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The Federal Writers' Project

The Federal Writers' Project

The Works Projects Administration (WPA) was established by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 as part of the New Deal attempt to combat the Depression. This included the The Federal Writers Project to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. The project was directed by Henry Alsberg, a former journalist and theatre director. Originally, the purpose of the project was to produce a series of sectional guide books under the name American Guides, focusing on the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States. Over the next couple of years the project was responsible for about a thousand publications, including fifty-one state and territorial guides, thirty city guides, and twenty regional guides. (1)

Writers involved in the project included Richard Wright, Claude McKay, John Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, Studs Terkel, Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, Conrad Aiken, William Attaway, Saul Bellow, Max Bodenheim, John Cheever, Vardis Fisher, Fountain Hughes, Weldon Kees, Kenneth Patchen, May Swenson, Jim Thompson, Frank Yerby, Margaret Walker, Dorothy West and Anzia Yezierska.

William E. Leuchtenburg, the author of The FDR Years: On Roosevelt and His Legacy (1995): "Project workers transcribed chain gang blues songs, recovered folklore that would otherwise have been lost... In Chicago WPA workers translated half a century of foreign language newspapers, a project requiring seventy-seven reels of microfilm... When the magazine Story conducted a contest for the best contribution by a Project employee, the prize was won by an unpublished twenty-nine-year-old who had been working on the essay on the Negro for the Illinois project. With the prize money for his tales, subsequently published as Uncle Tom's Children, Richard Wright gained the time to write his remarkable first novel, Native Son." (2)

The outpouring of literature under the sponsorship of the Federal Writers' Project was "one of the most remarkable phenomena of the era of crisis" wrote the critic Alfred Kazin in his book, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (1942): "Whatever form this literature took... it testified to an extraordinary national self-scrutinizing... Never before did a nation seem so hungry for news of itself." (3)

One of the most impressive projects was the Slave Narrative Collection, a set of interviews which led to slave narratives based on the experiences of former slaves, with the work culminating in over 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. This was organised as a state-level branches of the Federal Writers' Projects in seventeen states, working largely separately from each other. (4)

On 26th May, 1938, the United States House of Representatives authorized the formation of the Special House Committee on Un-American Activities. The first chairman of the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was Martin Dies. The original intention of the HUCA was to investigate both left-wing and right wing political groups. However it was soon clear that his main target was New Deal initiatives such as the Federal Writers' Project. John Parnell Thomas, a member of the HUCA, commented that on the basis of "startling evidence" that the project was "a hotbed for Communists". (5)

Dies pointed out in his book, The Trojan Horse in America (1940): "Stalin could not have done better by his American friends and agents. Relief projects swarmed with Communists - Communists who were not only recipients of needed relief but who were entrusted by New Deal officials with high administrative positions in the projects. In one Federal Writers' Project in New York, one third of the writers were members of the Communist Party. This was proven by their own signatures. Many witnesses have testified that it was necessary for W.P.A. workers to join the Workers Alliance - high-pressure lobby run by the Communist Party - in order to get or retain their jobs.... Several hundred Communists held advisory or administrative positions in the W.P.A. projects." (6)

Works Projects Administration (WPA) was the greatest financial boon which ever came to the Communists in the United States. Stalin could not have done better by his American friends and agents. projects.

Works Projects Administration (WPA) was the greatest financial boon which ever came to the Communists in the United States. projects.

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(1) William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963) page 127

(2) William E. Leuchtenburg, The FDR Years (1995) pages 262-263

(3) Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (1942) pages 378-379

(4) Norman R. Yetman, The Background of the Slave Narrative Collection (1967) pages 534-553

(5) Walter Goodman, The Committee (1964) page 25

(6) Martin Dies, The Trojan Horse in America (1940) page 298

Federal Writers' Project

The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was a federal government project in the United States created to provide jobs for out-of-work writers during the Great Depression. It was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal program. It was one of a group of New Deal arts programs known collectively as Federal Project Number One or Federal One. The FWP employed thousands of people and produced hundreds of publications, including state guides, city guides, local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, and children's books. In addition to writers, the project provided jobs to unemployed librarians, clerks, researchers, editors, and historians.

Legends of America

The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was a United States federal government project to fund written work and support writers during the Great Depression. It was part of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program established on July 27, 1935.

The plight of the unemployed writer, and anyone who could qualify as a writer such as a lawyer, a teacher, or a librarian, during the early years of the Depression, was of concern not only to the Roosevelt Administration but also to writers’ organizations and persons of liberal and academic persuasions. Generally, it was felt that the New Deal could come up with more appropriate work situations for this group other than blue-collar jobs on construction projects.

