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WPA North Carolina Back-to-School Story

WPA North Carolina Back-to-School Story

 1940 picnic, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

1940 picnic, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In celebration of Labor Day and the start of an another academic year, I’ve gone back into my cachet of WPA records. The story I share is based on archival material housed in the Library of Congress in Washington DC. It consists of many things including stories that WPA writers collected during the Great Depression. Some of the authors names we have others remain anonymous as is the case with this North Carolina story. The tradition at least in one part of the state had been to hold a high school commencement/homecoming picnic around Labor Day. My strategy has been to use direct quotes when possible and paraphrase when necessary because the language would otherwise be difficult for the contemporary reader to understand. We don’t know is: who organized the event; who paid for the food brought to the event or if it was a potluck in which volunteers contributed their best dish. What we do know: At the time schools in North Carolina had been segregated in this more than likely had been held at an all white high school; When a story involved nonwhites WPA need that clear in the description of the participants. The menu indicates that this had been a large well attended free to eat community event. It would have taken place in a shady space of the high school campus. A local minister would be called on to bless the food laid out on long tables. It reads like a church revival sometimes called a big meeting. What follows is the carefully described menu:

Commencement Basket Picnic Menu

Meats: ham-boiled, fried, baked, barbecue, meatloaf, salmon, salmon patties, roast beef, roast pork, hamburgers, venison, guinea, turkey, barbecued goat, lamb, cheese.

Chicken: fried, baked, stewed, barbecued

Sandwiches: tomato and lettuce, chicken, [egg salad], ham, pork, pimento, peanut butter, fruit sandwiches made with raisins, bananas, pineapple and lettuce.

Salads: potato, coleslaw, lettuce and mayonnaise, tomato.

Vegetables: baked beans, corn, cabbage, snap peas, butter beans, tomatoes, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, lettuce, English peas, field peas, (rice, black-eyed peas and Crowder beans)

Canned foods: pickles, cucumber, beets, spiced grapes, peaches, artichokes, apples, snap beans, butter beans, tomatoes, English peas.

Preserves: peach, apple, pear, damson, watermelon rind, grapes.

Pickles: sweet-and-sour: cucumber, peach, tomato, well watermelon rind, beets, mixed tomato, pepper, onion, cherry.

The menu items that jumped out at me are the fruit sandwiches and some of the pickles. I’ve never heard of descriptions of sandwiches like the fruit sandwiches nor pickling peaches and/or cherries. What about you, which parts of the story and/or menu grabbed your attention and why?

How to have a great community event. First, organize the best cooks in your community to bring a dish ( be sure they label what it is for those with food allergies some of which can be deadly). Second, organize those who can bring and/or build long tables for the event. Third, identify a cool and/or shady location to hold the event and pray for good weather. Finally, solicit the support of the various religious leaders of your community along with school officials. Getting buy-in is important in bringing people together so that everyone feels a part of the event.

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