Social Education
February 1998
Volume 62 Number 2

The Depression in the South: Seymour Foge#146;s Images of African Americans

Robert L. Stevens and Jared A. Fogel
Seymour Fogel, a Depression era muralist, began his career by creating images of America during its greatest economic crisis. After graduating from art school in New York City in 1932, Fogel had the great fortune to become an assistant to Diego Rivera—the famed Mexican artist then at work on his highly controversial (and subsequently destroyed) mural at Rockefeller Center. From his mentor, the young artist adopted both techniques of mural painting and a philosophy of social activism that would soon be reflected in his own artistic creations.
Restless for experience, Fogel determined to strike out from familiar surroundings. In May of 1934, he headed south to join the army of unemployed hoboes then riding the rails. His journey took him to the coal mines of West Virginia and Kentucky, the tenant farms of Mississippi and Alabama, and the river port of New Orleans. Unlike those who recorded their observations of the era through narratives, Foge#146;s viewpoint was represented in a series of sketches and paintings he later derived from them.
Foge#146;s first day on the road was filled with youthful energy and romance. As he wrote on the back of a page of small sketches made on May 7: “Last night I looked at Union Square from the roof of my house. Tonight I am looking at the lighted dome of the capitol at Washington, while an illuminated fountain plays sweet music.” This initial euphoria was far from uncritical, however: “Washington, D.C.—dirt, squalor, sexual depravity, poverty, gilded by the tinsel of diplomatic and state pomp” noted the artist.1
An ink drawing made the same day, Negro Section, Washington, D.C., brings home these observations in an ironic juxtaposition of image and reality. In this drawing, the capitol dome rises behind a tenement building where impoverished blacks lean out of open windows and sprawl listlessly in doorways and on the steps. Their poverty is representative of the dark side of the American dream, a wrenching inequality placed literally in the shadow of the splendid marble building that stands as a beacon of democracy.
An artist does not stand away from his or her culture, but draws from it the images and perceptions that lead to an interpretation. Foge#146;s paintings reflect the violence, racial prejudice, class struggle, and radical political ideas that intensified during the Depression years. The Communist Party, for example, viewed racist violence as inseparable from the generally violent nature of capitalism: “American history might easily be described as a story of capitalist violence directed at times particularly against the Negroes,” stated its vice presidential nominee, James Ford, in 1935.2 According to historian Eric Sundquist, “In many of the most influential works (of American artists), race and racial conflict have been at the head of such representations. As indeed they have been at the head of American social history.”3
Foge#146;s travels through the South made him witness to a bubbling cauldron. Conditions for southern African Americans had been perilous even before the Depression began. Since the end of the Civil War, 5,000 African Americans had been lynched. “The greatest number of lynchings occurred between 1882-1903, for a total number of 3,310, of which 1,914 were blacks.”4 During that era, the rationalization for lynching African Americans shifted from charges that blacks were planning insurrections to accusations of rape. When the facts demonstrated that conspiracies to overthrow did not exist, white supremacists found that “the new justification not only served to excuse the barbarism of the lynch mob, but also supported the campaign to deny black Americans legislatively and judicially all protection under the Constitution.”5
During the 1930s, there were 21 recorded lynchings in the United States, all of the victims being African American with the exception of one foreign-born white victim in Florida. The state with the worst record—six lynchings—was Georgia. Responding to an increase in these incidents, the Southern Commission on the Study of Lynchings was convened. Its published report of 1933 concluded that “...southern society, except in rare instances, still refused to take effective actions against lynchings.”6 The report also exposed the sadistic nature of lynchings using examples such as the following:

James Irwin of Oscilla, Georgia, was jabbed in the mouth with a sharp pole, his toes and fingers removed, joint by joint, and his teeth extracted by wire pullers; following these tortures and “further unmentionable atrocities,” Irwin’s still living body was saturated with gasoline and a match applied, whereupon hundreds of shots were fired into his body.7

The Commission’s report went on to state that in communities where lynchings occurred, “some people justified the action taken and that the apologists included people from all walks of life—judges, prosecuting attorneys, lawyers, businessmen, doctors, clergymen, and teachers as well as mechanics and day laborers.”8 In the smaller, more rural communities, churchgoing civic leaders themselves participated.
At about the time of his southern travels, Fogel was also working on a set of lynching scenes for the Public Works Administration Program (PWAP). At some point, he may have witnessed a lynching. In any event, his artistic expression of the subject in a work titled Lynching is no less than wrenching. This work stands apart from an earlier lynch scene (1933) which, though brutal, has more the aura of a detached political statement than the visceral terror of the real thing.
The obvious haste in which the sketches for Lynching were set down argues for the possibility that Fogel drew them based on a real incident, later formalizing them in what can only be described as a masterpiece of design and caricature. In this work, a naked black man is held in a firm head-lock by the left arm of a bald white man wearing a checked shirt. The white man’s right hand grasps a noose, the other end of the rope being held by an obese, equally bald man who holds the stub of a cigar clenched in his teeth.
The terrified black man raises one arm in a last appeal to heaven, as a white man wearing a jacket and cloth cap thrusts a pitchfork into his left side—perhaps an artistic allusion to the spear of Langinus used to pierce the side of Jesus on the cross. It is unlikely that this is a mere coincidence of design, as Fogel often used Christ-like poses in his portrayal of other oppressed minorities, including Native Americans.9
Beyond their constant fear of lynching, most African Americans in the Depression South lived under threat of severe economic deprivation. Although the poor of both races were affected by falling crop prices, evictions, hunger, malnutrition, and disease, African Americans as a group bore the greater burden. Shadow of the Plantation, Charles S. Johnson’s 1934 study of Macon County, Alabama, provides insight into the living conditions of rural African Americans at this time.

