Great Depression in Alabama


A family travels through Mobile in search of Family in Mobile during the Great DepressionThe Great Depression was a sustained, national economic recession that shaped the lives of all Alabamians. Although the U.S. stock market crash of October 1929 is often seen as the beginning of the Great Depression, in Alabama and elsewhere, the crash exacerbated an already existing decline in agriculture that had begun much earlier in the decade and spread statewide to cities and industries thereafter. The Depression's impact on Alabama lasted throughout the 1930s and, for some Alabamians, into the early 1940s, which was longer than the nation as a whole. So dire was Alabama's situation during these years that it drew the interest of Fortune magazine, which sent author James Agee and photographer Walker Evans to Alabama in 1936. Their work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, would become the iconic study of Alabamians' experiences during the Depression. The era reshaped the state's political, economic, and social traditions, highlighted the economic inequalities associated with industrial work, and challenged Alabama's long-standing social and racial hierarchies, even encouraging some Alabamians, black and white, to push for basic civil rights. Pres. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal provided relief for many facing dire poverty, but the Depression truly ended only with the economic boom that followed the state's mobilization because of World War II.

Historians now generally agree that, nationwide, the Great Depression did not begin with the stock market crash, but with a more gradual decline in key economic sectors. American agriculture had been struggling as early as 1921, when commodity prices fell steadily from post-World War I highs. In Alabama, cotton prices dropped to the lowest levels since the 1880s. By 1929, industries, the backbone of prosperity in the "Roaring Twenties," experienced a decline in consumption as farmers could no longer afford to buy consumer goods and the overall market for goods had become fairly saturated. As industries scaled back production, they fired workers, leading to increased unemployment, which peaked at 25 percent in 1933 and hovered around that mark throughout much of the 1930s. Alabama's already limited non-farm employment fell 15 percent between 1930 and 1940. Without income, people could no longer buy the goods that buoyed the American economy. In Alabama, for example, personal annual income fell from an already low $311 in 1929 to a $194 in 1935.

The situation worsened as the Congress passed tariffs in 1930 to encourage domestic consumption. In turn, America's trading partners enacted tariffs of their own, leading to a sharp drop in international trade and more economic woes for the nation's farmers and producers. When the stock market crashed in late October 1929, many Americans, and certainly many Alabamians, were already experiencing economic hardship.

Impact on Agriculture  

Children of the Tengle family, some of the Tengle Children in Hale CountyIn the years after the Civil War, Alabamians, like many southerners, lived on the edge of poverty, a result of the disruption of the plantation economy and the subsequent rise of widespread sharecropping and farm tenancy, low-wage industry, and a lackluster economy. The devastation of cotton crops by the spread of the boll weevil and a decline in cotton prices because of international competition further depressed the state's economy by the 1920s. Alabama's farm families experienced the first pangs of Depression when cotton prices plummeted. The commodity began its fall in early 1921, from a high of 35 cents per pound to less than 5 cents per pound by 1932. Unable to make a living on cotton, some farmers left to find work in cities. Others fell deeper into debt and tenancy. Between 1920 and 1930, the number of landowners fell from around 96,000 to 75,000, a decline that was harsher for white farmers than black farmers. In fact, black ownership of land increased slightly during the latter 1920s, a result of falling land prices and African Americans returning to the South in a brief reverse of the Great Migration. Black farmers still tended to own smaller, less profitable farms than white owners, however. Nevertheless, the number of tenant farmers increased universally, from 148,000 to 166,000 over the course of the decade. Furthermore, between 1920 and 1930, the average farm size shrank from 75 to 68 acres and dropped in value from $3,803 to $2,375 and the percentage of farms worked by tenants increased from 58 percent to 65 percent; another sign of worsening times prior to the Depression.

Many farm families lived on the brink of starvation and bankruptcy during good years, so the Depression forced those on the land to focus on long-term survival. Farmers ate less meat and more filling and inexpensive starches, like beans and corn, and wore clothes made out of burlap feed and fertilizer sacks. Tenants and sharecroppers moved to find better contracts and traveled farther and more often as the Depression worsened. Having less food, fewer clothes, and little money, rural Alabamians ceased going to school, church, and other social functions.

