Thursday, November 12, 2009

Caroline Atwater

Most of the photographs that Dorothea Lange took during her "make-work" trip to North Carolina in the summer of 1939 showed sharecrop and tenant farms.* However, on July 1st, in a location not far from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she visited a small holding that was owned and farmed by a man and wife, both African-American. As on other visits, she was accompanied by an academic researcher, Margaret Jarman Hagood. The photo captions and field notes given with the following photographs were prepared by both women. They all come from the Farm Security Administration Collection in LC's Prints and Photos Division. Click image to view full size.

In their general notes of the visit, Lange and Hagood prepared the following description:
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.

{LC caption: House and yard of Negro owner
Field Notes: The cabin on the right was built about 75 years ago and 200 yards away in the field when the Atwaters bought their place. They moved it to the present location, partly rechinked it with mud, and built the other cabin 30 years ago. The shingles are "boards" and the top ones on the roof of the right cabin are the original ones. The lower boards have been pushed in as is visible. "It kivered with boards, if you can say its kivered at all."}

{LC caption: Caroline Atwater standing in the kitchen doorway of double one and a half story log house. North Carolina
Field notes say: 'Caroline Atwater — says she was born the first year of the Civil War and remembers waiting on the "mistis." Immediately told that her mother belonged to the Whitfields and her father to the Bains of Person county. Has been married twice. Did not know exactly how many children she had had, but has four living and three or four dead. Her name is on the mail box rather than her husband's because he can not read or write. She went to a "subscription" school and learned. While in the kitchen door being photographed she was telling of their church and of how she sells a little here and there to get some money, of how the stores nowadays won't let you run accounts, "except maybe until next sad'dy."'
A commenter on the Shorpy blog, where this photo was reproduced, said Census records show a Caroline Atwater to have been born about 1865 and to have died in 1949.}

Details of this image:

{There is no caption for this image. It shows Mrs. Atwater at her unusual well. The well is odd not just in its construction but in its very existence since many sharecrop and tenant farms had no well at all.}

Details of this image:

{LC caption: Caroline Atwater, wife of Negro owner, tells where she was born}

{There is no caption for this image}

{LC caption: Caroline Atwater, wife of Negro owner, has a well-swept yard. Field notes point out that sharecrop and tenant yards are not usually so well maintained.}


Main source:

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

In this book, Spirn tells how Lange, who enjoyed conversing with people whom she photographed, offered to buy Mrs. Atwater's apron and Mrs. Atwater declined, saying she had received it as a gift from her daughter.


* See previous posts:

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