Today in History

Today in History: October 11

Dorothea Lange


Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration Photographer,
in California,
February 1936.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945

I stopped at a gas station to get some gas, and there was a car full of people, a family there at that gas station.... I looked at the license plate on the car, and it was Oklahoma. I got out of the car, and I approached them and asked something about which way they were going… And they said, "We've been blown out." I questioned what they meant, and then they old me about the dust storm. They were the first arrivals that I saw…. All of that day, driving for the next maybe two hundred miles- no, three or four hundred miles, I saw these people. And I couldn't wait. I photographed it…

Dorothea Lange, interview
Richard K. Doud, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, May 22, 1964.

On October 11, 1965, photographer Dorothea Lange died in San Francisco at the age of seventy. Lange is best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange's photographs humanized the tragic consequences of the Great Depression and profoundly influenced the development of documentary photography.

Lange began her career in New York, later migrating to San Francisco in 1918 where she eventually opened a portrait studio. With the onset of the Depression, Lange turned her camera lens from the studio to the street. Her searing studies of homelessness captured the attention of local photographers and led to her employment with the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), and its successor agency, the FSA. From 1935 to 1940, Lange's work for the RA and FSA brought the plight of the poor and forgotten, particularly displaced farm families and migrant workers, to public attention. Her poignant images quickly became icons of the era.

Drought refugees waiting for relief checks
Drought Refugees Waiting for Relief Checks,
Calipatria, California,
Dorothea Lange, photographer,
February 1937.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945

Toward LA
Toward Los Angeles, California,
Dorothea Lange, photographer,
March 1937.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945

In 1941, after she had left the FSA, Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to pursue her own work. She was hired in 1942 by the U.S. War Relocation Authority (WRA) to document the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans to armed camps in the American West. Selections from this controversial series, may be viewed through the Dorothea Lange section of Women Come to the Front—an online exhibition highlighting the work of women journalists, photographers, and broadcasters who documented World War II at home and abroad.

Learn more about Dorothea Lange and the Farm Security Administration:

Eleanor Roosevelt

Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt
[Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, head-and-shoulders portrait],
cJuly 20, 1933.
By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City on October 11, 1884. Orphaned by the time she was ten, the young niece of President Theodore Roosevelt was raised by her grandmother. After attending finishing school in England, she returned to America and became involved in various social service activities as well as teaching at the Rivington Street Settlement House in New York City, initiating lifelong work on behalf of the underprivileged.

In 1905, Roosevelt married her distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Over the next ten years she had six children, one of whom died in infancy. Although her duties as mother and wife took most of her time, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to volunteer for good causes. While her husband served in Washington as assistant secretary of the navy during World War I, she worked with the Red Cross and visited wounded troops in the Naval Hospital. Upon returning to New York City in 1920, Mrs. Roosevelt involved herself more actively with women's organizations, particularly those that dealt with political and labor issues.

In 1921, Franklin Roosevelt contracted poliomyelitis (polio) and was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. In order to maintain her husband's political career and to assert her own personality and interests, Eleanor Roosevelt significantly increased her political involvement. She participated in the League of Women Voters, joined the Women's Trade Union League, and worked for the Women's Division of the New York State Democratic Committee. In addition, she helped found Val-Kill Industries, a non-profit furniture factory in Hyde Park, New York. During this period she began to act as her husband's "eyes and ears" traveling to places and talking to people her husband found difficult to reach.

When Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated as the thirty-second president in 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to serve as a liaison between the president and the people. Beginning in 1936, her daily syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” provided a constant means of communication with the American public.

At times, the First Lady surpassed the president in her commitment to the disadvantaged. She championed anti-lynching laws, for example, but President Roosevelt did not share her enthusiasm. He believed acceding to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) demands for federal anti-lynching laws would endanger congressional support for his New Deal programs. In March 1936, Eleanor wrote a "personal and confidential" letter to NAACP Executive Secretary Walter Francis White expressing dismay that the atrocity of lynching would not be addressed by the Congress or the president:

image of letter
Letter, Eleanor Roosevelt to Walter White,
March 19, 1936.
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years

Before I received your letter today I had been in to the President, talking to him about your letter…I told him that it seemed rather terrible that one could get nothing done…and asked him if there were any possibility of getting even one step taken and he said the difficulty is that it is unconstitutional apparently for the Federal Government to step in in the lynching situation…I will talk to him again about the Van Nuys resolution and will try to talk also to Senator Byrnes and get his point of view. I am deeply troubled about the whole situation as it seems to be a terrible thing to stand by and let it continue. . .

After Franklin Roosevelt's death in 1945, President Harry Truman appointed the former First Lady as a delegate to the United Nations. She chaired the Human Rights Commission during drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

In 1953, Mrs. Roosevelt resigned her position, but maintained involvement with the United Nations and other humanitarian causes. The former First Lady spent most of her later years at Val-Kill Cottage, her home in Hyde Park, New York. Eleanor Roosevelt died on November 7, 1962, in New York City.

Learn more about the Roosevelt family and experiences of other first ladies: