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New Deal Community-Building in the South: The Subsistence Homesteads around Birmingham, Alabama

From: Alabama Review
Volume 66, Number 2, April 2013
pp. 83-121 | 10.1353/ala.2013.0010

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Georgia Senator Richard H. Russell, speaking in 1941, called the New Deal's resettlement program a "black eye" for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) while questioning then-FSA administrator Will Alexander about the FSA's progress in getting rid of resettlement projects. Years later, one resident of the Palmerdale community (one of the FSA settlements near Birmingham, Alabama), Jean Walker, said in an interview that "it was good, very good, and I think that everybody that came out here [Palmerdale] really profited by doing so." Russell and Walker reflect opposing conclusions about the resettlement program, especially the ones around Birmingham and Jasper, Alabama. In one sense, most individual projects and the program as a whole were utter failures. Poorly-conceived, the early resettlement communities were planned too hurriedly and constructed too slowly and expensively. Such problems only exacerbated the controversy surrounding the projects from their inception. Consequently, the resettlement program, though it was only a minor part of the Farm Security Administration's efforts, was a major part of the reason that the FSA came under attack during World War II, when the Roosevelt Administration was preoccupied with concerns other than defending its 1930s social experiments. For the administrators of the FSA and its predecessors, resettlement was a financial and political disaster.

Still, most residents who stuck through the program's difficult early years (made so in part because of that poor planning and political instability) strongly approved of the program, even though it had not actually done what it intended. They were not made into self-sustaining subsistence farmers, but homesteaders nevertheless saw improvements in their housing, diets, and financial situation. Even if they were not successful as subsistence farmers, residents were glad to get a chance for new, better lives for their families. In the midst of economic uncertainty, residents believed that their homesteads provided a solution for their problems and a model for the entire nation. Overall, it is fair to say that for most resettlement residents, particularly in Birmingham, the communities eventually turned out well after a few years of instability and false starts. The subsistence homesteads around Birmingham provided residents with the opportunity to create and revitalize their communities, and they took advantage of it. Birmingham homesteaders were proud of what they built, pride that still exists in many of the communities to this day.

The subsistence homesteads program was one of the earliest New Deal responses to rural poverty, first proposed in March 1933. Early New Dealers put a great deal of hope in community-building. Some alternative had to be found for the mass of unemployed who had no future in either large-scale agriculture or industrial employment. The solution would be a new form of living, perhaps even a new form of community. These subsistence homesteads would provide everything that a rural or semi-rural citizen needed. The projects around Birmingham and Jasper, Alabama, were generally representative of how subsistence homesteads worked, and they garnered particular attention because of their connection with Alabama Senator John H. Bankhead, Jr., who created the first subsistence homesteads legislation.

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Arthur Rothstein, photographer. "Some of the children who are now residents of the Palmerdale Homesteads, Alabama." Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF34-005888-E.

Like President Franklin D. Roosevelt and millions of other Americans, Bankhead believed strongly in the notion of the family farm as a refuge against the uncertainties of the industrial economy. He hoped that the federal government could create new communities to take advantage of the inherent benefits of rural life to better the condition of those trapped in poverty and unemployment, combining the best of rural and urban life. Historian Donald Holley describes how the "industrial-type projects became the best examples of what subsistence homesteads were supposed to be," a modern combination of mechanized farming techniques and small subsistence farms that still provided the opportunity for seasonal or part-time industrial employment.

Subsistence homesteads looked like the ideal middle ground between rural and urban life. Land utilization experts argued that perhaps a third of the country's farms should be removed from cultivation due to poor soil and converted to woodland or pasture...

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