Family, Farming, and Community: Photographs of African American Life in Putnam County, Georgia in 1941
Today’s Blog is written by Barbara Lewis Burger, a retired National Archives Still Picture Senior Archivist.
A significant percentage of African Americans lived in rural communities until the middle of the 20th century. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 1900, the black population was slightly more than 8.8 million or 11.6% of the U.S. population. Of that figure nearly 90% lived in the South, and three out of every four lived on farms. By 1940, the African-American population had grown to over 12 million (this figure reflects an undercounting of the black population in the 1940 census). Even after the massive exodus of people during the first wave of the Great Migration, roughly 77% of African Americans in 1940 still lived in rural areas in the South. Researchers interested in images of African Americans will, for that reason, find that the farming and related subject matter photographic files of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its components in the National Archives are key sources for documentation.
This blog looks at a group of photographs of African Americans living in the rural community of Harmony in Putnam County, Georgia on the eve of World War II. The images taken by Irving Rusinow (1914–1990) from late May to early June 1941, are a part of the series in RG 83 Photographic Prints Documenting Programs and Activities of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and Predecessor Agencies, ca. 1922 – ca. 1947 (NAID 521048). The pictures relate to a “Community Stability and Instability” sociological study of rural life and social institutions in six communities across the United States that was conducted by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics’ Division of Farm Population and Rural Welfare.
Individuals pictured in this series for the most part are not identified. The files of the Library of Georgia, however, name this elderly woman as Myra Bolden, who was once a bondwoman of John Robinson Walton. She appears in U.S. census records as Mira Balden or Elmira Bolten with a birth year ranging from 1851 to 1858. As early as the 1880 census Elmira Bolten is listed as married to Alfred Bolten with several children. Myra Bolden died April 1, 1944 and is buried in the Jefferson Baptist Church Cemetery, as is her husband. (NAID 521416)
According to Wynne’s report about 50 African-American families lived in Harmony Community. Of these, only one owned the land it worked, the rest were sharecroppers, renters or farm hands. All of the tenants in Harmony were black. Wynne noted that the usual tenancy agreements in the county were renting and the tenant paid cash rent for his farm; sharecropping under which the tenant paid one-half of his cotton and one-half of his corn as rent (the owner supplied work stock, equipment and one-half the fertilizer); sharecropping and the tenant paid one-fourth of cotton on cotton and one-third in corn and operated with his own work stock and equipment; and other variations. The study found that among black tenants, “all members of a family, except the very young, worked in the field” or helped to make a living in some other manner. (NAID 521337)
Putnam County is part of the Black Belt, a region in the South that was once characterized by a large African-American population and a plantation system of agriculture—primarily cotton. At the time of the study and photographs, the county (population 8,514) was considered almost 100% rural, having only about a couple hundred people living in the county’s only town—the county seat Eatonton. Harmony was even smaller with about 70 families (20 white and 50 black). The locality was selected for the study primarily because it presented a “strong bi-racial element”—one black and one white. However, as the foreword to the report explained, Harmony was really “two communities, having little in common except the understanding that keeps them apart and their economic interdependence.” It was also a place where the white community maintained power and control, and tolerated those blacks that accepted their positions. While Harmony had its share of impoverished whites, African Americans existed on the bottom rung both economically and socially.
There was no economic security for African-American renters or sharecroppers in Harmony Community. Sharecroppers had the same status as farm hands or other employees. Renters tended to occupy farms for long periods, which increased stability in the community. There were separate schools for black and white children. The school for black students combined elementary and high school subjects. (NAID 521440)
The boll-weevil infestation and resulting reduction in cotton production, deflation, the Stock Market Crash of 1929, and the Great Depression all had a devastating effect on rural Georgia. Many farmers went bankrupt and both owners and tenants abandoned their lands. Squatters, who were more often white tenants, occupied many of the deserted old plantation homes. (NAID 521414)
Waller Wynne (1906–1996), a social scientist with the Division of Farm Population and Rural Welfare conducted the Harmony study and wrote a 1943 report, Culture of Contemporary Rural Community: Harmony, Georgia, describing his findings, some of which are referenced in this blog. Wynne examined the economy and the responses of the community, social institutions, and residents to changes brought on by the demise of the plantation system and the end of large-scale cotton cultivation following the 1920s boll-weevil infestation. Wynne’s report is available in the Archives Library Information Center at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
A total of 80 blacks owned land in 1939 in Putnam County. Though not identified, this image may be the house and family of the only African-American proprietor in Harmony. Waller Wynne noted in his report that there was a class structure in the community. Whether black or white, race mattered as did land ownership. Consequently, African-American landowners had a higher status than other black families; a fact also recognized by white people. According to Waller, the Harmony family did not associate with those of a lower status—black tenants or farm hands—except in the institutional life of the community. There were no African-American business owners in Harmony, so the one black farm owner was the closest thing to a leader in his community. (NAID 521401)
The boll-weevil devastation, the loss of fertility from single crop cultivation, and the exodus of farm laborers led to a diversification of crops planted in Putnam County. Acreages of oats, hay, corn, wheat, and legumes increased. The machine appears to be pulled by a horse or more likely a mule. In 1941, mules remained the chief source of farm power. Some farmers, usually owner-operated, had begun to use tractors where suitable. Tenant farmers usually used equipment that the farm owner provided. (NAID 521328)
In the aftermath of the boll-weevil infestation cotton cultivation decreased as more and more Putnam County farmers and tenants also switched to dairying. Milk production was quite profitable and unlike cotton, the cash income was distributed throughout the year. Dairying also had the advantage of not requiring a large labor force. African-American tenant farmers lacked the acreage and the capital to purchase herds and to comply with milk production/distribution regulations. Hence, many tenants continued to rely on growing cotton or the farming decisions of the landowner. Some tenants were able to sell the milk they normally would have consumed. As Waller noted in 1941, however, most tenants continued to see only a subsistence level of living. (NAID 521309)
The study found that the African American residents of area felt very strongly that the community was their home and that family ties remained solid. And, while many of the African-American youth from the community had migrated to urban centers, others stayed, married, made homes and reared their children in Harmony. (NAID 521256)
The images featured in this blog can be in RG 83 Records of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE), located at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland