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I have come to think a lot about what’s in a name or a label. What is conveyed? Should some names or labels be forgotten, erased from memory? But what might be lost along the way? What insights from human history, and how names and labels were used, might inform who we are today? Take the label “turpentine negro.”

The colonization of America resulted in the development of a naval stores industry. Naval stores are products — tar, pitch, turpentine and rosin – produced from pine and at first primarily used in early ship building. Tar was needed to seal wooden ships and ropes. Turpentine would become a vital ingredient in a range of manufacturing from paints and varnishes to paper production. Europe had relied upon Sweden for its tar but with the “discovery” of the New World and its expansive forests, new opportunities emerged for Britain to develop its own naval stores in the colonies. New England forests were tapped for awhile but it was the abundant long leaf pines of the southern colonies that would prove to be most lucrative, especially in the Carolinas and later in Georgia, Florida and Texas.

I first learned of this tree and the concept of naval stores while researching a colonial-era Bostonian. As a young man he joined a business venture where he sailed to the Carolinas, purchased tar and pitch, and then returned to sell the naval stores in New England. I wondered what was the source of tar and how was it produced. In learning about tar, I learned about turpentine production and that’s how I learned about the “turpentine negroes” and “turpentine niggers.” The words, this classification of human beings, can be found used hundreds of time in mostly southern newspapers from the 1880s to 1940s.

turpentine workers

I know there was turpentine in the house where I grew up. I just don’t remember how my father used it. This is when I really miss my brothers’ memories because when I think of turpentine, growing up in Virginia, it was something very much in the male realm. I don’t think my mother did anything with it except disparage it for its scent.

Disparage. To regard or represent as being of little worth.

Turns out, since before the Revolutionary War, southern Blacks were essential to the production of naval stores. The nature of the work meant they lived in the pine woods. There they formed a unique culture. The first Black workers were mostly enslaved, often hired out by their owners. Even after the Civil War, these workers, now technically free, continued to apply their skills in the turpentine orchards, traveling from pine woods to pine woods across state lines.

Over many generations these men and women produced the goods that helped keep the world’s greatest fleets afloat. They produced goods that enabled improvements in the manufacturing of a diverse range of products. Their labor was valued but they were disparaged as human beings, by whites and sometimes other people of color as well. Thus the distinction that was made by the label, turpentine negro.

Frederick Law Olmstead during his travels in the South wrote in 1855, “There are very large forests of this [long leaf pine] tree in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama; and the turpentine business is carried on, to some extent, in all these States. In North Carolina, however, much more largely than in the others; because, in it, cotton is rather less productive than in the others, in an average of years. Negroes are, therefore, in rather less demand; and their owners oftener see their profit in employing them in turpentine orchards than in the cotton-fields.

If we enter, in the winter, a part of a forest that is about to be converted into a “turpentine orchard,” we come upon negroes engaged in making boxes, in which the sap is to be collected the following spring. They continue at this work from November to March, or until, as the warm weather approaches, the sap flows freely, and they are needed to remove it from the boxes into barrels. These “boxes” are not made of boards, nailed together in a cubical form, as might be supposed; nor are they log-troughs, such as, at the North, maple-sap is collected in. They are cavities dug in the trunk of the tree itself. A long, narrow ax, made in Connecticut, especially for this purpose, is used for this wood-pecking operation; and some skill is required to use it properly.

A considerable amount of turpentine is shipped in barrels to Northern ports, where it is distilled; a larger amount is distilled in the State.

The orchards operated under a task system. Workers were assigned specific tasks. Olmstead is noted as describing, an overseer had “ten hands dipping + six hands getting timber, seven hands at the cooper shop, five hands at the still, one hand cutting wood, and three wagoning.”  After the Civil War, with slavery’s end, the system essentially remained the same.

