Fireside July 2020 Newsletter

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

Brief, but Spectacular 

Growing up during the Great Depression, the screenwriter, actor and director Carl Reiner signed up for a drama class sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. He said the WPA, which ran from 1935-43, was instrumental in steering him towards a comedy career. Reiner credited President Franklin D. Roosevelt as one of the people who helped him break into showbiz. The New Deal’s support for the arts launched a thousand careers. Carl Reiner’s spanned a lifetime. He died last month at age 98. We could all use a good laugh. Watch: Brief and Spectacular. (5 minutes)

 

In this Issue:


Tulsa, American Racism and the New Deal

Greenwood Massacre—Greenwood was the preeminent black community in the United States in the 1920s

Greenwood Massacre
Greenwood was the preeminent black community in the United States in the 1920s
Photo Credit: bswise/ Flickr public domain

The place of African Americans and other people of color in the New Deal still haunts the legacy of President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. It is well known that FDR had to compromise with powerful Southern Democrats, especially key Committee Chairs and Senators, to get many of his programs through Congress. Moreover, while the New Deal brought about a dramatic increase in federal power, the reality of American federalism meant that control over the implementation of national programs was often in the hands of state and local officials.

As a result, New Deal programs were often infected and undermined by the prevailing racism of American society at the time–-and even by white officials in the administration. For example, when FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933, it was nominally open to all. Yet, in practice, black men were passed over by many recruiters and “African American Corpsmen faced segregation, discrimination and hostility within the CCC and from nearby white communities,” as Olin Cole, Jr. wrote in The African American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps.  

This was particularly true in the South, where African American Corpsmen in mostly white companies were relegated to cooking and cleaning duties and lived in segregated quarters. In 1935, the national office ordered all companies to be segregated. CCC Director Robert Fechner was a southerner from the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was notoriously unfriendly to blacks; FDR had appointed him to mollify the AFL over complaints that the Corps was undercutting wages. Unfortunately, similar compromises marked other New Deal programs, like public housing, farm supports and labor legislation.

Yet, key New Dealers resisted the prevailing racism and were able to hire millions of black Americans in work relief programs, install hiring quotas for blacks in federal contracts, dramatically increase the number of black federal employees, and provide targeted housing and loan programs for African Americans. It is important to judge the New Deal in historical perspective and against the virulent racism of the time, and black citizens did so by converting en masse from the Republican to Democratic Party by 1940.

We should recall that the high tide of Jim Crow came in the 1920s, as racist and anti-foreign attitudes intensified following World War One. These were commonly backed up by violence from the Ku Klux Klan and white mobs. In recent news we have been offered a shocking reminder of how bad things were with the dramatic example of the Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Black Wall Street Ablaze, 1921—The first bombs ever dropped on American soil fell on the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, OK.

Black Wall Street Ablaze, 1921
The first bombs ever dropped on American soil fell on the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, OK.

Called the Black Wall Street, Greenwood was a very successful African American section of the city.  On May 31, 1921, a mob of whites terrorized Greenwood, burning and looting homes and businesses, injuring and killing its citizens. After 18 hours of destruction, 40 square blocks were destroyed, including the public library, hospital, a dozen churches, doctors’ offices, hotels, restaurants and other businesses and more than 1,000 homes. Most of the district’s 12,000 residents were left homeless. Investigations later put the number of dead above 300.

On June 21, 2020, the New York Times published a recounting of the Greenwood Massacre along with arresting, tragic photographs. They resonate with similar images of the death of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement from Louisville to Minneapolis– and even my community of Georgetown, Texas.

In the midst of this, barely three weeks past the 99th anniversary of the Greenwood massacre, the “Make America Great Again” crowd chose Tulsa for a “campaign rally,” not only mocking the memory of the Greenwood victims but endangering the lives of Tulsans today.

We who celebrate the New Deal must not make the mistake of forgetting the racism of the past. We must advocate for a new New Deal that challenges the racial order of today’s America and develops truly inclusive programs that enhance and strengthen the lives of all our citizens.

Watch: “Tulsa race massacre: The painful past of “Black Wall Street”, USA Today (9 minutes)

Milton Jordan, a Living New Deal National Associate for Texas, writes essays, poems and reviews on cultural, historical, political and social issues. He is a participant in the Texas New Deal Symposium, and with George Cooper edited Conflict and Cooperation: Reflections on the New Deal in Texas, Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2019.

