Official program and guidebook American Negro Exposition that opened the Chicago Coliseum on July 4, 1940.
Photo Credit: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The official program of the Diamond Jubilee of Negro Progress, which opened at the Chicago Coliseum on July 4, 1940, proudly states, “This is the first real Negro World’s Fair in all history…The Exposition will promote racial understanding and good will; enlighten the world to the contributions of the Negro to civilization and make the Negro conscious of his dramatic progress since emancipation.”
Duke Ellington played during the Bronze America beauty contest. Arctic explorer Matthew Henson was lauded, as was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the man who performed the first successful open-heart surgery. The popular dance team, Pops and Laurie, performed in a production of “Tropics After Dark.” Mechanical Man greeted visitors to the Labor section of the fair. Paul Robeson sang ‘Ol’ Man River’ and poet Langston Hughes co-wrote a musical pageant for the Jubilee. Not to be outdone, choral director J. Westley Jones led a chorus of voices, a thousand strong, under seven large religious murals painted by Aaron Douglas.
Truman Gibson, executive director of the American Negro Exposition With replica of Springfield’s Lincoln Monument at the Chicago Coliseum.
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune
The Firestone Rubber Company sponsored an educational exhibit on Liberia, the West African nation founded by freed slaves, then the focus of a Black repatriation movement by the American Colonization Society. The fair’s journalism booth showcased the mastheads of 235 Black newspapers. The greatest collection of Negro art ever assembled was on exhibit, as was the Court of Dioramas—33 dioramas the Exposition’s program extolls as “spectacularly beautiful,” and “historically important… illustrating the Negro’s large and valuable contributions to the progress of America and the world.”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened the fair with the press of a button from his Hyde Park, New York home. The fair was the brainchild of James Washington, a Chicago real estate developer. He successfully lobbied the Illinois legislature to appropriate $75,000 for the project. Soon after, Congress matched those funds. Washington hoped the fair would counteract the stereotypes of Black people perpetuated by the 1933 World’s Fair that also took place in Chicago. That fair included a “Darkest Africa” exhibit that offered visitors voyages in canoes “manned by dusky natives.”
Hall of Flags overlooking the American Negro Exposition The columns in the center surround the Court of Dioramas.
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune Archive
The fair was hoping to draw two million visitors to the mammoth convention hall to celebrate the contributions of Blacks to America since emancipation 75 years previous. The President was honored to participate, and Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly said, “The nation pays a debt of gratitude to the Negroes today.”
The exposition was dominated by booths showcasing the many New Deal programs and accomplishments. There was a booth for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); another for the Federal Works Agency (FWA). “The contribution of the Federal Government to the social and economic progress of the American Negro,” reads the official program, “is the theme of the Exhibit of the Federal Works Agency occupying a commanding space in the Exposition Hall.” The program goes on extolling the virtues of the FWA, citing that the previous year, 300,000 Negro workers were employed on WPA projects and were paid some $15 million in wages.
Mechanical Man A popular exhibit of the U.S. Dept of Labor
Photo Credit: American Negro Exposition Official Program and Guidebook
The Illinois WPA’s Writers’ Program wrote a book on the fair, Cavalcade of the American Negro, published by the Diamond Jubilee Exposition Authority, it highlighted Black history along with the fair’s extensive offerings, including 33 plaster dioramas, which took center stage at Coliseum.
The dioramas depicted contributions of Africans and others of African descent to world events and culture since Black slaves built the Great Sphinx of Giza. Measuring about 4 by 5 feet, and exquisitely detailed, each diorama was populated with sculpted figures of wood or clay. One diorama depicts the Boston Massacre that ended the life of Crispus Attucks, thought to be the first colonist to die in the American Revolution. Another is of enslaved Africans disembarking a ship onto Virginia soil in 1619. There’s one of dancers celebrating Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, dating back to 1865. Another one honors the Black soldiers of World War I.
Pin American Negro Exposition
Photo Credit: Live Auctioneers
African American artist Charles Dawson designed the 33 dioramas and supervised the 120 Black artisans employed to create them. Twenty of the dioramas are housed at Alabama’s Tuskegee University’s Legacy Museum. Conservators with the Alliance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) oversaw the restoration of the dioramas, introducing Black students to the field of art conservation.
Dr. Jontyle Robinson, Curator and Assistant Professor at the Legacy Museum notes that those “who organized the 1940 Negro Exposition in Chicago understood the importance of African Americans to American History.” The dioramas reflect that, and are part of that history themselves.
Restoration Kiera Hammond works on the diorama of the Boston Massacre death of Crispus Attucks.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Winterthur Museum
Other than these twenty dioramas, little else remains of those 1940 Jubilee days. The fate of the13 missing dioramas remains unknown. The Mechanical Man who drew crowds has rusted into oblivion. The remnants of the Chicago Coliseum itself were finally cleared in the early 1990s. Coliseum Park, a dog park across from where the imposing building once stood is the only acknowledgement of the Coliseum in the neighborhood’s history.
When the exposition closed on September 2, 1940, only 250,000 visitors had taken in the exposition, far fewer than the producers had hoped. In the eyes of many, it was deemed a failure. Yet, the first real Negro World’s Fair still resonates 80 years later. As Dr. Robinson says, “All the police brutality, mass incarceration, lynching, health disparities, red lining, Jim Crow laws and economic discrimination cannot disrupt the truth.”
