These Powerful Historical Photographs Reveal Life In The Deep South Like Never Before

Scarred by defeat in the Civil War, much of the Deep South was to endure years of economic underdevelopment and racial friction. These images – many from the earliest days of photography – give an unrivaled insight into what life was truly like in the Old South. From abundant peanut harvests to Mississippi steamers laden with cotton, these powerful images show a region gradually getting back on its feet.

40. Confederate soldier

This image was taken in 1862, and we’re fortunate enough to have a few scant biographical details about the boy. This somber-looking youth’s name was Maximilian Cabanas. After enlisting with the Confederate States Army, he was captured by Union soldiers. Tragically, he later perished in a prisoner-of-war encampment in the North when he was just 16 years old.

39. After the Civil War

The Civil War is not long over, and it has had a massive impact on these African-Americans, seen here in an unknown location in the South. With the Union victory, they are some of the 4 million souls freed from slavery. For these individuals, despite the obvious benefit of freedom, the future is uncertain in a land devastated by conflict. Reconstruction, the process of rebuilding the nation after the bitter war, has barely begun.

38. Durham Bus Station

Here it’s 1940 and a smartly dressed young African-American stands on the concourse of a bus station at North Mangum Street in Durham, North Carolina. Next to him, a jaunty advertising placard declares “Bingo Tonite!” Another, for True Story magazine, claims to have the lowdown on the amorous escapades of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Much more sinister to modern eyes is the sign above the man which reads, “Colored Waiting Room.” It was a time of strict segregation in the South.

37. Migrant workers

ADVERTISEMENT

These travelers, who have journeyed north from Florida, have stopped for a roadside break near Shawboro, North Carolina. They’re actually heading all the way up to Cranbury, New Jersey where seasonal work harvesting potatoes awaits them. Jack Delano, later the official government photographer for Puerto Rico, took this image in July, 1940.

36. Juneteenth

For all the world this looks like an original photograph from the dark days of the Civil War. But happily, on this occasion, these are not real Union soldiers, they’re re-enactors. They’re marking Juneteenth at Eastwoods Park in Austin, Texas in 1900. Although Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came in 1863, it wasn’t until June 19th, 1865 that slavery was officially ended in Texas. Austin first celebrated Juneteenth in 1867.

35. Red truck

ADVERTISEMENT

Keen vintage truck aficionados will instantly recognize this vehicle from the 1930s. The rest of us will need to be told that it’s an International C30. This photograph, probably taken in Mississippi, shows people who are likely farm workers. The image was captured by Marion Post Wolcott, a photographer with the Farm Security Administration. The FSA was set up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to support farmers impoverished by the Great Depression, many of whom lived in the South.

34. The S.S. Sidney

The Mississippi riverboat in the background of this shot from about a century ago is the S.S. Sidney. This rear-paddled vessel was built in 1880 for Captain William M. List, who named the boat after his mother. In 1911 the Streckfus Steamers Company acquired the craft. Its new owners were said to be the first operators to have a New Orleans jazz band playing live on a Mississippi steamer. The legendary Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong enjoyed his first paid employment as a musician aboard Sidney in 1919.

33. At the plow

ADVERTISEMENT

Looking at this image, you could easily imagine that it’s from the 19th century. Yet in fact this young man in a battered fedora is cultivating a field in South Carolina with a handheld plow and mule in 1937. The photograph was taken by Dorothea Lange, one of the distinguished group of photographers who worked for the New Deal’s FSA.

32. Cotton steamer

This image of cotton bales being loaded onto a river steamer is from circa 1890 and was taken in Montgomery, Alabama. “King Cotton” as it was known was the lifeblood of the city and gave a start to one Henry Lehman. In 1844 he opened a general store, then diversified into cotton, and later started trading commodities in New York. He was the founder of Lehman Brothers, the company that crashed in a $60 billion bankruptcy in 2008, triggering an international recession.

31. Blast furnace workers

ADVERTISEMENT

Proving that the South wasn’t just about cotton and sharecropping, this group of men photographed in 1890 worked at a pig iron plant in Ensley, near Birmingham, Alabama. The three blast furnaces at the foundry where they worked produced some 200 tons of ferrous material from ore each day. The city was named after Enoch Ensley, an industrialist who used his large inheritance to develop extensive coal and iron interests.

30. Operating theater

According to the original caption for this image from circa 1900 in Mobile, Alabama, the doctors and nurses are about to operate on the patient on the table. You’ll notice that none of the medical staff are wearing either masks or gloves, although the headgear of two of the nurses is fairly extraordinary. Ideas about sterile environments a century and more ago were not what we’d call rigorous.

29. Haywood Patterson protest

ADVERTISEMENT

Haywood Patterson was one of a group of nine young African-Americans who came to be known as the Scottsboro Boys. In 1931 they were put on trial, accused – falsely – of raping two white women aboard a train in Jackson County, Alabama. The ordeals the young men went through, including jail time, caused an international storm and revealed the deep racial divide in much of the South. Patterson was actually sentenced to death in 1933 although this was later overturned by the Supreme Court.

