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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Thomas Henderson, October 28, 1999. Interview K-0228. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Transformations in tobacco farming during the 1930s and 1940s

In this excerpt, Henderson describes tobacco farming and the changing nature of tenant farming during the 1930s and World War II years. Specifically, Henderson discusses the growing of bright tobacco, focusing specifically on an unusually large farm (800 acres) in eastern North Carolina. Although tobacco farms were typically smaller, Henderson attributes the success of this farm to the fact that its owner had hundreds of tenant farmers working it. Henderson explains that during these years, tenant farmers were typically African American; however, because of the war, demographic changes were beginnign to change the nature of tenant farming. His comments offer insight into the nature of tobacco farming as it was undergoing some important transformations during the 1930s and 1940s.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Thomas Henderson, October 28, 1999. Interview K-0228. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

CHARLES THOMPSON:
Does bright grow better in North Carolina than anywhere else? Is that why there's so much here?
THOMAS HENDERSON:
Yeah. I think climate had a lot to do with it.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
Okay.
THOMAS HENDERSON:
And, of course, in eastern North Carolina at that time, farming was by mules and horses, mostly mules.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
Right.
THOMAS HENDERSON:
But as time went on tractors took over. And this flat land they could just-they could just plant anything. And the quality of the tobacco was good. Now Doris, my daughter, married a Taft. And his mother was a Winslow. Now Mr. Winslow was a big farmer. I mean a big farmer. He had-I don't know exactly. But I think he had about ten thousand acres of land. And he grew as much as eight hundred acres of tobacco.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
When was this? This was-.
THOMAS HENDERSON:
This was back before the war.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
Okay. World War II.
THOMAS HENDERSON:
Two, yeah. And he had-. And he also sold mules. He'd go to Missouri, and buy a trainload of mules and bring them back here. And he had had lots one across the road where he could put a hundred mules in it. And he sold them to farmers that farmers wanted them. But he was bound to have been a smart man to have had an operation of that kind and do it successfully. And he had-
CHARLES THOMPSON:
Now I was always under the impression that tobacco was grown on such small acreages because one family couldn't tend that much. But this one grower had eight hundred-
THOMAS HENDERSON:
Tenant system.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
And he had how many, a hundred tenants?
THOMAS HENDERSON:
He really had probably had hundreds of tenants. Now on that-there's a farm over across the river that Joe Taft's mother, my son-in-law's mother owns. And it's about four hundred acres in it. Well you could see there's some of them still left-cabins that these blacks lived in.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
Most of the tenants were black.
THOMAS HENDERSON:
Um-hmm. Most of them black. During the war that changed the blacks went up north where there was work.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
And factories.
THOMAS HENDERSON:
And factories. And so-
CHARLES THOMPSON:
And the whites became tenants?
THOMAS HENDERSON:
Huh?
CHARLES THOMPSON:
There became more white tenants during the war?
THOMAS HENDERSON:
No, they-. Well, I reckon so. But it became mechanized. They-. And when the war was over a lot of blacks came back and the jobs were gone. So they didn't-a lot of them came back but it could sustain only so many. So not as many blacks as there was.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
In agriculture at least.
THOMAS HENDERSON:
In agriculture. And of course, blacks became more diversified and they became able to do things that they hadn't done. And so they-it just eased itself out I think probably to the betterment of everybody concerned.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
Do you think that when blacks went off to work in factories in the north that their lives became better than they were as sharecroppers?
THOMAS HENDERSON:
Well they came-could do more than one thing and that's farm. They got to doing other things and then became more diversified.