ELUSIVE WOMEN OF IRENE:

THE WPA EXCAVATION OF IRENE MOUND

BY GAIL WHALEN

    In September 1937, Antonio J. Waring, Jr. and Preston Holder began the work of clearing a patch of swamp and forest at the eastern side of Pipe Makers' Canal where it meets the Savannah River on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia. Workers cleared the area, thickly covered in underbrush, palmetto plants and trees, with axes, shovels and spades. Everyone helped, from Waring and Holder, to the foreman and three supervisors sent by the city of Savannah, including the crew of about forty-five black women. They had cleaned the area before the start of a full-scale archaeological excavation. They stood atop Irene Mound, a Native American structure that preceded both the French and Spanish explorers of the late 1500s, and the colony of Georgia in 1733. The mound had been present when the Creek tribes began to migrate into coastal Georgia in the late 1400s. A landmark along the Savannah River for years, it had been inhabited by Europeans since 1736. No one was really quite sure what was contained beneath the small hill.

    In 1937, the United States government decided to excavate Irene Mound. The field excavation crew, comprised entirely of African American women, took more than two years to uncover the entire structure. Today, because of this excavation, we know more about the Native Americans who built and used the mound than we do about the people who excavated it. One clue about this group of women can be found in a series of photographs taken by Marmaduke Hamilton Floyd, a prominent citizen of Savannah, who died in 1949. He shot the photographs between 1937 and 1938 at the Irene Indian Mound. Most are annotated with the date, location, and narrative description of each picture. Almost 300 of these pictures still exist in private collection, and many of the scenes are of the excavators at work. At this time, they constitute the most complete photographic record of the women. Hidden in the photographs are the identities and experiences of the women employed as excavators at Irene Mound. One of the purposes of this study was to reveal their identities. To supplement the wealth of rich visual evidence preserved in the Floyd photographs, extensive interviews were conducted with the surviving descendents of this remarkable community of women.

    In 1934, Dolores B. Floyd of Savannah began researching the early history of the Georgia coast. Her husband, Marmaduke H. Floyd, also contributed a generous amount of scholarly research about early Georgia, including a book entitled Georgia's Disputed Tabby Ruins. In their research, the Floyds' found references to an Indian mound located near Savannah at the juncture of Pipe Makers' Creek and the Savannah River. The Creek Indians and early British settlers used the mound as a landmark. German Protestant missionaries from Moravia established a school and mission atop the hill in 1736, giving it the name "Irene." Colonel William Elberton created Rae's Hall Plantation there after the American Revolutionary War, and used the mound top as the backdrop for an elaborate mansion. Moravians and Elbertons were buried on other parts of the mound, literally atop Native Americans from nearly three centuries earlier.

    Savannah residents had long known of the mound, although they were not necessarily aware of its cultural and historical significance. Pipe Maker's Creek had been transformed into a canal in the early nineteenth century to aid in rice cultivation. In 1897 and 1898, Clarence B. Moore of the Smithsonian Institution, dug into the mound and exhumed seven human skeletons as part of his nationwide anthropological studies on the culture of the "Great Mound Builders" of Native America. Later, builders from Chatham County used the mound as a convenient source of fill dirt for construction projects.

    At the urging of the Society for Georgia Archaeology and the Savannah Historical Research Association, Dolores Floyd published a twenty-six page pamphlet entitled "New Yamacraw and the Indian Mound Irene" in 1936. An influential paper, it was cited by Dr. Arthur R. Kelly, director for the joint National Park Service and Federal Emergency Relief Agency's Ocmulgee and Swift Creek excavations in Macon, Georgia. It was also cited by a succession of WPA archaeologists who directed work at the Irene Mound. Marmaduke Floyd, along with his young friend Antonio Waring, Jr., were enthusiastic amateur archaeologists. In the early 1930s, both documented and explored many Native American sites in coastal Georgia, centering around Chatham, McIntosh, Liberty and Camden counties. Their membership in organizations such as the Society for Georgia Archaeology, the Georgia Historical Society, the Savannah Historical Research Society, Chamber of Commerce, and Daughters of the American Revolution enabled them to enlist broad support for the project, culminating the WPA excavation.

    The first excavation in Georgia took place in Macon at the Ocmulgee Mounds. Sponsored by the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Agency, Director Kelly used mixed field crews of African-American women and men, as well as white men. African Americans comprised the majority of the crews, while some of the whites were trained as supervisors. White graduate students in anthropology became director assistants and laboratory supervisors. This was the first time women had been utilized as a primary labor source in archaeological excavations funded by the New Deal. Except for a few men (perhaps fewer than twenty), the majority of the crews were African-American women. Three primary and six secondary sites were excavated under the WPA in Savannah and Chatham County. Each of the primary sites, Irene Mound, Bilbo, and Deptford, utilized an exclusively female African-American labor force for the excavation crews. Categorized as semi-skilled or skilled by the WPA, white relief workers were assigned to the higher wage positions of carpenters, laboratory technicians, researchers, and recorders. Excavators were considered unskilled.

    The Irene Indian Mound excavation began in September 1937 and completed work in December 1939. It was by far the largest project undertaken in Savannah, and received the most publicity of any WPA archaeology project. At various times, the work force included over 100 persons. In the initial stage of the excavation, workers cleared the mound of trees, underbrush, trash, and swampy areas. County engineers helped build access roads to facilitate transport of equipment and personnel. Women worked in these preliminary stages along with the men. Work progressed eight hours a day, five days a week, year round, with time off for Christmas, New Year's Day, and Easter. The work was hard and crews provided their own meals. Moreover, the clearing process removed natural windbreaks that shielded the workers in winter from the strong winds whipping off the Savannah River. One outhouse served all the workers, men and women alike.

    In Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal, Susan Ware examines the decision to use women in archaeological relief projects. As a rule, national gender norms excluded women from heavy construction work, which effectively eliminated them from most relief projects. Such was not the case in Savannah for African-American women. Even women with professional training were hired as field crews at Irene Mound. Gussie White attended the Tuskeegee Normal School for Women. Trained as an educator and clerical worker, she sought work at Irene Mound after her husband became disabled in a workplace accident. Annie Scott Grant, a minister's wife, directed an after school tutorial program at their AME church in Savannah. Mattie Smith, Hattie Coleman, and Elizabeth Heyward had taken in laundry to supplement their household income before the Depression, and continued to do so even while working for the WPA.

    The object of one WPA project in Savannah was to make black women more productive domestic servants. Enrollees in the project were taught how to use bleach as a disinfectant and handling procedures to reduce the risk of air-borne bacteria infecting food. The Savannah Tribune, one of two African-American newspapers in the city, voiced support for the project. Programs in other southern cities such as Memphis and New Orleans emphasized similar training. The city of Savannah and the WPA also jointly sponsored programs for women that emphasized light industrial training. In a recent interview, Oscar Williams, a white supervisor of a crew of black women who gathered Spanish moss for the WPA, recalled a mattress factory in Savannah that housed three separate WPA projects intended for women. The first floor housed a mattress factory, the second rooms for sewing and doll making, and the third a shop for repairing furniture.

    In The New Deal in the Urban South, Douglas Smith points out that 70 to 80 percent of women on relief in the South were unskilled, which he attributes to the preponderance of "jobless black domestics." He explains further that Georgia lawmakers tried to create discriminatory legislation that limited some work projects only to those women with certain education or training. These limitations precluded many black women from eligibility for relief jobs. That such efforts were not successful was largely due to the efforts of the state WPA director, Gay Shepperson, and Georgia politician Eurith D. Rivers, who was a committed New Dealer. Despite the failure of Georgia legislators to legislate further inequality in New Deal relief programs, white women in Atlanta garnered 1,225 relief jobs in 1937, versus the 447 relief jobs awarded to black women. Not surprisingly, many African-American women were also assigned to "pick and shovel" jobs.

    In a series of oral history interviews conducted in 1997, one of the first questions asked of relatives was if their mother or grandmother had been issued any special clothing for the excavation work. None remembered any. Although hired to perform unskilled manual labor similar to the work done by male relief workers on canals, the Irene women did not wear overalls. John White was almost fourteen years old when his mother, Gussie White, excavated Irene Mound. He recalls clearly that his mother wore her own "brogans," gloves, and an old cotton dress. White may be one of the few children who actually witnessed his mother working at the mound. He used to ride his bicycle to the site and watch the excavation in progress. One person interviewed, however, did recall that the WPA provided tools for the women.

    Clothes and tools reveal much about gender relations at Irene. According to Patricia Hunt, "Clothes make statements about economic status, occupational roles, affiliations with other people, differentiation from others, and individual expression." One element that figures prominently in the Floyd photographs is the use of kerchiefs beneath hats. A number of women tied kerchiefs or rags around their hair. When worn outside, a kerchief helped protect a woman's hair from the sun and wind. To whites in the Jim Crow era, the kerchief signified caste status, but it was also an accessory encoded with distinctive aesthetic values. Personal flourishes like elaborate kerchiefs, large earrings, and tobacco pipes, in other words, communicated a sense of individual personality and revealed membership in a shared Sea Island cultural community.

