Most of us have heard stories about the Great Depression from parents and grandparents who grew up during that troubled time in our nation’s history. But what we may not know is that the Great Depression, which seems like such a great equalizer, affected different communities in very different ways. In segregated, Southern black communities like the one Dr. Maya Angelou grew up in, the Depression meant something very different than the boom-and-bust, riches-to-rags stories we usually hear.

Sharecroppers in a cotton field. Credit Library of Congress
Sharecroppers in a cotton field. Photo from Library of Congress

Before, during, and after the Depression, most black folks in the rural South were sharecroppers. Sharecropping, the practice of renting farmland in exchange for giving the owner part of your harvest, may sound like a decent deal, but in practice “sharecropping” just turned out to be a pretty word for debt slavery. White landowners found ways to rig the system so that what little money sharecroppers were able to make for themselves went right back into the pockets of the landowners, keeping black families perpetually in debt to white ones.

As a result, black communities in the rural South were deeply impoverished even before the Depression hit, and they knew how to be poor. Even during what people call the “Roaring ’20s” black families were growing their own food in their backyards, sewing their own clothes, and making household items from scratch.

So when the Great Depression hit, people who were used to using cash for everything were at a loss, but rural black communities like Dr. Maya Angelou’s had the skills and the know-how to weather the Depression. Wandering homeless people of all races would come to the black communities first to ask for food and charity because they knew that most black people had kitchen gardens and sympathy for the state of poverty. If the Great Depression was also the great equalizer, it was because it gave the formerly middle-class white communities a taste of the bare-bones poverty black communities had endured since the founding of America.

Sadly, this taste of equality seems to have done very little to cultivate sympathy for rural blacks and their difficult quality of life. When white folks got back on their feet, they also generally went back to the system of ignoring, cheating, and abusing black people that we now call “Jim Crow.” White landowners went back to scamming sharecroppers out of their shares of the crops.

When the jobs boom created by World War II brought back the middle class, the formerly homeless retreated into their own lives rather than turning and offering a leg up to the black families who had fed them when they were starving. Without a fundamental change to the system, black communities could not rise out of the poverty of the Great Depression even when it ended. It was not until the Civil Rights Movement when people like Dr. Maya Angelou and her close friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for a change to the system itself that Jim Crow and its methods of keeping black people in poverty would start to be dismantled.

Written by Rachel M.E. Wolfe, dramaturg. Dr. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings runs Sept 13-Oct 15. Get your tickets here