28. Melrose, Louisiana

This colorful slice of life from Melrose, Louisiana was captured by Wolcott in the summer of 1940. Beers by Jacks and Regal are on offer at Frenchies Bar which also operates as a store selling and ice cream and soda and features a single gas pump. FSA snapper Post Wolcott soon became renowned for the documentary images she created during her four years with the agency.

27. McComb City

ADVERTISEMENT

This photo from circa 1890 shows factory hands at a cotton mill in McComb City, Mississippi. The city was named in honor of Colonel H. S. McComb, who fought for the Union in the Civil War and founded the metropolis in 1872. The entrance in the photo may well be to one of his enterprises, the McComb Cotton Mill. Cotton in the South didn’t just give jobs to farm workers – millworkers too, many of them female, had their part to play in the industry.

26. Saving sinners

In this colorized image published in postcard form in 1906 or 1907 the faithful have gathered for an open-air baptism on the Mississippi River. The Mississippi, at about 2,320 miles North America’s longest river, was a vital artery for life in the South, representing a major transport route for people and goods. But as we see here, it also had an important spiritual role to play as well.

25. Horse power

ADVERTISEMENT

This early 20th-century photograph shows that automobiles had become a part of life in the South by that time. But they had hardly made the horse redundant, it would appear. The driver of this car must have been glad to see the two sturdy steeds that came to his aid when he needed to cross this Mississippi ford.

24. Meridian, Mississippi

The sign on the side of this Meridian, Mississippi store advertises “Colgan’s Mint Chips” – just five cents for ten and packaged in a handy metal tube. This product was chewing gum, as popular then as it is now, apparently. That shouldn’t actually be a surprise, since Native Americans had been chewing resin from spruce trees for centuries. Lewis Hine, famous for his documentation of social ills in America, took this image in 1911.

23. Confederate cannon

ADVERTISEMENT

Union troops from the Second Division of the 15th Corps commanded by General William B. Hazen are seen here at Fort McAllister in Richmond Hill, Georgia. Hazen led an attack of 4,000 troops on the fortification in December, 1864. After a 15-minute battle, his men overwhelmed the 230 defenders, capturing 15 guns and taking the surviving Confederate soldiers prisoner. The skirmish opened the way for the attack and capture of the Confederate city of Savannah a couple of weeks later.

22. Chattanooga electric railroad car

You’ve probably heard of the Chattanooga Choo Choo, famously celebrated in big-band music by the legendary Glenn Miller, who had a number one hit with the tune in 1941. Well, this is the Chattanooga electric railroad car. The citizens of the Tennessee city could travel around their metropolis aboard this vehicle in grand style. Previously, streetcars had been dragged around by horses, but Chattanooga went electric in 1899.

21. Prisoners at work

ADVERTISEMENT

The striped attire rather gives it away. Yes, these are convicts, toiling on the roads in about 1870 in the Atlanta, Georgia area. A young lad looks on, hopefully getting the message that crime does not pay. During the years after the Civil War, anyone could hire prisoners and put them to work as they chose. During an 18-month period from 1872 the state of Georgia earned in excess of $35,000 from hiring out prison labor, a substantial sum for the day.

20. Seniors from Savannah

This African-American couple was photographed in the 1890s in Savannah, Georgia. Jack Landlord was said to be 100 years old while his wife Abby was 110. Assuming that’s anywhere near accurate, that means the two most probably spent the first part of their lives as slaves. Judging by the fact that Mr. Landlord is without shoes, it would appear that the years since emancipation have not been especially kind to the couple.

19. Atlanta University

ADVERTISEMENT

Four young students pose on some steps at Atlanta University, Georgia, in about 1900. The opportunity for African-American women to study at this level was still rare in those times. The photographer was Thomas Askew, himself something of an outlier in his era since he was Atlanta’s first African-American photographer, having started life as a slave.

18. The Berckmans

These Berckmans on their spacious porch look the epitome of prosperous Augusta, Georgia. In fact the city has a street called Berckmans Road and it’s not impossible that this wealthy family was the origin of that name. The famous golf course, the Augusta National Club, has in its grounds a mansion called Berckmans Place. That may be the very home where this photograph was taken – modern photos of the property show a remarkably similar porch.

17. Memphis cotton

ADVERTISEMENT

This colorized print from about 1900 shows the docks at Memphis, Tennessee, where stevedores load cotton onto black-smoke-belching steamboats. Tennessee’s cotton farming thrived in the richly productive soil of the Mississippi delta. The city of Memphis was a major player in the textiles industry, helping to meet the seemingly insatiable domestic and international demand for the crop.

16. Time to sew

These young women, photographed in 1900, are learning to sew at the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, in Augusta, Georgia. founded this educational establishment in 1883 and named it after a generous financial donor, Francine Haines. The facility, which was reserved specifically for African-Americans, combined a kindergarten,Lucy Laney a school and a junior college.

15. The Fisk Jubilee Singers

ADVERTISEMENT

Although they’re pictured here in Thousand Island Park, New York, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were Southerners through and through, hailing from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. These a cappella songsters were in Thousand Island Park on tour in about 1870, fundraising for their tuition. The photographer was A.C. McIntyre, a well-known chronicler of the public space in its early days.