And the truth is, Black Americans contributions continue and continue.
Ticket Stub American Negro Exposition celebrating 75 years of progress and achievement.
Photo Credit: Swan Auction Galleries
Diorama Detail “The Landing of Slaves in Virginia, 1619”
Photo Credit: Julianna Ly
by Richard Walker Abstract: A Green New Deal is the best way to deal with climate change, economic crisis and social-political disintegration in one sweep. The original New Deal offers the best model for a Green New Deal because it faced similar challenges of conservation, economic collapse, immiseration and political reaction in the 1930s and was successful in overcoming them. Indeed, like the New Deal, the United States today needs nothing less than a program of national reconstruction and renewal that is more than the sum of carbon reduction, infrastructure investment, more jobs and better wages.
The New Deal was not only successful in its time but provides an excellent model for public policy today. As a nation we face a set of profound challenges comparable to the era of the Great Depression, requiring an equally ambitious and thorough attack led by the federal government – the only entity with the power, money and scale to take charge. The lessons of the New Deal enumerated here offer hope for an embattled nation and a guide to redirecting public policy following 40 years of neoliberal deconstruction.
The New Deal provides guidelines for how to attack the major crises of today. Climate change and economic recession get most of the attention because global warming is bearing down like a runaway train and the economy has gone off a cliff. But the nation faces a massive deficit of investment in infrastructure and lags behind Europe and Asia in modern public amenities. A gulf between the rich and the rest has precipitated a social crisis marked by underfunded education, gnawing poverty and personal despair. The US is in the throes of a deep political crisis that has the republic teetering on the brink.
The only way to address these challenges is the kind of sweeping program that the Green New Deal has come to summarize. A half-century of experience with neoliberalism has shown that there is no alternative to strong government action led by mass popular mobilization. Nothing less than a Green New Deal will save the country from climate change, economic depression, a crumbling foundation, social malaise, concentration of power and political disintegration.
It needs emphasizing just how radical the New Deal was in terms of the long sweep of US history and how thoroughly it refashioned the country and its politics. The left has spent too much time criticizing the New Deal and FDR for what they did not do – bring the revolution, end White Supremacy, liberate women, etc. We would do better to appreciate what they did, in fact, accomplish in just one decade, 1933-1942 – roughly the time left to deal with climate change.
How the New Deal Responded to the Crisis of the 1930s
The New Deal is a shorthand for the policies and achievements of the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1942. It encompassed far more than the best-known programs, such as Social Security and the Works Progress Administration, involving over 60 laws and programs in all. The Living New Deal is documenting that amazing decade, reviving historical memory and rethinking deeply ingrained political tropes – because so much of the conventional wisdom about the New Deal is wrong.
I will consider the New Deal’s accomplishments in six areas: economic recovery and regulation, employment and class, investment and modernization, conservation and restoration, programs for the people and national political revival.
Economic Stabilization and Recovery
The Great Depression was the greatest failure of capitalism in US history and one that challenged the legitimacy of the nation’s class system, dominant ideology and political leadership. By winter 1933, US output had fallen by one-third, unemployment risen to one-quarter of the labor force and profits and wages had declined sharply.
In 1933-34, the New Deal ended financial excess and put the banking system on a new foundation. This meant shutting down bad banks, separating commercial and investment banks and providing deposit insurance. In addition, FDR called in gold, devalued and solidified the dollar and stock markets were regulated.
Meanwhile, the administration set up price controls under the National Industrial Recovery Act and Agricultural Adjustment Act. The unpopular NIRA was later dropped, but the AAA became the basis of US farm policy for the next fifty years. More important was the creation of the PWA in 1933 to start the process of federal investment in infrastructure; it would be the central pillar of New Deal spending.
A massive relief effort began with the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933. FERA salvaged bankrupt state and local treasuries, ending the downward spirals of government revenues, spending and employment. In the winter of 1933-34, FERA created the first relief jobs program, the Civil Works Administration (CWA), for which Congress created a permanent replacement in 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The New Deal cost roughly $650 billion in today’s dollars.  With today’s population that would come to over $1.1 trillion – a surprisingly modest sum. It was paid for by higher taxes on the rich and the corporations, aided by revived alcohol taxes from the end of Prohibition, and the administration was willing to tolerate peacetime federal deficits for the first time in US history.
Crucially, economic recovery came before World War II. Under the New Deal, GDP grew at an average rate of almost 10 percent and had fully recovered by 1939. Contrary to popular opinion, the war did not solve the Great Depression, but it did dry up unemployment by recruiting millions into the military and by the greatest deficit spending in US history – the same formula as the New Deal.
Employment and the Working Class
A pillar of New Deal policy was aiding the working people. The New Dealers saved capitalism but they saved millions of people from desolation at the same time, chiefly through programs for mass work relief: FERA, CWA, WPA, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and National Youth Administration (NYA). These agencies combined created more than 20 million jobs for the unemployed over ten years, giving workers dignity and injecting income into bankrupt households. Those are impressive numbers compared to the 15 million unemployed when FDR took office and the 5 million who were still jobless when the war began in 1942.
The New Deal succeeded in raising working class wages and incomes by supporting unionization. Unions were legalized in the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935; New Deal public works required fair and prevailing wages of contractors; and the Fair Labor Standards Act was added in 1938. It also created the first federal safety net through unemployment payments in the NLRA and the Social Security Act of 1935. Greater taxation of the rich and higher incomes for the working class sharply reduced inequality, ushering in the most egalitarian period in US history.