UCSF Development Puts Murals at Risk

Ruth Gottstein, the artist’s daughter—Zakheim’s mural at Coit Tower depicts Ruth wearing a sailor suit.

Ruth Gottstein, the artist’s daughter
Zakheim’s mural at Coit Tower depicts Ruth wearing a sailor suit.

My grandfather, Bernard Zakheim, was a seminal figure in the New Deal art world. He immigrated from Warsaw to New York in 1920, then made his way to San Francisco. 

In the mid-1930s, Bernard coordinated the twenty-five muralists who created frescoes in San Francisco’s landmark Coit Tower. This was the largest of many endeavors sponsored by the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), which later became the Federal Art Project (FAP) that employed struggling artists nationwide during the Great Depression.  

The Coit Tower murals, conceptualized by Zakheim, depict various scenes of life in California. Bernard’s fresco, “The Library,” shows a man removing a book by Karl Marx from a shelf. The mural includes an image of the artist’s daughter—my mother, Ruth, as a 12-year-old, wearing a blue-and-white sailor suit. At 97, she still tells the story of when she stood on Market Street with her father and witnessed striking dock workers in the days leading up to the San Francisco General Strike of 1934. The strike inspired some Coit Tower artists to include themes of labor unrest and economic inequity in the murals they painted there.

In 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissioned Zakheim to paint a series of frescoes at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). The eleven panels in Toland Hall graphically depict the evolution of medicine in California. Among the historical figures are Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a former slave who became a nurse, assisting Dr. John S. Griffin, one of California’s earliest trained physicians, in the treatment of a malaria patient. 

Zackheim Murals—Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a former slave who became a nurse, assists Dr. John S. Griffin in the treatment of a malaria patient.

Zakheim Murals at Toland Hall, UCSF
Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a former slave who became a nurse, assists Dr. John S. Griffin.
Photo Credit: Barbara Bernstein, New Deal Art Registry

The colossal undertaking of these Toland Hall murals may soon be undone as plans proceed to tear down the old hospital to make way for a new facility. The potential destruction of these murals comes amid assaults on other New Deal artworks when there is a change to the public spaces they embellish, or when controversy arises regarding their content. For instance, the threatened destruction of “The Life of Washington,” at George Washington High School by muralist Victor Arnautoff, also a WPA artist at Coit Tower, galvanized San Francisco’s arts community. 

Bernard’s work has been threatened before: with neglect, water damage, political controversy and censorship. As an example, the lower half of a 1930s-era fresco he painted at the Alemany Emergency Hospital and Health Center in San Francisco was painted over in the 1950s. The fresco was saved six decades later when his son, Nathan Zakheim, expertly removed the paint.

Even the Coit Tower murals, a major city attraction, were neglected for years. Legislation approved by the voters saved the murals and upgraded the building. 

From both an artistic and historical perspective, the Toland Hall murals are irreplaceable. Like many New Deal works, they are a window on the past. Importantly, they are remnants of an era when government exalted and funded the arts. Given this most recent threat, another rescue campaign is underway. As a family, we continue to do all we can to ensure the murals’ survival so that future generations can appreciate and learn from them.

Watch: Tour the Toland Hall murals tour with Dr. Chauncey Leake, 1976 (45 minutes)

 

Superstitious Medicine and Rational Medicine

Superstitious Medicine and Rational Medicine
WPA artist Bernard Zakheim studied with Diego Rivera, whose influence can been seen in the Toland Hall murals.
Photo Credit: Barbara Bernstein, New Deal Art Registry

 

Viewing murals at Toland Hall at UCSF, left to right: F. Stanley Durie, Superintendent of UC Hospital, Dr. William E. Carter, Phyllis Wrightson, Joseph Allen, State Director of WPA Federal Art Project, Bernard Zakheim (ca. 1939)

Zakheim Murals
Viewing murals at Toland Hall at UCSF, left to right: F. Stanley Durie, Superintendent of UC Hospital, Dr. William E. Carter, Phyllis Wrightson, Joseph Allen, State Director of WPA Federal Art Project, Bernard Zakheim (ca. 1939)  Source

Zakheim at work, 1937—The artist at Toland Hall, University of California Hospital

Zakheim at work, 1937
The artist at Toland Hall, University of California Hospital
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Adam Gottstein

 

Adam Gottstein is a native San Franciscan and the grandson of renowned artist Bernard Zakheim. He lives in the quiet Sierra Foothills town of Volcano, CA.