The outcome was a project for all the “arts,” which was called Federal One. Part of President Roosevelt’s Second New Deal, Federal One was divided into five specialties – writers, historical records, theater, music, and art. Professionals in the field headed each program.

The Federal Writers Project was first operated under journalist and theatrical producer Henry Alsberg and later John D. Newsome, who were charged with employing writers, editors, historians, researchers, art critics, archaeologists, geologists, and cartographers. Some 6,600 individuals were employed by the project compiling local and cultural histories, oral histories, children’s books, and other works.

American guide week, FWP, 1941

The most well-known of these publications were the 48 state guides to America known as the American Guide Series. These books contained detailed histories of each state with descriptions of every city and town and the state’s history and culture, automobile tours of important attractions, and a portfolio of photographs.

In each state, a Writer’s Project staff was formed with editors and field workers. Some offices had as many as 150 people working, a majority of whom were women. Staff also included several well-known authors of the time and helped to launch the literary careers of others.

Though the project produced useful work in the many oral histories collected from residents throughout the United States, it had its critics from the beginning, with many saying the federal government attempted to “democratize American culture.” Though most works were apolitical, this was not always the case, as writers who supported political themes sometimes voiced their positions in their writings. This led some state legislatures to oppose some projects strongly, and in a few states, the American Guide Series books were printed only minimally.

As the Project continued into the late thirties, criticism continued, and several Congressmen were intent on shutting down the enterprise. In October 1939, federal funding for the project ended due to the Administration’s need for a larger defense budget. However, the program was permitted to continue under state sponsorship until 1943.

During its existence, the project included a rich collection of rural and urban folklore, first-person narratives from people coping with the Depression, studies of social customs of various ethnic groups, and over 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery.

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

In documenting the common people, several books emerged from writers on the project, including Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited and John Steinbeck’s enduring classic The Grapes of Wrath.

To see many of the writings of the FWP, go here: Digital Collections, Library of Congress.

The Federal Writers’ Project

The Great Depression left many Americans without jobs and subsequently, without identity. For artists, this was especially serious. In response to this, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) established Federal Project Number One, to help provide public employment for artists who had no recourse to ply their trades.

Within Federal Project Number One, programs were set up to provide work for artists in fields such as art, music, theater, and writing. This month marks the 85 th Anniversary of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). Established on July 27, 1935, the program provided work for thousands of writers and journalists, and produced publications ranging from the American Guide Series, to local histories, and children’s books. FWP’s Director, Henry Alsberg, also wanted to use the program to help create a “self-portrait of America,” and to that end he dedicated large efforts to gathering first-person accounts of historic events, stories, folk-lore, and other significant intangible heritage, known as the “Life History and Folklore Projects.” Many significant authors, poets, and photographers worked for the FWP, including many women and African-Americans, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Studs Terkel, May Swenson, Saul Bellow, and Robert McNeill.

Perhaps the most significant project that resulted from FWP, was the Slave Narrative Collection – a compilation of over 2,300 first person accounts from former slaves, across 17 states. While later criticized as providing a distorted and simplistic view of slavery and life on a plantation, the program is credited with preserving a large volume of personal narratives on the subject, which would have otherwise been lost forever. The collection is housed today in the Library of Congress.

Of all the projects the FWP undertook, the most popular may have been the American Guide Series. Published from 1937-1941, the American Guide Series was a collection of guidebooks for each state and major territory of the country (excluding Hawaii), as well as select regions and cities. They contained the subject’s history, as well as descriptions of its culture, major cities, as well as travel interests such as sightseeing tours and photographs. For many Americans, they were the window into the nation, and provided a gateway to seeing America, either by car, or in their home. They were the most comprehensive account of the United States ever assembled according to author John Steinbeck.

The Federal Writers’ Project, along with its parent, Federal Project Number One, began to fade by 1939, with some projects being cancelled or divested from the federal government. The program, along with the other components of Federal Project Number One, had fallen under accusations of communist activity and sympathy by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Alsberg would be fired and the FWP would shift to state sponsorship, continuing until 1943 as the Writer’s Program.

Over the course of its existence, the FWP published hundreds of major publications, and would employ thousands of Americans during the Great Depression, many of whom would go on to shape the American literary landscape. The programs of Federal Project Number One, and the FWP, also provided Americans at the time, with access to the arts, and delivered much needed inspiration and entertainment, in a decade of volatility.

The legacy of the FWP can still be felt today. Scholars have benefitted from the first person accounts preserved by the FWP and many significant works of literature followed from FWP employees, including Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952).

While far from the most remembered New Deal Program, the Federal Writers’ Project remains a notable part of America’s story.

From our March 2021 issue

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Lewis’s interest in history would ultimately change the course of his life. As he was doing his genealogical research, he went all the way back to the American Revolution, trying to discover whether he had relatives who had been enslaved in the British colonies. He came across the book Black Genealogy, by the historian Charles L. Blockson. There, Lewis encountered the story of a man named Edward “Ned” Hector, a Black soldier who fought in the Revolutionary War, one of thousands of Black people to fight on the side of the Americans. During the Battle of Brandywine, in September 1777, Hector and his regiment were under attack and ordered to abandon their guns and retreat for safety. Hector, however, seized as many abandoned guns as he could, threw them in his wagon, and warded off British soldiers to salvage the only equipment his company had left.

Learning about Hector was transformative for Lewis. He thought this history of Black contributions to the American project should be taught in his children’s classrooms—but not just through books or lectures. The history had to be brought to life. It had to be made real. “So I figured it would be a much better way of getting across to the kids about Hector if I came as Hector,” he said.

His first presentation was in his daughter’s fifth-grade classroom, in a makeshift costume that he still laughs about today. His pants were blue hospital scrubs, with a pair of long white socks pulled over the bottoms of the legs. He wore a yellow linen vest, a souvenir-shop tricornered hat, and a woman’s blouse. “It was very bad, extremely bad,” he said. Still, the teachers and students loved his presentation, and he was asked to come back again. And again. “After a while, one of the teachers said, ‘You got something really good here. Maybe you might want to consider taking this more public, out to other schools and places.’ I thought about that. And I said, ‘You know, that’s not a bad idea.’ ”

About three years later, Lewis decided to leave his full-time job running an electronics-repair shop so he could dedicate more time to his reenactment work, which he had begun getting paid to do. Since then, he’s performed as Ned Hector in classrooms, at memorial sites, and at community festivals and has become a staple of the colonial-reenactment community.

In a video of one performance, he’s dressed in a blue wool jacket—typical of those worn by American soldiers during the Revolutionary War—and a matching tricornered hat with a large red feather. In his hands, the musket he holds is not simply a musket, but an instrument that helps him transport the audience back more than two centuries. It becomes a paddle, rising and falling in front of his chest as he tells the story of Black soldiers helping other American troops cross a river during battle. He places it just below his chin as if it were a microphone amplifying his story, or a light meant to illuminate his face in the darkness.

In another video, Lewis stands in front of a school group. “How would you like to have your families, your loved ones, dying for somebody else’s freedom, only to be forgotten by them?” He pauses and scans the crowd. “If you are an American, you share in African American history, because these people helped you to be free.”

Watching Lewis, I was impressed by how he brought the Revolution to life in ways that my textbooks never had. How he told stories of the role Black people played in the war that I had never heard before. How in school—except for Crispus Attucks’s martyrdom during the Boston Massacre—I don’t think I had ever been made to consider that Black people were part of the American Revolution at all. It reminded me of how so much of Black history is underreported, misrepresented, or simply lost. How so many stories that would give us a fuller picture of America are known by so few Americans.

I n the photograph accompanying the interview of Carter J. Johnson, he stands in front of a wooden cabin in the town of Tatum, Texas. He wears denim overalls and a collared shirt. His head is cocked, his brow furrowed. On the porch behind him is a woman in a patterned dress.

Janice Crawford had never seen a photo of her mother’s father. When she saw this picture, she told me, it was listed under the name Carter J. Jackson, but Crawford couldn’t find a Carter Jackson in the census records for that area. She recognized some of the names he mentioned in his narrative from her genealogical research, and showed the photo to her mother, who immediately recognized her father. Carter J. Jackson was in fact Carter J. Johnson. The interviewer must have made a mistake.

Crawford’s mother was born to two unwed parents. They lived nearby, but the man she called Papa, the man she always thought of as her father, was Carter Johnson. Johnson, a deacon in the local church, and his wife, Sally Gray Johnson (whom Crawford called Big Mama, and who is the woman on the porch in the photo), took her in and raised her as their own. Crawford never knew her grandfather—he died nine years before she was born—but his presence was still in the air as she grew up.

Janice Crawford had never seen a photograph of her grandfather before she came across his narrative in the FWP archive. Through her research, she also got in touch with a descendant of the family that had enslaved hers. (Hannah Price)

Crawford’s mother didn’t have a photograph of her father, and it meant a great deal to Crawford to be able to give her one. “It was very emotional to me,” she said.

She remembers her mother telling her a story, long before she read it in the narrative, about how Johnson and other enslaved people had been forced to walk from Alabama to Texas while guiding their owner’s cattle and horses and a flock of turkeys the entire way. She couldn’t understand how someone could make other people walk so far, for so long.

