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Home WPA Life Histories >> Tenant to Taxpayer

American Life Histories:
Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

"Tenant to Taxpayer"

Life History 
Date of First Writing December 27, 1938 
Name of Person Interviewed Mr. Wilbur White (white, farm owner) 
Fictitious Name Mr. John Black 
Address Marion , S.C., Highway No. 501 (rural) 
Place Marion County , S.C. 
Occupation Landowner (Farmer) 
Name of Writer Annie Ruth Davis 
Name of Reviser State Office 
All names of persons are fictitious--places are true. {Begin handwritten} C[?] - 
[?][?][?] {End handwritten} 

{Begin page no. 1}

"When it comes to speaking of living on a farm, I'm a sticker," said Mr. John 
Black. "That's the life for me, I'll tell anybody. 
"I just took a turn to follow up farming naturally, I reckon, for all my people 
were farmers as far back as we have record of them. The first settlement known 
of the Black family in Marion County was made over to Shiloh in the Wateroo 
section, about 1800. I suppose that's how that long bridge next Pee Dee, called 
Black's Crossing, gets its name. That country was chock full of Blacks at that 
time. Both my parents come from over in that section and my mother was a Black 
same as my father." 
Mr. Black lives on a 200-acre farm three and one half miles from the town of 
Marion ; he is a progressive and successful farmer, and an intelligent, 
public-spirited citizen. He bought half of his present acreage "way back yonder 
in 1919, when cotton wasn't bringing more than five cents a pound." It's a 
four-horse farm, and Mr. Black uses no machinery at all except a couple of 
two-horse plows. Tractors and combines are not common in this section of the 
country, he says, and he farms "by experience," proud of being able to work out 
his own problems. He subscribes to several farm publications, but he feels that 
if a farmer tried to follow the advice given in the articles of these magazines 
on farming, he would go broke in a short time--the methods are just too costly 
for the average farmer of this section. 
The Progressive Farmer has accepted a number of articles from Mr. Black, and he 
writes now and then for The Marion Star, a county newspaper. Since 1933 he has 
been County Committeeman for the "Triple A," which makes it necessary for him to 
work in the office of the Marion County Farm Agent on Saturdays. 
"My grandparents owned acres and acres of land in their lifetime along 

{Begin page no. 2}
with a bunch of slaves, but after the Civil War, they were stripped of all their 
niggers and lost about all their land," Mr. Black went on. "I really could not 
say exactly what my grandparents were worth before the Civil War, but I know 
they had nothing to speak of after it ended. There's quite a bunch of niggers by 
the name of Black scattered all over Wahoo and Centenary sections of Marion 
County today who are more than likely descendants of slaves once owned by the 
Black family. 
"Soon after the war was over, my grandparents died and my mother and father were 
left with very little--only a few acres of poor land, which they lost in the 
struggle to keep on. In the 1880's, torn up and discouraged by the lose of his 
property and weary with some of his family always sick from living in the mossy 
malaria section of Wahoo, my father moved to Centenary as a tenant farmer. But 
times were tight along then and a tenant farmer had to scratch for a living, 
while the landowner sat back and raked in the wealth stored up by the hard labor 
of the tenant. As the years rolled by, my father moved from one farm to another, 
hoping each time that he might have the luck to strike a better place. Some 
years he cash-rented a house and small piece of land and other times he worked 
as a sharecropper. He preferred to rent for cash always as more freedom and 
independence was to be gained from this method. 
"Finally, my father bought a few acres of land for $300.00 on the Dicks place 
near Centenary, where I was born in a log house in 1892. But he happened to hit 
on such a poor piece of farming land that he was never able to pay for it and 
after four or five years, he had to go back to tenant life, moving from place to 
"Times were mighty tight with us along those days and if it hadn't been for Mr. 
Blackwell in Marion , I don't know how my father would have managed. 

