Forging an Environmentally Just Civilian Climate Corps


FDR with CCC recruits near Camp Roosevelt, Virginia, 1933. Courtesy, National Archives.

When President Biden signed Executive Order 14008 on January 27, 2021, he called for the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps based on the New Deal’s original Civilian Conservation Corps. The new program would put unemployed Americans to work conserving natural resources, much like its 1930s predecessor, but also undertake projects aimed at the most urgent environmental problem of our generation—climate change.

The announcement for the proposed Climate Corps was only one paragraph long. To ensure a popular and productive program, the Biden administration must provide more details and build on the original CCC’s successes while avoiding its pitfalls.

During its nine-year existence, from 1933 to 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps succeeded on the economic and environmental fronts. Financially, it gave jobs to more than 3 million unemployed young men who earned about $700 million (the equivalent of more than $10.5 billion today). The Corps was also successful in its conservation efforts, planting more than 2 billion trees, slowing soil erosion on 40 million acres of farmland, creating 800 new state parks and developing dozens of national parks across the country.

CCC Uniform Patch

CCC Uniform Patch
The CCC hired 2.5 million young men during its nine year existence. The camps were often racially segregated. Courtesy, National Archives.

Yet, there were also significant missteps. The original Corps excluded women and older men, assigned African American enrollees to segregated camps, and placed Native Americans into a separate program. The program stumbled environmentally as well by undertaking some ecologically destructive projects, such as draining swamps for mosquito control and introducing invasive species to conserve soil. There also were problems on the economic front. The great majority of CCC projects, such as soil work on agricultural lands and the development of parks for recreational tourism, benefited mostly white rural communities.

President Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps must acknowledge and improve on this complicated history. First and foremost, the new program must be more inclusive and accept enrollees regardless of gender, age, skin color and marital status. A new CCC must also diversify geographically, locating projects more equitably throughout the country to ensure that urban and suburban communities can benefit. Finally, a new Climate Corps must be guided by scientific experts to avoid the ecological blunders of the original program.

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CCC Fighting Fires in Willamette National Forest, Oregon. Courtesy, Oregon History Project.

An updated Climate Corps must also expand its efforts to tackle a host of environmental justice problems, many in urban neighborhoods. Working with local communities to remediate toxic waste sites, mitigate pollution and develop urban outdoor recreational spaces and community gardens are but a few examples.

Most importantly, a new CCC must focus on the most pressing environmental problem of our age: climate change. Enrollees should help develop green energy systems—from solar panel installations to wind farms—and build climate-resilient infrastructure by restoring wetlands and constructing green stormwater management systems. All of this work would train those in the program for jobs in the emerging green energy sector.

Such a new and improved CCC would be hugely popular. According to polling from Data for Progress and The Justice Collaborative Institute, 79 percent of likely voters—including 80 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans—support reviving the Corps.

Planting trees in Illinois

Planting trees in Illinois
CCC enrollees planted an estimated three billion trees from 1933 to 1942. Courtesy, Cook County Historical Society.

The history of the original CCC illustrates that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was already green.  To succeed, today’s Green New Deal initiatives—including President Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps—must also be environmentally and socially equitable.

Digging the New Deal

Lost City Museum, Nevada

Lost City Museum, Nevada
Built by the CCC, the museum houses artifacts from ancient sites flooded by Hoover Dam. Courtesy, Lostcitymuseum.org.

The Living New Deal is like an archaeological dig into a lost civilization. Within just a decade, the Roosevelt Administration catapulted the profession of archaeology into the future, while leaving a trove of artifacts and field notes that researchers continue to mine eighty years on.

Archaeologists today still study what their predecessors of that period did. Excavating sites in the path of a new highway in southwestern Pennsylvania in the early 1990s, Dr. Bernard Means’ researched documents and photographs he discovered in dusty cigar boxes in the State Museum that, he later said, “was like opening a whole new world” to him. That led Means to revive a now-robust professional group within the Society for American Archaeology to study New Deal archaeology, as well as to produce numerous articles, a book of essays titled Shovel Ready: Archeology and Roosevelt’s New Deal for America and an invaluable website on the legacy of Depression-era federal relief archeology.

Excavation near Boulder Dam, 1937

Excavation near Boulder Dam, 1937
Many of the Federal agencies supported New Deal archeology, including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Civil Works Administration (CWA), Public Works Administration (PWA), National Youth Administration (NYA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Courtesy, Lostcitymuseum.org.

In the process of mapping archaeological digs, Means and his associates discovered that all of the many New Deal work relief agencies (CWA, WPA, FERA, CCC, NYA, TVA) conducted projects in at least three quarters of the then-48 states, employing in the process thousands of professionals, while training others to perform this exacting work.

“New Deal archaeology … radically transformed our understanding of America’s past” he wrote, and “led to the professionalization of archaeology [while generating] tremendous collections from significant sites that have enduring value to researchers. New Deal archaeology also represents the one time in history when ordinary American citizens were themselves closely integrated into the efforts to uncover the nation’s heritage.”