As C. W. Wimster recalled in a 1939 Federal Writers Project interview:

My folks believed in education, an I was sent to school regular when I was a boy, but worked in the summers. When I was about ten years old we moved to a camp at Martin, seven miles from Ocala, an I was promoted to talley “man”—keeping tally on the number of trees boxed or streaked by each nigger. Niggers do all the labor in the woods, an most of the work around the still. The manager, foreman, commissary men and woods riders are all white men. At each camp there will be from 50 to 200 niggers, accordin to the number of “crops” worked. A crop is about 10,000 trees.

turpentine worker’s home, georgia

The white folks live in fairly good homes at one side of the camp, and the niggers in their quarters at the other side in two-or three-room cabins or board houses. We always aimed to have separate quarters for the single niggers to keep them from messin up with the married men’s wives. But this didn’t always work, and there was many a fight on account uv them mixin at night in the woods.

One of the jobs that Wimster later took was “as manager of eight camps owned by a New York concern at Opal, Okeechobee County. This was a big virgin woods in low, swampy country, and the outfit was a big one of 120 crops. There I had charge of 400 niggers and nine woodsmen (riders).

three turpentine pickers

When asked about the home life of the Black people in the Florida turpentine camps, Mr. Wimster replied: “Turpentine niggers are a class by themselves. They are different from town niggers, farm laborers or any other kind. Mostly they are born and raised in the camps, and don’t know much about anything else. They seldom go to town, and few of them ever saw the inside of a school house. In nearly every camp there is a jack-leg preacher who also works in the woods, and they usually have church services on Sunday at one or another of their houses.

And every camp has its ‘jook’, as they are now called, but the original name of this kind of a joint was a ‘tunk’. This is a house where the men and women gather on Saturday nights to dance, drink moonshine, gamble and fight. Between dances or drinks, young couples stroll off into the woods and make love. … The supreme authority in a camp is the foreman. To the niggers he is the law, the judge, jury and executioner. He even ranks ahead of God to these people.”

In a 1903 New Orleans newspaper they were described as the worst character of criminal for the police to deal with when they came to town to spend their money. I suspect there were few things worse than to call a successful Black man a “turpentine nigger” nor was it uncommon for a person of color to say, “What do you think I am a turpentine nigger?”

turpentine worker

In 1942, author Lillian Cox Athey wrote of the long established industry that stretched from North Carolina to Texas. She noted that long leaf pine covered about 1000 miles, with more than 1200 turpentine camps to be found in the woods and over 45,000 workers. She presents a romanticized view of the camps and their management. And as for the workers:

Excerpt from Evening Star, Washington, DC, 1942

At a 1946 Southern Forestry Convention, one report noted that the times were changing and that the “old fashioned turpentine negro” was to become a shadowy creature of the past. In a post-war world, workers were going to towns, “wearing zoot suits and driving trucks and making money.”

The language is regional. Searching old newspapers the terminology is primarily expressed in deep southern publications. More recent use of the words appears in the historical novels of writers with southern roots. Studying the characterization of these workers from antebellum times to just after World War II suggests that this regional history is also a national if not indeed global history. Shining a spotlight on people, labeled turpentine negroes, illuminates once more the ties that link North and South in the American slave economy and offers the opportunity to think about who benefited from that economy, who suffered, and the enduring legacy long after slavery ended.

Sources of Images & Further Reading

Outland, Robert B. “Slavery, Work, and the Geography of the North Carolina Naval Stores Industry, 1835-1860.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 62, no. 1, Southern Historical Association, 1996, pp. 27–56, https://doi.org/10.2307/2211205.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Turpentine workers. Georgia. United States Georgia, 1937. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017770332/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Overseer in the turpentine woods. Georgia. United States Georgia, 1937. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017770378/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Untitled photo, possibly related to: Turpentine worker’s family near Cordele, Alabama. Father’s wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support. United States Alabama Cordele, 1936. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017768046/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Turpentine worker’s family near Cordele, Alabama. Father’s wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support. United States Alabama Cordele, 1936. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017763012/.

In the great pine forests of the South – gathering crude turpentine – North Carolina. , ca. 1903. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003663487/.

