Saturday, November 21, 2009

better than money

While working with the photos that Dorothea Lange took in the small-farm tobacco counties of North Carolina, I came across a book which details conditions in a small-farm cotton-growing county in Georgia: The Rural Face of White Supremacy; Beyond Jim Crow by Mark Schultz (University of Illinois Press, 2007). The book is deeply researched in primary sources and is highly regarded. Using government records, business archives, and extensive personal interviews the author shows in detail what life was like for tenant and sharecrop families in the teens, 20s, and 30s of the past century.

White and black alike, these farm families lived in cramped and insubstantial houses. They slept two or three to a bed on homemade mattresses stuffed with corn shucks, pine needles, or straw. Lacking wells, they had to draw water by the bucketful from springs and streams. They cooked in wood stoves and heated with fireplaces. They used kerosene for light. Their windows and doors lacked screens to keep out insects. They raised almost all their own food and could not count on having meat on a regular basis.

The field notes prepared by Lange and the researchers who accompanied her bear out these findings. For example, in Person County a black sharecropper told them her family's current situation was better than the one before: "They treat us better here than where we did live. No privy in sight, had to get water from the spring, so far away that the man was gone twenty minute getting a bucket of water." These two photos shows the current dwelling place which they prized:

{In this photo you can see a bit of vegetable garden to the left and a broken chicken coop back right. The house is a log cabin chinked with mud. The family's lop-sided table can be seen between the doorways.}

This side view shows that the interior has a fireplace and at least one side window. The add-on at left is the small kitchen area. Field notes for this photo call attention to the stove pipe stuffed through side of the kitchen wall and the piece of metal which keeps smoke from blowing back into house. They also point out an attempt to grow some flowers. The clothesline seen far left supports guano sacks that have been washed and put out to dry.

Many families would not let Lange photograph or even see the interior of the house, not wishing to expose the poverty of their existence. The wife would say the place wasn't fit to be seen; as one told her: "Ain't cleaned up in ever so long — too big a mess." Partly because they were a little better off, the Whitfields were an exception. The six members of this family lived in three sparsely-furnished rooms and slept on two double beds. They had a deal table with oil cloth cover. Most of them sat on a bench at this table. The photos show only one chair in their kitchen-dining-living room and that a straight-backed one.

{Mrs. Whitfield seated on their side chair with the baby. Note their cook stove, also used for heating the house; it was their own; did not come with the house. See: the Whitfield and Lyons families, North Carolina,1939.}

One of the rooms had a "company" bedroom suite of furniture they had been able to buy with a small legacy that had come their way. Though the furniture set them apart from other sharecroppers, Lange and the researcher wrote that it was nonetheless glitzy and cheaply made.

This photo shows a corner of the bed, along with the family's trunk, and stairs leading to an upper floor which they did not use.

{In the field notes, Lange drew attention to the calendars being used as wall decorations. See: the Whitfield and Lyons families, North Carolina,1939.}

Cash was scarce and possessions few. Schultz quotes a white landowner who ran a small family farm, who said simply, "Wasn't no money." Still, the food they raised was usually enough. Katie Hunt, an African American renter born in 1891, told Schultz: "We lived on a farm, and in Depression time we always had something to eat. We didn't have money, really much. But food ... we never went hungry."

This image shows a large, well-tended garden behind a sharecropper enjoying a bit of Saturday afternoon rest.

Schultz quotes a black head of family as saying: "Nobody had no money. But then, you didn't need a whole lot of money." People bartered for what they couldn't grow or make. Schultz tells that the country store took produce in barter when there was no cash:
From an early age children learned the exchange value of eggs relative to candy. Farmers could easily calculate the number of eggs or the amount of butter they would need to obtain a certain quantity of flour, lard, or cloth. Particularly in the disastrous years of the early 1920s, country store registers recorded payments in eggs, produce, and labor as well as in cash. It is no wonder that older rural folk still speak of "trading at" a particular store rather than "shopping" there.

This shot shows a sharecropper who told Lange that he and his family had "a pretty good place they were in."

{He said "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." See: wasn't anything to steal.}

When they had food beyond what they needed for themselves, farm families would share out. Schultz often heard the statement "folks just helped each other out." A woman in a crop sharing family told him "we gave back and forth." A small landowner told him neighbors would share milk with someone whose cow had gone dry, knowing they too might soon be dependent on community assistance. A white sharecropper stated that "friendship was better than money."

Lange took this photo at the end of a morning's cooperative work among three farming families.

{The photo shows members of two families in a group of three. A Mr. Taylor owned the land and with his family farmed one field. He rented to a one-legged man named Mr. Oakley who, with this ten year old boy and the rest of his family, farmed a second field. Oakley in turn had the African-American and his family as sharecroppers in the third field. The three families worked together to harvest and cure the tobacco they had grown. The photo shows a rest period while the tobacco is being barned. See: working families}

Apart from infants, all family members carried out chores, even the toddlers, called knee-babies. The work was hard and long. School age children were given what education their parents could obtain, sometimes at home, sometimes in a local school, but they were expected to work hard outside schooling hours. To support the family's well being, they provided what physical labor they could.

