Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 3/Sam Jackson

Sam Jackson
BornCirca 1915
Cause of deathUnknown
ResidenceStapleton, Alabama
EthnicityAfrican American
African American worker in rural Alabama chips at trees – Early 1900s


Sam Jackson, born in 1915, was an African American turpentine farmer from Stapleton, Alabama.[1] Jackson was interviewed as part of the Federal Writers' Project papers by Lawrence Evans in 1938; he was 23 years old at the time[2]

Early LifeEdit

Sam Jackson was born in 1915 in a turpentine camp in Stapleton, Alabama.[3] Jackson's father worked in the turpentine industry during Jackson's childhood. Jackson never attended school and began work in the turpentine industry with his father at 16 years old.[4]

Adult LifeEdit

At the time of the interview with Lawrence Evans[5], Jackson was still working in the turpentine industry. He brought home an average salary of $6 a week.[6] Although the specific date is unknown, Jackson married his wife, Lou Jackson, and together they had two children named "Boy" and "Gal" by the time Jackson was in his early 20s. [7] His children were uneducated. The family of four lived a simple life and didn't have many possessions.[8] The shack they lived in was one of many in the working camp community, and contained very few things. There was a dirty quilt on the floor as a bed for their two children.[9] As described by Lawrence Evans, "there were no fences between the shacks, no gardens, no flowers, and no automobiles, only the squalid pine shacks with open, unscreened doors."[10] Lou Jackson would put together meals with the few groceries they received each week. Some weeks, they didn't have enough groceries to last longer than Friday, and went without food for Saturday. Jackson's death date is unknown.

Social IssuesEdit

Life on Turpentine CampsEdit

African American turpentine chopper uses axe to chip at tree bark and collect resin


The Turpentine Industry was in high demand for cheap labor throughout the 1930s. Former black slaves, poor whites, and immigrants were employed to harvest raw gum from southern pine trees - a belt of forest that stretched from North Carolina to Texas[12]- which would later be distilled and converted into turpentine.[13] In its distilled state, turpentine had many uses including its appearance in paint thinners, pharmaceuticals, and even to flavor lime sherbet.[14]

Set up as a working community, shacks of residents would be strategically placed near a pine forest in a semicircle - the Caucasian managers' house being central to the camp and referred to as the commissary[15] , many without walls or ceilings, and all sharing some central outhouse.[16]. As noted by Johnson and McDaniel, “Poverty and unemployment were endemic in the rural counties of the South dominated by forest industries.”[17]. The regular work week lasted from six o'clock Monday morning until noon on Saturday.[18]. On Saturday's, workers would receive payment, which could vary depending on the week. Many reported that they did not know on what basis they were paid.[19]

With poorly constructed housing, close living quarters with little to no sanitation or access to proper utilities, [20], disease quickly spread in Turpentine camps.[21] As one Nurse accounted, “A turpentine camp is the most forlorn dreary place imaginable...the doctor lived miles away [and]...as much as I hated to see the babies sleeping with their sick mother, there was nowhere else to put them that night.”[22]

In North Florida turpentine camps, leasing of convict laborers reached 90 percent of the prison population between 1907 and 1907 - the height of the Florida turpentine boom.[23] Convict labor camps producing turpentine were located far from civilization and a lack of regulated, uniform rules related to living and working conditions were the result of the establishment of these camps, given they were so numerous at the time.[24] Convict laborers were cheap and could be "driven at a pace free workers would not tolerate,"[25] making their employment ideal for turpentine operators. While the convict leasing system of employment officially ended in 1923 [26], other Southern turpentine camps, still employed African Americans for cheap labor until the mid-late 20th century, which marked the end of the turpentine business.[27]

20th century African American EducationEdit

Three students at Clinton High School picket their school as it became the first state-supported school in Tennessee to integrate.U.S. DESEGREGATION PROTEST, CLINTON, USA

