RUSSELL LEE AND MINORITY AMERICA IN THE 1930s

Negroes waiting at streetcar terminal for cars, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: photo by Russell Lee, July 1939, FSA
Negroes waiting at streetcar terminal for cars, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: photo by Russell Lee, July 1939, FSA

 

Text by Bruce Berman

When Russell Lee and the other FSA photographers set off into America in the 1930s their social concern wasn’t hidden and, in fact, Roy Stryker, the Director and Editor of the of the Resettlement Administration’s (RA) Historical branch, encouraged his shooters to  find various minority groups and show their life style and their condition in our society. He wanted “full disclosure,” for the good and the bad but he he wanted these groups to be shown as part of the “American family.” Although the FSA’s mission was to show rural conditions in the environmentally and economically challenged Depression era, he was aware of what the impact of these photos would be. In effect, the FSA was part of the ongoing and increasing movement for justice and Civil Rights. How these groups were visually described and labeled, in an era before the confusion of politicaly correct labeling had become an issue, might not have been how these groups labeled themselves.

However, Stryker’s -and the New Deal’s- point was being made. In this 1939 photo by Lee, there is special emphasis on the “Sunday best” clothes and the dignity of the people portrayed. Notice the Coke dispensers in the background. It seems plausible that Lee intentionally included them in his photograph, not looking for another angle which would be less “cluttered.” Coke was for everyone. Lee was, it appears, to be showing a typical church-going family, waiting for a bus on a Sunday morning, with all the symbols of America (Coke) acting as an explanation point for his work. Although clearly an outsider, Lee -and his wife Jean, a journalist, who often accompanied him and took textual notes, prided himself on his work with minorities and he went out of his way to show them as Americans first, and as a minority second.

“PC” aside, Lee’s  main concern was, that the groups be shown and that they be given, at least in FSA photography, their rightful place in society. Russell Lee, in particular, took interest in the Latino and Black communities, from the rural Southwest backlands to the increasingly crowded industrialized and urban North.

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