and getting her license.

    2. Beamon Bryson

      Gail Bryson Simmons And didn’t you drive her to take her tests?

    3. Gail Bryson Simmons

      Yes. And taught her to drive shortly after getting my license.

    4. Your mom was quite a lady. Inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Charlotte Chrestman

    Nice to see unbiased reporting! Most people lived a hard life in this era. It was reality. We are soooo soft now.

  4. Donny Faith Price

    White people suffered lots.

  5. Robbie Bishop

    This was a typical home for anyone!

  6. Darlene Brooks Wilson

    Yep that’s all that white privilege luxury.

  7. Tim Danner

    So where is my reperations for my parents having to live this way? Fair is fair. Pay up like you did for others!!!

  8. Paul Wendel Brock

    I was born at home in a house similar to this house only a little larger. Kerosene lamps lit the room for the doctor to deliver me. I say doctor, he was an osteopath who did midwifery on the side. Doctor Frank.

  9. Tonya McLaney Cummings

    I’m proud to come from a line of people like these!

  10. Jane Wynn

    Thank you for sharing this picture with us on Facebook is part of our history we all should know about the things like this and keeping it safe and not trying to relay the release the history people says it’s racist and it’s not racist it’s what’s in your heart that makes things racist and makes you hate people it’s not the statues it’s not the building’s it’s the way people feels in their heart and you can never change that but by prayer thank you very much have a blessed day

  11. Patricia Slaton Veeder

    Very familiar since tenant farming continued here in Alabama until well into the ’60’s.

    1. Chris Kimbro

      I remember, as a child in the 70’s, a row of tenant houses along the road close to our house. By then, those folks were “by the hour” employees, but they were terribly poor, and the old houses still had no indoor plumbing. They each had a spigot ran to the back porch.

  12. Loretta Merrell Ekis

    Absolutely, these places were around every where in the 1950s. That is the kind of “White privilege” many endured. Their lives were no more privileged than Blacks of that era. The made sure their children were at least educated enough that they could find jobs and they were taught a work ethic and love of country. I really get annoyed when people say all Whites were privileged. They had hard, hash lives, and they didn’t fall into the welfare trap. Many moved to Michigan to find jobs in the auto industry.

    1. If you want to enjoy a perfect song about this era of our history, go to youtube and pull up Tony Joe white’s Willie and Laura Mae. I think you’ll love it. And by the way, way back when, our bathroom caught on fire—and almost made its way to the house.

    2. Jane Boyd Lambert

      My parents grew up like this. All kids were not privileged to be able to go to school. My mom and her siblings picked cotton by hand. They farmed for others . They worked hard and that was their privilege. My dad quit school his senior year to go to the war but came back four years later and went back to that same school in Fayette Al and graduated. Then went to college an GI bill. My mom had to quit school to work her older sister had cancer then died when she was late teen early 20. What they learned was work hard take care of what you have. My mom turned 91 this week. Everyday she still tries to work at something if it is just pulling some weeds.

    3. Loretta Merrell Ekis

      I know there were some who were unable to go to school, but that was before my generation in the area where I lived. That entire generation before me, and the ones before them, never depended on government handouts for a living. They worked hard and taught their children a good work ethic. I don’t consider getting ahead in life, a White Privilege, and it annoys me when people use that excuse. I know people of various races that have gotten ahead in life after starting from a very poor background. Life is often what we make it.

    4. Kat Magnuson

      Just BEING white put one on 2nd base at least. Being black was a terrible thing in the 100 years after the war. Hell the voting rights act wasn’t passed until the 60s, the fact that they had the legal right to vote in 1870 in no way shape or form made it possible for them to do so.

      While activists were repeatedly subjected to mistreatment and violence during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, the worst incident occurred on March 7, 1965. Protesters were on a peaceful march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery when officers attacked them with nightsticks, tear gas and whips. Some were badly beaten while others ran for their lives. The incident was caught on camera and aired on television.

      In the wake of this event, then-President Lyndon Johnson called for a comprehensive voting rights legislation. The bill passed in the Senate by a 77-19 vote on May 26, 1965. After a month of debates, the voting rights bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 333-85 on July 9. Johnson signed the act into law on Aug. 6 in the presence of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.

    5. Margee Horan Hart

      My parents were children of the Great Depression, too. Life was hard in the 1930s, no matter what your race. But it was a lot harder if you were black. My parents weren’t denied access to school. My dad was readily accepted into the Navy in 1941 and became a pilot in WWII. And they both could vote without being asked to pay a poll tax or pass a test. It would not have been so if they were black.

