A Greenbelt Town Fights for Press Freedom

Shopping at Greenbelt Cooperative Grocery Store

Shopping at Greenbelt Cooperative Grocery Store
Cooperatives remain central to life in Greenbelt today. Photo by Russell Lee, 1938. Courtesy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

In 1937, Theodora and John Murray were among 850 families selected to reside in an experimental city built and owned by the federal government.

About a half-hour’s drive from Washington, DC., Greenbelt, Maryland is one of three planned residential communities conceived and developed by the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration (RA), which relocated displaced and low-income families during the Great Depression. These Greenbelt towns, described as “utopian” by both adherents and detractors alike, offered affordable rents in suburban villages meant to deliver families from blighted urban housing. 

“They wanted to try an experiment that provided something healthy, with lots of green grass and trees,” says Greenbelt journalist Mary Lou Williamson, a 60-year city resident of the town. “There was plenty of fresh air and children could spend time outside in a safe community.” 


Mary Lou Williamson, a 60-year resident of the town, reported on the public hearings that led real estate developer Charles Bresler to sue the Greenbelt News Review for criminal libel. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo by Susan Ives, 2022.

Prospective tenants were screened not only on the basis of income, but on their prospective suitability for starting a cooperative community. “They wanted people who would take care of things,” Williamson explains.

The Murrays and other Greenbelt townsfolk decided to start with a town newspaper. Churned out on a mimeograph machine, The Cooperator,” became a vital part of promulgating “the Greenbelt philosophy.”  Besides guiding new residents through a maze of organizational meetings, its editors and reporters encouraged readers to view themselves as “pioneers” of a new way of life, and promoted the city as a “model for future Greenbelts.”  

Organized as a cooperative, the newspaper ushered in a proliferation of other co-ops. A credit union, grocery store, nursery school and babysitting co-op remain active today. The New Deal Café, a hive of activism, is cooperatively managed by town residents.

Mrs. Hoover reading the Greenbelt Cooperator in her living room.

Mrs. Hoover reading the Greenbelt Cooperator in her living room.
The paper, published by the Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing Association, Inc., was established in 1937 shortly after the federal government’s construction of Greenbelt. It has been published weekly without interruption ever since and is delivered free to most Greenbelt residents. Photo by Marjory Collins, 1942. Courtesy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Critics of FDR’s Administration denounced the so-called “green towns” as a socialist boondoggle. But it wasn’t until after WWII that Greenbelt and its newspaper met with an existential threat, when Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy proposed selling the three green towns to private interests. Greenbelt tenants narrowly voted to purchase the homes collectively and established a cooperative, Greenbelt Homes, Inc., in 1954.

McCarthy’s scrutiny had bred fear and distrust. Not long after Greenbelt was targeted during televised hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, The Cooperator changed its name to the Greenbelt News Review.

In 1965, real estate developer Charles Bresler and the city became embroiled in a zoning dispute.

At a heated city council meeting, a Greenbelt resident accused Bresler of trying to “blackmail” the city into a decision Bresler sought. News Review reporter Mary Lou Williamson, who would later become the paper’s editor, reported on the controversy and criticisms leveled at Bresler. He sued the News Review for criminal libel in what became a precedent-setting lawsuit.

Cooperator reporter Sally Meredith

Sally Meredith, reporter for the Greenbelt Cooperator 
Photo by Marjory Collins, 1942. Courtesy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

In 1970 the Supreme Court unanimously decided in the News Review’s favor, holding that reporting the news is protected by the First Amendment, and that the paper was not libelous for accurately reporting such “rhetorical hyperbole” at a lively public meeting,” but rather “was performing its wholly legitimate function as a community newspaper when it published full reports of these public debates in its news columns.”  

Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing v Bresler (1970), “is a very important case,” says Washington D.C. attorney Lee Levine, who has argued libel cases before the Supreme Court. “Both for what it decided…and for the influence it’s had on the law since.”

Volunteer staff at The Cooperator

Volunteer staff at The Cooperator
The weekly paper was renamed the Greenbelt News Review in 1954. In 1970, The News Review successfully defended the freedom of the press before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Photographer unknown.

The precedent established by Greenbelt’s hometown paper continues to guarantee freedom of the press. In a 1990 case, Milkovich v The Lorraine Journal, the Court reiterated its finding in the Greenbelt case of “rhetorical hyperbole” as protected speech under the First Amendment and expanded press protection against frivolous, but costly, lawsuits. 

Watch: PBS segment about Greenbelt in “Ten Towns That Changed America” 
(5 minutes)

Watch: “Defending Utopia, The Greenbelt News Review at 80,” a film by Susan Gervasi
Film: https://vimeo.com/285905039. (48 minutes)
Trailer: https://vimeo.com/257268409

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.

A Victory for Public Art

George Washington High School

George Washington High School
Designed by famed San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, the art deco-style school opened in 1936. The stadium, auditorium and gymnasium were added in 1940.
Photo by Robert Dawson, Living New Deal.

WPA artist Victor Arnautoff’s controversial mural, “Life of Washington,” has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since it was completed in 1936.

The 1600-foot fresco covering the walls and ceiling of the main entryway at San Francisco’s George Washington High School narrowly survived a recent challenge when some students and parents asserted that the mural traumatizes students and demanded that the school board “Paint it down.”

Historians, writers, artists and some tribal leaders defended the immense artwork, which depicts Washington among enslaved Blacks and standing over a slain American Indian. They counter that the Ukrainian-born Arnautoff, an avowed Communist, intended the murals as a thinly veiled critique of America’s racism.