A WPA crew excavates a prehistoric mound in Montgomery, Kentucky, 1938.

A WPA crew excavates a prehistoric mound in Montgomery, Kentucky, 1938
Crews collected more than 3000 Native American artifacts, but such excavations often destroyed these sacred cultural places. Courtesy, 30daysofKentuckyarcheology.wordpress.com.

Among the innumerable project sites was the elaborate Irene Mounds, five miles from downtown Savannah. Before a WPA-built airport leveled the mounds, a meticulous investigation was carried out by a WPA crew consisting largely of African-American women directed by archaeologist Joseph R. Caldwell. It is the best documented such site in Georgia.

In Kentucky, similar salvage archaeology preceded the flooding of valleys by dams built by the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority. Diligent workers trained on the job could work up the ranks from “shovel men” to crew supervisors. Some no doubt went on to careers in archaeology and associated fields as many CCC boys did into forestry and soil conservation. The University of Kentucky’s WPA records remain its most requested research materials.

Map of U.S. showing New Deal archaeology projects

Map of U.S. showing New Deal archaeology projects
Counties having projects are highlighted. States shown in gray have no known New Deal archaeology surveys or excavations. Courtesy, Newdealarcheology.com.

The bounty of information about America’s past benefited more than professionals alone.

The Civilian Conservation Corps built a archeological  museum in Overtown, Nevada, to house artifacts recovered from local prehistoric sites, most of which were flooded when the Colorado River was dammed to form Lake Mead. On the National Register of Historic Places, the “Lost City Museum is itself a New Deal artifact. Its collection of Native American antiquities is open to the public.

Work: A Journal of Progress

Work: A Journal of Progress
The January, 1937 issue of the WPA journal features archaeological investigations. Courtesy, newdealarcheology.com.

The American Guides Series produced by the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project, according to Dr. Gloria Everson, professor of archeology, “provided the general  public with a window into the archaeological heritage of each state — and in many cases, even gave them driving instructions.”  

That we have such a window onto a past otherwise lost to us is not only thanks to those like Caldwell, whose names we know, but to those largely forgotten men and women whom the New Deal digs saved from destitution and despair and on whose shoulders we unwittingly stand today.

 

VIEW HISTORICAL FILM FOOTAGE OF WPA ARCHEOLOGICAL DIG

How a New CCC Could Help Meet the Climate Crisis

Hitchhiker
CCC recruit hitchhiking back to camp, San Fernando Valley, California, 1940.
Photo Credit: Rondal Patridge. Courtesy, National Archives.

In the spring of 1933, a newly inaugurated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was facing a confluence of environmental and economic crises. The Ohio and Mississippi River basins were flooding. The Great Plains were choked with dust. More than a quarter of Americans were out of a job. 

Roosevelt’s response to these colliding forces was to create a Civilian Conservation Corps that put young men (and only men) to work preserving soil, building trails and roads, and fighting fires. “In creating this Civilian Conservation Corps, we are killing two birds with one stone,” Roosevelt said during a fireside chat in May 1933. “We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources and, second, we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress.”

The American landscape we’re living in today is, in many ways, similar to the one Roosevelt inherited. The lockdowns imposed to stem the spread of COVID-19 have sparked the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. Heavy rains flooded the Midwest this spring, and an above-average hurricane season could do the same to the East Coast soon. Most of the West is in a historic drought, and large sections of the region are on fire


CCC crew in New Mexico laying pipe to bring irrigation and drinking water to Santa Clara Pueblo lands, 1940. Courtesy, National Archives.

It’s against this backdrop that President Joe Biden has proposed revitalizing the New Deal–era program. A single sentence in Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for mobilizing an army of workers to conserve nature and combat the climate crisis: “This $10 billion investment will put a new, diverse generation of Americans to work conserving our public lands and waters, bolstering community resilience, and advancing environmental justice through a new Civilian Climate Corps, all while placing good-paying union jobs within reach for more Americans.”

Now, some legislators are trying to make that vision a reality. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, both Democrats, introduced a new bill that fills in some of the details of Biden’s ambitious idea. Dubbed the Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act, it would put 1.5 million Americans to work building climate-resilient infrastructure, reducing carbon emissions through renewable energy and conservation projects and helping communities recover from climate disasters. It would grant corps members many of the provisions on Democrats’ “social infrastructure” wish list, including a $15 an hour salary, full health care and childcare services. Corps members would also receive training and education to help them transition into union jobs. 

California Conservation Corps, 2021.

California Conservation Corps, 2021
The CCC Magalia 4 fire crew hikes to the fire line of the Dixie Fire in Plumas County, California. Courtesy, California CCC.

“It is now this generation’s turn to answer the call and meet the historic challenges of our time,” says Markey. “We don’t have time for incrementalism. We don’t have time for Herbert Hoover–type complacency. This moment demands big, bold, progressive change. This is our FDR moment.” 

Much of the environmental community has hailed the idea. Michael Brune, Sierra Club’s executive director, called it “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create good jobs for every young person who wants one and to help ensure their safety in a climate-changed world.” 

