Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 3/Lawrence Nelson

Lawrence Nelson
BornCirca 1910
Cause of deathUnknown
ResidenceFairhope, Alabama
EthnicityAfrican American
EducationElementary School


Lawrence Nelson was an oysterman who lived and worked in Fairhope, Alabama.


Early LifeEdit

Lawrence Nelson lived in Fairhope, Alabama from a young age; however, his specific place of birth and his birth date are unknown. His father worked as an oysterman in the area, described by Nelson as a 'Dane'. Nelson left school in the sixth grade to work full time with his father and declared he had been supporting himself from the age of thirteen.[1]

Adult LifeEdit

Nelson continued to work as an oysterman into his adulthood, most frequently in the Bon Secour River area. In the center of the river was Oyster Reef, the most popular island where oystermen from Fairhope would go to fish. Nelson stated that this oyster fishing region was the most fruitful in Alabama.[2]

The day-to-day work of oystermen was tiresome, starting before dawn and ending after dark. To catch them, the fishermen used oyster rakes. Nelson worked from September to August collecting and selling oysters and in July and August fishing for shrimp and for red fish. He eventually saved enough to purchase his own fishing boat for twelve hundred dollars. Nelson stated that the oystermen community, made up of approximately fifty families in his immediate area, 'make a good living most of the year'. However, during January and February--hurricane season--many oystermen struggled to work on a daily basis because of the rough, dangerous waters.[3]

Nelson met his future wife in Fairhope in his youth. She finished high school, and they married in 1932. They had two children, a boy and a girl, who were born two years apart. The family attended church at the local Baptist Sunday School approximately once a month. They often saw shows for leisure in nearby towns on the weekends. Nelson owned a Ford and built their family home himself. Their home was wired by the Rural Electrification Administration, which was beginning to fund the electrification of rural America during the 1930s. The house also had two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, and living space. The couple paid for amenities as they could afford them, not wasting money on unnecessary items. However, they always had food to feed their family. Nelson’s wife described their socioeconomic situation as “about an average family in the [oyster] business”.[4]

Rural Electrification AdministrationEdit


Rural America lacked electricity up until the early 1900s. Both public and private organizations failed to provide on rural parts of the country.[5] The lack of rural progress caused many middle-class agriculturalists to be discontent.[6] However, in 1910, the National Electric Light Association recognized the potential benefits of electricity in agriculture and thus started an investigation titled “Report of the Committee on Electricity in Rural Districts”. This investigation argued that companies should focus on rural America.[7] Despite the profitable implications of this investigation, little was done in the proceeding years to seize the opportunity of electrifying rural districts. Many issues arose that explain the lack of advancement. The factors included the electric industry faced an increasing demand due to World War I, the high costs of installation and maintenance of electric lines and systems could only be paid for by large scale farmers at the time, and economic impacts The Great Depression.[8] Following the end of the First World War, farmers began to insist on the electrification of rural America. Farmers and their agencies contacted Congress and the Department of Agriculture.[9]

The ProgramEdit

On May 11, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed an executive order that established the Rural Electrification Administration, also known as the REA. Its role was “to initiate, formulate, administer, and supervise a program of approved projects with respect to the generation, transmission and distribution of electric energy in rural areas”.[10] Under the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, Congress allotted $475,000,000 for the REA to fund the creation and operation of electricity and the necessary structures.[11] The REA provided loans to other companies to achieve the ultimate goal of rural electrification.[12] The specific loan guidelines dictated giving money towards the purchase of proper equipment, the creation and the preservation of large scale electric systems, and the installation of these systems in the homes of those living in rural areas.[13] The program faced many difficulties, including issues with terrain, population density, and maintenance of the electric systems.[14]

The Oyster Industry in Alabama 1880s-1940sEdit

Residents in Alabama in the late 1800s relied on the oyster industry as their main source of income. There were issues between the state government and the industry’s development. While the technology of canning was available and the creation of canneries was common in many states, Alabama’s government hindered its State’s development with legislation.[15] The taxation policies—that doubled the tax on seeded oysters—impeded the growth of the shellfish and the financial stability of the industry. It also hindered the expansion of canneries in the State, which had a net effect on the industry as a whole.[16] During the turn of the century, the demand for oysters continued to increase. Fishermen were unable to meet it because of the restrictive mandates from the state government.[17]

On October 31st, 1909, The Lyons Bill created The Alabama Oyster Commission to bolster the oyster industry in Alabama.[18] John Craft served as the first president.[19] However, its effects were regressive. Because of the Commission’s financial structure, it was reported that in 1915, sixty percent of the income from the oyster industry went to its own infrastructure and workers. The Commission, while created to protect the fishermen, utilized its position to overpay its employees and dominate the industry.[20]

A bill passed six years later eliminated the commission. To supplement the organization’s removal, the bill stated that the income from the oyster industry would be entrusted with the state treasury. This changed fueled the future expansion of the industry.[21]

In 1930, the state government approved legislation that promoted the protection and rehabilitation of oyster ecology; however, it did not provide funding. The Mobile Chamber of Commerce, that same year, created a panel to focus on reviving and expanding Alabama’s oyster commerce.[22] John Craft, serving as the Senator of Mobile, proposed a bill that’s purpose was to promote the growth of oysters and to help oystermen.[23]

In 1936, the oyster industry in Alabama served as the central source of income for over 4,000 residents. In the same year, 20,000 of unprocessed oysters and 30,000 bins of processed oysters were manufactured.[24]

The recorded best areas for oyster fishing during this time were Bon Secour Bay, located in Baldwin County, or off of Bayou la Batre in the Mississippi Sound. Bon Secour Bay, however, was the most popular, gaining the title of the location with the freshest and meatiest in the United States. Because of this, fishermen from the North East attempted to extract some of the budding shellfish and relocate them. These endeavors failed.[25]

  1. Lawrence Nelson, interview by Lawrence F. Evans, An Oysterman, The Federal Writers’ Project, October 5, 1938.
  2. lbid.
  3. lbid.
  4. lbid.
  5. Harry Slattery, Rural America Lights Up (Washington, D.C.: National Home Library Foundation, 1940) 1.
  6. Frederick Muller, Public Rural Electrification (Washington, D.C.: Monumental Printing Co., 1944) 1.
  7. Slattery 3.
  8. Slattery 4.
  9. Slattery 6.
  10. Slattery 27.
  11. Muller 2.
  12. Muller 42.
  13. Muller 39.
  14. Muller 6.
  15. E. Paul Durrenberger, It’s All Politics (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 55.
  16. lbid 44.
  17. lbid 55.
  18. lbid 54.
  19. “Alabama Oyster Commission Organizes,” Nashville Tennessean, (Nashville, TN), Oct. 31st, 1909.
  20. Durrenberger 56
  21. Durrenberger 56.
  22. Durrenberger 68.
  23. Durrenberger 68.
  24. “Alabama’s Oyster Industry Revived Through WPA Aid,” Christian Science Monitor, Jul. 11, 1936.
  25. Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Alabama, Alabama: A Guide to the Deep South (New York: Hasting House, 1941) 216.