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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.


 There were two churches in Harmony Community in 1941. Jefferson Baptist Church was the church attended by the community’s African-American Church residents and was their most important formal institution. Almost all the black residents joined the church and nearly everyone walked to the church, including an old deacon who lived 7 miles away.  The preacher did not live in the community. There is also a church cemetery where many of the residents of the community were buried. (NAID 521385)


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.


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.



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.




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






Today’s blog is written by Dr. Trichita M. Chestnut, Deputy Director Production Division of Data Processing at the National Declassification Center (NWD) at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland


“…the black men who were killed at Fort Pillow…and elsewhere, fighting as gallantly and as bravely as any men under the flag, be their complexion what it will, should be recognized by the Government…” (Congressional Globe, 38 Cong., 1 sess., June 24, 1864)

April 12, 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Pillow, which took place in Lauderdale County, Tennessee during the American Civil War.  Today, this battle is also well known as the Fort Pillow Massacre due to the number of United States Colored Troops (USCT) who were killed when they attempted to surrender to the Confederate Army.  There were conflicting reports on what actually happened that day, which prompted Congress to investigate the massacre through the Joint Committee on the Conduct and Expenditures of the War.  The same report was submitted to the Senate and House of Representatives, Report No. 63 and Report No. 65, respectively in May 1864.

During the investigation, many of the surviving black soldiers who witnessed the cruelty and murders testified to the Joint Committee a week after the massacre occurred.  Their testimonies were found in the reports.  Union sources asserted that although their troops surrendered, Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troops still executed them in cold blood, specifically the black troops, shouting out “No quarter! No quarter! Kill the d- n-; shoot them down.”  The black soldiers who survived testified that most of the men surrendered and threw down their weapons, only to be shot or beaten by the Confederate soldiers. Private Daniel Tyler (Company B of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) maintained that he “was wounded after we all surrendered; not before…They shot me when we came up the hill from down by the river.”  Private John Haskins (Co, B of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) asserted that “After we had surrendered they shot me in the left arm…” and Sergeant Henry F. Weaver (Co. C of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) stated that “The rebels charged after the flag of truce, the TN cavalry broke and was followed down the hill by the colored soldiers…They were shooting the negroes over my head…I saw one of the rebels and told him I would surrender, he said ‘We do not shoot white men,’…he ordered me away; [and] kept shooting the negroes…”

Although the killings ceased at night fall, the next morning it was renewed, when Confederate soldiers sought and sometimes killed the wounded among the dead.  Private Duncan Harding (Company A of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) swore that “The next morning I saw them shoot down one corporal in our company…they shot him dead.”  When asked if the corporal had any arms in his hands, Private Harding responded, “No sir; nothing.”  Private Manuel Nichols (Company B of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) testified to being injured again after the surrender.  He stated that “…the morning after the fight they shot me again in the right arm.  When they came up and killed the wounded ones, I saw some four or five coming down the hill” and Private Aaron Fentis (Company D of the 6th USCT Heavy Artillery) attested that he “saw two wounded men shot the next morning; they were lying down when the seeesh [or secessionists: a person withdrawing from the union, which was a derogatory term for Confederates and Southerners] shot them.” Confederate sources claimed that after the Rebels attacked the Fort, there was neither cruel purpose nor cruel negligence on the part of General Forrest, who was “utterly devoid of wrong doing.”  It was reported that when the Confederates evacuated Fort Pillow that evening they gained little from the attack except to temporary disrupt Union operations.

In the end, causalities were high, especially for Union troops.  It was reported that more than 300 black soldiers were killed in the Fort Pillow Massacre. Controversy surrounding this battle continues today, with some scholars arguing that Confederate troops massacred the Union troops after they surrendered and other scholars dispute the claims made during the congressional investigation.  The Fort Pillow Massacre became a Union rallying cry and cemented resolve to see the war through to its conclusion.

For more information on the Fort Pillow Massacre: Senate Report 63, 38 Congress, 1 sess., Serial 1178; House of Representatives Report 65, 38 Congress, 1 sess., Serial 1278; and Letters Received from Executive Officers, compiled 1831-1869; General Records of the Department of Treasury, Record Group 56 National Archives at College Park, College Park, Maryland.