Self portrait Victor Arnautoff, 1896-1979

Self portrait, Victor Arnautoff, 1896-1979
Arnautoff worked with Diego Rivera in Mexico in the 1930s and went on to produce a number of murals for the WPA. He taught art at Stanford University but was fired for his political views and returned to Ukraine. Courtesy Helfinfinearts.com.

Rather than paint over the mural, in 2019 the Board of Education voted unanimously to conceal the mural behind a curtain—at a cost to the San Francisco Unified School District of some $600,000. After the decision, hundreds of people squeezed into the school’s main lobby for a rare public viewing to catch a final glimpse of the 13-panel painting.

The 6,500-member George Washington High School Alumni Association filed a lawsuit to protect the mural and in 2021 the California Superior Court ruled that the school board had violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and stopped the board from destroying or covering up the historic artwork.

A few months later, San Franciscans recalled three school board members who had voted to censor the murals. Last summer, the newly installed school board rescinded the previous board’s decision. But the debate continues.

Dewey Crumpler

Dewey Crumpler
Crumpler painted the “response murals” to Arnautoff’s “Life of Washington” mural at George Washington High School in 1974.
Screenshot from Youtube video.

Following the court ruling, Lope Yap, Jr., vice president of the school’s alumni association, thanked supporters. “Arnautoff takes a real perspective on the dark side of Washington, not [just] his great accomplishments, but to say, we’re not perfect,” “Maybe it’s painful, but what’s not accurate about this?”   

“Any attempt to destroy Arnautoff’s murals has been thwarted— for the time being,” he added.

Paloma Flores, a member of the Pit-River Nation and former coordinator of the District’s Indian Education Program, disagrees. “It’s not a matter of censorship, it’s a matter of human right: the right to learn without hostile environments. Even the best intentions do harm.”  

Washington at Mt. Vernon

Washington at Mt. Vernon
Critics point to the mural’s depiction of slavery as racist. Others maintain Arnautoff’s social commentary—America’s “founding father” was dependent on enslaved labor for his wealth. Photo by Richard Evans, Living New Deal. (click to enlarge)

Conflicts over Arnautoff’s “Life of Washington” date to the 1960s when Black students at the school criticized the mural for its limited view of Black history as a story of enslavement and victimization. Their activism resulted in “response murals,” painted at the school by a young Black artist, Dewey Crumpler.

 “Murals exist to teach and to speak about our uncomfortable history,” Crumpler maintains. “Arnautoff attempted to give us the clarity of our history, as all great works should do.”

“The march of the white race from the Atlantic to the Pacific”

“The march of the white race from the Atlantic to the Pacific” 
According to Arnautoff’s biographer, Robert Cherney, this panel reveals the artist’s condemnation of the killing and dispossession of America’s First People. Photo by Richard Evans, Living New Deal. (click to enlarge)

“This high school is home to a national art history treasure,” says Yap. “Let’s protect it and learn from it.”

The alumni association is pursuing landmark status for the artworks and the high school, built in 1936 with the help of the New Deal’s Public Works Administration (PWA).

“Athletics”

“Athletics”
Detail of a frieze by Sargent Johnson. The school contains a trove of New Deal artworks: bas reliefs sculpted by Robert Boardman Howard; monumental friezes by Sargent Johnson and murals by Lucien LaBaudt, Gordon Langdon and Robert Stackpole. Photo by Barbara Bernstein, Living New Deal.

 

Learn more:
Arnautoff’s biographer, Robert Cherney, explains the “Life of Washington” murals

A new documentary, Town Destroyer, recounts the controversy over the George Washington High School murals.  WATCH THE TRAILER  (2 minutes)

Watch: Artist Dewey Crumpler discusses his “response murals.” (3 minutes)

Kate B. Littleboy has scripted several short films for the award-winning PBS series "The New Environmentalists.” She is currently working on a series of interviews with climate justice activists for the Earth Island Journal.

A New Deal for the Blind


The description for this 1938 photograph reads, “The blind man is listening to one of the “talking book” records in his home, selected and mailed by a WPA library project worker. A talking book “not only talks and reads, but can present complete dramas with full Broadway casts, chirrup bird songs and calls of wildlife, and in other ways take full advantage of the fact that it is written in sound.” Courtesy, NARA.

Over fifty years before the Americans with Disabilities Act, the New Deal undertook the first major federal effort to aid citizens with physical and mental challenges. Between 1933 and 1943, mainly through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), thousands of New Deal works projects were directed at expanding, improving and staffing disabled services around the country. Facilities for the disabled were among the most elegant public works built in that era.

The New Deal was an especially transformative period for blind Americans. On June 20, 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Randolph-Sheppard Act, providing economic opportunities and services for the visually impaired. The legislation gave those qualified priority over other vendors to operate concessions, so-called “vending facilities,” on federal properties, including on military bases.


Joseph Clunk, the first blind civil servant in the federal government, was appointed in 1937 to administer the Randolph-Sheppard Act and serve as a “special agent for the blind.” Courtesy American Printing House for the Blind, sites.aph.org.

The passage of the Randolph-Sheppard Act also motivated legislatures in nearly every state to craft similar laws, referred to as ‘mini-Randolph-Sheppard Acts.” These federal and state initiatives today provide economic opportunities to more than 2,500 individuals.

The first blind civil servant, Joseph Clunk, (1895-1975), was hired a year later. Working in the federal Office of Education, Clunk’s main duty was to administer the new law. It seems he held this role until at least 1949, when he became Managing Director of the Philadelphia Association for the Blind.