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foreword to the interludes

interlude: genesis

interlude: exodus, part 1

interlude: exodus, part 2

Son of farmer in dust bowl area. Cimarron County, Oklahoma , photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

Son of farmer in dust bowl area. Cimarron County, Oklahoma , photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

“A gentle wind followed the rain clouds, driving them on northward, a wind that softly clashed the drying corn. A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by gusts. The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out …  Now the wind grew strong and hard …  the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound. The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky.”  — in the opening chapter of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

Liberal (vicinity), Kan. Soil blown by dust bowl winds piled up in large drifts on a farm, photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

Liberal (vicinity), Kan. Soil blown by dust bowl winds piled up in large drifts on a farm, photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

In April 1935, as Joseph A. Horne was teaching music in West Virginia, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was creating the Resettlement Administration (RA) in Washington, D.C.  Guided by Rexford G. Tugwell, the agency intent was to help farmers and other rural poor suffering from the economic impacts of the Great Depression and the devastation of dust storms and other ecological events.   A Historical Section was created within the agency to document existing poverty as well as report the benefits of the agency’s work.  This section would be led by Roy E. Stryker.

Rexford Tugwell and Roy Stryker

Rexford Tugwell and Roy Stryker

In the 1920s, Tugwell and Stryker, both economists, had taught at Columbia University.  While there, they had collaborated on the book, American Economic Life. Stryker’s contribution included using photography to complement the text, something he also did as part of his lectures at the university.  He was not a photographer but he, and Tugwell, recognized photography as a useful, illustrative tool to convey and strengthen information.

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

Stryker left academic life to follow his friend and mentor to the Resettlement Administration. Three decades later, Stryker would recount that “Tugwell never said, “Take pictures.”  He said, “We need pictures.”  He never said how to take them.  He said, “Remember,” — and this is the only thing I can remember — “remember that the man with the holes in his shoes, the ragged clothes, can be just as good a citizen as the man who has the better shoes and the better clothes.” (Interview, June 13, 1964)

Farmer, local type, Brown County, Indiana, photo by Theodor Jung, 1935.

Farmer, local type, Brown County, Indiana, photo by Theodor Jung, 1935.

The agency’s original focus was on Rural Rehabilitation, Rural Resettlement, Land Utilization and Suburban Resettlement.  Activities included purchasing exhausted farmlands from farmers to convert the land into pastures or parks, for instance, and providing training for farmers to rehabilitate their farms through refinancing and other debt adjustments.  Out of work farmers were given jobs.  Building projects were begun.  The most controversial feature of the agency’s efforts was relocation.

Scottsboro (vicinity), Alabama. Farmers who have been resettled at work in a sand pit at Cumberland Mountain Farms, a U.S. Resettlement Administration project, photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1935.

Scottsboro (vicinity), Alabama. Farmers who have been resettled at work in a sand pit at Cumberland Mountain Farms, a U.S. Resettlement Administration project, photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1935.

From the beginning, the agency did not have much Congressional support.  Part of it was political.  Tugwell was considered to be one of the most radical of FDR’s New Dealers.  Plus the idea of relocating nearly a million farmers and other rural poor off the land into cities that they’d helped to build seemed too socialistic.

Rehabilitation client, Garrett County, Maryland, photo by Theodor Jung, 1935.

Rehabilitation client, Garrett County, Maryland, photo by Theodor Jung, 1935.

With funding limited by Congress, the Resettlement Administration would eventually dramatically narrow its efforts and focus on building relief camps in California for migratory farm workers.  One of these relief camps would inspire John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

All races serve the crops in California, photo by Dorothea Lange, 1935

All races serve the crops in California, photo by Dorothea Lange, 1935

Faced with rising criticism for his management, Tugwell resigned from the Resettlement Admininistration in 1936.  By September 1937, the agency was folded into a new federal entity, the Farm Security Administration (FSA).  The FSA, with its mandate to help the rural poor, would complete some of the Resettlement Administration’s original projects as well as embark upon a whole other series of financial and technical assistance programs.  Roy Stryker was given the greenlight to continue his documentary photography program.

