A Woman With a Hunch By Madison Seals

The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was established by the U.S. government to support writers during the Depression. It was part of a New Deal program under FDR ("Federal Writers' Project" par. 1). Beulah Parsons Davis shared her life story with an employee of the FWP in 1939. Davis, a generous woman who gave what she could in spite of how little she had, remained strong in the face of social issues that deeply affected her life, including severe marital tensions and economic hardship brought on in part by the Great Depression.

Early Life

Davis was a white woman from Briggs Avenue, Durham, North Carolina. Her exact date of birth is unknown, but she grew up during the early 1900s. As a child, she helped out on her parents' dewberry farm; they also had a turpentine forest from which they harvested pines. Davis said that much of her work consisted of "haul[ing] wood in a two-horse wagon many days, except it was that [she] had two mules instead of horses" (Darrow and Massengill 4). Davis started school at age five. She was a little rascal who loved horseplay. Surprisingly, as an adult, she ended up with the same boy whom she "plumb hated" in school (5).

What Davis might have looked like on her family farm's two-mule wagon.
A turpentine farmer "scooping up the resin from [a] settling vat" (Lee).

Adult Life and the Economy

Davis met with increasing misfortune as an adult. She implied that she was a victim of domestic abuse, and she felt the need to marry her abuser to preserve her dignity. The idealism of her youth had quickly vanished. Davis and her husband were farmers together, as well as owners of a general store. In the midst of the Great Depression, “[a]griculture was ... hit hard. Farm income went down by 20 percent in 1930 and plunged by 30 percent in 1931” ("The 1930s: Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview" par. 2). Farming alone wasn't enough for them to get by. Davis noted that her husband lacked ambition and did not provide well. Their life was anything but luxurious.

A 1930s-era rural general store.

Family

The couple had a girl and a boy together, but Davis also experienced miscarriages. Her husband had a regular affair with a woman of “very low morals” whom he even demanded stay in their home occasionally (Darrow and Massengill 8). Davis’s defiance left her with visible scars. She carried on so that her children would have a roof over their heads until later discovering that her husband had been molesting their daughter, at which point she immediately left with her children.

As a result of the economic devastation of the time period and its effects, "'thousands of families were broken up, some permanently, some temporarily, or were seriously disorganized'" (qtd. in "The 1930s" par. 7). Davis was one of many who suffered this consequence. After she took her daughter to a hospital to make sure she was okay following the abuse, Davis only returned to her former home once more to retrieve her and her children's belongings. Her husband's abuse had permanent effects on her; she admitted she was completely unfit to work as a result of the trauma.

Economic Hardship and Marital Tension

According to authors Liker and Elder, there was a complicated relationship between economic hardship and marital tension during the 1930s; one important factor in this connection may be the strength of the marriage prior to the loss of income (345). It was also noted that "the relatively large correlation between husband’s instability and marital tensions" may have been why income loss was associated with both of these factors (348). Certainly, Davis's life was representative of this; she and her husband had an unhealthy relationship from the beginning, and his behavior only worsened over time as their financial well-being declined. Issues surrounding economic hardship and marital tension were not mutually exclusive during the time period.

Marriage and Divorce

As previously stated, many families separated during the Depression. However, also due to the financial decline of the time period, "the divorce rate dropped sharply [as] it was too expensive to pay the legal fees and support two households…" ("The Great Depression" par. 2). This decline was an interesting point of contrast, because Davis was able to divorce her husband. Of course, this may be in part because she was not required to support him in any way once she left him.

On Her Own

Freed from her malicious ex-husband, Davis lived as a single mother. She commented on how she’d always had psychic abilities, and that she eventually garnered a reputation for giving advice. Davis essentially became a fortune teller; she was often given something in return for her services, but she offered them for free. She even tithed to her church, although she couldn't adequately feed her children. At the time of the interview, Davis's daughter had quit school at eighth grade, but her son was going into sixth grade; she hoped that he would finish high school, as she saw the value in an education.

The Federal Writers' Project

There were, without a doubt, inaccuracies in the production of the life histories under the Federal Writers' Project. For example, it has been noted that "in some cases stories were considerably rewritten between the original author and the time they reached [editors]" (Rapport 7). A tamer example that can be seen in Davis's life history is diction that has been written in: "If my mama had known we was down there ... I guess I'd a been almost killed" (Darrow and Massengill 5). Words have been purposely misspelled in an effort to recreate Davis's (presumably) Southern drawl.

It is clear that the Project workers brought their own biases to the table: “Since [they] were recruited and employed in their home states, many of them had a limited picture of the nation as a whole” (Fox 4). Narrow perspectives of the writers could have hindered the accuracy of the life histories. However, while it is necessary to be aware of factors that could have undermined the authenticity of this collection, it should also be understood that the life histories under the FWP provide valuable insight into everyday life during a historical time period of great loss in America.

Works Cited

  • Darrow and Massengill (interviewers): Free Advice, Folder 342 in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Fox, Daniel M. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers' Project.” American Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 1, 1961, pp. 3–19. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/2710508.
  • Liker, Jeffrey K., and Glen H. Elder. “Economic Hardship and Marital Relations in the 1930s.” American Sociological Review, vol. 48, no. 3, 1983, pp. 343-359. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2095227.
  • "The 1930s: Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview." American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., vol. 4: 1930-1939, Gale, 2001. U.S. History in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3468301229/UHIC?u=nysl_ro_rush&xid=14424c9b. Accessed 9 Feb. 2017.
  • “The Great Depression.” EyeWitness to History, Ibis Communications, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/snprelief1.htm. Accessed 1 Feb. 2017.
  • Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast Among the True Believers.” Oral History Review, vol. 7, no. 1, Jan. 1979, pp. 6–17. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3675185.
  • Wikipedia contributors. “Federal Writers' Project.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 28 Nov. 2016, en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Federal_Writers%27_Project&oldid=751952024. Accessed 7 Feb. 2017.

Images Cited

  • Delano, Jack. The "super market" in Durham, North Carolina. 1940. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1998006260/PP, Accessed 8 Feb 2017.
  • Lee, Russell. Girl astride mule, farm near Northome, Minnesota. 1937. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997022240/PP, Accessed 1 Feb 2017.
  • Lee, Russell. Scooping up the resin from settling vat. Resin is then poured into barrels for shipping. State Line, Mississippi. 1938. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997024825/PP, Accessed 1 Feb 2017.
  • Lee, Russell. Small store, Jeanerette, Louisiana. 1938. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1997024590/PP, Accessed 1 Feb. 2017.

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