The WPA provided employment and training of blind workers in Atlanta, Georgia, in the production of goods like brooms, baskets and rugs, some of which were distributed to low-income Americans. Courtesy, NARA.

Many blind Americans found employment in the WPA, where they received instruction in various occupations. The WPA photograph collection at the National Archives reveals many such projects implemented to help the blind become more self-supporting. For example, WPA workers transcribed books into Braille using Braille writers, a machine similar to a typewriter, and recorded “talking books,” precursors to today’s audio books. WPA workers installed labels in Braille at the garden at the Indiana State School for the Blind in Indianapolis. The Public Works Administration (PWA) also provided funding for special education facilities, such as the elementary school on the campus of the Romney School for the Deaf and Blind in Romney, Virginia, one of several such facilities still in use today.


A WPA Braille Map at the Perkins Institute for the Blind, Watertown, Massachusetts, 1936. Courtesy, NARA.

President Roosevelt was not a dispassionate observer of these efforts. In a 1935 telephone call he congratulated the American Foundation for the Blind on the dedication of its new Administration Building in New York, saying he was proud of his association with Helen Keller, whom he would later make chairman of a federal committee to promote goods made by the blind. Keller, blind and deaf since childhood, worked for the foundation for more than forty years.


Blind adults in Atlanta, Georgia learn to read and write Braille. Courtesy, NARA.

FDR also said he considered it “a privilege to have a part in aiding the betterment of conditions for those who have been handicapped by lack of vision and, when I say lack of vision, I mean it in the purely physical sense, because people who are blind certainly have a splendid vision in every other way.”

Brent McKee is a Living New Deal Research Associate (the first, in fact!) and a core member of the LND team. He lives in West Virginia.

A Living for Us All

Dorothea Lange, White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933

Dorothea Lange, White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933
Collection SFMOMA, Gift of Steven M. Raas and Sandra S. Raas; © Oakland Museum of California, the City of Oakland, gift of Paul S. Taylor; photo: Don Ross.

The process felt like a treasure hunt—or Christmas morning. Box by box, my San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) colleagues and I sifted through 870 artworks made under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), most of which hadn’t had eyes on them for years.

Working throughout 2021 in the museum’s subterranean storage, I and three fellow curators narrowed down our WPA collection to just over fifty objects that would comprise our 2022 exhibition A Living for Us All: Artists and the WPA.

One of the ideas that propels my curatorial practice is my strong belief in the lessons historical material holds for the present. SFMOMA has stewarded an allocation of WPA art works and ephemera since 1943, when the federal art programs concluded and thousands of artworks commissioned during the Great Depression were distributed to institutions across the country.

David P. Chun, Unemployed, ca. 1935

David P. Chun, Unemployed, ca. 1935
Collection SFMOMA, Albert M. Bender Collection, gift of Albert M. Bender; © Estate of David P. Chun; photo: Don Ross.

Nearly eighty years later, when the precarity that typically clouds many artists’ livelihoods was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the time seemed ripe to look back on the WPA as a model for what’s possible when art is regarded as a public resource. During the Great Depression, the WPA sustained some 10,000 artists whose works have come to define the American experience.

Since this swath of SFMOMA’s collection has been so understudied, our first step was to catalog the range of WPA artworks, which spans paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures and textiles.  Piece by piece, we recorded such information as the name of the artist, title, medium and date, while noting objects that impressed us as true standouts—whether for their artistry, subject matter or condition. A particularly thrilling find was a vibrantly colored, abstract tapestry by the artist George Harris so pristine that it’s likely that the box it was stored in hadn’t been opened in decades.

Sibyl Anikeef, Filipino Lettuce Worker, Salinas, California, 1936

Sibyl Anikeef, Filipino Lettuce Worker, Salinas, California, 1936
Collection SFMOMA, The United States General Services Administration, formerly Federal Works Agency, Works Projects Administration (WPA), allocation to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; photo: Don Ross.

As cataloging progressed and the pile of standouts grew, so did the number of possible themes for the exhibition. The selection coalesced around themes like labor and industry, but also—surprisingly— surrealism and abstraction. I had always associated art of the 1930s and 1940s with social realism, but the amount of work more abstract in nature was truly astonishing.

Gradually, it became clear that the central contribution of our exhibition would be to underscore the WPA’s eclecticism, recuperating the vast scope of styles the artists turned to in giving visual form to their communities and circumstances. It was thrilling to display artworks of different media together in the same space, which is somewhat atypical of collection presentations at SFMOMA.

Sibyl Anikeef, Cypress, 1941

Sibyl Anikeef, Cypress, 1941
Collection SFMOMA, The United States General Services Administration, formerly Federal Works Agency, Works Projects Administration (WPA), allocation to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; photo: Don Ross.

Our strategy to interweave media enabled us to draw unexpected connections. One such highlight was juxtaposing a woodblock by David P. Chun with a documentary photograph by Dorothea Lange, both depicting the White Angel Breadline on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Lange’s portrait is iconic, so it was remarkable to discover a print depicting the same scene and with a different, wider perspective. Whereas Lange focused on one man to symbolize the struggle of many, Chun exploited the woodcut technique’s capacity for texture to underscore the weariness in his subjects’ faces.

