A New Deal for Carbon Hill, Alabama
On October 20, 1938, New Deal administrator William Pryor sat down to write a note thanking Carbon Hill, Alabama, City Commissioner Earl Kelly for the hospitality shown to him on his recent visit.
Pryor, Chief of the Photographic Section of the Works Progress Administration's Division of Information Service, had just returned from documenting the community's New Deal relief and funding programs. Carbon Hill, a coal mining town in northern Alabama, had been especially hard-hit by the depression. "In 1931 both banks were closed and the mining industry upon which the City was 75% dependent reached a standstill. Property values decreased 60%, and revenue to the City from taxes was reduced in proportion," wrote the City Commission to the Alabama League of Municipalities, The report, written in response to an Alabama League "City of Progress" contest, wryly noted that "Carbon Hill probably had the edge on most communities from an improvement standpoint, due to the fact that it was on absolute economic bottom, as far as employment and resources were concerned." (Source).
Faced with economic disaster, Carbon Hill civic leaders aggressively pursued sources of funding and relief work provided by the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA). By 1937, $182,000 in federal funds for local work relief and infrastructural projects, matched by $105,000 raised by local sponsors, had funded sewer, sidewalk, and street improvements, gone to the construction of a new high school, and provided work relief for hundreds of local residents. A. E. Williams, owner of Carbon Hill's Ford dealership and president of the local Kiwanis Club, remarked, "In aiding the needy people we have accomplished permanent improvements with it. . . . I can't conceive what the people would have done, because we couldn't have fed them. There would just about have been a revolution here without WPA." (Source)
Carbon Hill's savvy utilization of federal resources was just what William C. Pryor was looking for: a local success story that could promote the Roosevelt Administration's ambitious national program of relief, reform and recovery. In a letter to George Davis, the Director of Information Service for the Alabama WPA, Pryor wrote:
The WPA's Photographic Section, like the better-known photographic division of the Farm Security Administration, responded to the Great Depression by creating a visual record of New Deal projects while documenting the social and economic conditions of the nation. The Photographic Section assembled a national file of WPA projects, took photographic portraits of WPA officials, coordinated state level activities, sent photographers into the field to document WPA projects and created public relations-style photographic essays. In particular, the Section was charged with the responsibility of developing "complete series of story telling photographs covering various phases of the administration's work" and carrying out field work for state units of the WPA. (Source) A unit of the WPA's Division of Information Service, the Photographic Section was charged with the creation of documentary photographic essays that could be used to promote the projects of the WPA. In addition to Pryor's Carbon Hill series, the Section's small staff of photographers documented Farm-to-Market roads in rural Maryland, the impact of the WPA in Haysi, Virginia, a literacy campaign in Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, and created "day in the life" photo documentaries of WPA workers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Chicago, Illinois, and Orlando, West Virginia (See WPA Photo Essays).
While Pryor writes of a possible photo feature in Look Magazine (Source), it does not appear that the Carbon Hill photos were ever published. The photographs in the Slide Show were scanned from the extensive collection of WPA photographs in the Still Pictures Branch of the National Archives and Records Administration. These 43 images represent an incomplete record of Pryor's photo documentary trip to Carbon Hill; for example, some of the photographs noted by Pryor in his introductory essay "Carbon Hill, Alabama" (Source), were not found in the National Archives collection. Those photographs in the collection have been poorly treated. 3x5 prints have been stapled to index cards that include captions and documentary information (staples are still visible in the photograph of town librarian Mattie May Maddox and poolroom proprietor J. A. Sanders, and a 3x5 print of contact sheet images accompany the remarks of City Commissioner George S. Gilder. Many, like the water-damaged photograph of Rev. C. H. McCall, show signs of poor preservation.
Although Carbon Hill's African American community is briefly documented in the Pryor's photographs, not much is said about Jim Crow in Carbon Hill, although the photograph of Rev. McCall's C.M.E. church, compared to those of the white Baptist and Methodist churches, presents a stark contrast between the economic condition of Carbon Hill whites and blacks. Nonetheless, the collection as a whole represents a fascinating look at the successful use of New Deal projects and funds on the part of a small, economically-strapped community and records the opinions of an interesting cross-section of community members. The photo essay also demonstrates how the WPA's Division of Information, in the documentary tradition of the 1930s, set about promoting Roosevelt's New Deal.
On November 11, 2002 Carbon Hill was devastated by a tornado, leaving many commentators to wonder if the town was not on its last legs. Perhaps the assessment of William C. Pryor, writing in 1938, is worth considering anew: