WPA, some history
In July, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt started a program to give unemployed writers work. These people were unemployed lawyers, teachers, and librarians. It was the New Deal’s way of giving work to people that were not blue-collar workers.
This turned out to be a collection of stories about the lives of people in need. This project faced heavy skepticism from both ends of the political spectrum. The conservatives said WPA meant “We Poke Along”, while one editorial warned that pencil leaners would be added to the ranks of WPA shovel leaners. Radicals decried the project as hush money designed to preempt pamphlets about the broken capitalist system.
WPA stands for the Works Project Administration and this project came up with 300,000 items and consists of correspondence, memoranda, field reports, notes, drafts, charts, preliminary and corrected drafts of essays, oral testimony, folklore, miscellaneous administrative and miscellaneous other material.
One part of the writings consisted of the Folklore Project that documented traditional statements, expressions, songs, essays, stories, with a tilt toward accounts of frontier and pioneer life. The entire body of material provided the raw content for a broad documentary of both rural and urban life, accounts and traditions of ethnic groups, customs regarding planting, cooking, marriage, death, celebrations, recreation and a wide variety of narratives.
Harry Hopkins was Roosevelt’s chief Civil Works Administration assistant in charge of special and professional programs. He and Jacob Baker had a series of meetings in 1934 and they came up with the idea. As time went along Congress needed a larger defense budget, so the funding for this project ceased. Between 1935 and 1943 the WPA provided almost eight million jobs.
Even though the writers were looked down on by the majority, this jump started the careers of many famous writers, including Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright.
I lived during this time but I knew very little about it. We were aware of how the WPA gave work to laborers but had not known about the program that put it all into writing and recorded it in our history books, novels, movies and even radio shows. Most of this information came from a 2000 issue of the Smithsonian magazine and it caused me to do more research on the Internet.