“The point was to get the whole story out to the world. In a way, being black was an advantage, because I was noticed immediately.”
Robert H. McNeill
Born into a secure middle-class household in a segregated Washington, DC, Robert H. McNeill absorbed the political and cultural life of the city and studied at Howard University. He well knew the vibrant images published in the Black press of the 1920s and ’30s, and in 1937, at the age of 20, he moved to New York to study photography. There he began to document the experiences of underemployed Black women and men, and his photographs were published in Black newspapers.
Among McNeill’s many projects of this period was a series called The Bronx Slave Market,
a title referring to the auction block of the slave-trade era but named after a modern street corner where Black women waited to be selected for day and live-in domestic positions in the Bronx and Westchester County. McNeill began to follow these workers and their potential employers in November 1937, photographing them early in the morning and sometimes late in the afternoon. His visual record of their long waits for work and their negotiations with white employers shapes a narrative of the time. As the activist journalist Marvel Cooke wrote in 1950:
“The way the Slave Market operates is primitive and direct and simple—as simple as selling a pig or a cow in a public market. The housewife goes to the spot where she knows women in search of domestic work congregate and looks over the prospects. She almost undresses them with her eyes as she measures their strength, to judge how much work they can stand. If one of them pleases her, the housewife asks what her price is by the hour. Then she beats that price down as low as the worker will permit.”
McNeill likewise commented:
“It was the small things that struck me.... How cold it was on that particular corner in the Bronx. The idea that this woman had come up from the South, maybe was staying with relatives in New York and needed to help pay the rent, and ended up doing what she had known in the South. Or the expressions on the white woman’s face, after she offers to pay 15 cents [an hour] and [the black woman] says, ‘Uh-uh, 20 cents is my price.’”
McNeill looked closely at the women on both sides of the economic divide, but he was especially adept at conveying the beauty and humanity of the Black women. Although they dressed for both the cold weather and the menial work, note the stylish twist of a hat and the turn of a high collar. The style of Black femininity was not lost on McNeill. His photographs are complex portraits, affording an aesthetic as well as a sociohistorical reference to a shared experience of Black women during the Depression.
The ingenious detailing of McNeill’s photographs tells us much. In one, a woman sits reading a paper on a crate advertising “Fancy Idaho Baking Potatoes,” while another stands in hat and sunglasses, gloved hands folded beneath a purse held tightly under her arm. Nearby, a young man holding a bucket leans against the wall, ready for a day of labor. By including a fraction of the poster for the 1937 film Make a Wish, McNeill attaches the Black women to the hopes of the widowed white woman in the movie.
McNeill’s photographs were published in Flash! and Fortune and his project later attracted the attention of Fiorello La Guardia. As New York’s mayor, La Guardia would go on to establish the Committee on Street Corner Markets, which outlawed the hiring of women off the street and opened employment offices to combat exploitative practices.
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Deborah Willis, independent scholar
Note: Opening quote is from Nicholas Natanson, “From Sophie’s Alley to the White House: Rediscovering the Visions of Pioneering Black Government Photographers,” Federal Records and African American History 29, no. 2 (Summer 1997), accessed August 22, 2022, http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/summer/pioneering-photographers.