Sunday, November 29, 2009

a farmhouse morning

In the fictionalized memoir, Run With the Horsemen, Ferrol Sams describes a household morning in the rural piedmont region of Georgia. He writes:
In the summertime the long mornings began before day and were filled with breakfast, housecleaning, churning, washing of clothes, feeding of chickens, and canning, plus the preparation and serving of dinner. After the definitive twice-tolling farm bell had brought the men to dinner and sent them back to the fields, after the dishes were washed and the kitchen floor was scrubbed with hot water and lye soap, after the victuals remaining from dinner were stored in the pierced-tin safe awaiting supper.
       -- p. 31
He also describes the interior of a small farmhouse:
The Fitzgerald house was a mean, four room wooden box set head-high on pillars made of native rock. It had a front porch with a tin roof and steep wooden steps leading up to it. It had been painted white so long ago that it was now softened and muted into a silver gray. There was a sandy front walk outlined with the sharp points of diagonally submerged bricks, and a huge old magnolia tree overhung the walk and almost shaded the porch. The yard was swept so clean and bare that not even a fallen magnolia leaf interrupted its austere surface. The inside of the house was even cleaner and almost as bare.

[Two school children] sat at the kitchen table, elbows propped on the cracking oil cloth, and did their homework. The planks of the bare floor were always a marvel to the boy. They smelled strongly of homemade lye soap and were bleached by such frequent scrubbings that they were almost white and the splinters in them were pliant and soft.
       -- p. 296
Dorothea Lange took the following photos at the home of the Whitfields, a sharecropper family with whom she visited in July 1939. She was accompanied by a sociologist who had almost certainly been there previously while researching her Ph.D. thesis and preparing a book on Mothers of the South. Although the geographic area is different — piedmont North Carolina rather than Georgia — there's much alike in what Sams described and Lange shot with her camera.

Lange's photos of the Whitfield's place show a house set on rocks but not so high as the one Sams describes. She shows the area before the house to be less well cared for than the Fitzgerald's. The sharecrop house in which the Whitfields were living was bigger than the one Sams describes, but this family of six lived in only three of its rooms.

In the three photos shown below, Mrs. Whitfield has finished the day's butter churning and is cleaning up. The first of the three is a high resolution scan; click it to view full size. You can see the family's patent stove, acquired when they married. Their cookware is sparse: two kettles, a coffee pot with cup atop, one covered and one open pot. The simple kitchen table with its oilcloth cover has the washbasin upon it. A sheet of linoleum covers part of the floor. There's a Shaker-like neatness and simplicity to what is shown. The second photo shows Mrs. Whitfield — Irene Isabel (age 35) — using boiling water to clean the churn. The third photo shows Colene, the eldest daughter, at the stove. The field notes for the morning say Colene's dress is a new hand-me-down from her aunt, received the day before. Lange has put an X on this negative indicating that she doesn't wish it to be used. The churn is covered with a clean cloth to keep off flies.

In the next sequence of three, Irene is wiping the oilcloth atop the dining table following the dinner meal (lunch). Her toddler, Dorothy Lee, the family's current "knee baby," has come in the door for a snack. In the third photo, baby Isobel is being dressed. The three are high resolution scans which should be clicked to view full size.

The next trio of photos are less interesting, mainly because Lange has used her flash rather than the window's natural lighting. In the first Mrs. Whitfield is clearing the table following the meal they shared with their guests. Field notes say dinner this day was tomatoes, snaps, and bread she had baked earlier in the morning. In the second and third shots she is washing up and putting things away after the meal. It's a shame the third one isn't high-res; you can see much of what's in the cupboard, but it's indistinct. On top you can see the flit gun (for combatting insects) and inside a small quantity of bottles, jars, and covered bowls. It's curious that their kerosene lamp lacks a glass globe.

This final interior shot shows that the family owned a rocker as well as at least one straight-backed chair and the bench they kept under the dining table. In background you can see the room's fireplace, the family's only source of heat in winter months. Field notes explain that Irene normally goes barefoot as do her children, but wore her good shoes for the photo session. They also say she prefers field work to house work and enjoyed following her daddy in his tobacco field when she was young.

