Friday, November 06, 2009

Wheeley's Church

This is a second post giving photos from a set that Dorothea Lange made in July 1939 in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. The first one is here. Lange's boss, Roy Stryker, had sent her there so that she and her "silly ideas" would not disrupt operations in the photo lab of the home office. On learning that she planned to come there from the west coast he immediately contacted the head of a University of North Carolina research unit saying, "Dorothea Lange is to be in Washington for a couple of weeks. . . . While she is here, I am anxious to utilize some extra time she has to make some pictures in your sub-region. . . . I am not very particular what she does at this time. . . .I would appreciate an answer as soon as possible, so we can make plans for Miss Lange's trip." The head, Howard Odum, arranged for Lange to work with two research assistants, Margaret Jarman Hagood and Harriet Herring, both of them sociologists. On July 5, Lange accompanied Herring to a church outside Gordonton, North Carolina.1

The captions and field notes given with the following photos come from both women. The photos show Wheeley's Church which was 1.1 mi. SE of Gordonton, Person County, North Carolina. It was thus located very close to the Whitfield's house, seen in the previous post. Wheeley's Church has since become Wheeler's Church. At the time Lange visited it was located off Wheeler's Church Road near an intersection of three state roads (1100, 1102, and 1107).2

The field notes say:
Accidentally learned at Gordonton that "everybody in the community was gathering at the church, going to take their dinner." Was not able to get back in time to see the dinner in progress and most of the cleaning done. Farm women of all ages, men and children; one six-months old baby and one woman on two crutches were still there finishing up the cleaning at about 2:30. There were fifteen cars; "a good many people" left before dinner. Had to talk to a succession of people: had to ask some of the others: had to ask the older members: had to talk to the head deacon to get permission to photograph.3 They very much want to have a print showing the church and the grounds. Very proud of their church, spacious well shaded church yard, well kept (though very simple) cemetery, and very proud of the fact that they keep everything so tidy. They had done a thorough Job of sweeping the yard close to the door and raking the test, about 5 acres.
The following photos all come from the Farm Security Administration Collection in LC's Prints and Photos Division. The captions are by LC staff from information in the FSA sets of negatives and prints; they are supplemented by field notes that were made as part of the shoot.

{LC caption: Women of the congregation of Wheeley's Church on steps with brooms and buckets on annual clean up day. Gordonton, North Carolina
Field notes: 'A group of solid country people who live generously and well. ... The church is primitive Baptist — "don't know whether you ever heard of that kind or not." and is "over a hundred years old" but no one seemed to know exactly.4 It has 70 members and "lots of friends around who help out. Much interested in the photographing, much joking about posing.'}

Details of this image:

{LC caption: Wheeley's Church and grounds. Person County, North Carolina
Field notes: "Preaching once a month and the church is crowded. Will probably hold 500. . . . Cars new or relatively so and not all fords."}

{LC caption: Services are over. Wheeley's Church, Gordonton, Person County, North Carolina
Field notes: Lange received permission to return on July 9: "July 9 is "preachin' Sunday" and got permission from deacon to return to make pictures of the congregation."}

Details of this image:

{There is no LC caption for this photo.}

{LC caption: Gathering of congregation after church services. Wheeley's Church, Person County, North Carolina}

{LC caption: Congregation gathers after services to talk. Wheeley's Church, Person County, North Carolina
Field notes: "The people are substantial, well-fed looking. the women in clean prints, mostly ready made, the men in clean shirts and trousers, some overalls. Good looking children. Many addressed each other as cousin or aunt, etc. Very gay and folksy — evidently have a good time together." }

{LC caption: Member of the congregation of Wheeley's church who is called "Queen." She is wearing the old fashioned type of sunbonnet. Her dress and apron were made at home. Near Gordonton, North Carolina
Field notes: "Note woman wearing bonnet, front and side view."}

{LC caption: Native of North Carolina. Sunbonnet, and homemade old-fashioned knit gloves. This woman is a member of Wheeley Church congregation. Near Gordonton, North Carolina
Field notes: 'Note homemade gloves. This woman was called "Queen."'}


In preparing for her book on Lange (cited directly below) Anne Whiston Spirn sought out the locations of the Person County photos. She couldn't find the church of Lange's photos, but — instead — a brick one called Wheeler's, not Wheeley's. In the cemetery of the new church she found the gravestone for the woman called "Queen":

In July 1939 when Lange took her portrait, Queen had been 57 years old, recently widowed. While Spirn was observing the grave, she says, "A man stepped out of the church. Yes, it was once called Wheeley's, the brick was added in the 1950s.5 Would I like to come inside? The chapel is simple and beautiful, much as Lange described it. I mention the photograph of Queen. 'That’s my great aunt, Queen Bowes.'"

Here's Spirn's photo of the "new" church.

{Source of this image and the quote:}


Main sources:

Daring to look: Dorothea Lange's photographs and reports from the field by Anne Whiston Spirn, Dorothea Lange (University of Chicago Press, 2008)

Picturing faith: photography and the Great Depression, by Colleen McDannell (Yale University Press, 2004)

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon (W.W. Norton & Co. 2009)



1 The source of this information and the quote: DARING TO LOOK WWW.

2 See this Google map.

3 In a book called Picturing faith: photography and the Great Depression, Colleen McDannell says rural Southerners, like the members of Wheeley's Church, did not have negative associations with photography and would not have been wary of exploitation documentary photographs such as Lange took, but they would have been skeptical about non-religious use of photos taken of their religious spaces. Lange was sensitive to the reluctance of church members and the Deacon to have photos taken within the church. There was less concern about exterior photos or the posing of the cleansing group for group shots.

4 According to Colleen McDannell, the church became a Primitive Baptist Church in 1832. Its original Baptist congregation formed in 1755. In 1832 some Baptists, including the parishioners of what was then Wheeley's Meeting House, wished to return to belief in predestination as well as banning of instrumental music and all ornamentation or imagery. They resisted centralized control via associations of groups of churches or "conventions." "They argued that all missionary work, even teaching in local Sunday schools, was contrary to Scripture. God in his sovereign power, they believed, did not need any human means to bring his elect to repentance." They chose ministers from within the local community and asked that they speak in a way local people could readily understand. It was common for congregations to meet only once or twice a month.

Regarding the formation of Wheeley's Church in 1792, one source says: "The Upper South Hico Baptist Church separated from the Flat River Church on September 8, 1792. The name was later changed to Wheeley’s and today it is known as Wheelers Primitive Baptist Church. The Church is located on State Road #1102 about one mile south of Gordonton which is itself about twelve miles south of Roxboro, North Carolina."

5 Located off Wheeler's Church Road, the name of the church must have caused local confusions when it was Wheeley's. Old place names tend to morph and shift around despite map makers' efforts to pin them down.


Steve R said...

Great post! I live about two miles from Wheeler's Church.

There's another church nearby, the Pine Hill Primitive Baptist Church on Charlie Monk Road, that looks similar.

Sal said...

Does anyone know where the Whitfield house is today? This article says “It was thus located very close to the Whitfield's house, seen in the previous post. Wheeley's Church has since become Wheeler's Church. At the time Lange visited it was located off Wheeler's Church Road near an intersection of three state roads (1100, 1102, and 1107).” please tell me where the house is located.