    The Floyd photographs illustrate in graphic detail just how hard times were in the late 1930s. The working poor wore whatever was available, even when such garb was inappropriate for the work at hand. The photographs, for example, reveal the wide variety of shoes and boots worn by the field crews at Irene. At least three women are wearing "brogans"--the heavy, ankle high, laced man's leather boot often associated with agricultural labor in the South. Most of the women, however, appear to be wearing plain women's oxfords, solid material evidence of their urban background. One photograph taken during cooler weather shows a woman standing barefoot. This is particularly disturbing because others in the shot, including the men, are all wearing shoes and heavy coats. Also visible are cotton stockings, a "union suit" (or long cotton underwear that reaches mid-calf), and knickers beneath dresses. All of the black women in the Floyd Photographs are wearing dresses. Not one appears in overalls, slacks, or dungarees. When one considers the nature of excavation, especially as the trenching became deeper and ramps, steps, and ladders were built to facilitate passage from one area to another, one might anticipate that function and safety would lead some women to wear slacks. Such was not the case. Prevailing custom dictated that women not wear trousers, even when engaged in strenuous outdoor work.

    The Southeast Archaeology Conference collection is the repository of all the official WPA photographic records of the Irene excavation. A few of the photographs show the field crews at Irene Mound, but none of the women are identified. Paul Fagette, in Digging for Dollars: American Archaeology and the New Deal, suggests that the WPA's role in making archaeology acceptable to the American public was due in part to the WPA's penchant for good publicity. The Savannah Morning News featured stories about the Irene Mound excavation almost daily between September 1937 and March 1938, including interviews with archaeologists, city officials, and the general public, but never identified any of the field technicians. Even those photographs printed in other newspapers such as the Savannah Evening News Press, which typically listed the names of persons shown (especially when only one or two persons comprise the subject), do not list the laborers. As one might expect, the press highlighted newcomers who brought academic, scientific, or social prestige to the project. Hailed as a classically trained European archaeologist, for example, Vladimir J. Fewkes lent a sense of international importance to the excavation.

    According to various accounts, Fewkes introduced such modern techniques as "peeling" the ground in stratigraphic layers, establishing a datum for mapping and elevation readings, and streamlined laboratory artifact processing. It may have been around the time of Fewkes presence on the site in April 1938 that Hattie Coleman and Gussie White worked at Irene Mound. Coleman's granddaughter, Ethel Hunter, said that her grandmother explained to the children exactly how she excavated. Archaeologists instructed the women to dig very carefully and to shave off a little of the dirt at a time. One man watched and corrected the women as they worked to keep everyone mindful of the importance of their work. According to John White, once a woman demonstrated a certain degree of proficiency, she became a foreman of other women. Perhaps this was the case in the photographs where the women appear to be working without supervision.

    Numerous newspaper accounts reveal that groups of white students from Savannah and Chatham County participated in field trips to the site, but if children from black schools ever visited the site it went unrecorded. With one exception, the children of women workers at Irene Mound did not have an opportunity to see the Irene Mound, although all of the interviewees recalled that they had wanted to visit their mothers and grandmothers on the site. Ethel Hunter and Rebecca Wright both stated that they had asked specifically to go see the Indian Mound when they were children, although neither had been allowed to go. Wright also stated that her lifelong interest in Native American culture had been stirred by her mother's experience at the Irene Mound.

    In fact, the words "Indian bones" evoked the strongest memories from all the descendents. Each remembered something their mother or grandmother had said about recovering bones. In the words of one interviewee, "I remember my grandmother saying how sad she felt for those poor people, because they were digging them up like that." Others did not realize that the women had been exhuming human skeletons. When asked why her mother did not tell her children that the bones were human, Karen Scott Williams replied that perhaps she was trying to protect them from becoming frightened from the thought of her working in a "graveyard." Some, however, knew quite well that their mothers were excavating human and animal bones. When asked whether such work upset their mothers, White, Hunter Daniels, and the Vaughn brothers indicated that after seeing one or two of the burials, their mothers quickly abandoned any qualms they had about handling bones. According to John White, the women understood the interpretive significance of such evidence to the archaeologists.

