During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Woody Guthrie sang their songs, John Steinbeck told their stories and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal photographers showed us their faces.
When the American economy collapsed and factories shut their doors, millions of Americans hit the roads and railroad boxcars, looking for work. Starvation and displacement was rampant even in rural America, especially in the Deep South, which had seen economic hard times for almost a decade before the Depression. Then came the election of 1932 and Roosevelt’s New Deal to revive the American economy and spirit.
In 1937 the Roosevelt administration created the Farm Security Administration, or FSA, to improve life in rural America during the Depression. To help in that cause, the FSA dispatched a dozen photographers across the nation to document life in the American heartland. Those photographers included notables such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn and Gordon Parks. In the fall of 1938, the FSA sent the Illinois-born photojournalist Russell Lee to document life in south Louisiana. There he traveled from towns to cities, along the bayous and back roads, capturing, among other images, of workers in rice mills, sharecroppers at home and in the fields, a Cajun “fais do-do,” a country fair, perique tobacco farmers in St. James Parish and dock workers along the New Orleans riverfront.
Lee returned again to Louisiana the following spring to document life in the strawberry industry in Tangipahoa and Livingston parishes, at that time one of the nation’s leading producers of strawberries. There he photographed African-American and white migrant pickers in the fields, in their homes and in their makeshift camps, such as this April 1939 image of a migrant family’s small camp near Ponchatoula. These and other migrants followed the “pink rash” of the strawberry crop as it moved from western Florida to Louisiana and then to Tennessee, Kentucky and Michigan.