Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

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Dust Bowl
At the turn of the twentieth century, several factors came together that would eventually lead to the devastation of what was referred to as the Dust Bowl, a wide expanse of land in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico that was turned into a virtual desert, thus causing widespread poverty in these southern plains states. First, there was a mass movement of settlers into these territories, with most of the people eking out a living on land that was originally considered sufficient only for grazing livestock. Then there were generally accepted, but invalid, so-called scientific beliefs that cultivation of crops actually attracted moisture; and the spread of railroads and electric wires as well as the use of artillery fire induced rain. None of these theories proved true and adding to an already unstable condition, as the population of these arid areas increased, the drought cycle increased. On top of these factors, Prohibition during the early part of the twentieth century decreased the need for a variety of crops, and farmers, instead of rotating their crops, turned to wheat as their sole source of income. The lack of rotation in planting caused the already precious soil to further erode.

Dust storms in this area were not uncommon. However, in the 1930s, the storms grew ever thicker and their occurrences more frequent. In 1933, there were seventy different dust storms. By 1937, the number had increased to 134. The dust accumulation around doors and windows was so thick that it had to be shoveled, much like in a snowstorm. Sunday, April 14, 1935, became notoriously referred to as Black Sunday for the massive storm that swept across the Plains turning day into night. In a story about Black Sunday, a reporter for the Associated Press coined the phrase ‘‘Dust Bowl,’’ for which this region would come to be known.

As if this were not enough to send a farmer to ruin, this same time period was also known for its horrendous hailstorms, tornadoes, and record-breaking hot temperatures. Also, there was a population explosion of jackrabbits, grasshoppers, and other insects, all of whom ate most of the crops that made it through all the other devastating elements. Although the rest of the nation suffered under the effects of the Great Depression during this time, many people living in the Plains, at least those who were not forced to give up their farms, had some form of food on their tables, even if it meant living off meals of wheat mush and jackrabbit.

Before the Civil Rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, many disabled people were not only discriminated against but also had very few support systems. People with mental or physical handicaps were often institutionalized and even were considered a burden on the rest of the socalled normal society. In the late nineteenth century, this concept was carried out to the point that it was believed moral to improve humanity by eliminating the least able and most unhealthy segments of the population. This philosophy was called Eugenics. It became popular not only in Nazi Germany, but also in the United States.

Toward the goal of purifying humanity, in 1907, the state of Indiana passed a law of compulsory sterilization of people who were concerned ‘‘degenerates.’’ At first, this was only applied to those accused of crimes, but later the Eugenics movement included the sterilization of inmates in institutions for the insane. Such a case, in Virginia, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1927 in the case Buck v. Bell, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld the right of doctors to forcibly sterilize Carrie Buck, a seventeen-year-old girl whose only crime was that she was classified as ‘‘feeble-minded.’’

In another example of Eugenics, Dr. Harry Haiselden, a Chicago surgeon, became famous for his claims of allowing babies, whom he considered too deformed to lead a so-called normal life, to die rather than saving them...

(The entire section is 2,438 words.)