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Developing Public Archives - Ernest Lowe Collection


Director Mario Sifuentez spent the last two years working to secure for UC Merced a significant archive of photos by Ernest Lowe, who began reporting on migrant farmworkers in the Central Valley for KPFA radio in 1957. A student of Dorothea Lange, he took up the mantle of her work for the Works Progress Administration and Farm Security Administration. Dorthea Lange gave Lowe a 35 mm Contax and a gift to cover film and expenses and wished him well. While on assignment he began to photograph impoverished communities in the Central Valley that lacked paved roads, running water, electricity, and other essential services. Yet what he found was a cohesive and caring community that looked after one another. His photographs captured the dignity, strength, and perseverance of these communities. Over the years he took photographs, produced radio and TV programs, and documented the farmworker struggle in the valley. His work includes cultivation and harvest work, farmworker communities, farm labor camps, unionization campaigns, and the changing nature of agribusiness, including mechanization. Perhaps the most historically important are the photographs of African American Okies. Between the 1940s and 1960s, some 40,000 African American sharecroppers migrated to California’s Central Valley, taking up residence in labor camps across the valley. Their rural-to-rural journey makes them an exception to the mostly rural-to-urban migration of previous generations. Lowe documented their everyday lives in towns such as Pixley, Dos Palos, and Fairmead. This puts UC Merced at the forefront of archival collections concerning rural African Americans in California. The Chancellor’s Office provided the funding for this and the Library will assist with making the photos accessible through Calisphere.