May 2023

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal


Winning Back a Lost Generation

Educator Dr. Mary Mcleod Bethune and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt worked to establish the NYA. Photo: Martin Gross. Source: University of Central Florida

As the Great Depression deepened and families fell into poverty, many young people left home to fend for themselves. Youth unemployment spiraled to 30 percent. For many, finding work meant quitting school. Some saw few alternatives to joining gangs. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt anguished at the prospect of “losing this generation.” Her advocacy for a National Youth Administration made education, vocational training and a paying job possible for millions of young men and women of all races, along with the opportunity to contribute to their communities and to the U.S. war effort, as well.


In this Issue:

A New Deal for Youth

Mary McLeod Bethune, NYA director of Negro Activities; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and NYA Director Aubrey Willis Williams.

Mary McLeod Bethune, NYA director of Negro Activities; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and NYA Director Aubrey Willis Williams.

Sources disagree over how much First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had to prod her husband to establish the National Youth Administration (NYA). However, there is no question that Mrs. Roosevelt was deeply troubled over the plight of the nation’s youth—that they might become another stranded or lost generation. This fear, moreover, was the impetus for her vigorous role in the initiation, planning and daily operation of the NYA—and her high-profile role in promoting public awareness of its achievements. Significantly, FDR referred to the NYA as “the missus’s organization!”

NYA recruitment poster

NYA recruitment poster
Courtesy, LOC

Established in 1935, the NYA was a leader in gender as well as racial equity: the number of girls served sometimes equaled or exceeded the number of boys! The dynamic educator Mary McLeod Bethune who headed the New Deal’s informal “black cabinet” that advised the administration on racial policies, was named the NYA’s Director of Negro Affairs, responsible for the implementation of the racially progressive policies that both Mrs. Roosevelt and the NYA’s Director Aubrey Williams espoused.

Williams, born and raised in Alabama, deplored the fact that Blacks were not being treated fairly by government projects and was determined to make the NYA an exception. His progressivism (“one of the pinkest of the pink,” according to Representative Hamilton Fish), made Williams—and the NYA—a target among some in Congress that had refused to enact an anti-lynching law.

Girls in NYA war training program, San Augustine, Texas, 1943. 

Girls in NYA war training program, San Augustine, Texas, 1943. 
Photo: John Vachon, Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information photograph collection. Courtesy, LOC

No age group escaped hardship during the Great Depression, but the cohort served by the NYA, young men and women ages 16 to 25, was especially hard hit.  In 1935 when the NYA was inaugurated, an estimated five million of that age group were out of school and unemployed. At the beginning of the New Deal, the Children’s Bureau estimated that 23,000 adolescent hobos traveled the country riding the rails and hitchhiking along highways in search of work. Unemployment among black youth was much higher than that of white youth and Blacks found it extremely difficult to get a job, even in agriculture or domestic and personal service.

The NYA provided work relief to out-of-school, unemployed youth and work-study aid to make it possible for students to remain in high school or attend college. Youth who lacked proper medical care for economic reasons received it through the NYA.  Such student aid programs were widespread and popular.

"Projects for Out-of-School Youth," Inaugural Parade, Washington, D.C., 1937.

"Projects for Out-of-School Youth," Inaugural Parade, Washington, D.C., 1937. 
Credit: Wikipedia

The first NYA work relief projects paid little attention to training possibilities. They provided work experience, but of a general, unskilled nature. NYA youth helped build parks and playgrounds; worked as aides to public authorities; looked after crippled children; assisted state and local traffic departments; and repaired books in local libraries—work that was useful to communities but less so to enrollees.

To aid rural youth who weren’t able to come to work in the morning and return home each night, some live-in projects were developed. In one such residence, girls from neighboring counties worked on a machine sewing project in the afternoon and, having not completed high school, attended classes each morning. By mid-1938, one hundred such centers were in operation, often at abandoned CCC camps or campuses of agricultural colleges.  The NYA partnered with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to help youths who wished to take up farming. The NYA would train them in efficient farming methods and the FSA would lend them money to go into business.

Girls at NYA welding class at Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, Florida, 1943.

Girls at NYA welding class at Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, Florida, 1943.
Young women made up about 43 percent of the National Youth Administration’s total enrollment. Photo: Gordon Parks

From mid-1940 defense began to dominate the NYA. By early 1942, the out-of-school program had been abandoned, construction projects ended and the work study programs terminated. The emphasis became “industrial training,” mainly in machine-shop work, sheet-metal trades, welding, and electrical industries. Employment in the defense industry supplied the vital ingredient of job training often missing in a depressed economy.

One of a handful of New Deal programs that had progressive racial policies, the NYA employed 2.6 million young men and women in its out-of-school work program and more than 2 million in its student work program during its nine-year run.  Growing opposition to the New Deal, Republican victories in the 1942 mid-term election, education officials’ fear that vocational training encroached on their domain and Aubrey Williams’s progressivism contributed to the demise of the NYA.

Men in training at NYA machine shop.

Men in training at NYA machine shop.
Courtesy, Encyclopedia of Alabama

Congress killed the NYA in January 1944 despite its popularity, advancement of racial and gender diversity and exemplary contribution to war production.

Professor Emerita of Social Work and Social Policy at Adelphi University, Trudy Goldberg has written about the feminization of poverty from a cross-national perspective; the history of work and welfare; and the New Deal. She is chair of the National Jobs for All Network. A version of this article first appeared in the organization’s February 2023 newsletter.

Historian Victoria Wolcott Wins New Deal Book Award

Dr. Victoria Wolcott, winner of the 2022 New Deal Book Award.

Dr. Victoria Wolcott
Photo by Yves-Richard Blanc

Victoria W. Wolcott, professor of History at the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences, has been named the winner of the Living New Deal’s annual New Deal Book Award for 2022. Her book, Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement, (University of Chicago Press, 2022), explores the New Deal’s influence on the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. Wolcott has published on a wide range of topics related to civil rights and social and racial justice. Her award-winning book examines how the emergence of experimental interracial communities in mid-20th-century America helped shape the views of civil rights leaders.

Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement, was unanimously chosen among eleven works nominated for this year’s award.  A review committee of New Deal historians, chaired by Eric Rauchway, distinguished professor of History at the University of California, Davis, and author of Why the New Deal Matters, praised Wolcott’s book as “a profound and engaging study of interracial cooperative communities that experimented with new ways of life in the years of the Depression and New Deal. Their vision of new and better ways to live laid the foundations for the postwar Civil Rights movement.”

The Living New Deal launched the annual New Deal Book Award in 2021 to recognize and encourage nonfiction authorship about the New Deal, (1933-1942), an era defined by FDR’s presidency, the Great Depression and the nation’s entry into World War II.  The $1,000 award will be presented to Dr. Wolcott on June 24, 2023 at the Annual Roosevelt Reading Festival, held at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York.

Richard Walker, director of the Living New Deal, expressed appreciation to all the nominees and the review committee. “It is immensely satisfying to see the high-quality scholarship being done on the New Deal, the significance of which still calls out to us ninety years later.”

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

New Dealish: Happy Days Are Here Again

In 1933 Congress passed the Beer and Wine Revenue Act, also known as the Cullen-Harrison Act, allowing the sale and government taxation of alcoholic beverages with no more than 3.2 percent alcohol content, considered too low to be intoxicating. The sale of even low-content alcohol had been prohibited since 1920 under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and the Volstead Act.

Signing the Beer and Wine Revenue Act Beer was part of FDR’s New Deal and was one of his first actions as president. Later that year Congress and the states adopted the 21st Amendment repealing the 18th Amendment and ending Prohibition. Upon signing the legislation, FDR famously remarked, “I think this would be a good time for a beer!” 


Favorite New Deal Site: Beach Chalet

Tell Us About Your Favorite New Deal Site

A View of the Past: The San Francisco Beach Chalet

Mural Detail, by Lucien Labaudt
Courtesy, FoundSF

City officials relocated the popular two-story Beach Chalet from Ocean Beach to the foot of Golden Gate Park in 1925 when storm waves nearly overtook the building. The Spanish Revival-style former bathhouse and snack bar today hosts a 180-degree view of the Pacific, craft beer and an amazement of New Deal artworks. From 1936-1937, WPA artists ornamented the capacious interior. Painter Lucien Labaudt added a colorful 1,500-square-foot fresco mural series depicting life the city along with some the more renowned residents of the day—sculptor Bene Bufano on horseback, labor organizer Harry Bridges pushing a hand cart, Golden Gate Park Superintendent John McLaren resting on a park bench and Labaudt, himself, reading a newspaper at the beach. Woodworker Michael von Meyer carved a braid of octopus legs and mermaids along the banister to the second floor. Primo Caredio’s mosaics adorn the stairwells and grottos. The Beach Chalet fell on hard times and was shuttered for decades but, thanks to persistent preservationists, the building and artworks have been restored and added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1985, the Beach Chalet became City Landmark #179. Today it is favorite destination for locals and tourists alike.
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!

And the Winners are . . .

FDR delivering one of his fireside chats.

The 2023 New Deal Book Award

The winning titles and authors have been announced. The 2023 Award, with a prize of $1,000, will be presented at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library June 22, 2024.