"There's three of us born right in this room right up here." Veronica Biscoe Reid, 72, pointed to the lighted dormer in a 1940 photograph of a dilapidated farm house near St. Mary's City, Md. "We stayed there but we had hard times. But you know, when I was little, I never thought of myself as being poor. My mother never mentioned the word 'poor' to us. She always taught us to hold our head up, make something out of ourself, do for yourself, don't depend on the next person ... "
Two Christmases ago, Andrea Hammer drove to downtown Washington from her office at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland intending to finish her holiday shopping. Instead, the literature professor detoured to the Library of Congress. There she found a file of old Farm Security Administration photographs depicting rural poverty in St. Mary's County during the early '40s. The black-and-white images of barefoot children in shanty rooms wallpapered with newspaper, and matronly women snapping string beans for canning proved to be the beginnings of a scholarly obsession for Hammer. Her work at the college suddenly took on a stark focus to match that of the old photos. She didn't finish her Christmas shopping until Spring Break.
It was Hammer's fascination with "the poetry of everyday language" that made her determined to scour St. Mary's County for people depicted in photos and their descendants. She wanted to record the stories behind the photographs. Little did she know she had stumbled onto a mother lode of legacy.
Hammer showed the FSA photographs to Elvire Gaskin, a longtime member of the local community. Gaskin studied closely the one of a baby boy in a sack-dress standing in a doorway and said, "That's Bobby Gant. You'll find him at the A&P."
"You know, I can remember this house just as well," Robert Bellarmine Gant said of the photograph of himself at his family's house in St. Inigoes, Md., 47 years earlier. "My uncles and father built that house. Wasn't much to it, but they built it. I remember it was only two rooms. Everybody slept in one room ... And on that side was a couch, kitchen stove, and everything ... We had two beds ... At that time I know there were at least five girls at home and three boys. The boys slept in this bed and the girls slept in the other bed ... "
Hammer spent about 15 hours total interviewing Robert Gant about his life, from memories of a rural childhood in St. Mary's County to his job today as manager of an A&P store frozen-food section. From the moment Gant first thumbed through the FSA prints, he recognized other faces. "It turned out they were all of his family and his relatives and friends," recalls Hammer. "Robert Gant called his cousin, Evelyn Hewlett, and she came over. His sister Betty came over. His wife Dorothy Shubrook Gant got into it."
From a single batch of 30 photos, they recognized Gant's grandmother, three other of his sisters, Dorothy Gant's aunt and cousin, and others they knew as children. They even discovered a photo of Gant's baby sister who died in the 1946 diphtheria epidemic. "What I didn't realize was how all of the families were connected, how tight and rich the tapestry is from photo to photo once you know the connections."
"We lived approximately 2, 2 1/2 miles from the main road; and she'd walk it -- snow, wind, rain," Robert Gant recalled of his mother. "Used to be a couch at the window. I never will forget it ... We lived in the woods, and we could see for about a mile where my mother, anybody who left home, would come down that road. We would always kneel at the window and we would jump up and down. Especially for my mother, 'cause we had a song we used to sing: 'Here come Momma/dee dee dee/with our candy/dee dee dee.' You know, whether she brought candy or not, this was our imaginations."
Hammer confesses that, strictly speaking, "What I'm doing might turn a purist oral historian's hair gray." That's because the written transcripts aren't verbatim. To produce what she calls a "narrative artifact," she collaborates with the interviewee to create from hours of taped monologue an edited version that is true to the story and the storyteller. "One of the things that I fight against," she says, "is ... an increasing tendency to standardize the English language to the extent that regionalisms and the whole history of a people get wrung out of it."
Ironically, the photographs that inspired Hammer's oral odyssey also served to misplace some history. They had been taken in the early 1940s by the Farm Security Administration; their purpose was to publicize the need for the federal agency's existence. "On one hand, the photographs were taken to show the harshness of rural poverty," says Hammer. "On the other, they were taken to show the FSA as an essential weapon against rural poverty ... " As propaganda, the FSA message airbrushed out rich details of the personal and community context. "They don't call up the whole tapestry of rural life that unfolds when you begin to do oral history with the pictures ... "
For instance, the photograph of Sarah Gant, which shows an old woman wearing her many wrinkles as proudly as her neat floral dress and white-cotton apron, identified her as "aged FSA client who was an ex-slave."
But when Robert Gant and Evelyn Hewlett and other of her grandchildren talked about her, the picture was fleshed out. "There are other things that are important to the family," says Hammer. "She owned at one time well over 100 acres of land in the county ... and, gradually, over years, that land has disappeared." At first seeing the photo, another granddaughter screamed out, "Oh, my goodness, that's my sweetheart, my grandmother, I'd know her anywhere. Oh my heavenly Father." And yet another granddaughter recalled where the children ran when they got into trouble: "I used to hide up under them dresses many a day."
"They say we favor one another, and I have her name ... ," said Evelyn Hewlett of her grandmother Sarah Gant. "They say I'm a hard worker like her. She had been a slave in Calvert County ... We used to sit down beside her, and she used to tell us these things. She'd say how people were hungry and the slave owners didn't feed them but a certain amount. Whatever was left over -- the chicken feet, heads -- they had to eat. That's why my grandmother used to water down everything when I used to cook. She'd catch your back turned, and she'd fill what you were cooking up full of water. You couldn't even see what you were cooking. She said, 'That's to make more.' "
What captivates Hammer about the project is its "magical" unfolding. She likens it to the developing of a photographic print: First one thing comes into sight, then another. Besides personal memories, the oral saga weaves together odd bits of folklore exclusive to this community. The local tradition that on New Year's Day, a man had to cross a threshold before anyone else to make the house "good for the year" continues. And fragments of mostly forgotten folk ditties surface: "Possum sittin' in the 'simmon tree/Raccoon on the groun'/Thought I heard that raccoon say/Throw me some 'simmons down."
An exhibition of the photographs, accompanied by the transcripts of oral history they inspired, starts its six-month tour of Maryland in January. Hammer hopes it will mark not the end of her project but the beginning of a more intensive dialogue. "The purpose of the exhibit will be to demystify oral history and raise the question, how can it serve a community and, at a more specific level, serve a family?
"At the time we had to move out -- boy, that was just the worst feeling thing to me," Veronica Reid recalled the day her childhood home was leveled to the foundation. Today, she lives about 1 1/2 miles from the site. "One day I said I goin' down and see how much they have the house torn down. They started up at the top, and I could see all of the whole everything open. I didn't feel so good at all. Because after living down there 28 years, my childhood was there. All of my dreams was there. Even today I never dream of no place else I've lived but right there."