Chapter 9 Overview

The Great Depression

The Great Depression

Also read The Great Migration from Alabama below.

The Great Depression was a nationwide economic recession that shaped the lives of all Alabamians. While the U.S. stock market crash of October 1929 is often seen as the beginning of the Great Depression, in Alabama and elsewhere, the crash intensified an already existing decline in agriculture that had begun much earlier in the decade and spread statewide to cities and industries thereafter. The Depression’s impact on Alabama lasted throughout the 1930s and, for some Alabamians, into the early 1940s, which was longer than the nation as a whole. The era reshaped the state’s political, economic, and social traditions, highlighted the economic inequalities associated with industrial work, and challenged Alabama’s long-standing social and racial hierarchies, even encouraging some Alabamians, black and white, to push for basic civil rights. Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal provided relief for many facing dire poverty, but the Depression truly ended only with the economic boom that followed the state’s mobilization because of World War II.

Cotton prices in Alabama dropped to the lowest levels since the 1880s. By 1929, industries, the backbone of prosperity in the “Roaring Twenties,” experienced a decline in consumption as farmers could no longer afford to buy consumer goods and the overall market for goods had become fairly saturated. As industries scaled back production, they fired workers, leading to increased unemployment, which peaked at 25 percent in 1933 and hovered around that mark throughout much of the 1930s. Alabama’s already limited non-farm employment fell 15 percent between 1930 and 1940. Without income, people could no longer buy the goods that sustained the American economy. In Alabama, for example, personal annual income fell from an already low $311 in 1929 to a $194 in 1935.

The Depression in Alabama

Turpentine worker’s family near Cordele, Alabama “Father’s wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support.” Dorothea Lange, July 1936, Library of Congress

The situation worsened as the Congress passed tariffs in 1930 to encourage domestic consumption. In turn, America’s trading partners enacted tariffs of their own, leading to a sharp drop in international trade and more economic woes for the nation’s farmers and producers. When the stock market crashed in late October 1929, many Americans, and certainly many Alabamians, were already experiencing economic hardship.

Unable to make a living on cotton, some farmers left to find work in cities. Others fell deeper into debt. Black farmers owned smaller, less profitable farms than white owners. Nevertheless, the number of tenant farmers increased universally, from 148,000 to 166,000 over the course of the decade. Additionally, the average farm size shrank between 1920 and 1930, from 75 to 68 acres and dropped in value from $3,803 to $2,375 and the percentage of farms worked by tenants increased from 58 percent to 65 percent; another sign of worsening times prior to the Depression.

Many agricultural families lived on the brink of starvation and bankruptcy during good years, so the Great Depression forced those on the land to focus on long-term survival. Farmer families ate less meat and more filling and inexpensive starches, like beans and corn, and wore clothes made out of burlap feed and fertilizer sacks. Tenants and sharecroppers moved to find better contracts and traveled farther and more often as the Great Depression worsened. Having less food, fewer clothes, and little money, rural Alabamians ceased going to school, church, and other social functions.

Industries were hit later by the Great Depression, so some farmers left their land for the mills and mines of cities such as Birmingham, Huntsville, and Anniston. But when the Depression spread into the cities in the early 1930s, the state witnessed an urban exodus, with many people who had fled land turning back to sharecropping and tenant farming or returning to family land.

Across the state, church groups established food pantries, clothing distribution programs, and job-referral services, though the latter failed when officials were unable to find work for applicants. No Alabama city suffered as much as Birmingham. Services, both private and public, were stretched by the starving, sick, homeless, and unemployed. Birmingham’s business and civic leaders formed a local version of the nationwide Community Chest, which worked in conjunction with the Red Cross to raise money and distribute aid to destitute families. The sheer amount of need quickly swamped local relief agencies, forcing the Community Chest to run at a near-constant deficit.

Although Birmingham became a national symbol of urban suffering, both Mobile and Montgomery experienced hardships as well. In Mobile, traffic declined at the port, leading to shortages across the city. As retail sales and trade fell by tens of millions of dollars, about 10 percent of adults in the city were on relief and city services shrank. In Montgomery, defense employment at Maxwell Field (now Maxwell Air Force Base) buoyed the city, but residents cut spending, particularly on unnecessary items. Throughout the state, cities and counties often paid teachers and other government workers in IOUs and “warrants,” slips of paper that were supposed to be redeemable for cash once the economy improved. Many doctors, lawyers, and other professionals were paid with food, goods, and labor.

Beginning in 1933, the arrival of New Deal programs alleviated some of the worst aspects of the Depression. In a state and region where poverty was a fact of life for many, even during times of national prosperity, the Great Depression brought national attention to the plight of many Alabamians and forced the state’s leaders to play a greater role in providing for the many less fortunate. Alabama’s economy began to recover only after the advent of the World War II defense buildup, though the effects of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the war caused major changes and dislocations. Agriculture shifted from small farms and tenancy to fewer and larger farms, wage laborers, and mechanization.

Wartime plants and facilities in Huntsville, Gadsden, and Childersburg, and increased demand for iron and steel from Birmingham and ships from Mobile led to an employment boom as many Alabamians migrated from field to factory. Huntsville saw employment skyrocket from 133 total workers in 1939 to more than 11,000 in just five years at its two arsenals and ordnance depot alone. By 1940, the state’s unemployment rate had dropped to 6.6 percent, a combination of defense employment, holdover employment on public relief, and incentives for aging workers to retire. Even Birmingham, the “hardest hit” city, had reduced unemployment to a manageable 10.9 percent. As the state joined the national defense effort, the economic effects of the Depression began to recede, even as its political, social, and personal legacy continued to shape the lives of Alabamians for years to come.


Adult Literacy Class

African American teacher and students in an adult literacy class sponsored by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Birmingham, Alabama. The age of the students ranges from 16 to 87. The woman to whom the teacher is speaking is 87-year-old Julia Wilson, who was taught to read and write through the WPA program. 1939-1949. Alabama Department of Archives and History

Gees Bend

Gee’s Bend, an African American community in Alabama during the Great Depression era, Courtesy of Library of Congress


Tenant farmer family near Greensboro, Alabama

The Depression

Street workers in Montgomery, Alabama, 1937 (Schweizeriches Literature Archives)

Additional Resources

The Encyclopedia of Alabama

Brown, James Seay Jr., ed. Up Before Daylight: Life Histories from the Alabama Writers’ Project, 1938-1939. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1982.

Flynt, Wayne. Poor but Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989.

Kelly, Robin D.G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

The Great Migration from Alabama

Herbert G. Ruffin, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

Migration to the NorthIn what came to be called the Great Migration, an estimated five and a half million African Americans moved from the South to the urban North and West between 1915 and 1970. This massive population shift profoundly transformed the twentieth-century United States politically, economically, socially, and culturally. During those years, blacks left Southern towns and cities like Birmingham, Montgomery, and Florence in search of economic and political opportunities, while taking with them still-painful memories of life under Jim Crow segregation and their cultural traditions of religion, food, and music.

Between 1915 and 1940, approximately 1.7 million blacks participated in the Great Migration. These migrants headed for metropolitan centers known to be more racially accepting and offer greater personal freedom than the South, among them Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. In these communities, some African Americans were able to realize their goals of political and economic freedom. Most, however, found themselves restricted to living in slums, working as strikebreakers, and having to defend themselves from white residents and law-enforcement officials.

Since the California Gold Rush in the 1850s and emancipation in 1865, African Americans have freely moved to different parts of the nation, while many stayed put and continued to live in depressed areas within the South fighting oppression through the formation of community institutions such as churches, schools, lodges, burial organizations, and mutual aid societies. They often described their departure from the South in terms of the exodus of Moses and the Hebrews from Egypt in search of freedom.

Other “great (voluntary) migrations” in African American history have occurred, beginning with the movement of blacks from the rural South to the urban South in search of industrial jobs, which was then followed by their quest for promised lands through the formation of black towns such as Nicodemus, Kansas, in 1877, and Mound Bayou, Mississippi, in 1887. Given this historical perspective and the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the United States in the early twentieth century, it is not surprising that blacks’ next search for freedom shifted from Booker T. Washington’s rural ethos to an urban one. This new ethos was spurred by industrial recruiters and black leaders in the urban North in the 1910s.

The Great Migration was triggered by political and economic oppression, ecological disasters, World War I, the Great Depression, and industrial jobs in the urban North and West for the war effort (World War II). After Reconstruction, African Americans in Alabama faced legal segregation and discrimination, lynching, voter disenfranchisement, and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Harpersville in 1915. They also faced hard times as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, during the floods of 1909 and the boll weevil infestation that began in 1910, all of which drove the state and regional economy into depression. Whereas these factors influenced many to leave the South, the decision became final during the Depression era when the ecological factors created a labor disaster, greatly shrinking the number of agricultural jobs. The migration was also sparked by opportunities outside the South, including the lure of industrial jobs, homeownership, better education, and the chance to affect change in public policy through voting. In addition, the United States restricted European immigration during World War I, which limited the growth of the North’s industrial labor force. To fill the void, industrialists sent agents to the South to recruit black and white workers.

Migration to the North

African Americans who migrated from the South to Chicago in 1918. Photo: Getty Images/Chicago History Museum

African American leaders and politicians in the North provided role models for greater social and political freedom. They included W. E. B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Alabama natives Oscar De Priest (a Lincoln Republican who became a Chicago politician and U.S. congressman) and Arthur W. Mitchell (a New Deal Democrat who defeated De Priest for a congressional seat). African Americans were also attracted to the North and West by black newspapers like the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Crisis (published in Harlem), and The California Eagle in Los Angeles, all of which were written in the same spirit as the first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, published in New York City from 1827 to 1829. These papers documented stories and voices that were ignored by mainstream papers. They were published with a sense of duty and urgency by men and women dedicated to uplifting African Americans and included testimonials encouraging others to leave the South. These papers offered readers constant reminders of the racist brutality in the South and provided listings of churches and other organizations dedicated to helping black migrants transition into the urban and industrial life of the North and West. Once the migration began, blacks themselves became the greatest proponents of their own movement. Black porters on trains, as well as letters and oral testimonies, played a large role in informing African Americans of the positive social and economic opportunities that existed and warned them about the ghettos, pervasive racism, and violence that perpetuated the hardships of life in the socially segregated North and West.

White reaction to the Great Migration was mixed. Those whites in favor of promoting African American relocation to urban centers were mostly businessmen dependent on cheap labor. In response to the South’s growing labor crisis, white businessmen and politicians levied migration fees on blacks. They were enforced by state officials. In Alabama, Gov. Thomas Kilby (1919-1923) tried to quell the exodus from his state by attempting slight improvements in farming conditions for African Americans with the help of Alabama Polytechnic Institute (Auburn University) and Tuskegee Institute. In contrast, white supremacists encouraged and prodded black migration by resurrecting the KKK and instituting harsher Black Codes, whereas the American Federation of Labor (AFL) began to exclude black workers from the abundance of industrial jobs with employers like Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company.

Chapter 9 overview from The Future Emerges from the Past, Celebrating 200 Years of Alabama African American History & Culture.

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