From Faith to Fruition The story of john lee white -By delane dixon

The Federal Writer's Project:

During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt created the New Deal to boost the economy. Within the New Deal there was the Federal Writer’s Project targeted for people who could not find employment during the depression. The duty of those workers were to record an authentic narrative of "average people" entitle Life Histories. One of the Life Histories recording included John Lee White, a negro male, Durham resident, minister, and teacher. Mr. White utilized faith, family, and education to live a prosperous life.


Even as a child John Lee White enjoyed two things jumping and school. John was always distinguished for his vast talents in sports among his peers. After completing grade school his father knew that John would want to go to college. He was able to go to college as a consequence of a scholarship and $24 that John made off of land his father gave him. After finishing undergraduate school John obtained a masters degree. To subsidize the cost of university John became a school teacher. At some point he married unfortunately his wife died and he later remarried. Based on the life history and census records he had four children, including one daughter who died as an adolescent. Against several odds he became financially stable and owned several homes, a car, and other valuable assets.


Just as a tree has different portions that support it and allow for it to grow into a magnificent structure, John Lee White also had those structures in his life. Starting off with the roots which for John Lee White were his religious beliefs. White's family functioned as his trunk, providing him support in times of need. The branches of his life would be the astounding education that he was able to receive. Just as with any tree John Lee White had magnificent leaves, however the leaves of his life are represented by economic prosperity. Even in the midst of the great depression he still was able to own a few substantial items. Many trees experience hardship and in John Lee White's life this herbicide would come in the form of racism.

A church where Rev. John White would pastor.

The Roots: His religious beliefs

At the core of John White’s success was his religion. Religion functioned as his roots feeding him the determination and perseverance that he needed. Religion was so prominent within his life that the interviewer titled the life history “Trusting in God”. Religion historically was a very prominent feature within the black community. During slavery Christianity was introduced to enslaved people who could related to the stories of perseverance. While living in Durham, John Lee White was the pastor at his neighborhood church from 1914 to 1921.

The Trunk: His Family

John Lee White’s parents played an integral role within his life. As a child when White attended school, his mother always made sure that his clothes were clean even though they were not new. After finishing grade school his father gave him land to plant crops, allowing John to have $24 for college. During this time period "...the middle-class Negro family puts a higher premium on family stability and the conserving of family resources than does the white middle-class family."(Moynihan 5). John Lee White's parents understood how essential it was for his success and were willing to sacrifice resources for themselves for John's future. John Lee White also talks about his wives, and how significant they were in his life. His first wife died and he soon remarried, noting that even after her death he still maintained flowers in the front of the house in honor of her. Contrary to what Frazier discussed regarding the manner in which "...the Negro man acquired a permanent interest in his family and assumed a position of authority, it appears that the subordination of the woman in the economic organization of the family has played an important part." (164). John Lee White rushed to get remarried in order to secure his new wife's job as a teacher and establish a new economic organization within his family.

The Branches: His Education

Another piece of John Lee White’s success is the amount of formal education that he received, this education allowed for him to have more opportunities. During this time period African Americans typically did not acquire a high school degree. A consequence of the lack of education as stated by Fultz allowed for "...the creation of a "vicious circle" that kept African American education trapped in patterns of underachievement."(197) Negro teachers especially within the south were typically ill qualified to teach. The unqualified nature of teaching is something that prevented financial achievement and upward mobility. Education was essential for progression "...the fate of the race depended on the types of schools it had, the types of schools Blacks possessed depended on the quality of the teachers available to them,..." (Fultz 197). John Lee White's father was invested in John's education and as a consequence of the $24 John made from farming he was able to afford a college education. After graduating from college he continued on with his education and obtained a master’s degree, and a possibly another degree in theology. Within the Life History it is not clear whether the master's degree was in theology.

His home.

The Leaves: Financial Prosperity

The Great Depression caused severe economic downfall. A large portion of John Lee White’s life history was his economic prosperity. He went into great detail about the monetary value of his home, his car, and other homes that he owned. Even when using the census as a resource it was evident that his economic stability, allowed for him to provide housing for someone else within his home. It was rare during that time period that black people could afford a home much less a vehicle and other homes. John Lee White attending college allowed for him to obtain a job, as well as maintain one during the Great Depression. The economic stability to John Lee White provided for his family also benefited his children, especially when considering the in the midst of segregation his adult children had to opportunity to live at home and attend college themselves.

The Herbicide: Racism

Racism acted as an herbicide constantly threatening to weaken John Lee White. Racism is a major factor within American history. John Lee White talked about racism indirectly when addressing the circumstances that he experienced as a child and being picked on by others in school, but that his athletic talent broke those barriers during recess. Racism was also something that plagued the Federal Worker’s but not White’s story extensively itself.

His home from another angle.

Life after Life Histories?

Federal Writer's Project Problems

Just as with anything in life there were challenges and problems during the Federal Writer's Project. One of the greatest critics of the Federal Writer's Project came from Leonard Rapport. Who argued that with the Federal Writer's project especially within North Carolina had "lots of disorder with the construction...."(Terrill 82), Rapport stresses with disgust that "I [Rapport] learn from the staff of the Southern Historical Collection these visitors seem uninterested in tests of validity."(Rapport 8). Rapport believed that lots of the Life Histories were fake stories constructed by the writers of the project. Terrill stressed however that the assets of the Life Histories still stand firm because historians are aware of discrepancies in the work and the authentic lives of the individuals interviewed especially when considering "that FWP did not use mechanical recordings devices, that only a few took notes in shorthand, that editors sometimes edited too casually.."(Terrill 82) but that there is still a vast amount of resourceful information within the Life Histories.

So What Now?

Even when considering the various problems with the "quality" of the life histories they are still a vastly important resource that should be revisited. Their importance is best articulated by Marcus Garvey "A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots." America has the rich opportunity to read about the lives of a variety of people from a diverse background during the most financially strenuous time in history. Integrating Life Histories into the American education system could provide information about a variety of subjects including lucrative "...information about and feelings of southern textile managers and workers were not whiled away waiting for "the ring of truth" to be told." (Terrill 82) The Life Histories provide more information on theologians like John Lee White considering that "Religion and at least some of the clergy deserve better treatment than they have gotten from scholars, and materials like the FWP life histories can help with that." (Terrill 82) The Life Histories should be included in our conversation of life during and pre-Depression, without it we are allowing extensive and first hand accounts of history to go unheard.

Work Cited:

“Chapter 2: The Negro American Family.” Office of Policy Planning and Research. United States Department of Labor, 1965, pp. 5–6.

Darrow and Massengill (interviewers): Trusting in God, Folder 338 in the Federal Writers' Project papers #4556, South Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Frazier, Franklin. The Negro Family in the United States. Chicago, Illinois, The University of Chicago Press , 1939.

Fultz, Michael. “Teacher Training and African American Education in the South, 1900-1940.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 64, no. 2, 1995, pp. 196–210.,

Terrill, Tom E., and Jerrold Hirsch. “Replies to Leonard Rapport's ‘How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers.’” The Oral History Review, vol. 8, 1980, pp. 81–89.,

Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers' Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast Among the True Believers.” Oxford Journal, Accessed 20 Feb. 2017.

Image Citation:

Image 1:Looking northeast from South Roxboro Street, circa 1970.Durham County Library / North Carolina Collection

Image 2: Pine Street Church, circa 1970. Durham County Library/North Carolina Collection

Image 3:Bowden, Keith. 707 South Roxboro Street/Pine Street 2011

Image 4:Bowden,Keith.707.5 South Roxboro Street/Pine Street 2011

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