Economic Conditions in Greenville, Alabama (Butler County), Summer, 1965
Rev. Dr. Janet E. Wolfe

(Written while working in Greenville for SCLC SCOPE Project, Edited August 21, 2014)

Annabelle L., is a young mother of five. She has no husband. I do not know if she has ever had one. But that is irrelevant. She has five hungry children. She works hard, from 7:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. five days a week, in the home of a white woman. She makes a total of $10 a week!

She is conscientious about her children, and she hires a babysitter. The babysitter receives $4 a week. This gives her a total of $6 a week to pay the rent, lights, water, buy clothes and food, especially milk

While I was talking to Annabelle L., a small child was playing on the porch. He was about three and was wearing only a diaper. His stomach was bloated, as a child who is suffering from malnutrition. There is a younger baby who nurses. He looks healthier, for he has his mother's milk But the three year old needs milk too.

Annabelle L. asked her boss, the white woman, for an additional five dollars a week. She explained that she simply could not meet the expenses of her children on $6 a week. The woman replied that she could not afford to work if she had to pay more. For her own baby, there is plenty of milk. The white woman works at the glove factory for $18 a day. Annabelle would like to work at the glove factor, and she feels that she is qualified. But the glove factory has not been hiring Negroes. Under the new Fair Employment Practices Act, the glove factory is supposed to hire at all levels without discrimination, but it will undoubtedly try to hire on a token basis.

The most effective way for Annabelle and other Negroes to gain employment in the glove factory is for them to organize. The white management can put down individual Negroes, but cannot resist organized pressure. The Negro has the support of the United States government, and I hope, the vast majority of the American people. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the person who is discriminated against may file a complaint with the Attorney General's office and the employer may be compelled to hire fairly.

The basic problem of the Negro in Greenville, Alabama, is economic. There are several large factories in the area, but they have hired almost no Negroes and those they have hired are in menial positions. The lumber mill in Chapman, 10 miles away, hires Negroes only for the most dangerous work. There are people in the area who have lost limbs from working there. The mill used to have a union, but the union has been abolished. The local employment service has a habit of ignoring applications by Negroes for non-traditional jobs.

Women find work in white homes. But they must frequently leave their children alone to work. The County Welfare department requires that mothers receiving assistance must work unless there are very special circumstances. Even at that, welfare payments run $40-$60 per month for very large families. Rent for the run-down shacks where many live is $20, often with no hot water or no running water inside, and with outdoor toilets. The roofs leak on most of them, and there are no screens on the doors. Flies are very bad. Children often have badly infected insect bites all over their legs.

There is a widespread notion that people on welfare are not willing to help themselves. In most cases, this is completely untrue. Most of them manage their money very carefully. But it is expensive to be poor. Much must be bought on credit. Most of the people on welfare work full time but they do not receive enough for their work to support their families. When white people pay a minimum wage for domestic work, women can make enough to better themselves without welfare. I believe the average wage in Greenville for housekeeping is $2 per day. There is no necessity for welfare workers to treat clients like dirt, either. All people deserve to be treated with human dignity, even those in poverty.

Men do farm work for about $3 per day. There is a large plantation, owned by Joe Poole, on which Negroes are still practically in slavery. They are always in debt to him and he will accept no cash payments. Debts must be worked off at $3 per day. The only way a debtor can get away is to slip out in the night and run away, and Poole has even had people arrested in other states. He has been intimidating people who live and work on his place who wish to register and vote.

Getting the vote will enable Negroes to be in a position to demand improvements. Organization will further strengthen their position. In the long run, poor whites would benefit by joining with Negroes for better wages and working conditions, because wages will not rise as long as there is a cheap source of labor. Labor unions would benefit both. Without "black and white together," the South will continue to suffer from great inequality.

The South has been built on the backs of the Negroes ever since slaves were brought from Africa to this country. Negroes do most of the hard labor; yet the whites get the rewards. Discrimination is impoverishing the South and, as a result, the whole country.

Copyright © Janet Wolfe, 2015

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