At the time of the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the rural southern United States was already the poorest region of the country, and the ensuing Great Depression took an even greater toll. To promote “rural rehabilitation,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1937. In addition to resettling struggling farmers on new land, the agency hired photographers to document the plight of rural laborers, thereby “introducing America to Americans.”
The FSA’s photography division was one of the first large-scale projects to document the lives of African Americans, but it only employed one Black photographer, Gordon Parks. Having experienced discrimination and poverty, Parks determined “that I should use my camera to speak for people who are unable to speak for themselves.” Fellow Black artists Robert H. McNeill and Hale Woodruff took up a similar cause at the Works Progress Administration—an FDR initiative that helped unemployed Americans—making photographs and prints to illustrate publications about rural southern poverty.