A modern Civilian Climate Corps like the one Biden, Markey, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are proposing also has wide bipartisan support among voters nationally. A recent survey of more than 1,200 likely voters found that 65 percent of respondents support the idea of a Civilian Climate Corps, with the highest support among young and rural voters. Half of those under the age of 45 said they would consider working in the corps.


Members of the Civilian Conservation Corps work to control the Malibu fire near Angeles National Forest, California, 1935. Public Domain.

There are a few notable differences between the original, Depression-era corps and the modern one proposed by Markey and AOC. The original corps only enrolled young men. Its camps were segregated. There was an entirely separate program for Native Americans, who often worked to develop their reservations for white tourists. By contrast, at least half the modern corps’ projects would take place in communities of color and rural and urban low-income communities. Half of the corps members recruited would be from those same communities. The modern corps would also respect tribal sovereignty and guarantee that at least 10 percent of its environmental justice funds went to tribal communities. 

Reforestation and tree-planting is one area in which a new CCC could learn from the old CCC, which planted more than 3 billion trees. Biden has pledged to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.


A CCC worker planting trees, 1933. Courtesy, National Archives.

Equipped with the latest findings from restoration ecology and forest management, the Climate Conservation Corps could make reforestation a pillar of its work.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is just one of the benefits. It might seem a bit rosy, but it’s possible that by connecting young Americans with each other across lines of race, class and geography, a revitalized CCC could (to steal Biden’s campaign slogan) help restore the soul of a divided nation. 

Women in the Woods

Performance

Performance
Federal Emergency Relief Camp for women in Minnesota, 1934. Courtesy, National Archives.

The Civilian Conservation Corps  (1933–42), is one of the earliest of the New Deal’s relief programs and arguably its best known. Lesser known is the CCC’s female counterpart—dubbed the She-She-She, (1933-1937), a program for women at a time when New Deal jobs programs were largely for men.

The number of unemployed women had grown to two million by 1933. Women’s rights activist and writer Helena Weed, observed, “Men thronged the breadlines; women hid their plight.” 

Soup kitchen, Chicago, 1931

Men waiting outside a Chicago soup kitchen, 1931. 
Men waiting outside a Chicago soup kitchen, 1931.Public Domain.

Though rarely seen in Depression-era photographs of soup kitchens and unemployment lines, an estimated 200,000 women were living on the streets, sleeping on subways and “tramping” the countryside. Little was done about it until First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt used her contacts and influence to advocate for them. “As a group, women have been neglected in comparison with others, and throughout this depression have had the hardest time of all,” she said.

Mrs. Roosevelt prevailed upon the president to fund a residential jobs program like the CCC for unemployed women and girls. FDR issued a presidential order in 1933 funding the program. Harry Hopkins, head of New Deal relief, tapped labor educator Hilda Worthington Smith to run the woman’s program.

Camp TERA, 1934

Camp TERA, 1934
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visits the first She She She camp, Bear Valley, New York.art.com.

The first of what would become a network of 90 residential schools and camps for women, Camp TERA, (Temporary Emergency Relief Administration) opened in June, 1933 at Bear Mountain State Park, about an hour’s drive north of New York City. Mrs. Roosevelt and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins presided at the camp’s opening.

The program was slow getting off the ground. Applications for admission to the camps poured in from women nationwide, but eligibility was unduly strict.  Various states and organizations offered the use of their camp facilities but ran in to red tape.

The CCC, run by the U.S. Army, enlisted 300,000 men within its first three months. They were quickly deployed to camps and put to work on highly visible public service projects where they developed practical skills. They were paid $30 a month, of which $25 was sent home to their families, adding to the CCC’s general popularity. Some 2.5 million men went to work for the CCC during its nine-year run.

Such work, training and earning opportunities for the unemployed women were curtailed from the start. Joyce L. Kornbluth explains In her book, Sisterhood and Solidarity: Workers’ Education for Women, 1914–1984, “CCC administrators vetoed the national advisory committee’s recommendation that young women in the resident programs be used, as men were, in reforestation and community service projects since, they claimed, ‘work outside the camps [for women] was not practicable and the supervision and transportation costs would be greatly increased.’”

Without a work component, the women’s program appeared to be little more than a government-sponsored vacation. The program was presumed a boondoggle. Skeptics derided it as the “She-She-She.”

Once accepted to the program, women were bused to camps to live for two to three to months. They received five dollars a month for personal expenses and worked up to 70 hours a month to cover the cost of their food and lodging. No monies were sent home.

Typing 

Typing 
Learning secretarial skills at a women’s camp in Pennsylvania, 1934. Courtesy, National Archives.

Sewing, cooking, music, drama and handicrafts were staples of camp life. Some camps offered secretarial classes but the focus was on homemaking skills. One participant recalled, “Most of us got the impression that they wanted to teach us something useful if we got married immediately and that that was the only proper thing to do.”

“Workers’ education,” a curriculum developed by Hilda Smith that included English, domestic science, hygiene, public health and economics, was renamed “social civics” when the American Legion and some nearby communities complained that leftist discussions and programs were taking place at the women’s camps.

