"The Mississippi Negro Farmer," His Mule, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt: Racial Portrayals of Sylvester Harris in the Black and White 1930s

By Hudson, Berkley | Journalism History, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

"The Mississippi Negro Farmer," His Mule, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt: Racial Portrayals of Sylvester Harris in the Black and White 1930s


Hudson, Berkley, Journalism History


In 1934, at the height of the Depression, Mississippi black farmer Sylvester Harris telephoned President Franklin D. Roosevelt and told him that he could not make the mortgage payments on his cotton farm. The president agreed to help stop the foreclosure on his farm, and the story became national news, first appearing in Harris' hometown newspaper and then being sent throughout the country by Associated Press. This article traces how the media constructed Harris as a spunky folk hero, and it analyzes written and visual news coverage, including a photograph, two newsreels, and a cartoon about him. A key aspect of the research considers how the mainstream press, including the New York Times, treated Harris differently from African American newspapers, such as the Chicago Defender.

A year after President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched his campaign to resuscitate the ailing spirit and economy of the United States, a farmer in overalls appeared in an Associated Press photograph at the top the front page of the Columbus (Mississippi) Commentai Dispatch on March 8,1934, under the headline, "He Telephoned the White House." With chickens nearby, he stood by his mule and a weather-beaten farmhouse in northeast Mississippi. The caption said: "Sylvester Harris, negro of Lowndes County, Miss., has plenty to be happy about. Recently he telephoned President Roosevelt in a plea to save his home from mortgage foreclosure, and a few days kter an extension was granted on the mortgage. Here's Sylvester, with his mule, in front of his farmhouse near Columbus, Miss."1

The photograph followed a story in the Commercial Dispatch on February 26.2 On the previous Monday, the story noted, Harris, who was in his early forties, had traveled a dozen miles from his farm into town to telephone Roosevelt, and it took him ninety minutes to reach the president. Two days after the first article, an Associated Press story set off a nationwide chain reaction in the media. The links included newspaper and radio stories,3 photographs distributed by Associated Press and by William Randolph Hearst's International Newsreel,4 editorials,5 at least one editorial cartoon,6 and two newsreel stories sent to movie theaters.7 The host of a national radio show even performed a song about Harris, and so did a blues singer.8 Newsreels were at their peak,9 photographs via photojournalism were coming into their own in newspapers and newsmagazines,10 and the immediacy of radio broadcasts pulsed throughout the national psyche that was being transfigured by Roosevelt's "fireside chats."11

With the president's help, Harris functioned as an authentic, if momentary, folk hero, who was created by the media response to the New Deal and abetted by newspapers needing "human interest" news in bleak times.12 His case as an inspiring folk hero presages how ordinary citizens increasingly would be used in the media and in service of politics, both then and now.13 An African American running as a Democrat for U.S. representative in Illinois engaged Harris as a stump speaker on Chicago's South Side.14 Presidents and political candidates from Roosevelt up to the present, including Jimmy Carter,15 Ronald Reagan,16 Bill Clinton,17 George W Bush,18 and John Kerry,1' used ordinary people-such as farmers, police, firelighters, and soldiers-to humanize campaigns and speeches and to gain favorable coverage.20

Most importantly, however, the news treatment of Harris supplies a "snapshot" that opens a window into African American representation in the 1930s, a neglected area of media history scholarship. In some respects he was represented as "colorless," but sometimes, both in the black press and the white press, he was "raced;" thus, he was referred to as a "Negro" with a capital N, or "negro" with a lowercase n, or "colored," or to use his own quotation, he was a "a nigger way down here in Mississippi."21

With a generally conservative racial viewpoint, the white press created the Harris story. …

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