Not only were jobs programs life-saving financially, they restored workers dignity. Non-discrimination clauses brought jobs and wages to African Americans and other minorities. In addition, they aided economic recovery by raising wages, making relief payments to households and aiding state and local governments. Those flows stimulated aggregate consumption and raised net consumption out of the same total national income.
Investment and Modernization
The New Deal was more than a short-term program of recovery and make-work projects. The federal government invested in the infrastructure of the country, or what was then called “public works.” The government built tens of thousands of civic facilities, such as city halls, courthouses, schools, sewers and parks, as well as regional systems like dams, aqueducts and airports.
At the heart of this effort was the Public Works Administration (PWA). Just as important, the administration pumped money into existing federal agencies, like the Bureau of Public Roads and Bureau of Reclamation, and demanded contributions from the states. Governments at every level – federal, state and local – were reanimated. Moreover, the feds asked the state and cities to propose projects they wanted locally and thus gained important political buy-in.
Crucially, the New Deal walked on two legs: big regional infrastructure and small local projects. For the latter, the relief agencies were absolutely vital. The CWA, WPA, CCC, and FERA undertook local improvements numbering in the hundreds of thousands: playgrounds, recreation halls, baseball fields, picnic areas, water lines, street trees, ranger stations, park roads and trails and more. These, too, were projects asked for by local governments, with local financial participation.
Almost entirely overlooked is the degree to which the New Deal modernized the United States. It brought the entire country into the 20th century. The 1930s witnessed the second greatest leap in economic productivity in US history after the 1920s – higher than the World War by far. The New Deal aided modernization through its massive investments in hydropower and highways, at a time when industry and transportation were shifting enmasse to electric motors and trucks.
This infrastructure was long-term investment that continued to pay off after the New Deal ended. The war effort was the first beneficiary, as was recognized at the time. But roads, dams, schools and hospitals continued to function for decades after that, and many are still with us.
Conservation and Restoration
An essential element of the New Deal was conservation – healing the land and resources along with the people. This massive effort is too easily overlooked because it took place far away from the urban centers—on rangelands, forests, farmlands, marshes and coasts. The New Deal was nothing if not green.
Most of the New Deal’s conservation programs were small-scale works. CCC camps planted 3 billion trees under the direction of the US Forest Service. A massive soil conservation program was set in motion on damaged range and farmlands under the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), which built erosion dams, regraded hillsides and planted windbreaks. Grazing controls were imposed for the first time on federal lands under the new Grazing Service.
Around 200 national wildlife refuges were established during the Roosevelt years, often at the president’s personal direction, and a new Duck Stamp program channeled millions of dollars from hunters to wildlife programs. Several new national parks and national monuments were established, and national forests were expanded. The CCC built the waterworks, roads and campgrounds that rendered federal recreational lands usable.
Many protected areas were purchases of degraded lands in the Dust Bowl or cutover forests, while agricultural policy paid for the withdrawal of millions of acres of farms from production, returned to wetlands and woods that aided wildlife.
Programs for the People
While the New Deal employment and relief effort was focused on the working class, it went much farther. It embraced farmers, retirees and the poor. In addition, there was an array of programs targeting the forgotten and neglected. An essential principle was universal programs with non-discrimination clauses. This was not only a matter of principle. It made such programs more popular with the public.
A number of programs aided tenant and marginal farmers and others targeted African Americans. The New Deal built the first federal public housing projects in both rural and urban areas. It also brought the first federal initiatives to meet the special needs of the handicapped and a major turnaround in the treatment of Native Americans.
A primary quality of New Deal activity was its wide distribution, or “geographic universality”. There is hardly a county or city anywhere in the country that did not get federal funds for a high school, hospital or park from the New Deal – not to mention land restoration, farm subsidies and programs for poor farm families, such as the Resettlement Administration’s housing and town-building. When the New Deal invested in depressed places, the people saw the evidence of federal concern with their own eyes, both in what was built and who did the work.
Lastly, there was a firm belief in the need to address the whole person and the needs of the public as a whole. The New Deal prioritized aid to education from school lunches and teachers’ aides to college buildings and laboratories; built up health programs from school nurses to the National Institutes of Health; and invested in recreational facilities and programs from playgrounds to national parks. One of the most remarkable dimensions of the New Deal was its creation, en masse, of civic buildings, civic spaces and public art to edify and elevate the spirits of the people.
Political Renewal of the Nation
Franklin Roosevelt was a master politician and dealmaker who played his cards carefully. But he was also a true leader, coalition builder, progressive reformer and believer in American democracy. These qualities ran deep among all the New Dealers like Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins and Mary McLeod Bethune.
The New Dealers first step was to take charge of a terrible situation with a real sense of urgency. They waded into the fray, ignoring precedent, deficits and naysayers to introduce legislation, issue executive orders and draw up plans for action. There was no blueprint, just a liberal pragmatism and willingness to try anything that might work. For all his patrician background, FDR was able to speak to the public in a manner that restored their confidence in government and gave them hope.
The New Dealers built a broad coalition across class, regional and racial lines. FDR knew that his legislative program depended not to alienating the South over race because he needed that left-leaning white populists of the southern delegation to pass New Deal legislation. That coalition frayed over the years as southern landowners reasserted their power.
