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New Deal Farm Security Administration in the Lower Mississippi Delta: Reading the Photographic Record

By: Jane Adams and D. Gorton
Paper presented at the Agricultural History Society Meetings, MIT, Boston, MA, June 15-17, 2006

One of the best known New Deal programs is the Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) photographic project. The vast photographic archive has been mined over and over for visual evidence about the Great Depression. These photographs frame and undergird our nearly mythological attachment to and understanding of the New Deal. A good number – perhaps most famously, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother -- have moved into the American iconography. They have been critiqued, appreciated, and reconstructed.

They, and other historical photographs, are used most frequently to evoke times and place distant from direct experience. Viewed – and analyzed – primarily as aesthetic objects, they bear a potent emotional content through which the viewer can imaginatively travel in time and across space.


Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. Dorothea Lange, Feb. 1936. LC-USF34-009058-C (re-touched) FSA/OWI . A "summary" added later states: Portrait shows Florence Thompson with several of her children in a photograph known as "Migrant Mother." However, despite their ubiquitous use by historians, historians and social scientists have rarely used them as evidence in historiography. They were created, however, as documents. To be deployed as propaganda, certainly, but also do capture and fix a particular historical moments. Not a “day in the life” of America, but rather, eight years in the life of America (1935-1944) – and a most significant eight years indeed.[1] They aimed to be viewed as texts that in themselves told a story about the period.[2]

Arthur Rothstein, Aug. 1935. Sharecropper's child suffering from rickets and malnutrition, Wilson cotton plantation, Mississippi County, Arkansas.

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Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. Dorothea Lange, Feb. 1936. LC-USF34-009058-C (re-touched) FSA/OWI . A "summary" added later states: Portrait shows Florence Thompson with several of her children in a photograph known as "Migrant Mother."

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Arthur Rothstein, Aug. 1935. Sharecropper's child suffering from rickets and malnutrition, Wilson cotton plantation, Mississippi County, Arkansas.

Photographs as historical documents

In this paper, we will demonstrate the use the images as evidence – as historical documents that, with their captions,[3] help flesh out other historical documents, or guide one to ask unanticipated questions of the historical record. We’ll demonstrate the use of these visual documents through our search to understand one small but significant part of American history – the New Deal land redistribution program in the lower Mississippi alluvial plain – the Delta of popular parlance.[4]

 

We are fortunate to have access to virtually the entire collection of photographs made by the RA/FSA, in roughly the sequence taken by the photographer. Between 1998 and 2000 digitized versions of the photographs were made available on the web in a searchable database. For the first time rejected – “killed” – images for which no file prints were made could be viewed by someone other than a dedicated scholar in the Library of Congress. And also for the first time, the collection could be searched on key words, freeing the researcher from the topical indexing system which was oriented toward users of single images.[5] 

It is now possible to easily and flexibly search these images for detailed information about specific places, by specific photographers, as well as topically.

 

The photographs reveal both by what they document, and by what they fail to document. Both presence and absence are important.

Photographs in general provide direct empirical evidence of the phenomena translated to the chemicals (now digital code) exposed to light through a camera’s lens. But they also reveal, through the knowledgeable or naïve frame and choice of subject matter, what the photographer (or the person directing the photographer) considered important and significant.

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Screenshot of FSA/OWI home page, 6-05

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Screenshot of a set of images with contiguous call numbers. Obtain a series by opening one record on the FSA/OWI website, then clicking - Display Images with Neighboring Call Numbers -

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Imaginative map of the distribution of Resettlement Administration projects.

Empirical data about material culture

The photos have a wealth of raw empirical evidence of life at the time. They provide data about the processes through which projects formed, their composition, and their organization. Though our interest focuses on understanding social relations in the Delta and we are not historians of technology or architecture, we must have some grasp of these phenomena, because they create foundations on which people build their lives.

People we interviewed who grew up on FSA projects in the Delta told us repeatedly of the marvels of moving from their sharecropper shacks to the new FSA homes. Some took us through their homes, remodeled by successive generations. And aerial photos sometimes revealed the still-extant property lines and siting of homes. However, some 65 years or more have passed since these projects were created, and much has changed. The cooperative farm at Lake Dick, for example, has reverted to one vast private plantation, with very little left except the village center.


