Using Primary Sources in the Classroom:
The Great Depression Unit

Introduction to the Great Depression Unit


After World War I, America and Alabama experienced an economic boom. Large segments of the Alabama economy enjoyed the same boom, the war needs of the country having stimulated manufacturing in the state. A relatively diversified industrial sector featuring textile mills, coal mines, iron and steel furnaces, and timber saw mills produced treasured resources for the needs of World War I and after. As Alabama's population grew in the 1920s, business and industry increasingly were attracted to the state where labor was abundant and cheap. The resulting boom was concentrated in urban areas but much of Alabama shared in the immediate post-war prosperity.


Although the Great Crash of the stock market in November 1929 was the accepted chronological starting point of the Great Depression, the economy of the United States had begun its downward slide earlier. In Alabama, agriculture had been "depressed" for the entire decade, directly effecting 78% of the population that lived in rural areas in 1920. Significant segments of the industrial economy had begun to decline in output and income as early as 1926. Thus, when the Great Depression hit, poorer Alabamians hardly registered the difference. State government, long accustomed to extending only the barest minimum in social services to its citizens, was quickly overwhelmed by the need to provide relief once the crash came in 1929.


The federal government initially did little, either. But after the inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, a host of innovative relief and reform efforts were undertaken under the umbrella known as the "New Deal." The New Deal programs were designed to "give a hand up, not a hand out" and administered, for the most part, by conservative business and political leaders here in Alabama. Having long struggled with the effects of illiteracy, sickness, and poverty, Alabama's problems were too ingrained to respond quickly to the modest help offered by the New Deal. Demands for greater state assistance to the needy continued for much of the decade, as did demands for a more fundamental restructuring of the economic system.


The economic disasters of the 1930s spelled the beginning of the end for farm tenancy which had for so long characterized the agricultural economy. They also introduced a new radicalism among workers who increasingly looked to labor unions and the weapon of the "strike" to defend and improve their positions in the industrial economy. Ultimately, the advent of World War II and its need for war-related production brought lasting relief from the Great Depression.


Go to Lesson 1: "...we are in need."
Go to Lesson 2: "...a delegation of citizens"
Go to Lesson 3: A Helping Hand
Go to Lesson 4: Relief !
Go to Lesson 5: STRIKE!!!
Go to Lesson 6: Spelling "Help" in a New Way