Post abolishment in 1865, slavery’s repercussions remained observable into the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although highly regarded within the slave community, literate slaves were rare in numbers and generally mistrusted by slave owners[28] Slaves were thus denied formal schooling.[29] While African American rates of illiteracy decreased over from the end of slavery mid-late 20th Century, at their peak, in 1870, 79.9 percent of “black and other” persons 14 years and older were illiterate compared to a 11.5 percent illiteracy of the white population at the time[30]. As the former slave population, denied educational opportunity, was over time replaced by a new generation of individuals that, due to the changing laws, typically had some chance to obtain a basic education[31], the gap in illiteracy between white and “black and other” persons decreased. Despite this decrease, this basic education was not entirely accessible or substantial for all African American families, due to many factors including remote, rural living situations, irregular working hours[32], and a lack of upward mobility in jobs. In 1896, court case Plessy v. Ferguson, ruled that separate, but equal facilities would be provided for white and colored races [33]. This separation between white and black facilities, allowed for a disregard to sufficient development of African American education. Concerning hiring practices, certification patterns, decreased funding, low pay for African American teachers –notably paid “60 percent of the white average” in 1930[34], and minimal employee training [35]furthered the separation between African American and white public schools, and as a result education between African Americans and their white counterparts. The basic curriculum of black primary schools in the early 20th century was framed to teach students skills needed for laborious agriculture work and domestic service jobs – housekeeping, cooks, laundresses, and nursemaids for white children [36]of which the majority of African Americans were employed in. [37] In 1900, only 2 percent held professional jobs –doctor, minister, and teachers serving the black community [38]. Lawful racial segregation remained until court case Brown v. Board of Education, 1954 [39] acknowledged that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal…” and ruled that establishing “separate but equal” public schools is unconstitutional.


  1. 1. Evans, Lawrence (interviewer): Sam, the Turpentine Chopper, in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709. Southern Historical Collection. The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
  4. ibid
  5. ibid
  6. ibid
  7. ibid
  8. ibid
  9. ibid
  10. ibid
  11. 5."[Illustration]: Turpentine." Phylon (1940-1956) 2, no. 2 (1941): 101. http://www.jstor.org/stable/271777.
  12. Lauriault, Robert N. "From Can't to Can't: The North Florida Turpentine Camp, 1900-1950." The Florida Historical Quarterly 67, no. 3 (1989): 310-28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30147977.
  13. 6. McDaniel, Josh, “Pulling Streaks: Voices from the Turpentine Woods.” Southern Quarterly 46, no.1 (Fall 2008): 109-18.
  14. Lauriault 1989, 313
  15. Lauriault 1989, 311
  16. (Lawrence 1989, 4)
  17. 4. Johnson, Cassandra Y.; McDaniel, Josh. 2004. Turpentine Negro. In: To Love the Wind and the Rain African Americans and environmental history. p. 50-62
  18. Lauriault 1989, 317
  19. Lauriault 1989, 317
  20. (Lawrence 1989, 3)
  21. Fuller, 366
  22. Fuller, 367
  23. Drobney, Jeffrey A. "Where Palm and Pine Are Blowing: Convict Labor in the North Florida Turpentine Industry, 1877-1923." The Florida Historical Quarterly 72, no. 4 (1994): 411-34. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30150422.
  24. (Drobney 1994, 418)
  25. (Drobney 1994, 420)
  26. (Drobney 1994, 434)
  27. (Drobney 1994, 434)
  28. 1. “Early Twentieth Century American Black Education .” The Color Purple: Social and political context. crossref-it.info . Accessed October 18, 2018. https://crossref-it.info/textguide/the-color-purple/42/3158.
  29. ibid
  30. 2. “National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL).” National Center for Education Statistics . National Center for Education Statistics . Accessed October 16, 2018. https://nces.ed.gov/naal/lit_history.asp.
  31. ibid
  32. 1. “Early Twentieth Century American Black Education .” The Color Purple: Social and political context. crossref-it.info . Accessed October 18, 2018. https://crossref-it.info/textguide/the-color-purple/42/3158.
  33. 3. “Plessy v. Ferguson.” Legal Information Institute . Cornell Law School . Accessed October 16, 2018. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/163/537.
  34. 5. Irons , Peter. “Jim Crow’s Schools.” American Federation of Teachers: A Union of Professionals . Accessed October 20, 2018. https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/summer-2004/jim-crows-schools.
  35. 4. Fultz, Michael. "Teacher Training and African American Education in the South, 1900-1940." The Journal of Negro Education 64, no. 2 (1995): 196-210.
  36. (Irons)
  37. (Irons)
  38. (Irons)
  39. 6. “History - Brown v. Board of Education Re-Enactment .” United States Courts . Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Accessed October 20, 2018. http://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/history-brown-v-board-education-re-enactment.