By the end of 1932, the Great Depression impacted 60 million Americans, including many who had lived comfortable, middle-class lives during the 1920s. However, under the Hoover administration, federal relief efforts were limited. Private charities lacked the means and money to provide relief to so many.
In New York, Chicago, and other cities, breadlines and soup lines were common sights.
As the Depression worsened, families first ran through their savings (if they had any). Those who had insurance often cashed out their policies to keep their businesses and homes afloat.
EXAMPLECash surrender payments of individual insurance policies tripled in the first three years of the Great Depression. Insurance companies made payments in excess of $1.2 billion in 1932 alone.
When savings and insurance were exhausted, peopled borrowed from family and friends. When that was no longer a possibility, they stopped making rent and mortgage payments. When they were evicted from their homes, people moved in with relatives. The burden of providing food and shelter for additional people was too much for many families, and the descent into poverty continued.
As an example of this progression, let's analyze the experiences of the Donner family, which owned a printing business in Chicago before the Great Depression. Mr. Donner and his family arrived in Chicago when he was 13 years old. In 1938, an interviewer described Donner's experiences from that point onward:
How does Mr. Donner’s story reflect the prosperity that many Americans experienced during the 1920s?
The interviewer continued by describing Mr. Donner’s experiences during the early years of the Great Depression:
“Awareness of the depression came early to the Donners, who had savings in one of the first banks to fail after the 1929 stock market crash. The Chicago bank that went under early in November, 1929 paid only 30 per cent of the total deposits. Through 1930 and 1931 Mr. Donner’s business was fairly good; he considered himself rather fortunate, for many of his friends had already begun to suffer heavy losses.
Mr. Donner continued to hope to meet ‘prosperity just around the corner’ as long as he dared, but the time came when he could no longer wait for prosperity. He thinks now that he held on too long, but he had no way of knowing that the depression would last so long, and that in the end he would save nothing from his business. He hated to discharge his employees, so (he) kept as many as possible (for) as long as possible. He also hated to see his huge presses standing idle. All of the family’s assets were converted into cash to be put into the business, and besides, Mr. Donner borrowed from relatives money which he has only recently succeeded in repaying. The Donners gave up the large home which they had been renting but had hoped to buy as soon as the business was paid for, put their furniture in storage, and moved into furnished rooms….
Finally, Mr. Donner had fired all of his employees, sold some of his presses, and rented a part of the floor space. But he still couldn’t give up altogether. He was gathering up what orders were to be had even when he did the printing, the delivering, and the bookkeeping all alone. He was worrying so continually and so excessively that he lost 35 pounds in a few months and couldn’t sleep at night.”
Mr. Donner’s experiences revealed that the Great Depression affected almost everyone, including those who had been relatively well-off before the Great Crash. Like many Americans, Donner believed that the depression would end soon. The fact that it did not took a tremendous toll not only on the family business, but on him as well.
Like Mr. Donner and his family, most African Americans did not participate in the stock market speculation that contributed to the Great Crash. That did not stop the Great Depression from hitting them hard, and in ways that did not impact the Donner family and other white Americans.
African Americans were subject to racial discrimination, which limited their options during the Great Depression.
EXAMPLEAlthough unemployment was rampant throughout the United States, many white citizens believed that any available jobs should go to them first. Even in northern cities, some white workers and foremen conspired to have African-American workers fired so that their jobs could be given to white workers.
Racism and racial violence persisted in the United States during the Great Depression. Communities preoccupied with their economic hardships often ignored these problems. The Scottsboro Boys incident, however, gained national attention.
In 1931, nine black teenagers were arrested for vagrancy and disorderly conduct after an altercation with white travelers on a train. The teens had been "riding the rails", a common occurrence during the Great Depression when impoverished Americans traveled around the country on freight trains in search of work. Two young white women, who were traveling with a group of white youths, said that the black teenagers had raped them.