FDR was willing to bring unions on board and address the catastrophic conditions facing the working class. Conversely, his aristocratic origins gave him the confidence to stand up to the rich and the corporations when he needed to. He wisely sought to defang radical uprisings by meeting some of their demands, as in the case of the Townsend Movement’s demand for old-age pensions.
A vital quality of New Deal leaders was their ethical commitment to the public good and to the welfare of the common people. They recognized the importance of work to self-worth; the value of civic works in uplifting communities; and that education, recreation and the arts were essential to the human spirit. Their sense of public service also meant no significant scandals hanging over the agencies dispensing such huge amounts of money.
Lastly, Roosevelt and the New Dealers understood that a nation devastated by the Great Depression and left rudderless by Republican leadership needed a new sense of national purpose. The New Deal gave Americans a project of national renewal in which they could participate, feel ownership, and witness in their everyday lives.
FDR was urged by many liberals to seize emergency powers, but refused. He was confronted by fascist movements, was abandoned by the capitalist class—many of whom were fascist sympathizers that feared FDR’s alliance with the working class. Nevertheless, Roosevelt was a committed democrat who wanted, like Lincoln, to save the Republic from itself.
The New Deal was a political earthquake in American governance. The power of the federal government grew exponentially and the federal system was transformed. The Democrats replaced Lincoln’s Republicans as the dominant party for the next half-century. And, despite many failings of the New Deal on racial grounds, there was an epochal shift of African-American voters to the Democrats.
 Both were overturned by the Supreme Court but the AAA was revised and passed a second time by Congress in 1938.
 Fishback, Price and Kachanovskaya, Valentina. “The Multiplier for Federal Spending in the States during the Great Depression.” Journal of Economic History, Vol. 75, No. 1, 2015, pp. 125-62.
 Romer, Christina. 1992. What ended the Great Depression? Journal of Economic History. 52, no. 4: 757-84.
 Leighninger, Robert. 2007. Long Run Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press. Smith, Jason Scott. 2006. Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Taylor, Nick. 2009. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work. New York: Bantam Books.
 Field, Alexander. 2011. A Great Leap Forward:1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.
 Brinkley, Douglas. 2016. Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America. New York: Harper Books
 Alexander, Benjamin. 2018. The New Deal’s Forest Army: How the Civilian Conservation Corps Worked. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
 There has been too much criticism of the New Deal as ‘racist’, which is not true. It was not the Civil Rights revolution, but its programs were of enormous benefit to the vast majority of Americans. Sitkoff, Harvard. 2009. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Smith, Jason Scott. 2014. A Concise History of the New Deal. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Leuchtenberg, William. 1963. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-40. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
 Katznelson, Ira. 2013. Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.
Visit the Berkeley Rose Garden via the slide show:
by Susan Ives As development marched toward the Berkeley hills in the 1920s, the ravine carved by Cordonices Creek was considered too steep for houses. A street car trestle was constructed to span the gap. With panoramic westward views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate, the 3.6-acre canyon captured the imagination of park advocates.
Renowned Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck designed a terraced amphitheater with a redwood pergola, and landscape architect Vernon M. Dean and Charles V. Covell, founder of the East Bay Rose Society, finalized the plan. The City of Berkeley applied for federal funds available under New Deal public works programs.
Construction on the Berkeley Rose Garden began in 1933. Hundreds of men employed by Civil Works Administration and, later, the Works Progress Administration, worked over four years to install the garden. The Civil Works Administration (CWA) also built the adjacent tennis and handball courtsat Cordonices Park.
Native rock quarried in the Berkeley hills form the amphitheater walls and terraced rose beds. Paths wend through the garden and native woodlands. A footbridge spans Cordonices Creek where it emerges at the canyon floor to form an oval pond. Maybeck’s redwood pergola serves as a trellis for climbing roses. Along the six curved stone terraces are more than a thousand rose bushes, at their most spectacular in mid-May.
The garden was officially dedicated on September 26, 1937. According to newspaper accounts, on hand were the Berkeley Municipal Legion Band and “the full staff of the park department, to assist in managing the crowds.”
The garden was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in 1995. Since then, the original sign was replaced with a replica. The entrance to the garden was reconstructed in 2002. The pergola is currently undergoing renovation.
The rose garden remains one of the city’s most cherished public spaces. It is open from dawn to dusk and is wheelchair accessible via a pedestrian tunnel under Euclid Avenue that connects the garden to Cordonices Park.
Newsreel Before television, newsreels were a source of current affairs and entertainment for millions of moviegoers.
In order to restore public confidence and hope during the Great Depression, the federal government created a short-lived agency, the U.S. Film Service. Frustrated with anti-New Deal propaganda and obstructionist Republicans in Congress (sound familiar?), Harry Hopkins, chief of the Works Progress Administration, invited commercial producers—“Hollywood,” in popular parlance—to make newsreels that would show mass audiences how workers formerly on relief were building a better United States.
In 1935, with an eye toward the 1936 presidential election, Hopkins invited forty-one firms to bid on a contract for thirty, 600-foot, that is 5-minute, films. Pathé News won the contract with a bid of $4,280 a reel and a promise to include one WPA story each month in its national newsreel.
Colonial Park (now Jackie Robinson Park) African American workers construct Colonial Park pool and bathhouse in Harlem in 1937. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.
