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Today is January 16, 2021

It was the worst of times

How did rural Mississippians, America’s poorest in the 1920s, survive the worst economic crisis in our nation’s history? Author Richelle Putnam explores the Great Depression’s impact on Mississippi in her new book.

By Debbie Stringer

It was the worst of times

Richelle Putnam, of Meridian, sought to present a balanced, inclusive account of Depression-era Mississippi in her new book, “Mississippi and the Great Depression.” Diane Williams, of Madison, inspired the book and wrote its foreword, citing the experiences of her great-grandfather and grandfather.

The U.S. stock market collapse of 1929 signaled the onset of the Great Depression, a worldwide economic calamity that would persist through the 1930s.

The Depression hit rural Mississippians especially hard, forcing farm families deeper into poverty, debt, illness, hunger and despair. Foreclosures and tax forfeitures were common; on an April day in 1932, one-fourth of the land area in Mississippi was auctioned for unpaid taxes.

But Mississippians were dirt poor even before the Depression struck. Six of every 10 lived on farms, and of those, 65 percent did not own their land. Their poverty stemmed from a system of sharecropping and tenant farming devoted to one-crop agriculture (cotton), which led to soil depletion.

These workers struggled with declining cotton prices, boll weevil infestations, growing debt burdens, the catastrophic Great Flood of 1927, drought and a “cut and run” practice by some lumber companies that left ghost towns (and unemployment) in their wake. For African Americans, these problems were compounded by racism and Jim Crow laws.

How the Great Depression changed life for all Mississippians, what they did to survive (or not) and how government responded—for better or worse—are themes Meridian author Richelle Putnam explores in her new book, “Mississippi and the Great Depression,” with foreword by Madison artist/author Diane Williams, of the Mississippi Arts Commission.

“I knew it was hard—everybody knows the Great Depression was hard—but there was such contrasting elements in different regions of Mississippi and different races who had to face it in different ways,” Putnam said.

Putnam is the author of several books on Mississippi history topics and a freelance magazine writer. She is a Mississippi Arts Commission Teaching Artist/Roster and recipient of a 2014 MAC Literary Arts Fellowship. Her young-adult biography, “The Inspiring Life of Eudora Welty,” earned the 2014 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards Silver Medal.

Putnam took on the Great Depression topic at Williams’ urging.

“I could really see how understanding that time period helps us in these economic times,” Williams said.

The two women agreed to co-author the book, although Williams later bowed out due to other commitments.


Blending facts with personal narratives, stories of notables and historical photographs, Putnam succeeds in presenting a truthful, inclusive portrait of Mississippi during the Great Depression. She considers the Depression’s impact on most every aspect of Mississippi life, from employment, housing and health to politics, religion and art.

Stories of African Americans’ experiences during the Great Flood of 1927 are especially tragic, Putnam said. A levee break north of Greenville sent up to 10 feet of water rushing over nearly one million acres of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, causing around 1,000 deaths.

Some 13,000 African American flood refugees stranded on the levee in Greenville were prevented from evacuating; landowners insisted they would be needed to repair the levee when the floodwaters receded. Armed National Guard personnel patrolling the levees refused to allow black people to leave without a pass. They were powerless to protest.

“When I did the research on the Depression book and saw such cruelty, it really affected me,” Putnam said.

Yet such truths must be told, she believes. “I want to always search for the truth regardless of how ugly it may be. You have to know the truth to help solve a problem, bring people together or help change something,” she said.

“As long as we close our eyes, nothing is going to change. And I think history should always open your eyes.”


The stark contrast between country and city life during the Depression intrigued Putnam as she researched. In general, hardship was less apparent in larger towns, where stores promoted Christmas sales, parades and fairs carried on, and folks escaped their troubles in movie theaters.

Not so for hungry farm families.

That malnutrition was commonplace in an agricultural state like Mississippi took Putnam by surprise. Many sharecroppers and tenant farmers survived on a diet of the “three Ms”: meat, molasses and meal. On the plantations, King Cotton muscled out farm workers’ food plots and eventually degraded the soil.

“I was blown away by that,” Putnam said. “If any state should not have starved, it should have been Mississippi. We can plant anything here, but not if you deplete the soil.”

Putnam devotes a chapter of her book to letters from individuals pleading desperately to elected officials for relief. She also includes first-person accounts of aging African Americans, reprinted from the WPA (Works Progress Administration) Slave Narratives.


While farm families fretted about their next meal, government officials wondered how to get the nation back on its feet.

Enter President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a smorgasbord of federal programs and agencies created to provide relief, jobs and economic stability.

“This was the first time government had ever stepped in for anything. Our mail had been about the extent of government participation in our lives,” Putnam said.

During the Depression, WPA became the nation’s largest employer by creating eight million jobs. Unemployed Americans were hired to carry out public works projects such as road and building construction.

For many Mississippians, WPA employment meant the difference between starvation and survival.

In her book Putnam describes construction projects throughout Mississippi that owe their existence to New Deal programs, including Roosevelt State Park, Sardis Lake and Dam, and Picayune City Hall.

Other New Deal public works programs included the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Rural Electrification Administration (REA).

At the onset of the Depression, less than 1 percent of Mississippi farms had electricity. Beginning in the mid-1930s, TVA extended electric service into northeast Mississippi. REA loans enabled farmers throughout the state to organize their own electric cooperatives. For the first time in their lives, with help from TVA and REA, rural Mississippians had electric lights in their homes.


The Depression reminds us that tough times foster creative expression. Gospel, blues and country music flourished in Mississippi during the Depression, eventually propelling artists like Son House and Jimmie Rodgers to international fame.

Putnam devotes a chapter to the astonishing number of famous performing artists, musicians and writers who roots run deep in Depression-era Mississippi.

“That’s when the blues singers really came out and were recorded,” Putnam said.

“Jimmie Rodgers sold over a million records during the Great Depression. I guess people just needed something to make life better.”

“Mississippi and the Great Depression” is available from booksellers at $21.99 for the 222-page softcover edition.

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