We wanted to see these projects as their planners had conceived them. We could partially reconstruct these through plat maps on file in the county courthouse that revealed the 40-60 acre plots the FSA recipients had been given.
 

And aerial photos sometimes revealed the still-extant property lines and siting of homes. Aerial photos like the images here of Dyess, Arkansas, which was one of the first Resettlement Administration Project, and Delta & Pine land, which has been operated only as a plantation, show the traces the New Land reform have left on the landscape.

 

However, some 65 years or more have passed since these projects were created, and much has changed. The cooperative farm at Lake Dick, for example, has reverted to one vast private plantation, with very little left except the village center.

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Houses at Plum Bayou, Arkansas, summer 2006. Photo by D. Gorton.

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Transylvania, Louisiana, plat. East Carroll Parish Court House

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Lake Dick is the oxbow lake in the center of this image, copied from Google Earth. (Screenshot, insert in Photoshop and saved for web). It's land pattern is indistinguishable from the plantations surrounding it.

Here is an exemplary series of better than 175 frames from Southeast Missouri Farms from May,1938. Russell Lee shot the house plant, porch plant, privy plant, food storage plant, and barn plant where buildings were prefabbed. He then documented their construction.

Lee sometimes photographed “before” and “after’ shots of the existing structures – for example, privies and poultry houses – and their improved, FSA counterparts. Many of the images are untitled and can only be found by viewing all the pictures in a series.

The images are sometimes out of order because the photographers would send their film to Washington, DC, where it would be processed and test prints made. The test prints and, sometimes, negatives would then be returned to the photographer, who would date them and write captions, and return them to Washington. (see http://memory.loc.gov/ ammem/fsahtml/ fabout.html for a description of the process.)

The FSA photographers also documented the existing living conditions of the sharecroppers. Sometimes they were decrepit, and worse, sometimes simply very poor. We have not undertaken a comprehensive study of these photographs, but our initial survey suggests that they photographed what we might consider a “representative sample” of sharecropper’s housing, both in the Delta and in the South in general.

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Documentation of the privy plant and erection of sanitary privies, Southeast Missouri Farms Project, Russell Lee, May 1938.

Left: Privies. Onward march the crusaders of rural sanitary conditions. Southeast Missouri Farms Project. Russell Lee, May 1938. LC-USF33-011451-M4

Right:

Southeast Missouri Farms. Privy on new farm unit. La Forge project, Missouri. Russell Lee, May 1938. LC-USF34- 031141-D

Privies in New Madrid County, Missouri. New Madrid County, Missouri, Russell Lee, May, 1938. 

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The limits of empirical data – social relations

 

The photographs reveal other aspects of material culture – furniture, farming equipment, decorative arts, use of space, among other things. They also document the introduction of new technologies and, sometimes, the social relations entailed.
 

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For example, Marion Post Wolcott shot these two pictures of tractors on Transylvania Project in June 1940.

By themselves they are enigmatic, but with her caption you see some of the ways that the FSA fostered cooperative principles. They also show that the project brought new land into production. Note the lugged tires. Here’s the “co-op association binder” used with what one assumes is also the coop tractor – this one with pneumatic tires.

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One of the project tractors plowing and discing new land. Transylvania Project, Louisiana. Marion Post Wolcott, June, 1940. LC-USF34- 054041-D

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This particular set also shows the doctor’s office and a woman buying linoleum for her home in the project’s cooperative store.(left) Golus Skipper and A.L. Ross threshing Willy D. Anglin's oats with co-op association binder. Transylvania Project, Louisiana. Marion Post Wolcott, June, 1940. LC-USF34- 053970-D


(Below, left) Buying linoleum for her home in project cooperative store. Transylvania Project, Louisiana. Marion Post Wolcott, June 1940. LC-USF34- 053998-D

 

(Below, right) Mrs. M.E. Chappell with her daughter, Sybil Lee, being examined by Dr. F.A. Williams, director of East Carroll Parish health unit, in project school clinic. Transylvania Project, Louisiana. Marion Post Wolcott. June 1940. LC-USF34- 053986-D

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Wolcott carefully documented what today we would call the cotton “commodity chain.” In several trips to the Delta, she photographed the cotton being hoed, harvested, ginned, and marketed. She also documented the social life and relationships that revolved around cotton.


