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Mothers of the South: Portraiture of the White Tenant Farm Woman.

Mothers of the South: Portraiture of the White Tenant Farm Woman, by Margaret Jarman Hagood; introduction by Anne Firor Scott. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996. xii, 252 pp. $14.50 paper.

First published in 1939, this book reminds us of a time, not so very long ago, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt sparked controversy by characterizing the South as "the Nation's No. 1 economic problem" and when a host of Depression-era commentators singled out sharecropping and other types of farm tenancy as a major cause of that "problem." Long ignored by industrial America, Dixie's rural poor suddenly loomed large in the public consciousness. Their careworn faces were immortalized by some of the country's ablest photographers, and their fictionalized experiences were chronicled (at times satirically, more often sympathetically) by bestselling authors of the day. Whether they subsisted in imbecilic stupor on Erskine Caldwell's "tobacco road," inhabited the piney-woods fringes of William Faulkner's past-haunted Yoknapatawpha, or headed westward on Route 66 as John Steinbeck's indomitable "Okies" and "Arkies," the region's hard-pressed farmers were, for a few years, at least, cultural archetypes, symbolizing the best--and the worst--in the national character.

For Georgia-born sociologist Margaret Jarman Hagood (1907-1963), the most striking aspect of the sharecroppers' existence could be discerned, not in literary sagas or poignant photographs, but instead in the prosaic columns of census returns and public health records. She perceived that, because of the declining birth rate for the United States as a whole during the 1930s, the ever-prolific women of the South's pine barrens and shotgun shacks were producing a disproportionally large share of America's children. How, she wondered, would this new demographic reality affect the nation's future? How well would these tenant farm mothers, themselves the victims of the "wastes and lags" of a failed agricultural system, be able to cope with the challenge of raising the mass of babies and young people who were "simultaneously the Region's greatest asset and most crucial problem ..." (p. 4)?

Having already examined the statistical features of the South's birth rate in her 1937 Ph.D. dissertation at the University of North Carolina, Hagood decided to investigate the human realities that remained concealed behind the numbers, graphs, and tables of her previous research. Consequently, for sixteen months she visited, observed, and (most importantly) talked with more than 250 white women of the tenant-farming class. Roughly half of those interviewed were residents of thirteen tobacco growing counties in North Carolina's piedmont region; the rest, who were studied less intensively, lived in cotton-belt areas of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Supported by the Rosenwald Fund and the University of North Carolina's Institute for Research in Social Science, the project soon reached the publication stage; Mothers of the South, appearing as the Depression Decade drew to a close, was the result.

Not surprisingly, Hagood discovered much physical hardship and near-universal material deprivation. The tenant families lived in unadorned, often ramshackled houses that generally lacked electricity and that uniformly were without running water. Financial resources, sparse even in relatively prosperous periods, had been further diminished by the low cotton and tobacco prices of the 1930s. New Deal programs offered various forms of relief assistance but simultaneously threatened the tenants' basic means of livelihood--by restricting the acreage available for staple-crop production. Still chronically indebted to landlords and storekeepers, few of those interviewed cherished any hope of ascending the "agricultural ladder" toward farm ownership. Instead, for most, the future held little promise; they knew, from bitter experience, that unanticipated medical bills, burial expenses, and the harsh vagaries of nature (droughts, floods, hailstorms, boll weevils, and so forth) threatened, at almost any time, to reduce them to virtual pauperism.

A high birth rate only served to compound these difficulties. Among the North Carolina mothers included in Hagood's survey, the mean number of offspring was 6.4, with a new baby arriving, on average, every three years. The consequences were predictable: barely adequate food stocks (sometimes leading to stunted growth); hand-me-down clothing, which prompted ridicule from more prosperous town children; and continual stinting on school supplies, Christmas gifts, and other cash outlays. Meanwhile, the incessant round of child-bearing--coupled with dauntingly arduous work in the home and, seasonally, in the fields and tobacco barns as well--exacted an evident toll on the women's health, appearance, and vitality. As one of them observed, she "never had no noon" (p. 57)--i.e., opportunity for midday rest. There was little time for cultural enrichment, for social life (with the exception of occasional visits to relatives), or even for church attendance.