Industries were hit later by the Depression, so some farmers left their land for the mills and mines of cities such as Birmingham, Huntsville, and Anniston. But when the Depression spread into the cities in the early 1930s, the state witnessed an urban exodus, with many people who had fled land turning back to sharecropping and tenant farming or returning to family land. In fact, the 1930s serve as a demographic anomaly, as thousands of laid-off workers relocated to the countryside in the hopes of surviving off of the land. This shift from town to country placed new pressure on land that was already stressed from inefficient farming practices, a reliance on soil-depleting cash crops, and soil erosion. When combined with historically low commodity prices and a lack of credit, these conditions made it even more difficult for farm families to survive.

Impact on Industry  

Alabama's industrial sector, centered in the Birmingham District, had expanded in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and its collapse during the Great Depression devastated the state's economy even further. Of nearly 3,000 mines and mills operating in the state in 1929, only half were still in operation in 1933 as an abrupt decline in national demand and international trade led to a drop in production. Employment in iron and steel industries fell by 28 percent from 1929 to 1931 and declined from approximately 100,000 to about 15,000 full-time workers in Birmingham alone. During the 1930s, a quarter of the city's population was unemployed, and 75 percent only had part-time work. When city leaders announced that 100,000 people in Birmingham (out of a total population of 260,000 or nearly 40 percent) received some kind of economic aid in 1934, Pres. Roosevelt called the city the "worst hit town in the country."

The Gadsden Times Reports StrikeThe general economic decline of the 1920s and the Depression also affected the textile industry. Several mills shuttered in the face of economic hardship. Huntsville's Dallas Mill, for instance, went from a profit of almost $800,000 in 1920 to losses of almost $280,000 just a decade later. Nevertheless, Alabama's textile industry weathered the Depression better than iron and steel, timber, or mining. Mill owners proved remarkably resilient in the face of the economic downturn; they cut workers' pay, lengthened hours, and took advantage of increasing unemployment to hire men, women, and children willing to work for very low wages. Between 1929 and 1935, textile mills lost only 4,300 jobs, and then recovered dramatically after 1936 to outpace other state industries. The greatest challenge to textiles during the 1930s was not the Depression itself, but a massive strike that began in Gadsden in 1934 and spread to mills across the East Coast as workers protested mill owners' efforts to avoid new regulations put in place during the New Deal.

Poverty and Relief in Alabama's Cities  

At first, state leaders struggled to address the rapidly declining economy. Without a federal directive to provide assistance, without a precedent for such hardship, and with rapidly declining government funds, state and local governments relied largely on relief administered by religious and charity organizations. Across the state, church groups established food pantries, clothing distribution programs, and job-referral services, though the latter failed when officials were unable to find work for applicants.

During the Depression, relief payments were much more prevalent among urban families, who were more likely to live in proximity to privately run or church-affiliated aid centers and less likely to be as self-sufficient in terms of food or clothing as rural inhabitants. No Alabama city suffered as much as Birmingham. Services, both private and public, were stretched by the starving, sick, homeless, and unemployed. Birmingham's business and civic leaders formed a local version of the nationwide Community Chest, which worked in conjunction with the Red Cross to raise money and distribute aid to destitute families. The sheer amount of need quickly swamped local relief agencies, forcing the Community Chest to run at a near-constant deficit.

Although Birmingham became a national symbol of urban suffering, both Mobile and Montgomery experienced hardships as well. In Mobile, traffic declined at the port, leading to shortages across the city. As retail sales and trade fell by tens of millions of dollars, about 10 percent of adults in the city were on relief and city services shrank. In Montgomery, defense employment at Maxwell Field (now Maxwell Air Force Base) buoyed the city, but residents cut spending, particularly on unnecessary items. Throughout the state, cities and counties often paid teachers and other government workers in IOUs and "warrants," slips of paper that were supposed to be redeemable for cash once the economy improved. Many doctors, lawyers, and other professionals were paid with food, goods, and labor.

State Responses and Outcomes  

Notions of government thrift played an important role in the 1930 election of Benjamin Meek Miller as governor. Miller promised to reign in government spending in the state (his nickname was "Old Economy"), but once he took office, he found that the worsening Depression combined with a failure of voluntary assistance placed new demands on the state treasury. With declining income, unpaid teachers threatened to strike, and the governor implemented a state income tax, borrowed nearly $500,000 to fund relief efforts, and backed legislation to raise borrowing limits, but his efforts fell short, and many localities closed schools or reduced hours. In hopes of reducing costs, Miller, a committed prohibitionist, also disbanded the state's Law Enforcement Department, whose main task was upholding Prohibition. This indifference, combined with a nationwide push to repeal prohibition as a means of answering the Depression, led Alabama to join the rest of the nation in approving the 21st Amendment in 1933. Miller also took the first steps to establish the Alabama Relief Administration (ARA), a state-run public relief agency that played an important role in distributing New Deal money. Yet the benefits of state relief were limited in the early 1930s; the ARA often favored non-union, skilled laborers and disregarded working-class and poor white and black Alabamians as undeserving of funds. These people, in turn, sought relief among their families and communities and, increasingly, from the federal government, particularly the provisions of New Deal agencies. Pres. Roosevelt often had to encourage Miller to spend more of the money the state received for aid.

