Shadows over goshen: Plain whites, progressives and paternalism in the Depression South

Freddy Carl Smith


This dissertation is about poverty and rural Southerners and the beginnings of America's rational assault on poverty. By 1932, a sense of emergency and desperation permeated American economic and political thinking. The apparent collapse of the industrial economy and credit markets created an environment in which politicians allowed and the public demanded bold experimentation. The period, 1933-1937, in which most of America approved or tolerated progressive notions, offered an opportunity for progressives to demonstrate their solutions to persistent southern poverty. The Division of Subsistence Homesteads (DSH), an agency of the Department of Interior, created communities that combined subsistence gardening with part-time wage work. The Resettlement Administration (RA) developed the New Deal's most progressive efforts to cure southern poverty, entire towns populated by subsistence yeoman farmers. However, other progressives, especially liberal churchmen and the Socialist Party of America envisioned a more radical solution for rural southern poverty. This study of three communitarian projects reveals that the clients of those communities, representing the lower and lower middle class, were intensely concerned with maintaining or achieving a specific class status. A subordinate thesis of this dissertation, evidenced by the words of the clients, suggests that the dispossessed (for whatever reasons) rural Southerners made a distinction between "poor whites" and "plain whites." All of the clients of the communities in this study were poor; not all of them were plain. "Plain whites," as employed in this study, refers to poor rural southerners without access to financial or political power. Three projects typify the approach by progressive liberals of the 1930s. Success for all three projects would be determined, in large part, by the willingness of their clients to forego voluntarily some of the privileges and rights associated with American individualism. In all three projects success depended on the economic cooperation of the clients. The Tupelo Homesteads were designed to meet the requirements of a "pleasure economy" and a radically different manufacturing world. Dyess Colony was an attempt to create in flesh and blood what had often been an American myth, a robust class of independent and disinterested yeoman farmers. Delta Cooperative Farm was supposed to give the means of production to the people and to turn the hearts of man to God. To say, categorically, that these projects failed is to ignore the primary purpose of experimentation. All three projects promised dignity, self-determination, and refuge for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Activists associated with New Deal in general and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Division of Subsistence Homesteads, Works Progress Administration, Resettlement Administration, and Farm Security Administration in particular encouraged their clients to be satisfied with subsistence. The Socialist Party of America joined with a coterie of liberal churchmen and promised social and economic justice and control of the means of production. Despite the powerful influence of such notables as Rexford G. Tugwell, M. L. Wilson, Lawrence Westbrook, Harry Hopkins, Sherwood Eddy, and most famously, Reinhold Niebuhr, the clients refused to abandon their notions of dignity and their aspirations to upward mobility. Arguably, the greatest benefit from experimentation is falsification of theory. Two of the experiments, Tupelo Homesteads and Dyess Colony were certain to be failures from the very beginning. The failure of Delta Cooperative Farm was self-inflicted by its liberal leaders. The various "wars" on poverty since the Great Depression have been shaped, in part, by the first attempts of liberal progressives to take advantage of the crises and opportunities of the Great Depression.