Cotton carnival. Memphis, Tennessee. Marion Post Wolcott. May 1940. LC-USF34- 053663-D

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Saturday afternoon, Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi. Marion Post Wolcott, Oct.? 1939. LC-USF33- 030640-M5

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But she, Russell Lee, and the other FSA photographers were interested in far more than technology. Roy Stryker, who headed up the division and sent photographers their assignments, infused his instructions with calls to capture sociological, economic, historical, and geographic information (Trachtenberg 1988:61, Hurley 1972). They were to create a visual record of the times, and a narrative that would give it coherence. Only one of these narratives involved the impact and importance of technology.


Cotton carnival, Memphis, Tennessee. Marion Post Wolcott. May 1940. LC-USF34- 053672-D

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Wolcott, in her series on cotton, also photographed the cotton factors, various cotton festivals, blacks spending their earnings from picking cotton. Thumbnails of some of her extensive work can be viewed on this page.


Day laborers being hired for cotton picking on Mississippi and Arkansas plantations. Between four and six-thirty every morning during the season, near the Hallan Bridge in Memphis, Tennessee, crowds of Negroes in the streets gather and are loaded into trucks by drivers who bid, and offer them anywhere from fifty cents to one dollar per day. Marion Post Wolcott. Oct.? 1939. LC-USF33- 030631-M5

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When we study these images they become far more ambiguous, their interpretations far less transparent. Two examples will serve to illustrate the ambiguity – Sunflower Plantation in Sunflower Plantation, Mississippi, and Transylvania Plantation, near Lake Providence, East Carroll Parish, Louisiana.

​The photographers documented many aspects of the daily life of the FSA farmers. The images they framed reveal many of the labor relations in the projects – families working together, cooperative projects, the sexual division of labor, and the use of day laborers to help harvest the crops.

 

​Above Left: Mrs. Fay Melvee and family working in their garden. Plum Bayou Project, Arkansas. Marion Post Wolcott, May 1940.

Above Right: Negroes returning home after cotton picking, Sunflower Plantation, FSA (Farm Security Administration) project, Merigold, Mississippi. Marion Post Wolcott. Oct.? 1939. LC-USF33- 030666-M5​

They picture the educational and medical care provided, and the activities of government agents. That is, simply by mining the photographs for their visual data one can construct a relatively coherent and at least partially accurate story of these projects. In some cases, shooting and re-shooting at different times can put that story in motion, showing the growth and development of a single place.

One can create a coherent narrative that, on the surface, appears unambiguous, albeit patchy.

Let us trouble the story.

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Left: Farm Supervisor talking to one of the project farmers. Transylvania, Louisiana. Marion Post Wolcott, June 1940. LC-USF34- 053919-E

Right: Home management supervisor Miss Louise Martin giving a demonstration and talk at women's club meeting in church and community building. Transylvania Project, Louisiana. Marion Post Wolcott, June, 1940. LC-USF34- 053927-D

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Mrs. M.E. Chappell with her daughter, Sybil Lee, being given typhoid anti-toxin by Dr. F.A. Williams, director of East Carroll Parish health unit, assisted by Miss Lucy Akin, community nurse, in the project school clinic. Transylvania Project, Louisiana. Marion Post Wolcott, June 1940. LC-USF346- 053987-D

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Here are some of the 24 captioned images Russell Lee shot in January 1939 of houses and other structures, and the sharecroppers who occupied them near Pace and Merigold, Mississippi. They are labeled as “background photo for Sunflower Plantation.”

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Above Left: Tenant farmer being interviewed by FSA (Farm Security Administration) Family Section agent, near Pace, Mississippi. Background photo for Sunflower Plantation. Russell Lee. Jan. 1939. LC-USF34-032056-D

Probing a bit further, one could reasonably guess from a number of internal clues that these tenants are going to move to Sunflower Plantation. Surveying all the Sunflower photos created by the FSA, some 61 captioned photos (and at least double that uncaptioned), one finds that it was “optioned by the Resettlement Administration” in 1936.[6] 

Above Right: Background photos for Sunflower Plantation. Pace and Merigold, Mississippi. Russell Lee, Jan. 1939. 

