Black in the Limelight: The New Deal’s Negro Theater Project

The WPA Federal Theatre Negro Unit presents Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. Artist: Anthony Velonis. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

It was April 14,1936 and the nation was mired deep in the Great Depression. But joy could be found that night in Harlem at the Lafayette Theatre. It was the glitzy world premiere of the Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Theatre Unit production of Shakespeare’s MacBeth, directed by the 20-year-old Orson Welles.

Traffic was stopped for blocks. Audiences, abuzz with anticipation, crowded into the theater lobby wearing suits, ties and tipped fedoras; ball gowns, pearls and fur stoles.

 “Voodoo MacBeth,” set at a fictional Caribbean island featuring an all-Black cast. “There was [sic] so many curtain calls that they finally left the curtain open,” Welles would recall. “When the play ended, the audience came up to the stage to congratulate the actors.” The show would be sold out for weeks. It was a smashing success and helped promote Black theatre and Black artists.

Harlem Federal Theatre Project production of MacBeth. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Created in 1935 as part of the New Deal’s economic recovery program, the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project (FTP), was the federal government’s most ambitious effort ever to organize and produce live theatre events. The FTP was not so much meant to provide cultural activities as it was to employ artists, writers, directors, actors and other theater workers.

There were 1,200 FTP production companies across the country, at one point employing some 12,700 people. Nine out of every ten of these workers came from the relief rolls.

Hallie Flanagan, national director of the Federal Theatre Project on CBS Radio for Federal Theater of the Air, 1936. Courtesy, Wikipedia.

The Negro Units, also called the Negro Theatre Project (NTP) had offices in 23 cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Hartford, Boston, Portland (Oregon), Los Angeles, Raleigh, and New Orleans. Hallie Flanagan, the FTP’s director, insisted on observing the WPA’s policy against racial discrimination, providing much-needed employment and apprenticeships to hundreds of black actors, directors, theatre technicians and playwrights.

“Voodoo MacBeth” was the NTP’s most successful production. Many others were also well-received by critics and the public. The NTP performed classics by Shakespeare and Shaw as well as contemporary works, many focused on racial injustice, such as Frank Wilson’s drama Walk Together, Children, about the forced deportation of one hundred African American children from the South to the North to work menial jobs, and Go Down Moses, about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

Federal Theatre poster for George Bernard Shaw’s “Androcles and the Lion,” a production of the Negro Theatre Project. Artist: Richard Halls, Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The NTP also performed Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen’s mystery, The Conjure Man Dies and The Swing Mikado, a jazz version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera.

Though it lasted only four years, the FTP played in some 200 theaters nationwide to 30 million people—many of them never having experienced live theater before.

Congress terminated the FTP in 1939 following a series of hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Subcommittee on Appropriations investigating the FTP’s leftist commentary on social and economic issues.

Propelled during the Great Depression, Black theater is thriving eight decades after “Voodoo MacBeth” opened in New York City. Many organizations nurture the Black performing arts, such as Pittsburgh’s August Wilson African American Cultural Center, Los Angeles’s Ebony Repertory Theatre; Houston’s Ensemble Theatre, National Black Theatre, Penumbra Theatre, Pyramid Theatre Company and Harlem Stage.

WPA Federal Theatre Negro Unit in “Noah,” a human comedy. Artist: Aida McKenzie. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

This year, the Atlanta-based True Colors Theatre Company, plans to host the Next Narrative Monologue Competition, in which high school students perform the works of contemporary Black playwrights. The finalists will appear at the fabled Apollo Theatre in Harlem, just a few blocks from where NTP actors had performed Shakespeare to the delight of audiences and themselves.

Vaccines and Church Bells

Dr. Jonas Salk

Dr. Jonas Salk
Courtesy, Wikipedia Commons.

Church bells rang. Loudspeakers in department stores shared the news. Factories paused production to spread the word to jubilant coworkers. Families huddled in their parlors around their radios for the latest updates. There was glee, relief, resounding joy across the country. It was March 3, 1953, the year Dr. Jonas Salk, a 40-year-old medical researcher, famously announced that he and his team at the University of Pittsburgh had successfully tested a vaccine that would end polio.

The Salk vaccine was readily accepted and celebrated, in part because of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s leadership. Roosevelt had a personal stake in eradicating polio. He had contracted the

FDR is aided exiting a car 1932.

FDR is aided exiting a car 1932
Photos of FDR’s disability from polio are rare. Courtesy, FDR Library, public domain.

disease in 1921 when he was 39 years old and would never walk again without leg braces or assistance. It spurred him to create the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. In 1938, entertainer Eddy Cantor used his radio show to enjoin people to donate a dime in honor of the president’s birthday. The White House received more than two and a half million dimes totaling $268,000. The foundation was later renamed the March of Dimes.

“Roosevelt’s passion for finding a solution—a cure, a vaccine—made polio a priority coming from the very top leader in the country, says Stacey Stewart, current CEO of the March of Dimes. “People across the country felt like they were called to duty. It was a call to action, like the war effort.”

Staged photo of polio patient and nurse. Courtesy, Polio Canada/Ontario March of Dimes.

The Mothers March, the first March of Dimes fundraising event, began in 1950. Armies of volunteers went door-to-door handing out information about polio and the efforts to stop it. Lapel pins were sold for ten cents each; special features were produced by the motion picture studios and radio industry; and nightclubs and cabarets held dances and contributed a portion of the proceeds.

During the 1940s and 50s, according to statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, polio disabled an average of 35,000 people a year in the United States alone, most of them children. Polio peaked in 1952 at 57,879 cases. 3,145 people died. Those that survived the polio virus would oftentimes be crippled for life, forced to use crutches, wheelchairs, or be placed into iron lungs in order to breathe.

Iron lungs in Los Angeles school gym. Courtesy, Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center.

Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh developed the poliomyelitis live vaccine. Leading up to the vaccine’s 1954 release, parents volunteered their offspring in clinical trials, including Salk, who inoculated his is own children as part of the study. By August 1955, some 4 million shots were given. By 1956, cases of polio in the United States had dropped to 5,876, one-tenth of its 1952 peak. The United States has been polio free since 1979. Today, 92.6 percent of children 2-years and younger have been vaccinated for polio.

FDR and March of Dime foundation director Basil O’Connor counting dimes, 1938. Courtesy, March of Dimes.

America is far from free of COVID. Misinformation and resistance to COVID vaccinations persist, putting many at risk. As of this writing, there have been nearly 53 million cases of COVID, and 820,000 related deaths, according to the CDC. 505 million doses of the various COVID vaccines have been dispensed. 204 million people have been fully vaccinated—only about 61.9 percent of the population.

A number leading experts, including former president Trump’s coronavirus testing tsar, Dr. Brett Giroir, have suggested that hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been avoided had there been clearer direction and action taken. More than 400,000 Americans died during Trump’s term. Church bells of a different kind.

Polio Pioneer

Polio Pioneer
The first mass trails of polio vaccine took place in 1954. Ultimately, more than a million elementary school children were enrolled in the trials, the largest public health experiment in history.

Because Franklin D. Roosevelt founded the March of Dimes, a redesign of the dime was chosen to honor him a year after his death. The Roosevelt dime was issued in 1946, on what would have been the president’s 64th birthday.

Dr. Salk received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Canadian biochemist Ian MacLachlan created the innovative delivery system to get Moderna and Pfizer MRNA vaccines into one’s cells. No word on what medal he may receive, if any.

The Crisis of Childcare

Migrant Mother

Migrant Mother
Florence Owens Thompson and her children. Nipomo, California, 1936
Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange, Courtesy LOC Prints & Photographs Division

Two children bury their heads into their mother’s shoulders. The mother is from Oklahoma. Her family is living in a migrant camp in Nipomo, California. She looks out from the canvas tent where lives with her ten children, her hand cradling her haggard face. She is Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1936 photograph, “Migrant Mother.”

“We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something,” Thompson’s daughter, Katherine McIntosh, recalled decades later. “She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate.”

Florence Owens Thompson worked the fields with her children alongside her. She could barely afford food, much less pay someone to care for her young family while she worked.

Childcare has historically been a dilemma for poor and working mothers alike. Believing that mothers should stay home with their children, social reformers pushed for pensions—not childcare. By 1930, nearly every state in the union had some form of mothers’ or widows’ pensions. But strict eligibility requirements and inadequate funding compelled many women to find jobs. With few options for childcare. Children would be left alone or brought along to the workplace, sometimes in hazardous conditions.

WPA Nursery School

WPA Nursery School
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visits a WPA nursery school in Des Moines, Iowa in 1936.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FDR Library

Between 1933 and 1934, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) opened nearly 3,000 Emergency Nursery Schools (ENS), enrolling 64,000 students in 43 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

The History of Childcare in the U.S., describes the New Deal effort: “Unlike the earlier nursery schools, which were largely private, charged fees, and served a middle-class clientele, these free, government-sponsored schools were open to children of all classes. Designed as schools rather than as child care facilities, the ENS were only open for part of the day, and their enrollments were supposedly restricted to the children of the unemployed. They did, however, become a form of de facto child care for parents employed on various WPA work-relief projects,” according to Dr. Sonya Michel.

In 1943, the U.S. Senate passed the first, and thus far only, national childcare program, voting $20 million to provide public care of children whose mothers were employed in the war effort.

Childcare Program

Childcare Program
The Lanham Act, adopted in 1942, was the first and, thus far, the only universal childcare program in the U.S.
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, Courtesy LOC Prints & Photographs Division

In 1965 a bipartisan bill to establish national child-development and day-care centers was passed by both houses of Congress, but was vetoed by President Nixon, who dismissed it as “family weakening.”

A half-century later, there is still is no broad-based federally supported child care.

Though the need persists, childcare is increasingly beyond the means of many families. Under the current policies, most parents must cover the full cost on their own. Costs vary widely but the average cost of a sending a child to a day care center in the U.S. is $10,000 per year.

The federal government considers child care affordable when it is 10 percent or less of a family’s income. Low income and single parent families pay a much larger share of their income for child care and have less access to licensed childcare. Most young children spend time in multiple childcare settings. An estimated 15.7 million children under age 5 are in at least one childcare “arrangement” while their parents are working, at school, or otherwise unavailable to care for them. Currently, only 1.9 million children receive subsidized care through the federal Child Care and Development Fund.

Children at childcare center in New Britain, Connecticut, while their mothers worked in the war industry, 1943
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, Courtesy LOC Prints & Photographs Division

The U.S. trails behind other industrial nations such as France, Sweden, and Denmark, which offer free or subsidized childcare. “Unlike the United States, these countries use child care not as a lever in a harsh mandatory employment policy toward low-income mothers, but as a means of helping parents of all classes reconcile the demands of work and family life,” Dr. Michel point out.

Harry Hopkins, the New Deal’s Federal Relief Administrator, emphasized the need for such assistance. “The education and health programs of nursery schools can aid as nothing else in combating the physical and mental handicaps being imposed upon these young children in the homes of needy and unemployed parents,” Hopkins said.

Story Time

Teacher reading to young children at child care center, New Britain, Connecticut, 1943
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, Courtesy LOC Prints & Photographs Division

The Biden Administration has proposed what could be a New Deal for childcare. The “American Families Plan” includes $200 billion for universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. If fully implemented, it would save the average family $13,000 and provide free or reduced-cost child care for the majority of working families with children under the age of six. The plan would affect about 9.76 million children nationwide.



Making Ends Meat

Soup kitchen
Lining up for free food during the Great Depression.
Photo Credit: National Archives at College Park / Public domain

During the Great Depression soup kitchens opened across America to feed the hungry. People waited in “breadlines” that stretched for blocks. Some eighty years later, Americans are lining up for miles for free food. Food banks are overwhelmed by the demand.

The Great Depression affected nearly 60 million Americans–about half the population. Unemployment reached nearly 25 percent. A half million workers were jobless in Chicago, and nearly a million in New York City, where charities and churches served up some 85,000 daily to those in need.  

Eighty-two percent of farm families were classified as “impoverished.” One who endured the Great Depression in West Virginia recalled when a teacher told an inattentive student to go home and get some food. “I can’t,” the child replied. “It’s my sister’s turn to eat.”

Migrant agricultural worker’s family, 1936

Migrant agricultural worker’s family, 1936
Nipomo, California
Photo Credit: Photo by Dorothy Lange Courtesy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In “the land of plenty,” federal efforts to help those in need were extremely limited. Some families made do growing fruit and vegetables in their backyards. They also canned. They cooked with whatever ingredients were on hand. That might be peanut butter stuffed onions, a dandelion salad or “Hoover Stew,” a concoction of macaroni, canned tomatoes, hot dogs, canned corn and beans. For dessert—for those who could afford the luxury—there was vinegar pie, or mock apple pie—made with crushed Ritz crackers but no apples. There was even water pie.

When the pandemic arrived last year, online searches for Great Depression recipes spiked. (Many can be found on YouTube). Even before the pandemic struck, roughly 37 million people in the U.S. lacked consistent, predictable access to foods required for a healthy lifestyle. That number has risen to 54 million today. Twenty million are kids.

The nonprofit Feeding America reports that its food banks have seen an 83 percent increase in people in need of food assistance since the pandemic began.  

Food insecurity, 2020
Thousands line up at food banks across America.
Photo Credit:

Last year, visits to food banks nationwide increased by more than 50 percent, according to a CNN report.

In response to hunger brought on by the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt called for the formation of the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation. Established in 1933, the New Deal agency directed agricultural commodities from the open market—where prices were depressed by surplus farm products—to needy families.

One distributor described his first delivery of surplus salt pork to a down-and-out community: “Finally I sez it was a present from the government. A lot of ‘em – especially the old folks – broke down and cried. I guess all some of ‘em had to eat is potatoes and beans and bread, and not too much of any of that. Some said they hadn’t tasted meat for months.”

Between 1933 and 1935, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, later renamed the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), sent millions of tons of government food to every state in the nation. Michigan alone received 15 million pounds of pork, butter, potatoes, eggs, lard, breakfast cereal, beans, cheese and other food products.

