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Poverty
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North America
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Migration, California, Black Okie, Sharecroppers, San Joaquin Valley, USA, Unemployment
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These forgotten black sharecroppers who migrated to California's Central Valley still live in a version of America that most believe is but a distant memory. This project, by attending to this community's forgotten history, intends to raise awareness of its impoverished present.
Matt Black

2003 — professional winner

One of Dorothea Lange's famous photographs -- Ditched, Stalled, and Stranded, San Joaquin Valley, California -- was recently made into a US postage stamp. This picture, along with books like John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, have for many come to define the story of "Okie" migrants of the Great Depression. But these works create an incomplete picture of this chapter of American history: the widespread, but false, perception that the Dust Bowl migration, one of the largest population shifts ever to occur in the US, was exclusively white.

This project documents a group of black migrant sharecroppers whose forgotten story proves otherwise. These self-described "Black Okies" still live in several remote rural enclaves scattered amid the cotton fields of Central California. Though some 50,000 of them came to the San Joaquin Valley and worked side by side with Steinbeck's Joads, no books or photographs ever documented their lives. Today, their struggling communities are one of the few surviving remnants of this forgotten chapter of American rural life.

About 10,000 migrants and their descendants remain -- people like James Dixon, a 96-year-old who worked the Valley's fields for over three decades. Like many in this community, his living conditions seemed lifted straight out of the sharecropper South. When I first met him, he still lived in a two-room shack he built himself in the 1940s. With just a single light bulb hanging bare from the ceiling, his sole source of heat was a small wood stove, and his only water came from a rusty spigot in the yard. I photographed James Dixon up until his death late last year. I was one of the few to attend his funeral.

Even the younger generation lives with the legacy of the past. I met Hallie Jones while she was chopping cotton in a field across the street from her home. This was one of the same fields that her father, fresh from an Oklahoma sharecropper farm, had worked over a half-century ago. Wearing a battered straw hat and frayed leather gloves, she tended row after row under the hot summer sun. Though she was born in California in 1960, she seemed like a vision from long ago.

These forgotten migrants still live in a version of America that most believe is but a distant memory. But as the lives of Hallie Jones, James Dixon and others in this struggling community show, this past is not as distant as it may seem. This project, by attending to this community's forgotten history, intends to raise awareness of its impoverished present. The enclosed portfolio gives a brief overview of my work to date. I hope to build upon these photographs with the goal of creating a book-length work.

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Sisters alongside the road. Allensworth. Matt Black/Alexia Foundation
Fishing in an irrigation canal. Corcoran. Matt Black/Alexia Foundation
Texas migrant at home.  Allensworth. Matt Black/Alexia Foundation
Church announcements. Allensworth. Matt Black/Alexia Foundation
Girl plays on clothesline. Teviston. Matt Black/Alexia Foundation
Mother and son, from Arkansas, at home in Teviston. Matt Black/Alexia Foundation
Louisiana migrant in his bedroom. Teviston. Matt Black/Alexia Foundation
Playing on an abandoned farm truck. Teviston. Matt Black/Alexia Foundation
Weeding cotton. Allensworth. Matt Black/Alexia Foundation
Woman enters social hall after church. Teviston. Matt Black/Alexia Foundation