Above Right: Mydens’ 17 1936 photos show what might be considered a “typical” Delta plantation – a center with a gin, seedhouse, barn, mule shed, blacksmith shop, and manager’s home, with two black men repairing a plow at the blacksmith shop.

On the most superficial level, the images are part of the documentation of rural poverty for which the FSA is so famous. But there’s a problem: All the tenants shown in these pictures are white. We know from statistical sources that Sunflower County in 1940 was 71 percent black (1930 70 percent). In 1930 96 percent of farms in Sunflower County were operated by tenants (93 percent in 1940), and nearly 80 percent of all farms were operated by blacks. In other words, the overwhelming proportion of tenant farmers were black, yet no blacks appear in Lee’s “background to Sunflower Project” pictures.

Above Left: Project farmer with his cotton samples in the living room of his new home. Sunflower Plantations, Merigold, Mississippi Delta. Marion Post Wolcott. LC-USF34-052515-D

​Above Right: "Double shovel" cultivator being repaired at Sunflower plantation. Near Sunflower, Mississippi. Carl Mydans, June 1936. LC-USF34- 006499-D

Marion Post Wolcott’s 19 photos of the project, taken in October 1939, is quite different: the land is dotted with FSA houses and the families who live in them are all white. From Sidney Baldwin's history of the Farm Security Administration [7] we know that three-fourths or more of FSA land redistribution went to white tenants. Our still incomplete survey of these projects supports Baldwin’s report.

This is the dark side that the heroic, and now sometimes sentimentalized, story of the FSA projects rarely tells, and that is rarely visible in the photographs. What happened to the African American blacksmith who worked on Sunflower Plantation when it was still in private hands? Were there, as one would expect, many sharecroppers living on the plantation, and were the overwhelming majority of them black? We might be able to determine that by examining the 1930 census schedules, or the FSA records themselves, if they are still extant. Oral traditions in the area might also provide some information. The photographs themselves are mute.

But we have one case, Transylvania Project in East Carroll Parish, where we know a good bit about what happened, and we even have Russell Lee’s photographs to guide us in. As in Sunflower, Russell Lee photographed the project before it was settled by the project families, in January 1939, and Wolcott photographed it a year and a half later in June 1940. That month Wolcott also documented La Delta project, Thomastown, Louisiana.

When we visited the FDR library in Hyde Park, New York, in 2004, we came across three items about Transylvania. The black sharecroppers were protesting their removal.

On January 17, the president's secretary referred a letter, with a synopsis, from the Fraternal Council of Negro Churches in America, asking the President "to secure fair treatment for the Negroes of Transylvania F.S.&A. Project, to the USDA's Farm Security Administration.

On January 21, 1939, the New Orleans agent for the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper, telegrammed to ask the president about "what action if any is being taken relative to letter of protest regarding negro farm tenants on Transylvania, Louisiana, FSA project..."

​And finally, on January 26, two "ex-service men" telegrammed the President saying "More than 100 men and women and children are being forced from their homes destitute and no funds to fight in court to save ourselves. Immediate action necessary to stop dispossession; adults mostly aged and have no place to go. Please save us."

Click below for full view of the memos

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The next year we made a brief trip to Lake Providence as part of our general effort to inventory all the FSA projects in the Delta. Transylvania was the most intact project we had witnessed, with many neat homes; many of the residents' extended families lived in the project.

​Mennonites had more recently come into the area as land levelers and bought homes in the project. But racial (and other) tensions were far more evident than we had seen in the numerous other places we had visited in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. There was clearly a story here, one we could not unravel in the short time available to us. But here was visual evidence that amplified the cryptic documents in FDR’s files.

 

​Russell Lee took a series of 19 photographs of one black family as they were preparing to move from Transylvania in January 1939. It is not obvious that the disparate photos were taken in the same homestead, and of the same people, because the images are scattered throughout his coverage of Transylvania. When ordered by their call numbers, they are separated by other photos from Transylvania, as well as photos from Laurel, Mississippi, Chicot Farms, Arkansas, Jerome, Arkansas, Westlaco, Texas. When studied carefully, these photos can be seen to be photos of one unnamed family. (The contiguous call numbers are: USF33-011924-M2 through USF33-011924-M4; USF33-011929-M1 through USF33-011929-3; USF33-011937-M4 through USF33-011937-5; USF34-031931-D, -03933-D through -03939-D. View them in call number order). When viewed in the context of the resisted removal from Transylvania Plantation, they tell quite a different narrative than they do when viewed singly.

 

​It’s hard to know what to make of Lee’s photographs. Do they show shiftless tenants with little attachment to the land?  Proud farmers moving unwillingly?

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We recently read the memoir of John H. Scott, the man who had mobilized the protest that reached President Roosevelt's desk and the story became clearer.[9] Transylvania had been a black settlement created after the Civil War. Through various processes the land became owned by a Memphis company and rarely if ever visited these holdings. The farmers built a church, had a Rosenwald school, and buried their loved ones in a cemetery. In 1939 the FSA acquired the property and planned to remove all the blacks and re-settle the plantation with white tenant farmers selected by the FSA.

The women's club leaving the church and community building after a home management demonstration by the supervisor and a baby shower they gave for Mrs. Verden Lee, one of their members. Transylvania Project, Louisiana. Marion Post Wolcott, June 1940 . LC-USF34- 054019-D [Wolcott was apparently not aware that this had been the first black Baptist church in the parish, which was appropriated by the FSA when they settled white sharecroppers on the former plantation.]

The black tenants resisted, recruiting the NAACP and other powerful allies. For reasons that remain obscure – but potentially knowable as our research continues – the project moved forward. Eventually, on that bitter January day captured so enigmatically by Russell Lee, people were evicted from their homes.

Photos by Russell Lee, January 1939. Top to bottom, Left to Right:

Children in front of household goods at side of house. These people came from a western parish and brought all their household goods for which they have no storage space in temporary housing provided at Transylvania Project, Louisiana. LC-USF33- 011937-M3

Negro sharecropper with wire which he has rolled up after taking down fences on his rented farm, Transylvania Project, Louisiana. LC-USF33-011937-M4

Goods stored on front porch of former sharecropper's cabin, now temporary home of FSA (Farm Security Administration) client. Transylvania, Louisiana. LC-USF34-031910-D

Condition of crossing over ditch. Mules' shack in background on temporary farmstead. Transylvania Project, Louisiana. Until recently this was occupied by Negro sharecropper. LC-USF34- 031895-D

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The displaced blacks got a sop, however, at least as Scott tells it: three other projects on which all the qualified families were resettled. One was at the south end of East Carroll Parish, adjoining Transylvania but on poorer land, called Henderson. One was at Thomastown to the south. And the third was called Lakeview, to the north and across the lake from the town of Lake Providence.

 

Wife and daughter of FSA (Farm Security Administration) client in front of fireplace of temporary home. Transylvania, Louisiana. Russell Lee, January 1939. LC-USF34-031894-D

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Wolcott returned, after the dust had settled, and documented people productively and happily living in their new government homes at Transylvania and La Delta. No one would know that the resentments created by this removal would erupt in a militant civil rights movement some two decades later, and an equally militant white resistance. [10]

Photos by Marion Post Wolcott, June, 1940. Captions left to right, top to bottom.

Violet Davenport with her chickens by new chicken house. La Delta Project, Thomastown, Louisiana. LC-USF34- 053824-D

Clifton Davenport feeding some of his hogs by new barn. La Delta Project, Thomastown, Louisiana. LC-USF34- 053825-D

FSA (Farm Security Administration) borrower's son getting some canned goods for dinner out of the pantry in his home. La Delta Project, Thomastown, Louisiana. LC-USF34- 054130-D

Nurse Marguerite White Nurse Marguerite White treating a patient. La Delta Project, Thomastown, Louisiana. LC-USF34- 053873-D In another photo the patient is identified as Alice Jane Holden, a tuberculosis patient, and explains that the nurse is showing her how to make her own paper cups which can be burned after use in her home on La Delta Project. Thomastown, Louisiana. LC-USF34- 053890-D