Eat These Every Day, circa 1942

Eat These Every Day, circa 1942
Federal Art Project, NYC WPA War Services.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

The federal government has stepped up food programs that began with New Deal. FERA today is the Emergency Food Assistance Program, part of the United States Food and Drug Administration (USDA).  It provides the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “food stamps.” In 2019, before the pandemic, 38 million Americans—1 in 9—qualified for SNAP; 42 percent of these were working families unable to make ends meet.

Despite recently expanded government assistance such as extended unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, an estimated 30 million U.S. households face food insecurity. With a battered economy and worsening income inequality, America must do more to keep struggling families fed, housed and healthy…far more than salt pork, bologna casseroles and a plate of hobo beans.

Powerful Music. Woody Guthrie and the Bonneville Power Authority

The Columbia River Songs

The Columbia River Songs
Guthrie wrote 26 songs during in his employment at BPA.Public domain

Woody Guthrie and his guitar sat in the backseat of a Hudson Hornet. Elmer Buehler, who worked for the Bonneville Power Authority (BPA), sat behind the wheel. It was May, 1941 and they were headed north from Portland, Oregon through Eastern Washington along the Columbia River, marveling at not only the stark beauty of the Pacific Northwest, but also at how the government was forever changing the landscape with massive hydro-electric projects—the Bonneville Power Administration in the West, the Tennessee Valley Authority in the East. 

Before he became the legendary folk singer, Guthrie was an itinerant left-wing songwriter looking for work. He was hired by the BPA, created by an act of Congress in 1937 to construct the facilities necessary to transmit electrical power from the Columbia River Basin and market that power to the region’s towns, cities and states.

Guthrie was 28 and the father of three when signed on to write songs about the great public power projects: dams, locks, spillways, irrigation systems, generators. Guthrie’s friend, Alan Lomax, best known for his field recordings of folk music for the Library of Congress, had suggested Guthrie apply for the job.

Farmers Poster

Farmers Poster
The Columbia River dams brought electricity and irrigation to the Northwest.
Photo Credit: The Bureau of Land Reclamation

“He sat there at the administrator’s desk…” Elmer Buehler recounted of Guthrie’s audition…and strummed his guitar…I don’t think he was there a half an hour and Dr. Raver said, ‘You’re hired.’”

They couldn’t get him on the (permanent) payroll, so they hired him for 30 days,” says Gene Tollefson, author of ‘BPA & the Struggle for Power at Cost.’” Guthrie earned a total of $266.66, which worked out to about ten dollars a song.

Guthrie had an explosion of creative output during the month-long assignment, arguably, the most important in his artistic life. He turned out 26 songs. “I pulled my shoes on and walked out of every one of those Pacific Northwest Mountain towns drawing pictures in my mind and listening to poems and songs and words faster to come and dance in my ears than I could ever get them wrote down,” Guthrie would later recall. 

Bonneville Dam under construction, 1939

Bonneville Dam under construction, 1939
Guthrie’s lyrics: “My children won’t run away to town since Bonneville brung the ‘lectric lights around.”

“Roll on Columbia,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done” are but a few of the now iconic songs Guthrie managed to write down during his brief tenure as a federal worker.

New Dealers were adamant that the people would be better served if electricity was produced by the federal government rather than local power utilities. That idea, the BPA held, would be made more palatable to the public through song.

Scale Model of Grand Coulee Dam, 1938

Scale Model of Grand Coulee Dam, 1938
The US Army Corps of Engineers was one of many federal agencies involved in the Columbia River Basin Project.
Photo Credit: University of Idaho Library Special Collections and Archives

Guthrie and Buehler drove along the blue ribbon of the river, stopping at construction sites and migrant camps, Woody writing about the benefits the dams would bring to the Northwest, songs later featured in the movie Columbia River Songs.

It had taken Guthrie but half an hour to get a job, but that job created music still as powerful today as the electricity that churns out of the Columbia River dams. Guthrie drew little distinction between the vast bureaucratic enterprise of harnessing the river’s power and the hardscrabble men and women making good money doing the hard and dangerous work.

Reviewing Greg Vandy’s 2012 book “26 Songs in 30 Days,” music critic Paul de Barros wrote: “Guthrie saw the Grand Coulee project as a Rooseveltian populist endeavor that would not only bring electric power to the people — much as the Tennessee Valley Authority project had — but also irrigate a gigantic “pasture of plenty” east of the Cascades, which could accommodate the Dust Bowl refugees whose plight he and John Steinbeck had brought into public focus.”

In “Grand Coulee Dam” Guthrie sings, “Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year Thirty-three/For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me/He said, ‘Roll on Columbia. You can ramble to the sea/But river while you’re ramblin’ you can do some work for me.”

The dams constructed on the Columbia permanently altered the character of the river.

Breaking Rock on Grand Coulee Dam site, 1938

Breaking Rock on Grand Coulee Dam site, 1938
Workers on the dam inspired Guthrie to write songs like “Jackhammer Blues.”
Photo Credit: University of Idaho Library Special Collections and Archives

Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie, once said of his father’s month-long stint, “He saw himself for the first time as being on the inside of a worthwhile, monumental, world-changing, nature-challenging, huge-beyond-belief thing…It’s rare you get a chance to participate in something you know is bigger than you and your country.”

Buehler drove Guthrie drove back to Portland. Woody Guthrie went on to become one of the most influential folk singers of the 20th century. He wrote more than a thousand songs, including those penned along the Columbia River.

His music is bigger than him, bigger even than this country.

Spillway on the Grand Coulee Dam, 1940. The 11 hydroelectric dams built on the Columbia helped farms and industry, but their construction also permanently altered the river. Photo courtesy: University of Idaho Library Special Collections and Archives
Letter from Woody Guthrie to folklorist Alan Lomax, 1942. Many of Guthrie’s papers reside at the Library Congress. photo courtesy:

The Ghosts Among Us—The WPA Slave Narratives

Old Slave Day Reunion, 1937, Southern Pines, North Carolina

Old Slave Day Reunion, 1937, Southern Pines, North Carolina
According to a local newspaper “…a day set aside for those of the colored race who lived during slavery days. These old timers came from far and near, spent a day in the Municipal Park telling of their experiences and recollections to the thousands that gathered about to see and hear them.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

“Lookee here, Mister, I jes an old colored woman, an I knows my place, an I wisht you wouldn’t walk wid me counta what folks might say.” The old woman saying this, Josephine Anderson, was formerly enslaved. It was October 30, 1937 when Anderson sat with Jules Frost, who was interviewing her in Tampa, Florida, for the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). In her telling of the story, “mister” suddenly vanished. “He was gone; gone, like dat, without makin a sound. Den I know he be a hant.”

The ghosts of slavery still haunt. The Federal Writers’ Project’s Slave Narratives; A Folk History of Slavery in the United States was an enormous effort to collect the untold stories of those formerly enslaved.

The seeds for a collection of these oral histories were first planted in the 1910s and 20s, as scholars began taking note that those who had been enslaved were aging and their stories would die with them. Charles Johnson at Fisk University and John Cade of Southern University were eager to record those stories. Lawrence Reddick, a student of Johnson’s, had suggested a federally funded project through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in 1934. The FERA project was subsequently adopted by the Works Progress Administration. By 1936 the slave narrative interviews were fully underway and continued through 1938.

Zora Neale Hurston interviews Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown for the FWP

Zora Neale Hurston interviews Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown for the FWP
Eatonville, Florida, 1935
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

The Slave Narratives were a simultaneous effort among 17 state FWP branches. In addition to recording oral histories of the last living generation of former slaves, the FWP also documented African-American culture of that era, including songs, games and more. Card games, like “Georgia Skin,” “the most favorite gambling game among the workers of the South,” were described and discussed. Songs, like “I Surrender,” were sung. Josephine Anderson offered up some folk tales about witches: “Some folks reads da Bible backwards to keep witches from ridin em, but dat doan do me no good, cause I kaint read.”

African-American enslavement is a subject often relegated to elective classes rather than woven into the U.S. history curriculum. Black history is American history. American history is Black history, and the FWP recognized that.

Born in Slavery

Orelia Alexia Franks, 1937

Orelia Alexia Franks, 1937
Beaumont, Texas.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s under the WPA. At the conclusion of the Slave Narrative project, a set of edited transcripts was assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. In 2000-2001, the Library digitized the narratives and scanned 500 photographs for this online collection, including many never before publicly available.

Although the New Deal was tainted by racism, the stories of over 2,300 African Americans who had been born into slavery were deliberately preserved for the ages. The oral histories of men and women like Acie Thomas, Fannie McCay, Prophet Kemp, Mamie Riley, The Reverend Squires Jackson, Belle Buntin, Welcome Bees, Kiziah Love and many more, including that of Josephine Anderson, are imperfect. Many of the interviewers were white and they were interviewing Blacks in the Jim Crow South—many of whom were hesitant in speaking about their experiences.

“The compromising circumstances of the color line in 1930s America,” notes Catherine A. Stewart in her book, Living Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project, “made it almost impossible for blacks and whites to speak to one another freely about slavery.”

Elijah Cox, 1937

Elijah Cox, 1937
Texas (town unknown)
Photo Credit: Courtesy LIbrary of Congress

Of course, some interviewers were Black, notably the writer Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston had already published her magnum opus, Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937, when she joined the Florida division of the FWP as a folklorist and contributor. “Well,” she wrote in one essay entitled “Turpentine,” “I put on my shoes and I started. Going up some roads and down some others to see what Negroes did for a living.”

