From a Tenant South to the Tech South
June 7, 2017
By Andy Brack | Contributing Writer
Last year at Elvis Presley’s boyhood home in Tupelo, Miss., I was thrilled to see a white metal bowl with a red rim. It was the same kind of bowl my grandmother used to make biscuits.
A lot of things in the two-room home looked familiar — an oilcloth on a kitchen table, the icebox, pieces of furniture, a butter churn, a metal flour sifter.
To my daughters, however, we were in a different world, a museum. Although Southern, they’re growing up in a completely different South, a region defined more by technology than living off of the land.
In September, 100 years will have passed since my grandfather, then 8, woke up on a middle Georgia tenant farm without his father, who had died suddenly just as it was time to bring in the cotton crop. For 20 years, my grandfather worked on the farm with other members of the family. An older brother helped bring in cash by logging.
This tenant family, like millions across the rural South, eked out a subsistence living. They had big gardens to provide food. About once a year, they killed a hog. They rented land, plowed with mules, and grew cotton and corn.
About 100 miles southwest, President Jimmy Carter grew up outside Plains on a farm his family owned. In An Hour Before Daylight, he described how rural Southerners struggled to make a living:
“Despite the extreme rural poverty that prevailed at the time, Southern farm population increased by 1.3 million between 1930 and 1935, as desperate people lost their jobs in failing factories, left their urban homes, and eventually wound up in places like our community.”
During one Depression year, my grandfather borrowed $100 from the government in a New Deal program to buy cotton seeds and fertilizer. At the end of the season, he paid off the loan and had a grand total of $60 in net profits.
But with World War II, his South started to change. He and his young family left the farm just before the war and moved to Macon, Ga., where he drove a bus for most of the rest of his working life. My father, born on the farm, went to Macon’s schools and became the first ever in his family to attend college.
The war brought opportunities for men and women throughout the South as the region was home to new military bases and factories supporting the war effort. The post-war boom created more prosperity as incomes rose. My grandfather drove the bus. My grandmother worked in a department store. They earned enough to put my father through college. (He, too, worked during college with as many as six different jobs at one point.)
My father’s generation is the South’s “transformational” time where new opportunities flourished as Jim Crow and segregation withered to civil rights victories. President John F. Kennedy, who would have been 100 last week, challenged Americans to put a man on the moon. Science, achievement, industry – all forged ahead.
By the time I came along, my parents owned a house in the south Georgia town where my father published a weekly newspaper. In fourth grade, I joined an integrated classroom. It was expected that I would go to college.
My generation applied achievements of the transformational generation in business, creating the new Internet economy and all sorts of tech gizmos. But my generation, which may be best described as the “transitioning” South, hasn’t effectively dealt with results of societal change brought about in the 1960s and 1970s. Zeal for the almighty dollar seems to have gotten in the way, exacerbating economic divides, particularly between the rural and urban South.
Today’s young Southerners are part of the “technology generation.” The world comes to them through screens, which is why my children probably didn’t relate to Elvis’s boyhood home. It was foreign to them, just as the South is foreign to many moving in.
In the weeks ahead, I’m working on learning more about my grandfather’s generation. If you know anyone in their 90s or 100s who worked on a farm in the Depression and would like to talk about mules, putting up tomatoes, picking cotton and life in general, let me know. I’d like to listen.
Have a comment or a tip? You can contact Andy Brack at: firstname.lastname@example.org.