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Old home and a new home on La Delta Project. Thomastown, Louisiana. Marion Post Wolcott, June 1940. LC-USF34- 053819-D

New cotton gin on La Delta Project. Thomastown, Louisiana. Marion Post Wolcott, June 1940. LC-USF34- 053888-D

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Interpretation of the images

​The FSA photographers, following the director, Roy Stryker’s, instructions, crafted a particular story of America. This story changed through time, allowing the careful viewer to discern – even within the corpus itself – the constructed nature of the story told. This image, for example, is a Reading Photographs 101 delight:. Here is the distilled essence of The Planter. Arrogant, “his” Negroes arrayed behind him, Lange pinned him for eternity. The gesture, made more dramatic by Lange’s framing, embodied the archetypal image of corrupt power.

Plantation overseer. Mississippi Delta, near Clarksdale, Mississippi. Dorothea Lange, June 1936. LC-USF34- 009599-C

D. knew of Lange’s propensity for playing fast and loose with actuality, and doubted this photo – in which the nameless man was variously identified as a “plantation owner” (LC-USF34- 009599-C) and as a “plantation overseer” (LC-USF34- 009596-C). One day, after a lengthy interview with A. J. Cowart, a man in his 90s who had lived on the FSA Sunflower Plantation in Rena Lara, D. realized that he might know the story of this man. So we took out our PowerBook with a CD of FSA photographs of the Delta, found the picture, and showed it to him. Mr. Coward exclaimed, “That’s Mr. Partee, the meanest man there ever was.” It turns out that Lange had nailed the man. He was, in fact, what her picture showed him to be.

This is not the place to expand on the reading of individual images in terms of the visual coding within specific images, but any careful study of these photos must be sensitive to visual conventions that have to do with particularly the positioning of the eye – both of the subject and of the camera’s lens –, gesture, lighting, composition, and framing (see, e.g., Levine 1988).

Plantation owner. Mississippi Delta, near Clarksdale, Mississippi. Dorothea Lange, June, 1936. LC-USF34- 009599-C

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Absences as data

As the events at Transylvania suggest, the photographic record also reveals a great deal by what they did not document. Despite the project’s comprehensiveness, it is inevitably incomplete. When the photographs are contextualized with other contemporary accounts, and with the eye distanced by time and large amounts of commentary, it becomes easier to see the artifice underlying these visual documents. It is beyond the scope of this brief paper to delve into this important dimension of the FSA corpus. The absences we observe are of several types: First, not all projects were documented. There are no photographs of Clover Bend in Arkansas, which was a complete RA/FSA projects with cooperative enterprises and schools.

1st Picture: Agricultural building and Fire Department, in the 2000s. Downloaded from http://www.geocities.com/hoxie1961/Index.html

The Clover Bend gymnasium, with the webmaster.

2nd Picture: The reconstructed Clover Bend farmstead, which the historic preservation committee assembled on the central grounds. The history of Clover Bend vy Alda Jean Ramsey is recounted here: http://users.bscn.com/cbmuseum/cbhistry.htm

3rd Picture: And there are no photographs of the smaller Tenant Purchase Projects, in which individual plantations were broken up into 40-60 acre plots and distributed to selected sharecroppers, although there are some photographs of Tenant Purchasers . Is this significant? Or simply due to the choices one must make given limited resources and time? Plat of Glenmary Plantation, Washington County, southwest of Greenville.


4th Picture: This was a black project. A few descendants of original purchasers still lived on the project in 2004, and the community's church remains in use.

5th Picture: In 2003, we saw three houses that had not been significantly remodeled in Greenfield Plantation project , on the Washington-Issaquena County Line, Mississippi. Greenfield had 200 units, with whites on the east side and a smaller black section just behind the Mississippi River levee. The community remains well populated. Lower right: The doublewide we lived in summer 2003, which turned out to be Unit No. 1 of Louden Plantation, Wayside, Washington County, Mississippi.

