Lula Sizemore Exploring a life history based off the work of the Federal Writer's Project: By Melanie Hussey


In 1939, the Federal Writer’s Project was created with the goal of collecting the life stories of as many Americans as possible. Lula Sizemore was one of the people interviewed and, like others, experienced hardships. Two of these hardships, child mortality and poor income, affected a lot of Americans at the time.

The Federal Writer's Project

The Federal Writer's Project was started with a goal of providing jobs to unemployed writers during the Great Depression (Federal Writer's Project). Those writers interviewed ordinary Americans and recorded their life stories. The interviewer was instructed to keep a neutral attitude and not insert their own voice into each story. When someone decided to become an interviewer, they were given a list of potential topics to have their interviewee discuss and guidelines to help keep their work in the interviewee's voice (Couch xiii and 420-21). Some of the guidelines set were related to maintaining the interviewee's dialect. Interviewers were to retain their subjects' dialect and style of speaking to keep the written life history personal and authentic (Soapes 1-2). One of the people interviewed was Lula Sizemore, married to Allison Sizemore, and a tenant farmer.

Claude Dunnagan, who interviewed Lula, maintained Lula’s voice and personality in his writing. The story is written in Lula's own dialect and the reader is able to read the words in the style Lula would have spoken them. The work was not manipulation free, however. One sign that there was manipulation of Lula's words is the breaks in the text denoted with every “. . .” that interrupts the flow of the text (Dunnagan). It appears as though Dunnagan pieced together parts of Lula's narrative, leaving other parts out in the process. This manipulation could have altered the story, over-emphasizing some aspects of Lula's life while under-representing others.

A tenant Farmer's House (Image 2)

About Lula Sizemore

Early Life

Lula Sizemore was the second youngest of ten children. She grew up with a father who would frequently beat her and run her out of the house. When she was nineteen years old her father and a neighbor got into a legal battle and both families lost their farms. Lula’s family moved to Yadkin County and became tenant farmers. Tenant farmers at the time hardly made enough money to get by. Lula mentioned multiple times how difficult it was for them to even afford necessities (Dunnagan 4849, 4851, and 4854). Tenant farmers were farmers who could not afford to purchase their own land and therefore rented land from a landlord. Tenants ran the production of crops on their land as if they owned it, purchasing their own tools and supplies (Tenant Farmer para 1). They paid their landlord with a predetermined amount of the crops each year.

In addition to having to pay to supply their farms and dealing with decreasing crop yield, the average income farmers made off each harvest dropped due to excess product and decreased demand (Bishop para 1). If a tenant failed to produce that amount and could not pay their rent, the landlord could take what they wanted from the tenant as compensation, including their tools. The first year Lula’s family was renting the land, the crop was poor, and they did not meet their quota. Their landlord took her family’s tools, and it was at the auction for those tools that Lula met her husband, Allison, whom she married a few days later (Dunnagan 4849).

A Difficult Start

Lula and Allison moved to a tobacco farm, became tenants, and had four children. Two of their sons became sick and died while still very young. Due to their poor income, Lula and her husband could hardly afford food and clothes and could not afford to pay the doctor. Lula was not alone in experiencing the loss of her children. According to José Tapia Granados and Ana Diez Roux, "peaks in both infant mortality and mortality for children aged 1–4, 5–9, 10–14, and 15–19 were observed in the years 1923, 1926, 1928–1929, and 1934–1936" (above Figure 2). Oftentimes, like Lula and her husband, families were so poor they could not afford to pay a doctor. Sick children went without medical care and many died. This cycle occurred at a higher rate during the Great Depression and therefore the child mortality rate increased. According to a life-insurance study from the time, the mortality rate of people in the south who were unable to receive medical attention was higher than anywhere else in the country (The National Emergency Council 32).

Many children would fall sick and high medical costs meant those children received less care. The child mortality rate in this time period was high. (Image 3)

One year, Allison ran away with a neighbor and was gone for three months, leaving Lula shorthanded on the farm. After he left, Lula started receiving aid from the government, enabling her to feed her two children (Dunnagan 4852). Conditions of the Great Depression and stories like Lula’s led to New Deal legislation which aimed at improving the lives of struggling Americans. One such piece of legislation, known as the Agricultural Adjustment Act, aimed directly at helping farmers. This act worked to keep crop production at a reasonable level, prices up in markets, and helped poor farmers afford new technology (Whatley 910). It can be assumed that the aid Lula received after Allison left came from this legislation.

Life Improves

Upon his return, Lula forgave Allison, simply telling him he had a lot of work to do in order to help provide for their family, and to get some sleep (Dunnagan 4853). Eventually, the landlord allowed the family to keep more of their yearly yield and the family's condition started to improve (Dunnagan 4854). At the time of the interview, Lula and her family were doing much better. Between aid from the government and more lenient standards by their landlord, Lula and Allison were able to save enough money to buy some livestock, an old car, and even put some money down on a house, which a few years earlier would have been impossible (Dunnagan 4854-4855).

This image shows how poor living conditions were for tenants and features a sick child (Image 4)


Bishop, RoAnn. “Agriculture in North Carolina during the Great Depression.” NCPedia, 2010, Accessed 26 Jan. 2017

Couch. These Are Our Lives. Nd. The Norton Library, W. W. Norton and Company. Inc., pp. ix-xx; 416-421

Dunnagan, Claude. Life Story of Lula and Allison Sizemore. 8 November 1938. Folder 368. Federal Writer's Project Papers. The Louis Round Wilson Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wilson Library. 20 January 2017.

Na. "Federal Writer's Project." New Deal Programs: Selected Library of Congress Resources, 30 Sep. 2015, Accessed 26 Jan. 2017

Na. “Tenant Farmer.” Wikipedia, 27 Nov. 2016, Accessed 26 Jan. 2017

Soapes, Thomas F. "The Federal Writers' Project Slave Interviews Useful Data of Misleading Source" Oxford Academic, The Oral History Review. N.d. pp 33-38. Accessed 19 Feb. 2017

Tapia Granados, José A. and Ana V. Diez Roux. “Life and death during the Great Depression” PNAS, vol. 106 no. 41, 2009. Current Issue, Accessed 26 Jan. 2017.

The National Emergency Council. “Full text of “Report on economic conditions of the South””. Accessed 26 Jan. 2017.

Whatley, Warren. “Labor for the Picking: The New Deal in the South.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 43, no.4, Dec. 1983, pp 905-929. Accessed 1 Feb. 2017.

Image Citations:

  1. A tenant farmer's home. Many tenant farmers lived in houses like this and most did not own them. (Image 1) Lee, Russell. “Front porch of tenant farmer’s house near Warner, Oklahoma.” Photogrammar, Jun 1939, Accessed 2 Feb. 2017.
  2. Wolcott, Marion Post. "An old tenant house with a mud chimney and cotton growing up to its door, which is occupied by Mulattoes, Melrose, La." Photogrammar, June 1940, Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.
  3. Lee, Russell. “Sleeping child in farm home. Williams County, North Dakota.” Photogrammar, Oct. 1937, Accessed 2 Feb. 2017.
  4. Lee, Russell. “Child afflicted with tuberculosis of the spine in cast on porch of his home near Warner, Oklahoma. Tenant farm family.” Photogrammar, Jun. 1939, Accessed 2 Feb. 2017.

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.