Lange's photos of the front porch show its similarities to the one that Sams gave the Fitzgeralds. There's a tin roof and stacked stones for support, though there's only one step up from ground level.

The first of the following three shots is a high resolution scan showing the family following dinner before afternoon field work.

One of Lange's biographers, Ann Whiston Spirn, came back to the location of this farm and located Colene and her younger brother Millard not too many years ago. Spirn wrote:
Colene looks so much like Lange’s photo of her as a girl. The eyes and the cockiness. She and Millard have an easy, teasing relationship.

Lange mixed up Dorothy Lee and Colene (and misspelled the name). Colene was the oldest (nine years old in 1939), and Dorothy Lee was the “knee baby” (she died of cancer in the 1980s). The Whitfield mother’s name was Irene Isabel. She died only a few years ago.

When Lange photographed the Whitfields, they were sharecroppers who lived down the road from the Gordonton country store in Person County. Today no one in the family farms. “It’s too hard,” At five and six years old, the children worked very hard. They helped their father string tobacco, putting together three leaves and holding them up for him to string. In those days, the farmers graded tobacco themselves.
-- Source: Burlington, North Carolina.
This final photo (low resolution) shows the Whitfield's sharecrop house from the road.


Main sources:

All photos come from the FSA collection of the Prints and Photos Division of the Library of Congress. Click to view full size.

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


Previous posts in this series:

Saturday, November 28, 2009

stories of the rural South in the 1930s

I just finished reading Run With the Horsemen by Ferrol Sams. It's a fictionalized coming-of-age memoir which takes place in the rural piedmont region of Georgia. Sams knew well and artfully describes the cotton farms and dirt-street towns in Depression-era hill country. He writes as the only male offspring of a white family that traces its history in back more than a century on the same land. Begun as a family story for his grandchildren, it grew into an episodic novel, the first of three. It aims to use humor in order to show the hard lives and hardened social mores of the white and black inheritors of slave traditions.

The author's protagonist, whom he calls the boy, is an undersized wise-ass and self-important twerp whose triumphs come too easily and whose pranks and practical jokes cost him beatings but no loss in self-esteem. He's a Miles Vorkosigan without the introspective awareness and its resulting ability to accurately judge the moral worth of others. He observes and reports much more than you'd expect of a boy, but his character is static; as he matures, he is unable to gain much understanding of his own worth or the worth of others. He is smart, even brilliant, but lacking in depth. He sees and seems to deplore racial injustices but is mostly blind to the ugly and destructive racial attitudes of his father. He befriends blacks but thoughtlessly betrays their trust in him. He mocks the ignorance, superstition, and vulnerability he observes in the African Americans around him and at one point calls them "Bandar-log." Like his paternalistic forebears, he steps in to make things right when, by his perception, a misfortune has caused blacks to panic, unselfconsciously asserting authority and mindlessly perpetuating a culture of superiority and subservience.

Three books I've noticed recently cover much the same ground as Sams.
They complement the photos and field notes of Dorothea Lange from her assignment in the rural farms of the North Carolina piedmont in July 1939: Farm Security Administration collection of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photos Division. (Lange's photos in this blog post all come from this collection. Click image to view full size.)

Like Mark Schultz, Sams shows the sensuous pleasures of the countryside. He has the boy riding a mule-drawn wagon full of cotton bolls being drawn to the ginning mill:
For an hour he was free to lie on his back in the softly supporting cotton and look his fill into the sky. When viewed from this position the sky was deep and benevolent and seemed to caress with blue and silver light the cruising buzzard that tensed its airborne slide through silent heights.

A few feet above the sunbaked red clay of the road, an occasional grasshopper hung suspended in warm, spiced air and chirred its Indian Summer song. When the wagon approached Peabody Creek, the tantalizing drifts from the ripe muscadines and the dank river smell of marsh vegetation mingled in the boy's nostrils with the fecund odor of the cotton. Even his fantasies were softened by the overwhelming assurance that once again nature was fulfilled in harvest, and he was well content.
The boy's station of power and wealth separates him greatly from from the poor black and white tenant and sharecrop families with whom he shares his life, yet as Lange, Hagood, Spirn, Gordon, and Schultz found, many of these destitute people shared his love of the land, his pleasure in a successful harvest, and his overall sense of well-being.