We also seized the opportunity to research under-sung artists like Sibyl Anikeef, one of eight photographers who documented California for the Federal Art Project. Ancestry.com came to the rescue in confirming Anikeef’s and other artists’ life dates and trajectories. Born in Chicago, Anikeef settled in Carmel in the 1930s with her husband Vasile, a Russian opera singer. Whether depicting agricultural laborers or twisted cypress trees along California’s coast, her work from this period is marked by a profound lyricism.

Ida Abelman, Countryside, ca. 1935-1943 

Ida Abelman, Countryside, 1935-1943
Collection SFMOMA, The United States General Services Administration, formerly Federal Works Agency, Works Projects Administration (WPA), allocation to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; photo: Don Ross.

We used wall labels to flesh out the historical context and details of how the art programs operated. The label for Ida Abelman’s woodcut Countryside, for instance, relates that she was paid $23 per week for her work with the New York chapter of the Federal Art Project. A vitrine in the second room held a number of documentary photos of artists at work in media we could not otherwise display, like murals, mosaics and sculpture.

It was such a joy to work on this exhibition, which was a collaboration among early-career curators from different departments at SFMOMA. The icing on the cake was a tour for the Living New Deal! We hope that this exhilarating project leads to more New Deal curatorial projects in the future, as it remains a facet of our collection that deserves far more attention.

Learn More: https://www.vox.com/culture/21294431/new-deal-wpa-federal-art-project-coronavirus

Emilia Mickevicius, Ph.D is a historian and curator of photography, and works in the Photography department at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She received her Ph.D from Brown University in 2019. Her research has been supported by the Henry Luce Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Getty Research Institute, and the Center for Creative Photography.

A Forest at Your Doorstep

FDR speaks at Greenbelt

FDR speaks at Greenbelt
The president visited the partially completed town on November 13, 1936. “I have reviewed the plans but the reality exceeds my expectation,” he said. Pictured L-R: Rex Tugwell, head of the Resettlement Administration; President Roosevelt; and Wallace Richards, Executive Officer, Greenbelt Project. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Joblessness and homelessness during the Great Depression led the federal government in 1935 to demonstrate how modest, well-built homes could improve the lives of ordinary Americans if these homes were located, designed and managed to promote “family and community life.” The plan was described in a 1937 pamphlet, Greenbelt Towns, published by the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration.

Forests were essential to several New Deal initiatives, including this planned-community program. Of the three greenbelt towns the federal government built, Greenbelt, Maryland, most strongly expressed the idea of a “belt of green.” The surrounding forests, parks, farms and gardens were intended to prevent encroachment from outside development and


Photo taken from the Goodyear Blimp in May, 1936, shows the forests and fields surrounding the town. While much of the town’s original green space has since been developed, and the mix of tree species has changed, eighty years on, a “belt of green,” now preserved, still defines the town. Photo annotations by O. Kelley. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

strengthen the bonds of community by encouraging residents to spend their leisure time in town with the natural world a short walk from their front doors. Greenbelt was shaped by the Garden City ideals of Ebenezer Howard and Clarence Stein. Within a Garden City, a neighborhood was defined as having homes within a half-mile walk from a central cluster of public buildings to include an elementary school or community center. Buildings and footpaths were embedded in forest and grassy common areas where residents could connect with their neighbors. Stein wrote about this aspect of Greenbelt in Toward New Towns for America, and his struggle to make these ideas stick in the sometimes chaotic and rushed atmosphere of the New Deal.


FDR motorcade touring the Greenbelt Lake dam. The forested tract in the background has been owned by the town since the federal government sold the land in 1950–1954. It was added to the Greenbelt Forest Preserve in 2007. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Foreshadowing Greenbelt’s future, FDR in his 1938 introduction to Public Papers and Addresses, described the pendulum of participatory democracy, whereby the wealthy few exercise the lion’s share of political power and then, a few decades later, popular movements would force the government to accommodate the people’s needs and desires. Broadly speaking, the pendulum swung toward participatory democracy during the Great Depression in the form of protests, labor organizing and federal legislation shaped by the demands of the grassroots.


The town’s iconic Mother and Child sculpture, by WPA artist Lenore Thomas, 1937. Footpaths wend through Greenbelt’s landscape, in keeping with Garden City planning principles of using green space to nurture a sense of community. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The original plan for the Greenbelt envisioned cooperative ownership of community assets—and idea that lives on today. Cooperatives own Greenbelt’s New Deal-era townhomes and 87 acres of protected woodland, the grocery store and the town’s weekly newspaper, founded in 1937.

For decades, Greenbelt residents have fought to preserve their town’s namesake. From 1950–1954, the federal government carried out part of the greenbelt plan that called for selling much of the land to a housing cooperative and the town government. In the 1960s, with sprawl radiating from Washington DC, Greenbelt residents elected a conservation-minded city council and began buying back land the housing cooperative had sold to developers. By 1989, the city owned a contiguous 245-acre forested tract of the original green belt and designated it the Greenbelt Forest Preserve. It protects century-old trees and a variety of habitats—vernal pools, wetlands, oak-hickory stands and a heath ecosystem similar to New Jersey’s pine barrens.

In 1997, Greenbelt’s New Deal-era buildings and adjacent forests became a National Historic Landmark.

"Promote the General Welfare" by Lenore Thomas

"Promote the General Welfare" by Lenore Thomas
Public artworks throughout Greenbelt reflect social and economic themes, an interest in the common man and the pursuit of democratic ideals. The Center School exterior features bas reliefs inspired by nature and the Preamble to the US Constitution. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1937. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Inspired by their town’s founding ideals, Greenbelt’s residents continue to resist threats to their community and its greenbelt. Residents have organized to oppose a high-speed rail project that imperils the Forest Preserve and natural areas to the north, and are pushing elected officials to defeat the proposed plan. It’s the sort of citizen activism Greenbelt’s New Deal planners envisioned from the start.”