Negro field worker. Holtville, Imperial Valley, California. He has just made himself shoes out of that old tire, photo by Dorothea Lange, 1935.

Negro field worker. Holtville, Imperial Valley, California. He has just made himself shoes out of that old tire, photo by Dorothea Lange, 1935.

He directed his photographers to take the best picture possible and to capture the story behind the image.  He could not tell them how to use their cameras, but he did suggest themes to focus on.

Imperial Valley, California, Mexican. He tells his story: he helped drive the French out of Mexico, fought against Maximilian, and he has, by serving the crops for many years, help build up Imperial Valley, photo by Dorothea Lange, 1935.

Imperial Valley, California, Mexican. He tells his story: he helped drive the French out of Mexico, fought against Maximilian, and he has, by serving the crops for many years, help build up Imperial Valley, photo by Dorothea Lange, 1935.

Based on how they operated in the field, these early documentary photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein, were sometimes described as “sociologists with cameras.”

Mexican field worker, father of six. Imperial Valley, Riverside County, California, photo by Dorothea Lange, 1935.

Mexican field worker, father of six. Imperial Valley, Riverside County, California, photo by Dorothea Lange, 1935.

The photographers traveled across the nation, by assignment, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups, to areas of economic challenge, capturing dramatic hardships and also simply documenting people living their daily lives.

Untitled photo, possibly related to: Miners at American Radiator Mine, Mount Pleasant, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, photo by Carl Mydans, 1936.

Untitled photo, possibly related to: Miners at American Radiator Mine, Mount Pleasant, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, photo by Carl Mydans, 1936.

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

Warm Springs Indian boy. Molalla, Oregon photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936.

The FSA would operate from 1937 – 1942, with its photography unit capturing the diversity of the United States.

Negro boys on Easter morning. Southside, Chicago, Illinois, photo by Russell Lee, 1941.

Negro boys on Easter morning. Southside, Chicago, Illinois, photo by Russell Lee, 1941.

That diversity would be represented in the ranks of the photographers that Stryker brought together, men and women of different backgrounds, interests, and photographic skill.

Westmoreland project, Pennsylvania. Westmoreland County. Construction worker on the Westmoreland subsistence homestead project, photo by Walker Evans, 1935.

Westmoreland project, Pennsylvania. Westmoreland County. Construction worker on the Westmoreland subsistence homestead project, photo by Walker Evans, 1935.

In 1942, the photography unit moved into the Office of War Information (OWI)The OWI was created shortly after U.S. entry into World War II as an effort to consolidate existing government information services.

Two children in Anacostia, Washington, D.C. at the Frederick Douglass Housing Project, photo by Gordon Parks, 1942.

Two children in Anacostia, Washington, D.C. at the Frederick Douglass Housing Project, photo by Gordon Parks, 1942.

By 1943, another federal agency, the Office for Emergency Management, would  also be brought under the OWI umbrella, and its activities and some of its staff would merge with Roy Stryker’s photographic unit.  One of those staff would be Joseph A. Horne.

Chicago, Illinois. In the waiting room of the Union Station, photo by Jack Delano, 1943.

Chicago, Illinois. In the waiting room of the Union Station, photo by Jack Delano, 1943.

As these many agencies consolidated into one, the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information (FSA-OWI), the nature of the photographs taken by its photographers changed to some degree as did the purpose of the images.

Office of War Information news bureau. Ted Poston, Negro desk editor of the Office of War Information (OWI), discusses a letter from one of the 240 Negro editors to which he sends war news from Washington, with William Clark and Harriette Easterlin, his assistants, photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943.

Office of War Information news bureau. Ted Poston, Negro desk editor of the Office of War Information (OWI), discusses a letter from one of the 240 Negro editors to which he sends war news from Washington, with William Clark and Harriette Easterlin, his assistants, photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943.

Documenting American life was still important but now with an emphasis on framing the images so that they would inspire patriotism, educate people about how to live and act during war time,  and evoke a sense of national pride in the strength, good humor and resilience of the American people.

