In March of 1992, many years after photographer Dorothea Lange’s 1936 image of a migrant mother in California (above) became one of the most iconic images from the Great Depression, a camera crew sat down with two daughters of the subject of Lange’s photo. For about 40 minutes, Norma Rydlewski and Katherine McIntosh shared their stories with Blackside, Inc., a company founded by award-winning filmmaker Henry Hampton. In the footage and transcript of that conversation, accessible for the first time along with many more such interviews through Washington University Libraries, the family’s daily challenges come to life. The sisters describe not only their strong, beautiful mother but everything from field work and playing with dirt clods as children to early union meetings and the economical “saving grace” that was World War II.
When The Great Depression, Blackside’s seven-part documentary series, debuted on PBS in October of 1993, the program wove together short segments from extensive interviews with 148 people who experienced the Great Depression, including Rydlewski and McIntosh. As illuminating as the documentary is in its own right, the many additional hours of oral history that Blackside recorded in the process of creating it are a treasure trove of primary source material—all of it now viewable, browsable, and searchable online through the efforts of WU Libraries’ Visual Media Research Lab and Digital Library Services (DLS).
The diverse range of individuals whose reflections on the 1930s are now easily accessible include a grandson of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, celebrated authors Maya Angelou and Gore Vidal, longtime New York Times political reporter Warren Moscow, actors Karen Morley and Ossie Davis, Morton Newman, who worked on the Upton Sinclair campaign for governor in California, and many more from all walks of life. The multicultural, multiregional approach brings needed depth and color to an era that is often remembered and depicted as a monolithic event dragging the nation down for a decade, says Special Collections assistant Alison Carrick, who managed the workflow of the digitization project.
“When we think about the Great Depression, images of the dust bowl and breadlines immediately come to mind,” Carrick says. “And that is part of the history Blackside covered with this series, but they also revealed complex and lively stories that are often overlooked—from union struggles, to heated political campaigns, Works Progress Administration projects, the New Deal, and more. What Blackside managed to do with this series and these interviews was to bring that period of history back to life in a vivid, engaging way.”
The intent behind The Great Depression Interviews project is to provide a seamless, powerful tool with much potential for interdisciplinary research.
“One of the best features of the site, thanks to DLS, is that it is text/keyword searchable,” Carrick says. “This creates a way for users to pinpoint a subject, name, or event and quickly look to see where it occurs in each transcript. Our hope is that this feature will lead users to other transcripts they might not have thought contained similar subject matter.”
This post was written by Evie Hemphill (@evhemphill), a writer and photographer for Washington University Libraries in St. Louis.
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