Gordon shows how Lange's photographs catch the beauty of southern countryside, but do not idealize it. Lange captured the textures of rough plank siding and log houses and barns, which, Gordon writes, seemed to have grown out of the earth like the trees. Her photographs call attention to stone chimneys, off-center and canted, and to porches at rest on stacked rocks.

She notices dirt roads which in their upward and downward curvings emerge out of the landscape as if immemorially part of it, having "emerged gradually over decades as people came and went on their daily work routes." She sees that much of this farm living takes place in open air, not just the farm chores, but much of the cooking, washing, mending, relaxing.

Gordon says in less competent hands these photographs might romanticize the hard lives and destitute economic conditions of piedmont farmers, but Lange, who recorded, "the delicate patterns in the log or board houses, the tobacco barns, the fences, the laundry on the line, the wildflowers," did not stop at this, but went on also to make a bucolic photograph which disrupted facile assumptions, "as with a sharecropper, of a class often assumed to be illiterate, sitting under a tree on his home-built chair reading a newspaper."

Lange's photo on the left has a pleasing sentimentality which by itself might convey a misleadingly romantic view of sharecropper life. The one in the middle is the newspaper-reading sharecropper relaxing on a Saturday afternoon. The one of the right shows Dorothy Lee Whitfield with her little sister Isobel. Of Dorothy Lee, Lange's field notes say: "The mother is proud of her oldest daughter who has done well at school, and 'has made A grade both years she's been going to school."

In one of the most memorable scenes in Sams's fictional memoir, he shows his nine-year-old self being taught a lesson in the confusions of empathy and condescension, sense of responsibility and sense of superiority in which he found himself immersed:
There it was all laid out. One didn't talk about being superior; one lived it. No matter how bad things were for the rural white Southerner, they had to be worse for the colored. It was simplistically tempting to attribute this condition either to divine will or natural law, and if one ever dared to consider how the Nigras felt about the situation, it was comforting to conjure up memories of laughter and joy in assurance that they were happy with their lot.

When he was nine or ten, the boy was visiting Tabitha one afternoon while she ironed clothes. He watched her substitute a cooled flatiron for a hot one sitting on the freshly whitewashed cloth before glowing hickory embers, flicking it with a spittle­moistened finger to see if it sizzled satisfactorily. Hearing the hiss of hot, heavy metal as it touched moistened linen and smelling the steam rising from iron and starched fabric, relaxed and filled with contentment, he was moved to tell her earnestly and sincerely how much he loved her. She stopped midway between fireplace and ironing board, swung around, and looked him squarely in the eye.

"You love me so much, boy, that when I die you go an say, 'She sho was faithful'?" Their glances locked for an interminable naked moment. The boy's ears rang with the dizzying silence of unseen spinning planets, and he walked home without another word being spoken. He never forgot the question, and he never forgot the look.
Tibitha is memorable partly because she's unique; the other African-Americans in the book are friendly, sometimes forthright, but never so emotionally honest as she.

In depicting relations between blacks and whites Sams usually shows the former as subservient, dissembling, and grateful for marks of recognition. There isn't an instance of a forthright tenant farmer like one, Katie Hunt, who was encountered by Mark Schultz. Schultz tells how black tenants like Katie Hunt could and sometimes did stand up to whites despite the monopoly of social, political, and judicial power wielded by the latter. He gives the following story about her: The children of sharecroppers, black and white alike, might be forced out of school and into the fields on demand from a landowner and Katie Hunt grew cotton on land she rented from a white man. Her husband Wilkens was in New York working and sending back money to help the family survive during the boll weevil years of the '30s. One day a white man rode up to her house on a horse.
He made small talk for a while and then hinted that the planter from whom she rented would like her to take her children out of summer school and set them to work poisoning the boll weevils. She answered: "He can't tell me to tell my children what to do. 'cause he isn't the daddy of nary a one of them. Everyone of them is mine and Wilkins Hunt's — their daddy." The planter, she continued, "hain't got but one child that I know of — is Sarah — and that's the onliest person he can tell to go on out there and go — is his own daughter." The man laughed and said that he was going on to the next farm. "I just told them plain out," remembered Katie Hunt; "I didn't never bite my tongue." She laughs every time she relates the story.
-- source: The rural face of White supremacy: beyond Jim Crow, by Mark Schultz (University of Illinois Press, 1705) pp 13-14.

