This is one of my favorite photos. I love the kids, the clothes, the car, and the moment. It's April 1941, Easter Sunday, and the five poised black boys are as much in control of the situation as is the photographer, a white man named Russell Lee.
Russell Lee: Negro boys on Easter morning. Southside, Chicago, Illinois. 1941. (Photos are from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection at the Library of Congress. Click directly on any image to see a larger version.)
At the time, Lee was working for the Farm Security Administration's [FSA] epic documentary photography project. Although most FSA photography was related to the agency's efforts to improve the lot of impoverished farmers and farm workers, by the early 1940s, it had turned some of its attention to America's cities.
The five boys are representative of Chicago's diverse African-American community, in which poverty and prosperity existed side-by-side. While most black Chicagoans were poor (many were migrants from the South, fleeing racism and searching for economic opportunity), the city was also home to a self-confident black middle class. You can see some of that confidence in Lee's photo.
Edwin Rosskam: Adolescent boys [sic] dressed up for the Easter parade, Chicago, Illinois. 1941.
On that April day, there was another FSA photographer, in Chicago, working on the same assignment -- Edwin Rosskam. In fact, the project was his idea.
Rosskam had been powerfully moved by Richard Wright's Native Son, which had been published in 1940. The novel, which was set in Chicago, was an angry indictment of the corrosive effects of American racism. Despite (or maybe because of) its anger, the book had been a literary sensation. Rosskam, the FSA's photo editor as well as a photographer, had initiated a collaboration between Wright and the documentary project -- FSA photos and a text by Wright would describe the condition of black America. The result was 12 Million Black Voices, which appeared later in the year.
Russell Lee: Part of the processional of an Episcopal Church, South Side of Chicago, Illinois. 1941.
In the end, only a few of the 420 photos that Lee and Rosskam made in Chicago, over the course of two or three weeks, appeared in 12 Million Black Voices. The book looked at the African-American community nationwide, rather than in just one city. Those 420 photos remain, however, remarkable documents from a particular time and place.
Russell Lee: Girls waiting for Episcopal Church to end so they can see the processional, South Side of Chicago, Illinois. 1941.
Rosskam and Lee spent a good part of the chilly, gray Easter morning at an Episcopal church, probably drawn by the theatricality of its procession. Many white viewers (and perhaps the two photographers, as well) would have also been surprised by the very existence of a prosperous black middle class and, in particular, one made up of sober, but stylish Episcopalians.
Edwin Rosskam: Crowd outside of fashionable Negro church after Easter Sunday service, Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois. 1941.
I haven't been able to identify the church. If anyone knows anything about it, please leave a comment or send me a note. (You can email me by clicking on the link in the upper right hand corner of this page.)
Note, 8 January 2011: A couple of days ago, I received a note from Ed Doxy, letting me know that the church is St. Edmund's Episcopal. The photos were made at the church's original location at 57th and Indiana, not long before it moved to its present home at 61st and Michigan.
Russell Lee: Peddlers on Easter morning on Garfield Boulevard, Chicago, Illinois. 1941.
Most black Chicagoans weren't middle class, as Lee and Rosskam knew quite well. They may have spent part of their Easter with middle-class boys and Episcopalians, but their photos remind us that while some people were in church, others were trying to earn a living.
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I've drawn much of the information in this post from Nicholas Natanson's remarkable book, The Black Image in the New Deal: The Politics of FSA Photography.
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Note, 2 May 2013: I now close comments on these posts after two months in order to control spam. But as you can see below, this particular post has generated a lot of fascinating comments over the years. If you have anything to add, feel free to send me an email, and I'll add what you have to say to the comments. You'll find my address in the upper right hand corner of this page.
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