Populist Responses  

Most Alabamians looked to Miller and later Roosevelt for help, but a few sought out unconventional political solutions. In 1930, the American Communist Party established a branch in Birmingham and found a receptive audience for more radical changes to the failing economy. The group published a newsletter called the Southern Worker that was aimed at the agricultural and industrial workers of the South and established connections with organized labor in the city's mines and mills and with marginalized farmers in the surrounding countryside. In response to the growing Communist presence and labor unrest in the mills and fields, Birmingham passed an "anti-sedition" law that punished citizens who were critical of the American government and employed a "red squad" of police officers tasked with rooting out Communist sympathizers. Joseph Gelders, a physics professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, and a well-known advocate of workers' rights and civil liberties, was kidnapped and beaten for supposed connections to the party during the minor "red scare" that followed. Although not as extensive as the panics of 1919 and the 1950s, the Depression-era scare resulted in a number of arrests, acts of violence, and a notable increase in the activity of the Ku Klux Klan, which saw a minor resurgence on anti-labor and anti-Communist rhetoric.

Faced with such hostility, the party focused much of its efforts on the countryside. Organizers assisted poor farmers in the creation of the Alabama Sharecroppers Union (ASU) to speak out against unfair contracts and mistreatment. Although a relatively small organization, the ASU was a powerful voice for those suffering under the grinding poverty of Depression-era agriculture, particularly for African American farmers, and it clashed on numerous occasions with landowners, who were almost exclusively white. Despite sometimes violent persecution, ASU members led successful strikes in many areas of Alabama's Black Belt, succeeding in raising wages for farm laborers and gaining higher prices for cotton. The Communist-backed International Labor Defense Fund, which initially arrived in Alabama to represent the city's workers, gained recognition for defending nine young black men in the infamous Scottsboro trials.

Arrival of the New Deal  

Beginning in 1933, the arrival of New Deal programs alleviated some of the worst aspects of the Depression. Just as importantly, New Deal programs continued the political and social dislocations begun during the Depression. In 1934, Alabama voters returned to office former governor and notable progressive David Bibb Graves, who became the face of the state's efforts to combat the economic crisis. Graves also signaled an important political change as populist Democrats focused their efforts on economic improvement, even if that meant limited cooperation with federal policies and fewer appeals to white supremacy. In a state and region where poverty was a fact of life for many, even during times of national prosperity, the Great Depression brought national attention to the plight of many Alabamians and forced the state's leaders to play a greater role in providing for the many less fortunate.

Alabama's economy began to recover only after the advent of the World War II defense buildup, though the effects of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the war caused major changes and dislocations. Agriculture shifted from small farms and tenancy to fewer and larger farms, wage laborers, and mechanization. The number of tenants decreased sharply because of the availability of good-paying war work, even as mechanization increased as a result of New Deal subsidy payments and industrialization. Wartime plants and facilities in Huntsville, Gadsden, and Childersburg, and increased demand for iron and steel from Birmingham and ships from Mobile led to an employment boom as many Alabamians migrated from field to factory. Huntsville saw employment skyrocket from 133 total workers in 1939 to more than 11,000 in just five years at its two arsenals and ordnance depot alone. By 1940, the state's unemployment rate had dropped to 6.6 percent, a combination of defense employment, holdover employment on public relief, and incentives for aging workers to retire. Even Birmingham, the "hardest hit" city, had reduced unemployment to a manageable 10.9 percent. As the state joined the national defense effort, the economic effects of the Depression began to recede, even as its political, social, and personal legacy continued to shape the lives of Alabamians for years to come.

Additional Resources  

Brown, James Seay Jr., ed. Up Before Daylight: Life Histories from the Alabama Writers' Project, 1938-1939. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1982.

Flynt, Wayne. Poor but Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989.

Kelly, Robin D.G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Matthew L. Downs
University of Mobile


Published July 10, 2014
Last updated August 18, 2014