Cotton in the Blood "we got cotton in the blood, and maybe on the brain" - Wade

Wade Hampton Taylor was a boy-doctor turned cotton man from Memphis, Tennessee. In his 1939 interview for the Federal Writers’ Project Wade gives an overview of his life, highlighting his experience of practicing medicine without a license and his struggle in the cotton industry. Wade’s experiences shed light on the general lack of healthcare for African American tenant families, and the decline of the cotton industry during the 20th century.


Wade Hampton Taylor was born in Memphis Tennessee on July 24, 1883. He was one of two sons of a physician and housewife, and grew up in a white middle class neighborhood. Growing up, Wade's favorite part of living in the city was listening to the sounds of the waterfront and watching the roustabouts (a general word used for workers) handle bales of cotton. Wade's father was both a physician and landowner, so Wade would often visit the countryside when his father would make house calls to the sick, or when his father would travel to check up on his tenant farmers. As a young boy Wade aspired to be a doctor, so he dropped out of school after the eighth grade in hopes of shadowing his father until he was ready for medical school. Wade, however, eventually tired of medicine and realized he was a cotton man. Wade decided to go into the cotton industry and Wade’s professional endeavors prevented him from ever marrying or having children.

“Once a cotton man always a cotton man. I reckon cotton gets in the blood” (Abner, 13).
A doctor visiting a tenant farming African-American family that lives in the countryside of South Carolina. House calls were common practice at the time.

Race and Healthcare

Wade's father served as family physician for all of his tenants, so when Wade's father went away on business Wade was sent after by one of the African American tenant families. Wade was only 17 at the time (and did not have a valid medical license), but there were not many doctors willing to serve African American families in the countryside. “73% of the population lived in rural areas, but only 31% of the physicians practiced in these communities”, and even less were willing to serve the African American community (Silberman, 2). When Wade's father went away, Wade was seen as the next best thing.

A box house that was the common style of house for African American families living in the countryside. Taken in North Carolina.

Wade's first 'patient' came in the form of a 15 year old African American girl who was showing symptoms of Malaria. Wade gave the girl a mixture of simple medicines, and the next day, when Wade returned, the girl was fully cured of her symptoms. Though it may seem odd that a family was willing to allow an unlicensed teenager to cure their daughter, the cost of a doctor from the city was just too high.

“Nowadays the very poor are practically deprived of medical attention, because the cost is prohibitive” (Abner, 6)

“A few comparative statistics will show that most Negroes cannot pay for adequate medical care on a fee-for-service basis. They often cannot bear the expense of even inadequate care, in view of the high cost of privately financed medical services today” (Davis, 4). Low work wages, coupled with the racism of the southern United States at the beginning of the 20th century, led to rural African American families being unable to afford or access adequate health care.

Blacks had substantially higher mortality rates than whites living in the same area (Milbank)
A photo of a family doctor making a house call in North Carolina. During this time, most doctors made house calls and brought a kit of supplies and medicines to their calls.

King Cotton

After his stint as a doctor, Wade went into the cotton business. In Memphis cotton was king, and Wade’s boyhood love of cotton carried over into his adult life. Wade co-owned a cotton business with his uncle and then moved to California to be a chief examiner of cotton at California, Arizona, Mexico Cotton Association, all before moving back to Memphis to form a new cotton business with his brother.

A Cotton Gin in Smithfield, North Carolina

Once the Great Depression hit, the trend of cotton sales began to decrease, eventually forcing the Hampton brothers out of business. Many cotton businesses were negatively affected by the Great Depression, and President Roosevelt's attempts to prevent the dropping of cotton prices were unsuccessful. Part of the New Deal “endeavored to meet the breakdown of capitalism in agriculture by attempting price stabilization and the granting of subsidies to replace lost profits” (Pytlak, paragraph 12). However, this program was inevitably unsuccessful and the prices of cotton dropped rapidly from 1929-1935 (Pytlak). “Old King Cotton was sick”, and even FDR’s New Deal could not save him (Abner, 14).

The Federal Writers Project

The Federal Writers Project (FWP) was started by President Franklin D Roosevelt as part of the Works Progress Administration, a new deal program that was used to both create jobs and give a voice to the everyday individual. In 1939 John H Abner interviewed Wade Hampton Taylor to create the life history of Miles Thornton, the alias used for Wade Hampton Taylor.

The Federal Writers Project lasted from 1935-1943

When it comes to the FWP interviews, there has been some concern raised about the accuracy of the personal accounts that are represented. “Conflicts between work-relief and culture resulted in publications of uneven quality” (Fox, 4). Racial expectations were a big part of southern culture and played a role in the writing of the life histories. Writer John H Abner demonstrated these expectations clearly in this life history by using almost no dialect for Wade Hampton Taylor while using very heavy dialect when portraying African Americans. The different vernacular used for the different races presented the societal expectation that whites were more educated than blacks.

"Nawsuh Mr Miles. We aint gwine hab no strange doctor. Ef yo Paw’s gone doctor dat gal yoself" - an example of the vernacular used to portray the African American tenant farmers (Abner, 9)

In order to qualify for employment at the state-run offices of the FWP, most authors had to demonstrate that they had been living in the area for at least two years. A personal interest in how the region was portrayed led authors to incorporate their own prejudices and expectations into the life histories they were supposed to objectively record. Christine Bold argues that these employees were then "all potentially, at one and the same time, subjects, co-authors (to some degree), and readers of the guidebooks" (Gorman, 4). Some writers were more interested in presenting their region in a positive light than actually giving the life histories the truth they deserved. The life histories must be read critically, and it must be kept in mind that some of the stories may not be the interviewee's own.

Works Cited

Abner (interviewer): Cotton in the Blood, Folder 277 in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3660, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Davis, Michael M., and Hugh H. Smythe. "Providing Adequate Health Service to Negroes."The Journal of Negro Education 18.3 (1949): 1-14. Print.

Fox, Daniel M. “The Achievement of the Federal Writers' Project.” American Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 1, 1961, pp. 3–19.,

Gorman, Juliet. "History of The Federal Writers' Project (4)." History of The Federal Writers' Project (4). Oberlin University, May 2001. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. <>.

Milbank, Q. "History of Black Mortality and Health before 1940." The Milbank Quarterly.U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. <>.

Pytlak, Jerry. "Cotton Economy in Depression." Jerry Pytlak: Cotton Economy in Depression (August 1939). The New International, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. <>.

Roemer, Milton I. "Approaches to the Rural Doctor Shortage." Rural Sociology 16.2 (1951): 137. ProQuest. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.

Rothstein, Arthur. "Photogrammar." Photogrammar. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. <>.

Silberman, Pam. History of Health Care Policy Making in North Carolina (2010): 1-49. NC State University. Institute for Emerging Issues, NC State University, Mar. 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. <>.

"The Arts In Hard TimesNew Deal-Era Projects Still Resonate." The Arts In Hard Times (May 2009) - Library of Congress Information Bulletin. Library Of Congress, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. <>.

Venzon, Christine. "What Was the Federal Writers' Project?" The Airship. The Airship, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. <>.

Walcott, Marion Post. "Photogrammar." Photogrammar. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. <>.

Walcott, Marion Post. "Photogrammar." Photogrammar. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. <>.

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