With good reason, histories of the New Deal have emphasized the failure of its programs to overcome the traditional barriers of race, ethnicity, and gender in American life. The New Deal revolutionized many aspects of US society and politics, but not its racial order. Indeed, some of the New Deal’s hallmark achievements rested squarely on discriminatory politics. For example, agricultural and domestic workers were excluded from Social Security in 1935—an effective way of excluding Southern African Americans and Southwestern Chicanos. The Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams on the Columbia River flooded thousands of acres where Pacific Northwest Indians had hunted and interrupted the salmon migrations on which the natives tribes had depended for centuries–and the government did not even make irrigation water available to local reservations. The worst case of flagrant racism was probably FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which imprisoned some 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans as the country went to war in 1942.
One reason for the New Deal’s failings was President Roosevelt’s need to keep Southern Democrats in the New Deal Coalition to get his programs passed at all. Another was that New Deal programs deferred to local oversight in the selection and implementation of projects and distribution of funds. In public housing, WPA work teams, and CCC camps, segregation reigned in Jim Crow country. This “deference to localism” (Sugrue, 60) was a strength of the New Deal, giving local politicians and players a stake in the massive expansion of federal programs. At the same time, it crippled the national government’s ability to force change from above.
Then there were long-standing cultural biases that equated Whiteness with the American Republic. In art and literature, the injustice of poverty was typically framed as most acute for long-suffering, salt-of-the-earth whites, as in Dorothea Lange’s FSA photograph, Migrant Mother. When non-white art practices and spaces were promoted, they were often treated as something apart, as when Thomas C. Parker, Assistant Director of the WPA/FAP, romanticized Black aesthetics by isolating them in segregated arts centers (Musher, 159). What’s more, integrated arts projects, like the FTP, were targeted by Southern Democrats, who attacked the program in congressional hearings and cut funding. Asians were long regarded as not truly American and inherently untrustworthy, making it easier to suspect them as potential Fifth Columnists in the Second World War.
Nevertheless, New Deal programs and the era’s larger political and cultural groundswell began to transform the country in a way that would help launch the Civil Rights Movement. For example, FDR’s “black cabinet” of advisors and his appointment of William Hastie as the first Black federal judge put African Americans into positions of power not seen since Reconstruction. The Indian Reorganization Act “ended the half-century-old policy of forced assimilation and alienation of tribal lands and encouraged tribes to establish their own self-governing bodies and to preserve their ancestral traditions” (Kennedy, 378-379).
What’s more, the New Deal encouraged a widespread effort among Depression-era Americans to work together to improve their situation and to recognize that America was, in the words of a famous sociological study that emerged from the era, a “nation of nations.” The enactment of the NIRA sparked a wave of interracial labor militancy in the Piedmont South (Denning, 352) and the CIO engaged in a host of outreach programs, from the Jim Crow South to Chicano Los Angeles. Even if there is a paucity of contemporaneous studies of New Deal integration at work sites, we find papers from the time reporting on “special efforts” made on this front. There was even an increase in “requests for naturalization papers” among Los Angeles Chicanos who now felt that they belonged to the nation, and that the nation belonged to them (Sánchez, 261). As an WPA ethnography of Seattle’s Hooverville noted, the Filipino, Black, Mexican, Indian, Japanese, and white residents comprised an “ethnic rainbow” where people lived “in shabby camaraderie.” To one New York highschooler at the time, the New Deal spirit prompted friendships across racial and ethnic boundaries, which he remembered as “implementing equality at the grass roots level” (Fass, 152),
The spirit of the New Deal had an especially elevating effect on public art and critical expression. Government-sponsored writers, painters and performers were free to depict working people as heroes, to recast the images of the nation’s past, and to shine light on contemporary injustices of all kinds. As Sharon Musher notes, “When Treasury-commissioned artists portrayed national figures, they included blacks, Native Americans, and women as well as political radicals” (95). That inspiration went beyond New Deal arts programs. For example, the catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1941 exhibit, Indian Art of the United States, acknowledged that, “At this time, where America is reviewing its cultural resources, this book and the exhibit… open up to us age-old sources of ideas and forms that have never been fully appreciated….” (Belgrad, 55). Or, as Barney Josephson, founder of the integrated Greenwich Village club Café Society (where Billie Holiday debuted 1939’s hit song “Strange Fruit”) recounted, “It was the time of labor organizers… and the W.P.A. Art Movement” and an integrated club with political music-making seemed natural in that moment (Denning 235).
A particularly striking example of New Deal support for a rethinking of American society and history were the FWP chronicles of the experience of African Americans. FWP writers transcribed hundreds of first-person accounts of former slaves for the WPA Slave Narratives, an unparalleled resource for historians and citizens alike. Meanwhile, Alan Lomax was paid to travel the South recording the songs of early bluesmen, creating a magnificent repository of American folk music. FSA photographers like Walker Evans compiled a superb visual account of popular life and suffering, of all races. FWP writers produced such classics as Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Richard Wright’s scathing account of life under Jim Crow and text to the FSA’s photo collection, Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States.
What lessons can we learn from an era when patriotism entailed social justice? When memorialization sought to learn from the past and not just valorize it? When Americans came together to make their country better and to celebrate each other? How did people live inclusion? There is a small chorus of scholars and archivists exploring New Deal-sponsored integration, such as Lewis University’s photographic collection of integrated CCC projects in Illinois. For our part, “Working Together” creates a photographic archive of New Deal interaction and integration based on the research of Mid-Atlantic Regional Director Brent McKee. Note how many images there are in this collection of children. Indeed, one of the most heartening aspects of this archive is the promise it invests in new generations.