Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 2/F B Brewer

Johnny Capps
BornRobert F. Brewer
Chatham County, North Carolina
Chatham County, NC
NationalityWhite American


Johnny Capps was originally named F. B. Brewer. He changed his name to Johnny Capps before the interview. Capps was a tenant farmer born and raised in North Carolina. The following is a record for a review conducted by [1] written by Stanley Combs.


Early LifeEdit

Capps was born in a farmer’s family in Chatham County in North Carolina in 1909. [2] With four siblings, all of them had to start working early to make ends meet. He never went to school, because there’s always different farm work waiting for him to do in different seasons. He has had to work all of his life, and often he received nothing, but he believed not only the farm work never hurt him in any way, but it also provided him enough freedom to have his own way and pace for living a life. Throughout his life, even during the Great Depression, Capps always chose the form of country life. Quoting from the interview, Capps "tried to be content with what he had."

Married LifeEdit

Capps continued his job as a sharecropper after marriage. He had a wife named Bessie and four children, who received more education than he did during their school age. The family’s life mostly relied on his income for farming and his wife and kids did a little canning every year. His landlord started to take half of what is made on the farm rather than one third when the Great Depression stroke, but he refused to go to town and seek a job with more dependable wages. He claimed that he would not get a decent job there because of his lack of interpersonal skills and he did not prepare to follow orders of someone else. [3] Their financial situation deteriorated four years early when his wife’s health suffered. Since then they no longer had any extra money to save for later. The family tried to maintain a normal life despite flat income and high medical expense. They raised children and all of them received a better education than their parents. Capps aimed but never owned his own farm in his life, though he always held an optimistic attitude towards the goal. [4]

Historical ContextsEdit

Overview of the Great DepressionEdit

At the year 1929, the nation was in the depths of the Great Depression. [5] The output declined by more than 40 percent between 1929 and 1932. The unemployment rate exceeded 20 percent in 1932 and 1933. [4] There was little outright starvation in the United States, but there were severe levels of undernourishment. Death rates did not rise, but rates of many diseases, and especially childhood diseases, did. Educational attainment fell as children sought to help their families or lacked the energy to attend to their studies and many localities closed schools or shortened the school year to save money. [6]

Farming Situation in North CarolinaEdit

In the 1920s, North Carolina was still a rural state. Half of its population worked in farms. Later on, because of the overproduction of various crops, the prices were falling down, and the costs for farming were rising. Cotton and tobacco, being two of the main cash crops, were overproduced most significantly. During the 1920s, oversupply caused both of the crops’ prices drop. In North Carolina, cotton that had sold for more than 30 cents a pound in 1919 was selling for less than 6 cents in 1931. By that same year, prices for tobacco had dropped to just 9 cents a pound, compared to 86 cents in 1919. [4] Farmers could no longer afford necessities with their slim income. They relied on banks more and sank deeper into debt. [7] Furthermore, World War I brought mass production of new technology and devices, which only wealthy farmers could afford. Many sharecroppers like Capps moved to town and cities to look for jobs with more dependable wages. The migration eventually led to a trend of decline in the farming population. There were some farmers trying to improve things for themselves by forming organizations, but all of them failed because the scale and severity of the recession required assistances far beyond what farmers could provide. [1] After 1930, when Roosevelt became president, he came up with a radical economic program called the New Deal. The most famous program was the Agricultural Adjustment Administration Act, it was established to pay farmers to reduce crop yields by leaving some of their lands unplanted. When a shortage appeared, farmers could raise their prices and make more money. Six weeks later, Congress passed a more effective farm-relief act. It authorized the government to pay farmers who planted fewer acres of soil-depleting crops, thus achieving the goal of crop reduction through soil conservation practices. [1] By 1940, nearly 6 million farmers nationwide were receiving federal subsidies under this program. During the year 1939, before the beginning of World War 2, crop prices began to rise beyond normal rates as the demand for food was at an all-time high. [4] The dynamics of the farm family began to change as well, as women gradually began to enter the workforce. [8] At the start of the century, one in three Americans lived on farms, but by 1950 only ten percent of the nation’s total population lived on farms. Some historians attribute this to an adaption to the changing economy of the nation as factory wages and hours seemed more appealing. [4]

Education during the Great Depression in North CarolinaEdit

During the Great Depression, many schools across the United States closed because of a lack of money. In North Carolina, not a single public school in the state shut its doors because of the depression. The schools tried many ways to reduce costs and keep schools running. Some schools saved money by removing cafeterias and workers, meaning that students must bring their own lunch to school. Some schools cut courses that were considered less essential. Some schools cut back on sports programs. In 1931 North Carolina had more than 6000 schools and one-fourth of them were buildings with only one room and only one teacher. These teachers taught all grade levels in a single classroom. [9]

The Great Depression has had long-lasting effects on those who were growing up during this period. Researchers analyzed two different effects regarding the significant event. [10] One such effect (called the substitution effect) is that the Great Depression increased the educational attainment during the early 1930s by reducing outside opportunities during this deep economic downturn. In other words, recessions could lower the opportunity costs of attending school. The effect was small at first, but it gets bigger when taking account of the population density as well as the alternative schooling system in different regions (such as junior colleges). As a result, the net effect of the Great Depression was to increase the average years of schooling. On the other hand, for certain segments of the population, the Great Depression had an effect to reduce education attainment. (The income effect) Recessions affected the budget constraints of households through unemployment. When a breadwinner of a family becomes unemployed, children of a certain age may give up schooling and look for a job to help the family. Research evidence has shown that the later situation significantly affected school attendance rates, especially for males. From these results, the Great Depression appears to compress the overall distribution of educational attainment. There’s no clear evidence indicating the dominant effect between the two.


  1. Federal Writer’s Project
  2. Combs and Massengill (interviewers): Some People Are Never Destined to Have Anything
  3. Harris, Justin. "How the Great Depression affected the farmers and sharecroppers of Gwinnett County." US Economic History, Hist 3150 Section 01, 2013.
  4. Interview, Stanley Combs and Johnny Capps, May 9, 1939, folder 296, Federal Writers Project Papers, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  5. Szostak, R. (2011). The Great Depression in the United States. In A. J. Andrea, World history encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
  6. Levine, Linda. The Labor Market during the Great Depression and the Current Recession. Congressional Research Service, 2009.
  7. “Agriculture in North Carolina during the Great Depression.” Weapons in the War of 1812 | NCpedia, www.ncpedia.org/agriculture/great-depression.NCPEDIA[1]
  8. Levine, Linda. The Labor Market during the Great Depression and the Current Recession. Congressional Research Service, 2009.
  9. Davis, P. Anita. Public Schools in the Great Depression. Congressional Research Service, 2009.
  10. Yamashita, Takashi. The Effects of the Great Depression on Educational Attainment. University of Nevada, Los Angeles, 2007.