The woes of lower-class life in the rural South were readily apparent, but the tenant women displayed great resilience in confronting them. Hagood's research revealed few "tobacco road"-style degenerates. Instead, the overwhelming majority of those whom she interviewed were competent, conscientious individuals who took pride in their roles as mothers and as colaborers with their spouses in crop production. Although they unanimously professed allegiance to patriarchal values--including, most notably, the man's right to "tote the pocketbook"--the tenant wives were frequently knowledgeable about the details of family finances and often seemed to exercise equal power in the marriage relationship with their mates. According to Hagood, shared hardships molded a cooperative spirit that markedly reduced "friction and irritability" between the sexes (p. 169). The women's resentments and antagonisms tended to focus, not on husbands or even on local landowners, but instead on snobbish townsfolk and on an economic system that, in the tenants' opinion, favored urban interests at the expense of agriculture. "None of the wives appeared to be neurotic," Hagood reported; "none claimed to be misunderstood" (p. 169).

To the extent that time and circumstances allowed, moreover, both parents in tenant families lavished affection on their sons and daughters, who responded by cheerfully helping with an array of chores around the farm. Further reflecting their adherence to traditional mores, the tenant couples focused particular emphasis on protecting the moral virtue of their teenaged girls. Hagood, impressed by such efforts, speculated that "more value attaches to children when they represent about all a man and his wife can call their very own" (p. 155). Adversity, it seemed, had eroded living standards but had failed to destroy the sharecroppers' sense of self-worth or their devotion to the agrarian heritage and its long-respected ways.

As historian Anne Firor Scott suggests in her brief introduction to Mothers of the South, the book inspired "mostly favorable reviews" (p. vii) but failed to accomplish its author's central objective. Hagood had hoped that her findings would generate support for reforms that would enable the region's most impoverished farmers to earn an adequate income and assist them (through effective techniques of birth control) in reducing the size of their families. Unfortunately, little aid of that sort would be forthcoming from a nation that was increasingly preoccupied with issues of military preparedness. The problem of farm tenancy would ultimately be solved, of course, but not in the meliorist fashion that Hagood had foreseen. Driven from the countryside by restrictive acreage allotments and agricultural mechanization, millions of the South's poorest blacks and whites moved to urban areas throughout the United States during and after World War II. The impact of this exodus was little short of amazing. "... [T]he structure of agriculture has changed beyond recognition," Professor Scott declares, "and the numbers of people who are still sharecroppers and tenants in the patterns described in this book are few" (p. viii). Its practical relevance diminished by unanticipated events, Mothers of the South thus never served its intended role as a manifesto for rural revitalization. Instead, it was destined to become, in essence, an epitaph for a class, a decade, and a way of life.

And what an epitaph it is! Those who peruse Hagood's pages will find a treasure trove not only of interpretive insights but also of anecdotal details concerning the experiences and the idioms, the foibles and the prejudices, of the white Southern masses in the 1930s. Readers will learn of an era when tenant women, anxious to avoid "getting caught" (becoming pregnant), were advised that, "If you don't want butter, pull the dasher out in time" (p. 123); when, despite the prevalence of Jim Crow attitudes, black "grannies" (midwives) presided at the delivery of many white infants; when two-year-old "knee-babies," reluctant to be weaned, continued to demand their accustomed "ninny"; and when rural whites, while giving directions to nearby addresses, routinely neglected to note the existence of their African-American neighbors, homes and schools. ("The `third house on the left' meant the third `white' house," Hagood commented on p. 178.) For such telling glimpses of the past, we remain indebted to that newly fledged Ph.D. who, sixty years ago, decided to learn more about some of the most prolific--and poverty-stricken--mothers of the South.
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Author:Moore, James Tice
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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