The normal earnings of a man and wife, if both worked as tenants on a one-horse cotton farm (15-20 acres), would probably average $260 a year in cash value. However, they pay about half of their cotton in rent, use the corn for their stock, and eat potatoes, peas, and sorgram (sorghum), which they grow along with cotton. As a result, very little cash is handled.”10

During the 1930s, the South had the highest percentage of tenant farms in the country. Taken state by state, the statistics include 68.2% in Georgia, 65.1% in South Carolina, and 60.9% in Texas.11 The large majority of African Americans were sharecroppers, an outgrowth of what was essentially a feudalistic system. In sharecropping, a landlord supplied a plot of land, tools, and seed to a landless farmer, who paid the owner back with a portion (usually a third or a half) of the crop. “For the real meaning of the term ‘sharecropper,’ look to matters such as low wages, insecurity, and lack of opportunity for self-direction and responsible participation in community affairs.”12
The effects of the Depression were devastating in rural farm communities. Many of the South’s 8.5 million sharecroppers and tenant farmers lost their jobs. “I could not become accustomed to the sight of children’s stomachs bloated from hunger and seeing the ill and aged too weak to walk the fields in search of something to eat,” wrote a former Southerner about returning home during the Depression.”13
In spite of such desperate conditions, many sharecroppers refused to migrate north. Consider, for example, the viewpoint of one elderly black man cited in Robinson’s Living Hard:

Lot of colored people moved up north lately. They makes more wages but pays higher rent. Some of the rich folks like to work ‘em until they’d through with ‘em. When they is out of work a Northern man won’t give ‘em a meal...I’m old but I can still dig my food out of the ground. I’ve always been able to buy or beg enough clothes to make me warm.14

The realistic fear of indifference—or even overt hostility—on the part of Northerners determined the choice of many Southern blacks to remain in a place where their fears were at least familiar.
Foge#146;s art captured the plight of the poor in many areas of the South. One drawing, Portrait of a Black Man, is a masterpiece of compassionate and insightful representation. The nameless man in this portrait is probably a sharecropper. His bare shoulders facing the viewer, the subject’s head is turned to one side, revealing a line of receding hair that curves over the back. It is clear that Fogel identified strongly with his subject, whose essential dignity is so clearly conveyed in this drawing. In fact, some African Americans who view this portrait today find it hard to believe it was the work of a white artist.
Though the situation in many of the country’s rural areas was desperate, urban areas were hardly exempt from the crippling effects of the Depression. “In 1928, for example, New Orleans handled ten million tons of cargo north, more than nine million dollars annually; by 1933, the volume of that trade declined by half.”15 Like most cities in the United States, New Orleans suffered a high unemployment rate-at one point 30 percent, with a much higher rate for African Americans. Those able to work did so for reduced wages. Fogel sketched many scenes on the New Orleans docks, including one titled New Orleans Stevedores. The broad backs and muscular arms of these black cargo handlers attest to years of hard physical labor.
Fogel later described his journey through the Depression South as

...a period of traveling around the country, riding the freights, living in hobo jungles, and in general doing everything that could be done without money. Returning to New York, I began to paint seriously. The W.P.A. projects having opened then, I was able to support myself and buy art materials. These paintings of that period were still extensions of my role as observer. I painted miners, sharecroppers, lynchings, bread lines. All facets of society.16

Foge#146;s images of African Americans during the Depression captured the plight and despair of the poor as well as the enduring qualities of the human spirit. What Fogel revealed through images, William Faulkner expressed in words about mankind: “He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”17

1. Seymour Fogel, Autobiographical Notes (unpublished manuscript).
2. Quoted in Herbert Shapiro, White Violence and Black Response (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), 217.
3. Eric J. Sundquist, “Blues for Atticus Finch: Scottsboro, Brown, and Anrpee Lee” in Larry J. Griffin and Don H. Doyle, eds., The South as an American Problem (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1995), 181.
4. Herbert Shapiro, White Violence and Black Response (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 32.
5. Ibid., 38.
6. Ibid., 206.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Jared A. Fogel and Robert L. Stevens, “The Safford, Arizona, Murals of Seymour Fogel,” Social Education 60, No. 5 (September 1996): 287-291.
10. Charles S. Johnson, Shadow of the Plantation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1934), 111.
11. “Handout 80: Tenant Farms in 1930” in Daniel J. Boorstin and Brooks Mather Kelly, Teacher’s Resource Book: A History of the United States (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1986).
12. Arthur F. Raper and Ira Reid, Sharecroppers All (New York: Russell and Russell, 1941), vi.
13. Roger Biles, The South and the New Deal (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), 18.
14. John L. Robinson, Living Hard: Southern Americans in the Great Depression (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1981), 104.
15. Biles, 19.
16. Fogel and Stevens.
17. Stephen B. Oates, William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 249.

Robert L. Stevens is associate professor of middle grades and secondary education in the College of Education at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro. Jared A. Fogel is co-owner of Statesboro Fine Arts.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.