The Weather Bureau Picture

Page 20 contains a photo showing the inside of the Weather Bureau Headquarters in Washington D.C., which was the office in charge of forecasting once the Hurricane tracked northward past 35°N, as was the practice of the time. It was obtained directly from the NOAA Photo Library. The picture was taken in 1926 but, knowing that in 1938 the office still occupied the same building, and that forecasting practices had not changed much during the previous decade, my educated guess is that the scene would be very similar: suited analysts drawing weather maps. The plots and map analyses, which were based on data phoned-in and wired-in from stations in the field, could then be used by the chief meteorologist to forecast the weather as accurately and as quickly as possible, and to craft the public summaries that were published in newspapers and other outlets. The entire process took hours from data availability to public consumption.
Photo courtesy NOAA Photo Library

Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administraiton
At a recent professional conference, a colleague pointed out that the same or a similar picture that had been repeatedly used by meteorology and history scholars was missing a person: a black man standing on the left side of the scene. My colleague had found this picture within the holdings at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA, 27-G-16-9-22311-C and captioned "1926 USWB map room"). It turns out this photo is not the same as the one I found in the NOAA library, but it is very similar. It is slightly zooned-out, a few of the men have a different body posture (one bending toward his work, as if looking at it more intently, another one not looking at the camera like he is in the NOAA photo). The lighting is also slightly different, but not because it was taken at a different time or on a different day since the men appear to be wearing the same clothes, and one can see that the time on a wall clock is only minutes apart between the two photos (it shows 2:30, presumably in the afternoon, in the NARA photo, and a couple of minutes past 2:30 in the NOAA photo). The NARA vs. NOAA distinction is mostly meant to distinguish between the two, since NARA likely has both photos in its records. The biggest difference is the presence of a suited youngish black man standing to the left of the table and looking straight at the camera (also clearly visible is an empty table with a typewriter and some papers, presumably the space for an administrative assistant). The NOAA picture does not appear to have been cropped to remove the standing man, who is likely an attendant, since it was not until about two decades later that the first African American meteorologist joined the Weather Bureau (more below). 

Without any effort to overanalyze it, the scene transforms from a group of men diligently working on architect-style tables in the NOAA picture, into a group of perhaps middle aged white men performing professional work while a black servant stands by, and with no women in sight. It goes from something similar to what I would have expected to see a decade or two later (why we used it to show the internal workings of the Weather Bureau during the time of the Hurricane), to something that I would have expected to see a decade or two earlier, when the Emancipation Proclamation was still a relatively recent memory. The reality does not change. In fact, the reality of the black community in the year 1900 was likely in many ways similar to what it was in 1940. The Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service), just like many organizations of the time, mostly employed white men, and it wasn't until the men shortage leading to and during World War II when it finally started employing women,* and later, African American war veterans.** The agency, just like the rest of America's institutions, of course has gone a long way since then, continuing to strive to have a diverse workforce that is representative of the general population. The alternative picture does not necessarily provide any new insight into the story of the 1938 Hurricane, but it strongly makes the point that our very limited windows into the past are just a snapshot, that can be at the same time very informative and very misleading.

* Weather Bureau Circular No. 256 (dated June 16, 1941) illustrates the point by talking about the "increasing difficulty [that] will be experienced in securing qualified persons to fill many of the positions…" and urging "appointment officers who have been in the habit of requesting the certification of male elegibles only for certain positions… to explore the possibility of employing women…. [who surveys have demonstrated] can satisfactorily perform almost all kinds of work that men can perform." (as published in the September 1941 issue of the Weather Bureau's Topics and Personnel available in the online document collections of the NOAA Central Library)

** Wallace Reed, who led the Tuskegee weather officers, became the first African American meteorologist in the Weather Bureau sometime after World War II (as reported by the American Meteorological Society's blog The Front Page in a February 2016 entry, with more information about Reed available in a 2006 article in the Air Power History magazine titled Tuskegee (Weather) Airmen: Black Meteorologists in World War II)