The Great Depression
“Out of every crisis, every tribulation, every disaster, mankind rises with some share of greater knowledge, of higher decency, of purer purpose.” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
I was blessed to grow up surrounded by adults who had survived the Depression and WWII. The people we call the Greatest Generation. Even as a child, I was awed by their no-nonsense resiliency, their matter-of-fact sense of responsibility to help others get back on their feet when they needed it, in a pervasive there but for the grace of God attitude. These elders recounted history not through battle timelines, but in colorful, often wry anecdotes about ordinary people who’d met harsh challenges thrown on them by global events with unwavering devotion to family and extraordinary pluck or ingenuity or infuriating-endearing stubbornness.
The type of people who got us through some of the darkest chapters of American history. And the Great Depression was decidedly one of those.
How did it happen?
In brief: The fast, exuberant economic growth known as “the Roaring Twenties,” came to a horrible halt in 1929. Leading up to that, a booming economy made the stock market seem an easy, quick way to make a fortune. Everyone wanted to get on the proverbial band wagon, driving stock prices even higher, often inflated far beyond what a company was worth.
Banks made wildly risky loans, counting on quick turn-around. Businesses began producing more items than consumers wanted. That started stock prices dipping then jumping up again, in roller coaster swings. But no one heeded the warning.
On October 24th, stock prices took a nosedive. Then five days later, on what became known as “Black Tuesday,” the markets completely crashed. Panicked selling by investors only made the plummet worse. Billions of dollars of savings evaporated in one disastrous day. Stocks that people had purchased at fifty dollars per share—often on credit, meaning they had taken out mortgages on their homes or farms or shops—were now lucky to be sold at fifty cents. Within months, businesses around the nation faltered and closed, laying off their workers. Families lost their homes and farms to banks because they could no longer make their payments. Unable to collect owed money from suddenly destitute Americans and mobbed by depositors rushing their doors, banks failed, so that those who actually did have money in their savings accounts could not get their cash. Tax revenues fell, meaning teachers were laid off, many public schools closed.
By 1932, one out of every four Americans were out of work, unable to find even odd jobs. Twenty-eight percent had no income at all. Many took to the road looking for temporary crop-picking jobs or in the city existed in encampments of tar-paper huts, called “Hoovervilles.”
One out of every five preschool and school-aged children were suffering malnutrition. Many families, desperate to feed and clothe their children “farmed them out,” as Bea and Vivian’s father did, sending them to relatives or family friends who seemed in better circumstances—even if only slightly.
That year, presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised voters “a new deal for the American people” and “action now.” When accepting his party’s nomination, FDR said: “The greatest tribute that I can pay to my countrymen is that in these days of crushing want there persists an orderly and hopeful spirit on the part of millions of our people who have suffered so much. To fail to offer them a new chance is not only to betray their hopes but to misunderstand their patience. . .This is no time for fear or for timidity. . .Statesmanship and vision, my friends, require relief to all at the same time. . .Let us use common sense and business sense. . . In so doing, employment can be given to a million men. . .this Nation is not merely a Nation of Independence, but it is, if we are to survive, bound to be a Nation of Interdependence—town and city, North and South, East and West. . . Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage.”
In his first one hundred days after taking office March 4, 1933, FDR kickstarted programs to address unemployment, initiating agencies like the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—hiring 8.5 million people to construct bridges, public buildings, and roads—and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that put young men, seventeen to twenty-five years of age, to work in national parks, planting trees, building campgrounds, and fighting fires.
The first CCC camp opened in Virginia, in the George Washington National Forest, just six weeks after FDR’s inauguration. They were housed, fed, clothed, and paid $30 a month—$25 of that sent home to their families. Many of the youth had been living on the streets and illiterate. They were taught to read and write in the camps—completely changing their lives and hopes.
I introduce my readers to FDR’s New Deal by mention of a rally held in Leesburg, Virginia, the summer of 1932 that was spearheaded by a young female attorney—(a few brave mavericks did exist in the 1920s and 30s!)—that my character Dr. Liburn attends. (His bio, by the way, echoes the real-life Maurice Brittain King Edmead, a doctor from the Island of Saint Kitts, who, despite being refused hospital admitting rights because of the color of his skin, practiced and tended patients in Loudoun County for two decades. A graduate of the famed HBCU Howard University, Dr. Edmead was an ardent activist for improving Virginia’s education for African American students when school segregation was the rule.)
Most of us know about the horrors of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest that destroyed farms and set thousands of Americans onto the road looking for work and shelter. (If you have not read John Steinbeck’s heart-wrenching Grapes of Wrath or Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, please do.) I am embarrassed to say—despite being a lifelong Virginian—that I didn’t know about the 1930 and ’32 droughts that brought Piedmont Virginia to its knees. Today, in our 21st century of dams, city reservoirs, and bottled water we don’t really know the kind of fear and utter devastation drought can bring.
In 1930, creeks and wells ran completely dry. Without any water—in Virginia counties that were the largest dairy producers in the nation—cattle had to be slaughtered or shipped out at terrible losses to their farmers. Corn came up, only grew knee-high, and died before tasseling. The brutal, rainless summer heat scorched grazing pastures, ravaged hay fields, cut the apple harvest in half.
The character Dr. Chatman the rainmaker came about because of my noticing a teeny note on a map that ran in a November 1930 Fortune magazine article about the transplanting of the Long Island hunt set to Virginia. Evidently, these foxhunters were despairing over the fact the ground was so hard and dry their hounds couldn’t catch the scent of foxes they hoped to chase. It read: “So serious was the 1930 drought that foxhunters tried last month to commission Dr. G.I.A.M. Sykes, professional rainmaker. Suggested price: $12,000.” My mouth dropped at the amount—$12,000 in 1930? (That’s equal to $182,000 in today’s dollars.)
Thanks to the kindness and research expertise of the historical collection librarians at Leesburg’s Thomas Balch Library, I was able to read obscure local and academic articles about Dr. Sykes’ large personality and made-up pseudo-scientific vocabulary, as well as other outlandish “pluviculturists” of the time.
But most importantly it allowed me to provide an authentic show-rather-than-tell scene depicting how frantic farmers were for rain, and how brutal daily life could be during the Depression.
For more information, some selected sources:
Blumenthal, Karen. Six Days in October: The Stock Market Crash of 1929. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 2002
Favreau, Marc. Crash: The Great Depression and the Fall and Rise of America. New York: Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018.
Freedman, Russell. Children of the Great Depression. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2005.
Mullenbach, Cheryl. The Great Depression for Kids: Hardship and Hope in 1930s America. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. 2015.
Perdue, Charles L. and Nancy J. Martin, editors. Talk About Trouble: A New Deal Portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 1996.
Terkel, Studs. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. New York: The New Press. 2005.
Uys, Errol Lincoln. Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move in the Great Depression. Boston: T. E. Winter & Sons. 2014
Feature Biopic Films:
Ross, Gary, director. Seabiscuit, Universal Pictures, 2003.
Howard, Ron, director. Cinderella Man, Universal Pictures, 2005.
Denzel, Washington, director. The Great Debaters, MGM, 2007.
Sargent, Joseph, director. Warm Springs, HBO, 2005.
PBS: the American Experience: FDR
PBS: the American Experience: the 1930s
PBS Burns, Ken: The Dust Bowl