Whitewashing the Great Depression
The Atlantic|December 2020
How the preeminent photographic record of the period eclipsed people of color and shaped the nation’s self-image
By Sarah Boxer

Quick, name one iconic Depression-era portrait each by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Russell Lee. My guess is that you’d choose Lange’s Migrant Mother, a portrait of Florence Owens Thompson and her children taken in Nipomo, California, in 1936. For Evans, you’d probably pick a 1936 portrait of tight-lipped Allie Mae Burroughs standing before the wall of her family’s cabin in Hale County, Alabama. For Lee, you might draw a blank, but you’d likely recognize his 1937 group portrait Saturday Night in a Saloon, showing four drinkers in Craigville, Minnesota. (It was used in the opening sequence of the TV show Cheers.)

What’s my point? Each of the subjects in each of these pictures, produced by Farm Security Administration photographers, appears to be white. Although the photographers who worked for the FSA took many pictures of people of color—in the streets, in the fields, out of work—the Great Depression’s main victims, as Americans came to visualize them, were white. And this collective portrait has contributed to the misbegotten idea, still current, that the soul of America, the real American type, is rural and white.

In one sense, the lack of diversity in classic FSA photographs comes as little surprise: The country was roughly 90 percent white during the Depression, and the FSA represented Black people in proportion to their share of the population. Yet overall representation is surely only part of the story, given that the FSA was supposed to be chronicling hardship among farmworkers. During the Depression, Black Americans made up more than half of the country’s tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and farmworkers in the South. In 1932, when a quarter of white Americans were unemployed, half of Black Americans were. “In some Northern cities, whites called for African Americans to be fired from any jobs as long as there were whites out of work,” according to the Library of Congress’s website for teachers. And Black sharecroppers were often forced out of work by white ones. “No group was harder hit than African Americans.”

Yet we’ve come to imagine the Great Depression as largely a white tragedy. That isn’t because the FSA photographers focused only on white subjects. If you look at the roughly 175,000 negatives in the complete FSA/ Office of War Information file, now at the Library of Congress, you’ll see that the photographers working for the FSA and for its predecessor, the Resettlement Administration, and its successor, the OWI, documented many people of color. Lee photographed poor Black people in Missouri, and Mexican pecan shellers in Texas. Evans photographed Black Americans out of work in Mississippi and Alabama. And Lange photographed Filipino lettuce pickers and Japanese truck farmers in California.

The most direct responsibility for the whitewashing seems to lie with the photographers’ boss, Roy Stryker, who was the chief of the FSA’s historical section from 1935 to 1941, and then of the OWI’s photography unit. Three new books that pursue three very different subjects in very distinctive ways—Walker Evans: Starting From Scratch, by Svetlana Alpers; Russell Lee: A Photographer’s Life and Legacy, by Mary Jane Appel; and Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, a Museum of Modern Art exhibition catalog—all offer evidence that FSA photographers often tangled with Stryker over matters of race.

Stryker openly worried that too much racial honesty might sink his ship at the FSA. Part of his mission at the agency was to compile a complete pictorial record of all kinds of Americans, known as “The File.” The other part was to present to Congress a sympathetic portrayal of American suffering, “to document the problems of the Depression,” as one photographer recalled, “so that we could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them.”

Stryker, in other words, was a realist. And the reality was that Congress, which controlled the FSA’s funds, was dominated by Southern Democrats, who, as Appel writes in her Lee biography, were “interested in preserving the racial status quo.” Knowing this, Stryker and other FSA officials “were reluctant to lead the agency in a crusade against racial disparity.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself feared the Southern Democrats. Without their support, his New Deal programs had no hope of surviving. Thus, although FDR signed an order barring discrimination in the projects sponsored by his newly founded Works Progress Administration in 1935, Appel notes that he wouldn’t back “an antilynching campaign because he was afraid of losing his Southern Democratic base.” And when the Social Security Act was passed, also in 1935, agricultural and domestic workers (who were disproportionately Black) were excluded from its benefits.

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