WPA Life Histories

William T. Couch, director of the University of North Carolina Press and the southeastern regional director for the Federal Writer’s Project, devised the “Life Histories” Project. The plan, according to Couch, was “to get life histories which are readable and faithful representations of living persons . . . which taken together, will give a fair picture of the structure and working of society.” In Athens, from 1939 to 1940, WPA workers went door-to-door, asking their white and Black neighbors to reflect on their lives and livelihoods. As in the WPA Slave Narratives, interviewers asked a series of questions. A sample questionnaire composed by a WPA official contained “an outline that sought to obtain information about subjects' family, education, income, occupation, political views, religion and morals, diet, medical needs, personal lifestyle and viewpoints, and use of time.” Oral interviews likely addressed such subjects. [1]

In most cases, the names of interviewees were changed, perhaps to protect individuals' privacy or, in the case of African Americans, prevent the threat of white violence. Local teacher Minnie Davis, for example, becomes “Millie Dawson” in the text of the interview. [2]

"[Photograph of African-American gardener at the University of Georgia, Athens, Clarke County, Georgia, 1917]." 1917. March 28, 2021. http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/vang/do:clr151.

The interviewees—men and women of various classes and races—worked in myriad professions: teachers, mill operators, beauticians, salesmen, and laborers. Mamie Lewis was part-owner of a downtown dry goods store, which sold clothing and luggage to white and Black Athenians. In her interview, she articulated the hardships faced in the “old countree” and her struggles an Syrian immigrant in America. Odelia Lester Anderson, meanwhile, worked as a maid. According to the interviewer, “Odessa was sitting on the edge of her small porch, her feet on the top step, when I arrived. Her elbows rested on her knees and her chin was cupped in her hands. Her whole attitude implied utter weariness.” When asked if she was tired, Anderson replied: “Yes, mam, I is tired . . . I’se been workin’ hard all day, cleaning out the dormitory, and gittin’ the house mother off to that corn-vention.” As a Black maid catering to white University of Georgia undergraduate students, Anderson’s workdays were long and hard ones. [3]

On March 23, 1939, Miss Grace McCune, a white WPA worker from Athens, ventured into Mack & Payne Funeral Home. Located at 185 Washington Street, it was “in the center of Athens’ Negro business section, [and] is said to be the oldest Negro undertaking establishment in town.” James Mack, “a well dressed slender man” with a “carefully groomed white mustache and slightly graying hair,” explained his business practices. “This is pretty hard work,” he said. “It means going out at all times of night in all kinds of weather. When the phone rings we have to go. We never hesitate, whether it is a stranger, friend, or someone that is near and dear to us; we answer the call. I takes pauper cases and credit cases as well as good ones.” Indeed, it was ‘hard work’ to be Black in the South. [4]

The ‘Death Business’ is only one of the many professions represented in the WPA “Life Histories.” As a snapshot into locals’ lives, these testimonies are a valuable source for understanding both life and death in Depression-Era Athens. To that end, Couch largely succeeded in his original object: he created “a fair picture of the structure and working of society.”


The Louis Round Wilson Special Collection Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has digitized part of this expansive collection. In Athens, the University of Georgia's Hargrett Library also houses the W.P.A. Georgia Writers Project Life Stories Collection. For ease of use, the digitized interviews with white and Black Athenians are linked below:

Right Livin' --> Evie Louvenia Robinson, circa 1881, Oglethorpe County, white, practical nurse WPA Housekeepers Project, Athens, 1 November and 22 November 1939

Reverses --> Hazel Hoff, no date given, Chattanooga, Tenn., white, district manager Avon products, Athens, 11, 16, and 24 November 1939

Julie Nickerson --> Mattie Julia Nichols, no date given, Gum Springs, white, WPA librarian, Athens, 16 October, and 9 November 1939

A Self Made Man --> L. L. Jordan, no date given, Mecklenburg County, N.C., white, painter, Athens, 13 and 29 September 1939

"Earnest, David Lewis, -1956. "Athens, Bobbin Mill." 1900/1956. March 28, 2021. http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/earnest/do:e189.

"De Luck is in De Lawd" --> Minnie Davis, circa 1861, [Greene County?], Black, teacher, Athens, 23 and 28 August, and 29 November 1939

Captain X --> Captain Allan F. Leigh, no date given, Hull, England, English, sea captain, Athens, 17 January 1939

The Piano Salesman --> Fred Trammel, no date given, no place given, white, salesman, Athens, 4 January 1939

"I've Took in Sewing Fifty Years" --> Sarah Frances Fellows, [1863?], no place given, white, seamstress, Athens, 7, 11, and 26 July 1939

Life of a Retired Mill Worker --> James Herring, 1871, no place given, white, retired mill operator, Athens, 10 January 1939

"I Maids for the Co-Eds" --> Odelia Lester Anderson, 1902, Eatonton, Black, maid, Athens, 14, 16, and 27 March 1939

I Don't Know What's the Matter --> Edward J. Bacon, no date given, Athens, Black, brick mason, Athens, 31 May and 14 June 1939

The Wandering Beautician --> R. W. Welch, 1896, Maxeys, white, beautician, Athens, 17 May and 6 June 1939

Life History of Mrs. Ann Waldrop --> Ann Waldrop, 1861, Athens, white, retired mill worker, Athens, 3 January 1939

A visit to the Jail --> Mrs. George Nash, no date given, no place given, white, wife of jailer, Athens, 26 April and 4 May 1939

Life on Happy Top -->Leila Bramblett, 1878, Princeton factory, white, textile worker, Athens, 17 January 1939

Principal of Grammar School Thirty-Three Years --> Mary Wright Hill, 1881, Greenville, N.C., Black, school principal, Athens, 27 July 1939

The Carpenter of Lickskillet --> Emmett Johnson, circa 1880, Sparta, Black, carpenter; Maggie Johnson, 1880, no place given, Black, wash woman, Athens, 12 May 1939

Bea, The Washwoman --> Sarah Hill, [1874?], Elberton, Black, wash woman, Athens, 1, 27 February, 13 March 1939

A Visit to a Laundry and Dry Cleaning Plant --> L. S. Whitehead, no date given, no place given, white, laundry operator; Mrs. L. S. whitehead, no date given, Clarke County, white, laundry operator, Athens, 9, 10, and 24 March 1939

"Photograph of woman watering poppies, State Normal School, Athens, Georgia, 1932." 1932. March 28, 2021. http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/normalnavyschool/do:nnc007-001-002.

From Farm to Filling Station --> Robert Leo Smith, 1912, Banks County, white gas station operator, Athens, 22 March, 4 April 1939

Kay's Shop --> Kathryn Jiles, no date given, Carrollton, white, milliner, Athens, 9 March, 4 April 1939

The Poppy Lady --> Moina Michael, 1869, Walton County, white, teacher, Athens, 8 and 9 February 1939

The Three Sisters --> ane Campbell Buggs, 1867, Maxeys, Black, wash woman; Mary Campbell, 1875, Maxeys, Black, wash woman; Delah Campbell, 1885, Maxeys, Black wash woman, Athens, 8 and 9 February, and 1 March 1939

Edward Walcott --> George Shaw Crane, [1870?], Athens, white, landlord, Athens, 23 and 26 January, 1 February, 8 March, and 25 May 1939

"I Cater to Colored People" --> Lorenzo W. Reed, 1863, Athens, Black, barber, Athens, 19 and 20 June 1939

"I've Been Preaching Ever Since I Could Talk" --> Harold Irving Bearden, 1910, Atlanta, Black, preacher; Mrs. Bearden, no date given, Austell, Black, preacher's wife, Athens, 17 July, and 1 August 1939

The Wrighton Sisters --> Mattie Creighton, circa 1860, [Athens?], white, elderly woman; Ida Creighton, circa 1870, [Athens?], white, quilt maker, Athens, 28 and 29 June, and 15 July 1939

"How Many Days Have I Regretted" --> Mildred Lattrell McKinney, 1911, Madison County, white, boarding house operator, Athens, 23 June 1939

"..Maybe We'll Save a Little Money" --> Nicholas Chivilis, 1885, Arvanlokerasser, Greece, Greek, candy kitchen operator; Pete Nicholas Chivilis, no date given, Jackson County, white, candy kitchen operator, Athens, 8 February, 11 and 25 July 1939

Grocery Store --> O. J. Coffer, 1899, Jefferson, white, grocer, Athens, 3 August 1939

A W.P.A. Worker --> Janie Harris, 1900, Clarke County, white, WPA worker, Athens, no date given

The Barbecue Stand --> Robert Walker, no date given, Warrenton, Black, barbecue stand operator; Gladys Walker, Bogart, Black, barbecue stand operator, Athens, 10 and 19 April 1939

The Poro Beauty Shoppe --> Mrs. L. A. Crane, circa 1903, Watkinsville, Black, beauty shop operator, Athens, 4 and 5 April 1939

The Red, white, and Blue Barber Shop --> Henry T. Brunblett, 1875, Gwinnet County, white, barber, Athens, 30 March 1939

"Photograph of the mail truck, State Normal School, Athens, Georgia, 1932." 1932. March 28, 2021. http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/normalnavyschool/do:nnc007-001-001.

An Air-Minded Family --> Omie Williams, Neese, white, widow, Athens, no date given

Mildred Lawson --> Sue S. white, circa 1897, South Georgia, white, beautician, Athens, no date given

A Negro Insurance Executive --> A. W. Parker, 1900, Georgetown, Black, insurance executive, 13 April 1939

The Life of a Lawyer --> Joseph Eliot Web, 1907, middle Georgia, white, lawyer, Athens, 16 and 23 February, and 6 March 1939

I Got My Education the Hard Way --> James W. Davis, 1871, Athens, Black, mail carrier, school teacher, music teacher, bandmaster, Athens, 16 May, and 28 June 1939

Day in a Department Store --> Abe Link, proprietor, and various salespersons: Maud Elliott, F. McEntire, Mell McCurrdy, Athens, 24 January 1939

A Farming Preacher-Prophet --> Nick Waller, circa 1874, no place given, Black, farmer-preacher, Athens, 6, 7, and 17 March 1939

Mammy --> Annie Grady Emerick, [1880?], no place given, white, Athens, 20 December 1938, and 6 January 1939

A Visit with Aunt Jerry --> Josephine Wood, 1861, Barnett Shoals, white, housewife, Athens, 13 January and 16 February 1939

A Session of the City Court --> Vincent Mathews, [1880?], Athens, white, judge, Athens, 10, and 17 April 1939

Negro Fraternal Insurance --> R.Harris, no date given, no place given, insurance executive, Athens, 13 and 24 April 1939

Bus Drivers --> F.A. Taylor, no date given, no place given, white, manager city bus-line, Athens, 10 and 13 April 1939

A Versatile Craftswoman --> Margaret Davis, 1887, Princeton, white, tailor, Athens, no date given

Coffins and Caskets --> W. P. Hopson, no date given, no place given, Black, undertaker, Athens, no date given

The Tale of a Tailoress --> Margaret Davis, 1887, Princeton, white, tailor, Athens, 9 December 1939

Maid of All Work --> Julia Hicks, 1887, Athens, Black, housemaid, laundress, nurse, Athens, 16 and 23 March 1939

A Negro Dentist --> Dr. S. S. Jackson, no date given, Athens, Black, dentist, Athens, 14 March 1939

I Lak's a Good Livin --> Cornelia Peterson, no date given, Morgan County, Black, sewing room, Athens, no date given

All I Do is Just Heads --> Daisy M. Johnson, no date given, no place given, Black, beautician, Athens, 26 April and 4 May 1939

The Oldest Barber in Town --> R. M. Davis, 1893, [Athens?], white barber, Athens, 28 March and 4 April 1939

Ida Mae Hiram, the first Black female dentist in Athens.

