A New Deal for Youth

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

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

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

NYA recruitment poster

NYA recruitment poster
Courtesy, LOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Men in training at NYA machine shop.

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

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

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

Memories of Photographer Rondal Partridge (1917-2015)

Ron Partridge

Ron Partridge
Bedford Gallery Exhibition, 2010
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Ron Partridge was still working in his Berkeley, California, dark room well into his 90s. This brought his life full circle. Ron began his career in the darkroom, assisting his mother, photographer Imogen Cunningham. Ron went on to assist both Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange during the 1930s. Lange’s influence can be seen in Ron’s photographs for the National Youth Administration (NYA), a job that sent him throughout California chronicling the lives of young people on the brink of World War II.

Over the course of his long career as a photographer and filmmaker, Ron’s work embraced landscapes, people, objects, and architecture.

Photo of Dorothea Lange at work, 1936

Dorothea Lange, 1936
Photo of Dorothea Lange at work
Photo Credit: Rondal Partridge

In 2010, I co-curated an exhibit of New Deal art at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, California. I made a point of inviting the few living New Deal artists that I knew of. It was a short list: Photographer Rondal Partridge, sculptor Milton Hebald, and WPA and Disney artist Tyrus Wong, (now 104 years old!)

Ron and I drove to the opening reception in my classic Plymouth Valiant. He clearly appreciated the attention that he and his work received that night. I continued to visit Ron after that exhibition. He was always excited about his latest project. In recent years he focused on framing dried plants—preserving the unique quality of each specimen. They were studies in form, some in partial states of decay. He relished the second-hand frames he collected for this work.

Ron Partridge and Harvey Smith

Ron Partridge and Harvey Smith
New Deal art exhibition, Bedford Gallery, 2010
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

Anyone who knew Ron knew that he had strong views, a sense of irreverence, and a wonderful sense of humor. Like others I’ve met who worked for the New Deal, Ron was infused with the spirit of that time—a social conscience, ingenuity, and a drive to create—seemingly indifferent to fame and fortune. Ron passed away on June 19. He and his New Deal generation will be missed.

Harvey Smith is an advisor to the Living New Deal.

Youth on the Industrial Front

(18:12) b/w sound
NYA boys learn to use machine tools at various residence centers in Illinois. The boys operate lathes and milling machines, learn to weld, make incubators in a sheet metal shop, pour steel into molds, do blacksmithing work, and attend classes in auto mechanics, mechanical drawing, and radio repairing. Includes views of the meals served and of recreational facilities at the centers (libraries, sports contests, and billiard tables).

Alamo Grounds Improvements – San Antonio TX

Multiple New Deal agencies were involved with improving the grounds at the Alamo.

A timeline mural board on the west side of the Alamo Museum indicates that “depression-era public works projects” built the walls that now encompass the grounds of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. The Alamo is regarded as the “Shrine of Texas Liberty” due to its location of the famous battle within its perimeter during the Texas Revolution; however, it was originally the site of Mission San Antonio Valero which was moved here in 1724 after several previous locations in the area were not suitable.

The New York Times reported: “Unsightly buildings which have stood for years adjoining the Alamo to the south are being demolished, and the property on which they stood will be converted into the Alamo State Park. The work of razing the buildings and beautifying the park is being paid for by CWA funds.”

The caption from a photograph in the September 1934 San Antonio Light reveals that FERA built the Roman-style stone arches that now run south from the façade of the Alamo chapel and built the garden area behind the chapel. Further research indicates that WPA and NYA workers built a wall around the perimeter of the grounds, the museum building, and demolished several old buildings on the property including the old central fire station where the DRT Meeting Hall would be built (this was previously submitted). Some sources suggest that restoration of the acequia that runs through the property may have been funded with federal funds.

Dog-trot Cabin Replica, Witte Museum – San Antonio TX

This replica of a dog-trot style cabin (two rooms with a breezeway between them, sharing a common roof) on the grounds of the Witte Museum was constructed in 1939 through the efforts of the National Youth Administration. Thirty youth were involved in the project.

The dog-trot cabin was very common in Texas and throughout the Southeastern U.S.. The cabin is situated perpendicular to the San Antonio River and features changing exhibits representative of the Texas Frontier in the two rooms.

Brackenridge Park Bridge Improvements – San Antonio, Texas

This lenticular truss bridge was moved to historic Brackenridge Park in 1925. It had been constructed in 1890 on St. Mary’s Street over the San Antonio River by the Berlin Iron Bridge Company of East Berlin Connecticut. After a devastating flood in 1921 the city under took a massive rebuilding of the city’s downtown infrastructure and the bridge was relocated to the park rather than being demolished. The plaque on the bridge indicates that the National Youth Administration did work in 1937-38, but it is not known if they worked on the bridge or on the adjacent retaining walls.

Starter House, Historic Brackenridge Park Golf Course – San Antonio TX

This stone building on the edge of the Historic Brackenridge Golf Course in San Antonio, Texas is attributed the work of the National Youth Administration. The NYA completed many projects in the park.

The registration form for the park’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places refers to the construction of a starter house, caddy house, tee boxes and drinking fountains on the golf course by the NYA. The form states that only the starter house is standing at this time.