Monday, December 26, 2011

Cotton Croppers

I’ve continued my research on Alabama in the 1930’s.  One study from 1935 is called The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy.  It was the result of studies and surveys conducted by the University of North Carolina from 1933-1935 to assess the state of cotton cultivation in the Deep South during that time.

In the ten chief cotton states, more than 60% of cotton producers were tenants on operations of various sizes.  Most of these tenants were sharecroppers who received seed, fertilizer, tools and work animals from the land owner in exchange for half of the crop they produced.  The cropper was also provided housing and “furnishing”, advances of food and other necessities from the landlord until the cotton crop came in, often at usurious rates of interest.  This was the “most dependent and vulnerable” population.  There were approximately 1.1 million white cropper families in the mid-1930’s in the South and 700,000 black cropper families.

The report decried the poor quality of housing, diet and education of the sharecropper class.  The social system that existed in landlord-tenant cotton culture was (at its most benign) a paternalistic one that replicated the culture of slavery days.  “Every kind of exploitation and abuse is permitted because of the old caste prejudice.  The poor white connives in this abuse of the Negro; in fact, he is the most violent protagonist of it.”  And later:  “Because of their insistence upon the degrading of three million Negro tenants, five and a half million white workers continue to keep themselves in virtual peonage.”

It is a harsh indictment that certainly merits qualification, but remains representative of the complex currents of power and race that still echoed in Southern society 70 years after the end of the Civil War.

Here are some pictures of the world of the cotton farmer in Depression-era Alabama from the Library of Congress (captions are taken from the LOC).

Martha Mosely coming from the store.  She manages and runs her own farm and made three bales
of cotton last year. Gee's Bend, Alabama.  May 1939.  Marion Post Wolcott.
Library of Congress (U.S. Farm Security Administration)

Plowboy in Alabama earns seventy-five cents daily.
Library of Congress (U.S. Farm Security Administration)

Alabama Negro working in the field near Eutaw, Alabama.
Library of Congress (U.S. Farm Security Administration)

Alabama plow girl near Eutaw, Alabama.
Library of Congress (U.S. Farm Security Administration)

A Negro tenant farmer and several members of his family hoeing cotton on their
farm in Alabama.  July 1936.  Dorothea Lange.
Library of Congress (U.S. Farm Security Administration)

Hill country cotton farm in southwestern Alabama.  August 1938.  Dorothea Lange.
Library of Congress (U.S. Farm Security Administration)

Church and cotton field near Greensboro, Alabama.  Jack Delano.  May 1941.
Library of Congress (U.S. Farm Security Administration)

Cotton field.  Hale County, Alabama.  1935 or 1936.  Walker Evans.
Library of Congress (U.S. Farm Security Administration)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Local Curiosities III

I went down to Wickford, Rhode Island with some friends the other day.  Who knew it was so beautiful?  An amazing collection of 18th and 19th century homes in a beautiful waterfront setting.  This gorgeous Baptist church was there, built in 1816.

And here's something I've never seen before.  A Chia bear.  The sign tells you in case there is any confusion.

Also, some exciting local news.  Here's the old Poirier diner, originally in the Eagle Square area of Atwells Avenue, about to be lowered onto its new resting place at 1380 Westminster Street.  It will be a diner and I am so excited because it is just across the park from me!

And here, a few steps away, you can buy human hair.

Here are some pics of young Clovis sleeping in the winter sun.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Iron Age

I've been snooping around documents from Alabama in the Great Depression and came across these amazing photographs of Birmingham in the 1930's.  Life among the steelworkers and miners, black and white, must have been difficult.  Fortunately, New Deal programs sent photographers down south, like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, to record life in the South at this time.

As Robin G. Kelley describes in her fascinating book Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists in the Great Depression:
...the "valley of the furnaces" was another world in the making.  Thousands of landless farmers from the surrounding counties, particularly blacks, were rapidly drawn into the orbit of industrial production.  By 1900, 55 percent of Alabama's coal miners and 65 percent of its iron and steel workers were black.  Overall, African-Americans made up more than 90 percent of Birmingham's unskilled labor force by 1910, thus constituting one of the largest black urban communities in the New South.
And later:
By 1920 over 17,000 workers lived in homes maintained by various industrial concerns and ranging in quality from well-constructed wood-frame hosues to shoddy dwellings of board and batten construction.
Here are some photographs from that world, all with most grateful thanks to the Library of Congress.

Steelmill workers' company houses and outhouses, Republic Steel Company,
Birmingham, Alabama, March 1936, Walker Evans.
Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company, Birmingham, Alabama,
June 1936, Dorothea Lange.
Steel plant and workers' houses, Birmingham, Alabama, May 1939,
Marion Post Wolcott.
Steel mill and workers' houses near Birmingham, Alabama, February 1937,
Arthur Rothstein.
Steelmill workers' houses, Birmingham, Alabama.  Owned by
Republic Steel Company, March 1936, Walker Evans. 
Yardman on mine railroad, Jefferson County, Alabama,
February 1937, Arthur Rothstein.
Company store for steel workers, Ensley, Alabama, February 1937,
Arthur Rothstein.
Alabama Coal Miners, Birmingham, February 1937, Arthur Rothstein.