The Woman Dentist --> Dr. Ida Mae Hiram, [1895?], Athens, Black, dentist, Athens, no date given

The Waiting Room in a Bus Station --> W. T. Sullivan, no date given, no place given, white, bus-station manager; Mrs. W. T. Sullivan, white, bus-station manager, Athens, 27, 29 March, and 6 April 1939

The City Blacksmith --> John Henry Middlebrooks, [1880?], Oconee County, Black, blacksmith, Athens, 8 June 1939

The Bargain House --> J. Buford Dudley, 1887, Combs, white, merchant, Athens, 16 February, and 2 March 1939

The Lilac Beauty Shop --> Farrie Emerick, no date given, no place given, white, beautician; Edna Seagraves, no date given, no place given, white beautician, Athens, 1 and 18 February 1939

The Boarding House Operator --> Texie Gordon, no date given, no place given, white, boarding house operator, Athens, no date given

The Capital City Insurance Company --> J. H. Robertson, 1905, South Georgia, Black, insurance company manager, Athens, 14 and 27 April, 6 June, 7 and 10 July 1939

You Have To Get It While They're Crying --> Lamar J. Johnson, [1922?], no place given, Black, embalmer; Tom Johnson, no date given, no place given, Black, undertaker, Athens, no date given

A Patent Medicine Vendor --> Grace Crowder, no date given, no place given, white, patent medicine vendor, Athens, 28 February and 14 March 1939

Cindy Wright --> Mariah Jackson, 1861, Notasluga, Black, midwife, Athens, 13 December 1938

A Visit to A Flower Shop --> Willow Jones, no date given, no place given, white, flower shop proprietor, Athens, 12 March 1939

A Negro Funeral Director --> James Mack, no date given, no place given, Black, undertaker, Athens, 9 and 23 March 1939

"Yes, Lord, I'se Done Tried to Serve You Faithful" --> Isaiah Hunter, 1868, white Hall, Black, preacher, Athens, 12 and 27 July 1939

Old Shoe Comfort in New Shoe Appearance --> Luther Holcomb, no date given, Athens, white, shoemaker, Athens, 5, 19 June, and 15 July 1939

"A Customer is Always Right" --> Samuel August Sheats, 1912, Athens, Black, grocery store and barbershop proprietor, Athens, 7 July and 3 August 1939

Veterinarian, Poet, and Politician --> Dr. W. M. Burson, 1874, Ohio, white, veterinarian, Athens, 29 June and 18 July 1939

"I Like America" --> Mamie Lewis, 1896, Beirut, Syria, Syrian, part owner dry goods store, Athens, 10 and 25 July 1939

Madame Lucy --> Annie Mains, no date given, between Watkinsville and Athens, Black, beautician, Athens, no date given

Susie Ray --> Jannie Favors, 1892, Rayle, Black, restaurant proprietor, Athens, 23 June 1939

The Fishermen --> J. H. Emerick, circa 1864, no place given, white, fisherman, Athens, no date given

Woman Florist --> Willie Jones, no date given, no place given, white, flower shop proprietor, Athens, 21 February 1939

Mrs. J.C. Jackson --> Mrs. J.C. Jackson, 16 December 1938

Just a Traveling, Rambling Man That Settled Down in Athens Town --> Mr. Fred Trammell, 4 January 1939

Mrs. Lelia Bramblett --> Mrs. Lelia Bramblett, 17 January 1938

A Funeral Service by Brother Gresham (fragment) --> Mariah Jackson, 6 Feb 1939

Mrs. Margaret Davis --> Mrs. Margaret Davis, 18 January & 9 December 1939

NEXT: Decedent Data


[1] H. Michael Gelfand, “Chronicling an African-American Life in Athens: James W. Davis and His Georgia Writers' Project Interview, 1939,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 81, No. 3 (Fall 1997), 713-714, 716.

[2] Minnie Davis, “De Luck is in De Lawd," in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (hereafter cited as SHC, UNC).

[3] Mamie Lewis, “I Like America,” in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, SHC, UNC; Odelia Lester Anderson, "I Maids for the Co-eds," in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, SHC, UNC

[4] James Mack, “A Negro Funeral Director,” in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, SHC, UNC.

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