By the end of the '30s three out of four farmers were tenants in the most productive tobacco region of North Carolina. Even by Depression standards, their proverty was extreme: a WPA study found that the average family income for sharecroppers was $400 in 1937, a good year for Southern agriculture.
According to Harry Sloan (fictitious name), low tobacco prices hit tenants especially hard because of the vicious credit system employed by the landlords.
Pa was a tenant farmer, just like I am now. Ma and the girls tended the house and the garden, while Pa and us boys worked the tobacco. We generally had plenty to eat -- roasting ears and string beans and Irish potatoes and okra and collards and turnip greens in summer, and grits and cane syrup and fresh hog meat in winter. We bought green coffee in the bulk and roasted it -- only Ma kept a package of Arbuckle brand for when the preacher come . . . .
People know'd how to sing in them days, and the preacher know'd how to preach. He showed us hell on one side and heaven on the other, and there warn't no middle ground. We had to make up out minds, one way or the other.
After the meeting had run about two weeks, there'd be a big baptizing in the creek. The preacher would have on a long black coat and wade out to his waist in the muddy water. He'd poke around with his walking-cane to see there wasn't no roots or stumps for nobody to get hurt on. Then he'd stand there in the water and tell how John the Baptist baptized Jesus, and how there wasn't no other way to salvation. The converts lined up on the bank, about 40 or 50 of 'em. The girls was dressed in white and looked kind of scared. Then the crowd would sing, "Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river," and the line would move down into the water. The girls' dresses would float up around their waists, and the preacher would poke 'em down with his cane. He'd lay his hands on each one and say, "I baptize thee in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, amen," and then he'd dip'em over backward into the water. As they came up, he'd pat each one on the shoulder and say, "Sister, you're saved." The girls would come up on the bank all dripping wet, and the women would throw a cloak around em and take 'em off somewhere and dress 'em in dry clothes.
That's the way I happened to marry Sally. We were converted at the same meeting and baptized at the same baptizing. When she come up out of the water, all shivering and blue around the lips, I know'd right then I wanted to marry her. She was 16 and I was 19, and her folks didn't make no objection. We rented a little place back in the Blue Creek district, and I got a job sawmilling. I got 50 cents a day, and it was pretty hard getting along. Sally had a baby that year, and by spring the mill had cut all the timber out and I lost my job. Then I rented another place and went to tobacco farming on the shares.
Tending five acres of tobacco is hard work for one man and a mule, especially when you got a landload like I had. His name was Harold Kemzey. eHe advanced credit for fertilizer and stuff and charged me 10 percent interest. When it wasn't paid on time, he added 20 percent more. At the end of the year we had a little trouble.We had a record of all our dealings with the date of everything on it. Sally kept the figures and she's good at it. Come settling time, by the landlord's figures, all the crop was his and we still owed him. Our figures showed he owed us. We got a third party to help us, and we found we had a lot of the crop to our part. Mr. Kimzey had took out peas and all our corn, but when the mistake was found we got our 20 barrels of corn back. But Kimzey was mad, and he turned us out of the house on January first with no meat or other provisions except the peas and corn. We went from one landlord to another, and each one was worse than the last.
Then I rented a fram from H. K. Fettor, the best man I ever farmed with. His land wasn't much good, but he treated us right. By that time I had six children and seven dogs. Some of the children was big enough to work and we put in 14 hours a day in the field. When the tobacco was being barned and graded, we put in 18. I worked myself sick and didn't make nothing much. I decided it wasn't no use, and went to hunting with me dogs and getting drunk. Seem like it was all the pleasure I had. . . .
I reckon we've got along pretty well, considering everything. If it wasn't for careless, mean landlords and low tobacco prices, a tenant farmer could make out. Most of the houses we've lived in had been in bad shape -- glass broke out and half the windows boarded up. If the roof leaks the tenant has to fix it himself -- no use waiting for the landlord to do it. We've never had electricity, nor any water except a well. I never heard of a telephone in a tenant house -- but we wouldn't have no use for one anyway.
The worst trouble is never knowing what you're going to do next. A farmer never knows what his tobacco will bring. There ain't no regular market price like there is for cotton. There's a hundred different kinds of tobacco, and the farmer's always got the wrong kind to fetch a good price. The buyers know what they're doing, and the warehousemen know, but the farmer don't know nothing. He has to take what he can get and be thankful he ain't starving. I don't believe nobody knows what the auctioneer says. It's just a lot of stuff got up to fool people.
When I first started out I hoped to buy a farm sometime, but I soon saw I couldn't do this, so I gave up the idea. My mext aim was to have a good pack of hounds and some good guns. I have them. Best of all, I've raised my children to be respectable. I've got 10, which is one short of what my daddy done, but Sally says she don't care if it is. Her health ain't what it once was, and she has to take medicine for female trouble. But we have a happy home, plenty of dogs, stock, and farming tools, and we are satisfied and happy.