It was a challenge to keep to the grueling production schedule. And there was backlash from the Republican National Committee, which charged that these short films would be nothing but “propaganda . . . paid out of relief funds.” But Pathé’s general manager, Jack S. Connolly, countered that the huge array of activities of the WPA would generate enough “straight news for unprejudiced releases.”
School Lunch Program A woman makes school lunches in an industrial kitchen. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archive
A Better New York City is in some ways an anomaly in the “A Better” series. Instead of breadlines and beggars the newsreel opens with billowing clouds that part to reveal Manhattan Island; the music swells; the skyline glimmers in the sunshine; and the narrator states that this is, “a great city, the financial, commercial capital of the entire world.” The unfolding panorama features Central Park (restored and improved with CWA and WPA funds and labor) and the Triboro Bridge (built with federal money). Streets, sidewalks, and buildings come into view as the narrator explains the program that “removed residents from relief rolls” and made New York a better city.
Like every newsreel in the “A Better” series, the New York City film highlights work and workers—blue and white collar, unskilled and skilled, men and women, whites and people of color. Manual labor, executed by men with weathered faces, strong hands, and brawny bodies, is valorized.
Caretaker An African American caretaker and her young charges. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.
They build airports, bulkheads, and highways, and repair streets, sewers, and public buildings. The film heralds public swimming pools and bathhouses the New Deal built in this city.
For all the good that was done here, the New Deal tolerated racial segregation, and the newsreel disseminates a message of racial difference that is consistent across the “A Better” series.
Another consistent message is how the New Deal benefited children. The WPA operated twenty daycare centers in New York City for the children of needy or working mothers. In A Better New York City, youngsters are clean, heathy, and amply fed. They don’t work. Rather, they play in supervised sites such as play streets, parks, playgrounds, pools, day camps, nursery schools, and day care centers and enjoy a school lunch program, substantiating the narrator’s praise “In the knowledge that we are providing healthy bodies in sound minds for our future citizens . . .”
Play Street Healthy children are shown playing in supervised areas. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.
As we look back to find a way forward, we should assess the imperfections of the New Deal along with its successes. African Americans were the hardest hit by the Depression, and yet they are underrepresented in A Better New York City just as they were underserved by New Deal programs.
Still, the WPA films remind us of the transformative power of the state to improve our wellbeing—and the power of moving images to craft political narratives.
WPA American Travel Guides From the author’s collection
Photo Credit: Fern Nesson
The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) between 1937 and 1942, is one of the best-known projects of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested driving tours and accompanying essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions also have their own WPA guidebooks.
Poster for American Guide Week President Roosevelt offered his support for the Federal Writers’ Project American Guide Series on this poster celebrating American Guide week, November 10–16, 1941. The individual state guides were meant, as he noted, to “illustrate our national way of life, yet at the same time portray variants in local patterns of living and regional development.”
Photo Credit: Poster courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
Each guide was written by a team and published anonymously. Several now-famous American authors got their start working for the FAP. Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, and Zora Neale Hurston were among those who survived the Great Depression as writers of the American Guides.
Less renowned and anonymous writers deserve equal credit. They were a careful and inquisitive bunch with a wide range of talents and interests. The wealth of knowledge conveyed in each guide is astonishing. From architectural history, economic research, fishing and hunting, folklore, regional foods, cooking, Native American history, literature, regional language differences, botany, geology, race relations, labor movements, to women’s rights—there was someone at the FAP who could write with authority on it.
I first became interested in the guides in the 1980s when I was a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Brandeis University. In that pre-internet era, finding the WPA guides presented quite a challenge. It took me nearly five years searching used bookstores around the country to amass a complete set of the 48 state guides and many regional and city guides—most of them first editions.
The guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity of the country at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guides are as much fun to read today as they must have been for travelers in the 1930s.
The Crescent City New Orleans City Guide, 1938
Mardi Gras New Orleans City Guide, 1938
Maps from Oklahoma Guide Stages of development of the Oklahoma through its history
Photo Credit: Fern Nesson
For years, I considered writing about the guides, but it was not until last November, after 20 years as a lawyer, 25 more as a teacher, and the last three as a student of fine art photography that I hit upon a format for doing so. After completing my MFA I found the time to travel and decided to use the guides as inspiration for where to go. Going back to their delightful mélange of cultural and historical essays and suggested back roads seemed a wonderful way to explore the country. Reportedly John Steinbeck hit the road with the WPA guides when he embarked on a 10,000-mile road trip with his poodle in 1960, memorialized in his travelogue Travels With Charley: In Search of America.
The project has been endlessly fascinating. Remarkably, much along the routes remains unchanged, at least in the places I have visited so far. Yet, much has changed—some things for the better, others distinctly not. Old houses in Maine that were derelict in the 1930s are now beautifully restored homes for wealthy summer residents. Once sleepy towns and small cities are today engulfed by sprawl and strip malls. The encouragement that the guides gave to sightseeing by automobile—tourism being a way to lift the economy—now seems positively regrettable, cars being no longer a novelty but a bane.
Snake River Gorge from "Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture,” 1937 Idaho was the first state guidebook in the American Guide Series created by the Idaho Federal Writers’ Project. At the time Idaho had less than half a million residents and few people were planning to go there.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections & Archives,
One thing that should never be regretted is the American Guide Series itself. Not only do the guides provide invaluable historical source material and interesting routes for tourists, they also express trenchant but subtle criticism of injustice in our country. The writers exposed racism, anti-unionism, poverty, and inequality when they saw it. Without comment, they let the statistics speak for themselves. But their message was clear: this country could and should do better by its people.
The idealism and open-heartedness with which the FWP explored our country’s diversity, geography, and challenges led me to want to follow in their footsteps. So far, I have completed eight photo essays with the guides as a travel companion. I cannot think of a better way to see this country.
Vermont Guide to the Green Mountain State
Photo Credit: Courtesy Fern Nesson
Green New Dealers Organizers are mobilizing youth to put pressure on Congress Source
In a radical departure from business as usual, talk of a “New Deal” has lately been reverberating through the halls of the nation’s Capitol. Newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass) have introduced a resolution for a Green New Deal that is making headlines and rapidly gaining public support.
The Green New Deal resolution, introduced in early February, cites catastrophic repercussions for the economy, the environment, humans, and wildlife as a result of climate change. The Green New Deal is a package of federal programs and investments to transition the nation from fossil fuels to 100 percent clean, renewable energy over 10 years, creating millions of high-wage jobs in the process. The details are still to come.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Announcing the Green New Deal resolution on Feb 7
Photo Credit: OaklandNews
The original New Deal offers a blueprint. Like its proposed green offspring, the New Deal was a massive response to an unprecedented national emergency. The government took multiple and experimental approaches to the economic, social and environmental crises of the Great Depression.
One of the first and most popular programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), begun in 1933, deployed millions of men over ten years to improve the environment. The “first responders” of their day, the CCC men fought wildfires and epic floods, planted billions of trees, stabilized soils in the Dust Bowl and elsewhere, and developed a system of national refuges to sustain diminishing wildlife.
Millions found work through federal programs to modernize America’s “commons,” building roads, bridges, dams, housing, schools, hospitals, parks, and playgrounds.
CCC at work Installing phone lines at Logan Pass, Montana, 1938
Photo Credit: National Park Service
While the New Deal brought jobs and enhancements to cities, towns and rural nationwide, many minority communities were left behind. African Americans, domestic, and agricultural workers were often excluded in exchange for the support of Republicans and Dixiecrats in Congress who held the purse strings.
Recognizing this failure, the Green New Deal resolution is explicitly inclusive in its aim “to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”
More than sixty progressive House members and several 2020 presidential candidates have already declared their support for a Green New Deal, as have several labor unions and environmental organizations. The trillion-dollar question is how to pay for it. A carbon tax, raising taxes on the ultra wealthy, and redirecting subsidies away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, are among the ideas.
WPA sewer project Men laying pipes for the city of San Diego, California, 1935 Source
Not surprisingly, Republicans dismiss the Green New Deal, branding it “socialist,” “reckless,” “expensive,” and “unattainable.” Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin pronounced: “The Green New Deal, like Medicare- for-All and tuition-free college, is nothing but an empty promise that leaves American taxpayers on the hook.”
But climate activists point out that a Green New Deal would be far less costly than the climate disasters, pollution, and health problems that come from fossil fuels. Polls show growing public support for a Green New Deal. A December 2018 poll by Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication, found more than 90 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of self-identified “conservative Republicans” support a Green New Deal.
WPA emblem Posted at work sites nationwide during the Great Depression
Organizers want to make the resolution a litmus test for those running for office in 2020. The Sunrise Movement is one of a growing number of grassroots groups mobilizing support among the nation’s youth. Its stated goal, “To build the movement for a Green New Deal.” Their social media campaign enjoins supporters to “turn up the heat” on Congress.
Leora and Clabe Wilson Dexter, Iowa, July 22, 1934. Photo courtesy: Joy Neal Kidney
My grandfather, Clabe Wilson, was an Iowa farmer. During the slump in farm prices after WWI, he lost his farm. Clabe, my grandmother Leora, and their seven kids ended up in the small town of Dexter. He hired out to work on farms, but as the Great Depression deepened, farmers couldn’t afford to pay for help.
In the summer of 1930, his daughter, Doris, was nearly 12. She spent her free time in the upstairs bedroom she shared with a younger sister, where she read and read in a wooden rocking chair, leaning against the open window to get a breeze that sultry summer. That was the year Dexter’s first public library–with 100 donated books–opened in Allen Percy’s law office.
By the next summer, Clabe got a job in Redfield at the brick and tile plant. But he had lost blood during an operation and was weak for months so couldn’t work much.
Main Street, Dexter, Iowa The top of the two-story building was removed and the materials reused to create a town library on the first floor
Photo Credit: Courtesy Joy Neal Kidney
In 1933, because so many Americans were out of work, President Roosevelt’s New Deal was set up. Funds were granted to the states to operate relief programs to create new unskilled jobs. Such jobs were make-work programs to hire jobless men during the Great Depression. Yes, it was more expensive than to hand over welfare payments (called the “dole”), but men were embarrassed and ashamed by taking unearned money. They would rather earn it by working.
Clabe hated having to apply for a government relief job. At first he was turned down because he had two sons in the Navy. The two older boys had joined up because there was nothing for them to do in Iowa. They sent home $5 or $10 a month from their meager wages. Their mother said the money was a real godsend, that the coal they bought with it one winter kept them from freezing.
