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A Commitment to Social Values and Racial Justice

From: Wide Angle
Volume 21, Number 2, March 1999
pp. 31-40 | 10.1353/wan.1999.0022

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Wide Angle 21.2 (1999) 31-40

[Figure 1]   [Figure 2]   [Figure 3]   [Figure 4]

The community at the core of Stoney's professional life, which had its beginnings in his college years at Chapel Hill, was extended by the activists he met at the Henry Street Settlement on New York City's Lower East Side. Stoney was often in the company of prominent New Dealers and socialists. Communists had some influence there, he recalls,

but I very soon learned that I didn't want to be a Communist. My God, they sounded like the [Southern] Evangelicals I had gotten away from. The only company I remember being ill at ease with was upper class male Southerners and it is their judgments that I not only don't have any sympathy for, but I was afraid of. I know the consequences.

This periodmarks the beginning of a lifetime of work on behalf of racial justice.Helen Hall, director of the Henry Street Settlement, hired Stoney as a researcher in 1938, and he soon began receivingwriting assignments from Hall's husband, Paul Kellogg, editor of Survey Graphic. With photographer Lewis Hine, Stoney did stories on the Tennessee Valley Authority, the poll tax, and the poor, especially African Americans, his awareness of race and class divisions sharpening as he traveled through the South. It was intensified on his next project, the Gunnar Myrdal study of race relations in America, on which Stoney's official charge was to "give evidence of the factor of race in Southern politics as exemplified by fifteen counties."

After his six-month assignment with Ralph Bunche, Stoney landed a job with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), as Associate Information Advisor for the FSA in the Southeast, with headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama. From 1940 to 1942, his job was to sell middle class voters on a New Deal program designed to assist tenant farmers and sharecroppers. According to Stoney, "Most of [the FSA] clients couldn't vote. It was the poll tax in some cases, the white primary in others. Votes were [restricted to] the middle class, and all those conservative Congressmen and Senators had to be convinced by these middle class voters."

Stoney wrote press releases and radio programs that FSA agents could adapt to local angles. His radio programs frequently included the voices of sharecroppersand tenant farmers, white and black, who were recipients of New Deal programs. Here Stoney developed techniques for establishing rapport with his subjects that he later applied to working with non-actors: he learned to paraphrase what he wanted the subjects to say, allowing them say it in their own words.

Stoney, like many others, felt that the FSA was pushing them in two directions: "Be cautious and be bold." Stoney tells a story that illustrates this dilemma. On the steps of the State House in Montgomery, Alabama, Stoney ran into an AfricanAmerican man with whom he was working on an FSA program for black tenant farmers. Both men spontaneously shook hands. Stoney remembers:

I can still, to this day, feel [his] hand. We knew that we shouldn't have done it. This was in public. And yet neither one could pull away. Well, by the time I got back to the regional office, there was a call for me to come up to see the director and he said, "George what are you doing, do you want to ruin the whole program?" Twenty years later, this fellow is a big executive at HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] and he brings his granddaughter up to New York City and comes by the Alternate Media Center on Bleecker Street. He laughed and told me his end of the story: "When I got back to the office there was, 'You are going to get yourself lynched!'" Well, that was the reality, you see.

It was Roy Stryker, head of the Historical Section of the FSA, says Stoney, who found the means to bridge the contradictions of the agency with "marvelous photographs, which both celebrated what [the FSA was] doing and illustrated the problems."

From 1942 to 1945, Stoney saw World War II service in England with a U.S. AirForce photo...



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