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The Depression and Hard Times in Mississippi lesson plan


It is difficult for today’s students to grasp the dire predicament of most Mississippians who lived during the Depression Era. Study of the events of that period will give students a useful historical base, but it alone cannot be expected to engender in them a deep understanding of the severity of the period. However, an examination of the lives of ordinary citizens as they shared their desperation in letters to their congressman will enable students to gain a clearer picture of the times. As students read the correspondence between Congressman William M. Colmer and his constituents, they should think about answers to these questions:

How hard were the Depression years for Mississippians?

Why do citizens write their representatives in Congress?

When should the government assist its citizens?


Mississippi Studies Framework: Competencies 1, 3, and 4; Objectives 04, 10.


Grades 4 (with modification) through 12.


Mississippi History Now article

Mississippi history textbooks

Additional biographical resources (William J. Colmer)

Map of Mississippi showing congressional districts


Students will:

examine the major events of the Depression Era.

determine the effects of the Depression on the lives of Mississippians.

collect biographical data on Congressman William M. Colmer.

describe the relationship between Congressman Colmer and his constituents.

discover common themes in the letters written to Congressman Colmer.

write a letter to their congressman regarding an interest or concern.


Ask students to recount any family stories they may have heard about the Depression. Let them discuss what they think they know about the period. Ask them about programs provided today by the government in the areas of employment (job-training and placement, unemployment benefits), housing (low-interest mortgages, subsidized housing), and benefits to disabled and elderly citizens (disability, Social Security). Students should examine the need for these programs and understand that many Americans benefit from them. Ask them when the government began to realize the need for these kinds of services and relate the fact that, prior to the Depression, there were very few state and federal assistance programs. Then, ask students if they, or anyone they know, have ever communicated with their members of Congress and why. Relate these comments and discussion to the Mississippi History Now article.



On the board write this sentence: “A congressman is often influenced by his constituents.” Ask students to copy the sentence and to write a definition of the term constituent, based on the context. Let students share their definitions with a partner, then ask the class to discuss and reach consensus. (Teacher will assist in this process if necessary.) Write the final definition on the board and have students copy it.


Briefly explain to students the composition of the U.S. House of Representatives. Show them a map of Mississippi with the congressional districts drawn. They should write the number of their district and the name of their congressman. Let them brainstorm ways to contact their representatives in Washington (fax, e-mail, phone, letter, etc.). Mention that in previous periods of our history, the primary way constituents communicated with their officials was through letters. Discuss with students the significance of primary resources, such as letters. Tell them that through a series of letters written in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, they will examine the impact of the Great Depression on the lives of Mississippians.


Using additional resources (textbooks, encyclopedias, internet sites), students will collect biographical data on William M. Colmer. (Teacher may want to use a handout instead, but students need to know who Colmer was.)


Using additional resources (textbooks, encyclopedias, internet sites), students will make a list of the significant events of the Depression era, 1929-1942. Either working individually or in small groups, students will construct a time-line showing these events. Teacher will lead a class discussion to clarify information.


Assign each student a letter (there are 27 letters included in the article) with the instructions to study it carefully and to write observations. Teacher may wish to provide a structured graphic of some type with the following information for the student to find: DATE (of letter), DESCRIPTION OF WRITER, EFFECTS OF DEPRESSION (on writer’s life), REQUEST (by writer of congressman), WRITER’S EDUCATIONAL LEVEL, RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN WRITER AND CONGRESSMAN (if mentioned).


After students complete their analyses of the letters, let them share their information through a class discussion in which the teacher lists responses on the board. Teacher should make certain that students know the purpose of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) as one of many New Deal programs. Ask students why people wrote their congressman – was it just because they had needs, or did they claim some sort of relationship with him?


In small groups, have students categorize the effects of the Depression on the lives of Mississippians as well as the requests they made of their congressman.


Ask students to tell their families about the letter they read. Students will interview family or friends who have knowledge of the Depression period and will add their responses to their categories developed in class.



Allow students to share any information they learned from family or friends regarding the Depression Era.


Distribute copies (or display on overhead) the response letters written by Congressman Colmer. Ask students for their opinions regarding the congressman’s actions. Did he do enough? Was he limited in what he could do? From the biographical data collected, what actions did Mr. Colmer take in Congress to assist Mississippians?


Ask students to write an essay describing the things they have learned about the Depression. (Teacher may want to develop a rubric for this activity.) Students should specifically describe how their perceptions of the period have changed as a result of the study.



Time Line


Class Participation





Students will compose individual or class letters to their members of Congress regarding an issue of interest or concern. Ask them to mention their study of the Colmer letters.


Students can be assigned to research other “alphabet” government agencies established during the Depression Era.


In addition to the photographs with the Mississippi History Now article, teacher may wish to display a copy of Eudora Welty’s One Time, One Place, or Eudora Welty Photographs, both of which contain numerous photographs of Depression Era Mississippi taken by Miss Welty in her position as publicity agent for the Mississippi office of the WPA.


Have students research current per capita income (broken down into monthly increments) and unemployment figures. They can construct a visual to show how these figures contrast with those of the Depression Era.


Memories of Mississippi, The University of Mississippi, 1994. (This is a collection of fascinating essays written by senior citizens of Mississippi describing their recollections of the Depression Era.)

Growing Up In The Depression, Estelle Barlow, Vantage Press, Inc., 1978. (Estelle Barlow grew up in Simpson County, Mississippi)

“A Mississippi Portrait,” a CD produced by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi. (The CD contains Depression Era photographs taken in thirty-one Mississippi counties by Farm Security Administration photographers. The information is indexed according to photographer, county, and subject. A copy is available in all public libraries.)

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