Nonetheless, some of the African-American sharecroppers and tenant farmers who spoke with Lange and the researchers expressed a modest contentment with their living conditions. Field notes for this day report one farmer as saying that he might make more money elsewhere but had little inclination to move: When you are born in the hills, he said, you're just born in the hills, and you want to stay there. He and his friends thought it was "a pretty good place they were in, don't have to buy much groceries, only salt, sugar, baking soda, coffee. They didn't have much money, but they were getting along and they didn't have to worry about anything being stolen. There wasn't anything to steal."3
This photo seems to show that this sense of (relative) well being was shared by at least one other African-American tenant farmer in the county:
Detail of this image:
Here are some other photos from this day:
The field notes for these photos give the following little story:
Three Negroes were sitting in the shade of a storage shed, once an old store but abandoned for the last twenty five years. Two were tenant farmers, neighbors, the status of the third (seated) unknown. One of these tenants had grown up in this section of Chatham County, had moved away to another adjoining county several years before, and had been returned some three years ago. He had a small patch of cotton and a moderate acreage in tobacco, mostly across the highway. He did pretty well last year — that is, he came out just about even. He didn't know how he would do this year; the worms were bad in the tobacco, but there was a pretty good crop. That meant prices were going to be low. They were all going to take their tobacco south or east to sell. If they waited until the markets were open close around, the companies would have bought up already and the price they would get would be mighty low. Last year they took it to Wendell (Wake County) and did pretty well with it. Which was better to raise, cotton or tobacco? Tobacco, there wasn't much in cotton; people didn't use it the way they used to, but cotton dresses were coming back. Beside the cotton farmer is just like the tobacco worm, they eat up all they can and move on to the next place. How did the tobacco grow around here? Fair enough. He could get about 700, 800 lbs. to the acre. Down in the valley two or three miles away people get 1,100-1,200. Why didn't he move down there? Already too many people down there. Besides when you are born in the hills, you're just born in the hills, and you want to stay there. Was there much moving? No, not now, used to be, time of the war, lots of the folks went up North, but they didn't any more. Had any of those who left come back? No, they hadn't. Would any of these three like to go North to live? No, indeed; they thought it was a pretty good place they were in, don't have to buy much groceries, only salt, sugar, baking soda, coffee. They didn't have much money, but there were getting along and they didn't have to worry about anything being stolen. There wasn't anything to steal.-----------
1 She had been assigned to photograph agricultural conditions among the tobacco farms in the Piedmont Region of North Carolina. Her employer sent her out immediately on her arrival in Washington DC from the West Coast mainly, he privately acknowledged, to get her out of the office. He had arranged for her to accompany sociologists from a research institute of the University of North Carolina. Despite the hurry and lack of preparation, the trip was a success. Lange took many photos of the living conditions of poor farmers, both black and white, and documented the methods they used to grow and prepare tobacco for market. She also observed local people at their leisure. The photos in this blog post all come from tthe Photography Project of the Farm Security Administration collection of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photos Division. Click to view full size.
2 On this subject, see Creating Jim Crow: In-Depth Essay by Ronald L. F. Davis and the wikipedia article on Jim Crow laws. While New Deal farm policies did provide help to sharecroppers and tenant farmers, they were more favorable to landowning farmers. For example they encouraged the introduction of tractors to replace animal power. Such policies increased output per acre but forced many small, non-landowning (and inefficient) farmers off the land. Although some of these farmers were helped to buy small holdings for themselves, they were often unable to compete with owners of the new, large mechanized farms. There was no racial bias in these federal policies, but local racism and the white power structure pretty much insured that black sharecroppers and tenant farmers would be forced off before their white counterparts.
3 Field notes quoted in Daring to look: Dorothea Lange's photographs and reports from the field by Anne Whiston Spirn (University of Chicago Press, 2008). The sharecrop and tenant farmers of the Piedmont Region raised mostly tobacco and this crop was less amenable to mechanized production than other cash crops (cotton and wheat for example). In The Rural Face of White Supremacy Beyond Jim Crow, Mark Schultz points out that the hardships of Jim Crow and white supremacy tactics could be less onerous in rural than in urban areas. Black farming families might be not much worse off than white ones, and, even during the Depression, neither black nor white might feel that their poverty was hopeless or their living standards so low as to make them wish to move out.