Women in industry. Tool production. Arms for the love of America! The capable young woman whose strong hands guide this cutoff machine is one of a Midwest drill and tool factory's many women employees. Almost 1,000 women have recently been employed in this comparatively new plant; sole men workers, other than foreman, are those in the heat treating department. Republic Drill and Tool Company, Chicago, Illinois, photo by Ann Rosener, 1942.

Women in industry. Tool production. Arms for the love of America! The capable young woman whose strong hands guide this cutoff machine is one of a Midwest drill and tool factory’s many women employees. Almost 1,000 women have recently been employed in this comparatively new plant; sole men workers, other than foreman, are those in the heat treating department. Republic Drill and Tool Company, Chicago, Illinois, photo by Ann Rosener, 1942.

Joseph Horne’s photos that appear in the FSA-OWI Collection, now housed in the Library of Congress, focused on the Washington, D.C. area where he had settled with his family.  His images include the crafting of victory gardens and urban farms.

Washington, D.C. Children with rabbits which were formerly kept as pets, but now are being raised for food, photo by Joseph A. Horne, 1943.

Washington, D.C. Children with rabbits which were formerly kept as pets, but now are being raised for food, photo by Joseph A. Horne, 1943.

He also photographed the unique monuments located in the Congressional Cemetery, and the mix of peoples who made their way through Washington’s Franklin Park. And then there was that night in February 1944, when he photographed the opening of a new labor canteen.

Washington, D.C. Pete Seeger, noted folk singer entertaining at the opening of the Washington labor canteen, sponsored by the United Federal Labor Canteen, sponsored by the Federal Workers of American, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), photo by Joseph A. Horne, 1944

Washington, D.C. Pete Seeger, noted folk singer entertaining at the opening of the Washington labor canteen, sponsored by the United Federal Labor Canteen, sponsored by the Federal Workers of American, Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), photo by Joseph A. Horne, 1944

The photography unit was only one part of the FSA-OWI but it was one of the most successful units.  Through domestic and overseas operations, the  agency had sought to excite and educate Americans at home, and inform (or intimidate) allies and foes abroad, using radio broadcasts (e.g. Voice of America), newspapers, posters, film and photography. But as World War II progressed, conflicts arose around agency management and how to balance civilian and military interests.  Soon, Congress would severely cut the organization’s budget. By 1944, the enormous collection of FSA-OWI photos, black and white and color, would be transferred to the Library of Congress where they remain a valuable resource to this day.

Negro boy near Cincinnati, Ohio, photo by John Vachon, 1942 or 1943.

Negro boy near Cincinnati, Ohio, photo by John Vachon, 1942 or 1943.

By 1945, the Office of War Information as an organization was no more.  Any relevant international activities were transferred to the U. S. State Department, while relevant information gathering and related responsibilities were handed over to the intelligence agencies like the Office of Strategic Services/Central Intelligence Agency.

Joseph Jr. with Camera, photo by Joseph A. Horne.

Joseph Jr. with Camera, photo by Joseph A. Horne.

By the spring of 1944, Joseph A. Horne, the fellow with whom we are walking through history, had enlisted in the U.S. Army.  Soon he would be off to Europe where photography would remain an important feature of his life.  But before he traveled overseas, he would let his son play with one of his cameras.

Additional Reading/Sources …

Library of Congress Prints and Online Catalog

Stryker’s Shooting Scripts

Resettlement Administration

Farm Security Administration

Office of War Information

Oral Interviews with Roy E. Stryker

About Roy E. Stryker

Out of One, Many:  Regionalism in FSA Photography

Stryker and the FSA

John Steinbeck

FDR Presidential Library and Museum

 

 

 

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Given that March is Women’s History Month, I thought I’d highlight some of my favorite female photographers.

Margaret Bourke-White

“Flag Making” Brooklyn, New York, July 24, 1940

Julia Margaret Cameron

Cameron portrait of Julia Prinsep Jackson, later Julia Stephen, Cameron’s niece, favourite subject, and mother of the author Virginia Woolf.

Dorothea Lange

Mississippi Delta Children


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