This is the daughter of the woman who told Lange she sat in the front row of the white folks' church.

Katie Hunt didn't just have gumption. She showed the generous side of rural neighborliness, even across racial boundaries. Like the writings of Lange and Hagood, this story of Schultz's shows that on the scale of day to day personal relations race was less important than a very human fellowship:
In the 1920s a very poor white family from Winder, in north Georgia, came to Hancock to sharecrop, hoping to improve their condition. They began working on a farm adjacent to the fairly prosperous farm that the Hunts rented. When an elderly member of the white family died, they were embarrassed to host their own family for the funeral, ashamed that their miserable furnishings would reveal their lack of success. Their black neighbors heard of their plight and decided to help. Katie Hunt recalled: "We moved our furniture in their house, took the rugs off our floor, put our stove in there, along with our dining room table. Then we furnished them food for the funeral." The white family was literally borrowing symbols of economic status from their black neighbors. Although it did not protect them from all the humiliations visited on African Americans living in the plantation belt under white supremacy, their economic status certainly gave the. Hunt family an unconventional experience of the white supremacist South.
-- Source: Schultz, p 53.
Although Lange, Hagood, and Schultz show black landownership, Sams, in Horsemen gives little indication that blacks could rise above the very lowest rungs on the economic ladder.

This is Caroline Atwater, who though born a slave, together with her husband managed to buy and maintain a small farm.

Schultz tells the story of Zach Hubert who owns a bit of land and runs a store in rural Georgia. The story illustrates a difference between the relations among close neighbors and the a fine line that blacks must walk in circumstances where the hostile conditions of Jim Crow white supremacy were a much greater threat. He writes:
Zach Hubert appears to have been painfully aware that his "independent" position constantly rested on his willingness to humble himself before white neighbors. On several occasions late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth, he accepted verbal abuse from whites without responding in kind. He took care not to undercut white competitors at his grocery store. He did not demand payment from a white neighbor when the neighbor's mule trampled his corn, although that same neighbor had earlier demanded and received payment when Hubert's hogs got into his sweet potatoes. Once, when his sons sat down to dinner at the family picnic table beside a white crew that Hubert had hired to thresh his wheat, the white men left enraged. As soon as he heard of the event. Hubert immediately tracked them down to apologize and pay them extra to return. Later Hubert learned that the crew foreman was a Klan leader from Greene County and thought it likely that his house would have been burned had he not quickly assumed a submissive position. Although his lengthy obituary in the Sparta Ishmaelite suggested that he was well respected by Hancock whites, Zach Hubert's actions imply that he understood his economic security ultimately rested on his ability to reassure surrounding whites that he did not pose a challenge to their supremacy.
-- Source: Schultz: pp. 52-53
Previous posts in this series:

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

aint much of a hand at going to town

On Saturday, July 8, 1939, Lange and Margaret Jarman Hagood visited a farm not far from Pittsboro in Chatham County, North Carolina. The farm was unlike the others they saw. It was larger than other sharecrop or tenant farms they visited, worked by a large family using two mules rather than the usual one or none. There was a large house and a couple of outbuildings. Livestock included chickens, two cows, and a hog. Its cash crop was not tobacco, as was the norm, but a combination of cotton and corn. Judging by their possessions and appearance of well being, the farm family did well. Unlike most other tenant families, they owned an automobile and a radio.

This is the twelfth post in a series on photos that Dorothea Lange took in the piedmont region of North Carolina in July 1939. See the other posts for background information about the series.*

This first photo shows members of the family on their front porch relaxing on this Saturday afternoon. Lange and Hagood noted that the house was larger than usual, having several rooms, well kept. The house was in good shape, though unscreened. The number and quality of the chairs in the photo indicate the family's prosperity. Other farms had benches for kitchen seating and perhaps only one or two side chairs. This family has rockers as well as straight-backed chairs and the wife sits on one of the upholstered dining room chairs. The windows have curtains. There's a flower bed in front. There's an unusual degree of poise in the subjects; they're free of camera shyness, unselfconscious and relaxed.