The Scottsboro Boys case illustrated the racial injustice of the southern court system. Despite significant evidence that the women had not been raped (one of the women recanted her testimony), an all-white jury convicted the defendants within two weeks of the incident. All but one of them were sentenced to death.
News of the verdict sparked protests from northern newspaper editors, academics, and social reformers. The Communist Party of the United States, which viewed the trial and its outcome as an opportunity to gain the support of African Americans and white northerners, offered to take charge of the defense and to seek retrial.
In October of 1932, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Scottsboro Boys had been denied adequate legal representation at their original trial, and had been denied due process because of the exclusion of potential black jurors. However, the state of Alabama continued to prosecute the Scottsboro Boys. A series of trials and retrials, appeals, and overturned convictions illuminated a southern justice system that provided inadequate legal counsel, relied on all-white juries, and required prisoners to endure terrible conditions. In 1937 defense lawyers agreed to a deal in which most of the defendants were released on parole for a crime they did not commit.
Economic hardship and an environmental catastrophe on the Great Plains combined to create the Dust Bowl, one of the most significant disasters in American history.
The Dust Bowl was, in large part, the result of over-farming and speculation. During World War I, farmers in the southern Great Plains region, particularly in western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, experienced prosperity due to good growing conditions and high prices for wheat. As the federal government encouraged them to increase production to support the war effort, many farmers mortgaged their land and borrowed money against future production in order to expand.
Boom times went bust in the early 1920s, as crop prices declined. Seeking to recoup their losses, farmers and speculators consolidated operations to take full advantage of available land and machinery. Farmers plowed under native grasses and planted acres of wheat. Few considered the long-term effects on the soil. Commodity prices stabilized for a while, but plummeted in 1929, when the price of wheat dropped from two dollars to 40 cents per bushel.
Exacerbating the problems caused by overproduction, a natural drought cycle began in 1931 and lasted for most of the decade. As crops failed and grass withered, little remained to hold the soil. Dust storms, also known as “black blizzards”, rose in huge, choking clouds. Dust piled up in doorways and filtered into homes across the Great Plains.
During the dust storms, what had once been a land of agricultural opportunity dried up. Livestock died, or had to be sold, since there was no money for feed. Crops intended for family use, and for market, withered and died. As the dust continued to blow, a new illness known as “dust pneumonia” spread.
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(You won't be tested on this.)
During the New Deal, photographers who worked with the Farm Security Administration traveled through the Dust Bowl and documented what they saw. Their photographs indicated that over-farming and speculation, along with the drought, caused the Dust Bowl. They also celebrated the persistence of farmers and their families who tried to remain on the land.
Photographs of the Dust Bowl told stories of a landscape and the people who inhabited it. They were stories of destruction and the dire consequences of stripping the topsoil from the land and upsetting nature’s delicate balance. New Deal agricultural reformers would use these photographs as evidence of the need to adopt new agricultural practices, including crop rotation and contour plowing. These photographs also promoted the traditional values of persistence and hard work. By describing a woman as a “pioneer” and portraying a farmer determined to rebuild his fence in a sea of sand, these photographs conveyed the determination of those who, despite a dust-filled catastrophe, were determined to remain on the land and make it bloom again.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Men standing outside soup kitchen in Chicago, National Archives, Ret from http://bit.ly/2nBsmBm The Donners Recall the Great Depression, WPA Interview, 1938, Ret from http://bit.ly/2oCjH2r Image of Daily Worker, OER Commons, Ret from http://bit.ly/2nTRLZp Image of Scottsboro boys & lawyer,PD, http://bit.ly/2nTX5vT Dust Bowl Farmer, LOC, Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2oumQo4 Pioneer Woman in the Dust Bowl, LOC, Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2n517D0 Farmer & sons walking in a dust storm, LOC, Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2oCfbkj 25.3 http://bit.ly/2oumWM5 Some sections edited/removed.