Appalachia, Impact of the Great Depression on

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The Great Depression came early in Appalachia, a mountainous region of the southeastern United States. The lumber industry faded soon after World War I, and two other major regional employers—textiles and coal—struggled with overproduction, low wages, and rising unemployment throughout the 1920s when most industries were enjoying prosperity. Moreover, subsistence-oriented mountain agriculture ceased to provide a viable livelihood for large numbers of people well before the stock market crash of 1929. Fifty years of industrial abuse of the environment and the lack of a scientific approach to agriculture and forestry had left much Appalachian land exhausted.

Mountain farm families struggled to survive on subsistence family farms that produced food but little cash. Often the burdens of tending the farm fell upon women and children as men worked elsewhere to earn needed cash. By the 1920s, many families had abandoned the farms for work in coal or textiles (in mills both within Appalachia and beyond the southeastern periphery). The coal industry excluded women but employed African Americans and immigrants, broadening the racial and ethnic mix in the region. The textile industry employed white men and women, but excluded African Americans. Both industries faced bitter interregional competition, and management in both insisted that survival required non-union operations. Sympathetic state and local governments supported the anti-union efforts.

As industrial employment both inside and outside the region collapsed in the late 1920s, workers who had earlier abandoned farming returned, increasing pressure on land already unproductive and overpopulated. The great southern drought of 1930 hit Appalachia especially hard, adding to the woes of mountain farmers and stranded refugees from the region's faltering industries.

In 1929, violent strikes erupted in mill towns of the Appalachian foothills like Gastonia, Elizabethton, Marion, and Danville. Young mountain women emerged as prominent leaders among the strikers. Embittered by the low wages, long hours, poor working conditions, and demanding production goals (the "stretch-out"), many workers welcomed organizers of the American Federation of Labor's United Textile Workers (UTW) and the Communist-led National Textile Workers. The coal fields also stirred as the National Miners Union and the West Virginia Mineworkers Union sought to steal the march on the United Mine Workers of America (UMW), which was left virtually moribund by its falling membership and failed organization drives of the 1920s.

The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and the coming of the New Deal had immediate political consequences as Democrats ousted an entrenched Republican regime in West Virginia, and Democrats generally prevailed in other parts of the traditionally Republican region. While congressional Democrats usually supported the New Deal, such conservative state governors as Guy Kump of West Virginia and Ruby Laffoon of Kentucky clashed bitterly with federal relief administrators.

Before 1933, organizing efforts in both coal and textiles failed. The New Deal's National Industrial Recovery Act affirmed labor's right to organize and to bargain collectively. Soon after passage, the UMW conducted a successful organizing drive throughout the region. On September 21, 1933, union and industry representatives signed an agreement that set the eight-hour workday as standard and ended mandatory payment in scrip and the requirements that employees live in company houses and trade at company stores. Soon thereafter, West Virginia ended its practice of deputizing mine guards.

Coal operators in Bell, Harlan, and Whitley counties in eastern Kentucky remained defiant of public opinion and pressures from the state and federal government. Violent clashes characterized labor-management relations as operators crushed organizing drives of both the National Miners Union and the UMW. Not until 1941 did the coal operators of "Bloody Harlan" accept UMW contracts. Despite a vigorous effort in 1934, neither the UTW nor, later, the Congress of Industrial Organization's Textile Workers Organizing Committee had much enduring success in breaking the anti-union tradition in textiles.

By 1930 both agricultural and industrial counties reported growing unemployment and distress. Local governments and community agencies sought to fill their traditional roles as relief providers, but agents of President Herbert Hoover's unemployment committee found the efforts inadequate. Hoover, hoping to avoid direct federal action, enlisted the Red Cross and the American Friends Service Committee to provide emergency relief, especially food for children, in the hardest-hit Appalachian counties. In 1932, federal loans through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation moved the states to establish relief agencies for the first time.

Relief workers were shocked to discover the extent of need in Appalachia. Unemployment rates in some counties reached as high as 80 percent. Even with moderate economic recovery, welfare dependence became an intractable problem. New Deal programs provided much needed help through both work relief and direct payments, and, with Social Security, these programs sounded the death knells of the orphanage and the poor house. In generating work relief, the federal government also invested heavily to help upgrade roads, bridges, and public buildings. In addition, relief agencies took care to see to work relief for women. African Americans, although suffering discrimination from some agencies, received desperately needed work relief from the Works Projects Administration. The effort to build a modern welfare system, however, was compromised by the persistence of spoils politics and the reluctance of states to adequately fund welfare agencies.

New Deal policy toward Appalachian agriculture reflected New Deal economic ambivalence, tending at first to favor planning ideas, and later seeking a suitable setting for capitalist enterprise to flourish. Some tobacco growers benefited, but most Appalachian farmers found the early New Deal's main agricultural legislation, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, irrelevant to their needs. Resettlement ideas flourished for a time, but subsistence community experiments, such as Sublimity Farms in Kentucky, which relocated farmers from poor lands, and Arthurdale in West Virginia, which relocated stranded miners, aroused much conservative opposition. Beginning in 1937 with the Farm Security Administration, the focus shifted to rehabilitating poor farms rather than moving farmers. The planning concept reemerged in the later New Deal years in combination with the idea of organizing farmers for land-use planning and the removal of land with excessive slopes from agricultural uses. Federal and state parks absorbed some lands judged agriculturally submarginal. New Deal policies helped some mountain farmers and promoted erosion prevention and soil conservation, but the long-term decline of mountain agriculture continued.

Another New Deal program that profoundly affected a large part of Appalachia was the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), authorized by Congress in the early days of the New Deal. TVA built dams to control floods, encouraged farmers to combat soil erosion, promoted reforestation, and sought to remove submarginal lands from agriculture. Most important, the TVA provided hydroelectric power, despite the philosophical opposition of some in Congress and the opposition of private utility companies. TVA's many useful improvements came with a substantial cost. Thousands of rural residents were compelled to sell and relocate as TVA dams inundated their homes and farms. Paradoxically, TVA, whose purpose was largely conservation, also became in time a major consumer of strip-mined coal to generate power, contributing to the principal source of environmental degradation in the region.

The Depression years brought great trials to the people of Appalachia. The New Deal provided relief, but only the coming of World War II brought a business recovery. Mountain agriculture continued to fade, however, and for many, migration to wartime industrial plants outside the region provided the best hope of a better future.



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Jerry Bruce Thomas