Hurston knew, as do we today, that what Blacks did and do for a living, who they were and are, beyond the horrors of slavery, as the surging Black Lives Matter movement attests. Changes are afoot in classrooms around the country to share more of the Black experience.

Abe Livingston, 1937

Abe Livingston, 1937
Beaumont, Texas
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

The San Francisco School Board, for one, recently passed a resolution to teach the history, culture and contributions of African Americans to every K-12 student by the 2022-23 school year.

There is, as yet, no national curriculum or set of standards for teaching Black history in the United States. Only a handful of states require it, including Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi and New York. Other states, however, are looking to join them. Black history will be in Connecticut’s curriculum in 2022. Colorado has recently mandated that minority groups be included in the teaching of civic government. Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont and other states are working with their school districts to establish curricula, as well.

New Jersey is making moves to mandate Black education. Ebele Azikiwe, a 7th grader at Cherry Hill, New Jersey’s Beck Middle School, recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Black history is history and it’s a history everybody should know.”

The ghosts of Josephine Anderson and many others are still among us—conserved at the U.S. Library of Congress so that we may all learn from them.

A Light Went On: New Deal Rural Electrification Act

Girl in front of family home described as "representative" of the "poorer" houses in the area.

Girl in front of family home described as "representative" of the "poorer" houses in the area.
Union County, Tennessee
Photo Credit: Norris Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940)

The cities were electrified; rural areas were not. A light went on when Nebraska Senator George Norris had an idea: Rural homes across the country should have greater access to electricity. Rural Americans weren’t being given a fair chance, Norris said. They were “growing old prematurely; dying before their time; conscious of the great gap between their lives and the lives of those whom the accident of birth or choice placed in towns and cities.”

Morris needed to have President Franklin D. Roosevelt understand that truth. By 1930, nearly 90 percent of urban homes had electricity; only ten percent of farms did. The high cost of bringing electricity to rural areas left rural residents to languish under the flickering lights of candles, gas lamps, oil lanterns. Electricity would revolutionize their lives.

“Electricity for All”

“Electricity for All”
TVA Pamphlet, Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1934
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Roosevelt heard Morris’s call for change. As part of the New Deal, FDR signed the Rural Electrification Act (REA) on May 20, 1936, providing federal loans for the installation of electrical systems in rural areas. It was three years after Roosevelt had signed the TVA Act, establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority to address the Valley’s need for energy and economic development by creating a public corporation.

The REA established the Rural Electrification Administration, which provided thousands of much-needed jobs. Crews, including teams of electricians, travelled nationwide stringing thousands of miles of wire.

Many believed privately owned power companies were charging too much for power, did not employ fair operating practices, and were subject to abuse by the utility holding companies that owned them. By 1939, 288,000 households had electricity provided by hundreds of rural electric cooperatives. Most of these electric coops received loans from the REA.

Workers on Pole (1938)

Workers on Pole (1938)
Installing electrical wires. San Joaquin Valley, California.
Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange, Courtesy Library of Congress

Just as Norris thought it would, impoverished regions of America became more productive and more prosperous. REA funding and the work of the newly formed cooperatives transformed rural life. In 1942, half of US farms had electricity. By 1950, 87 percent of farms had electrical service. By the mid-50s most all of them did.

The Rural Electrification Administration still exists today as the Rural Utilities Service, under the US Department of Agriculture. Nearly 900 rural electrical coops are still in operation, providing service coast to coast.

New challenges for rural Americans have arisen, however. Many today are living in digital darkness—10 times more likely to lack broadband internet access than their urban counterparts.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a New Deal agency established in 1934, estimates that today a quarter of rural Americans and a third on tribal lands do not have access to broadband internet, defined as download speeds of at least 25 megabytes a second. Fewer than 2 percent of urban dwellers have this same problem. A 2018 analysis by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association noted that 13.4 million people lack adequate high-speed internet service.

“Our lines” Poster

“Our lines” Poster
Rural Electrification Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Photo Credit: Lester Beall, Courtesy Library of Congress

“Light” Poster

“Light” Poster
A farmhouse with light beaming from its windows
Photo Credit: Lester Beall, Courtesy Library of Congress


REA Coop (1942)

REA Coop (1942)
Members of the U.S. Rural Electrification Administration (REA) cooperative in Hayti, Missouri.
Photo Credit: Photographer: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy Library of Congress

As it was in the early 1930s, the issue is cost. Stringing fiber optic cable costs about $20,000 per mile. There are many miles to cover in rural America and not a lot of customers populating those miles. The estimated cost hovers at $40 billion. Federal action is required. President-elect Biden has pledged to spend $20 billion on digital infrastructure.

Senator George Norris would be pleased if the federal government did more on this front. Rural Americans deserve a fair chance. Lacking broadband isn’t just an inconvenience—not being able to watch Netflix or shop Amazon. Studies have proven lack of access to broadband internet is a major hindrance to employment, health, civic engagement and education—particularly in light of COVID and the need for online learning. A better life should only be a mouse click away.

REA Poster

REA Poster
Courtesy National Museum of American History
Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution

Meters (1942)

Meters (1942)
Checking electric meters at the U.S. Rural Electrification Administration (REA) cooperative headquarters in Hayti, Missouri.
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy Library of Congress


A Near-Forgotten Black World’s Fair, Remembered

Official program and guidebook

Official program and guidebook
American Negro Exposition that opened the Chicago Coliseum on July 4, 1940.
Photo Credit: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The official program of the Diamond Jubilee of Negro Progress, which opened at the Chicago Coliseum on July 4, 1940, proudly states, “This is the first real Negro World’s Fair in all history…The Exposition will promote racial understanding and good will; enlighten the world to the contributions of the Negro to civilization and make the Negro conscious of his dramatic progress since emancipation.”

Duke Ellington played during the Bronze America beauty contest. Arctic explorer Matthew Henson was lauded, as was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the man who performed the first successful open-heart surgery. The popular dance team, Pops and Laurie, performed in a production of “Tropics After Dark.” Mechanical Man greeted visitors to the Labor section of the fair. Paul Robeson sang ‘Ol’ Man River’ and poet Langston Hughes co-wrote a musical pageant for the Jubilee. Not to be outdone, choral director J. Westley Jones led a chorus of voices, a thousand strong, under seven large religious murals painted by Aaron Douglas.

Truman Gibson, executive director of the American Negro Exposition

Truman Gibson, executive director of the American Negro Exposition
With replica of Springfield’s Lincoln Monument at the Chicago Coliseum.
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune

The Firestone Rubber Company sponsored an educational exhibit on Liberia, the West African nation founded by freed slaves, then the focus of a Black repatriation movement by the American Colonization Society. The fair’s journalism booth showcased the mastheads of 235 Black newspapers. The greatest collection of Negro art ever assembled was on exhibit, as was the Court of Dioramas—33 dioramas the Exposition’s program extolls as “spectacularly beautiful,” and “historically important… illustrating the Negro’s large and valuable contributions to the progress of America and the world.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened the fair with the press of a button from his Hyde Park, New York home. The fair was the brainchild of James Washington, a Chicago real estate developer. He successfully lobbied the Illinois legislature to appropriate $75,000 for the project. Soon after, Congress matched those funds. Washington hoped the fair would counteract the stereotypes of Black people perpetuated by the 1933 World’s Fair that also took place in Chicago. That fair included a “Darkest Africa” exhibit that offered visitors voyages in canoes “manned by dusky natives.”

Hall of Flags overlooking the American Negro Exposition

Hall of Flags overlooking the American Negro Exposition
The columns in the center surround the Court of Dioramas.
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune Archive

The fair was hoping to draw two million visitors to the mammoth convention hall to celebrate the contributions of Blacks to America since emancipation 75 years previous. The President was honored to participate, and Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly said, “The nation pays a debt of gratitude to the Negroes today.”

The exposition was dominated by booths showcasing the many New Deal programs and accomplishments. There was a booth for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); another for the Federal Works Agency (FWA). “The contribution of the Federal Government to the social and economic progress of the American Negro,” reads the official program, “is the theme of the Exhibit of the Federal Works Agency occupying a commanding space in the Exposition Hall.” The program goes on extolling the virtues of the FWA, citing that the previous year, 300,000 Negro workers were employed on WPA projects and were paid some $15 million in wages.

Mechanical Man

Mechanical Man
A popular exhibit of the U.S. Dept of Labor
Photo Credit: American Negro Exposition Official Program and Guidebook

The Illinois WPA’s Writers’ Program wrote a book on the fair, Cavalcade of the American Negro, published by the Diamond Jubilee Exposition Authority, it highlighted Black history along with the fair’s extensive offerings, including 33 plaster dioramas, which took center stage at Coliseum.

The dioramas depicted contributions of Africans and others of African descent to world events and culture since Black slaves built the Great Sphinx of Giza. Measuring about 4 by 5 feet, and exquisitely detailed, each diorama was populated with sculpted figures of wood or clay. One diorama depicts the Boston Massacre that ended the life of Crispus Attucks, thought to be the first colonist to die in the American Revolution. Another is of enslaved Africans disembarking a ship onto Virginia soil in 1619. There’s one of dancers celebrating Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, dating back to 1865. Another one honors the Black soldiers of World War I.


American Negro Exposition
Photo Credit: Live Auctioneers

African American artist Charles Dawson designed the 33 dioramas and supervised the 120 Black artisans employed to create them. Twenty of the dioramas are housed at Alabama’s Tuskegee University’s Legacy Museum. Conservators with the Alliance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) oversaw the restoration of the dioramas, introducing Black students to the field of art conservation.