Learn more:
greenbeltmuseum.org

https://livingnewdeal.org/projects/city-of-greenbelt-greenbelt-md/

FDR and the Environment, Editors Henry L. Henderson and David B. Woolner (2005); Douglas Brinkley’s Rightful Heritage (2016). “Clarence Stein and the Greenbelt Towns,” Journal of the Am. Planning Assoc., (1990); and The New Deal in the Suburbs, a history of the Greenbelt town program, 1935-1954, by Tracy Augur.

Owen A. Kelley is an atmospheric scientist at George Mason University, working with NASA's precipitation-measuring satellites. A resident of Greenbelt, he studies the natural world in his spare time. This story is adapted from his 2021 photo essay, BEING: Biota Ephemera In Greenbelt. He also wrote A Hundred Wild Things: a Field Guide to Plants in the Greenbelt North Woods. https://www.greenbeltonline.org/okelley/.

The Fearless Federal Theater

Hallie Flanagan

Hallie Flanagan
As the director of the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project from 1935 to 1939, Flanagan oversaw the hiring of thousands of unemployed theater workers and the production of nearly 64,000 theatrical performances for over 30 million audience members. Courtesy, NARA.

Compared to the New Deal’s overall expenditures, the budget of the WPA arts projects was laughably small, and the Federal Theater Project’s was even smaller—a mere tenth of one percent. But the Federal Theater, begun in 1935 under the bold leadership of the 5-foot dynamo Hallie Flanagan, still managed to introduce this country to an astonishing range of new ideas that still resonate nearly a century later.

Hallie Flanagan was an adored teacher at Vassar when she took on the Federal Theater job. She was promised by WPA boss Harry Hopkins that the Federal Theater would be “free, adult and uncensored.” She took this as permission to innovate in surprising ways.

Since the goal was to create jobs, there were plenty of old chestnuts among Federal Theater productions—domestic comedies, musical revues, circuses, vaudeville.


The FTP’s “Living Newspaper” dramatized current and historical events. “One-Third of a Nation” portrayed the housing crisis. The title is taken from FDR’s second inaugural address, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
Courtesy, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

But Flanagan also found ways to make necessity the mother of invention. There was a need to create shows that employed large numbers both backstage and on. She used her experience in Europe, where she watched the theater of the left present the news cabaret-style, to develop something she called the Living Newspaper—a series of performances that put hundreds to work presenting an in-depth look at issues of the day.  One Living Newspaper called One-Third of a Nation focused on the perils of slum housing: the set caught fire at the opening of the play and again at the end, dramatizing the relentlessness of poverty. Other Living Newspapers addressed the struggles of farmers, the threat of monopolies and even the spread of syphilis.   

Playbill, 1937
Federal Theater Project production, “Life and Death of an American,” by George Sklar. Courtesy, LOC.

“We are going to make a country in which no one is left out,” Franklin Roosevelt said more than once, and no one worked harder than Hallie Flanagan at making this a reality. Even the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were visited by the Federal Theater Project: a team of professional actors descended on the camps to stage a mock trial, with men from the camp recruited for some of the roles. The audience loved it. The CCC Murder Mystery toured 256 CCC camps along the East Coast, and could have toured the country had the budget allowed.

Flanagan’s most daring gambit may well have been her plan to dramatize Sinclair Lewis’ novel about a fascist takeover, It Can’t Happen Here, and open it on the same night in theaters

Poster "It Can't Happen Here"

It Can't Happen Here
The Federal Theatre opened a stage version of Sinclair Lewis’ anti-fascist drama in 21 cities on the same night in 1936. Courtesy, LOC.

around the country—a subtle way of challenging the American assumption that fascism could never happen in the United States.  It was a massive organizational challenge—especially since the plan was to open the play in Yiddish and Spanish as well as English, and on Broadway as well as on the pop-up stage of a touring truck. In the end, It Can’t Happen Here played a total of 260 weeks, or five years, in theaters around the country. “Thousands of Americans who do not know what a Fascist dictatorship would mean,” wrote The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, “now have an opportunity to find out.”


The crowd outside Harlem’s Lafayette Theater for opening of the FTP’s Negro Division performance of “MacBeth,” directed by Orson Wells. Courtesy, LOC.

There can be no doubt that the Federal Theater’s approach to race was what most angered and alarmed the right-wing bigots in Congress and led to the FTP’s demise in 1939. All-Black productions were one of the most exciting aspects of Federal Theater from the start.  A production of Macbeth set in Haiti and performed at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem under the direction of Orson Welles, was a critical and popular success—providing a chance, as the Amsterdam News noted, “to abandon banana and burnt-cork casting” and “play a universal character.” 

An all-Black Swing Mikado was another huge hit. But even more controversial, in the eyes of southern senators, was the Federal

Martin Dies
Senator Martin Dies (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, 1940
Courtesy, Wikipedia.

Theater’s policy of casting Blacks and whites in the same shows. When the House Un-American Activities Committee, led by Texas Senator Martin Dies, began to investigate the Federal Theater, they called a witness, Sally Saunders, who told them, with dismay and disgust, that a Black man in the company

had dared to ask her out on a date. Such testimony was used, as Flanagan noted after it was all over, as “a way to hang the New Deal in effigy.”

