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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Wilbur Hobby, March 13, 1975. Interview E-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Growing up poor in Durham, North Carolina

Hobby discusses growing up poor in Durham, North Carolina, during the late 1920s and 1930s. Sometime during the early 1930s, Hobby's father left his mother with five boys to raise on her own. He describes what it was like to grow up in a single parent household and how the family worked to make ends meet. According to Hobby, most families he knew were poor like his and offers a brief sketch of a working community in Durham during the years of the Great Depression.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Wilbur Hobby, March 13, 1975. Interview E-0006. 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

BILL FINGER:
What do you remember about your early years in Durham? Did you live in the town, or out in the country?
WILBUR HOBBY:
Yeah … I guess that I remember growing up in the Edgemont section of town, which back in the early 30's, which the center of the textile situation there. I remember rather vividly the general textile strike that applied to Durham and to North Carolina, in that area which we used to call The Lawn. I lived on Elm Street and the front porch of my house faced The Lawn and it was a sort of a playground there. It's where Operation Breakthrough was until a few weeks ago. There was nothing there but a lawn and swings and a bandstand and a little wading pool and just a ball field. It was a recreation area. During the 1934 general textile strike, it became a tent city. There were hundreds of tents all over it and soup kitchens all over. As a kid of seven or eight, I played all over The Lawn during that strike, never realizing really what the strike was all about or what was happening. Then, it was over and part of the mill never started back up again.
BILL FINGER:
Was your father a textile worker?
WILBUR HOBBY:
No, my father was a bricklayer. He left my mother about the time that I was … well, about that time, I guess, when I was about six or seven years old. And although he came back for intermittent periods, I guess that after I was six or seven, he never did stay home very much. Just the five boys were there.
BILL FINGER:
Your mother raised you boys? She didn't work in the mill herself?
WILBUR HOBBY:
No …well, Mother didn't work in the mill. Back during those Depression years, she really cleaned chickens for a little store on the corner of Angier Avenue and Elm Street that was run by Paul Talley. I worked around the store and that was about all the money that we had. My father would just take off out of town and we wouldn't see him for eight or nine months at a time. He was supposed to pay twelve and a half dollars a week for alimony for the five kids, but I guess that my mother probably received it less than half the time or about a fourth of the time. We were on welfare, you know, and when I became nine or ten years old, I began shining shoes. I shined shoes and made a little money during that period.
BILL FINGER:
Were young boys still going into the textile mills that late? I know that in the 20's they were.
WILBUR HOBBY:
Yeah, there were some young boys, but there weren't many real young boys going in. I guess that the child labor laws had been passed. This was '33, '34. I guess that by that time, probably the child labor laws had passed and most of us were going to school. We would stay out of school one day a week and pull a little wagon over to get commodities, which was food given out during the Depression. I remember pulling it home with bags of grits and cabbage, half of which was rotted … you would throw that half away and eat the other half …and sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes and occasionally, some canned meat, not very much meat back then.
BILL FINGER:
Do you remember thinking that you were poor?
WILBUR HOBBY:
Oh, I knew that we were poor. I thought that everybody was poor. Everybody I knew was poor. It was an extremely poor section of the city, still is. There was a little clinic, which they don't have now. The one thing that I remember now, though, and I guess that this was because of the mill. It was a mill village type of thing in Edgemont at that time, because all of the Golden Belt was there and what they called Durham Hosiery Mill was down there. And then they had another hosiery mill and textile mill up on Henderson Street and Walker Street. The houses were close together, most of the people worked in the mill. They even had a big area over there where Few Gardens is now, that was a garden where the mill owned the land and allowed people to grow gardens. As they built East Durham Junior High School, as we got a little older, we used to walk through that area going to junior high school over there. The first year that it was built, we would walk right through the middle of the gardens which are now where Few Gardens is. I don't know if that's where they got the name, "gardens" from or not. I never thought about it until just then, but there were gardens right where that area of town is public housing, where Few Gardens is now. Another thing that I remember about it, is that there was a WPA sewing room which my mother worked at for part of the time.