Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 2/Joseph Landry

Joseph Landry
BornDecember 2, 1870
Gretna, New Orleans, Louisiana
ResidenceNew Orleans



Joseph Landry, who went by the name Joe, was an African-American man interviewed for the Federal Writers' Project in the United States of America. The Federal Writers' Project was created under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under the Roosevelt Administration's New Deal, to help employ writers. Landry's parents were former slaves. In 1916, Landry lost his vision and later had to have his right leg amputated. His disabilities barred him from employment during the American Great Depression. The date of his death is unknown. [1]

Early Life

Landry was born in Gretna, New Orleans, Louisiana on December 2, 1870. His parents were former slaves and gave birth to his four brothers and three sisters. Some of Landry's siblings were born in the era of slavery.[2] Landry’s large family would have been a common size in his time as families would work together on plantations or in other agricultural means. Landry went to school for two sessions. The exact translation of "session" to today's educational standards is unknown, but it can be inferred that his education experience was early and short. The limited time Landry was in school can be attributed to the underdeveloped and inadequate nature of education in rural Louisiana. [3] After two sessions of school, Landry spent his life on the countryside, developing knowledge on plantations.


Though Landry did not have a profession at the time of the Federal Writers’ Project interview, he had extensive, previous experience in numerous job areas such as on plantations with corn sugarcane, and rice. Landry also had experience working on a river steamboat, and on seedboats with cotton. [4] Landry’s minimal time in school implies that the culture of Gretna, New Orleans, Louisiana during the late 19th century was centered on plantation-life. In 1916, Landry went blind in the span of a few months after getting water in his eyes while washing his face. The details of this incident are unknown, but the water was most-likely contaminated with an agent that caused Landry to lose his vision. Landry also lost his leg after an infection in his toe spread so extensively that eventually the area below his right knee had to be removed. When speaking about his disabilities and working on plantations at the time of the interview, Landry claims that times were better in the past when he worked in agriculture because workers often received free commodities such as molasses, corn, cotton, potatoes and more.[5]

Later Life

After Landry’s son got married, Landry had to live off of begging, which he claims was more beneficial to him than welfare. During the American Great Depression, individuals with disabilities--like Landry-- recieved virtually no benefits from New Deal Programs such as the WPA. However, Landry claims that President Roosevelt-- the Democratic President during the Great Depression-- was his “best friend” (6)[6] The Federal Writers’ Project interview with Landry highlights the social issue of segregation and racial discrimination at the time of the interview--1939-- as the word “colored” is placed next to Landry's name.[7] Essentially, Landry was seen, along with many other African-Americans during his life, for his skin tone significantly more than his ethnicity or culture. It can be inferred that Landry knew all too well what life was like in a society that allowed "separate but equal" law. In regards to political affiliation, Landry claimed that he was a Republican-turned-Democrat and was thus in favor of President Roosevelt. However, it cannot be determined in detail, how President Roosevelt impacted Landry’s life. [8] Under Roosevelt's administration, the New Deal was formed so that federal programs could be created to employ American citizens and support the vast majority of the public who found themselves suddenly unemployed. However, the economic and social benefits of New Deal programs were of virtually no value to those with disabilities. Disabled individuals were excluded from the benefits of Roosevelt's new programs. Landry’s interview does not touch directly on any political issues regarding African-Americans during the age of segregation and discrimination. [9] Thus, Landry's personal experiences cannot be claimed as representative of those of other African-Americans in the American south.

Social ContextEdit

Disability Rights Movement During the Great Depression

During the Great Depression, unemployment rose to unprecedented standards and consequently pushed the Roosevelt Administration to enforce the “New Deal Program” in 1933. In fact, in 1929, the official unemployment rate of the United States reached 25%, while the unemployment rate for disabled Americans rose to over 80%. [10] The New Deal provided countless federal jobs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA)--which employed over 8 million people-- but failed to provide the same economic support to individuals with disabilities. American citizens with disabilities were simply categorized as “unemployable.”[11] Furthermore, new legislation such as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 excluded anyone with disability insurance from employment eligibility. [12]

African-Americans' Industrial Southern Employment

The American Academy of Political and Social Science highlighted the aftermath of the emancipation of slaves in the United States and how African-Americans--- commonly referred to as “Negroes” at the time before and during the Great Depression--- were still in a state of “slavery” where economic and industrial participation is severely limited.[13] It is important to remember that African-Americans in search of jobs were constantly harassed by their white counterparts-- who were virtually always given employment priority in the industry-- and had to face injustice in the industry every day. Thus, African-Americans during the Great Depression era faced major discrimination, especially in the area of unemployment. This is partially due to the fact that a vast majority of white workers believed that African-Americans belonged in agriculture, not industry. This idea is supported by the following quotes taken from a source written in 1931. The article “Negroes in Southern Industry” states: “Yet we venture this most provocative generalization, that the Negro is still a slave-not legally so, but by a more effective control than law, namely, the fixity of his status... which render him powerless to advance beyond the fringe of economic independence” (170). The article also says: “When asked to intercede on behalf of the welfare of Negroes, a prominent governmental official replied that the Negro is not an industrial, but an agricultural, worker” (171).[14] It is crucial to understand that racial bias most-likely skewed the observations recorded by the writer of this article.


  1. Joseph Landry Federal Writer's Project Interview
  2. Ibid
  3. The Journal of Negro Education, "Factors Affecting the Education of Negroes in Rural Communities in Louisiana."
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid
  10. Independence Care System, "80 Years of Fighting for Disability Rights Movement."
  11. Ibid
  12. Ibid
  13. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, "Negroes in Southern Industry."
  14. Ibid


  • I Got All Day For Everything, in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Hamlet, Tanali. "80 Years of Fighting for Disability Rights Movement." Independence Care

System. September 13, 2017. Accessed September 25, 2018. http://www.icsny.org/ada-disability-rights-movement/.

  • Hill, T. A. "Negroes in Southern Industry." Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.

January 1, 1931. Accessed September 25, 2018. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/000271623115300118#articleCitationDownloadContainer.

  • Stewart, W. Wallace. "Factors Affecting the Education of Negroes in Rural Communities in

Louisiana." The Journal of Negro Education 8, no. 1 (1939): 44-49. doi:10.2307/2291916.