    6. Very true we lived in my deceased grandmothers house and you stuffed paper around cracks to keep out the cold.When it was built it was called a slab house she worked as a cook in restaurant to raise 6 girls after her husband died in flu epidemic 1918 while in Spanish American War guarding Gorgus Steam Plant in Al.Small town USA offered few opportunities when I was born 1942, dad joined the navy in WW 11 and didn’t really know him till he came home 1946 and I miss that.

    7. Peggy Knox

      Yes, I am a product! Went to nursing school at community college after working for a year and saving my money!( 11-7 shift, nurses aide( rode the college bus) tough years

  13. Nadine Hartwig

    My mother’s family were tenent farmers in Fayette County, AL. They moved around according to where the work was. She claimed and attended two class reunions since she attended multiple schools. Her father also worked at a job cleaning a train engine which was used hauling the coal from the area mines. My grandmother always carried seeds from one home to the next so she would be at home with her flowers wherever they happened to reside.

  14. Becky McClure

    My grandparents were tenent farmers in Clay County, Alabama and the people in this story were rich compared to how my family lived. My grandparents couldn’t even afford flour for biscuits they had cornbread for every meal and a lot of the time it was just cornbread and milk. I never heard them talk about having more than a cow for milk and field work from daylight til dark.

  15. Susan Cormany Angelo

    They “swept the yard ” to keep it tidy and free of weeds .

    1. Jennifer Oden

      I remember my grandmother talking about sweeping her yard. She once recounted that a day after her three year-old daughter, Doris, died from diphtheria, she went out her front door and saw the little tracks from her tricycle still in the yard. Those were difficult days for everyone.

    2. Susan Cormany Angelo

      That’s such a sad memory

    3. Sandra Teague Chaudoin

      I’ve heard my mother say that many times! She and Daddy were from Cleburne County.

    4. I well remember sweeping the yards of our tenant farm house many times while growing up. Born in 1932, times were extemely hard. Work. work, work and more work just to stay alive….

  16. Fonda Oldham Grogan

    Linda Belew Burns, weren’t Oldham grandparents tenant farmers at one point?

    1. Loretta Merrell Ekis

      They didn’t, Jeff. The poor dirt farmer was a destitute as the Black family. They were all treated the same by those who had money and power. It’s not just racism that is a problem, but elitism that has been around since man could count his loot, or before, I guess.

    2. Jeff Choi

      You can’t seriously tell me black people had it just as bad as white people. I get what you’re saying. Sure, the life talked about in the tenant housing doesn’t sound fun, but it sure didn’t sound like they had to worry about getting lynched just for being a white southern person. It didn’t sound like they had to deal with the unfairness of the Jim Crow laws as much as the blacks of that time did. It didn’t sound like they lived in fear of being accused of crimes they didn’t commit nearly as much as black people. No one is saying zero white people were lynched. No one is saying zero white people suffered, but on average, it wasn’t nearly as bad for white people as black people.

      Black people in the US have always had a it rough. No one is saying ALL black people have a shitty life ALL the time. No one is saying ALL white people had it easy all the time, but the average life of a black person compared to the average life of a white person is totally different.

      “White privilege” does not imply white people had it easy their entire lives. This is what people are talking about when it comes to white privilege: http://www.elleuk.com/life-and-culture/culture/news/a35759/this-woman-broke-down-how-white-privilege-works-in-one-post/

      White privilege is the very idea that you as a white person can go out and drive comfortably and the only thing you have to worry about is not breaking the law. A black person goes out for a drive and they have worry about way more than not breaking the law.

    3. Loretta Merrell Ekis

      Oh come on Jeff. You haven’t any idea how difficult life can be until you have lived as long as I.

    4. Loretta Merrell Ekis

      Also whites were mistreated by the clan. And my mother didn’t get to vote until 1926. It isn’t all about color.

    5. Jeff Choi

      I’m not saying I have an idea. That’s exactly my point. I don’t have any idea. Also, I’m not saying it is all about color. I am simply pointing out that saying things like “blacks and whites had the same privileges” isn’t actually fair.
      You also can’t say things like that because you don’t know. You’re not black. You and I will never understand what it is like living in America as a black man or woman, so we have no right to say things like “we have it just as bad as you” because we can never really know how bad they have it.

    6. Loretta Merrell Ekis

      Well I think that throughout the ages people have had struggles and many were enslaved and still are. To paint the South with such a broad brush. Is also unfair.not everyone mistreated Blacks. Some did, but the majority did not. I think that the constitution gives me every right to speak out against the move to further divide the nation. My own parents did try to help Blacks in their lifetime, others have reached out to them as well.