In the narrative, Johnson says that his mother, a woman named Charlotte from Tennessee, and his father, a man named Charles from Florida, had each been sold to a man named Parson Rogers and that he’d brought them to Alabama, where Johnson was born.

Johnson says that in 1863—the year President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—Rogers brought 42 of his enslaved workers to Texas, where the proclamation was not being enforced. There, they continued to be enslaved by Rogers for four years after the war ended.

What Johnson describes was not uncommon. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation, enslavers throughout the Confederacy continued to hold Black people in bondage for the rest of the war. And even after General Robert E. Lee surrendered, on April 9, 1865, effectively signaling that the Confederacy had lost the war, many enslavers in Texas and other states did not share this news with their human property. In the narratives, formerly enslaved people recount how the end of their bondage did not correspond with military edicts or federal legislation. Rather, emancipation was a long, inconsistent process that delayed the moments when people first tasted freedom.

Johnson’s narrative opens and closes with stories of separation. Near the beginning he says:

Then, toward the end, he speaks about the last time he saw his mother:

“The fact that his mother and several of his siblings were sold away, and he was standing there watching this happen,” Crawford said, her voice cracking. “That’s just—that’s just heartbreaking.”

I asked Crawford about the first line of Johnson’s narrative, a line striking in how direct it is:

“Well, you know, it’s just kind of gut-wrenching, isn’t it?” she said. “It was hell. And that’s the word. When my mother saw that word she just kind of jumped. Because she said she’d never heard him curse. And to her, he wasn’t talking about heaven and hell, in the way that, you know, a preacher or minister might. And it was jarring to her.”

Carter J. Johnson (left) described watching with his siblings as his mother was sold. Later, he took in Janice Crawford’s mother, Emma Lee Johnson (right), and raised her as his own. (Library of Congress courtesy of Janice Crawford)

Crawford’s genealogical research was driven in part by a desire to trace her biological lineage, because her mother had been adopted. But she also began searching for those who had enslaved her family. In the census records, she found a Rogers who matched her grandfather’s description of “Massa Rogers.” Then, in a Texas newspaper, she found an article written by one of Rogers’s descendants that celebrated the family’s local history, despite all that that history included.

“These folks are proud of their heritage,” Crawford told me. “Even though it includes the fact that their people enslaved other people.”

Crawford wrote to the newspaper, which put her in touch with the article’s author. She didn’t say that his family had enslaved hers. She simply said that, based on her research, the two families were “connected.” But she believes he understood. It was a small town, and the names she mentioned should have made the nature of the connection obvious.

I wondered what Crawford had been hoping to get from these exchanges. Did she want an apology? A relationship? Something else?

She told me she’d been looking for information about her family, trying to recover names of ancestors that had never entered the public record. The man promised to send her some documents from his family members but never did. More important, she added, “I was hoping that they’re acknowledging our humanity. And that just like he is interested in and proud of his ancestry, so am I.”

“I would like to say that I’m an observer, and that I can be emotionally detached,” she said, but “it just brings tears to my eyes, how they were treated.” One of the things that left Crawford most unsettled was that the Rogers family back then had claimed to espouse the principles of Christianity. “The people that enslaved my ancestors were ministers, pastors, preachers.”

For Crawford, reading Johnson’s words was the entry point into an entire world of ex-slave narratives. “They really weren’t fed well. They weren’t housed well. They were just required to work from sunup to sundown. They were whipped,” she told me. “It is horrendous. But still, in all, I feel so blessed to have found that document.”

“Because it’s a link to our shared history,” she said. “We existed. We conquered. We overcame.”

L ucy Brown didn’t know her age when she was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project on May 20, 1937, in Durham, North Carolina. She had no birth certificate, no sense of what year she’d come into this world. Brown’s testimony is shorter than many of the others, in part because she was so young—perhaps only 6 or 7—as slavery entered its final days.

“I wuz jist a little thing when de war wuz over,” she said.

The narrative is a mix of small memories she carried with her from her early childhood and memories that had been passed on to her from her mother.

Gregory Freeland, like both Lewis and Crawford, came across the narrative of his great-great-grandmother while researching his family history. He was raised just outside Durham, where he lived with his mother and his great-grandmother—Lucy’s daughter. He found the narrative only after she had died.

When Freeland was a child, his family members would tell stories about their lives, but he wasn’t interested in hearing them. “I was sort of ready to get away from that, that slavery thing,” he told me. “So I never paid attention. It seemed like schoolwork.”

Now he wishes he’d asked his great-grandmother about her life, and her mother’s life. He felt grateful for having stumbled onto this narrative, and for how connected it made him feel to a history that he’d previously taken for granted. “This is the link to the past,” he said.

