The Abyss of Poverty By Logan Pratico

John Benton was an African American born in the late 1800's with little money to his name. Growing up on a farm, John was introduced to the realities of living in poverty at birth. His rumination of a childhood living poverty is reflective of the lives of many lower class families during his time. John's story, as demonstrated through the Federal Writers Project, explores how race and religion tie in to the vicious cycle of poverty in the early 20th century.

The Federal Writers Project

The Federal Writers Project was created in 1935 by Franklin Roosevelt as a part of the New Deal Program in order to support writers during the Great Depression. The project was built as a part of the Works Progress Administration as a way to help fund struggling writers during the war. A subsection of the Federal Writers Project was the Life Histories program. The program compiled local histories from each state which detailed the history of each city or town by interviewing individuals from various backgrounds (Federal 1).

While the Federal Writer's Project was an excellent way of documenting individual stories in the 1930s, it did have some faults. As some have pointed out, the project took in writers who were often experienced in creative writing instead of historical or research writing. As a result, many of the stories have been edited in order to create a more interesting recount of their lives (Rapport 14). This is exemplified through the author's interjections within the writing which state her own opinion. The majority of the paper was written as a transcription of John's speech. However, the author occasionally interjects her opinion on John's religion (Bennett 3948). As a result, the reader is no longer allowed to interpret John's life for themselves.

A copy of the Life History showing the editorial comment by the author. Note: Daddy Judah is Daddy Grace

John Benton


As stated before, Benton's childhood was not an idyllic one, born into poverty, John spent his entire childhood on a sharecropping farm working for less than a living wage. After he was married, John moved out to the city with his wife where he found a job making $35 a month. While this was still a very small amount of money, it was a large increase coming off of a farm. During World War One, John's wage more than doubled to $95 a month. This was reflective of a large majority of African American's who, during the war, became more included in the workforce (African 1). At this point in time, John had four kids and as he states, they "didn't really want for nothin'" (Bennett 3946). At the end of the war John's wage dropped again and he found himself still at a livable wage, but far less than he had previously seen. In 1936, John suffered a stroke and was put out of work. He then again found himself living in poverty, right back where he started. Many details about John's familial life are excluded from the story. However, the author clearly articulates John's dependence on his children towards the end of his life.

A New Yorker magazine cover from 1938 shows true racial tensions at the time.


Throughout the story, the writer takes care to depict the dependence that John has on the religion of Daddy Grace. Daddy Grace is a preacher who the author and John's children claim to be a false prophet and a swindler of the community. John states that he finds comfort in Daddy Grace and his preachings. This is reflective of a much larger paradigm of religion in the 1930s where "the protestant establishment simply insisted repeatedly that religious revivals were the first step toward economic recovery" (Greene 102). The belief that one could recover from poverty led many to join the United House of Prayer for All People. The church, founded by Daddy Grace, claimed miraculous acts of faith healing which others saw as proof that Jesus Christ was returning. However, others claimed that Grace's frivolous use of money on mansions and cars during the depression were proof that he was a false prophet. Still, Grace was seen as an idol for many African Americans who had never seen a person of color in such a high position in society (Marcelino 1).

A common depiction of False Prophets were wolves in a sheep's clothing.


John's life shows how poverty in the 1930s was a cycle that very few African Americans could pull themselves out of. Thirty percent of black men and forty percent of black women were unemployed during the Great Depression (Sides 21). Furthermore, many African Americans found themselves dependent on the sharecropping system during and after the reconstruction era. This system took complete advantage of newly freed slaves by putting them back into the system of slavery which they had recently escaped (Sharecropping 1). During the Great Depression, many African Americans struggled to find work as a result of their race. Their complexion became a greatly politicized issue for them (Greenberg 5). The deep seeded racism with the United States during the 1930s led many whites to call for all African Americans to be fired as long as whites were still out of work. This shows that racism was very largely tied into poverty during the Great Depression (Race 1).

Many children were greatly affected by the Great Depression, especially those of color.


John's Life History is a true exploration into the lives of African Americans during the Great Depression. The daily struggles in poverty and their connection with various social issues show how removing oneself from poverty was incredibly difficult during the Great Depression. The authors opinion on John's religion, coupled with the fact that his race directly affected his ability to find work show how the stigmatization of African Americans drove them further into poverty. Still, as with any story, there is more than one side. For John, working during the war and making $95 a month was a large improvement from his life as a sharecropper. In addition, the religion that he chose meant something to him, which he thought was enough. John's life during the great depression was greatly stigmatized. Yet for him, it was a life that he chose and one that he didn't regret.

Works Cited

"African Americans." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

Bennett, Cora. "We Never did Git Nowhere" 5 Jun. 1939. TS. Federal Writers Project. U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Folder 296.

“Federal Writers' Project.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,'_Project.

Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn. "Or Does It Explode?": Black Harlem in the Great Depression. New York, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Greene, Alison Collis. No Depression in Heaven. The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta. 2nd, Rev. Ed. Corby, Oxford University Press, 2016.

"Marcelino Manuel Da Graca." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Jan. 2017. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

"Race During the Great Depression." Race During the Great Depression - American Memory Timeline- Library of Congress. The Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 17 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.

Sides, Josh. "L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present". Berkeley: U of California, 2003. Print.

"Sharecropping." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 03 Feb. 2017. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.


“A wolf in sheep's clothing.” “I Am About to Silence the False Prophets Who Preach Peace and Prosperity is Coming”, Z3 News,

Bennett, Cora. "We Never did Git Nowhere" 5 Jun. 1939. TS. Federal Writers Project. U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Folder 296.

Cotton, W. “The New Yorker, March 1938.” Issues of Race in the 1930s,

Sarudy, Barbara W. “Image of young child playing with malnourished dogs.” Https:// MS 1936.Jpg,

Wollcot, Marion. “Day Laborers in Louisiana, 1930s.” Daily Mail, A group of people - possibly a family - at the Bayou Bourbeau plantation, an FSA cooperative at Natchitoches, Louisiana Read more:

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