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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Documenting the Truth: Female Federal Photographers

Except for a couple of hours playing bridge, I spent the weekend at my desk to finish up the captions for the one hundred illustrations that (I trust) will be in my upcoming book on the history of Florida women. All of the images will come from the Florida State Archives, which has a very user-friendly website. If you have time on your hands, just go to “Florida Memory” and look at pictures. You can search for “Tampa” or “hurricanes” or “grocery stores” or anything else that interests you, and hundreds of thumbnails will pop up. Then you can click on any of particular interest and get the details on where and when and who.

Or not.

Originally the staff at the Florida Commission on the Status of Women intended to choose the pictures for this book, but they found they could not. The methodology that I recommended was to go through the manuscript’s text and search for the women about whom I was writing. For most of the book’s chronological approach, however, this did not work, as few illustrations of the most important women were in the archives. I realized how difficult the task was when I began doing it myself.

I ended up with a methodology of searching for “women” year by year, entering that word and 1824, 1825, 1826, and on and on. At least some illustrations turned up every year, but most were women who may have been prominent then but are deservedly obscure now. They were the wives of distinguished men, the society debutantes, and later on, the beauty queens and the faux Southern belles at Cypress Gardens. Lots and lots of pictures of girls and women on the beach and with shiny new cars, a subject that seems to fascinate male photographers.

And of course most of the photographers were men. Even though, for example, nationally famous photographer Dorothea Lange and other women used their cameras to brilliantly capture Florida during the Great Depression, their photos are not in the state archives. I was even more surprised that there was none of the second training camp for the Women’s Army Corps, which was at Daytona Beach -- even though the military took millions of pictures during World War II. Another huge gap is women during the Civil War. The archives lacks even an image for Mary Martha Reid, the widow of a governor who ran Florida’s hospital in the Confederate capital of Richmond. We could at least send a photographer out to take a picture of her tombstone on Amelia Island; I’ve done that.

In addition to omissions, there are factual some mistakes, especially in dates, that a competent historian would recognize and the state’s archivists apparently did not. Many photos still are captioned with a husband’s name, so that we have “Mrs. J.T. Fuller” as the first woman in the Florida legislature, not “Edna Giles Fuller.” To be sure, the website’s home page asks for help in identifying subjects, but let me use a time trusted response to that: “It’s not my job.”

The archives and the general promotion of history falls under the responsibilities of the secretary of state, an office that used to be elected, but since Jeb Bush’s tenure, has been appointed. This office also coordinates libraries, museums, and other cultural functions that always have been under-funded. Smart business people and some politicians, however, are realizing that there is money to be made with the promotion of these areas. That’s what is driving both tourists and residents to downtown St. Pete and downtown Tampa. History is the future. And I’d like to download more of the information that’s in my head before it’s gone.

* * *

Because I love researching and writing, I always end up with more words than publishers want to provide ink for. The University Press of Florida slashed a bunch of sidebars from this manuscript, so I’m going to take the opportunity here to expand on the mention I made of female photographers and artists in Florida during the Great Depression. The sidebar below begins by referencing two women who did get space elsewhere in the text, Zora Neale Hurston and Augusta Savage.

You might not recognize Hurston’s name, but you may remember the relatively recent movie based on her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). It is based on the 1928 hurricane in the rural area west of Palm Beach, which killed some two thousand people, most of them black farm workers. Hurston grew up in Eatonville, which then was an all-black town near Orlando, and managed to work her way north, where she was the first African American admitted to New York’s prestigious Barnard College. She went on to graduate school at Columbia University, did anthropological work in Central America, and wrote books for famous publishers – but died in poverty back in Florida.

Augusta Savage was the only sculptor of color whose work was commissioned for the 1939 World’s Fair. When she was a child in Green Cove Springs near Jacksonville, her father, a preacher, beat her because of the “graven images” that she made from clay -- but when she created a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, he changed his mind. Although she eventually was successful in New York, she had to accept financial assistance from the Federal Art Project during the Great Depression.

Which brings me back to the sidebar on photographers that will not be in the new book. Here it is:


While Zora Neale Hurston painted with words and Augusta Savage molded her thoughts into sculpture, two women who were not Floridians were part of the movement that turned photography into an art. Neither Dorothea Lange nor Marion Post Wolcott were yet famous when they came to Florida as employees of the federal Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the 1930s, with the aim of documenting rural poverty with pictures.

Florida made for particularly poignant photos, as the opulence of Palm Beach and Miami Beach contrasted with the misery of farm workers just a few miles away in Belle Glade and Homestead. Violet Wood reported to the FSA that working families lived “in shacks, box-cars on railroad spurs, roadside tents, home-made trailers and old Fords.” In Glades County, which has some of the richest farmland in the world, she saw “six white children and four adults living in a 12-foot by 12-foot rainbreak with four poles supporting a roof of scrap tin and with walls made of potato sacks and flour bags.”

Woods’ words were powerful, but easily ignored by those who could not visualize. FSA chief Rex Tugwell wanted members of Congress to understand how difficult things were outside of Washington, and he heeded his wife, Grace Tugwell, when she said, “words were simply not enough.” Another wife of an FSA administrator, Bernarda Shahn, argued that photos were needed for “the stark presentation of actual conditions, the wordless, statistics-less, visual, inescapable truth.”

Tugwell responded by hiring photographers, including Dorothea Lange, who had been doing similar work on her own and who ultimately became the most famous. “This was a revelation,” one observer commented, “what this woman was doing.” Lange focused on the Panhandle, and especially her photographs in Careyville, a Holmes County lumber town, showed the difficulty of life for both blacks and whites after the local sawmill went bankrupt.

Marion Post (later Wolcott), hired in 1938, was described as “a young photographer of considerable experience who has made a number of very good photographs on social themes.” Formerly employed by the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, she took a series of photos in Lakeland and Plant City, including white women who picked strawberries while wearing dresses. That contrasted with an Amish woman in Sarasota, covered in black from head to toe, including the sunbonnet that she wore while staring into a drainage ditch.

Wolcott’s most poignant shots probably were in Belle Glade, where farm workers always have toiled for very little reward. One of the most interesting was of “Choke “Em Down Lunch Room,” a screened shack that uncommonly advertised “White & Colored Served.” Another Belle Glade photo featured “Buddy,” a white if dirty toddler, who was perched atop a badly patched bedroll. When unrolled at night, it was the only “bed” available to his six-member family.

The Florida State Archives should include these photos, which always have been public property. It’s okay to feature the mermaids at Wicki Watchie, but we also should have the pioneers for women’s rights. We should preserve, and we should look for lacks, and mostly, we should remember.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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