Freeland was drafted in 1967 to serve in the Vietnam War. He was stationed in Korea when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and according to Freeland, the Army worked to “keep the temperature down” after King’s death so that Black soldiers—who were fighting a war for a country that still didn’t afford them basic rights—wouldn’t get too upset. The strange dissonance of being sent to the other side of the world to fight for a country that had just killed the leader of your people stayed with Freeland long after he came back to the U.S.

The GI Bill paid for him to go to college, and covered most of graduate school, where he studied political science. For the past 30 years, he’s been a professor at California Lutheran University, where he teaches courses on race, politics, and the civil-rights movement—subjects he feels are urgent and necessary for students at this college with a tiny Black population.

He told me he’s “trying to keep this history alive, because it’s getting further and further away.”

The Durham of Freeland’s childhood smelled of tobacco. He remembers the ubiquity of chicken noises, mixed with music from people’s houses as they sang while they cooked or listened to the radio on the porch. His family grew fruits and vegetables in their yard, and Freeland helped kill the chickens and hogs they raised. “I had to go out and wring the chickens’ neck,” he told me. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it happen, but you grab the chicken by the neck and wring it, wring it, wring it until the body pops off. And when the body pops off, it flops around for a while.”

“My students,” he said, “they can’t fathom that life was like that.”

Freeland grew up in the same town where his great-great-grandmother had settled after the Civil War. Known then as Hickstown—named for a white landowner, Hawkins Hicks—the community had begun as an agricultural settlement for the formerly enslaved on the western edge of Durham. Over the course of several decades, it became a self-reliant Black community where the formerly enslaved, their children, and their children’s children all lived together. This history is reflected in Lucy Brown’s narrative:

As nearby Duke University grew, so too did Hickstown, which became known as Crest Street. Residents served as food-service workers, housekeepers, maintenance staff. By the 1970s, the community had more than 200 households, and more than 60 percent of residents worked for the university, according to the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. This included Freeland’s mother, who walked every day from the dirt roads surrounding their home to the paved streets near Duke. And though many of the jobs available did not pay much, it was a tight-knit community of people deeply invested in one another, and in the history of the community their ancestors had built.

Crest Street came under threat in the 1970s with the planned expansion of the East-West Expressway, which would slice directly through the center of this century-old Black community. The residents decided to fight the plan. They hired a team of lawyers and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, citing Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination “under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In 1980, the U.S. Department of Transportation ruled that the highway project could not move forward as proposed, because it would disproportionately affect Black residents.

Representatives from the North Carolina Department of Transportation and members of the Crest Street community began meeting to see if they could come to an agreement. Crest Street residents invited officials to visit their homes, so that they could see what the construction project would have demolished. Ultimately, a compromise was reached in which the residents would all move to an area that was adjacent to their original neighborhood, keeping the community largely intact.

Listening to Freeland tell this story, I thought about how remarkable it was that in this same place where formerly enslaved people had built a community for themselves after generations of bondage, Black people once again had to defend themselves against a government that was attempting to take away a sort of freedom.

For Freeland, stories of towns like Crest Street, and the activists who kept the community together, are just as essential to document as the stories of his formerly enslaved great-great-grandmother. “I’d like to interview people who lived through the segregationist era,” he told me. “And I’d like to interview those people who participated in making change—Black people who are maybe my age, who grew up in this kind of community—before we pass on.”

“Who is going to remember,” he said, “if nobody’s there to tell it?”

“This is the link to the past,” Gregory Freeland says of the FWP narrative from his great-great-grandmother Lucy Brown, who was a young girl when slavery was ending. (Stephanie Mei-Ling)

Freeland is right. There are other stories of the Black experience that should be collected—and soon. Recently, I’ve become convinced of the need for a large-scale effort to document the lives of people who lived through America’s southern apartheid who left the land their families had lived on for generations to make the Great Migration to the North and West who were told they were second-class citizens and then lived to see a person who looked like them ascend to the highest office in the land. Their stories exist in our living rooms, on our front porches, and on the lips of people we know and love. But too many of these stories remain untold, in many cases because no one has asked.

What would a new Federal Writers’ Project look like? How could we take the best of what the narratives of the 1930s did and build on them, while avoiding the project’s mistakes?

When I raised the idea with the historians I interviewed, their voices lit up with energy as they imagined what such a project might look like.

“Historians would definitely need to be in charge,” Stephanie Jones-Rogers told me. Specifically, Black scholars should lead the project. “There’s a way in which to not only center the Black experience, but also to privilege Black intellect, Black brilliance,” she said. “It would be a project like none we’ve ever seen.”

