Wednesday, November 18, 2009

working families

During the first week of July, 1939, Dorothea Lange took photos of sharecropper farmers in Granville County, North Carolina. She was there on assignment from her employer, the Photography Project of the Farm Security Administration, and was accompanied by a sociologist from a University of North Carolina research institute.

Field notes from the session1 describe the steps required to grow and harvest tobacco, the cash crop in that region. While the plants were growing, crop-destroying pests had to be removed by hand and the plants had to be topped so they would not flower. As they matured, the prime leaves were removed and brought in so they could be strung on sticks and then hung on racks in the barn. When the barn was filled it would be "fired," that is, kept hot and dry in order to cure the leaves and ready them for transport to market.

On Friday, July 7, Lange and a researcher named Margaret Jarman Hagood, observed these steps, called the "putting in" of tobacco, at a sharecropped farm near Shoofly in Granville County. Three families were involved, each having one field under their care. At one of the fields, belonging to a family headed by a Mr. Taylor, Lange took shots of topping, priming, and hauling tobacco leaves to the barns that the three families shared.

She also got some shots of work in the other two fields: one where the tenant family was headed by a Mr. Oakley and the other run by an African American family headed by a sharecropper named Sam. The field notes say that Sam was "a sub-tenant of Mr. Oakley, who brought his tobacco to the barn in a wagon, having already strung it."

Although white and black families worked side by side and, like other small farmers, almost certainly shared among themselves from their gardens and helped each other in times of need,2 there were many marks of status relations nonetheless. One of these the field notes make plain: the white adults would be addressed by their surnames, as Mr. and Mrs., while the black ones would be called only by their forenames if named at all. The behavior (described below) of the white three year old with her black playmate also indicates a casual racism that existed even where inter-racial cooperation and mutual support were the rule.

The notes3 record that
Each of the three families supply workers and children to play around. Of Taylor's family there are himself, his wife, young mother and baby, and his mother-in-law, Of Oakley's family there are himself, one-legged, his wife, a ten year old son, an eight year old daughter who kept care of Taylor's baby and two other younger children. Of the Negro family, there are Sam, a nearly grown son, a twelve year old son, and two or three younger children. This made sixteen of the families involved at the barns at one time or another in addition to two wage hands. There were eleven people working on one or another phase of "putting in" tobacco.

The children played and around the barns, often very near the mules. They played with pieces of tobacco twine — there ar pictures of children with tobacco twine in their mouths. The three year old white girl at intervals slapped and switched the little Negro girl about her age and once called her a damn fool; but between these outbursts the children played together peaceably when those at the barn had finished one sled and were waiting for another to come to the field the mother nursed her baby, the women rested, talked, and laughed.

The barn next to the one being filled was already fired. They were going to begin "killing out" the tobacco that afternoon. Pictures were taken of this barn, the fire burning, the door open showing a man coming out and saying, "152" (referring to the temperature).

During the morning a stranger arrived in a 1915 model T Ford riding with his legs on the outside. He made a dramatic entrance, stopped his car, and asked, "Does the road stop here?" He was looking for scrap iron to buy. They had none: They talked of him and made jokes about his car for quite a while after he left.
Lange took this photo after much of the work had been completed.4

{This photo shows Mr. Oakley, Sam, and Mr. Oakley's ten year old son. They are relaxing after a morning's work putting up tobacco. Granville County, North Carolina}

Detail of this image:

{LC caption: Ten year old son of tobacco sharecropper can do a "hand's work" at tobacco harvest time. Granville County, North Carolina}

{This photo shows Mr. Taylor with his mule and the sled that's used to haul leaves of tobacco from field to barn. The sled, also called a slide, was narrowly built so as to fit between rows of tobacco without damaging tender leaves. Its fabric sides most often came from sacks of guano that had been used as fertilizer.}

{LC caption: White sharecropper, Mr. Taylor, has just finished priming this field of tobacco. Granville County, North Carolina}

{The photo shows Mr. Oakley's daughter. LC caption: Eight year old daughter who helps about the tobacco barn and takes care of the baby. Granville County, North Carolina}

{The photo shows Sam and his family. LC caption: Colored sharecropper and his children about to leave home through the pine woods after their morning work at the tobacco farm stringing and putting up tobacco. Shoofly, Granville County, North Carolina}

Here is a detail of this image.