Dr. Jontyle Robinson, Curator and Assistant Professor at the Legacy Museum notes that those “who organized the 1940 Negro Exposition in Chicago understood the importance of African Americans to American History.” The dioramas reflect that, and are part of that history themselves.

Restoration. Kiera Hammond works on the diorama of the Boston Massacre death of Crispus Attucks.

Kiera Hammond works on the diorama of the Boston Massacre death of Crispus Attucks.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Winterthur Museum

Other than these twenty dioramas, little else remains of those 1940 Jubilee days. The fate of the13 missing dioramas remains unknown. The Mechanical Man who drew crowds has rusted into oblivion. The remnants of the Chicago Coliseum itself were finally cleared in the early 1990s. Coliseum Park, a dog park across from where the imposing building once stood is the only acknowledgement of the Coliseum in the neighborhood’s history.

When the exposition closed on September 2, 1940, only 250,000 visitors had taken in the exposition, far fewer than the producers had hoped. In the eyes of many, it was deemed a failure. Yet, the first real Negro World’s Fair still resonates 80 years later. As Dr. Robinson says, “All the police brutality, mass incarceration, lynching, health disparities, red lining, Jim Crow laws and economic discrimination cannot disrupt the truth.”

And the truth is, Black Americans contributions continue and continue.

Ticket Stub

Ticket Stub
American Negro Exposition celebrating 75 years of progress and achievement.
Photo Credit: Swan Auction Galleries

Diorama Detail

Diorama Detail
“The Landing of Slaves in Virginia, 1619”
Photo Credit: Julianna Ly


Watch: Preserving Dioramas of African American History  (6:40 minutes) CBS Sunday Morning

Gordon Parks, “Showing America to Itself”

American Gothic, Washington, DC, 1942

American Gothic
Washington, DC, 1942
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, FSA Public Domain

“What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered most under it.” These are the words of photojournalist Gordon Parks (1912-2006). From his work as a New Deal photographer in the 1940s, through the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and into the 70s, 80s and beyond, Parks’ images of Black America made visible the country’s racist legacy and the struggles to overcome it.

Parks was born in 1912 in segregated Fort Scott, Kansas. His parents, tenant farmers, died when Parks was a child. By age 15 he was on his own, scraping by as a singer, piano player, busboy, and waiter. During the Depression, Parks, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, toured as a semi-pro basketball player. Inspired by photographs of migrant workers, Parks bought his first camera and taught himself how to use it. He got work as a fashion photographer and made portraits of society women, while also turning his eye to the social conditions of African Americans living on Chicago’s South Side. It was this work that earned Parks a fellowship and, in 1942, a job with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). He was the only Black photographer on the staff. It was the beginning of a long career that showcased the lives Black Americans.

Gordon Parks, March on Washington, 1963

Gordon Parks
March on Washington, 1963
Photo Credit: Photographer unknown, Courtesy: Gordon Parks Foundation

Mrs Ella Watson, a government charwoman, with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter, july 1942[1]
Gordon Parks Washington, D.C. Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman, with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter, July 1942 gelatin silver print sheet: 18.3 × 23.7 cm (7 3/16 × 9 5/16 in.) mount: 24.1 × 29.2 cm (9 1/2 × 11 1/2 in.) Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.


“I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”

—Gordon Parks

Parks admired FSA photographers like Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein and Jack Delano. Under the FSA’s demanding director, Roy Stryker, Parks began making what he called, “stark photographs [that] accused man himself,” protesting the inequities he observed with keen eyes, nimble fingers, the light of a flashbulb. One of his best known photographs, “American Gothic,” a portrait of domestic worker Ella Watson, reflects Parks’ own encounters with racism in the nation’s segregated capital. Stryker feared that the photograph would so outrage white Congressmen that all the FSA photographers would be fired.

A family says grace before dinner, Anacostia Housing Project, 1942

A family says grace before dinner
Anacostia Housing Project, 1942
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, FSA

“I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the world, including racism, intolerance and poverty,” Parks told The New York Times in 2002.

The same can be said for those documenting America’s current social justice movements, like Yachin Parham in New York City. “A photograph makes the story real. You see the emotion, the love, the shapes, the light,” he says. In Boston, OJ Slaughter is also documenting the civil unrest. “While photography helps tell history, it can also alter history,” he says. Chloe Collyer, who is covering protests in Seattle, observes, “There are photographers in every large city in the country documenting a new global movement for Black lives. And that’s uplifting for me both as a photojournalist and a descendant of enslaved people.”

Says New York photographer Andre D. Wagner, who was inspired by Parks, “In America we want to sweep our history under the rug, but any real art won’t let you.”

With the highest caliber cameras and lowliest smartphones, there are a thousand Gordon Parks showing America to itself.