Dallas County News Adel, Iowa, May 10, 1939
Photo Credit: Courtesty Joy Neal Kidney
Clabe was finally hired by the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA), doing roadwork. Later he worked sixteen hours a week for the WPA keeping the Dexter town pump oiled.
After 1934 the library was moved from Mr. Percy’s office to a room at the town hall. That fall Clabe and his daughter Doris spent late hours working on corn at the Dexter Canning Factory.
Doris graduated Dexter High School in 1936–the same year the library became tax supported and reorganized under Iowa library laws.
Dexter Town Library Constructed by the WPA
Photo Credit: Courtesy Joy Neal Kidney
In 1939 a WPA project was approved to remove the second story of the building that had once housed the Chapler-Osborn Clinic. The men–including Clabe Wilson–were hired to reuse materials from the second story for a Library Hall, which included a library, and also a community room with a kitchen and dining area.
Seven years later, Doris married my father, a Dallas County farmer who had volunteered for the Army Air Corps in WWII. In the early 1950s, they bought a farm south of Dexter. Their daughters regularly used the Dexter library. When I was in high school and needed more about the Bronte family for a term paper, a Dexter librarian introduced me to the wonder of ordering free books through the Iowa State Traveling Library.
Today, a bench commemorating the WW II service of Clabe Wilsons’ five sons sits right outside the same brick building their father worked on decades ago.
Author Gray Brechin restoring the model, 2018 In 2010, Gray discovered the then 70-year-old WPA model of San Francisco was in storage at a UC warehouse and began advocating for its public display.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives
As I was scanning photos of New Deal public works at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, I was startled to run across one that showed the dedication in 1940 of an enormous wooden model of San Francisco. WPA workers spent three years building the 37 X 41 square-foot, 3-D replica of the city for planning and educational purposes.
The New Deal wrought huge changes to the Bay Area—the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, the airports, the East Shore Highway, and Caldecott Tunnel, (not to mention the locally financed Golden Gate Bridge). Planners understood that bigger changes were on the way to which the city’s hilly topography and constricted site presented unusual challenges. A model would also give scores of people jobs.
WPA Workers Putting together the scale model, 1938
Photo Credit: Courtesy the San Francisco Planning Department Archive at the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
Jointly sponsored by the federal government and the City of San Francisco, the model could be used for planning a subway down Market Street (later BART and MUNI lines) as well as freeways to connect the bridges and the city with the Peninsula (later blocked by the Freeway Revolt.) It was only briefly on display in a lightwell of City Hall before wartime activities evicted it, eventually finding its way to a warehouse at the University of California, Berkeley, where it remained, in 16 large wooden crates, until last summer.
Dedication of WPA model at City Hall The WPA formally presented the map to the city on April 16, 1940
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. (Public Domain)
Deena Chalabi, the Curator of Public Dialogue at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, introduced me to the Dutch conceptual artists Liesbeth Bik and Jos van der Pol (collectively Bik Van Der Pol) who were intrigued by the possibility of returning the model to the public and using it for stimulating dialogue about the city’s past, present, and future. With the invaluable assistance of Stella Lochman, the museum’s Senior Program Associate of Public Dialogue, the model was transferred from the East Bay to a San Francisco Public Library facility with enough space to uncrate it. Over the summer, volunteers meticulously cleaned decades of dust from its dozens of component sections, marveling at the detail, technical ingenuity, and subtle coloration that emerged.
Restoring the WPA model Volunteers carefully cataloged and cleaned the model, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin
Thanks to Bik Van Der Pol, SFMOMA, and the San Francisco Public Library system, the model will be back on display this winter at 29 branch libraries throughout the city where locals can view their own neighborhoods in miniature as they looked in 1940. After that, it will hopefully be reassembled in its entirety at the SFMOMA contemporaneous with a special exhibition of Diego Rivera’s Pan-American Unity mural that he created for the 1939-40 World’s Fair on San Francisco’s Treasure Island. The model will then need a permanent home. It would make a superb centerpiece for the New Deal museum that the Living New Deal hopes to build in the city that the model depicts.
Close up The model of San Francisco reflects the city as it was in 1939-1940.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives
St Anne of the Sunset Church Corner of Funston and Judah
Photo Credit: Susan Ives
Overlooking Playland-at-the-Beach The amusement park was demolished in 1972
Photo Credit: Susan Ives
War Memorial Opera House and Herbst Theatre Van Ness Avenue
Photo Credit: Susan Ives
Over three years Jason Reblando, a Chicago artist and photographer, trained his camera on three Greenbelt towns — Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin— constructed during the Depression to house poor Americans, many of them displaced from the Dust Bowl.
Rexford Tugwell, a Columbia economics professor tapped to head FDR’s Resettlement Administration (RA), modeled the Greenbelt program on the Garden City movement of early 20th Century England, integrating housing with nature. Tugwell’s dream was to create not only housing for those in need, but also a flourishing community. “My plans are fashioned and practical,” he said. “I shall roll up my sleeves—make America over!”
Jason Reblando Author and photographer Jason Reblando
The towns incorporated features designed to encourage neighborly interaction—shared courtyards and lawns, parks and playgrounds, intersecting pathways, public artworks, a swimming pool. Town residents managed schools, shops, and community buildings as cooperatives.
Not surprisingly, conservatives in Congress derided the Greenbelt experiment as both extravagant and “socialist,” and sought to end it.
