Fireside January 2021 Newsletter

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

Sweet Land of Liberty

Marian Anderson, Photo Credit: Public Domain

As a child, singer Marian Anderson (1897-1993) showed remarkable talent, but she was turned away from the Philadelphia Music Academy because she was Black. Her church raised money for her to take private lessons.  In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson, by then a world renowned opera star, to perform at Constitution Hall in segregated Washington, D.C., leading First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the group in protest.  Mrs. Roosevelt arranged for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead. More than 75,000 people gathered to hear Anderson sing. Millions listened on the radio. In 2009, as millions watched around the world, Aretha Franklin performed at the inauguration of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president. She sang “My Country Tis of Thee.”  It was the song Anderson had memorably performed on the National Mall 70 years before.

Watch: “Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial” Newsreel (2 minutes)

In this Issue:


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.

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He's written for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Seattle Magazine.

A New Deal for Birds

Paul Kroegel, the first federal refuge employee.

Paul Kroegel, The First federal Refuge Employee
FDR’s cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, established the first federal bird reservation in 1903 at Pelican Island, Florida. In all, TR named 55 bird reservations and national game preserves—forerunners of the National Wildlife Refuge System established during the New Deal.

When FDR took office in 1933, of the 120 million acres of marsh and wetlands originally found in the US, only 30 million acres remained. The population of waterfowl had reached its lowest point in recorded history—approximately 27 million birds. 

Drought had displaced not only many farmers from their land, but also millions of migratory birds. Wetlands, ponds and prairie potholes—critical to the birds’ breeding, feeding and resting—had dried up. Illegal hunting also took a toll.

FDR, an avid birder since childhood, recognized the crisis and responded by appointing three respected conservationists to a blue-ribbon Committee on Wildlife Restoration. He chose Tom Beck, the influential publisher of Colliers Weekly as chair; along with Aldo Leopold, a professor at University of Wisconsin; and Jay “Ding” Darling, a Hoover Republican and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Des Moines Register famous for lampooning politicians (including FDR), and for his passion for conservation.

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jay “Ding” Darling

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jay “Ding” Darling
Darling was said to know more about ducks and geese than most game wardens.
Photo Credit: Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation

As Douglas Brinkley writes in his book, “Rightful Heritage,” about FDR’s environmentalism, the three men argued fiercely about how the government should go about saving birds. Beck wanted “duck factories” where birds would be hatched in incubators. Leopold argued for restoring a range of habitats. Darling sided with Leopold. Alluding to Governor Huey Long’s pledge to put a chicken in every pot, Darling called for “a duck for every puddle.”

They released the “Beck Report” at a press conference in 1934. It was science based; conserved wetlands; regulated hunting; forbade meatpackers from selling wild game; focused on acquiring and restoring waterfowl habitat; and called upon Congress to appropriate $50 million to buy abandoned farms for a system of National Wildlife Refuges.

Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold
The ecologist and nature writer is best known for his book, “A Sand County Almanac.”
Photo Credit: Library of America

FDR persuaded Darling to head the U.S. Biological Survey (later the Fish & Wildlife Service), but believed that the committee’s recommendations were too ambitious and expensive to win Congressional support.

Darling resurrected the idea of raising funds through a hunting tax. Rather than simply issue a piece of paper as receipt to those paying for a hunting license, FDR, a lifelong stamp collector, hatched the idea of a stamp that would invoke the beauty of the wildlife the tax would be used to protect.

With a funding source assured, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act in 1934. Darling illustrated the first federal Duck Stamp. It was sold at post offices nationwide and cost one dollar. People considered them miniature pieces of art. Nearly 650,000 duck stamps sold within weeks—providing start-up funding for a National Wildlife Refuge System.

The catch was that Congress required that all monies from the Duck Stamp be spent within that year or revert to the WPA. 

J. Clark Salyer, II

J. Clark Salyer, II
Salyer is known as the “father” of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FWS.gov

That year, wildlife biologist John Clark Salyer, whom Darling hired as head of the fledgling Division of Wildlife Refuges, drove 20,000 miles, sleeping in his car, looking for possible refuge sites to buy and restore. With Duck Stamp monies, he managed to secure 323 waterfowl and upland game sites by 1935. Each refuge was created to protect an ecosystem from human destruction and, in some cases, to save individual bird species from extinction.

When Salyer took the job, the nation held 1.5 million acres in refuges. When he retired 27 years later, there were more than 28 million refuge acres. The Beck Report, the Duck Stamp, land acquisition and public awareness campaigns, increased migratory bird numbers from 30 million in 1933 to 100 million by the onset of WWII.

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.