In April and May of 1938, John Vachon was in his second full year as a traveling photographer for
the Farm Security Administration (FSA). While on the road in Georgia, he would have celebrated his 24th birthday,
perhaps by himself in a small downtown hotel, his camera and equipment piled in the corner of the room. He kept a journal,
and on June 4th of that year, he wrote:
“I still draw the low salary I drew a year and a half ago, $105 a month.
I have made two photographic trips this spring – one to North Carolina and one to Georgia. I have some feeling for photographic
work, though I think our particular brand a little over-rated. I might be able to do something with it sometime, that is something
worthy, something of value. There, as in everything my life long, I need a theme.” *
In retrospect, a series of
photos he took that April of the Nat Williamson family, in Guilford County, North Carolina, were far more “worthy”
than his doubts about his work led him to believe. As the captions indicated, the Williamsons were the first African-Americans
to receive a loan from the FSA.
The day I saw the photos on the Library of Congress website, I found Nat and his family in the
1930 census, living in Washington, North Carolina. He was a 41-year-old farmer, living with Evannar, his 39-year-old wife
of 18 years, and their three sons and three daughters. One of those sons was 6-month-old Nathan. In the Internet white pages,
I quickly found a listing for a Nathan Williamson in North Carolina, and called. The person who answered said I had the correct
Nathan, but that he wasn’t home. She took down my name and phone number and the reason I called.
About a week
later, no one had called back, so I did some poking around on the Internet, and was shocked to find that Nathan Williamson
had passed away only four days after I had called. So I decided it was prudent to postpone further contact with the family.
But two weeks later, I received the following email:
“Let me introduce myself. My name is Vivian (Wade) Sexton. I am one of Nat
Williamson's granddaughters. When I returned to North Carolina for my late uncle's funeral, his daughter told me someone had
called wanting to speak to her father about our family history.”
Vivian proved to be an engaging and valuable resource. She told me that the family
has known about the photos for a few years. My interview with her is posted on the next page. She sent me a copy of a
newspaper article that appeared around the time that Nat was approved for the FSA loan. The source is unknown, but was probably
the Greensboro Daily News. Here is an excerpt from the article, entitled: “Negro Sharecropper Will Get Federal Loan
of $2,980 For Purchasing Farm.”
A Guilford County Negro sharecropper will receive what is believed to be
the first land purchase loan to a member of his race in the nation. It was announced yesterday by Edgar H. Anderson, of Greensboro,
county supervisor of the Farm Security Administration.
The recipient, Nat Williamson, who resides 17 miles east of Greensboro, was
notified yesterday that his application for the $2,980 loan had been approved by regional officials and he may proceed with
plans to purchase a 97-acre farm costing $2,350 – with the remaining $650 to devote to repairs and the construction
of new farm buildings.
Williamson is the second man in this region – which comprises North Carolina, Tennessee,
Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia – to receive a loan under the new Bankhead-Jones farm tenant act. The first recipient
also was a Guilford County farmer – J. E. Jessup, white tenant residing near Liberty.
The 48-year-old Negro has
been following approved farming methods, FSA officials were advised, and looks forward to happier days on land he owns. He
has 40 years in which to pay his debt, with interest set a 3 per cent.
According to James Donnell Williamson, Nat’s
youngest son, with whom I spoke briefly, the FSA program targeted at least one loan for a black family, Nat applied for it
and, “My Dad came out on top.”
Seven years later, Nat paid off his loan in full.
*John Vachon quote from
John Vachon’s America, edited by Miles Orvell, University of California Press. Used with permission.