A knee-baby at work:

{Lange took lots of photos showing families working the tobacco fields. This one shows a knee baby looking for and killing the worms that infested tobacco leaves. Her father said she did pretty well, but was a little too prone to damage the leaves. The child's mother told Lange she herself "was brought up to follow her daddy around and likes field work better than cooking and housekeeping." See: the Whitfield and Lyons families, North Carolina,1939}

It seems paradoxical, but, despite impoverished living conditions — few possessions, little cash, hard labor, and uncertain conditions — these farm families of the piedmont region expressed a sense of well being. Schultz quotes an African American named Willie Butts who was in his teens during the decade of 1930's. Butts said he would occasionally have enough money to pay admission to the movie theater in a nearby town. Schultz writes: 'He remembered that the 1930s newsreels preceding the main feature sometimes showed clips of city folks lined up with cups in their hands waiting for doughnuts and coffee. Years later he recollected, "I thought we were rich."'

The sharecropper who is standing, as well as telling Lange there wasn't anything to steal, said that he might make more money elsewhere but had little inclination to move. See: wasn't anything to steal.

Schultz also records some of the rich sensual pleasures of hill country farms: the cool, clingy dampness of newly turned dirt as men and boys plowed behind straining mules; the red clay, wet and slippery or sun-baked and hard packed beneath bare feet; odors of earth and of the sweat of mules and field workers; the pressure of bright sunshine, and the heavy stillness of humid air; and finally the pervasive sounds of dogs barking, pigs grunting, roosters crowing, and insects buzzing.

Lange took this photo of an African American graveyard partly to show the red clay. She wrote: "This cemetery was a solid space of red clay washed by the rains. Even the gravestones are colored red by the red clay beaten against them by rain."

Schultz also explains about the complex and tradition-bound contractual relations between owners and those who worked their lands. When sharecrop families negotiated for acres to farm, they did so as family units. The landowners would negotiate with the (usually male) head of household, but they would decide which family to accept based on the whole family's performance, its reputation and demonstrated ability to produce. Single men, newly married couples, and small families couldn't normally expect to crop share; they might instead go out as hired labor or borrow to become small tenants.

As between neighbors, relations were very personal between landowners and the families with whom they made contracts. The former could, and sometimes did, cheat the latter, and the latter generally knew when they were being exploited and either retaliated or simply moved on. The balance of power favored the owner, particularly in bad years, but the temptation to cheat was tempered by the close personal relationships among owners and their tenants and sharecroppers and by a culture of cooperation and mutual support. It was tempered, too, by knowledge that good sharecroppers brought income to landowners and to cheat them was to risk losing this income in subsequent years.

The sharecropper family in the following photo reported they were happy with the land, the house, and the landlord. The family's head, Mr. Lyons, told Lange "he made more than he had in his previous location. His landlord has plenty of money and furnishes him whatever cash he needs so that he doesn't even have to run a store account. He says these folks want their tenants to make money and they treat them nice."

Tenant and crop-share agreements could be as various as the numbers of tenants and sharecroppers. In general, tenants benefited in good years when they might have enough cash to purchase their own tools, supplies, and draft animals. The more productive capacity a family might have of its own, the smaller the share the family would owe the landlord at the end-of-season payout.

Whether as tenants or sharecroppers, most families paid their landlord a part of the crop they raised and hardly any paid up in cash. The most common arrangement was working "on halves" where a sharecrop family brought no assets to the bargaining table and returned half the crop to the landowner. As part of the agreement, the owner would give the family a furnish, which included the use of a mule, plow, seed, fertilizer, and credit to purchase food through the growing season.

The owner could charge interest on the furnish which meant he could, and sometimes did, acquire control over a cropper family in years where their cash crop did not earn enough to pay the interest owed. When the landowner's family controlled the local country store, the cropper debt could become overwhelming.

Like the hierarchical relations between owners and those who did not own land, race relationships were founded on a deeply embedded personalism. As there was a web of inter-connectivity, in Schultz's phrase, between those who owned farm land and those who — working along side them — worked the land without owning it, so there was a web of inter-connectivity among whites and blacks. Schultz quotes one black crop sharer on this matter: "[You could] act like you were of the same family with close white sharecroppers." The culture of small-scale tobacco farming was an intimate one and rural good manners were both deep seated and widely respected. As those who owned land were not the equals of those who did not, so those who happened to be African American were not the equals of those who were white, but a tradition of decency nonetheless prevailed among all groups in this rural society (at that place and time).

Schultz's interviews produce interesting anecdotes which counter common understandings of black/white relations. For examples he tells of Annie Dixon, a well-respected wife of a prosperous black landowner. When her white neighbor complained to the sheriff that she had fired a shotgun over his head, the sheriff replied, "if she did that, you must have been messing with her" and the end result was that the white man proffered Dixon an apology for accusing her of stealing his cow.

Lange photographed this woman, Mrs. Caroline Atwater, who seems similar to the Annie Dixon of Schultz's anecdote. With her husband she owned a farm large enough to feed them both. The field notes for this visit say: "Ernest and Caroline Atwater bought the house and one acre of land 30 years ago. Atwater had been working on the railroad and saved up the money. The house has never been mortgaged except once when they [had] to borrow on it to buy a mule. A few years later they bought two more acres. They now raise no cash crop on their three acres, only potatoes, corn, peas, etc. They have "what you call a plug mule." They sell a little produce and sometimes canned berries. No children live with them now and their children do not send them any money although they often send clothes and presents. [The house is] a double cabin, one and a half story, log house. Yard — shows the care contrasting owners' from tenants' yards." See: Caroline Atwater


Dorothea Lange took the photos on this page in July 1939. The researcher who accompanied her on most of her visits with small farmers was Margaret Jarman Hagood. The field notes given with the photographs on this page were prepared by both women. the photo images all come from the Farm Security Administration Collection in LC's Prints and Photos Division. Click image to view full size.

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