I'm not an Affrilachian, but I'd award myself the title if I could. My credentials look pretty good. I've spent most of my adult life on the fringes of Appalachia, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Charlottesville, Virginia. I've got deep roots, on my mother's side, in Clifton Forge, Virginia, which is in Appalachia by anyone's definition. And, over the last few years, I've been thinking a lot about how photography has stereotyped Appalachia and its people in ways that are similar to stereotypes about Africa and Africans.
One of the most pervasive stereotypes about Appalachia is that it's white. Black folks, so we've been told, live elsewhere. Say "coal miner," and almost nobody thinks of a black man (or woman). Like the poet Frank X. Walker, who coined the term "Affrilachian," Ben Shahn and Marion Post Wolcott knew better.
Marion Post Wolcott: Coal miner, his wife and two of their children (note child's legs). Bertha Hill, West Virginia. 1938. [Click on any photo to see a larger version. All photos are from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection at the Library of Congress.]
Shahn and Wolcott are two of my favorite photographers. Although Shahn's much better known as a pointer and muralist, the photos that he made during two brief stints working for the federal government's photography project at the Farm Security Administration [FSA] are among the most significant documents that we have from the 1930s.
Ben Shahn: Sunday in Scott's Run, West Virginia. 1935.
Neither Shahn nor Wolcott knew very much about Appalachia when they first arrived. But they were both sharp observers of people and society. And, if they were burdened by stereotypes, they soon learned to discard them.
...my first assignments were very close to Washington. I think one of the first ones, if not the very first, was in the coal fields in West Virginia. That was a very short assignment, of course. And it was a very interesting one, too. I found the people not as apathetic as I had expected they might be. They weren't too beaten down. Of course, many of them were but they were people with hope and some of them still had a little drive, although, of course, their health was so bad it was telling....
Ben Shahn: Untitled. [Scott's Run, West Virginia. 1935.]
They also shared an openness to and curiosity about African Americans. (They were both politically progressive and opposed to racism and segregation.)
I was offered this job [at the FSA] ...but first it was suggested that I take a trip around the country in the areas in which we worked to see what it's all about, and I tell you that was a revelation to me. ...my knowledge of the United States rather came via New York and mostly through Union Square.
...I had desire to go to the United States [but] I didn't have a penny. It was in the middle of the depression, you know. I couldn't get as far as Hoboken at that time. It was really a very serious time. ...the present seemed to be hopeless and I just felt that I'd never get out of New York again.
Marion Post Wolcott: Untitled. [Payday, coal mining town, Omar, West Virginia. 1938.]
There's nothing special about the way that Shahn and Wolcott depicted African Americans. That's one of the reasons that I like their photos so much. Here black people -- Affrilachians -- are part of the very fiber of society.
My wife would do the driving. She was very understanding of the whole thing and just as much enthusiastic about it as I was, so that we'd retrace steps, sometimes five hundred miles. I needed something to fill in. I'd missed it and back we'd go. We had a little A Model Ford that we knocked around in. It gave us no trouble but it didn't have much speed, so going back six hundred miles meant almost three days.
Ben Shahn: Untitled. [Omar, West Virginia. 1935.]
When I first wanted to take their picture, they would be antagonistic, but as soon as I would explain, or briefly explain what the pictures were for and what I intended, they were cooperative.
--Marion Post Wolcott
Marion Post Wolcott: Unititled. [Shooting craps by company store, Osage, West Virginia. 1938.]
In the South or in the mine country, wherever you point the camera there is a picture. But here you have to make some choices you see.
--Ben Shahn (sounding like the New Yorker that he was)
Ben Shahn: Untitled. [The Shack, a one time church; milk is dispensed here. Relief clients wait for hours. Scotts Run, West Virginia. 1935.]
It's possible to look at an isolated photo, out of the hundreds that Shahn and Wolcott produced in Appalachia, and imagine that it merely confirms the stereotype of an impoverished and beaten down people and region. But that would be wrong. The bodies of work that they produced show people and communities that refuse to be defined by any single aspect of their lives.
Ben Shahn: Omar, West Virginia. 1935. [Click on any photo to see a larger version.]
It's tempting to see Shahn's and Wolcott's Appalachia as an interracial paradise. It wasn't. Schools were segregated. African Americans faced discrimination in the workplace, as well.
Ben Shahn: Negro Schoolchildren, Omar, West Virginia. 1935.
Yet it's also clear that blacks weren't merely outcasts.
Marion Post Wolcott: Untitled. [Homes of Negroes in "Paradise Alley," Charleston, West Virginia. 1938.]
Neither Shahn nor Wolcott sugar-coated things. Poverty was real.
Marion Post Wolcott: Coal miners' wives making ice cream to sell on Saturday afternoon after payday, Osage, West Virginia. 1938.
But the people in the photos are much more than simply poor.
Marion Post Wolcott: Coal miner's daughter doing the family wash. All the water must be carried from up the hill. Bertha Hill, West Virginia. 1938.
In this post, I've selected only photos from West Virginia. That's in part because it's the only state wholly within Appalachia, and in part because the photos that Shahn and Wolcott made their are so rich.
Most of those photos, of course, have no black people in them. They were a minority in Appalachia as they were throughout the United States. (Update: Roger May tells me that the best estimate is that about 60,000 African Americans lived in West Virginia's coal mining districts at the time.) There were (and are), however, part of what makes the region distinctive.
Marion Post Wolcott: Hauling coal up the hill, picked up near mines, to his home. Chaplin, West Virginia. 1938.
The photos that I'm showing here are only a small sample of the images of Affrilachians that can be found in the FSA archive. A rich history is waiting to be explored.
Over the last couple of years, I've been lucky enough to benefit from Roger May's insights into both photography and Appalachia. I've very grateful.