    The historical significance of the Irene Mound photographs becomes evident when they are contrasted against the portraits of relief workers that appeared in national publications. Life magazine frequently featured articles about WPA and PWA workers. In a two-page spread about a WPA sewer project, a white relief worker named Edward Moyer discussed his job. Significantly, no African Americans or women received mention, although it is quite possible that neither were employed on the project. Two weeks later, Life reported that a white relief worker Edward Liewicki made fifteen dollars a week as a WPA worker. The same issue featured white males in its treatment of WPA dams, sewage disposal works, and highway projects. Another issue of Life included a seven- page spread on the WPA in which over thirty photographs feature whites. The three photographs that focus on African Americans depict a group of twelve men beating drums, an old man laying sod, and an elderly couple learning to read. As Life reminded its readers in yet another issue, "Southerners have not wanted their Negroes to get too high Relief pay. Many Southern states have been backward in matching federal grants and loans for Relief and Public works."

    In her case study of Savannah during the 1930s, Karen Kalmar also unearthed evidence of possible mistreatment of some of the women employed at Irene Mound. The Savannah Journal, a weekly black newspaper, reported mistreatment of workers at WPA run vegetable farms in the county in December 1938. Editor Davis Lee likened the work to slavery. The next month, Lee wrote to President Roosevelt that women at Irene Mound were compelled to "dig up dead bodies" and "lift baskets laden with rocks and stones." Lee’s allegation that the excavation employed women as old as sixty-five gained the attention of Gay Shepperson, the state director of the Women's and Professional Division of the WPA. One of Shepperson’s responsibilities was determining if local authorities hired women older than the age limit of forty-five. Even if older women were employed at Irene Mound, it is unclear whether their presence on the site evidences conscious maltreatment on the part of their employer or agency on the part of financially strapped women who simply misrepresented their age.

    In commercial publications with widespread circulation, WPA workers were sometimes depicted in poses that made them appear apathetic at best. The treatment of urban relief workers in Savannah newspapers, however, accords more with the philosophy evident in the Farm Security Administration's documentary photographs of rural tenant farmers. In the words of FSA photographer Dorothea Lange, a documentary photograph "is not a factual photograph per se." Rather it "carries with it another thing, a quality [in the subject] that the artist responds to. It is a photograph which carries the full meaning of the episode or the circumstance or the situation that can only be revealed-because you can't really capture it-by this other quality." Lange and Walker Evans artistically placed people in their homes and against the backdrop of devastated farms to show how families coped in the face of adversity.

    In some ways, Marmaduke Floyd's photographs of the Irene Mound excavation accomplish the same task. To be sure, Floyd sometimes took photos of workers he thought were loafing to goad them into more productive work. Yet unlike many of the photographs reproduced in commercial publications, which often portray relief work as boondoggling, the vast majority of Floyd’s pictures convey positive messages about the women who worked at Irene Mound. A paternalist whose family had once owned slaves, Floyd clearly considered the women of Irene "his people." Floyd’s compositions, in other words, reveal much about the racial mores of privileged whites. Casting the women who worked for him in a bad light, in other words, would also reflect badly upon him. Although he was careful to ascribe poor workmanship when he saw it, Floyd readily applauded the women of Irene’s increasing proficiency as field technicians and acknowledged the superior quality of their work was vital to the success of the project.

    Floyd's extensive collection housed at the Georgia Historical Society includes many of his photographs documenting traditional African-American culture, historic slave sites, and vernacular architecture in and around Savannah. Taken between 1928 and 1940, these images provide a remarkable glimpse into African-American life in the late 1920s and 1930s. Floyd was also the project historian for the Irene Mound excavation and organized data from primary sources, filed field notes, and processed artifacts at the site laboratory. A professional surveyor, he no doubt played an instrumental role in laying out the initial site. Personal photographs newspaper articles show Floyd acting as a site interpreter, guide, and public lecturer.

    In Reading American Photographs, Alan Trachtenberg discusses the value of photographs as tools to interpret history. Trachtenberg believes that images defy simple explanations: "What empowers an image to represent history is not just what it shows but the struggle for meaning we undergo before it...Representing the past, photos serve the present's need to understand itself and measure its future." Research on this subject continues. A recent pictorial and oral history exhibit at Savannah's Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum encouraged visitors to help identify more of the women. The images in this data site were reproduced from the artist's proofs saved by Marmaduke Floyd, and preserved by the Coastal Georgia Archaeology Society. Fortunately, he annotated almost every photograph with a narrative description. Examined in sequence with his annotations, the images tell the remarkable story of the elusive women of Irene.



 

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