The Most Famous Story We Never Told
In 1936 this magazine sent a poet and a photographer to Hale County in Alabama to document the lives of sharecroppers. The result wasn't published in these pages, but became a celebrated book. Sixty-nine years later, we return.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – "I swore I would never do what I'm doing right now," says Charles Burroughs. Tall and broad with a bald pate and those familiar gray eyes. Blue shirt, khaki pants, aviator glasses. Thick, flat fingers, grit under the nails. He has come reluctantly to meet me after work at a Waffle House in Tuscaloosa. Still angry after all these years at how a writer and a photographer on assignment for this magazine moved into his house when he was just a boy, 4 years old (he remembers the day), and stayed for weeks, and while the family was working in the fields, snooped around in dresser drawers and under beds, and took notes, and took pictures, and shared what they had taken with all the world. James Agee and Walker Evans gave us a lasting image of the Depression; Charles Burroughs and his family got squat. "We never even got one of the damn books," he says. "They should have had enough respect to come back afterwards. I know I would have. At least send a copy of the book."
Not that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book Agee and Evans produced when FORTUNE declined to publish their work, was inaccurate. Life was just as they described it. "My people back then lived from one meal to the next." Charles Burroughs is a welder now, in business for himself, still working well into his 70s, and even after bypass surgery he has no plans to stop. He still rides out at dusk to Mills Hill, the place where he was born and raised, and thinks about how his mother and father, both long gone, used to live. How they walked those hills and worked those fields and drew water from the spring. How on hot summer nights his father would sprinkle cool water on the children's beds before they went to sleep, water that would spill through the cracks in the floor on the chickens that lived under the house; how they woke up every night anyway in a wet circle of sweat. He does not know how they stood it, except for not knowing any other way. He does know how hard his parents worked: at least as hard as he has worked his whole life, which leaves him with a feeling akin to survivor's guilt. "They never had a chance to buy a new truck," he says, slipping into incantation. "They never had a chance to buy a fridge. They never had a chance to buy a washing machine. They never had a chance."
So he goes back again and again to Mills Hill, drawn by a powerful memory that "digs down deep inside your heart and soul." A memory of cotton, of endless labor, of hunger at the end of the day, and of Allie Mae Burroughs, his own mother. We know her too, when she was 27, thanks to Walker Evans: her thin lips, wrinkled forehead, hard jaw, and most of all her eyes, those living eyes that search our own and collapse the span of decades. But one memory, at least, belongs to Burroughs alone: "I can almost hear her calling me home."
Sixty-nine years ago, in the summer of 1936, FORTUNE sent writer Agee and photographer Evans south to document the lives of cotton sharecroppers. Their story was to be part of a series called "Life and Circumstances." Agee was a published poet, not long out of Harvard, who once described himself as "a great deal more a communist than not." Evans--the partner Agee insisted upon for this plum assignment--was on loan to FORTUNE from the Farm Security Administration. They left New York by car on a mid-June afternoon and were gone two months, long enough for Agee to conclude that the story he had found was too subversive for FORTUNE, and possibly bigger than any magazine could hold, and more important than his career. So when his editors demanded a second draft, and Agee refused, and the story finally was killed, that was okay. "Half unconsciously, and half consciously, Agee saw to it that it would not get into FORTUNE," Evans later said.
Houghton Mifflin published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941, with photographs by Evans. It was a big book, a work of wonder and compassion, but definitely not an easy read, filled with bewildering passages and baffling digressions, plus it was late. The war was on, the Depression was finished. Only about 600 copies were sold, and despite critic Lionel Trilling's declaration that it was "the most realistic and important moral effort of our generation," it passed quickly out of print. A decade went by, then another. In 1960--three years after Agee's alcohol-accelerated death by heart attack at 45 and two years after his posthumously published novel, A Death in the Family, won the Pulitzer Prize--Famous Men was reissued and found an audience, and entered the canon of American literary masterpieces.
It is a masterpiece that has inspired repeated revisitation. One retracing of Agee's and Evans's steps, the 1989 book And Their Children After Them (a title drawn from the same passage of Ecclesiasticus as Famous Men), by journalist Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson, won a Pulitzer in 1990. But FORTUNE has never been back, and so now I am driving south on Alabama Highway 69 from Tuscaloosa, home of the university and the Mercedes-Benz factory. Four lanes of divided blacktop cutting through miles of neon sprawl, then scattered subdivisions, then green-blanketed Alabama clay. At Moundville on the Hale County line, the road narrows to two lanes and the rain begins to fall, gently at first, spots on the windshield; then thunder and flashes of lightning, and finally water sweeping in curtains across the fields. I ease up on the accelerator, straining for a better sense of the deepening green, not sure what's out there. Noting the sign, POLICE JURISDICTION, and the sign that follows, GREENSBORO, CATFISH CAPITAL OF ALABAMA, then rolling to a stop at the first traffic light in 20 miles.
The rain has passed. It is hot and humid enough to draw sweat the moment I open the car door. Main Street is empty and silent. Hale County has lost a third of its population since the 1930s, and its county seat is more isolated than ever. No more movie house, no more Greensboro Hotel, no more "mixed" train stopping at the depot, carrying passengers and freight. But lots of memories, some of them of that famous book. Famous Men remains an object of what Greensboro writer Randall Curb calls "hearsay hostility." Behind that hostility is a tribal shame still keenly felt, both by the families Agee wrote about and Evans photographed, now spread several generations wide, and by those of another class who knew the families, and considered them white trash, beneath contempt. "They were the worst possible representatives of the South in people's minds," says Curb. "Of course that's the big irony, because that's what Agee was trying to tell people they were not."
Agee's sharecroppers lived 17 miles from Greensboro in northern Hale County. The heads of the three families--Frank Tingle, Bud Fields, and Floyd Burroughs, their surnames disguised as Ricketts, Woods, and Gudger in the book--were visiting the county seat, looking for government assistance and discovering that as sharecroppers, they did not qualify. Evans and Agee met them at the Confederate statue outside the courthouse and offered to drive them home. Following their route, I turn right off Highway 69, just beyond the crossroads at Havana Junction, onto a red clay road, past brick homes, trailers, an abandoned sharecropper's cabin, past where the road narrows and the woods thicken. No more cotton up here; the fields have all gone to pine. No more sharecroppers; that whole system ended when World War II began. The road twists sharply. The ruts deepen. I have to turn back.
At a service station in the town of Akron in northwest Hale County I stop to ask where I might find some living members of the Tingle family. I've just come from the cemetery at Mount Hebron Baptist Church. There I saw a mound of freshly turned red clay baking in the sun; bright blue-and-yellow plastic flowers spilled from a tipped-over white plastic vase; a flat headstone, Guthrie Tingle, born June 4, 1946, died on his birthday in 2005; and next to Guthrie, Elizabeth Tingle, who was Guthrie's mother and also, sadly, his sister (she died in 1997). Next to Elizabeth, Frank G. Tingle, the notorious father of both, whom Agee and Evans met that long-ago summer day in front of the county courthouse; born in 1872 and died ... when? The date of death on the headstone is blank.
About those Tingles. A man in a pickup sends me back out of town the way I came in, across the highway and down another clay road, first house on the right. I pull in, stop the car outside a ramshackle, single-story house that's tucked up against the trees. No immediate signs of life. Then a dog noses open the front door, a big, black dog; and behind the dog an elderly woman in white slacks and a black blouse with a safety pin in it, barefoot, her thin, gray hair side-parted and swept across her forehead.
Laura Minnie Lee Tingle. Elizabeth's younger sister. The wide-mouth girl with side-swept hair who appears in several Walker Evans photographs. She stands before me now, fearful and alone, her dog at her feet, with eyes that say plainly what she's too polite to speak: She wishes I had not come. "This is my momma, right here," she confirms, looking at the book of pictures I have brought. "That's my baby sister ... that's my mother ... this is my two older sisters ... that's my two brothers right there ... that's me and my sister."
Laura Tingle, who as a girl liked watching the grownups boil sorghum and skim the brine to make sweet syrup, and found occasional pleasure even in the backbreaking labor of picking cotton ("Well, yes, sir, I liked it. It was something to do"), and remembers well the arrival of two strangers from up North. "They was down in Greensboro," she says. "They come out to the house with my dad. What did I think?" She snickers. "I didn't think. I really wished they hadn't a showed up. I just wished they hadn't a showed up. After they published that book. They called my mama a liar and ever'thin' like that. I didn't like it." She snickers again. "They told a lot of things that was wrong. They just said they was making pictures. They didn't say they was reporters." I look down awkwardly, not sure what to ask next. Did they eat your food? "Yessir, they did." Did they work in the fields? She snorts, her wet, blue-gray eyes catch mine. "Do you work in the fields?" No, ma'am. "He didn't either." She stands there while Baby ("He don't like to be called a dog") circles back and leans into her. "Knock me down!" she yells at Baby. "You know better than that! Behave! I don't wanna be knocked over again. I got a broke leg. Both of my shoulders hurt. Aaaah, lay down! I told you, don't knock me down! You know I can't get up! Now lay down there. Ain't nobody gonna hurt you!" But the dog won't listen, presses close again, steps heavily on her bare feet. "I'm gonna pop you, that's what I'm gonna do!"
