Since I started sharing photos from the Great Depression several years ago, I’ve often been bemused when I see photos that I’m familiar show up some place unexpectedly – and sometimes their use is flat out wrong. One, for example, is of some kids on a front porch in the Mississippi River Delta – it’s also the image for my Eyes of the Great Depression 003. We were at a state park on the St Francis River and I saw the photo in a new display for a recently renovated school building. The caption for the photo said, “Children in the Delta outside Parkin, Arkansas, ca. 1915.” The photo was actually taken in July 1936 by Dorothea Lange.
In recent day’s I’ve seen another misuse of an image from the Great Depression.
With this one, the narrative begins “ They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot & then once a day it was taken & sold to the tannery…..if you had to do this to survive you were “Piss Poor” But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot…..they “didn’t have a pot to piss in” & were the lowest of the low.”
This narrative is absolute hogwash. According to Michael Quinion, a British etymologist and writer, “the piece is in its intention merely a mischievous attempt to deceive its readers.” In his post, Piss-Poor, Quinion goes on in much more detail and even lays out that the expression may have actually been invented during the Second World War.
The image that is being associated with the piece is that of the family of sharecropper Bud Fields of Hale County Alabama in the summer of 1936. Fortune magazine had sent James Agee and Walker Evans south to document lives of cotton sharecroppers for a story. Their story, never published, was to have been part of a series called “Life and Circumstances.” It was published in book form in 1941 as “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” with sales of only about 600 copies.
In 2005, Fortune published a retrospective article, “The Most Famous Story We Never Told” that included impressions the visit of Agee and Walker left on the three families that were featured. One of the people interviewed was Ivan Fields, a grandson of Bud Fields.
North on Highway 69 in another driving rainstorm, past the turnoff to Mills Hill, through Moundville and all the way into Tuscaloosa, to a prosperous subdivision with wide lawns and big magnolia trees and crape myrtles in blossom. Irvin Fields meets me at the door. Irvin, a grandson of Bud Fields. Relaxing now in a soft recliner in his air-conditioned living room, facing a giant flat-panel TV. Fields joined the Army after high school and left Mills Hill for good. He is head of security at the local hospital, former director of public safety at the University of Alabama, but he grew up a sharecropper’s son in Hale County, and he hasn’t forgotten. He talks late into the evening, talks until his throat goes dry and his voice cracks.
“That mean old guy right there is the landowner,” he says, pointing at a prosperous man in a white summer suit, the first image in my edition of Famous Men. “His name was Watson Tidmore.” He sighs. “You’re from Massachusetts? There is no way in the world that anyone could sit down and convey to you what the times were really like back then. Some of the pictures you saw of my grandfather, which are kind of funny, looked like these people need a bath, looked like they need to get clothes on and dress appropriately, you know? Especially to take a picture. But these people were not very much recovered from the Civil War at that time. They were struggling for a living. What little bit of living that they had, they dug it out of the ground. In Hale County.
“I was born in 1938. I’ve seen boys wear little girls’ dresses when there was predominantly girls in the family and there was nothing else to hand down. I’ve seen kids go to bed hungry. I’ve seen Dad struggling and even crying when he didn’t know where the next meal was going to come from and it was his responsibility to put it on the table. The tenant would harvest the crops, he would gin the cotton, and then they would settle up at the end of the harvest season. I never will forget some of the things I witnessed in this settling-up time of the year. The landowner had the pencil and he had the books. The landowner would say, ‘Well, you didn’t make it this time Bill, you still owe me about $200. Maybe you can make it next year.’
“A lot of people started breaking out of that kind of thing during World War II. Some of the younger people left. Generally the quickest way out of something like that was military. I guess that’s one of the reasons they didn’t have a problem filling the ranks with people from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi.
“I don’t know of any other way to put it. It is a manner of slavery that existed. That’s all it was. You were enslaved to the landowner that had the money. And there was nowhere else to go. Limited by education, or noneducation. It was just a revolving door for the people back then. And a lot of blacks were in the same situation right along with the whites.”
Desperate times – desperate people.
The way that image is being used online is inappropriate. Of all people, I certainly can’t be one to say that these public domain images shouldn’t be used. However, any use should be respectful. These people were living in hard times and deserve respect. They also have family and descendants who will likely recognize the photos.
Interestingly, this is not the first time I have come across the James Agee and Walker Evans sharecropper project. I had a short article last summer related to it, A symbol of the Great Depression–Walker Evans’ photo of Allie Mae Burroughs. Her picture is on the left. Her husband, Floyd Burroughs is the subject of Eyes of the Great Depression 112, scheduled for Friday, September 27.
Mississippi Delta Children poster is available on Zazzle.