{Begin page no. 3}

When he needed anything, he would take a trip to town and go to Mr. Blackwell's 
wholesale store and trade two or three hundred dollars worth of stuff a year in 
fertilizer, cloth, sugar, and the like. Then at the end of the year, after he 
had collected from his crop, he would come to town and pay up his account. That 
usually took about everything he had made for the year, but it looked like there 
wasn't any other way around it. My father used to say that he had always lived a 
year behind the times and he expected it would follow him to his grave. And he 
continued to shift from place to place as a tenant farmer as long as he lived. 
"In my childhood days, I went to Palmer School, near Centenary, and managed to 
pick up a right good little scattering of learning. A hundred pupils were 
enrolled in the school, though there were no standards at all to speak of. It 
was one of these old time two-teacher schools with no grades, no reports, and no 
promotions. One of the best teachers I ever had, I remember, was wild as a 
turkey but smart as he could be. I know I learned more from that man than I ever 
expect any of my three children to learn from these educated teachers today. In 
my high school days, I went to the old Centenary school, which was graded and 
reports sent out quarterly to our parents. 
"My children don't have any idea about the kind of school I used to go to. When 
I was a kid, I didn't think a thing of walking three miles to school every day, 
rain or shine, hot or cold. With my dinner in a tin pail and my three books 
thrown in my little homemade sack, I would leave home every morning by daylight 
and I never recall getting home in the late afternoon that I couldn't see our 
old kerosene lamp burning through the window from a good distance down the road. 
Now, my children catch the bus right at our own door about eight o'clock in the 
morning and ride three miles to a fine school in the town of Marion in no time. 
They get out of school at two o'clock 

{Begin page no. 4}
and are back home every day not later than two-thirty. 
"We children used to have no end of fun playing at recess to Palmer School and 
Centenary. Used to play baseball, shinney, steal chips, fox and dog, and Indian 
and American. One day, we boys took the girls by the hair and pulled them all 
over the school grounds. Oh, they fought and reared and pitched, but we took 
them by force and carried them off through the woods. You see, we were playing 
Indians and Americans. 
"We used to have to walk the foot logs cross Reedy Creek, too, and that was a 
pretty dangerous business, though we children didn't know it then. Those foot 
logs were about a quarter of a mile long and the water was at least two feet 
deep under them. I was going across them one freezing day in January and when I 
got about middle way. I heard a man coming along behind me trying to make an old 
ox wade the water clear cross. The ox wouldn't budge and the man was standing on 
the foot logs just a-beating on the ox and yelling at him. It was such a sight 
to see them, I started walking backwards across the logs and not looking which 
way I was going till it wasn't long before I fell off in the water. I had to run 
two miles in those wet clothes and every rag I had on was about frozen stiff by 
the time I got home. An experience like that would give any of those town 
children pneumonia today, but nothing didn't hurt us then. 
"Twenty or thirty of us boys were going to school another time one morning, and 
we decided that it wasn't right for the niggers to walk the same foot logs as 
us. We all got together and said that we were not going to stand for it another 
day and something had to be done about it. We declared we would fix them that 
very day. Then we picked up all the sticks and old pieces of wood we could find 
around the woods and lined up on the foot logs to wait for the niggers to come 
along going to their school. It 

{Begin page no. 5}
wasn't long before here comes the niggers. We told them that those foot logs 
belonged to the white people and if they wanted to get on the other side of the 
creek, they would have to wade the water. They said they wouldn't do it and 
commenced pulling up lightwood stumps to throw at us and anything they could got 
hold of. Oh, we had war there for a spell, but we made them niggers wade that 
water before the fight ended. Dave Dale, he was in our bunch of boys and he was 
such a whale of a talker, I think he just outtalked the niggers. By the way, old 
Dave is a major in the United States Army today. He is a graduate of the Citadel 
and later taught mathematics at West Point. 
"I remember one day a bunch of gypsies come along the road about time for school 
to turn out and when we children saw those long caravans of covered wagons, it 
nearly scared us to death. People used to tell us gypsies would steal any little 
children they saw and we believed every word of it. Gypsies traveled in 
scattered groups of a dozen or more wagons, at that time, with a long space 
between them, but we children didn't know about that. Me and Max Rowell--just 
little bits of fellows at that time--jumped in the road after the first ones 
went by and started home. Soon we looked back and here came another dozen of 
them gypsy wagons. We scooted out in the woods and lay down in some gallberry 
bushes till that bunch got by. Then soon as we got good and started again, here 
come another string of gypsy wagons. Then another and another. Me and Max knew 
if we stayed on the road wasn't no way keeping them gypsies from stealing us, so 
we cut across the swamp and made for home. Went about two miles out the way, but 
we felt some proud to get home safe. 
"When I was coming up, I used to walk to church often and sometimes my mother 
and father would let me stand on the back of their buggy and ride to church with 
them. I went to Terrace Bay Baptist Church part the time and 

{Begin page no. 6}
to Centenary Methodist Church at other times. My father was a Baptist and my 
mother was a Methodist. Neither one of them were inclined to be very strong to 
any one certain denomination and I reckon that's how-come I've never stuck to 
any particular church. Me and all my family attend the Baptist Church today and 
that suits me good as any, I suppose. I believe I picked up lots more going to 
Sunday School in my early days than children learn now. Mr. Rollins used to 
teach us boys there to Centenary Methodist Church and my, my, he could make a 
lecture. He would not only talk about the Sunday School lesson for that day, but 
also discussed any problems confronting the people at that time. In fact, I have 
never heard any man more instructive. But he was a sharp old fellow in more ways 
than one. We children used to have a habit of dropping a penny in the collection 
plate every Sunday and he told us that there wasn't any sense in wasting money 
like that for the church didn't need it. I've never heard anybody give advise 
like that to children before or since. But that was a penny-wise old fellow, 
I'll tell you. 
"All through my early days, we used to have big Sunday School picnics on the 
river every year and that was one big day for all of us. Everybody would carry 
the nicest kind of baskets crammed full of good old country home cooking and we 
would cook what fish we caught right there on the banks of the river. We would 
always go in swimming in the morning and after dinner, all the crowd would 
gather around one wonderful old gentleman and listen to the stories he had to 
tell of his experiences. He was a veteran of the Mexican War as well as of the 
Confederate War. He was a great story-teller and would tell all kind of things 
of what he had seen. He didn't have one bit of religion about him, but he would 
tell Bible stories without end. The old man was very fond of his liquor and 
wherever he went, he would carry it 

{Begin page no. 7}
along and take a small drink before eating. But mind you, he wouldn't never 
offer nobody else none. Said it made his food go down lighter. I really think I 
received a good bit of education just from listening to his stories. He lived to 
be ninety years old and when he died, that was a great loss to the Centenary 
"Another thing, when I was a boy, I was great to hunt and fish all night long, 
but I haven't tried my luck at either in fifteen years. When I was about 
seventeen years old, I caught twenty fish with a hook and line in no time one 
night and killed twenty squirrels another time in twenty-one shots. I remember I 
waded clear across Reedy Creek one day and killed a wild turkey that weighed 
seventeen pounds. Oh, we did enjoy those nights on the river bank. Wouldn't 
carry a thing with us but what clothes we had on, a frying pan, and fishing 
pole. After we had caught all the fish we wanted, we would make up a big fire to 
cook the fish and tell stories around. I did love to lie there and listen to the 
owls hoot and hear the river water running in the bushes. Occasionally it would 
come a rainy night and then we would be in a peck of trouble. Those rainy nights 
were about as miserable as any I ever spent. But it's not much fun to hunt and 
fish now since nearly all the land and lakes are posted these days, while the 
few places left open to everybody are kept cleaned up all the time. That's the 
way of the world today, I reckon, but when I was young, nobody ever thought of 
posting their land. 
"Seems like sickness wasn't such a bear in my boyhood days either, and people 
were lots more healthy than they are these times. It would take two or three 
hours to half a day to get a doctor in the country years ago. Usually the 
patient was either better or dead before the doctor got there. We had these old 
country quack doctors then who didn't know to give anything but calomel, soda 
and quinine, rhubarb, and asafetida--that was the limit. 

{Begin page no. 8}

But one good thing, doctors didn't cost much then. The old time doctor would 
come to see a family all year and not charge more than thirty dollars for his 
services. And I hardly think he knew what a prescription was like for he always 
carried his medicine with him and never had the occasion to write any. On the 
other hand, if he happened to be around anybody's house near mealtime, he would 
stop and eat with the family free of charge. Preachers used to do that too. 
"To return to the subject of my education, after I finished high school, I hung 
around the farm until 1912 and managed somehow to save enough to go to a 
business school in Columbia. At the end of that year, I got a job as a 
bookkeeper for a man over to Bishopville, but I didn't like the work and went 
back home to help my father on the farm in four months time. That was in 1913 
and though the outlook for a farmer seemed dull, cotton being down to five cents 
a pound, I figured I could make a better living on the farm than I had been 
making cooped up like a chicken in a little town office. 
"I didn't get settled good at home before the World War started and as time went 
on, things picked up on the farm considerably. Tobacco prices began to rise and 
in 1917, times were booming with cotton selling for forty cents a pound and 
tobacco bringing thirty-seven cents a pound. In 1918, my father and I cleared 
$472.00 to every acre we planted, cotton bringing $200.00 a bale. Yes, 
everything picked up very materially for the farmers at that time. In fact, I 
consider that about the most prosperous period I have ever known. I went in the 
Army in 1918 and stayed until 1919, but did not go to France. When I got back 
home, crops still sold high and I bought my farm, where I now live, for $11,000 
covering a hundred acres. However, I could not pay for it all one time. The 
depression came on in 1920 and cotton dropped from forty to twenty cents a 
pound, tobacco from thirty to fifteen cents a 

{Begin page no. 9}
pound. My father gave up renting and he and my mother came to live with me. The 
year 1921 proved to be worse times, at which time both of my parents died. In 
1923, prices began to pick up and I got married. In 1931-32, the boll weevil hit 
the farmers pretty heavy, but it really never has been a serious menace to any 
of us farmers since then. Things improved in 1933 and and in 1935, I finished 
paying for my farm. In 1936, I bought a hundred acres more of land, paying for 
it in four installments, which makes me own two hundred acres at the present 
"In 1923, I bought my first automobile, a Ford Model-T; I bought a Chevrolet 
Coach in 1928, a Ford V-8 in 1934, and a Dodge Sedan in 1936, which car I drive 
now. I have three tenant houses on my farm, a large feed barn, stables, two 
tobacco barns and live in a seven-room house. In 1937, I added electric lights 
to my house to take the place of kerosene lamps and in 1938, I spent over 
$1,700.00 on furniture and repair work on the farm. Oh, I tell you it takes 
money to live these days. 
"I make all the corn, potatoes, and vegetables I need to run my farm and always 
have a surplus to sell. Also, I make a considerable profit on my hogs and raise 
more chickens than we can use. During my childhood days, my father usually made 
from $200.00 to $400.00 money crop a year and the most he ever made was $600.00 
in 1910. In 1937, my money crop amounted to $7,000, but not above expenses. In 
1920, I made only three hundred pounds of tobacco to the acre, while I made 
1,100 pounds last year; made thirty bushels of corn to the acre in 1920 against 
forty-five bushels to the acre in 1937. It takes about four or five hundred 
bushels of corn a year to run my farm and I sell two to four hundred bushels a 
year. Along with that, I use one to two hundred bales of hay a year to feed my 
stock on. Yes, there has been a tremendous crop increase since 1920, which is 
due to the use of more and better fertilizers on 

{Begin page no. 10}
the farm. Although there in not as much land under cultivation today as there 
was during the Civil War, the average farmer makes a great deal more to the acre 
than he did then. My father considered a half a bale of cotton to the acre a 
fine crop and now if a farmer doesn't get a bale to the acre, it's a flop. Just 
like my father thought a two-year old hog was the ideal hog to kill, and now a 
six to eight months one is about right. 
"But even with all the strides made in the last few years, living on the farm 
can't come up to what it used to be. Christmas times, people used to take a week 
off and now they hardly, have time for one day. I remember people used to have 
neighborhood parties around to one another's houses and everybody that went had 
a good time. All of us stayed in the house, too, but I hear people complaining 
that when there's a party these days, they can't get none of these young folks 
to stay nowhere near the house. When I was coming up, people didn't know what a 
card was. Oh, we would have fine times at our parties playing all sorts of games 
that the whole crowd could join in and have a little fruit for refreshments 
before breaking up for the evening. 
"Well, it seems the old way of living was much better than the present method. 
One thing certain, there is just too much government aid today and it is 
destroying the very foundation of our country. People used to have a real 
backbone of their own and never thought to ask help from anywhere. If a person 
was in trouble back in the old days, the neighbors would get together and offer 
help. If somebody's house burned up, the people of the community would come 
together and help build it back. If a person got sick, friends would help nurse 
them. If the roads needed fixing, all the men would jump in and work on them. If 
a farmer lost his crop from hail, wind, or other misfortune, he did not look to 
the government to help him get another start in those days. His neighbors sent 
their teams and hands to his farm and 

{Begin page no. 11}
planted another crop without delay, but nobody offers assistance like that to 
one another these days. People were more sociable and I know they were better 
satisfied before all this government relief was showered upon the country. Taxes 
were practically nothing twenty-five or thirty years ago and now everything's 
taxed. This government relief has simply destroyed the morale of farm labor--has 
made the laboring class lazy and shiftless--has killed their will to do 
something for themselves. In fact, farming is not as satisfactory as it used to 
be all the way around and all because of government interference. This is true 
in the government restriction on the amount of crops one can plant, as well as 
the fact that all the hands (Negroes) want to work for the W. P. A. instead of 
for the landlord. However, in spite of difficulties, I like to live on the farm. 
Born on a farm, I expect to die on one." 

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