      By the was as a young woman, I was stopped by the police without
      having broke any laws. I know others who have as well. You seem to be very angry at this country, and I am sorry for that. American takes the full rap for having slaves, while there were others who were complicit in capturing and bringing them to America to be sold. Human beings are not paragons of virtue. .

    7. Loretta Merrell Ekis

      I think to blame the White race.for everything is just wrong.

    8. Jeff Choi

      That’s the problem. No one is blaming white people for everything wrong. People seem to constantly misunderstand what the actual point of “black lives matter” and “white privilege” actually means. People think it means “white people suck” but that’s not what it means at all.
      I don’t hate America. I am not at all pleased with the government, that’s all. However, that applies to pretty much every country I can think of. I don’t like any government (but I’m also not some anarchist either) because all I see is a bunch of old people who are looking out for their own best interests, not the best interest of the people they should be working for.

    9. Loretta Merrell Ekis

      Won’t argue with you abt the government. Through the ages, those in power have run roughshod over all the people under their control. But not all are old people. It is because the people in power regardless of age want to keep that power. I doubt that will ever change.

  17. Jonathan Baggs

    Good little book, if you can find it: ‘My mama don’t want me talking about slavery.” Interviews by the FWP with actual folks who were slaves. Their answers will surprise and shock many of you as to what their thoughts were.

  18. Sarah Dixon

    That reminds me of my great grandparents home in Coosa,co.

  19. Linda Dulin

    I’ve seen it personally. It finally came out when Johnson was President that Lady Bird Johnson owned many of these, some in Dallas County, Alabama.

  20. Linda Belew Burns

    Yes… around Bonnertown, Tn.

  21. Paul Wendel Brock

    Yes this was my white privilege beginning.

  22. Lewis Milam

    Typical in a lot of places. All over the country.

  23. Evana Harmon

    They came out of this situation with a determination to do better not sit around and whine

  24. Remonia Smith

    I grew up in a house like this

  25. Patsy Weekley

    I was born in a house similiar to this in Escambia County Alabama! My Daddy help my Granddaddy farm a two hundred acre farm. He worked from daylight to dark. No tractors, but a mule and plow! I remember in the summertime pulling the mattress on the front porch trying to sleep because it was so hot inside! A lot of people would say that was the good old days, but he would tell you the good old days is now! Nothing like a home that is warm in the winter and cool in the summer!!

  26. Billie Carol Bandstra

    As a matter of fact, this house looks a lot like the one I was born and raised in. It did have two front doors and a window on three sides, the part sticking out the side was not on ours. Really not as bad as this one .

  27. Belinda Little

    For those of you talking about white privilege probably never had a relative spit on, egged, run off your land or out of town just because of the color of your skin. All of that happened to my family in Alabama. While a lot of people were poor during this time period white privilege protected some from this incredibly inhumane treatment.

  28. Sandra Day

    The “Work Projects Administration” (WPA) came to be known as “We piddle around”. My Grandmother and my parents who lived during the depression and struggled greatly as did many others thought this particular project was not worth the time to spell the initials of the program, WPA. They became the depression vegans because no one could afford meat nor the gun shells to hunt for meat to put on the table so they ate the vegetables they grew in their garden.

  29. I have many family stories about this time. But I will just tell one. My Father’s grandparents had many children–not sure how many now–but they were well off enough to own their land by inheritance. But there was no work–at least they had crops they worked very hard at and it fed the family. Then my Father’s father (my grandfather) was killed when he was only in his 30’s–leaving his wife and 4 dhildren. My Father’s grandparents did not like him for some reason–although he was a good husband and father and would often help them bring in their crops and received very little from that. When he died, my Father’s grandmother sent one plate of food to them and she gave it all to her children. Her own mother told her to send the children to an orphanage. My grandmother’s answer was: ” I never did have a child to give away.” They stayed together —living here and there–in the woods in shacks where you could see the ground through the floors ! 2 boys and 2 girls. The boys at age 8 and 10 took to the woods and hunted for meat and grandma had a small garden—that is how they survived. There was no help from her Mother and brothers. All of them went to school when they could–but never got out of gradeschool. My Father left them when he was 16, joined the Navy and fought in WW2. When he got back his brother was very sick and eventually died a very young man at age 22. . And because my Dad had seen the world and met many different people—he came back a lot stronger, helped his immediate family and didn’t take any more abuse from any one. He got his GED and improved his surroundings.

