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How the Great Depression & New Deal Impacted Georgia

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore early 20th-century Georgia, specifically how the Great Depression changed the makeup of Georgian society and how the New Deal helped mitigate it's effects.

Calamities

Crisis affects everyone differently. Some people are well-prepared or have backup plans or savings which help them to get through a rough patch. Others, through their own poor planning or circumstances that are beyond their control, have a much harder time.

The Great Depression was a time of hardship for all Americans, but in Georgia it hit particularly hard. In this lesson we will explore why the Great Depression had such an impact on Georgia and discuss how the New Deal helped Georgians claw their way back.

The Boll Weevil

Anyone who has ever driven through the vast fields of Georgia can attest to just how important agriculture is to Georgia's economy. In the early 20th century, agriculture was even more important than it is today, and the most important crop was cotton. Though there were calls for Georgian farmers to diversify their crops, the profits that cotton production promised proved too alluring to most of the state's farmers.

In 1911, for example, Georgian farmers produced 2.8 million bales of cotton on nearly 5 million acres of Georgian land. Unfortunately, the collapse some feared came quickly after this peak when the boll weevil was introduced to the state in 1915. This tiny insect lays its eggs inside the flower buds or seeds of a cotton plant. When the larva hatch, they feed upon the bud or seed, killing the plant or rendering the flower useless.

The boll weevil destroyed Georgia's cotton industry as production fell off precipitously, falling by more than a quarter in less than a decade. The problems caused by the boll weevil were exacerbated by a severe drought which struck the southern and midwestern United States in the 1920s. Cotton's fall drastically hurt the Georgian economy, which depended heavily upon its production.

Great Depression

The failure of cotton in the 1910s and 1920s depressed Georgia's economy even before 1929. In that year, the stock market collapsed, partly due to price speculation which pumped up the value of stocks and commodities (cotton included) and disguised the true value of the stock or good. When the prices on the stock market collapsed, the prices of cotton and other agricultural goods fell as well. The shock upended Georgia's agricultural economy; farmers could no longer depend upon the high prices that had delivered so much profit in the past.

The agricultural collapse led to two major related trends. First, within Georgia, many people moved from the countryside to the city. Atlanta in particular grew quickly during the period. Many farmers defaulted on their loans and had property or their farms repossessed. With no farm and no prospects for profitable employment in the countryside, cities expanded quickly as people flocked to urban areas looking for work.

A second mass migration also occurred for the same reasons, but this one was out of Georgia. Thousands of Georgians joined the millions of southerners who moved north because of a lack of work and the possibilities of finding work in northern factories and industry. They left the Georgian countryside and moved to urban centers like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland. They moved hoping to find work and escape the systemic racism prevalent in the early 20th-century South. This mass exodus has come to be known as the Great Migration.

New Deal

For those who stayed in Georgia, the Depression era was one of the hardest in Georgia's history. The agricultural economy was ruined by the price collapse, and it was further hampered when the government tried to drive up cotton prices by enforcing severe production limits. These and other measures by the Hoover administration failed to work, and their failure in part helped elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency. Taking office in 1933, one of Roosevelt's first policies was to institute the New Deal, an economic plan involving new programs and direct government aid to foster the country's economic recovery.

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