Only about half of She-She-She participants managed to find jobs when they returned home. Most employers resisted hiring women while there were men unemployed. Yet, many women who joined the She-She-She reported that the experience had improved their health and given them a new outlook on life.

FERA camp

FERA camp
African American women at segregated camp in Atlanta, Georgia, 1934.Courtesy, National Archives.

“The camp was ideal for building up run-down bodies and renewing jaded spirits,” wrote civil rights activist, Pauli Murray, of Camp TERA. Another woman recalled, “It seemed like someone did have an interest in whether we lived or starved. And was trying to help.”

The She-She-She camps closed on October 1, 1937.  Over its four-year existence, the program served 8,500 women.

For more on the She-She-She, read Joyce L. Kornbluth’s essay, The She-She-She Camps: An Experiment in Living and Learning, from her book, “Sisterhood and Solidarity: Workers’ Education for Women, 1914-1984.”

The Crisis of Childcare

Migrant Mother

Migrant Mother
Florence Owens Thompson and her children. Nipomo, California, 1936
Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange, Courtesy LOC Prints & Photographs Division

Two children bury their heads into their mother’s shoulders. The mother is from Oklahoma. Her family is living in a migrant camp in Nipomo, California. She looks out from the canvas tent where lives with her ten children, her hand cradling her haggard face. She is Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1936 photograph, “Migrant Mother.”

“We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something,” Thompson’s daughter, Katherine McIntosh, recalled decades later. “She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate.”

Florence Owens Thompson worked the fields with her children alongside her. She could barely afford food, much less pay someone to care for her young family while she worked.

Childcare has historically been a dilemma for poor and working mothers alike. Believing that mothers should stay home with their children, social reformers pushed for pensions—not childcare. By 1930, nearly every state in the union had some form of mothers’ or widows’ pensions. But strict eligibility requirements and inadequate funding compelled many women to find jobs. With few options for childcare. Children would be left alone or brought along to the workplace, sometimes in hazardous conditions.

WPA Nursery School

WPA Nursery School
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visits a WPA nursery school in Des Moines, Iowa in 1936.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FDR Library

Between 1933 and 1934, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) opened nearly 3,000 Emergency Nursery Schools (ENS), enrolling 64,000 students in 43 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

The History of Childcare in the U.S., describes the New Deal effort: “Unlike the earlier nursery schools, which were largely private, charged fees, and served a middle-class clientele, these free, government-sponsored schools were open to children of all classes. Designed as schools rather than as child care facilities, the ENS were only open for part of the day, and their enrollments were supposedly restricted to the children of the unemployed. They did, however, become a form of de facto child care for parents employed on various WPA work-relief projects,” according to Dr. Sonya Michel.

In 1943, the U.S. Senate passed the first, and thus far only, national childcare program, voting $20 million to provide public care of children whose mothers were employed in the war effort.

Childcare Program

Childcare Program
The Lanham Act, adopted in 1942, was the first and, thus far, the only universal childcare program in the U.S.
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, Courtesy LOC Prints & Photographs Division

In 1965 a bipartisan bill to establish national child-development and day-care centers was passed by both houses of Congress, but was vetoed by President Nixon, who dismissed it as “family weakening.”

A half-century later, there is still is no broad-based federally supported child care.

Though the need persists, childcare is increasingly beyond the means of many families. Under the current policies, most parents must cover the full cost on their own. Costs vary widely but the average cost of a sending a child to a day care center in the U.S. is $10,000 per year.

The federal government considers child care affordable when it is 10 percent or less of a family’s income. Low income and single parent families pay a much larger share of their income for child care and have less access to licensed childcare. Most young children spend time in multiple childcare settings. An estimated 15.7 million children under age 5 are in at least one childcare “arrangement” while their parents are working, at school, or otherwise unavailable to care for them. Currently, only 1.9 million children receive subsidized care through the federal Child Care and Development Fund.

Lunchtime
Children at childcare center in New Britain, Connecticut, while their mothers worked in the war industry, 1943
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, Courtesy LOC Prints & Photographs Division

The U.S. trails behind other industrial nations such as France, Sweden, and Denmark, which offer free or subsidized childcare. “Unlike the United States, these countries use child care not as a lever in a harsh mandatory employment policy toward low-income mothers, but as a means of helping parents of all classes reconcile the demands of work and family life,” Dr. Michel point out.

Harry Hopkins, the New Deal’s Federal Relief Administrator, emphasized the need for such assistance. “The education and health programs of nursery schools can aid as nothing else in combating the physical and mental handicaps being imposed upon these young children in the homes of needy and unemployed parents,” Hopkins said.

Story Time

Storytime
Teacher reading to young children at child care center, New Britain, Connecticut, 1943
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, Courtesy LOC Prints & Photographs Division

The Biden Administration has proposed what could be a New Deal for childcare. The “American Families Plan” includes $200 billion for universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. If fully implemented, it would save the average family $13,000 and provide free or reduced-cost child care for the majority of working families with children under the age of six. The plan would affect about 9.76 million children nationwide.