Daina Ramey Berry thought family members should conduct the interviews. “Almost like a StoryCorps on NPR,” she said, “because I think you’re going to get a more authentic story about what life was like.” Berry thought that even well-intentioned strangers might re-create some of the same dynamics in place in the 1930s. She worried about the implications, again, of having federal workers going into older Black folks’ homes and asking them deeply personal questions about what may have been a traumatic time in their lives.

Catherine Stewart believes that there would be important benefits to having such a project led by the federal government: “Funding, first and foremost, at a level other agencies and nonprofit organizations simply don’t have.” She added that the federal government already has the infrastructure this sort of project would require—in places like the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Library of Congress. The government also has the ability to ensure that the public has access to it.

When I began reading the Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave narratives, I thought about my own grandparents. I thought about my grandfather, and how his grandfather had been born into bondage. About my grandmother, and how the grandparents who raised her had been born just after abolition. About how, in the scope of human history, slavery was just a few moments ago. I thought, too, of everything my grandmother and grandfather have seen—born in 1939 Jim Crow Florida and 1930 Jim Crow Mississippi, respectively, and now living through the gravest pandemic in a century and watching their great-grandchildren, my children, grow up over FaceTime.

About a year ago, I decided to interview them. I spoke with them each individually, an audio recorder sitting on the table between us, and listened as they told me stories about their lives that I had never heard. My grandfather and his siblings hid in the back room under a bed while white supremacists rode on horseback through their community to intimidate Black residents. As my grandmother walked to school on the red-dirt roads of northern Florida, white children passing by on school buses would lower their windows and throw food at her and the other Black children. For as much time as I’d spent with them, these were the sorts of stories I hadn’t heard before. The sorts of stories that are not always told in large groups at Thanksgiving while you’re trying to prevent your toddler from throwing mac and cheese across the room.

My children will, in a few decades, be living in a world in which no one who experienced the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will still be alive. What happens to those people’s stories if they are not collected? What happens to our understanding of that history if we have not thoroughly documented it?

Some of this work is already being done—by the Southern Oral History Program and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, for instance—but not on a scale commensurate with what the Federal Writers’ Project did. That requires financial and political investment. It requires an understanding of how important such a project is.

Imagine if the government were to create a new Federal Writers’ Project. One committed to collecting, documenting, and sharing the stories of Black people who lived through Jim Crow, of Japanese Americans who lived through internment, of Holocaust refugees who resettled in America, of veterans who fought in World War II and the Vietnam War. And stories like those of the people in Freeland’s great-great-grandmother’s town, who fought to keep their community together when the state wanted to split it apart. There are millions of people who experienced extraordinary moments in American history, and who won’t be around much longer to tell us about them. Some of these moments are ones we should be proud of, and some should fill us with shame. But we have so much to learn from their stories, and we have a narrowing window of time in which to collect them.

I keep thinking of something Freeland told me, and how his words speak to both the stakes and the possibility of this moment.

“We survived,” he said. “And I’m still around.”

This article appears in the March 2021 print edition with the headline “We Mourn for All We Do Not Know.”

The Federal Writers' Project - History

The writers were always a problem.

-Arthur Goldschmidt, one of the New Deal architects of Federal One, (in an interview with Jerre Mangione, March 1969)

The Federal Writers' Project was conceived of by New Deal administrators as a part of Federal One, the common name for the four WPA arts programs (Mangione 4). In the years leading up to the creation of the FWP, professional organizations had started to petition the federal government for a project of national scope. They demanded something more appropriate to writers' training and interest than the blue-collar opportunities afforded by other WPA employment programs. A coherent plan was finally developed for a program that could offer writers a certain degree of artistic freedom without compromising the position of the government, in whose name the work would appear (Mangione 42).

The idea was for an American guidebook. The most contemporary handbook to the United States was the Baedeker guide, first published in 1893 and revised in 1909, at this point quite outdated and also Anglicized (Mangione 46). The FWP was to produce a "public Baedeker." The official announcement read:

. employment of writers, editors, historians, research workers, art critics, architects, archeologists, map draftsmen, geologists, and other professional workers for the preparation of an American Guide and the accumulation of new research material on matters of local, historical, art and scientific interest in the United States preparation of a complete encyclopedia of government functions and periodical publications in Washington and the preparation of a limited number of special studies in the arts, history, economics, sociology, etc., by qualified writers on relief. (Mangione 47)

The American Guide was expected to be a boon to the business community by stimulating travel, and to encourage pride in local histories and heritages (Katherine Davidson). Henry Alsberg, previously an editorial writer and foreign correspondent, was appointed Director. State directors were sought out. The project commenced on November 1st, 1935.

The Federal Writers’ Project and the Roots of Oral History Practice

David Taylor, author of Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America, examines one of the roots of oral history methodology, the American Life Stories conducted during the New Deal as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. Soul of a People is now available as an audio book.