Today’s blog is written by Dr. Jametta Davis, Appraisal Archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

The Great Depression was one of the most devastating economic periods of the twentieth century.  Between 1929 and the early 1940s, countless American citizens experienced high unemployment rates, increased poverty, and great uncertainty.  For black girls and young women, the period created even greater challenges due to the fact that prior to 1929, they were typically employed in the lowest paying jobs within the labor market.  Also discrimination, marginal education, and growing competition for their already meager wages made circumstances even more difficult for black women during the Depression.  Recognizing these unique challenges, prominent civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, and the Negro Affairs Division of the National Youth Administration provided thousands of black girls and women with educational programs and vocational training to prepare them for better job opportunities.

Mary McLeod Bethune (1943)

Mary McLeod Bethune (1943)

The National Youth Administration (NYA) was a New Deal program created in 1935 within the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  The mission of the program was to provide economic relief to young people aged 16 to 24 through educational aid, job training skills, and employment opportunities.  In 1936, in an effort to better address the needs of black youth, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Mary McLeod Bethune as Director of the NYA’s Division of Negro Affairs.  With this appointment, the prominent civil rights leader became the first black female administrator in the federal government.  In this capacity, Bethune worked closely with federal and state agencies, black college presidents, and black businesses and organizations to establish numerous resources to aid black girls and women through the auspices of the NYA.

Bethune at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, D. C.

Bethune at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, D. C.

For instance, the NYA’s Special Negro Fund provided educational aid and work-study programs to black college students.  Such programs allowed young women to remain in college, acquire additional job skills, and participate in wage-earning projects that provided them with opportunities to instruct and assist other NYA participants in the various vocational programs.  For Bethune, it was just as important to assist students who could not afford to attend college.  Therefore, the NYA also collaborated with local schools, hospitals, and organizations, such as the YWCA to provide girls with training in nursery school work, home economics, gardening, cafeteria work, nursing, clerical skills, and factory jobs.  A number of residential training centers on and near the campuses of black colleges in thirteen states were also created.  Selected girls, usually from rural areas, traveled to the centers where they resided for extended periods to learn new trades and skills.


Female participants in each of the agency’s programs earned wages for their part-time work on projects.  In fact, unlike most New Deal work programs, the NYA paid black and white students equal wages for the projects they participated in.  However, participants were not the only ones to benefit.  Through their work, they also contributed much needed resources for the communities in which they worked.  Resources provided to the community included:  meals and services, improvements to the various facilities in the black community, including recreational and educational amenities for youth, assistance for Tuberculosis patients, and resources to charitable institutions that provided for the black community’s most needy.


As World War II began and the need for defense goods and materials grew, young women in the NYA program were increasingly trained for industry work related to the war efforts.  As a result, black NYA participants were readily prepared in cities throughout the country to work in programs which emphasized industrial sewing, welding, machinery, pattern-making, and to a smaller degree, clerical work.  Because the war had also stimulated the economy and the general labor market, the NYA industrial training programs had also prepared numerous black girls and women for jobs in the defense industry.


The improved economy eliminated the need for the NYA’s existence and, as a result, its programs were discontinued by 1944.  Despite this fact, Mary McLeod Bethune and the Division of Negro Affairs made incredible strides for the black youth who participated in the NYA’s educational and vocational training projects.  The work of the agency marked the first time in the history of the federal government that black youth and young adults were assisted through such programming efforts.  In the end, the agency had assisted close to 300,000 black youth and as such, paved the way for thousands of young black women to participate in better opportunities within the job market.


The images used in this blog can be found in RG 119 Records of the National Youth Administration (NYA), located at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

I too, am Rosie

by on March 11, 2014

Today’s blog is written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

Black women have a long history of work in the United States. They have toiled in hot fields, cared for other people’s children, cleaned homes, worked in factories, taught in poorly funded schools, and held numerous professional and political positions. African American women are a part of the American workforce by choice or by circumstance. They contributed to the progress and success of leading industries with dedication and hard work. And after these long days away from the home, black women still managed to find the strength to care for and nurture their own families.

National Archives Identifier 535413

National Archives Identifier 535413

The iconic image of Rosie the riveter during the war years depicts a white woman flexing her muscles and wearing a bandanna with the catch phrase “We Can Do It!” Black women also gave their labor in support of the wartime shortages. Women of all races and ages worked in various factories and industries during both world wars across northern and mid-western states. Most women endured difficulties as paid labor in the wartime industries, which include low pay, sexual harassment, and grueling working conditions. Black women, who often worked in segregated areas, were paid even less than their white female counterparts and also had to deal with racism and oppression, while attempting to support their families and the war effort.


The General Photographic File, 1893-1945 (National Archives Identifier 522858) series in RG 86 Records of the Women’s Bureau contains photographs showcasing women at work during World War I and the early 1920s. The Department of Labor managed to document all classes and races of American women employed at various naval yards, tobacco plants, Army hospitals, and federal agencies. Within this series are images of black women employed in lumber yards, in manufacturing plants, at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, and in steel mills. The photographs from this series illustrate African American women at work and their struggles to obtain better pay and improved working conditions.


The series Negro Activities in Industry, Government, and the Armed Forces, 1941-1945 (National Archives Identifier 535799) in RG 208 Records of the Office of War Information consists of photographs detailing all aspects of black life during the World War II years. Among these images are representations of African American women’s contributions to the wartime labor shortage. Similar to the war effort during the First World War, black women filled vacant positions in industrial and service sector positions. These photographs also show black women at work in both civilian and military offices.

Virginia is for the Lovings

by on February 25, 2014

Today’s blog is written by Dr. Christina Violeta Jones, Textual Reference Archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

1969 was a remarkable year.  Richard Nixon became the 37th President, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were the first two men to land on the moon, and Woodstock the music festival took place.  Also born in 1969 was the tourism/travel slogan “Virginia is for Lovers,” established by advertising agents David N. Martin and George Woltz of Richmond, Virginia.  This bold and provocative phrase was intended to plant a new image of a more exciting Virginia, appealing to younger consumers who were the market of the future.  Given the new unofficial state motto, it is incredible that only two years before Richard Perry Loving, a white man, and Mildred Delores Jeter Loving, a woman of African American and Native American descent, were fighting for the right to live as husband and wife in the state of Virginia.  Loving v. Virginia (1967) was a landmark civil rights decision of the United States Supreme Court which invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

Decision, Loving v. Virginia

Decision, Loving v. Virginia

Laws banning interracial marriage (also known as anti-miscegenation laws) were well established throughout the United States since the country declared its independence in 1776.  The Virginia state law was the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which prohibited marriage between whites and other non-white ethnic groups, mandated that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth, and divided society into two classifications: white and colored. However, in certain parts of Virginia “racial integrity” did not always translate from the law books into real life. The town where the Lovings grew up was considered “the passing capital of America” for the ability of its black residents to pass as white once they left town.  Nevertheless, segregation and its laws still existed.

When Mildred became pregnant in June of 1958, the couple married in Washington, D.C. where there was no law against interracial marriage and soon after returned to Caroline County, Virginia. One night the local police raided their home and when Mildred pointed their marriage certificate out to the police, the document became the evidence for a criminal charge. The couple was charged under Section 20-58 of the Virginia Code, which prohibited interracial couples from being married out of state and then returning to Virginia, and Section 20-59, which classified miscegenation as a felony.

In January, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty and were sentenced to one year in prison, with the sentence suspended for 25 years on condition that the couple leaves the state of Virginia.  It was then that the couple moved back to Washington, D.C.

By 1964, the Lovings were frustrated, in part from their social isolation and financial difficulties, but more so because they were unable to travel in Virginia as a married couple, to visit their families.  Around this time, Mildred wrote a letter in protest to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.  Kennedy referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU attorneys Phil Hirschkop and Bernard Cohen filed a motion on behalf of the couple in the Virginia State trial court to vacate the judgment from Virginia and set aside the sentence on the grounds that the violated statues ran counter to the Fourteenth Amendment.  This set in motion a series of lawsuits, which ultimately reached the Supreme Court of the United States.

As seen in the Opinion given above, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions for violating the Virginia Code in an unanimous decision to dismiss the case that a law forbidding both white and black people from marrying people of another race and providing identical penalties to white and black violator could be construed as racial discrimination (RG 267, Appellate Jurisdiction Case Files).  The court ruled that Virginia’s miscegenation status violated both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Telegram Announcing the Decision in Loving v. Virginia

Telegram Announcing the Decision in Loving v. Virginia

As we celebrate African American History month and Valentine’s Day in February, readers should keep in mind that Richard and Mildred Loving never considered themselves activists, they just wanted to live a simple life; loving each other, living happily married, and raising their children in their home in the state of Virginia.

Readers should note that several documents from the Supreme Court Loving v. Virginia case file are featured in the Records of Rights and the Making their Mark: Stories through Signatures exhibits. Making their Mark will open March 21, 2014 and close January 5, 2015 in the O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives building in Washington, DC.



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