 

 

America Needs a Federal Scholars Project

Poster for the American Guide Series

Poster for the American Guide Series
Like the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project, a Federal Scholars Project could support intellectual and cultural production today.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

The humanities and social sciences in the United States today are on the verge of collapse. After forty years of austerity and disinvestment in higher education, more than 75 percent of the teaching in America’s colleges and universities is done by part-time adjunct instructors paid abysmally low salaries. A generation of younger scholars are at risk of being shut out of viable careers, representing a tremendous loss to our society and culture.

The Great Depression offers not only an historical example of direct public employment for members of America’s creative class, but also lessons for making it happen. Just as the New Deal provided jobs for thousands of out-of-work writers, artists and performers during the Great Depression, a new jobs program is needed now for scholars who, through the casualization of intellectual labor, find themselves without jobs or precariously employed.

The New Deal’s Federal Art Project (FAP), Federal Writers Project (FWP), Federal Theater Project (FTP), and Federal Music Project (FMP) provide useful models. Through these WPA cultural projects, talented young people—including women, ethnic minorities and people from working-class backgrounds—were able to pursue creative careers despite the economic calamity. These initiatives democratized access to culture in another way as well—bringing music, art, and theater to geographically remote or socially marginalized communities—often for the first time.

WPA Historical Records Survey

WPA Historical Records Survey
Employees microfilming documents in New Jersey in 1937.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration

A new federal jobs program hiring young talent in the humanities and social sciences—a Federal Scholars Project—could similarly advance these democratic objectives. Much as the FWP detailed the histories and cultures of various states and cities through its American Guide series, and the FAP created art for the broadest public possible, a direct employment program for the humanities and social sciences would produce teaching, research, scholarly studies and cultural materials as public goods.

Poster for the WPA Federal Art Project’s Community Art Center in Harlem

Poster for the WPA Federal Art Project’s Community Art Center in Harlem
Community-based centers today could host employees of a new Federal Scholars Project along with writers, artists and performers.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

Although the College for All bill now before Congress would help to reverse the long slide into the academic gig economy, a Federal Scholars Project could do even more. Developed in consultation with the New Deal for Higher Education campaign, College for All would make four years of higher education free for most Americans, while requiring that institutions that received new federal funding commit to having 75 percent of all teaching done by full-time, tenure-track faculty within five years. Passage of College for All would be an enormous victory in the struggle to restore the New Deal vision of public goods, but it shouldn’t limit our horizons.

Imagine a Federal Scholars Project that teamed up academic humanists and social scientists with artists, writers and performers to create innovative representations of America’s past, present and future. A Federal Scholars Project could also facilitate the formation of new experimental institutions and sites for the production of knowledge and culture, much as the FAP did in the 1930s by sponsoring the Design Laboratory, the first comprehensive school of modernist design in the United States. Also, employees of the Federal Scholars Project could still be assigned to financially strapped universities and colleges, archives, libraries, museums and other types of community-based cultural centers as a way of providing indirect assistance.

WPA-Sponsored Design Laboratory
Students and faculty at work in the experimental school’s studio in 1936.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration

Finally, the New Deal’s cultural projects only came about because unemployed members of the creative class organized to demand jobs. The proponents of the cultural projects succeeded in the 1930s because they were part of a broader social movement—a Popular Front—that included white-collar unions that advocated for racial, ethnic and gender equality and antifascist solidarity in addition to public patronage for culture. Securing a robust federal response to today’s crisis of academic employment will likewise depend on organizing and coalition-building among unions and contemporary movements for social equality and workplace diversity, but it can and must be done. The history of the WPA cultural projects shows us the way.

 

Turning Controversy into Consensus

Olin Dows, 1937

Olin Dows, 1937
Dows painted the post office murals in Rhinebeck and Hyde Park, New York. He served as an administrator for the first New Deal relief program for artists, the Public Works Art Project (PWAP), and later headed the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP). Courtesy, Wilderstein Preservation.

The New Deal’s efforts to create jobs extended to thousands of artists on relief. Between 1934 and 1943, several government-sponsored programs dedicated to art and culture sponsored the creation of artworks in public buildings. The Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, later renamed the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, commissioned more than 1,400 murals in post offices nationwide.

In addition to putting artists to work, the post office murals were seen as a way to boost general morale during hardships of the Great Depression. Many of the murals feature historical depictions of the places in which they reside. Some have sparked controversy for their depictions of race and gender.

The murals at the Rhinebeck, New York, Post Office are the work of (Stephen) Olin Dows (1904-1981), a native of the Hudson River Valley and family friend of FDR.  Dows studied at Harvard and the Yale School of Fine Arts and, significantly, spent the summer of 1929 in Mexico where he met such luminaries as Diego Rivera. 

Dows’ twelve murals at the Rhinebeck Post Office depict over 400 years of the region’s history, from the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609 through the post office’s dedication in 1939.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural
Enslaved men had been described as “stevedores” in a 1940 brochure about the murals. Courtesy, therivernewsroom.com.

