“More wildlife trouble,” photographer Marion Post Wolcott wrote in a letter describing a 1939 work trip to rural Florida. “Other day in the middle of a field where I was photographing the pickers, there was a terrific commotion and sudden screaming and yelling, and before I knew what was happening, one of them pushed me, knocking my camera out of my hands, and literally dragged me to the road. Two of the foremen fired some shots with a rifle and the biggest rattlesnake you’ve ever seen—about ten feet long and big around as a small stovepipe—went tearing along.”
Born Marion Post, she had begun a staff position with the photo branch of the Farm Security Administration the year before this letter—one of the few women to fill out the ranks of photographers overseen by department head Roy Stryker, to whom she had penned the chatty account of her run-in with the giant snake. Between 1938 and 1942, she would drive thousands of solitary miles and take over 9,000 photos for the FSA, documenting poverty-stricken rural communities and the agency’s work to provide them relief. People were “suspicious very often of my traveling alone,” Wolcott told an interviewer in 1964; the fact that she stayed at motels by herself and “wander[ed] around at night” marked her as unusual.
But Wolcott was used to being an oddity. Born in New Jersey in 1910, she trained to be a teacher and taught in Massachusetts and New York throughout the early 1930s, while she pursued a passion for photography on the side. Eventually she sold a few images, secured some freelance work with the Associated Press, and, in 1937, landed a full-time job as the only female staff photographer at the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.
“The ten male photographers with whom I was to work immediately put out their cigarette butts in my developer,” she recalled during a 1986 keynote address at a Women in Photography Conference. Over the next few four days, the men upped the ante, spitting in her developer (and, she speculated, peeing in it as well) and lobbing spitballs into her small darkroom. Finally, Wolcott confronted them, telling them she wasn’t there to dismantle their boys’ club—after all, she knew how to swear, too. They settled into a truce, and Wolcott picked up new technical skills and learned to shoot on deadline, with the help of her former enemies. But she soon got bored; the work was rote, and she was often stuck with “women’s” assignments, such as shooting fashion stories and society events. Once, her own paper featured her in a story titled, “Strange Jobs for Women.”
Wolcott expressed her frustration with her assignments to Ralph Steiner, a photographer and experimental filmmaker who had been making short films for the Works Progress Administration. He encouraged Wolcott to apply to the FSA photo program and helped her put together a portfolio to present to Roy Stryker. In September 1938, after seeing Wolcott’s images, Stryker hired her immediately. She became the first woman photographer to work for the FSA full-time. (Although Dorothea Lange had shot for the agency since 1935, she was never a full-time staffer.)
For the next three and a half years—or, until she married and started a family—Wolcott was dispatched on trips around the country: to New England, the West, and the South. Through it all, she chronicled her journeys in detailed letters to Stryker that described her progress, as well as the day-to-day happenings of her travel. In New England, she shot luscious landscapes of snow-covered hills; in Montana, she traveled to a cattle ranch with a side business where tourists could dress up as cowboys. And she was one of the FSA photographers who shot the most in Florida, where she photographed migrant workers, roiling juke joints, and the wealthy enjoying the largesse of Miami Beach. Afraid for her safety, the FSA would sometimes send a local official to accompany Wolcott on shoots—but this could be more trouble than it was worth, especially when she wanted to photograph in places frequented by African American men, such as juke joints. “They didn’t want to take me in because if an unintentional bump or accident or sudden remark about me should be made, they would be expected to defend my honor and get into a fight,” she said later.
Once, while trying to photograph a Florida gambling club, Wolcott had her camera and film taken away by the players. “They were annoyed that I felt I could get away with it because I was a woman,” she explained in the 1964 interview, “which was exactly what I was trying to do.”
The first order of business: you must feed your customers. If you expect to sell drinks through the night, bellies must be full of food or you’re just wasting your time.
Steaming pans of food carry their scents into the pool halls of Belle Glade, Florida—a tiny agricultural town southeast of Lake Okeechobee—where $3 beers and $4 rum drinks flow.
These modern-day juke joints—hangouts where farmworkers would come to socialize after a long day of working in the fields—are places where friends are received like family. Music blares through speakers in homemade wooden cabinets, and men and women dance liltingly to sounds that transport them home.
I’m a Jamaican boy, born and raised / Nowadays, I’m lost between two shores ... But I’ve got this emptiness deep inside / And it won’t let me go / And I’m a man who don’t like to swear / But I hate the sound of being alone …
These clubs in Belle Glade began with the H-2 work visa. Starting in the 1940s, sugar companies brought thousands of workers to the Everglades from the Caribbean to harvest sugarcane by hand under a program administered by the federal government. At its busiest, the program brought 10,000 Jamaican workers to Florida to work in the cane fields each year, and many of them settled in Belle Glade. When mechanical harvesting reached South Florida in the 1980s, fully replacing manual labor by 1993, the need for the workers vanished—but the people themselves did not.
Former sugarcane workers ranging in age from their early 40s to late 80s frequent club events such as Round Robins, Tuesday Night Drink Outs, and Sunday domino tournaments. Those who have their own bars still visit other bars and spend heavily there, buying buckets of beer or flasks of Wray & Nephew overproof rum for themselves and their guests.
And, of course, the music plays.
Unuh can’t come take Mama Africa from we again / Unuh think unuh can come take Mama Africa from we again? No! / Unuh can’t come take Mama Africa from we again / Unuh think unuh can come take Mama Africa from we again? No!
For the domino tournaments, which are held at a different bar each week, a single winner will earn the $40 cash prize. Announcers go over the rules: “Alright, remember the rules of the game. No whisperin’. No eye movement. If you get caught, your table’s disqualified. I want you all to go by the rules. Shuffle up. Remember, if you start a game, you have to finish it. If you don’t finish it, you’re disqualified. Shuffle up, and buckle up, and deal. That’s it—run da riddim.”
Dominos smash violently against wooden tables. Tiles fly in the air and an argument breaks out between the loser and the victor, an expression of brotherly love; as heated as the games are, the men don’t want to be anywhere else. Pool players lament missed shots. Men and women dance and shimmy and drink. Leaving an event at the juke joint always involves making plans to return—and some never leave at all.
The man called Cowboy was given that name after the kind of hat he wore to the Sunday tournaments, its wide brim hiding his expressions while he played. When he wasn’t there, he cooked at a food stand in an alleyway between two buildings off Southwest B Avenue, jumping between the chicken cooking on a flaming grill, large soup pans full of goat or chicken-foot soup, and always the rich rice and peas that energize the social clubs.
In 2016, Cowboy struggled more and more to come out to the domino tournaments, but never stopped trying. One of the last times he made an appearance, he let his head hang weary against the table in front of him. He died a few days later.
On a recent night at the club, a patron called Braces announced the funeral arrangements for his friend: “From tomorrow in the day, right back to the night till daylight, up by Traina club, we’re gonna feed people. We’re gonna cook food every day and every night. And the church by Tenth Street, that’s where the body’s gonna be Saturday. You can look at him and pay your last respects for him. And then, his body is gonna ship home to Jamaica to his family.”
Braces’s voice broke, but he composed itself, ready to start the tournament.
“Back to the game,” he said. “Back to music.”
Text by José Jesús Zaragoza
Sofia Valiente’s work has been published in Time, the Guardian, El Mundo, Vice, and American Photo, among others. She is represented by the Daniel Blau Gallery in London and Munich, and her work has been exhibited in London, Paris, and New York City.
José Jesús Zaragoza spent 16 years working as a journalist for community newspapers around Lake Okeechobee. He is now the director of communications and advancement for the Glades Initiative.
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