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Black Migrants to the Central Valley, an exhibition at Fresno Art Museum

Ernest Lowe | California, United States

Cafe in East Mendota, CA, March 21,1961

Selected images from Black Migrants to the Central Valley, an original exhibition of African-American photos I took in the 1960s. Curated by Michele Ellis Pracy, Director of the Fresno Art Museum from July 13, 2018 to January 6, 2019.

While covering farm workers' life, work, and union organizing in the 1960s I discovered a number of African-American settlements in California's San Joaquin Valley. These towns are a little known part of history, the results of the rural-to-rural stream of the Great Migration out of the Jim Crow south.

Although I shot many scenes of dire poverty and backbreaking work, I was moved to show the dignity and humanity of these hard working migrants. I saw their loving families, their sense of community, their strong work ethic . . . and even the joy of turning an old rope and tree into a playground for the kids.

The Fresno Art Museum is at 233 N. First St. Fresno, California.

For more on the Black Migrants go to http://westofwestcenter.org and http://ernestlowe.com

Fresno Art Museum Director Michele Ellis Pracy curated the exhibition.

Joel Pickford made the extraordinary prints.

Mark Arax and Michael Eissinger provided valuable background information on the history of the African-American settlements.

California Humanities Community Stories Program, Fresno Art Museum and its donors, and West of West Center for Narrative History of the Central Valley have provided funding.

They came from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas . . . put down new roots in settlements like Lanare, Fairmead, South Dos Palos, or Teviston . . . camps such as Harris Tractor Farm or Cadillac Jack’s Camp . . . neighborhoods in Stockton, Hanford, and other Valley towns. They were the Black Migrants, moving from rural to rural settings, a little known part of the Great Migration out of the Jim Crow south.

Some were recruited by cotton growers like J. G. Boswell. Others traveled west on their own initiative, fulfilling a powerful ambition to succeed, along with hope to escape the bitter racism they'd come up under.

From 1960 to 1966 I photographed them in the Central Valley's onion and cotton fields, in their unknown settlements, in their tarpaper shacks and trailers. I recorded their stories so the world could hear their voices.

I was a freelance activist documentarian, never pretending to objectivity. I'd walk up to people in a camp or field and say, "I hear you folks are getting a raw deal. I'd like to take your pictures and talk with you so people back in the city can do something about it." They seldom turned me down.

Unfortunately the people I met also told stories of how Jim Crow had migrated to the Valley with them: sundown laws, race riots after football games, threats of lynchings. Mothers and fathers told their children, "Just walk on by. Don't stoop to their level." 

Black Migrants also faced another challenge: by 1961 when I photographed workers picking cotton by hand in a field near Pixley, agro-engineers had developed mechanical cotton pickers that virtually eliminated the need for handpicking by the families I was photographing.

When I returned to Dos Palos and Teviston in 2015 I found many of the folks I’d photographed in the 60’s living successful lives. The children in my 60s photos had succeeded in escaping farm work for jobs in service, hospitality, and government. Their parents' determination, powerful work ethic, and love had paid off.

For more on the Black Migrants go to

The West of West Center for Narrative History of the Central Valley has extensive documentation of the Valley's history, the story of the Black Okies, a film, and a gallery showing all of the FAM exhibition photos. http://westofwestcenter.org

http://ernestlowe.com includes photos of Anglo, Hispanic, Filippinno, and Japanese farm workers, as well as African-Americans.

Michael Eissinger is a faculty member at UC Merced who has documented the forgotten history of African-American communities up and down California's Central Valley. You can view or download his papers at this site: http://www.meissinger.com/publications--papers.html


West of West Center for Narrative History of the Central Valley http://westofwestcenter.org  

California Humanities Community Stories program 

indigoernie at gmail.com

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