Over the full course of the New Deal, 1933-43, Aubrey Williams served as an administrator in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA); helped create and manage the Civil Works Administration (CWA); became deputy administrator of the Works Progress Administration (WPA); and, finally, directed the National Youth Administration (NYA).
Aubrey Willis Williams was born in Springville, Alabama on August 23, 1890 to Charles Williams and Eva Taylor. Shortly after Aubrey’s birth, the family moved to Birmingham, where Charles worked as a blacksmith and carriage builder. The large family (five sons, two daughters) lived in poverty, so Aubrey had to leave school at age ten to work. In his teenage years, he was heavily influenced by two church pastors. One taught him that poverty and sin were closely associated with one another, and therefore poverty should be eliminated; and the other took him along on missions to find and help the outcasts of society .
During World War I, Williams went to France and worked with the YMCA. He then joined the French Foreign Legion as a front line soldier and fought in “some of the bloodiest shock-troop fighting on the Western Front.” When American troops arrived in 1918, Williams joined the Fifth Field Artillery of the First Division, moving quickly up the ranks from private to second lieutenant. Although Williams had left school early, he returned from the war to earn a bachelor degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1920. Shortly thereafter, he became executive director of the Wisconsin Conference of Social Work, an organization trying to prevent crime, poverty, and other social ills – a position he would hold through the 1920s .
When Aubrey Williams was brought aboard at FERA in 1933, he developed a close camaraderie with administrator Harry Hopkins. When Hopkins became head of the WPA, he brought his friend Williams along as deputy administrator. Like Hopkins, Williams was not afraid to speak his mind, could be fiery and combative, and was a vigorous defender of the unemployed. Responding to the insults endured by WPA workers, he shot back: “To fill his bitter cup to overflowing, he has been ridiculed by thoughtless and cruel people as a loafer… But his day is coming… when all the barbs that have been hurled at him bounce back from the good, honest masonry of the things he has built to increase the wealth and happiness of the whole nation” .
Williams highlighted the goals of the NYA with the same vigor: “The urgent need in this crisis is that we shall not throw away or spoil our human resources, and particularly… the young… It is the nation’s most precious asset… We must not let a single spark of that splendid fire go out, in the boredom, hopelessness and actual want that unemployment brings to those who meet it at the threshold of their active lives” . Over the next 8 years the NYA, working with local sponsors, would employ millions of young men & women in both in-school and out-of-school work programs. NYA enrollees improved American infrastructure, planted trees, assisted in scientific research, learned aircraft trades, and much more.
After the New Deal years, Williams was nominated to head the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), but, after tense hearings, his nomination was rejected by the U.S. Senate. He then went on to lead the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF) from 1948 to 1961 . The SCEF’s mission was to end racial segregation. Williams died in early March 1965 at the age of 74. He was survived by his wife, Anita, his four sons, Winston, Morrison, Aubrey, Jr., and Jere, and nine grandchildren .
Sources: (1) John Salmond, A Southern Rebel: The Life and Times of Aubrey Willis Williams, 1890-1965, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, pp. 3-9, 1983. (2) Ibid., pp. 19-26, and “Aubrey Williams Is Dead at 74; Led Youth Administration to ’43,” New York Times, March 5, 1965. (3) “Williams Defends Workers for WPA,” New York Times, May 10, 1937. (4) Aubrey Williams, “A Crisis For Our Youth,” New York Times, January 19, 1936. (5) See note 1, Salmond, pp. 223 and 269. (6) See note 2, New York Times.