Imagining a Time and Place: The FSA and OWI Photos from 1935-1945

Last spring, I attended the MELUS conference in Athens, GA. At one of the panels, Maria Hebert-Leiter and Bryan Giezma presented some work on their upcoming book project. They introduced me to a site at Yale that contains 170,000 photographs taken by Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information workers between 1935 and  1945.What is like about this site is that it provides an interactive map where a user can pinpoint a specific parish, county, photographer, and year. The map only contains about 90,000 photos that have geographical information. The ability to do this allows scholars and teachers to explore numerous photos, providing context to students and readers when they encounter specific literary texts or historical events. House at the Library of Congress, all of these photos give insight into the Great Depression and World War II in America.

Today, I just want to share a couple of the photos with you. Pointe Coupee Parish in Louisiana contains 106 photos on the website. There are images of houses, stores, roads, fields, and even agricultural machinery. Important note: I am using the original captions for these images. Maria and Bryan discussed this during their presentation, and it would be a way for teachers to talk with students about labeling. Notice in the first picture that the woman is just referred to as “Negro.” Her gender is not even mentioned. I will not talk about this here, but I wanted to point it out as a possible pedagogical tool in the classroom.

One image from Pointe Coupee shows an African American woman waiting for groceries at a store in Jarreau, LA, a town right across the river from where Ernest J. Gaines grew up in Oscar, LA. The image reminds me of two scenes in Gaines’s story “The Sky is Gray,” when Octavia and James enter the hardware store so James can get warm and when Helena sells Octavia the salt meat at the end of the story. I can just imagine a store like this as the mother takes her son inside to warm up by a fire while she pretends to be interested in buying ax handles.

Negro waiting for groceries in general store. Jarreau, Louisiana

The next image is a picture of an African American worker’s house in New Roads, LA, Bayonne in Gaines’s work. The caption does not say if the person is a sharecropper or what occupation he or she has. I would assume the person sharecrops for the owner of the plantation. Whatever the case, the image provides a reference point for the living conditions of African American sharecropper on plantations that Gaines and others write about. I could see Eddie, Amy, and Sonny living in a house like this in “A Long Day in November.” There are other images as well, ones that show rows of houses, like you would see in the quarters or in a factory town.

Home of Negro plantation worker near New Roads, Louisiana

There are around 88 pictures from Natchez, MS, as well. Here, I think about Eudora Welty’s story “A Worn Path.” The images show people walking around Natchez, the city where Phoenix Jackson travels to to in order to get the medicine for her grandson. I could see Phoenix walking these streets after trekking through the woods. For these images, pay close attention to the captions. One image contains two white women walking down a street.  The other shows an African American man walking down the street while an African American woman looks at him from a window.

Two women walking along street, Natchez, Mississippi
Scene in Natchez, Mississippi

Thinking about Carson McCullers‘s Reflections in a Golden Eye, images from Columbus, GA, may be beneficial. McCullers’s novel takes place on an Army base, modeled after Fort Benning. Pictures on the site show images of soldiers at the base, white and African American soldiers. What is important here, not necessarily in relation to McCullers’s novella, is that there are images of African American soldiers training for the war. It would be an excellent way to introduce a discussion of African American involvement, or restricted involvement, in not only World War II but in World War I and other wars as well. Below, you will see three images from Columbus, with captions. The first shows construction workers near Fort Benning. Notice how detailed the caption is here. The second displays two African American soldiers standing in front of a barber shop. The final image shows an African American who, the caption says, has returned South after working in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. This image provides a frame of reference for migration and for August Wilson’s works. There are around 700 picture from the Pittsburgh region on the site.

Construction workers on porch of local boarding house on highway near Fort Benning, Columbus, Georgia. They pay six dollars a week, several in a room. They are employed on Belair Construction job building defense housing project

Negro soldiers. Columbus, Georgia
Beggar. Columbus, Georgia. He worked for many years the steel mills of Pittsburgh and Aliquippa

This is only a small sampling of the images available on the Yale website from the Library of Congress. I have not looked at the site in its entirety yet, and probably never will. However, the images I have found provide a context for students that will help to illuminate the texts they read. 

Take a spin around the site. If you find images that match with texts you are teaching, or reading, share them in the comments below.

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One thought on “Imagining a Time and Place: The FSA and OWI Photos from 1935-1945

  1. Pingback: Language and Syntax in the Classroom | Interminable Rambling

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