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.
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