The best books for first-person accounts of life in the twentieth century South

Who am I?

I was raised on a dairy farm in Tennessee, and I grew up steeped in my grandparents’ stories about the “hard times before the War” and the challenges of making a living on the land as the southern farm economy was transformed by industrialization and modernization. I learned to appreciate the deep insights found in the stories of so-called ordinary people. As a historian, I became committed to using oral history to explore the way people understood their lives, in my own research and writing and in my teaching. I assigned all five of these books to my own students at Converse University who always found them to be powerful reading.


I wrote...

Southern Farmers and Their Stories: Memory and Meaning in Oral History

By Melissa Walker,

Book cover of Southern Farmers and Their Stories: Memory and Meaning in Oral History

What is my book about?

Southern Farmers and Their Stories: Memory and Meaning in Oral History explores the ways that southern farm people understood the social and economic transformations they experienced in the twentieth century. The book tells the story of the modernization of the South in the voices of those most affected by the decline of traditional ways of life and work.

It analyzes the recurring patterns in the ways farmers described agricultural change and leaving the land, filling in gaps left by more conventional political and economic histories of southern agriculture.

The books I picked & why

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You May Plow Here: The Narrative of Sara Brooks

By Sara Brooks,

Book cover of You May Plow Here: The Narrative of Sara Brooks

Why this book?

Sara Brooks was one of seventeen children raised by landowning African American farmers in Alabama. Hers is a lively and evocative account of growing up on the land in a loving family and a harsh coming of age at the hands of an abusive man. Like many southern black women of the era, Brooks is able to escape the bleak conditions of her life by moving first to Mobile and then to Cleveland where she worked as a domestic, eventually acquiring her own home and reuniting with the children she had been forced to leave behind. Hers is a hopeful and richly textured story of resistance and resilience.

You May Plow Here: The Narrative of Sara Brooks

By Sara Brooks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked You May Plow Here as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The daughter of a freeholder, Sara Brooks was born in 1911 on her parents' subsistence farm in west Alabama. Here in her own words, she makes us understand what it felt like to be young, black, innocent, and steeped in the ways of a black rural world that has largely been lost to us.


All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw

By Theodore Rosengarten,

Book cover of All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw

Why this book?

Historian Ted Rosengarten assembled this riveting account from hours of conversation with 84-year-old Nate Shaw. Born to a former slave, Shaw began picking cotton for white landowners at the age of nine. Independent and proud, Shaw resisted the Jim Crow system, ultimately joining the interracial Alabama Sharecroppers Union (SCU), organized in the 1930s with the support of the Communist Party. The SCU demanded rights to sell surplus crops and to cultivate gardens, an act often forbidden in order to keep sharecroppers dependent on landowners for food.

When Shaw was 47, he faced down a group of armed white law enforcement officers who had come to confiscate a neighbor’s harvest. For this act of defiance, Shaw served 12 years in prison. This is the moving tale of a man who concluded “I was the man I wanted to be, the man my masters didn't want to say was real.”

All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw

By Theodore Rosengarten,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked All God's Dangers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nate Shaw's father was born under slavery. Nate Shaw was born into a bondage that was only a little gentler. At the age of nine, he was picking cotton for thirty-five cents an hour. At the age of forty-seven, he faced down a crowd of white deputies who had come to confiscate a neighbor's crop. His defiance cost him twelve years in prison. This triumphant autobiography, assembled from the eighty-four-year-old Shaw's oral reminiscences, is the plain-spoken story of an “over-average” man who witnessed wrenching changes in the lives of Southern black people—and whose unassuming courage helped bring those changes about.


Mothers of the South: Portraiture of the White Tenant Farm Woman

By Margaret Jarman Hagood,

Book cover of Mothers of the South: Portraiture of the White Tenant Farm Woman

Why this book?

Strictly speaking, this is not a first-person account, but it includes dozens of detailed case studies drawn from interviews with white tenant farm women in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It was written in the 1930s by the pioneering sociologist Margaret Jarman Hagood, one of a group of practitioners at University of North Carolina who sought to produce academic studies that advanced solutions to the socio-economic problems that plagued the rural South. Although Hagood feared that “it is impossible for me to do justice to it either in observing or recording,” her study paints a vivid picture of life among white women who raised children and worked the land on the South’s hardscrabble farms.

Mothers of the South: Portraiture of the White Tenant Farm Woman

By Margaret Jarman Hagood,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mothers of the South as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This study is based primarily on case records of more than one hundred white tenant farm mothers living in North Carolina, but comparisons are made with an equal number living in the Deep South. Through its scientific approach, this study serves all those who seek a better understanding of rural folks and their problems. Originally published 1939. A UNC Press Enduring Edition -- UNC Press Enduring Editions use the latest in digital technology to make available again books from our distinguished backlist that were previously out of print. These editions are published unaltered from the original, and are presented in…


Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of Growing Up Poor and Black in the Rural South

By Anne Moody,

Book cover of Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of Growing Up Poor and Black in the Rural South

Why this book?

Moody’s wrenching account of growing up black and desperately poor in rural 1950s Mississippi reveals the ways in which the Jim Crow system undermined the stability of black families, deprived them of decent housing and education, and trapped them in generational poverty. She reveals the grinding destitution of sharecropping life and the daily indignities whites inflicted on blacks, even small children. An inquisitive and intelligent girl, Moody was determined to go to college, a feat she achieved thanks to a basketball scholarship.

At Tougaloo College, she became deeply involved in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s fight to bring integrated facilities and voting rights to Mississippi. This is a story of deep disillusionment and fierce resistance.

Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of Growing Up Poor and Black in the Rural South

By Anne Moody,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Coming of Age in Mississippi as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The unforgettable memoir of a woman at the front lines of the civil rights movement—a harrowing account of black life in the rural South and a powerful affirmation of one person’s ability to affect change.
 
“Anne Moody’s autobiography is an eloquent, moving testimonial to her courage.”—Chicago Tribune
 
Born to a poor couple who were tenant farmers on a plantation in Mississippi, Anne Moody lived through some of the most dangerous days of the pre-civil rights era in the South. The week before she began high school came the news of Emmet Till’s lynching. Before then, she had “known the fear…


Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South

By Melton A. McLaurin,

Book cover of Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South

Why this book?

Separate Pasts is McLaurin’s account of his 1950s boyhood in the tiny hamlet of Wade, North Carolina, years when the Jim Crow system still reigned. He describes the complex, interconnected lives of the town’s white and black families, and his own confusion as he tried to make sense of the contradictions he observed in his world. A painfully honest account of a white boy’s reckoning with the legacies of segregation and oppression, McLaurin reveals how his own relationships with black neighbors undermined the racist beliefs he was taught.

Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South

By Melton A. McLaurin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Separate Pasts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The author of this book recalls his boyhood during the 1950s in the small hometown of Wade, North Carolina, where whites and blacks lived and worked within each other's shadows.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Alabama, North Carolina, and African Americans?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Alabama, North Carolina, and African Americans.

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