    I can only imagine how it was for black folks. But I see a similar situation here. The blacks didn’t get help from the whites even if they wanted to—everyone was very poor and had to look out for themselves. But when a family turns on the grand children to get rid of them because of their hate for the children’s father and because of their own struggle—there is no help there either.

  30. I remember a preacher telling me about being a child in the great depression and living on a tenant farm. He said that they had just moved in that morning. That evening, they started a fire in the fireplace. It was very cold outside that evening. They all woke up in the middle of the night with rattle snakes all over the floor. He said that there apparently was a den of them somewhere in the fireplace and they didn’t know it. They all managed to escape without getting bit.

  31. Ronald Richardson

    My parents were white sharecroppers in South Georgia in the 20-30’s.

  32. Enjoyed reading this article as I was very familiar with all the locations . My fathers’s family ( Arthur Dees ) lived in Franklin and my Dad ( Amos ) would often reminiscence about hunting on the river and meeting the riverboats at Claiborne to pickup bananas . My mother’s family ( John Morgan ) lived in Frisco City ( Pineapple Junction to some ) . Both my parents came from large families and their brothers and sisters made many contributions in both business and education in the Monroe County .

  33. Syble Kelley

    This is the way most people in Alabama lived

  34. Lucinda Walker

    I was born in 1932. In Alabama, my Dad made $12.00 a week when I was born. He worked on a dairy farm, they gave him milk, Mom had chickens, they raised their meat, grew the vegetables. Yeah, we were privileged alright.

  35. David Harris

    I grew up in a house my daddy self made for sawmill slabs. No water, only fireplace for heat, not even a window fan. We had an outhouse and hand carried water from a spring that was more than 500 yards from our house. our road was a dirt trail nearly 3 miles from the nearest paved. Mom and dad both worked, two jobs each most of the time and we kids did field labor for 3 dollars a day, less sometimes, and were glad to get that. My daddy never accepted money, but would take food for us kids when it was offered.. We all loved where and how we lived.. Guess that was the white privilege..

  36. Katie Hawkins Phillip

    Loved the comments; now I know that I am not the only one who DID NOT enjoy this white privilege junk.

  37. We are fortunate that there was the WPA, that pictures and oral histories were preserved for us. This doesn’t sound awful to me, I knew people who were sharecroppers and tenant farmers when I grew up in the fifties. I knew children that didn’t have lights or indoor plumbing still. My Daddy worked for the TVA, so I did grow up privileged, but was raised with that awareness. I had to pick cotton every year, along with my siblings and my mama. The money was used for school shoes and underwear, Mama sewed our clothes. Daddy thought we should understand that we all had to work for what we had. The biggest sin of all was to waste anything.

  38. Cynthia Snead

    You guys don’t understand what people mean by white privilege. It doesn’t have to do with how poor you are or how hard your life is. It has to do with the fact that you don’t have to worry about being persecuted just because of the color of your skin. We do enjoy that privilege, then and now, whether we have money or not. It is true that a lot of rich people look down on poor people. That is a totally different thing.

    1. Myla Thomas

      A different term would be more accepted, understood. Privileged has always meant the wealthy to most.

    2. Cynthia Snead

      I agree. The term doesn’t really work.

  39. Barbara Lancaster

    This is such interesting reading! I’m reminded of a story that my dad used to tell me. He and my mother were teenagers during the depression. His mother made underwear for my Dad and his five brothers from flour sacks. Now, flour sacks were typically decorated witch feminine designs for dress making. But, my Dad and his brothers had this for underwear or none. They endured harassment and laughs, especially when changing in gym classes.

  40. Janice Capps Walton

    My mother was born in 1921. She had 7 siblings. The older ones had to quit school in the third grade to help work in the fields to pay for farm. You would have never known cause she could read write with beautiful penmanship. It her 40s and50s she did Bible studies through the mail. She was always excited when she’d get her grades back. She had always made 100%. This makes me very proud of her not only for these qualities she had she also taught us right from wrong. Work and earn what you have. My daddy was reared with six siblings I’m not sure of their bringing up. But I’ll tell you this my daddy only had one kidney, and it was full of stones. Some days he wasn’t able to do much but he did earn us a living between the hospital stays. I’ll always be appreciative to Dr Aubrey Stabler. He helped daddy to live until he was 54. I miss both mother and daddy, so if you still have your parents or parent enjoy every second with them. Our house wasn’t much but daddy and uncle Hubert built it and we grew with love and kindness for each other. Thank you my parents.

  41. Nancy Miles

    Looks perfect! Argo here come. Granny and her shotgun!

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