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Bottom, Top: Phillipson Plantation, Leflore County, Mississippi. Oscar Johnston, who established the cotton section of the New Deal Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and managed the British owned Delta and Pine Plantation, used the FSA's removal of tenants from Phillipston Plantation as part of his justification for opposition to the FSA, in testifying before the 1943 Congressional subcommittee hearings on the FSA (Nelson 1999:219).

​Other absences expose sensibilities and agendas of the time. Several scholars have studied the FSA photographers and photographs, using the available records, such as Roy Stryker’s instructions to the photographers. Their work was always harnessed to national narratives, in which the local and particular lifted off of its specificity and became exemplary of some universal. This was the era of modernism, both “high” and “low.”

Scott, in his influential book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, analyzes what he terms "high modernism." High modernists, he claims, placed their confidence in a science-based progress, believing that the rational design of society and nature would allow virtually unlimited satisfaction of human needs. This ideology, when harnessed to a state apparatus, Scott observed, centralized power in ways that was fundamentally anti-democratic and insensitive to local variability.

Jess Gilbert, in "Low Modernism and the Agrarian New Deal," argued that, in contrast to New Deal leaders like Rex Tugwell, the founder of the Resettlement Administration, who could be termed a "high modernist," other U.S. Department of Agriculture leaders were "low modernists" -- people who sought to build local knowledge into state procedures, and who retained a skepticism about the efficacy of science as a solution to all human problems.

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Lake Dick, Arkansas, was the most centralized RA/FSA project we have found in the Delta. The clients lived in lots fronting on the lake and operated the farm as a single unit under the direction of a farm manager. This distinction of both sensibility and ideology can be seen in the FSA photographers. One indication of this is how the human subjects are treated by the photographer: Few of the people photographed appear with their names.

This is partly an artifact of field conditions, which required the photographers to write captions a considerable time after they shot the photo. (see http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ fsahtml/fabout.html for a description of the process.)

More important, most of the photographers appear to have viewed the people they shot as exemplary of a larger story, not people whose own lives – and therefore names – were important. Notably, Marion Post Wolcott identified many of her subjects by name. But Lange’s Migrant Mother, like her plantation owner cum overseer, remained nameless until their fame spurred others – or themselves – to name them.

The Library of Congress has a detailed explanation of this series here http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/ 128_migm.html.

​Anyone who has worked with local photo collections knows that people devote enormous care to naming everyone possible. The gap between this sensibility – of remembering one’s friends and neighbors, and the documentary photographer’s desire to capture an exemplary moment – reveals the disconnect between the FSA photographers’ cosmopolitan view of their subjects and the subjective reality of those they photographed. That critique has been made over and over, and we do not need to repeat it here.

We are more concerned, in our research, to unpack the social data available inside the photographs, particularly in reference to the dynamics of class and race. Our research has shown us that the experience of the white sharecroppers who were given opportunity by the FSA projects varied greatly from that of Mr. Partee and his fellow white supremacists, as well as from the cosmopolitan intellectuals who, in the 1930s, were animated by a romance of “the people,” of whom mostly white tenant farmers were one important subset.

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Lunchtime for cotton hoers. Dorothea Lange. June 1937. LC-USF34- 017456-E

The great irony of these New Deal programs is that people, who in their desperate poverty were integrated, were in their opportunity segregated.

Race was trumped almost completely by class in the discourses animating the New Deal. Southern blacks, legally disfranchised by the early twentieth century, had no purchase on national power.

Despite their overwhelming numbers in the Delta, almost the only power they had was individual and local. They could, occasionally, as John H. Scott did in Transylvania, and as the evicted sharecroppers did in the Missouri Bootheel in 1939, capture the attention of influential national organizations and media. The FSA photographers did not resolve the tension that existed between the reality of white supremacy and racial segregation on the one hand, and the reality of black majorities on the other. Occasionally they were visibly partisan, as with Arthur Rothstein’s documentation of the evicted sharecroppers in Southeast Missouri.

Such interventions, however, appear rare. More often the photographs are blank, documenting what the photographer saw, or was instructed to see. While Stryker carefully tailored his instructions to the politics of the day, the images by themselves do not reveal the instructions.

Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, New Madrid County, Missouri. Arthur Rothstein, January 1939. LC-USF33- 002947-M4

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The digitized FSA photographs give us an opportunity to explore more deeply and easily the gritty reality of the 1930s. The photos can be organized to answer a wide variety of historical questions. They can be sorted by year and month, by photographer, by state, or other categories. When sorted by catalogue number, photos without captions can be viewed. The collective reality of the images becomes far clearer and meaningful.

While the pictures were used initially by the New Deal administrators as “propaganda” or public relations, they are also an unparalleled documentation of rural America during the Depression years. They are even more remarkable because of the care with which the images were stored, their contemporaneous captions, and the records of how they were conceived and promoted.


Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, New Madrid County, Missouri. Arthur Rothstein, January 1939. LC-USF33- 002927-M1

NOTES

1] “The collection includes about 164,000 black-and-white negatives; this release provides access to over 160,000 of these images. The FSA-OWI photographers also produced about 1600 color photographs.” http://rs6.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fahome.html accessed 5/15/06 See also http://rs6.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fabout.html

[2] As Alan Trachtenberg says (1988:68) as “illuminations, pictorial correlatives, parallel visual texts.”

[3] The captions are not always accurate. See, e.g., Marion Post Wolcott’s mis-attribution of Joe Gow Nue & Co.’s grocery store to Leland, Mississippi, (LC-USF34- 052450-D) when it was a real Greenville landmark. The reason for this was the method they used: The photographers sent their film to Washington, DC, where it was developed and contact prints made. “After Stryker reviewed and selected images, the negatives and file prints (or "first prints") were returned to the photographers for captioning. The resulting captions were edited at the photographic unit's headquarters.” http://rs6.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fabout.html accessed 5/25/06

 

[4] The photographs are a particularly rich source of data on the RA/FSA projects and Southern sharecropping: “The project initially documented cash loans made to individual farmers by the Resettlement Administration and the construction of planned suburban communities. The second stage focused on the lives of sharecroppers in the South and migratory agricultural workers in the midwestern and western states. As the scope of the project expanded, the photographers turned to recording both rural and urban conditions throughout the United States as well as mobilization efforts for World War II.” Accessed 5/20/06

 

5] for an account of the process of digitization, see http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fatech.html; on the indexing process, see Fleischhauer and Brannan 1988, Trachtenberg 1988; see also Smith, Meg, “Hard Times in Sharp Foucs: On-line Collection Shows America, 1935-1945. LC Information Bulletin, August 1998. http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9808/fsa-osi.html)

 

[6] Carl Mydens, caption for LC-USF34- 006508-D

[7] The photo, "The Rain Are Fallin'" has achieved a degree of fame. A book is named for it ( ), and other references can be found to it on the Web. For example, Dr. Skip Eisiminger, a professor of English and humanities at Clemson University, wrote the following (http://www.clemson.edu/caah/cedp/gantt/pdfs/006.pdf)

I keep copies of two photographs in my office. They help to keep me grounded, so I pull them from the files with some regularity. One was taken in 1939 and shows a poor black Louisiana mother homeschooling her two sons. Was there no public school for her attentive pupils? The six and seven-year-old boys sit on hard-bottom chairs (there are no desks), as their thirty-something mother sternly points a stick at the day’s reading lesson whitewashed on a rectangle of black fabric pinned to a wall that’s been papered over in newsprint. The lesson reads in its entirety, “The rain are fallin.” Below that sentence are the numerals and the alphabet—essentially a code consisting of thirtysix ciphers the boys may have a hard time cracking given the limitations of their tutor and the shortcomings of their classroom.

[8] Baldwin, Sidney, Poverty and Progress: The Rise and Decline of the Farm Security Administration. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968, pp. 196-7.

[9] Scott, John H, with Cleo Scott Brown, Witness to the Truth: My Struggle for Human Rights in Louisiana. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003. The story of the removal is in Chapter 8, pp. 79-93.

[10] The dynamics here appear considerably different from those documented by Spencer Wood and Wood and Gilbert in Mileston, Holmes County, Mississippi, although black demands for voting rights triggered violent responses in both areas.

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