Photos Of The Great Depression’s Forgotten Black Victims

Published September 7, 2016
Updated September 29, 2017

The Great Depression upended many American livelihoods and caused dramatic shifts in population sizes -- particularly among African-Americans. This is what that looked like.

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Photos Of The Great Depression’s Forgotten Black Victims
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The Great Depression dealt a devastating blow to just about everyone in the United States, but African-Americans felt the sting more than most.

As author Cheryl Lynn Greenberg writes in To Ask for an Equal Chance: African Americans in the Great Depression, while Depression-era experiences of black workers hinged on factors such as region, age, and education level, most “followed a similarly troubling path.”

"Troubling" may be too light a word to describe what black workers faced. Wages and property values plunged as unemployment and land seizures soared. In Memphis, for example, African-Americans comprised a third of the total population, but 75 percent of the city’s unemployed. By 1934 in Atlanta, 70 percent of the black population didn’t have a job.

What work was available would typically go to white job seekers, who in hard times began to take, if not demand, jobs that traditionally went to black workers.

As Greenberg writes of the situation in the South, “only the lowest jobs were available to them, but now they were often the last in line even there. Across the South, groups of armed white workers threatened and intimidated employers who hired African Americans, arguing that they must hire the white unemployed first.“

White agitation for work led to the increased incidence of racial violence, specifically lynchings. As Hilton Butler wrote in The Nation, “Dust had been blown from the shotgun, the whip and the noose, and Ku Klux practices were being resumed in the certainty that dead men not only tell no tales by create vacancies.”

Before falling wages and vanishing employment, many African-Americans looked elsewhere for opportunity — particularly in urban areas, be they up north or elsewhere in the south. Indeed, by the end of the Depression, one-third of African-Americans in the South and almost two-thirds of the national African-American population lived in cities.

This, too, came with consequences. As more African-Americans moved into cities, Greenberg writes, they “pressed into already crowded black neighborhoods, deepening poverty and adding competition to scarce work.”

Photographers from the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documented the transitions, struggles, fear, and hope that comprised this epoch of American life (see the gallery above). A fruit of the New Deal, the federal government established the FSA in an attempt to combat rural poverty as climatic crises and economic depressions upended rural life and pushed rural residents from their homes and into uncertain territory.

By sending photographers out to document these skirmishes, the program’s creators believed it could showcase a need to provide relief and rehabilitation to rural regions — and that the FSA was the way to go about it.

The choice of photography was a prudent one. As cultural historian Warren Susman wrote, "the shift to a culture of sight and sound was of profound importance; it increased our self-awareness as a culture; it helped create unity of response and action not previously possible; it made us more susceptible than ever to those who would mold culture and thought."

Over the course of its nearly ten-year life, the FSA photography program resulted in nearly 80,000 photographic prints, which historians credit with putting a face -- or rather, a multitude of faces -- on one of the most devastating periods in American history.

Next, learn about the fate of Soul City, a 1970s black-planned utopian society in the South. Then, have a look at 24 of the most stark and moving Great Depression photos.

Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Cox, Savannah. "Photos Of The Great Depression’s Forgotten Black Victims.", September 7, 2016, Accessed May 18, 2024.