The Great Depression is rightly regarded as the most tumultuous time, economically speaking, in US history.
But for South Carolinians, the downturn brought on by the 1929 stock market crash was simply a continuation of hard times that began shortly after the end of World War I nearly a decade earlier.
The state, hardly more economically diversified in 1920 than it had been in 1860, was still largely dependent on agriculture, and cotton was still the predominant crop.
Beginning in 1920, the state’s cotton industry was hit first by the loss of overseas markets and overproduction, then by the boll weevil and drought. Between 1920 and 1922, cotton production in the state dropped by more than two-thirds, according to Walter Edgar in South Carolina: A History.
Cotton prices plummeted from 38 cents a pound in 1919 to 17 cents a pound a year later and to less than 5 cents a pound by 1932, and by the early 1930s many South Carolinians found themselves destitute, both hungry and out of work.
No one was worse off during this period then the rural poor. Sharecroppers, forced to focus on the crop in the field, which held their only hope for any return on investment, had little time or money to raise food for themselves such as vegetables, cows, hogs or chickens.
“With such a meager diet, poor in nutrients and vitamins, malnutrition and disease ran rampant among the rural poor,” according to the book South Carolina and the New Deal.
“’New’ clothes were most often fashioned out of old clothes or flour or feed sacks,” wrote author Jack Irby Hayes Jr. “Children dropped out of school to look for work, because they did not have clothes to wear or were so malnourished or sick they were unable to attend.
“Families who had once felt financially secure found themselves forced to cash in life insurance policies, to bring older children home from college, or to move in with relatives,” he added.
Land values plunged, as did per capita income, which fell from $261 in 1929 to $151 by 1933, according to Edgar. The textile industry, which had proven a respite for many sharecroppers in the decades prior to the Great Depression, dropped the average annual wage of mill workers more than 30 percent.
The banking industry, which had already seen almost half of the state’s banks close during the 1920s, struggled with more bank failures in the early ‘30s, as panic spread among depositors, and bank “runs” ensued, threatening the stability of the state’s financial system.
Government did little to help those in need: the Board of Public Welfare had ceased to exist when then-Gov. John Gardiner Richards Jr. (1927-1931) vetoed appropriations for its operation.
The South Carolina constitution permitted the cash-strapped state to provide public assistance only to Confederate veterans, their widows and faithful former slaves, according to South Carolina and the New Deal.
By 1936, more than one-third of South Carolina’s counties – 17 of 46 – had unemployment rates greater than 30 percent. However, the state would provide no assistance to people who were blind, the aged, or to dependent children until the state constitution was amended later in the decade.
State government, the University of South Carolina and municipalities such as Columbia and Charleston eventually resorted to paying employees in scrip, so scarce was legal tender.
Perhaps not surprisingly in the era of Jim Crow, blacks felt the sting of the Depression particularly sharply.
Rural blacks, like most of their white counterparts, worked as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, except there were more of them.
Urban blacks often worked in service industries as maids, porters, janitors, dishwashers, laundresses or cooks.
“In the early 1930s many urban black women working as maids, laundresses, or cooks lost their jobs, as their white employers could no longer afford to employ them,” according to Hayes. “Businesses in the cities felt pressure to lay off black men working as porters, waiters, dishwashers, or janitors in order to hire unemployed whites.”
Black-owned businesses in the cities, many of which had been thriving districts for decades, almost disappeared during the Depression because patrons could not afford to pay for their services.
Three years into the Great Depression, South Carolina was tottering on ruin.
“By 1932, 45 percent of South Carolina farmers were delinquent in paying taxes on their farms,” according to South Carolina and the New Deal. “That same year the Charleston News and Courier reported 1,400 Sumter County families were ‘unemployed, hungry, and practically naked,’ and at least two residents of Pineville and two in Beaufort died of starvation.”
Lorena Hickok, a journalist assigned to report conditions to the Roosevelt administration, described the plight of Southern sharecroppers in January 1934 as “half-starved Whites and Blacks, struggling in competition for less to eat than my dog gets at home, for the privilege of living in huts that are infinitely less comfortable than his kennel.”
The living conditions of Southern sharecroppers shocked Hickok: “I just can’t describe to you some of the things I’ve seen and heard down here these last few days. I shall never forget them – never as long as I live.”
(Top: The Brown family of St. Helena Island, Beaufort County, SC, in June 1939. They were photographed by Marion Post Wolcott, a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, an agricultural program set up to assist families during the Great Depression.)