To win support for the Greenbelt projects, Tugwell called on his former graduate student, Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the RA (soon to become the Farm Securities Administration). Stryker famously deployed FSA photographers to document the human desperation that the New Deal agencies were working to address. Photographs by the likes of Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Walker Evans captured some of the best-known images of the victims of the Great Depression. Lesser known were the RA’s photographs of the Greenbelt towns that conveyed an America on the road to recovery. Nonetheless, under pressure from Congress and wealthy farmers deprived of their tenant work force, the RA was discontinued in 1936.
Gazebo Greendale, WI
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando
Seventy-five years later, author and photographer Jason Reblando has re-captured the founding vision of the Greenbelt towns in his large-format book, New Deal Utopias. His color photographs of the tidy homes and well-tended grounds surrounded by farms and forests recall a kind of everyday orderliness—both ordinary and reassuring. Portraits of the towns’ 21st Century inhabitants depict a sense of small-town pride.
Despite what Reblando’s photos convey, not all is utopian in these New Deal “utopias.” Residents of Ohio’s Greenhills near Cincinnati have struggled for years to defend their historic district from redevelopment. They won National Historic Landmark status for their town, but that doesn’t ensure its preservation. In a recent letter to the citizens of Greenhills, the National Park Service acknowledged the town’s historic significance and the need to preserve it: “Bear in mind that the shared heritage and stewardship of the village should extend throughout the community, and decisions made today will impact current and future generations,” it cautioned.
Published under the fiscal sponsorship of the Living New Deal, New Deal Utopias serves as a reminder that this shared heritage comprises far more than buildings alone.
Pool Greenbelt, MD
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando
Lake Greenhills, OH
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando
Daffodil House Greendale, WI
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando
Frances Perkins The first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center
In 1963, at the age of 83, Frances Perkins gave a series of lectures at UCLA entitled, “Labor Under the New Deal and the New Frontier.” She told her audience that for years after her tenure as FDR’s Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945, people would frequently ask her, “What was the New Deal anyway?”
“It was an attitude,” she would answer, “an attitude toward government, toward the people, toward labor . . . an attitude that found voice in expressions like, ‘the people are what matter to government,’ and ‘a government should aim to give all of the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.’”
The first woman to serve in a U.S. presidential cabinet, Perkins spent 33 years of her long work life in government service–twelve of those years as U.S. Secretary of Labor.
Born Fannie Coralie Perkins in Boston in 1880, she spent her childhood between her family’s home in Worcester and the Perkins farm in Newcastle, Maine. Her grandmother, Cynthia Otis Perkins, a source of Yankee wisdom as well as family stories of life before and after the Revolution, encouraged her not to shy away from opportunity. “If a door opens, walk through it,” she said.
Frances Perkins Factory inspector, 1911
Thus, Fannie came of age with a deep respect for the American dream and the belief that everyone, with opportunity, could be whatever he or she wanted to be.
That idealism was reinforced at Mount Holyoke College where, during a course in the history of industrialism, she visited factories in neighboring Holyoke, Massachusetts, and observed first-hand the drudgery and dangers endured by working men, women, and children. She knew she had to do something about what she saw as “unnecessary hazards of life, unnecessary poverty.” Upon graduation she taught at an elite school for girls in Lake Forest, Illinois, and spent her free time volunteering at Chicago Commons and Hull House, two pre-eminent settlement houses. She changed her name to Frances and her religious affiliation to the Episcopal Church, where she was a devout congregant for the rest of her life.
Upon receiving her Master’s from Columbia University in 1910, she accepted a position with the New York City Consumer League where she gained a reputation as an effective lobbyist on behalf of working people and workplace safety.
U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins Time Magazine Cover, August 14, 1933
On March 25, 1911, Perkins witnessed the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory where 146 garment workers—mostly young women—lost their lives. It was, she later said, the day the New Deal was born.
In the wake of the fire, she was appointed to head New York’s Committee on Safety and principal investigator of a legislative commission that resulted in the most comprehensive state laws on workplace health and safety to date. Governor Al Smith appointed her to the state’s Industrial Commission in 1919 and later named her its chair.
Perkins joined FDR’s cabinet when he served as governor of New York from 1929 to 1933. Before appointing her, the two spent a day at the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park. As FDR drove them around the property, she told him that if she accepted the position she would promote a progressive policy agenda that would limit the hours women worked, restrict child labor, develop a better workman’s compensation system, and broaden the state’s labor laws to more industries. He agreed and promised to help her. She soon became the most prominent state labor official in the nation, responding to the deepening economic depression and, at the same time, advancing her boss’s visibility.
Perkins arrives at the White House Cabinet meeting in September 1938
With his election as president in 1932, FDR was under pressure to appoint a woman to the cabinet. It was no surprise that he chose his trusted advisor as Labor Secretary. In a conversation reminiscent of that day in Hyde Park, Perkins wanted to be sure the new president would share her goals. She pledged to work for a forty-hour work week, a minimum wage, workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, a prohibition on child labor, expanded public works projects, Social Security, and health insurance for all—a list she called “practical possibilities.”
By the end of her long tenure as Secretary, she had accomplished every item on that list except the last.
Collier’s Magazine in 1945, described her accomplishments as “not so much the Roosevelt New Deal as… the Perkins New Deal.”
Shaking hands with steelworkers Homestead, PA, 1933
Perkins stands behind FDR as he signs the Social Security Act August 14, 1935