August 2023

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

Rewriting America

 


Henry Alsberg, director of the FWP, testifying before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, 1938. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), begun in 1935, employed more than 10,000 out-of work writers, editors, art critics, researchers and historians. Women made up forty percent of the workforce, including as state directors. It hired now-renowned African American writers. The FWP’s founding director, Henry Alsberg, was a journalist, a Jew and a suspected Communist. A group of conservative business men complained to FDR that the Project was “dominated by Communist sympathizers.” A censor was installed at the FWP’s central office to police for “subversive” material. The chair of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Rep. Martin Dies, claimed that one-third of the FWP’s members were Communists. Alsberg was called to testify, then fired. The FWP was dissolved and nearly erased from the public’s mind. Until now.

 

In this Issue:


Library of Congress Symposium Celebrates the Federal Writers’ Project


Rewriting America, a symposium held at the American Folkways Center on June 16, 2023. Photo by Susan DeMasi.

The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a unique New Deal program begun in 1935, provided jobs to thousands; published scores of books (including the celebrated WPA American Guide series); kickstarted the careers of such legendary authors as Richard Wright and May Swenson; and collected oral histories from immigrants and formerly enslaved people. In June, a symposium at the Library of Congress (LOC), “Rewriting America: Reconsidering the Federal Writers’ Project 80 Years Later,” celebrated the FWP’s legacy and continued influence.

It’s fitting that the symposium took place at the Library of Congress. When the FWP closed down in 1943 many of its documents were deposited there. Eighty years later, the collection, consisting of thousands of archival boxes and digitized materials, continues to be mined by historians, writers, educators, documentarians, and folklorists.


During its 8-year run, the FWP produced 275 books, 700 pamphlets, and 340 “issuances” (articles, leaflets and radio scripts.). Courtesy, NARA.

Hosted by the American Folklife Center, a special collections division in the LOC, the symposium’s agenda centered around the recently published “Rewriting America: New Essays on the Federal Writers’ Project (University of Massachusetts Press, 2022), edited by Sara Rutkowski. Speakers included some of the book’s contributing authors, as well as other researchers and writers in the field of FWP studies and oral history. Guha Shankar, American Folklife Center program specialist, organized the program along with FWP scholars Rutkowski, Deborah Mutnick, David Taylor, Jerry Hirsch, and Benji de la Piedra.          

William Colbert, Age 93. Alabama

William Colbert, Age 93. Alabama
The FWP’s Slave Narrative Collection documented over 2,300 first-person accounts of former slaves across 17 states. Courtesy, LOC.

Presentations centered on the politics and vision of the FWP; contemporary undertakings that are making use of the LOC’s FWP materials, including new readings of the narratives of enslaved African Americans; research into Asian American and Mexican American FWP writers; an upcoming FWP podcast; and a New York City-based multimedia project about Covid-19, inspired by the original FWP.

With the study of oral history so prominent in FWP studies, an internationally renowned oral historian, Alessandro Portelli, gave the keynote address, which “situated the FWP within the trajectory of the field of oral history and its intersection with current public humanities projects,” said LOC’s Shankar.

There was discussion about pending federal legislation introduced by Representative Ted Lieu (D-California), calling for a 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project. As proposed, the revived FWP would be run by the Department of Labor. As with the original FWP, all works created under the program would be archived at the Library of Congress and made widely available to the public.

American Guides poster

American Guides poster
The FWP’s American Guide Series published histories, automobile travel routes, photographs, maps, and descriptions of the diverse cultures and geography of all 48 states, as well as several cities and territories.
Courtesy, Work Projects Administration Poster Collection – Library of Congress.

The American Folklife Center (AFC) is designated the national center for folklife documentation and research. Its archive encompasses millions of items of ethnographic and historical documentation from the U.S. and around the world.

The symposium was hosted by the AFC, with support from by the American Folklore Society, the Oral History Association, and the Professional Staff Congress: City University of New York.  The Living New Deal contributed copies of its Map and Guide to the New Deal in Washington, DC, featuring 500 New Deal sites and a self-guided walking tour of the National Mall.

For more information about the symposium:

“Re-writing America”: AFC Symposium on the Federal Writers’ Project, by Guha Shankar

Research Guide

Susan Rubenstein DeMasi is the author of the 2016 biography, Henry Alsberg: The Driving Force of the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project. She is a visiting scholar in this summer’s National Endowment for the Humanities program, “The New Deal Era’s Federal Writers’ Project,” as well as a contributor to an upcoming book on the literary legacy of the FWP, edited by Sara Rutkowski, for the University of Massachusetts Press. [email protected]

Film Festival to Present New Deal Spirit Award

Old Greenbelt Theater

Old Greenbelt Theater
The theater opened on September 21, 1938, with Little Miss Broadway, a film starring Shirley Temple. Admission was 30 cents for adults and 15 cents for children. Photo Courtesy, Maryland Humanities.

Greenbelt, Maryland will celebrate the 90th anniversary of FDR’s New Deal (1933-1942) at the19th Utopia Film Festival to be held October 20-22 at the city’s historic Old Greenbelt Theatre. This year’s festival will include a presentation of the “New Deal Spirit Award.” The award recognizes independent films that reflect New Deal ideals.

Since 2005, the annual festival has showcased films about community building, cultural diversity, social and economic concerns and environmental issues. Projects eligible for the New Deal Spirit Award fall into three categories: full-length documentary or feature films (no longer than 90 minutes); short documentary or feature films (no longer than 30 minutes); and animation. Festival planners invite filmmakers and animators to submit their work for consideration by August 4, 2023.

Plaque at the Greenbelt Theater

Plaque at the Greenbelt Theater
The theater embodies the community values of safe, healthy, affordable housing for all citizens. Photo by Susan Ives.

The festival takes its name from the “utopian” origins of so-called green towns, planned and built by the federal government to provide affordable housing for families during the Great Depression. The towns, inspired by the garden city theory of urban planning, were ringed by forests and farms and designed to foster healthy living and community solidarity by incorporating walking paths, playgrounds and common areas.

Greenbelt, twelve miles northeast of Washington, DC, was built by WPA workers in 1937. Its residents were screened for their willingness to engage in the community. Greenbelt residents established cooperatives—community-run enterprises. The Greenbelt grocery and the newspaper, originally named “The Greenbelt Cooperator,” remain co-ops to this day.

Rexford Tugwell, the head of the New Deal Resettlement Administration, had envisioned hundreds of green towns. But critics derided them as “utopian.” Tugwell was dubbed “Rex the Red,” by some in Congress for his egalitarian views. Only three green towns were built—Greenbelt, Maryland; Greendale, Wisconsin and Greenhills, Ohio.

Compared with its sister towns, Greenbelt has endured with few alterations.

The town’s center, Old Greenbelt, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997. Today, it’s considered a planning landmark and attracts visitors from around the world.


Chris Haley is the executive director of the volunteer-run Utopian Film Festival.

The Utopia Film Festival is run entirely by volunteers. Chris Haley, the executive director, also is director of the Study of the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland at the Maryland State Archives (and is the nephew of Alex Haley, author of “Roots”). Chris shared his thoughts on the New Deal at 90, the New Deal Spirit Award and the racial segregation in Greenbelt’s past.  

“I think, especially given where we are as a nation right now, this award will remind us of what the New Deal represented—better ways to live if we act together as one community. Granted, the (New Deal’s) initial implementation, highly segregated, didn’t create that reality. However, the ideal is one we should always strive to achieve. The Utopia Film Festival wants to remind and recognize that spirit in film.”

The Utopia Film Festival is a project of the nonprofit Greenbelt Access Television, the festival’s primary sponsor. For information about the New Deal Spirit Award, contact the festival committee: [email protected].

Susan Gervasi is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in the Washington, D.C. area. Her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Washington City Paper, the New York Daily News and numerous other publications. Her films include Defending Utopia: the Greenbelt News Review at 80; Psychedelic Mysticism: The Good Friday Experiment & Beyond; On the Trail of Jack Thorp; and Mary Surratt: Mystery Woman of the Lincoln Assassination.

New Dealish: Brother, Can You Spare—a Quarter?

Many Americans viewed the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s active public life “with mingled admiration and alarm,” according to one reporter at the time. An Atlanta couple sent a telegram to FDR:

“MR. PRESIDENT WOULD YOU PLEASE SUGGEST THAT MRS. ROOSEVELT CONFINE HER DUTIES MORE TO THE WHITE HOUSE.”

Between 1933 and 1937 Mrs. Roosevelt traveled on average 40,000 miles a year; hosted weekly radio shows; held regular press conferences, wrote a monthly magazine column and a daily newspaper column, “My Day,” that reached millions of readers. After FDR’s death, Mrs. Roosevelt had an instrumental role advancing her husband’s long-held vision for a United Nations, then crafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which UN delegates unanimously approved in 1948. She continued to serve the cause of human rights up until she died in 1962 at age 78.

Sixty years on, Mrs. Roosevelt’s image still shines. On June 6, 2023 the U.S. Mint issued a new coin—in honor of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Favorite New Deal Site: H.J. Patterson Hall, University of Maryland, College Park

Tell Us About Your Favorite New Deal Site

Working from “Home”
H.J. Patterson Hall, University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland

H.J. Patterson Hall 

H.J. Patterson Hall 
Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

My office in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology at the University of Maryland is in H.J. Patterson Hall, a Georgian-style, red brick building that offers a panoramic view of the campus. The building, dubbed “HJP,” is named for Harry J. Patterson, an agricultural chemist who served as the University’s president from 1913-1917. Originally the Arts and Sciences Building, the building was constructed in 1934 in a cost-sharing arrangement between the State of Maryland and the federal Public Works Administration (PWA).

Henson and Kermit

Henson and Kermit 
Photo by Edward R. Landa.

Among HJP’s most famous inhabitants was Jim Henson, Class of 1960, who worked in the building’s soil and crops labs and famously went on to create the Muppets. Fittingly, a bronze statue of Jim in conversation with Sesame Street’s beloved frog, Kermit, was installed just across the street from HJP in a memorial garden named for Jim, who died in 1990.

A major renovation in 2014 gave this New Deal building a second life, which means a lot to those of us who work here and consider HJP our home.

 

 
Send us a first-person story of 100 (or so) words describing the site and why you chose it. Submissions will appear in future issues of The Fireside! Be sure to include a photo (with photo credit). Send to [email protected]. Thanks!
 
Edward R. Landa is the Living New Deal National Associate for Maryland & Delaware, and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology at the University of Maryland-College Park.