Slavery was common in New York until it was abolished in 1827. Dows’ murals include several images of Blacks that likely were slaves. One mural portrays two men carrying cargo to a waiting sloop. Another shows a man working at a brick kiln. A third shows a youth harvesting corn.

Some Rhinebeck residents questioned whether depictions of enslaved people should remain part of a public mural. Dows’ depictions of Native Americans also came under criticism. When the Regional Office of the Postal Service, citing public concerns, announced last year that it planned to remove or cover the murals, Rhinebeck residents saw an opportunity to open a discussion about racial justice and Black history.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural
Depictions of Blacks and Native Americans sparked a community dialogue. Courtesy, therivernewsroom.com.

The goal of the community conversation, which was held online owing to the pandemic, was to listen and understand, and not change minds. The participants included local officials and community representatives who adopted guidelines they called, “I say, I see…”  The discussions resulted in an alternative to removing the murals by improving their role as educational artifacts. 

Dows intended the Rhinebeck murals to be educational as well as a celebration of local history. In 1940 he authored a companion brochure explaining the murals panel by panel. When the murals came under threat, Dows’ original brochure became the inspiration for a new brochure that would address the murals’ controversial content.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural by Olin Dows, 1940.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural by Olin Dows, 1940.
Controversies can arise when New Deal-era murals include imagery considered offensive today. Courtesy, DCHS.

A consensus emerged around the need to provide historical context for the murals. The revised brochure, “Invisible People, Untold Stories” focuses on seven of the murals’ scenes. Under “The Mural Depicts,” text explains that General and Janet Montgomery, shown planting seedlings, settled in Rhinebeck in 1774.  Opposite, under “Source Materials Reveal,” we also learn that 421 of Rhinebeck’s 491 persons of color were enslaved.  In another example, “The Mural Depicts” we see Black “stevedores” at work. Under “Source Materials Reveal” we learn that one enslaved stevedore named Tom was 24 years old in 1799 and stood 5 feet 10 inches tall.  

”Invisible People, Untold Stories”
A community conversation resulted in a booklet that provides historical context for the Rhinebeck murals. Photo by Bill Jeffway.

The brochures are used in local schools, but the booklet is essentially an online tool. A digital kiosk, offering a self-guided educational tool that can be viewed from any touchscreen, is in development. Outreach to tribal representatives has just begun to evaluate the potential for more learning opportunities.

View the booklet, “Invisible People, Untold Stories”

Learn more about endangered New Deal artworks and ways communities and institutions can respond.

Republic of Detours—Rekindling Interest in the Federal Writers’ Project

FWP Poster

FWP Poster
Writers at work. Courtesy, NY City Municipal Archives.

During the Great Depression, improving the nation’s infrastructure wasn’t the New Deal’s only agenda. Economic recovery also meant providing useful relief jobs to creative professionals, leading to the establishment of Federal One, the umbrella organization for the Federal Art, Theatre, Music, and Writers’ Projects.

The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) employed thousands of out-of-work editors, writers and others, and published hundreds of books in its quest to create a self-portrait of America. It supported writers through hard times and propelled careers, with authors such as Nelson Algren, Ralph Ellison, Saul Levitt, Kenneth Rexroth, Mari Tomasi, May Swenson, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright among the many authors who were part of this literary legacy.  This idealistic program endeavored, through its publications, to celebrate the mosaic of racial, ethnic and cultural identities in America. It also, unfortunately, attracted the attention of conservatives, anti-New Dealers and the first iteration of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), leading to the FWP’s shutdown.

 American Guide

American Guide
The FWP published travel guides to 48 states and some regions and cities. Photo by Addie Borchert.

After Congress defunded the FWP in 1939, it was soon nearly erased from the public mind. A host of books, starting with Jerre Mangione’s 1972 book, The Dream and the Deal, resurrected interest in the FWP, helping to re-establish the importance of the Project.

Scott Borchert’s new book, Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America, (2021 Farrar, Straus and Giroux) adds an important voice to understanding this seminal federal effort, particularly now that legislation has been introduced to establish a 21st century FWP

Borchert’s well-researched history of the Project is offered alongside a historical backdrop. The American literary scene converges with cultural and political themes, stretching from the aftermath of the Civil War through the 1930s. The narrative and inviting writing style are welcoming to both FWP scholars and readers new to the Project.

Gathering of Nuggets

Gathering of Nuggets
The frontpiece of the FWP’s 1939 book, “Idaho Lore”. Courtesy, LOC.

Borchert’ interest in the FWP began with the discovery of a treasure trove of American Guide books in his great-uncle’s attic.  The American Guide series, the centerpiece of the FWP’s accomplishments, spanned every one of the then-48 states, as well as Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C. and dozens of cities and regions. Each guide included not only travel tours, but also essays on local folklore, history and geography.

Borchert’s telling of the FWP encompasses everything that made the agency special: the oral history/slave narratives collected by FWP workers; aspiring, soon-to-be famous writers; the evolving American Guide book series; segregation and racism in the Southern States; the “secret” creative writing unit approved by FWP director Henry Alsberg—and much more.  

