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 core member of the LND team. He lives in West Virginia

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.

Neil M. Maher is a Professor of History in the Federated History Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University at Newark. His first book, Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (Oxford University Press, 2009), received the Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Book Award.

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

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.

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. 

James Steinbauer is an Ohio-based freelance reporter who frequently writes about the environment. A version of this article appeared in the August 2021 issue of Sierra Magazine.

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.”

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

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.

 

 

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