“John Hurston, in his late twenties, had left Macon County, Alabama, because the ordeal of share-cropping on a southern Alabama cotton plantation was crushing to his ambition. There was no rise to the thing.”
(Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road)
Zora Neale Hurston is most known for being an influential author of African American literature, with her most iconic work being Their Eyes Were Watching God. However, she was also an anthropologist and ventured
throughout the American South as part of her work. Dust Tracks on a Road is Hurston’s autobiography that details her life growing up, her time at Howard University, and her anthropological work. While Hurston wasn’t raised in Alabama, she was born there just like her father and revisited for anthropology. When writing about her father, John Hurston, she describes how he wanted more to life than to just pick cotton. This was probably how most African Americans felt during slavery.
However, some African Americans even felt this way even post-slavery. My great grandfather Alonzo Vickers was born around 1893, and he worked on a farm his entire life. From a very young age, he picked cotton for white men. He worked from dusk until dawn, virtually for free. At some point in his life, people were giving away land for free, but he missed out on it. When he got older, he managed to acquire some land and get a farm of his own. He had a wife and several children, but only his two youngest daughters are still alive. I was able to speak to my great aunt Daisy, who is now 82, and she was able to tell me a little bit about her father and their family’s experience. When I asked about what they did, she told they picked cotton and stacked peanuts—from dusk until dawn. She also told me that as a woman she had to do the same work the men did, in addition to going home early and assisting with the cooking and preparing the food for the men of the house. She said it was sometimes a struggle to pick cotton fast as you could possibly cut yourself, but she emphasized it was more important that you don’t get your blood on the white cotton. They were basically told the protection of the white cotton was more important than the protection of your black hands. Additionally, she mentioned there were occasional times for fun. The activity they did for fun is going to the movies if you saved enough money.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression had a severe impact on Negroes. History.com’s Christopher Klein writes that, “While no group escaped the economic devastation of the Great Depression, few suffered more than African Americans, who experienced the highest unemployment rate during the 1930s. They were often given the “last hired, first fired” treatment. Negro farmers had it especially rough. According to Charles Spurgeon Johnson’s The Economic Status of Negroes, a summary and analysis of materials presented at the Conference on the Economic Status of the Negro, held on May 11-13, 1933, in Washington, D. C., “About one-third of the Negroes working are in agriculture.” Alonzo and his family were no different.
External circumstances such as, Asian and European countries began to narrow their demand for American grown cotton, due to the expansion of foreign producing regions. That didn’t stop America from having a surplus of 26,000,000 bales of cotton waiting to be sold at the beginning of 1933. Russia left the market after becoming completely self-sufficient. Many other countries were producing up to 10,000,000 bales in 1931. As Johnson stated in The Economic Status of Negroes, “Indeed, the world is less than ever dependent upon American grown cotton … The threat of increased world competition is a very real one.” Another concern for black belt Negro farmers was the shift of the cotton area to the Southwest. Texas, New Mexico, and neighboring territories, because of their typography, lent themselves more readily to mechanization. This was described as “a movement not only away from the old Cotton Belt but away from the Negro as well.”
Credit also played a vital role in agriculture and yet again was a resource Negroes had limited access to or none at all. Negroes were excluded from white loan associations and had none of their own, so they were without credit. White farmers had loan associations to help them out and often pay lower interest rates compared to Negroes. Dr. Roland B. Eutsler conducted one of the most important studies on credit for Negro farmers. After all of his findings, he came to the conclusion that while Negroes are getting less benefits than the whites, the system isn’t good for either. The entire system needed change and the people, white and black, needed to be better educated. Dr. E. E. Lewis pointed out that, “It is doubtful, indeed, if much will be accomplished by merely raising the Negro farmer to the level of the white farmer.” Alonzo faced a difficult road, being a Negro farmer in the South during the Great Depression. The few systems in place to help farmers heavily discriminated against Negroes, forcing he and his family to struggle twice as hard and work twice as much.
Klein, Christopher. “Last Hired, First Fired: How the Great Depression Affected African Americans.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 18 Apr. 2018, www.history.com/news/last-hired-first-fired-how-the-great-depression-affected-african-americans.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. J. B. Lippincott, 1942.
Johnson, Charles Spurgeon. The Economic Status of Negroes. Fisk University Press, 1933.