Temple Herndon Dunham, Age 103

Temple Herndon Dunham, Age 103
From “Born in Slavery, Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project.” Courtesy, LOC Slave Narrative Collection.

Borchert examines previously unexplored aspects of the Project, including important but lesser known editors and writers like Vardis Fisher, the director of the Idaho Writers’ Project. Fisher, a novelist who grew up on a homestead, almost singlehandedly wrote his state’s guide, the first to be published. Readers also learn about Katharine Kellock, the FWPs highest-ranking woman, a powerhouse who helped devise the tour sections of the guide books. Borchert also brings us the story of writer Sherwood Anderson’s little-known involvement in the New Deal, as he traveled the nation to write for the FDR-endorsed magazine, Today, reporting on the impacts of Roosevelt’s new policies.

Rep. Martin Dies with Hollywood studio executives, 1939

Rep. Martin Dies with Hollywood studio executives, 1939
Dies head a House Special Committee to combat un-American ideologies. Photo Credit: National Archives & Records Administration. Courtesy, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives.

No book on the FWP is complete without the battle played out in newspapers of the day, between Congressman Martin Dies, who chaired HUAC, and FWP’s beleaguered director Henry Alsberg, who struggled to save the Project and its writers from reactionary elements. Borchert also highlights the cultural and historical events that influenced HUAC and triggered its creation.   

The legacy of the FWP is often wrapped around its famous writers and its work relief programs. Borchert points to yet another legacy.

Henry Alsberg

Henry Alsberg
The founding director of the FWP testifying at HUAC hearing, 1938. Courtesy, LOC.

“The FWP, utterly and explicitly, was anti-fascist by design,” Borchert writes. He reminds us that the FWP was created while fascism was taking hold abroad and domestic groups like the Ku Klux Klan tried to worm its way into American society. “This was the backdrop against which the FWP was initiated, the fascist upsurge that it sought— through the American Guides and other efforts—to oppose.”

Revisiting the “Blue Bible”

 
The “Blue Bible,” compiled 82 years ago, is a “best of” the PWA’s thousands of construction projects. Photo by Gray Brechin.

President Biden’s initial $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal is merely a belated down payment on decades of cost-cutting neglect and deferred maintenance that has brought much of U.S. infrastructure to near third world status. If it passes Congress, his proposal would create a myriad of needed jobs, but it’s also a reminder of the stupendous feat that ”Honest Harold” Ickes achieved modernizing the country in just half a decade. During that time, he served as both a seemingly never sleeping Secretary of the Interior and head of the Public Works Administration (PWA), a vast public works construction agency often confused with its sometimes rival, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under Harry Hopkins.

Harold Ickes
As U.S. Secretary of the Interior throughout FDR’s presidency, Harold Ickes was in charge of implementing major New Deal relief programs, including the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the federal government’s environmental efforts. Courtesy, Wikipedia.

I call the doorstopper of a tome with the snoozer title Public Buildings: Architecture Under the Public Works Administration, 1935-1939 the Blue Bible not only for its buckram binding of that color but also because of the volume of information, much of which the Living New Deal has used on its website. Published by the Government Printing Office in 1939, the richly illustrated book is proof of what could be accomplished in the future.

Contracting with both small, local and giant construction companies such as Bechtel and Kaiser, the PWA stimulated the economy by building dams, airports, schools, colleges, bridges, public hospitals, art galleries, sewage treatment plants, lighthouses, libraries and even sleek Staten Island ferries and Coast Guard cutters. At over 600 pages of text, black and white plates and floor plans arranged by building type, the book shows a nation transformed in short order, yet it is only an abbreviation of a larger report requested by President Roosevelt and compiled by architects C.W. Short and R. Stanley-Brown. They culled hundreds of what they regarded as all-stars from more than 26,000 PWA projects, many of which remain to be discovered.    

Blue Bible Project page

Blue Bible Project page
The PWA funded and administered the construction of more than 34,000 projects. Many outstanding examples appear in these pages. Photo by Gray Brechin.

Despite the gigantic scale and quality of many of the buildings, the plates included in the book identify neither the architects nor engineers responsible for the projects, although the cost is given. They show the smorgasbord of styles popular during the New Deal, ranging from Georgian to Pueblo, from Art Deco and Streamline Moderne to hints of the new International Style. Lavish government patronage led many artists employed by New Deal agencies to compare their era to that of the Renaissance.  The architects who compiled the book wrote, “Today architecture in the U.S. is passing through a period of transition, thus creating a condition which has much in common with that which existed in Italy in the 15th century when the architecture of the Middle Ages was changing to that of the Renaissance.” 

Bonner's Ferry Bridge, Spanning Kootenai River, Idaho

Bonner's Ferry Bridge, Spanning Kootenai River, Idaho
The PWA’s accomplishments include building LaGuardia Airport, the Tri-borough Bridge, and Lincoln Tunnel in New York City; the Skyline Drive in Virginia, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Grand Coulee Dam. Courtesy, Bridgehunter.com

Scanning the book reminds me of architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham’s famous command in the early 20th century: “Make no small plans,” he said, since “they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Ickes himself said when dedicating California’s Friant Dam that “Even those of us in Washington who are responsible for carrying out orders sometimes lack comprehension of the mighty sweep of this program.”

Short and Stanley-Brown closed their introduction with a claim you won’t find in any government report today: “This vast building program presents us with a great vision, that of man building primarily for love of and to fulfill the needs of his fellowmen. Perhaps future generations will classify these years as one of the epoch-making periods of advancement in the civilization not only of our own country, but also of the human race.”

PWA Map
Vintage poster describing some of the PWA’s construction projects across America. Courtesy, Digital.library.Cornell.edu

The Blue Bible reminds us today how far the U.S. once materially advanced civilization, even as forces in Europe conspired toward its destruction.

Copies of the book can be acquired on Amazon as originals or as a 1986 paperback reprint by Da Capo Press.

New Deal Artworks Showcased in Upstate NY

“First Snow” by Neva Coffey

“First Snow” by Neva Coffey
Part of the New Deal collection at the GVCA, the scene shows New Yorkers at play, while the “Store to Let” sign acknowledges the Great Depression. Courtesy, GVCA.

The New Deal Art programs were a lifeline to struggling artists, of which New York had more than its share. Of the more than 10,000 artists commissioned nationwide by the WPA’s Federal Art Project (FAP) some 2,300 artists were in New York City. 

A little-seen collection of paintings by WPA artists is on display in the village of Mount Morris, curated by the Genesee Valley Council on the Arts (GVCA). The artworks, most dating from 1936-1937, offer a window on life in New York during the Great Depression.

While many of the New Deal’s administrators believed that art could enrich the daily lives of all Americans, the main objective of the federal art programs was to provide jobs. The FAP hired thousands of unemployed painters, sculptors, muralists and graphic artists, with various levels of experience, and paid them a flat wage of $23.50 a week along with a stipend for materials. In addition to art production, the FAP offered art classes, held exhibitions and organized community arts centers through which many Americans were introduced to the arts for the first time.

"Blue and Gold” by Inez Abernathy

"Blue and Gold” by Inez Abernathy
The foreground illustrates a rural setting in the midst of an urbanizing town in the background – a changing sociocultural climate in New York during the 1930s. Courtesy, GVCA.

In the 1930s, New York State opened tuberculosis sanatoriums in Mount Morris, Oneonta and Ithaca. Each facility was allocated a number of paintings by WPA artists. The landscape and still-life paintings that were sent to the Mount Morris Tuberculosis Hospital may have been chosen for their ‘restful’ subject matter. The paintings, by both American-born and European-immigrant artists, reflect the social realism popular at the time that FAP Director Holger Cahill praised as a “rediscovery of the American scene.” Changes underway, such as the expansion of cities, are depicted in paintings “Long Island Farm” by Philip Cheney and “Blue and Gold” by Inez Abernathy.

“Apples” by Fred Adler

“Apples” by Fred Adler
FAP artist Adler was first assigned to paint scenes at an Iowa CCC camp.
This later still-life suggests the plight of minimally employed apple vendors on New York City streets during the Great Depression. Courtesy, GVCA.

“Apples,” by artist Fred Adler, suggests the plight of those minimally employed.

When the Mount Morris sanatorium closed in 1971, some 200 paintings were distributed to various Livingston County government offices. In 1999, the paintings were inventoried by the County and the Genesee Valley Council on the Arts, where the collection—on loan from the federal government—is currently on rotating exhibit. Many of the paintings are in their original frames bearing a “Federal Art Project” plaque on the front and typed tags on the back indicating the state of origin. All were produced in New York. Most of the artists lived in Manhattan. Until recently, little was known about them or their subsequent works. 

In 2018, students from a local college, the State University of New York at Geneseo, under the supervision of Professor Ken Cooper, photographed and catalogued the WPA paintings and researched the artists that produced them. This work led to an exhibit at the GVCA’s New Deal Gallery in 2019. The students also produced a digital exhibit, The Green New Deal: Art During a Time of Environmental Emergency”—that looks at these Depression-era paintings through a modern lens. The online exhibit includes a map showing where sea level rise now threatens some of the locations that inspired the paintings including several of Central Park.”

"Pelham Bay Park #1" by Moses Bank

"Pelham Bay Park #1" by Moses Bank
Some landscapes depicted by FAP artists, such as Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, are now endangered by rising sea levels. Courtesy, openvalley.org.

The Federal Art Project’s easel and print divisions provided an important lifeline at a time when opportunities for women and non-white artists were limited. The GVCA’s New Deal Gallery holds paintings by more than twenty women, including Dorothy Varian and Selma Gubin, as well as more than a dozen works by Japanese American artists, including Fuji Nakamizo and Tomizo Nagai. Varian, Gubin and Nakamizo all have works in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  Other well known artists in the GVCA collection include David Burliuk and Fritz Eighenberg.

The paintings can be viewed online and at the New Deal Gallery, located at 4 Murray Hill Drive in Mount Morris, New York; for more information, visit www.gvartscouncil.org