Georgia's Economy in the 1920s
Much of the nation was enjoying a manufacturing and production boom in the 1920s, when the price of cotton began to fall in Georgia. By the mid-1920s, the effects of the boll weevil, which first arrived in 1915, had ravaged Georgia's cotton fields and robbed many small farmers of any prospect of making a living. Some abandoned their farms and moved to cities or out of the state. Others forced off their land by foreclosure became sharecroppers on terms dictated by large landowners. On the eve of the Great Depression about two-thirds of farm land in the state was operated by sharecroppers. The majority were poor whites who lived on an annual per capita income of less than $200.
The root of Georgia's rural depression in the 1920s was the decades-long dependence on cash-crop agriculture. Cash-crop production placed enormous pressure on farmers to plant every available acre of land with cotton, which eventually depleted the soil. Outmoded and careless practices, such as intertilling and the plowing of furrows without respect to the land's contour, further drained topsoil, leaving the land gashed and gullied. Making matters worse, the removal of much of the state's natural forestland eliminated one of nature's most effective barriers to erosion. Georgia's land, economy, and farmers were already wearing out when the Great Depression began.
The depression's immediate impact on Georgia was much like that throughout the nation as a whole. Bank failures were common, and in small towns and communities opportunities for loans dried up. Small business owners were especially vulnerable. Less money in local circulation meant fewer paying customers; with the absence of credit and financing, these business owners quickly went under.
Large landowners were usually able to ride the depression out; a small number of farmers who made the transition from cotton production to soybeans, peanuts, corn, livestock, and hogs had resources to fall back on. For the rest of Georgia's farmers (69 percent of the population was rural in 1930), the depression was a catastrophe.
First, the state
Even for those with jobs life was far from rosy. The Report to the President on the Economic Conditions of the South (1938) estimated that of the employed workers in the South's largest cities, more than half could not afford "an adequate diet." The report went on to note that among "white nonrelief families" with incomes less than $500, one-third did not have indoor running water, one-half did not have a kitchen sink or drain, and none had gas or electricity for cooking.
Despite hard times, Atlanta remained (as ever) optimistic about its future. Many of its businesses and larger retail establishments were able to survive, while some even experienced modest growth.
The Black Population
For the state's African American population, as the blues singer Lonnie Johnson put it, "Hard times don't worry me / I was broke when it first started out." Condemned by Jim Crow before the depression to inferior levels of education and the lowest-paying menial jobs, blacks were blocked from participating in the state's political system. The income of rural blacks was about half that of rural whites. In the entire state there were only four black insurance companies, one bank (Citizens Trust Bank in Atlanta), and one wholly owned newspaper. According to the 1930 U.S. census, there were 10,110 black professionals in Georgia (out of a population of 1,071,125), the majority being clergymen and teachers. Hospitals for blacks existed only in the largest urban areas. The Great Depression slowed the black migratory stream north but did not stop it entirely. In 1890 African Americans accounted for 47 percent of Georgia's population and by 1930 just 37 percent. By 1940 that figure fell slightly, to 35 percent.
The New Deal and Recovery
President Roosevelt, who became a frequent visitor to Warm Springs for polio treatment beginning in the mid-1920s, understood the tangled web of Georgia's deep-rooted racial, social, and economic problems
The New Deal's implementation in Georgia, however, was stalled by Governor Eugene Talmadge, who was elected in 1932 on a platform of cutting taxes and state services. He characterized Roosevelt and the New Deal as an outside intrusion into the state's local affairs and a "communistic experiment." He did everything he could (with some success) to slow the New Deal's arrival in the state. However, Talmadge did little to address the state's economic crisis, and in 1936, promising to bring the New Deal to Georgia, state House Speaker E. D. Rivers was elected governor by a wide margin. Rivers made significant strides in implementing much-needed reforms at the state level, but during his second term (1938-40) his administration faced problems of unpopular tax policies and charges of corruption. In 1940 Talmadge won reelection, but the changes begun by Rivers and Roosevelt had already laid the foundation for a new future.
The impact of the New Deal on the state's lowest-income population was mixed, however. Benefits for poor white farmers were minimal. Because of Georgia's politics of white supremacy and the importance of its congressional delegation to Roosevelt's programs, the federal government bowed to most of the state's wishes to
In the most far-reaching of all reforms, Georgia's cash-crop agriculture, long tied to ever-less profitable cotton production, was broken by Roosevelt's farm policies, which encouraged mechanization, soil improvement, pricing controls, diversification of crops, and hog, broiler, and dairy production. By the end of the depression decade the cotton plantation, the tenant farmer, and the small family farm began to fade—along with agriculture as the mainstay of Georgia's economy. It took World War II to end the Great Depression in Georgia, but it was the New Deal that laid the foundation for a more balanced economy and secure standard of living.
Documenting the Depression in Fact and Fiction
The state's greatest cataclysm since the Civil War (1861-65) attracted the attention of journalists, academics,
Arthur F. Raper made the plight of Georgia's farmers, black and white, the subject of several influential studies, including Preface to Peasantry, which focuses on Greene and Macon counties; Sharecroppers All (1941); and Tenants of the Almighty (1943), a follow-up to Preface to Peasantry, in which he examines the impact of New Deal efforts on the poverty he had documented several years earlier. A similar work that reached a far wider audience is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), by writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans, who teamed up to document southern sharecropping and its effects. While the book's primary focus is on three families in Alabama, conditions in Georgia are also well represented.
The Great Depression inspired a number of significant works of fiction as well, both during the era and long afterward. Samuel Tupper Jr., who worked as an editor and writer for the WPA guide, wrote the well-received novel Old Lady's Shoes (1934), which provides an insider's view of life in Atlanta during the depression. Milledgeville native Grace Lumpkin's radical novels To Make My Bread (1932) and A Sign for Cain (1935) represent some of the best works of literary social realism produced in response to the depression. The Pulitzer Prize–winning Lamb in His Bosom (1933), by Waycross native Caroline Miller, depicts Georgia's rural pioneers before the Civil War. The antebellum story is an obvious parallel to the depression-era hardships involved in eking out a living on Georgia's hard clay soil. Erskine Caldwell's novels Tobacco Road (1932) and God's Little Acre (1933) thrust the Coweta County native onto a national stage and quickly became the most popular depictions of southern rural poverty and degeneracy produced during the era or since. According to historian James Cobb, Caldwell's books "became a symbol of the evils of the sharecropping system and the ills. . . endured by a worn-out people trying to live on worn-out soil." Later fiction dealing with small-town life during the depression in Georgia includes novels by Terry Kay, Carson McCullers, Ferrol Sams, and Calder Willingham.
The Persistence of "An Open-Hearted and Optimistic Spirit"
Factory managers and small business owners imparted charity when they could, and entrepreneurs like W. C. Bradley of Columbus operated his mills at a loss to avoid laying off workers. The head of the Coca-Cola Company, Robert Woodruff, established a foundation in 1937 that gave generously to charities in Atlanta and around the state.
What happened inside families and communities during the Great Depression was no less important than what happened in government offices and the U.S. Congress. According to one commentator, "The survival of an open-hearted and optimistic spirit may be the most remarkable legacy of these impoverished southerners." Despite the relief and recovery efforts provided by New Deal policies, it would take the federal dollars that poured into the state during World War II—for military bases and defense contracts—to ultimately bring the nation's worst economic crisis to an end.
Roger Biles, The South and the New Deal (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994).
David L. Carlton and Peter A. Coclanis, eds., Confronting Southern Poverty in the Great Depression: The Report on Economic Conditions of the South with Related Documents (Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1996).
James C. Cobb, "Georgia Odyssey," in The New Georgia Guide (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996).
Robert Cohen, ed., Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
Georgia: The WPA Guide to Its Towns and Countryside (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1940; reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990).
Jerrold Hirsch, Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers Project (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
William F. Holmes, "The 1920s and the New Deal," in A History of Georgia, ed. Kenneth Coleman, 2d ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991).
Clifford M. Kuhn, Harlon E. Joye, and E. Bernard West, Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914-1948 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990).
James J. Lorence, The Unemployed People's Movement: Leftists, Liberals, and Labor in Georgia, 1929-1941 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009).
Denise Montgomery, Louis Schmier, and David Williams, "The Other Depression: A Farm Security Administration Family in Carroll County, 1941," Georgia Historical Quarterly 77 (winter 1993): 811-22.
Arthur F. Raper, Preface to Peasantry: A Tale of Two Black Belt Counties (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1936).
Bruce J. Schulman, From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938-1980 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994).
Stephanie J. Shaw, "Using the WPA Ex-Slave Narratives to Study the Impact of the Great Depression," Journal of Southern History 69 (August 2003): 623-58.
Tom E. Terrill and Jerrold Hirsch, eds., Such as Us: Southern Voices of the Thirties (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978).
Jamil S. Zainaldin, Georgia Humanities Council
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.