Zelda, or “Zeke” Williamson was born in 1912 in Wilson, North Carolina, a rural town, where opportunity was limited. The oldest of nine children, Zeke is characteristic of an individual who grew up in a working class family in America during the Great Depression. Zeke Williamson’s life history provides a first-hand account of how the Great Depression caused many individuals to wallow in the depths of poverty, receiving a poor education, and often resorting to alcohol.
A Brief Insight into the Federal Writers’ Project
Zeke’s life history was a part of the WPA Federal Writers' Project--funded under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program. The Federal Writers’ Project lasted from 1935-1939 under federal government funding. The goal of the FWP was to increase employment for white collar workers, while providing insight into historical and cultural resources ("Federal Writers' Project: New Deal" Par. 1).
The presentation of the WPA Federal Writers' Project book, "Who's Who at the Zoo," a guide to natural history.
Zeke cared for his younger siblings, describing his childhood as some of the best times of his life. Along with the fun came much hard work as well. Growing up as part of a farm family, the kids helped work the crops, but “the hardest work came when harvest was on,” Zeke recalls. Zeke offered to drop out of school in 7th grade—an offer his parents gladly accepted so that he might earn a little extra money to support the family.
A young farm boy in North Carolina, like Zeke, during the Great Depression.
Zeke worked odd jobs until he was 17, when he met his wife-to-be, Betty—15 at the time. Betty dropped out in 10th grade to marry Zeke, and by the time the couple were in their early 20s, they had two children. Now faced with caring for their children, Zeke and Betty were forced to take on greater responsibility.
Just before the two got married, Zeke committed to a more permanent job, working as a plumber. At his job, Zeke socially drank occasionally with his boss and clients. Before long, he began to drink more and more with the pressure that accompanied his work, until finally customers began to complain. Soon, his drinking affected his health, hospitalizing Zeke, and forcing him to stop working. He returned to work for a short while, but soon experienced health issues relating to drinking again.
Between the drinking and the hospital bills, the family sank into poverty. Betty threatened to leave and take the children unless he cleaned himself up--something Zeke desperately wanted to do. Whether or not Zeke stopped drinking is unknown, but clearly Zeke’s problems can be traced back to the institutional failures of a poor educational system and the common alcoholism that accompanied the Great Depression.
Educational Issues During the Great Depression
Zeke’s experience with school was not unlike many other children’s experiences at the time. With nearly a quarter of schoolhouses being only one room and one teacher (“Public Schools in North Carolina” Par. 5), it could be difficult to be drawn in to one’s education at the time. At the same time, children of farming families had it especially difficult when it came to school, “children whose families farmed for a living in the 1930s—as most North Carolinians did…might have to miss school at planting time, at hoeing time, and at harvest. Families usually needed every member working in order to survive” ("Public Schools” Par. 19). As the oldest child of such a large family, Zeke often had to sacrifice education for his family's wellbeing on the farm.
A teacher instructing the only student in the second grade in a one-room schoolhouse--likely similar to the schoolrooms Bertha and Zeke sat in.
The alcoholism Williamson suffered from was not unique, as the general trend during times of economic hardship points towards increased drinking levels. M.H. Brenner’s study on the trends in national economic indicators and average alcohol consumption conducted between 1934 and 1970 found that “it is only following economic downturn that the indicators of alcohol-related problems show substantial increases” (Brenner 1290). As with Zeke, many Americans during the economic depression of the 1930s turned to alcohol and consequently began suffering from alcohol-related conditions such as cirrhosis or kidney damage.
Zeke’s circumstance is more clear when considering that the Great Depression saw unemployment levels as high as 25 percent (Smiley Par. 1). As Brenner elaborates, “the findings of this study are also consistent with the great majority of theories of alcoholism which emphasize the role of stress as a precondition of alcoholism. The available evidence is that economic downturns are a very major source of economic and social stress” (Brenner 1289). The alcoholism that resulted in unemployment as with Zeke became a vicious cycle, resulting in social stress that caused many individuals to continue drinking.
A plumber cutting a pipe, demonstrating the kind of work that Zeke did to support his family before he lost his job, due to his alcoholism.
Evaluating the Federal Writers’ Project: Historical Treasure or Unverified Fiction?
It is important to consider the legitimacy of the Federal Writers' Project to perceive how much we can rely upon Zeke’s story as a historical artifact. Zeke and his interviewer, Stanley Combs, may have had a personal relationship. The top of the first page reads, “Interviewer: Stanley Combs, Wilson.” This marking, “Wilson,” may indicate that Combs was also from Wilson, a small town, and ] that Combs and Williamson likely had some previous connection. This potential relationship may indicate a bias held by Combs in his interview process, which would have impacted the credibility of his account.
Zeke's life history with the curious "Wilson" next to Stanley Combs' name. In his life history, Zeke's name is changed to "Robert," or "Bob" for his privacy.
Also, the life histories often were so revised that the original author’s name does not appear, but rather the editor’s name in place of the author (Rapport 7). Rapport’s evaluation of the project notes, “It isn’t…easy to distinguish between the pure gold and the fools’ gold of the writers’ projects life stories” (Rapport 8). There is a clear split between the historically accurate stories with content unchanged and those that suffer from critical details inserted by editors.
On the other hand, some scholars maintain that the project “salvaged a rich and significant part of the American past that was about to be lost, and produced a body of literature of real value to the country” (Curry & Mangione 464). It is difficult to conclude whether the life histories provide a helpful resource or a harmful distortion of historical representation. Whether Zeke’s story is fact or fiction, his tale could be any one of millions of Americans at the time, trying to support a family without the proper education to get a job, stressed by the economy and driven to alcohol.
Brenner, M. H. "Trends in Alcohol Consumption and Associated Illnesses. Some Effects of Economic Changes." American Journal of Public Health 65.12 (1975): 1279-292. Web.
Curry, Lawrence H., and Jerre Mangione. "The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943." The Journal of Southern History 39.3 (1973): 463-64. Web.
Davis, Anita Price. "Public Schools in North Carolina in the Great Depression." Public Schools in North Carolina in the Great Depression | NCpedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
"Federal Writers' Project: New Deal Web Guide (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress)." New Deal Programs: Selected Library of Congress Resources. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.
Rapport, L. "How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast Among the True Believers." Oral History Review 7.1 (1979): 6-17. Web.
Smiley, Gene. "Great Depression." The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics | Library of Economics and Liberty. Liberty Fund, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.
Federal Writers' Project Presentation of Who's Who at the Zoo. 1938. Federal Art Project, n.p.
Lee, Russell. Square Dance. N.d. Pie Town. Living History Farm. Web. 6 Feb. 2017.
Lange, Dorothea. North Carolina Farm Boy in Doorway of Tobacco Barn. 1939. Person. Photogrammar. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.
Mydans, Carl. Plumber Cutting Pipe. 1936. Greenbelt.
Rothstein, Arthur. Teaching Only Pupil in the Second Grade in One-room Schoolhouse. 1939. Grundy County. Photogrammar. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.
Zelda Williamson's Life History. 1939. N.p.