Joseph A. Michaels was a husband, father and cotton mill worker in North Carolina during the Great Depression. The following article, based on his 1938 interview with the Federal Writer's Project, details his life and emphasizes the hardships he faced as a child laborer and mill worker.
Federal Writer's Project
The Federal Writer's Project (1935-1942) was part of the New Deal program under Franklin Roosevelt and was created in an effort to provide jobs and "produce publications of lasting merit" (Hill paragraph 1). W. T. Couch headed the program and aimed to capture a realistic picture of the everyday lives of individuals during the Great Depression in a readable and relatable way. Because of the FWP, individuals today have access to the life histories of those that might have been forgotten.
Although there were guidelines for the interviewees about how to conduct the interviews, personal biases, writing style and interpretations sometimes muddled their way into the accounts. In the production of Michaels' life history, the opening paragraph was marked through so that it would not be included in the final publication. There is no confirmation as to whether this was writer John H. Abner's revision, or that of W. T. Couch. The text that is crossed out read, " 'Hm,' said Joe Michaels, in reply to my query. 'What kind of a story do you want me to tell?' 'Just tell about yourself, your family, your life as a tenant farmer; and as a cotton mill worker. Tell me what life in a cotton mill is like?' " (Abner 3728). Such editing could suggest that Abner was using leading questions, or trying to obtain a particular view of Michaels' life, as opposed to Michaels' describing his personal experiences in a way which reflected his own emotions and thought process.
Joseph Michaels was born in 1868 in Burke County, North Carolina and worked in cotton mills until the age of 68. As the father of twelve, he had no choice but to toil in the mills in order to avoid debt and provide for his family. The typical day was 12 hours long and yielded a 70 cent pay. In his interview he stated, "As I look backward, I cannot understand how I ever lived through it" (Abner 3737). Eventually, as soon as his young sons could, they joined their father in the grueling line of work. Because there were no strict child labor laws or legislation outlining safe and proper working conditions, employees were treated poorly and had no choice but to suffer the manipulation of mill superintendents. Michaels compared his experience to slavery when he said, "The land-lords had owned the slaves. They were property, and were usually treated as good as the mules and the other stock. The mill operators did not own their hands; and felt no responsibility for their well being" (Abner 3733). Despite it all, Michaels only stopped working when Social Security Laws were put in place and told Abner that he wouldn't be wasting time on an interview if he could be out making money.