These details come from the porch shot, above:

In their field notes, Lange and Hagood say the house has seven rooms and "was very cool inside on a hot summer midday."

They wrote:
Family: The mother has had eleven children, three of whom are dead. Her youngest child is seven; six children are at home but none of them go to school. Several of them are shewn on the porch and on the mules. The mother doesn't like to go to church since she can't see well, but enjoys listening to a service on the radio. The eldest boy drives the automobile — the father has never driven it.

Incidental notes: The mother let us see the interior of her house but did not want pictures made of her kitchen because it wasn't cleaned up. She had gone to town that morning and been so tired she just sat on the porch when she returned. "I aint much of a hand at going to town; I'd rather go on Monday or Tuesday when they aint so many people around."
Lange's caption says the following shot shows the eldest son on his way to visit a neighbor.

Lange's caption says the following shot shows "farmhouse and landscape of Negro tenant family as seen from the road."



Photographs come from the Prints and Photos Division of the Library of Congress. Click to view full size.

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



*Previous posts in this series:

Monday, November 23, 2009

in the front row of the white folks' church

This is the eleventh post in a series on photos that Dorothea Lange took in the piedmont region of North Carolina in July 1939. See the other posts for background information about the series.*

On July 6, 1939, Lange and Margaret Jarman Hagood visited a farm being worked by a tenant family in Granville County not far from the small town of Wilton. They arrived around noon on this rainy Thursday and observed the family at work and rest. The family was headed by a man and wife and included plus seven of their own children and several adopted ones. Neither Lange nor Hagood recorded their names.

The wife Lange and Hagood know that she was not a stereotypically submissive African-American. They wrote: 'The mother goes to the white folks' church and sits in the front row. She wouldn't go if she had to sit in the balcony. She has lived right around here all her life. "Everybody knows me and I'm respected." "All the white folks think a heap of me. Mr. Blank wouldn't think about killing hogs unless I was there to help. You ought to see me killing hogs at Mr. Blank's."'

The house, having a story and a half, was relatively large and comfortable. There were two mules as well as pigs and chickens.

I couldn't find a photo of the front of the house; these two show the kitchen side and a bit of the back.

{LC caption: Noontime chores: feeding chickens on Negro tenant farm. Granville County, North Carolina}

{LC caption: same}

In this shot you can see out buildings for farm animals behind the house; the edge of the roof of the house is just visible on the right.

{LC caption: Noontime chores on Negro tenant farm. The grandfather and children off to feed the pigs. Granville County, North Carolina}

It's hard to say from the information provided or from the image itself, but it looks like the following photo might show the same place. Note that it has a breezeway "dog run" connecting the living quarters (left) with the kitchen-dining area (right). Lange's notes say he right half was built hurriedly after a tornado in 1900 which destroyed all the houses in the section. The left half was built later. She says "One of the daughters has come to the doorway, the rest are hiding."

I believe these two photos show the same woman as above, daughter of the husband and wife who head the family:

Here are the male head of the household with youngsters slopping the pigs:

Two details of this image:

Another photo of the pig feeding:

The next photo shows the grandson of the husband and wife who head the family:

The field notes that Lange and Hagood took during this visit record the following information from the mother: 'one of the grandchildren lives with her whose father is in the penitentiary for ten years because a Negro child was killed in an automobile accident he had with a white man. They went to court but the white man (whose fault it was according to the mother) went free, while her son got ten years. "There's no justice; you have to wait on the lord for justice; the Lord has the power." Her son was a good boy — "He is a bible student right."'

These two photos show the mules being watered at the well:

{LC caption: Noontime. Son and grandson of tenant farmer bring in the mules to water at noon. Granville County, North Carolina}

{LC caption: Noontime chores. Mules are brought in from the field and watered at well across the road from the house. Granville County, North Carolina}

This shot was taken a little later in the day as two sons go off visiting:

{LC caption: Sons of Negro tenant farmer go off visiting on Saturday afternoon. Granville County, North Carolina}



Photographs come from the Prints and Photos Division of the Library of Congress. Click to view full size. Captions come from LC staff using information provided with the photos.

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



*Previous posts in this series: