Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities > Timeline
Timeline Home Page
Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Race Relations in the 1930s and 1940s
Folklore of the South

In October 1938, Federal Writer Levi Hubert talked with several African-American residents in New York City. These residents shared humorous stories that African Americans in the South tell. The excerpts below, from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 , are from Hubert's account of the interview. What events or problems do the stories deal with? Why do you think African Americans told such stories? Can you think of similar ways in which humor is used to deal with problems today?

Read the entire interview from which these excerpts were taken. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

The triple Ks, K,K,K.: Every section of the South has been familiar with the Klan, Konclaves, night-riders, white-sheets hastily gathered from clotheslines and wrapped about furtive figures intent upon upholding order and law in a land poisoned by race prejudice.

Fear and violence were substituted for peace and security, no one knew where a [flaming?] cross was to be burned next, no one knew whose cabin would be invaded, whose son, father or husband would be snatched from his bed and hung upon the nearest pine tree.

A chance encounter in the street with a white woman in broad day, an accidental brush by a Negro against a white woman while walking along a crowded thoroughfare, a slight misunderstanding with a white man, failure of a Negro to remove his tattered hat and step the gutter while passing a white man, a sullen demeanor, the slightest pretext was seized upon by the K.K.K. as reason for the favorite Southern pastime . . . terror and intimidation of Negroes.

With the Negroes, this real threat to their lives and homes has given rise to some rather tall stories which are often told in a humorous manner, but it cannot be denied that these stories arise from one of the most pernicious practices current on the American scene.

As told to me by Mrs. Cole and members of her family:

A Negro tinsmith and his son were repairing a roof on a building in the business section of a Southern city. The tinsmith made a misstep, faltered, and plunged over the edge of the roof. His son, noted the precipitate descent of the unlucky man, noticed something else . . . a white woman walking along, directly in the path of his father.

"Oh, Paw. Look out below. You'll land on a white woman." So great was the Negro's fear of harming a white woman, he halted his downward flight, reversed himself, regained the roof. His relief [over the escape?] from death was subordinate to his relief that he had not hurt the white woman.

TICKLE BARRELS - Tickle barrels are an institution in every Southern town. Placed upon convenient corners in the white section, they are intended to be utilized by Negroes whose business brings them out of Jimtown. The idea is that any Negro feeling the desire to laugh out lout (and thereby might annoy the whites) mush rush to the barrel, remove the lid, and place his head in it. The guffawn, hysterical giggles, and other manifestations of the Negro who is tickled, is in that manner confined to the barrel, and the dignity and decorum of a Southern city is not offended.
top of page

Read the entire interview from which these excerpts were taken. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.