The Federal Writers’ Project was part of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal work-relief program. Between 1935 and 1939, the WPA arts programs, intended as a short-term support for the unemployed, turned out to be a large cultural experiment that had long-term effects.

It’s safe to say that in 1939 most U.S. historians considered their discipline to be an academic pursuit in the distillation of primary sources and authoritative interpretation. And folklorists then tended to focus on tall tales and legends – not living history from people’s mouths. It may be bolder to say that interviewers for the Federal Writers’ Project, working under national folklore director Benjamin Botkin, took a more contemporary approach to folklore that influenced not just the popular view of oral history (such as StoryCorps) but also shifting the perspective on who gets to write history.

Economic impact was just one aspect of the Project’s impact. In cultural terms, the Writers’ Project provided an unexpected incubator for talent, and gave some of the most talented writers of the 20 th century their first jobs working with words, at a crucial point in their lives: Gwendolyn Brooks, May Swenson, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, John Cheever.

The cultural impact included, as Ellison told an audience at the New York Public Library three decades later, entire communities and groups feeling seen and heard for the first time.

Excerpt from Ralph Ellison remarks

Reading the best of the WPA life histories evokes for me Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire, where two angels in overcoats wander through the subway, listening to the unspoken fears and dreams of everyday people. WPA interviewers were often the first people to ask everyday Americans for their stories, in a time when widespread fear and shame had closed off such conversations.

When I started researching the Writers’ Project 20 years ago, I got to speak with several of its surviving members including Studs Terkel, who championed people’s voices in many forms – from his radio interviews to his books, which he called “oral histories.” Even a musical of Working. He was generous with his time, and his suggestions led me to others, and to write a book about their intersecting lives in that time of crisis.

One person Studs suggested was author Ann Banks, whose excellent book First-Person America contains selections from many life histories gathered by WPA writers. She was the first to rediscover that collection in the Library of Congress and consider its legacy.

The Writers’ Project had a main goal of producing state guidebooks but to have those guidebooks informed by local perspectives, director Henry Alsberg added interviews with everyday citizens. His first folklore director, John Lomax, was succeeded by Benjamin Botkin, a practicing folklorist who set guidelines for the life history program.

As Barbara Sommer observed in her OHR review of Soul of a People, the WPA interviews, modeled on 1930s folklore guidelines, do not uphold the contextualized and open-ended standards for oral history accepted later. Since the WPA interviews came before formal oral history research methods emerged, oral historians would not technically consider them oral histories. But as Sommer notes, those interviews “helped pave the way for a broader and more nuanced understanding of U.S. history. In this, they represent another long-term legacy.”

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the best known WPA interviewers, having published several novels and books of anthropology. Despite the racism she faced, she managed to infuse her understanding of folklore and African-American culture in WPA products. Near the end of her eighteen months with the agency, she sent a proposal for a recording tour to Botkin, with a plan for traveling Florida’s Gulf coast with state-of-the-art equipment (a massive turntable) borrowed from the Library of Congress. She would record vanishing cultural traditions and songs she’d heard in her research.

The Florida recordings of songs and stories from turpentine workers include a man named James Griffin, who told the backstory of his song “Worked All Summer Long.” He was jailed for 90 days at hard labor in the Dixie County Prison Camp to pay three months’ rent to the lumber company, a total of $50. The song came to him while he was in jail, Griffin said. He and other inmates would take it up in the evening. “We’d be singing,” he said. “It helps.” He sang:

Oh my dear mother,
She prayed this prayer for me
My dear mother,
She prayed this prayer for me.
She said, “Lord, have mercy on my son,
Wheresoever he may be.

Diverging from Botkin’s model, W.T. Couch, the Writers’ Project regional director for the Southeast, assembled an anthology of WPA life histories from three states titled These Are Our Lives. When These Are Our Lives first appeared, the New York Times called it “history of a new and peculiarly honest kind” and “an eloquent and important record.”

A few years ago the Library of Congress marked the 75th anniversary of that book’s publication with presentations and two actors performing select interviews, representing the Theatre Lab, a nonprofit in DC with a Life Stories program that echoes the WPA approach to interviews.

“Botkin, like many intellectuals of his generation, was worried about the rise of fascism in Europe,” Ann Banks noted at that event, “and about possible consequences at home. His vision was how he might use his new job to counter that influence and foster the tolerance necessary for a democratic, pluralistic society.” He wanted the interviewers to reach citizens “who otherwise might not have left a record – more than 10,000 men and women, from an Irish maid in Massachusetts to a North Carolina textile worker, to a Scandinavian ironworker and an African-American union organizer in a Chicago meatpacking house.