14. Ox power

This 2-ox-power wagon is trundling along in Roanoke, Virginia, early in the 20th century. The hoardings in the background advertise a weird mix of tombstones, dry goods and a drink called Lemon Kela. George Davis took the photograph, which shows that livestock was a long way from being abandoned in favor of the internal combustion engine.

13. Atlanta in ruins

ADVERTISEMENT

This shot shows the impact of the Civil War on Atlanta, Georgia which, as you can see, was devastating. There was fighting around the city from July 1864, although it was September before it eventually fell to the Union Army. The photographer of the destruction was George Barnard, who was an official photographer for the Federal Army.

12. Hillbilly home

The original caption for this photograph from about 1900 was “Hillbilly home and woman gathering wood.” The image is from the Tennessee mountains and it’s a testimony to the real poverty in which many Southerners lived a century and more ago. This photo is from the huge Bettmann Archive, founded in 1936 by Otto Bettmann who’d fled Europe to escape the Nazis.

11. Rocky road

ADVERTISEMENT

You’d wonder whether this early automobile’s springs could possibly have survived the punishment this rock-strewn track would have given it. They must have built them tough back in the day. In fact this photo, taken somewhere in Tennessee, is dated 1903 when cars would have still been something of a novelty. As, it seems, were proper roads.

10. Mechanical drawing

Perhaps they couldn’t afford chairs? More likely, the painstaking art of mechanical drawing, which these students are learning, is best practiced standing. Today, technical drawing by hand is largely a lost skill because of digital technology, but it was once essential to everything from engineering to architecture. These fellows are at work at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, in 1899 or 1900.

9. Working on the railroad

ADVERTISEMENT

These men mending rails are working for the United States Military Railroad Service (USMRS) during the Civil War in 1862 or 1863 in the north of Virginia. Railroads were a crucial resource during the war at a time when the only alternative means of heavy transport were horses, mules and oxen. It was a key area in which the Union enjoyed superiority. After the war, the photographer of this scene, Andrew Russell, went on to record the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad Company’s transcontinental line.

8. Shooting craps

Here is a group of men gambling with dice. It’s sometime in the 1930s and the location is the coal district of West Virginia, although whether these men are miners or not is unknown. During the troubled economic times of the 1930s, the coal mining industry in West Virginia suffered severely. Many pit workers were thrown into severe poverty.

7. Peanuts

ADVERTISEMENT

Judging by the heap of peanuts in this photograph and the young woman’s broad smile, it looks like the harvest has been a success. The image is from about 1870, and it was captured in Richmond, Virginia. Peanuts were first grown as a commercial crop in Virginia in 1842. The excellent growing conditions in parts of the state meant that Virginia became America’s number-one peanut-grower.

6. Typesetters

Manual typesetting was a highly skilled job, although modern computers mean that in our time it’s largely redundant. But when these students were being taught the craft, it would have been a good route into secure employment in the commercial publishing and newspaper industries. The little boxes held the individual metal letters, punctuation marks and symbols which were assembled to make a page. These young men and women were studying at the Hampton Institute in about 1900.

5. Cabin in the woods

ADVERTISEMENT

In its way, this photograph portrays an idyllic natural setting, but you’d have to suspect that it’s a scene of real poverty. This image of an isolated home was captured somewhere in Tennessee. The original caption read, “Rustic cabin in Tennessee with woman and boy.” Hardly lyrical or informative, but it has the virtue of accuracy.

4. General store

In the days before the modern mega-stores run by the likes of Meijer and Wal-Mart, the typical family-run general store was an altogether more homely affair. This one was in Shiloh, Virginia, and the photograph is from about 1900. Looking at the way the stock is crammed into the limited space is enough to make you giddy. The photographer was H. Armstrong Robert, said to be one of the first to create commercial stock photos.

3. Apples galore

ADVERTISEMENT

This photo from circa 1880 shows a bountiful apple harvest in Waynesboro, Virginia, at the Rose Cliff Fruit Farm. According to the legend printed on the barrel ends, these apples are of the York Imperial variety, apparently an excellent choice for cooking. Sadly, this orchard was sold in 1927 and houses were built on the land.

2. The Summit Avenue Ensemble

This 1900 photograph was taken in the home of Askew, who as previously mentioned transitioned from a life of slavery into Atlanta’s first African-American photographer. The musicians are the Summit Avenue Ensemble and include five of Askew’s six sons. Askew senior was the photographer. His family was part of the prosperous African-American middle class in Atlanta, a group which apparently seldom interacted with its white counterparts.

1. Off the tracks

ADVERTISEMENT

What caused this locomotive and its carriages to part company with the rails is unknown, but it was clearly a drastic incident. The photograph is from the Civil War, but we’re not told if it’s a Union or Confederate train. The location is certainly in the South, at Manassas, Virginia. Official United States Military Railroad Construction Corps snapper Russell, whose work we have already encountered previously in this collection, was again the photographer here.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT