The Great Depression was a severe, decade-long worldwide economic downturn that profoundly impacted millions across the globe but was particularly severe in the American South. Many people believe the Depression years began with the stock market crash in the fall of 1929, but the inhabitants of the rural South were already suffering economically even before that fateful day.
The economy of the South in 1929 was primarily agricultural, with the majority of its people engaged in some form of agricultural work, growing such crops as cotton, tobacco, and corn. Sharecropping, in which a landowner permitted a tenant farmer or sharecropper to use the land in return for a share of the crops produced, was a widespread practice.
Economic Conditions Prior to the Great Depression
Farmers in the rural South were already reeling from the effects of a disastrous boll weevil infestation, which destroyed cotton crops throughout the region. Even before the stock market crash of 1929, the South was the poorest region in the United States, with a per capita income of barely 50 percent of the national average. The South was primarily a rural, one-crop society, with many people competing for limited farm income.
With the start of the Great Depression, world commodity prices, along with foreign markets, collapsed, devastating Southern cotton and tobacco farmers, with overproduction leading to dramatic decreases in income. For example, the cotton crop, which yielded $1.5 billion in 1929, only generated $465 million in 1932. A similar plight was faced by tobacco farmers, with receipts for the cigarette tobacco crop in 1932 being a mere third of those in 1929.
Bad Times Made Worse
The onset of the Great Depression only made these already hard economic conditions worse. As the nation’s economy plummeted, the demand for agricultural products dropped dramatically, leading to an even further decline in crop prices. Unemployment soared, and many families were unable to support themselves, leading to increased poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and illness.
For the South’s 8.5 million tenants and sharecroppers, 3 million of whom were black, the onset of the Depression reinforced feelings of hopelessness and dependency. The economic downturn made moving away from rural areas to urban jobs nearly impossible for sharecroppers, with some people resorting to violence or radicalism out of desperation.
Southern industries were equally vulnerable, with the area’s textile firms, coal, lumber industry, and oil all suffering. In Birmingham, Alabama, where U.S. Steel paid its workers between ten and fifteen cents an hour, 25,000 of the city’s workforce of 108,000 were unemployed, and most of the remainder were employed only part-time. Revenue-starved state and local governments responded by slashing government spending and services and turning to sales taxes to offset plummeting income from property taxes.
Despite the hardship and struggles, there were some advantages to living in the rural Southern United States during these years. Many families knew how to grow enough food for their families, providing a level of self-sufficiency and a buffer against the worst effects of the economic crisis.
The strong sense of community in the rural South proved to be a lifeline for many during these trying times. Neighbors often helped each other out, sharing resources and providing mutual support. This social resiliency, coupled with the ability to produce food, helped many rural Southern communities to weather the economic storm.
The South and the New Deal
The hardships of the Depression led to significant government intervention, which brought benefits to the South. Programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided employment opportunities for many Southerners. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), created in 1933, provided the South with improved infrastructure, electricity, and job opportunities, which also helped stimulate the region’s economy.
The New Deal, introduced in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, rescued cotton and tobacco farmers by establishing mechanisms such as production control, price-support loans, and ample credit that enabled farmers to work in a relatively risk-free environment. The New Deal also sparked a “welfare revolution” in the South, with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) transforming relief provisions in the region, leading to the professionalization of welfare organizations and the introduction of unemployment compensation programs and old-age insurance.
These advantages often favored landowners over tenant farmers and sharecroppers. The New Deal’s policies also inadvertently accelerated the mechanization of Southern agriculture and the displacement of tenant farmers, as planters used New Deal funds to invest in tractors and other equipment, reducing the need for manual labor. Although the New Deal brought some relief, particularly to landowners, the rural South remained a challenging place to live throughout the years of the Great Depression.