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Life in the South - Failing Crops

Black and white photograph of woman cooking in a kitchen in a shack in Missouri
  • Subject Areas Arts Science Social Studies
  • Themes Migration Nature & Environment
  • Lesson Plan Series The Migration Series
  • Prism.K12 Strategies Identify Express Synthesize
  • Grade Levels 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Lesson Overview

In 1915 and 1916, the boll weevil infestation ravaged cotton production in the South, resulting in the loss of many cotton crops. Many farmers, particularly African American sharecroppers, found themselves out of work, which led them to journey North in search of a better life.

In this lesson, students will:

  • Understand the economy of the southern United States in the 1910s-1920s 
  • Research the impact of the boll weevil infestation of 1915 on cotton crops in the South
  • Create a poster that warns farmers about the dangers of the boll weevil based on the research conducted

Part 1: Building Historical Context - The Boll Weevil Infestation

Introduce:

  • Individually, have students read this short explanation of the 1915 boll weevil infestation from Ancestry. 
  • Explain to students that cotton farming was one of the largest crops grown in the South. For many of the Southern states, cotton crops were the leading money crops, meaning that most of the money people made came from farming and selling cotton.
  • As a whole class discussion, respond to the following questions:
    • What is a boll weevil?
    • What was the boll weevil infestation of 1915?
    • What impact did the boll weevil infestation have on people living in the South?

Part 2: Research

Researching the Boll Weevil Infestation:

  • Explain to students that they’re going to learn more about the boll weevil infestation and its impact on African Americans living in the South.
  • In groups of 3-4, students should read this excerpt from the US Department of Labor’s Division of Negro Economics Report. (Teacher note: You should explain to students that the term “negro” was using back in the 19th and early 20th century but that this is no longer a term that is used to describe black people. Black and African American are the preferred terms to use today, and people have different preferences.)
  • Next, in their groups, they will study these images of the boll weevil:
  • After reading the excerpt and studying the images, students should make note of:
    • Observations about the boll weevil (as shown in the images)
      • What does it look like?
      • What animals is it similar to?
    • Questions they have about the boll weevil and its impact on African Americans living in the South
  • In their groups, students will conduct research on the boll weevil infestation. Provide students with the Note Catcher organizer to gather their answers and citations. Students should: 
    • Investigate the primary research question: What was the impact of the boll weevil infestation on cotton farms at the turn of the century? 
    • Develop a hypothesis. Students should first explain what impact they think the boll weevil had on cotton farms based on what they’ve learned so far in the lesson.
    • Investigate secondary research questions. These are the questions they posed at the end of the previous step.
  • Provide students with some guidelines for conducting research:
    • Use this lesson from Teaching Tolerance to teach students about reliable sources.
    • Use this lesson to teach students about citations.

Part 3: Poster Making

SYNTHESIZE:

  • Explain to students that based on the research they gathered about the boll weevil infestation, they will SYNTHESIZE that information and individually write a short paragraph that explains the danger of boll weevils on cotton farming. As part of this paragraph, they should explain whether or not their hypothesis was correct or not. 
  • After they write their own paragraphs, create a “We Know” chart for the classroom that is based on the whole class’s research on the boll weevil infestation and its impact on cotton farms. This should be posted on chart paper for the whole class to see. 
    • A “We Know” chart is a statement that combines the learning from the whole class. To create a “We Know” chart, have students identify similarities in their paragraphs.

EXPRESS:

  • After creating the “We Know” chart, each student will imagine that they were hired by the US Department of Labor in the 1910s to warn farmers about the dangers and impact of the boll weevil. Students will EXPRESS their findings by creating posters to be posted in farming towns and printed in newspapers. 
    • Suggested materials include (but are not limited to): poster paper, markers, paint, crayons, colored pencils, letter stencils, and cutouts from newspapers or magazines.

Additional Context

Lesson Context

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th centuries, most African Americans lived in the South. Their life was not easy. There were several reasons black people suffered so extremely in the South. Jim Crow laws were in full effect. These laws made it legal to segregate people based on race. Specifically, these laws denied African Americans the right to vote, hold jobs, and get an education. Anyone who attempted to resist these laws could be arrested, fined, jailed, suffer violently, or even killed.

In rural farming areas, many were sharecroppers who never earned much of a profit. To make matters worse, the boll weevil infestation, as explained by the US Department of Labor’s Division of Negro Economics, had inflicted heavy damage on cotton farms across the rural South by 1916. The boll weevil is a type of beetle that feeds on cotton buds and flowers. 

In many panels in the first half of the series, Lawrence addresses reasons for leaving the South. This includes panel no. 9, which depicts the boll weevil. Lawrence himself had never seen the bug in person so his image relied on scientific illustrations.  

The Migration Series also includes other images of failing crops as well as images of segregation and discrimination, poverty, and bleak educational opportunities for African Americans. The decision to leave the South was not easy for many. The journey could be long, arduous, and expensive. Yet the desire for a better life was what drove them to make the journey despite its challenges.

Key Terms

Boll Weevil Infestation of 1915: In 1915 and 1916, the boll weevil, a type of beetle that feeds on cotton buds and flowers, infested much of the cotton crops in the rural South. This infestation significantly reduced cotton production, as much as 70% in Alabama, and resulted in the loss of many cotton crops. As a result, many farmers, particularly African American sharecroppers, found themselves out of work. The boll weevil infestation and its devastating effects became one of the driving forces behind the Great Migration.  

Great Migration: In the Southern US, African Americans endured blatant discrimnation and segregation as part of Jim Crow laws, as well as poor economic conditions. In the hopes of improved living and working conditions, hundreds of thousands of African Americans migrated from the South to the North, in particular to Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, and New York. The Great Migration happened in two major waves: the first one being from 1916-1940 and the second one from 1941-1970.

Sharecropping: During the Reconstruction era, systems and laws were put in place to continue to oppress formerly enslaved people. One such oppressive system was sharecropping. Sharecroppers were farmers who did not own his/her farmland or control which crops were planted or how they were sold. They had to borrow small land, as well as a house and tools, from a landowner for a part of his crop and the profits of that crop were given to the landowner at the end of the year. Tenant farmers, by contrast, typically paid the landowner rent for farmland and a house. They owned the crops they planted, made decisions about them, sold them, and then paid the landowner from the profits they made. Sharecropping perpetuated inequity and discrimination, and stripped Black farmers of their ability to attain wealth and autonomy.