I thank her for her time. "You're welcome," she says. "Glad to meet ya. Have a nice trip." And then to the dog: "We fixin' to go in now, Baby." And together they walk back to the house.
North on Highway 69 in another driving rainstorm, past the turnoff to Mills Hill, through Moundville and all the way into Tuscaloosa, to a prosperous subdivision with wide lawns and big magnolia trees and crape myrtles in blossom. Irvin Fields meets me at the door. Irvin, a grandson of Bud Fields. Relaxing now in a soft recliner in his air-conditioned living room, facing a giant flat-panel TV. Fields joined the Army after high school and left Mills Hill for good. He is head of security at the local hospital, former director of public safety at the University of Alabama, but he grew up a sharecropper's son in Hale County, and he hasn't forgotten. He talks late into the evening, talks until his throat goes dry and his voice cracks.
"That mean old guy right there is the landowner," he says, pointing at a prosperous man in a white summer suit, the first image in my edition of Famous Men. "His name was Watson Tidmore." He sighs. "You're from Massachusetts? There is no way in the world that anyone could sit down and convey to you what the times were really like back then. Some of the pictures you saw of my grandfather, which are kind of funny, looked like these people need a bath, looked like they need to get clothes on and dress appropriately, you know? Especially to take a picture. But these people were not very much recovered from the Civil War at that time. They were struggling for a living. What little bit of living that they had, they dug it out of the ground. In Hale County.
"I was born in 1938. I've seen boys wear little girls' dresses when there was predominantly girls in the family and there was nothing else to hand down. I've seen kids go to bed hungry. I've seen Dad struggling and even crying when he didn't know where the next meal was going to come from and it was his responsibility to put it on the table. The tenant would harvest the crops, he would gin the cotton, and then they would settle up at the end of the harvest season. I never will forget some of the things I witnessed in this settling-up time of the year. The landowner had the pencil and he had the books. The landowner would say, 'Well, you didn't make it this time Bill, you still owe me about $200. Maybe you can make it next year.'
"A lot of people started breaking out of that kind of thing during World War II. Some of the younger people left. Generally the quickest way out of something like that was military. I guess that's one of the reasons they didn't have a problem filling the ranks with people from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi.
"I don't know of any other way to put it. It is a manner of slavery that existed. That's all it was. You were enslaved to the landowner that had the money. And there was nowhere else to go. Limited by education, or noneducation. It was just a revolving door for the people back then. And a lot of blacks were in the same situation right along with the whites."
Cotton started to decline in Hale County in the '40s, was replaced by dairy cattle, then chickens. Now it's catfish. Joe Glover started small in the back of his Greensboro grocery, built a processing plant, was eventually bought out by his son, Joe Glover Jr., who sold to American Seafoods in Seattle in 2002 for $41.8 million cash and built a huge house on the Sawyerville Road.
The catfish ponds, bermed and square, fill acres of farmland, but the jobs, more than 675 of them, are at the processing plants, one in Demopolis to the south and the main one in Greensboro, where Bobby Collins, plant manager, has his office. Collins issues me a raincoat, goggles, earplugs and says, "Follow me." First stop, the receiving station, where the tank trucks pull up, sloshing water, and dump their loads of fish to be weighed, then stunned with electricity; then on to the killing room--hot, bloody, and loud--where the fish are deheaded and deboned; then on down the line where they are filleted, frozen, packed, and shipped out to restaurants and supermarkets all over the South, 400,000 pounds of live fish a day.
About 350 people work the first shift at the plant, where starting pay is $5.50 an hour and drops down to $5.15 for the week if you're late to work even once, or ever have to leave before the line shuts down for the day. Nearly all the workers are black women. The FORTUNE editors who sent Agee and Evans south wanted them to write about poor whites. That they found their subjects in Hale County was more than a little perverse. Most of the county's people, and an even higher percentage of the poor people, were and are African American.
Yolanda Robinson, who works in quality control, is a sharecropper's granddaughter and is black. She won prizes for elocution in high school, joined the Navy, married young, and was widowed in her 20s. She's on her second stint at the catfish plant, had hoped she'd never have to go back. Searched for a clerical job in Tuscaloosa, left her résumé on car windshields in executive parking spaces, gave it her all, but finally gave up and went back to the one job she knew she could get. Her sister has worked at the plant for 13 years, and makes $6.75 an hour.
Yolanda Robinson, who has one of the best jobs in a county where 59% of single mothers live below the poverty line; whose hourly pay is less than twice the price of a gallon of gas ("just enough to get you but not enough to get you up and out"); who takes home between $205 and $220 a week after deductions for extra aprons, gloves, and earplugs beyond the standard weekly allotment; who pays $50 every three days to fill up the minivan, and $140 a month for the light bill, $60 for telephone, $18 for county garbage pickup, $200 on her rent-to-own home, plus food and clothing and last week's surprise, $114 for school supplies for her three daughters; who would qualify for food stamps but can't find time to visit the office and fill out the application; who dreams of going to college to become a math teacher, and takes my hand and holds it as I'm leaving, and lets herself be pulled just a little, and lets go.
Another Burroughs, Phil, son of Floyd Jr., grandson of Floyd, lives in Moundville, maybe five miles as the crow flies from Mills Hill. Phil is a big man, works in maintenance for the city of Tuscaloosa, is still wearing his blue work pants and blue work T-shirt when I arrive in the early evening at his house out on the quiet edge of town, where the neighbors keep horses and grass grows in the pasture across the fence. Phil has those gray Burroughs eyes, but with a pinch of blue. He sits sideways in the porch swing, that's his spot, with his wife, Patti, a schoolteacher, and their two sons, Andrew and Jedadiah, seniors at Hale County High, silent and respectful, completing the circle. Phil is cordial but reserved, not exactly sure why I'm here, even less sure at first that he wants me here.
So your father would talk to you about the book?
He was angry about it?
Purely angry about it?
"No doubt. And to be honest with you, I think he had a right to be. I honestly do. You were looking at people that were struggling to put food on the table, you know? It was a simple life. They didn't have anything. Everybody wants something. That's probably the American dream. Everybody wants something. So it kind of left a bad taste in everybody's mouth. Maybe that's hard for a lot of people to understand, but it absolutely did. It made him upset, it really did. They were cast in a light that they couldn't do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant. How would you feel if somebody cast your folks, your parents, or your grandparents in that light? Even though I know they were real poor, no doubt about that, but they weren't ignorant, and they definitely weren't lazy."
When Floyd Jr.'s turn came in the years after the demise of the sharecropper economy, he made a better life for himself. He worked as a farm laborer, earned a low wage, but a wage, and that fact alone put him on a higher plane. "Daddy always made sure we had a roof over our head, we had food on the table, we had clothes to wear," says Phil. "Now, I may have went to school not in what was in style at the time but they were clean, and they weren't raggedy. He did the best he could. And I think he did well raising five kids, working on a farm. None of us have ever been in jail, all of us graduated high school. We all hold down jobs, have families of our own. So I think he did pretty good."
And Phil, though he would never say it himself, is doing better still for his own. His twin boys are star athletes at Hale County High and both brilliant students, No. 1 and No. 2 in their class. They will go to college next year. Three generations removed from the squalor of Mills Hill, and poised to escape it forever, Andrew and Jedadiah have a sharply different take on the legacy of Famous Men. They don't hurt like their grandfather did; they don't share their father's lingering resentment; what they feel instead is pride.
"I play football," says Andrew, when invited by his father to speak, "and I go to practice every day. And times come where I'm tired, it's hot, I don't feel like moving. I want to quit sometimes. I know I shouldn't feel that way, but everybody goes through it. You get up there, you're getting hit, sore, you don't feel like running especially at the end of practice. My great-grandparents were sharecroppers. They had to struggle to put food on the table. I'm just out here playing football. My life's a lot simpler and less difficult than anything they ever went through. It would make me feel like I was being ignorant, thinking that my situation I'm in at that point would be bad enough to make me want to quit, when they never gave up."
Across the porch, in the fading light, Phil listens silently to what his son has to say; indeed, as his son contradicts him. He is hearing something new. "I understand the legacy part," he is careful to tell me before I leave. "I'm not ashamed of my grandparents or my family. I'm not ashamed."
Shame was surely not what Agee and Evans meant to distribute upon the families of Mills Hill. On the landlords, yes. Not on the sharecroppers. Yet the photographs especially, for all their dignity and truth, do not portray the Tingles or the Fieldses or the Burroughses as you or I would wish to be seen. There is another photograph, however, one that was not chosen for the book. Here the Burroughs family poses in the sunlight. Faces scrubbed, hair combed, clean clothes smoothed for the camera. Allie Mae is even smiling. Look closely. It's a nice picture.