Article by Marina Greenfeld.
On December 27, 1938, Emmett R. Brown of the Works Progress Administration interviewed June A. McClenny and his family of Goldsboro, NC, as participants in the life history collection conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project, a Depression era program designed to record the daily struggles and achievements of ordinary people. The McClennys tackled difficult and common issues (healthcare, nutrition, and education just to name a few) everyday, making them valuable representatives of the period. June's life was documented for being indicative of an era- an era that he thought suppressed life.
"We don't live, we just exist and stay here, that's all."
-June McClenny (Brown 2)
The Federal Writers' Project
WPA employees demand more funding in San Francisco
The Works Progress Administration, one of FDR's New Deal relief efforts, provided government jobs to unemployed citizens of every background, from manual laborers to musicians and artists. One facet of the WPA was the Federal Writers' Project, an attempt to relieve the strain of the Great Depression while simultaneously preserving national history and folklore. The collection of life histories was one of the methods the FWP used to achieve this goal. FWP employees were instructed to interview average citizens on the stories of their lives and to transcribe their subject's words into complete life histories in an effort to capture the everyday experiences of the era. The life histories were not without their controversy, however. Leonard Rapport, who once wrote for the FWP himself, stated in his essay on the life histories that "some of the stories are not necessarily true but are typical of the region and for that reason have been included" (1). He described other situations in which the stories of multiple people were blended together or a person's words were wrongly attributed to another (Rapport 1-3).
In this case, it is hard to know whether or not the McClennys' words are their own. Nevertheless, they still express powerful sentiments and their life history remains a valuable tool for understanding the past.
June: The Struggle for Healthcare
"I've always wanted a comfortable home and a decent living for my family, but I can't give it to 'em on what I make."
-June McClenny (Brown 3)
June A. McClenny of Goldsboro, NC was born and raised on a farm with his parents, two sisters, and one brother, Henry. His father was married three times and June was raised primarily by his stepmother, with whom he got a long quite well. Life on the farm was very difficult and required a lot of hard work and sacrifice from the whole family. When he was nineteen, he moved into the town of Goldsboro and quickly got a job operating a boiler in a sawmill plant. This job paid him well, forty dollars a week, but he lost it after a year and a half. After losing his job at the sawmill plant, June began work as a painter of used automobiles, earning twenty dollars a week and suffering damage to his health due to his working conditions. He remained in this profession at the time of the interview in 1938.
June often had to suffer illness because he could not afford healthcare- he had recurring appendicitis and complained of respiratory and nervous system distress from his job. He also stated that his youngest daughter was often unwell but he was unable to take her to a doctor. This struggle was not uncommon during the Great Depression, and the 1930s consequently saw a large rise in popular support for mandatory health insurance (Birn, et al. 86).
Hattie: Keeping the Family Fed
"I like to keep my house clean whether anything else gets done right or not."
-Hattie McClenny (Brown 10)
In 1926, June married Hattie Cotton, daughter of George Cotton. George Cotton owned a grocery store which employed June for a short time. Hattie and June had three daughters: Mildred, age eleven at the time of the interview, Joyce Anne, age five, and Jean, age two. Hattie described that her days were filled morning to night with cooking, washing, and other types of housework. Both she and June expressed a disappointment in the quality of food that they were able to provide for their family. Cheap goods like cornbread, sweet potatoes, biscuits, and molasses were the bulk of their diet. Feeding a family during the Great Depression was a struggle for many and for a multitude of reasons. Adam Chandler described in his article some of the causes and effects of this food crisis, “Droughts and floods devastated American agriculture, unemployment was on its way to 25 percent, and breadlines in New York City were dispensing 85,000 meals a day" (Paragraph 3).
Mildred, Joyce Anne, and Jean: The Importance of Education
". . .a man without a good practical education is about as worthless as a pump without a handle."
-June McClenny (Brown 5)
The strain of the Great Depression had a large impact on family units. Ralph Larossa and Donald Reitzes found in their research on the subject that "fathers were less involved in their children’s lives in the 1930s than in the 1920s. . ." (466). However, they also came to the conclusion that "men’s personal identification with their children was largely unaffected by the Depression.” (466). Though June and Hattie McClenny certainly felt the financial pressure of the Depression, and most likely spent less time with their children because of it, they still had high hopes for their daughters, particularly that they all get the complete education that their parents never did. Hattie never attended school, and June only finished through the ninth grade.
Schoolhouse in Summerville, South Carolina
During the financial turmoil of the 1930s, education was rarely the first concern, and many schools closed (Price). Those that remained open often faced severe budget constraints as Dr. Anita Price describes, “The schools, the districts, and the educators themselves tried many creative ways to reduce costs and keep schools running. Some schools saved money by getting rid of cafeterias and cafeteria workers. This meant that each student had to bring his or her own lunch—which might be only a biscuit” (Paragraph 2). Both schools and students had significant obstacles to contend with when it came to continuing education during the Great Depression, but for the McClennys it remained a priority.
Crowded Kentucky Schoolhouse
In a time of near universal suffering, it was the trials that the McClennys regularly faced that made them good subjects of a life history by the Federal Writers' Project. And yet, it seems that their struggles and resilience are precisely what make the McClennys stand out as exceptional.
Birn, Anne-Emanuelle, et al. “Struggles for National Health Reform in the United States.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 93, no. 1, 2003, pp. 86–91. AJPH.Aphapublications, doi:10.2105/ajph.93.1.86.
Brown, Emmett R. Life History of June A. McClenny. 27 December 1938. Folder 300 Southern Historical Collection. Louis Round Wilson Library Special Collections, UNC-Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC. 18 January 2017.
Chandler, Adam. “How the Great Depression Still Shapes the Way Americans Eat.” The Atlantic, 22 Dec. 2016, www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/12/great-depression-eat/511355/.
Larossa, Ralph, and Donald C. Reitzes. “Continuity and Change in Middle Class Fatherhood, 1925-1939: The Culture-Conduct Connection.” Journal of Marriage and the Family, vol. 55, no. 2, 1993, p. 455. ProQuest Central, doi:10.2307/352815.
Davis, Anita Price. "Public Schools in the Great Depression." Tar Heel Junior Historian 2010: n. pag. NCPedia. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.
Rapport, L. “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. Oxford Journals [Oxford UP], doi:10.1093/ohr/7.1.6.
Vachon, John. Goldsboro, NC. 1938. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1998021632/PP, Accessed 1 February 2017.
Lange, Dorothea. In front of city hall, San Francisco, California. The Worker's Alliance, Works Progress Administration (WPA) organize simultaneous demonstrations in the large cities of the nation cut in the relief appropriation by the United States Congress. 1939. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1998021632/PP, Accessed 1 February 2017.
Walcott, Marion Post. Schoolhouse near Summerville, South Carolina. 1938. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1998021632/PP, Accessed 1 February 2017.
Walcott, Marion Post. Crowded conditions and lack of equipment in schoolhouse. Breathitt County, Kentucky. 1940. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photogrammar. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa1998021632/PP, Accessed 1 February 2017.