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[REV 25-NOV-2014]

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Family Time: 1939

Family Time: 1939

February 1939. "White migrant family in trailer home near Edinburg, Texas." Photo by Russell Lee for the Resettlement Administration. View full size.

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White Migrant

I'm just old enough that "white" and "negro," applied to "migrant" or "worker" or "family," don't strike me as odd at first. Then I realize what a silly distinction it is, and how silly we were to think it made a difference.

[Russell Lee took hundreds of photos documenting conditions in both black and white migrant camps. The captions let the various people handling these pictures know what's in them without having to remove the negatives from their sleeves. - Dave]

Look at their hands...

They are the definition of "working your fingers to the bone." You can tell a lot by looking at someone's hands.

Dad's hands are strong, but puffy and damaged, knuckles swollen and probably arthritic from years of hard work. Mom's hands are dry, blistered and scabbed and her nails worn down and dirty. Even their sons' hands are blistered and have probably seen lots of field work.

Hand Rolled Smokes

That little string hanging from the man's pocket is from his tobacco pouch. It looks like he might have an extra bag in there too, maybe with his rolling papers or cash in it.

My grandfather's best friend, an old former cowboy named Emmett, used to give me his empty "tabaccy" bags. I never grew tired of watching him roll them one-handed, when he was showing off and telling stories. Otherwise, he'd roll a nice, even cigarette with both hands, never dropping a shred of tobacco.

He always proclaimed "ready-rolls" (smokes in a pack) were for women and sheepherders, the latter the ultimate cattleman insult. He also claimed that to be a Texas cowboy, "A feller haf' to roll his-self a smoke, one-handed, whilst ridin' a buckin' bronco in a wind storm."

Old Emmett died in 1968, at the age of 84... with his boots on, sitting on my aunt's patio, unlit hand-rolled between his fingers.

Maybe someone should

ask these people or their descendants just how they actually feel: Pride? Determination? Well fed? Healthy? Hopeful? You can bet those feelings are far from the truth; they were penniless, homeless, alone, destitute, with very little to look forward to, just trying to survive a horrible situation. Many did make it, but it was no wonderful adventure as many seem to think, ask my mother.


There's a kindness in these faces that touches my heart. I wish we knew more.

Not as old as they used to be

Years ago, when I would see such photos, the people in them looked so old to me. Whether it's my own aging process or an understanding of what they were going through, they no longer look as aged...just worn. Mom's hands are beat up too, looks like they were both hard workers. Hope they were blessed in later years with an easier life.

They may be poor but . . .

They don't have that down-and-out look that you often see in migrant workers of that era. Instead, I see pride and determination in the parents' faces. Despite the hard times and tough living conditions, they're wearing clean clothes and everyone in the family looks well fed and healthy - except for that nasty right thumb on Dad and the nicks on mom's hands. The love radiates from this family. They're going to make it!

Love is the answer

Poor Dad has evidently smashed his thumb, visible on his right hand and it looks serious. This is a beautiful family, obviously very poor and downtrodden, but they still look hopeful and happy with a look of peace and gratitude to be together. Money and success is absent but there is no mistaking that their hearts are full of love.

SHORPY HISTORICAL PHOTO ARCHIVE | History in HD is a vintage photo archive featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1960s. (Available as fine-art prints from the Shorpy Archive.) The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago.

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