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

Walter Corbett
BornMarch 31, 1876
Burlington, NC
DiedAugust, 1962
ParentsRichard and Sarah Corbett

Walter CorbettEdit

Walter Corbett was a sharecropper interviewed for the Federal Writers Project in 1938.


Walter Corbett was born on March 31, 1878 in Burlington, North Carolina to Richard and Sarah Corbett.[1] Little is known about Corbett's early life. As a young boy, he began working for Charles Maynard doing various tasks around his farm. It was while working for Maynard that Corbett first learned the trade of growing and curing tobacco.[2]

In 1896, Corbett married Maggie Sellars. Together they began sharecropping for F. P. Rogers. In 1897, Corbett's wife gave birth to their first child, Sarah. After sharecropping for Rogers for two years, Corbett rented land from Maynard to continue growing tobacco and other crops on. In the fall of 1899 his second child, Lee, was born, followed by Arthur in 1901 and Mary in 1903. He continued to farm on the land he rented from Maynard for nine years, working for wages during the off-season. Corbett had two more children with Maggie, Virginia in 1905 and Cora in 1907, before Maggie died in 1909. Corbett's six children assisted him in raising his tobacco crop and Sarah took over the role of caretaker in the family.[3]

In the fall of 1913, Corbett married his second wife, Anna Liza Lee. In 1914, Anna gave birth to their first child, Priscilla. In 1915, Corbett took out a mortgage in order to buy a twenty-acre plot of land. Corbett spent the next growing season sleeping outside beside his tobacco barn in order to make sure the tobacco was cured properly and would turn enough profit to pay off his debt. Corbett's crop was good and he was able to pay his debt with some money to spare. With this spare money, Corbett built a house on his twenty acres of land and he and his family moved there in 1916. There, Corbett had eight more children by Anna.[4]

By 1922, Corbett had accumulated 85 acres of land in Burlington, NC. He remarried once more, although it is unknown what ended his marriage with Anna. He and his third wife had no additional children. Several of his children moved north to New York to find work during the 1930s. Corbett died in August of 1962. The cause of his death is unknown.[5]

Social IssuesEdit

Sharecropping in North CarolinaEdit

The sharecropping system arose in post-reconstruction South after the Civil War. In this system, poor people, primarily freed slaves, would be leased land to grow crops on and would pay the land owner in crops. However, very few sharecroppers ever had the opportunity to own their own land and become independent from their leaser. This resulted in severely limited mobility and freedom for individuals, particularly African Americans[6]. North Carolina government attempted to combat this oppressive system by implementing a program in which sharecroppers are leased government-owned land, and if they successfully managed their crops, they could gradually earn the rights to the property. This program was largely successful and helped many sharecroppers become independent landowners.[7]

Urban Unemployment for African Americans During the Great DepressionEdit

Many African Americans moved to urban areas during Reconstruction for additional protection from increased troop presence as well as in an attempt to find work. However, African Americans often struggled to find and keep jobs, specifically in major cities. Analysis of census data from the time period confirms a trend for much higher unemployment rates for African American than for whites in urban areas. Surprisingly, unemployment rates for African Americans nation-wide was actually lower than that of whites during the Great Depression. However, this is a result of the much higher concentration of African Americans in the South, where unemployment rates did not increase as drastically during the Great Depression.[8]

Agriculture in the South During the Great DepressionEdit

Historians argue that the overproduction of agricultural products was a major contributing factor for the economic downturn leading to the Great Depression. During the economic boom before the Great Depression, farmers began producing as much crop volume as possible, particularly tobacco, a major cash crop at the time. This led to a greater supply than demand, and prices fell. As a result, many farmers simply grew an even greater volume of crops in an attempt to make enough revenue, driving prices farther down. This depressed stock prices and caused many to attempt to sell their stocks in mass, further damaging the industry and the market as a whole.[9] In an attempt to remedy this, many state governments in the south began to limit farmers on the amount of tobacco they could grow, a strategy similar to the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). However, this policy was hardly ever enforced and, as a result, was largely ineffective.[10]

  1. Ancestry.com. North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
  2. Interview of Walter Corbett by John H. Abner, December 2, 1938, folder 282, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers’ Project Papers, 1936-1940, The Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Douglas R. Hurt, ed. African American Life in the Rural South, 1900-1950. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003. Accessed September 23, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central.
  7. Former sharecroppers making good on federal north carolina project. 1938. Atlanta Daily World (1932-2003), Nov 15, 1938. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/490572536?accountid=14244 (accessed September 24, 2018).
  8. Sundstrom, William A. "Last Hired, First Fired? Unemployment and Urban Black Workers During the Great Depression." The Journal of Economic History 52, no. 2 (1992): 415-29. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2123118.
  9. Federico, Giovanni. 2005. “Not Guilty? Agriculture in the 1920s and the Great Depression.” The Journal of Economic History 65 (4). Cambridge University Press: 949–76. doi:10.1017/S0022050705000367.
  10. Interview of Walter Corbett by John H. Abner, December 2, 1938, folder 282, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers’ Project Papers, 1936-1940, The Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.