Life in the South

Life in the South

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th centuries, most African Americans lived in the South. Their life was not easy. In urban areas, some owned businesses or worked in service industries. In rural farming areas, many were sharecroppers who never earned much of a profit.

Additionally, at the beginning of the 20th century, the combination of a boll weevil infestation and increased food prices due to World War I added extra layers of hardship for many African Americans.

In many panels in the first half of the series, Lawrence addresses reasons for leaving the South. He includes images of failing crops, segregation and discrimination, poverty, and bleak educational opportunities for African Americans. The decision to leave the South was not easy for many. The journey could be long, arduous, and expensive. Yet their desire for a better life propelled them forward.

How can students understand the enormity of the migrants’ decisions to leave their homes and families? Two different activities below offer students a chance to connect and synthesize historical and visual information through different subject matter.

In the Classroom: Zora Neal Hurston Analysis Activity

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, in 1891. Other than during her college years she lived her life in the South. While she was inspired by the literary and artistic forces of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston wrote primarily about her own experiences as a southern African American. Her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was criticized for her use of African American dialect which some felt caricatured the book’s characters. After her death, the book was rediscovered and revived.

Ask students to begin by examining panels from the series that depict life in the South (i.e. Panels 11, 13, 17).

Then, have students read the excerpts from Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (PDF below) and ask students to connect the text they read and the panels they studied so far that show life in the south. Are there panels that are similar to those Hurston describes? How does reading these excerpts and looking at photographs of life in the South deepen the students’ understanding of life in the South at the turn of the 20th century?

In the Classroom: Boll Weevil Poster Activity

A variety of economic hardships, including failing crops, contributed to the Great Migration. The US Department of Labor’s Division of Negro Economics explained in a report that by 1916 the boll weevil had inflicted heavy damage on cotton farms across Georgia. When Jacob Lawrence depicted the boll weevil in Panel No. 9 (above), he had never seen the bug in person. Lawrence referred to scientific illustrations.

Ask students to read the Department’s report, research more information about the infestation, and identify the impact of the boll weevil on cotton farms at the turn of the century. Students should also compare how the boll weevil was depicted in scientific illustrations and Lawrence’s painting to develop their understanding of the pest.

Then, have students imagine they are hired by the US Department of Labor to synthesize their research by creating posters that will be posted in farming towns and printed in newspapers to warn farmers about the dangers and impact of the boll weevil.