{The identification isn't precise, but I think these two are sons of Sam. LC caption: Sons of Negro tenant farmer go off visiting on Saturday afternoon. Granville County, North Carolina}

Detail of this image:

{This photo apparently was taken a little earlier in the morning. LC caption: Noontime. Son and grandson of tenant farmer bring in the mules to water at noon. Granville County, North Carolina}

{As above, this photo apparently was taken a little earlier in the morning. There is no LC caption.}

{This photo is found with the photos of Sam and his family. It's possible that it shows a grandson of Sam, but that's not at all certain. LC caption: Grandson of Negro tenant whose father is in the penitentiary. Granville County, North Carolina}


Main source texts:

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

The Rural Face of White Supremacy; Beyond Jim Crow by Mark Schultz (University of Illinois Press, 2007)




{Dorothea Lange with WeB (identity unknown]
DATE: July 7, 1939

LOCATION: Shoofly, Granville County MAP CODE: Granville 9

SU8JECT: Putting in tobacco

This process is also known as "saving" tobacco: the word "priming" is also sometimes applied to the entire process, although strictly this term also describes the actual removal of leaves from the plant. The process is also known as "curing tobacco" although here again this term applies strictly only to one particular part of the process.

1. Priming: Beginning at the bottom of the plant, the leaves are stripped; usually two or three bottom leaves are removed at one priming. Only the ripe leaves are primed, and ripeness is determined by the color of the leaf. When ripe, the leaves are pale yellow in color, although they are often difficult to distinguish from the green leaves, Hence the job of priming is something of an art, which is left to the men of the family, or to those "women folks" who are skilled at it. In the field the men are priming for the second time, the "first primes," or sand leaves, having been removed.

2, "Sliding the Tobacco to the Barn": The primes are transported to the barns, where they will be tied or strung, in the "slide" (also called sled). Note construction of the slide-frame of wooden strips, on a pair of wooden runners. The body of the slide is made of Guano sacks, and the entire structure is [narrow] enough to run between the rows of tobacco without breaking the leaves. In this instance two slides are in use; while one load of tobacco is being strung, the other slide is sent to the field for another load.

3. Stringing the Tobacco: At the barn, the tobacco is strung on slicks by the women and children, and those men who are not required in the field. The sticks are of pine, four feet long. The string is fastened at one end, and the leaves of tobacco, in bunches of three or four, are strung on the stick alternately on each side. Note the notched "horses" for holding the slicks while stringing. When a stick is filled with tobacco, it is removed from the horse and piled in front of the barn, where it remains until put up in the barn. Sometimes shelters are provided to keep the sun from the tobacco after it is strung, since very hot sun will burn the tobacco. In this case two people are stringing, one of them an expert Negro boy, and two or three people are "handing the primes" to the stringers.

4. "Putting in the Tobacco": At noon, after the last slide of the morning bas come from the field, the tobacco which has been strung, is hung from the barn. The barns are of four or five "rooms" (a room is the space between the tier poles; the Barn in the picture is a fourroom barn, and will hold about 600 sticks of tobacco).
-- source: Daring to look: Dorothea Lange's photographs and reports from the field, by Anne Whiston Spirn (University of Chicago Press, 2008)

2 The Jim Crow laws and oppressive white supremacy practices of the American South had smaller impact in rural areas and among sharecroppers and tenant farmers than in towns and urban areas and among landowners. There was less segregation and much more inter-racial communal support. For more on this see The Rural Face of White Supremacy; Beyond Jim Crow by Mark Schultz (University of Illinois Press, 2007)

3 From the same source as above.

4 The photos in this blog post all come from the Photography Project of the Farm Security Administration collection of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photos Division. Click to view full size.

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