Congress chose “for that purpose a project small and scattered enough so that protest would not cost too many votes, and potent enough to stir up prejudice.”  She observed: “They were “afraid of the Project, but not for the reasons they mentioned on the floor of the Congress. They were afraid of the Federal Theater because it was educating the people of its vast new audience to know more about such vital issues of the day as housing, power, agriculture and labor,”  They were afraid—and rightly so—of thinking people.”

Susan Quinn is the author of Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times (Walker Publishing Company, 2008, now available from Plunkett Lake Press). Susan and her husband Daniel Jacobs are the authors of a new play, Enter Hallie, which intertwines the stories of Hallie Flanagan’s private struggle and public fight for the Federal Theater. The play will be the subject of a Living New Deal webinar on September 22.

The Harlem Renaissance and the New Deal

Students at Harlem Community Art Center, 1938, By David Robbins

Students at Harlem Community Art Center, 1938, By David Robbins
Courtesy, Archives of American Art. Courtesy, Archives of American Art.

The Harlem Renaissance stands as one of the most important art movements in American history. The years 1918-1937 saw an outpouring of music, theatre, literature and visual art from this historical Black neighborhood in Upper Manhattan.

Federal “relief” dollars employed hundreds of Black visual artists, both on public art projects and as instructors at the WPA-funded community arts centers that nourished the Harlem arts movement.

The Federal Arts Project of the WPA commissioned more than five hundred murals for New York City’s public hospitals. The murals at the Harlem Hospital Center were the first major federal government commissions awarded to African-Americans.

"Mother Goose Fairy Tales" by Selma Day for the children's medical ward, Harlem Hospital, Manhattan, 1938
Courtesy, urbanarchive.org.

These murals by Charles Alston, Vertis Hayes, Elba Lightfoot, Georgette Seabrook, Morgan Smith, Louis Vaughn and Hale Woodruff, commissioned in 1936, depict the evolution from traditional to modern medicine and scenes of Harlem life. After decades of renovations and building changes, some of the murals had all but disappeared. They were rediscovered during a campus modernization project in 2004. Controversial at the time they were painted for their focus on Black life and culture, the murals are now regarded as national treasures. Five of the murals were restored and reinstalled at the hospital in 2005.

Sculptor Augusta Savage led art classes in Harlem, 1938
Photo by Andrew Herman. Courtesy, Federal Art Project Digital Collection.

Other works by Black artists of the WPA include the Harlem River Houses auditorium friezes, Green Pastures and Walls of Jericho, painted by Richmond Barthé in 1937; and the Queens Hospital mural by Georgette Seabrook, completed in 1935. Aspects of Negro Life, a 1934 mural by Aaron Douglas, is still on display at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a focal point of Harlem’s cultural life.

Harlem’s community art centers served as incubators for many Black artists. Best known is the Harlem Community Art Center (1937-1942). Co-directed by sculptor August Savage and painter Gwendolyn Bennett, both of whom worked for the WPA, the Center opened on December 27,1937, with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attending.

Children’s class at the Harlem Community Art Center, 1939
Photo by Berenice Abbott, Photography Collection, NYPL.

In summarizing the accomplishments of the Harlem Community Art Center, Bennett reported that 70,592 children and adults had participated in classes, lectures and demonstrations during the Center’s first sixteen months.

Teachers included Charles Alston, a painter, sculptor and muralist; James Lesesne Wells, a graphic designer and printmaker who directed the Harlem Art Workshop; Selma Burke, a sculptor and early member of the Harlem Artist Guild; and Henry Bannarn, a painter, sculptor and arts educator. Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence,


Artist Romare Bearden was active in many arts organizations, including the Harlem Artists Guild. Courtesy, Beardenfoundation.org.

Gwendolyn Knight, Norman Lewis, Ernest Crichlow and Marvin Smith also emerged from Harlem’s art centers, including the Harlem Art Workshop, Uptown Art Gallery, the “306,” a converted stables at 306 West 141st Street that became a hub of political discourse, and the Salon of Contemporary Art.

The New Deal years also spawned advocacy groups for Black artists. The Vanguard and the Harlem Artist Guild, for example, successfully campaigned for more Black supervisors to be hired on WPA art projects and for equitable pay with whites.


Artist Aaron Douglas, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, shown with Arthur Schomburg in front of Douglas’s mural “Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers,” 1934. Courtesy, Photographs & Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL.

The New Deal is a model for how both artists and communities can thrive and prosper. It benefitted not only those hired to produce public art but also neighborhood art centers, which contributed to the community cohesion, literacy and vitality that would empower generations to come. 

Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson is a theatre designer, artist and educator in Berkeley, California. She is a founding faculty member of the Visual and Public Art program at Cal State, Monterey Bay.

Audio Archaeology

FAP Art Sold as Scrap

FAP Art Sold as Scrap
New York curio shop owner Henry Roberts shows one of hundreds of FAP easel paintings he offered for sale at prices from $3 to $44 in 1944. He obtained the artworks from a scrap dealer who had purchased a job lot of “junk canvas” at a government surplus sale. Courtesy, LOC.gov Prints & Photos Division.

Like artifacts from a lost civilization, oral histories conducted by the Archives of American Art (AAA) in 1964-1965 have kept alive the thoughts and memories of New Deal artists, craftspeople and administrators for those of us in their future.

The interviews, conducted more than two decades after the New Deal’s art programs were dissolved, constitute an invaluable supplement to the vast body of material culture that these government-commissioned artists produced. Like the famous slave narratives gathered by the WPA’s Federal Writers Project from 1936 to 1938, the interviews with New Deal artists and administrators constitute an audio archaeology of those who have since passed on.

The Archives of American Art (AAA) was founded in Detroit in 1954 and ten years later launched an oral history initiative to document the arts programs of the Roosevelt administration. The AIA moved to Washington, D.C. in 1970 to become a unit of the Smithsonian Institution.  

“The abrupt termination of the projects and the situation in Washington during the war made an orderly gathering together of the results of the projects impossible,” an article in the Archives’ Journal at the time explained.  “We undertook the study because we believe that this is an area of America’s cultural history which is badly in need of clarification and that the time is right for a thorough, objective study of the New Deal and its art projects.”

Beating the Chinese, “History of San Francisco,” by Anton Refregier, 1941
Conservatives in Congress wanted the mural series destroyed. Courtesy, LOC.

Time was of the essence thirty years after the federal art projects began. Many of the records and artworks had by then been scattered or burned. Some of those who had worked in the art projects had already died, but many were still in middle age and were cogent, opinionated and eager to pass on what they remembered.

Through the interviews one can hear the voices of of FSA photographers Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein, CCC artist and architect Victor Steinbrueck, Resettlement Administration head Rexford Tugwell, artist and photographer Ben Shahn, sculptor Mary Fuller McChesney and hundreds of other painters, sculptors, administrators and craftspeople.

Last year, the Archives launched an ambitious series of podcasts titled Articulated: Dispatches from the Archives of American Art. The first four episodes produced and narrated by the AAA’s Scholar for Oral History Ben Gillespie and Digital Experience Chief Michelle Herman featured Living New Deal team members Richard Walker, Barbara Bernstein and myself, as well as other scholars and archivists who use the interviews to learn about an unprecedented experiment in public arts patronage.


Sculptor Mary Fuller McChesney appears at her one-woman show at the Artists’ Guild Gallery, San Francisco, 1947. Courtesy, eichlernetwork.com.

The podcasts comprise interviews recorded in homes and studios under less-than-ideal conditions. The subjects are heard over a background of barking dogs, ringing telephones, children and typewriters. Memories that otherwise would have been lost nonetheless live on, captured by astute interviewers who were often themselves artists and even friends of their subjects, sometimes willing to lubricate their conversations with a gifted bottle of scotch.  

I, myself, have used the extensive papers of the New Deal artist Anton Refregier at the AAA to learn more about his intentions for the immense historical cycle he painted for San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office in 1946-1947, the last artwork produced under the federal arts programs.

"Artists in WPA," by Moses Soyer, 1935
“Artists in WPA,” by Moses Soyer, 1935. Courtesy, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Employed by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, Refregier considered the 28 murals depicting the history of California his masterpiece, so I also wanted to know his thoughts during an extraordinary 1953 hearing at which reactionary Congressmen sought to destroy the murals for what they asserted were its anti-American content.

The AAA has digitized five minutes of an interview with Refregier, so hearing his Russian-inflected voice at home was like encountering an old friend whom I had never met but knew well.  “Ref” began by advocating for a renewed program of government-sponsored arts for public spaces like those that had once employed him.


Arthur Rothstein, photographer for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA).
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

For its pioneering 1976 exhibition of New Deal art in California, the DeSaisset Museum at the University of Santa Clara secured an NEH grant to make video recordings of many New Deal artists alive at the time. Copies of those recordings are now in the possession of the AAA, which itself relies on grants and donations to carry on its work of transmitting knowledge to the present and future.

With sufficient funding, the AAA hopes to digitize those recordings so that anyone excavating the cultural archaeology of the New Deal will be able to see, as well as hear, the departed men and women who left the abundance of riches that survives.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

A Cornerstone for Conservation

Department of the Interior Building, Washington, D.C.

Department of the Interior Building, Washington, D.C.
Commissioned by the FDR Administration and now officially named for former DOI Secretary Stewart Lee Udall, the building contains a large collection of New Deal art. Courtesy, D.C. Preservation League.

In 1940, The Washington Post featured a 9-page photo essay on the capital’s new Department of Interior building. In photographs and text, the agency’s diverse functions were richly described. The building’s fashionable Art Deco or Moderne design and large, colorful public murals express New Deal progressive sentiments and faith in the government’s capacity to ensure the country’s prosperity. FDR described the building as “symbolical of the Nation’s vast resources that we are sworn to protect,” when he laid its cornerstone four years earlier and expressed his wish that the building’s construction represents the founding of “a conservation policy that will guarantee to future Americans the richness of their heritage.”

Harold Ickes (nickname "Honest Harold")

Harold Ickes (nickname "Honest Harold") 
FDR’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes oversaw the design and construction of the department’s massive new headquarters. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

DOI Secretary Harold Ickes was intimately involved in the design and planning of the new building, and his selection of Native artists to paint several murals made clear that significant aspects of this heritage were to be found in its Indigenous cultures. The cafeteria, Indian arts-and-crafts shop and employee lounge were decorated with murals by Native artists. The building also included a gallery and a museum to house the agency’s Native art collection.

The Post’s coverage of the building included several photos of murals by Native artists and the American Indian arts and crafts displayed on government workers’ desks and office walls. Euro-American administrators were posed in front of murals related to the functions of their particular departments. Employees of Native ancestry were prominently featured in photographs. Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier was shown meeting with Navajo artisans Ambrose Roanhorse and Chester Yellowhair.

"Laying of the Cornerstone”

Laying the cornerstone
Department of Interior Building, 1935. From left, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Presidential Aide Gus Gennerich, Architect Waddy B. Wood, and Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes. Courtesy, Waddy Wood Papers, Architectural Records Collection, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

A caption reads “visitors to the new Interior Building must step on Indian mats and pass huge buffalo seals made into the floor. Bright Indian blankets and rugs hang in glass cases, and around almost any corner there may be a niche for Indian baskets or pottery. Indian murals in the penthouse cafeteria…rate among the best wall decorations in town.”

Many murals are the work of well-known American Regionalists such as John Steuart Curry and Social Realists like William Gropper. Several Native American artists were chosen for the murals project, including James Auchiah (Kiowa), Stephen Mopope (Kiowa), Gerald Nailor (Navajo), Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache), Woody Crumbo (Creek/Potawatomi) and Velino Herrera (Zia Pueblo).

Interior Department Mural by Velino Herrera 

Interior Department Mural by Velino Herrera (Zia Pueblo)
Interior Department Building, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The style of these works conforms to centuries-old traditions of representation—a significant contrast to the building’s Moderne style, which reflects its European modernist lineage. The subjects of the murals by the indigenous artists were equally tradition-bound, depicting traditional communal activities such as seasonal dances, buffalo hunts and arts-and-crafts production.

Interior Department Mural by Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache)

Interior Department Mural by Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache)
Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

It is noteworthy that within a building styled to express the forward-thinking character of New Deal policies and programs, we find a large number of artistic expressions that convey a quite different message. The new DOI building and its art seem to convey the belief that America owes an important debt to its Native cultures. At the same time, however, it expresses the idea that Euro-Americans need a tradition-bound, constrained “other” for their own self construction as a people free and unconstrained.

Art historian Jennifer McLerran is former professor of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University. She has served as curator of Native American art at the Kennedy Museum of Art at Ohio University, the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff and currently is a consultant to the Smithsonian on an upcoming exhibit of Native American textiles. Her upcoming webinar—Thursday, February 24, 2022, 5pm, PST—which is based on her book,“A New Deal for Native Art, Indian Arts and Federal Policy, 1933-1943,”will explore the government’s complicated role in promoting Native American arts and crafts. Free. Register.

Pare Lorenz and the U.S. Film Service Take on America’s Problems


Documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz headed the U.S. Film Service. Credit, Wikipedia.

Highlighting the nation’s problems during the Great Depression—and the federal government’s responses to those problems—was the job of the United States Film Service, established in 1938 as part of the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The Service’s inspiration was Pare Lorentz, a pioneer in the production of documentary films. Lorentz, a native of West Virginia, directed the U.S. Film Service from 1938 until 1940.

Lorentz’s first film, The Plow That Broke the Plains, about the Dust Bowl, was completed for the federal government in 1936. Hired to head the Film Service, Lorentz soon added The River, to his film credits. Completed in 1938 under the FSA, The River dealt with the disastrous floods along the Mississippi River and construction of Norris and Wheeler Dams.

The Plow That Broke the Plains

The Plow That Broke the Plains
This classic film about the Dust Bowl has been one of the most widely studied documentaries. It was the first film to be placed in Congressional archives. Photo by Arthur Rothstein. Credit: Library of Congress.

Both films employed forceful narration and a dramatic soundtrack to expose how over-farming and soil erosion contributed to natural disasters and the New Deal’s response in the form of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Soil Conservation Service, Civilian Conservation Corps and other conservation initiatives. Lorentz used this tried-and-true style to direct or supervise three more documentary films for the Film Service.

The Fight for Life (1940), about a community health program to reduce maternal mortality, utilized professional actors. (Will Geer would later portray “Grandpa” in The Walton’s). It concludes with a tense scene in which a new mother pleads, “You won’t let me die, will you doctor?” (No spoilers here!)

Film Poster for "The River," directed by Lorentz and produced by the FSA.

Film Poster for "The River," directed by Lorentz and produced by the FSA.
The companion book to The River was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Credit, NARA.

The excellent, tightly focused Power and the Land (1940) follows a farming family as they go about their daily chores, pre- and post the Rural Electrification Administration that transformed remote areas of the country—no more oil lamps, just a flip of the switch!

The Land (1949) explores farming problems of the 1930s. It features a segment on Latino migrant workers and music by the National Youth Administration, but the narration is dull and the film falls flat.

The U.S. Film Service ended in the same way many other New Deal programs ended—it was defunded by national defense distractions and an increasingly hostile Congress.

After the New Deal, Lorentz created training films during World War II, worked as a film consultant and produced two notable documentaries: Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (1946) and Rural Co-op (1947), but struggled to raise money for other film projects. He died in 1992 at age 86.  

His legacy lives on, aided by the Pare Lorentz Center at the FDR Presidential Library & Museum and the IDA Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund, which supports independent films about society’s most pressing problems.

Great Mississippi Flood, Arkansas City, Arkansas, 1927

Great Mississippi Flood, Arkansas City, Arkansas, 1927
Poor farming and timber practices led to one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. New Deal conservation efforts were featured in Lorentz’s films. Credit, NOAA.

Were Lorentz alive today—and running a U.S. Film Service—one could expect to see documentaries about such problems as global warming, ocean pollution, wildfires and America’s growing economic inequality playing at local movie theaters. Lorentz believed in the power of film to enlighten the electorate and inspire social change. (He also felt that Hollywood was spending too much time on the frivolous).

Brent McKee is a Living New Deal Research Associate (the first, in fact!) and a core member of the LND team. He lives in West Virginia.