“We must give back to the people what we have taken from them and what rightfully belongs to them,” Botkin wrote, “in a form they can understand and use.”

With the collection accessible on the Library of Congress website, we’ve come closer to that goal.

David A. Taylor is the author of Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America (Turner Publishing), now available as an audiobook. He teaches science writing at Johns Hopkins University.

What Was the WPA?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the WPA with an executive order on May 6, 1935. It was part of his New Deal plan to lift the country out of the Great Depression by reforming the financial system and restoring the economy to pre-Depression levels.

The unemployment rate in 1935 was at a staggering 20 percent. The WPA was designed to provide relief for the unemployed by providing jobs and income for millions of Americans. At its height in late 1938, more than 3.3 million Americans worked for the WPA.

The WPA – which in 1939 was renamed the Work Projects Administration – employed mostly unskilled men to carry out public works infrastructure projects. They built more than 4,000 new school buildings, erected 130 new hospitals, laid roughly 9,000 miles of storm drains and sanitary sewer lines, built 29,000 new bridges, constructed 150 new airfields, paved or repaired 280,000 miles of roads and planted 24 million trees.

As weapons production for World War II began ramping up and unemployment dropped, the federal government decided a national relief program was no longer needed. The WPA shut down in June of 1943. At that time, unemployment was less than two percent. Many Americans had transitioned to work in the armed services and defense industries.

WPA Federal Writers' Project, 1935–1943

At the height of the Great Depression, nearly one in four Americans was unemployed. Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the federal government created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to employ millions of jobless Americans. The WPA hired men and women to do white collar work like writing, as well as manual labor and construction. In Minnesota, the WPA's Federal Writers' Project was marked by controversy and tension with the federal government, but it created state guidebooks and ethnic histories that are still read widely today.

In 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed and took the world economy with it. Unemployment rose, and in 1932, voters elected Roosevelt to replace Herbert Hoover. Roosevelt immediately passed legislation and issued executive orders to provide jobs for the unemployed, restore faith in American banks, and promote economic recovery. Together, these policies and agencies were known as the New Deal.

The WPA was a New Deal program. It was created in 1935 to employ people who were able to work and to provide important community services. The WPA was not poor relief - it was not for the aged, disabled, or unemployable. Instead, it employed Americans for construction projects as well as educational, library, art, and health projects.

The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was the part of the WPA that hired unemployed writers. Together with the Federal Music Project, Federal Theatre Project, and Historical Records Survey, the FWP formed "Federal One." Unlike most New Deal employment programs, which hired manual laborers, Federal One hired cultural workers.

The FWP hired writers at the state level. In Minnesota, a physician and former bookstore owner named Mabel Ulrich was hired to head the state project. She was told to hire 250 writers. The number was reduced to 120 after Ulrich had trouble finding qualified writers.

The FWP's main accomplishment was a series of state guidebooks known as the American Guide series. Ulrich oversaw the Minnesota guidebook, but she often fought with the federal editors. They wanted a guide with a more romantic focus on Minnesota folk culture. Ulrich resisted their direction, because she did not believe Minnesota had a distinctive regional culture.

In 1937, Ulrich and the head of the WPA in Minnesota, Victor Christgau, resigned in separate incidents. Christgau was pushed out by Governor Elmer Benson, for what Ulrich said were political reasons. Ulrich resigned from the writing project after writers organized and threatened to strike.

Some writers hired by the FWP were grateful to be employed, but others felt exploited or embarrassed by the mundane work and low wages. Many WPA workers around the nation joined unions, and WPA writers and artists in particular had a reputation for being "reds" (Communists) or "parlor pinks" (radicals rumored to be effeminate or homosexual). Although Minnesota writers were members of the Workers' Alliance union and threatened to strike, they never did.

Minnesota: A State Guide - now known as the WPA Guide to Minnesota - was published in 1938. Based on research and writing from the WPA writers, the guide begins with essays about Minnesota's history and culture. The rest of the book consists of auto and city tours that highlight important places across the state.

Writers continued FWP work until 1943, but only a few of their projects were published. The most notable Minnesota publications besides the main guidebook are The Minnesota Arrowhead Country and Bohemian Flats. Bohemian Flats was an in-depth ethnic study of an immigrant community that had lived near St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.

At one point, the WPA employed nearly one in four Americans. But by the 1940s, it was no longer needed. Although the WPA was ended in 1943, several Minnesota writers used their WPA experience to further their writing careers. Frances Densmore was a WPA writer, and she published most of her work on Ojibwe and Dakota cultures after that experience. Activist Meridel Le Sueur was employed by the WPA as a teacher, and she went on to write numerous books, including The Girl, which was based on research she did for the WPA.

Watch the video: Know 1930s: The Federal Writers Project (January 2022).