FDR’s Alphabet Soup: Records of the Great Depression

 Works Progress (Project) Administration

1935-1943   NARA RG 69

 Cath Madden Trindle

Established on 6 May 1935, the goal of the Works Progress Administration was to relieve unemployment through the creation of jobs.  It succeeded FERA and the CWA, both created in 1933.  In July of 1939 it was renamed the Works Project Administration and placed under the Federal Works Agency (FWA).  Although officially abolished on 30 June 1943, the Division for Liquidation of the Work Projects Administration was set up in the Federal Works Agency allowing programs to wind down by 30 June 1944.

In the nine years it was in place the WPA employed over 8.5 million workers in construction, the arts and more.  The goal was to make sure there was at least one wage earner in every family. WPA workers were paid the prevailing wage for the area where they lived, but they could not be paid for over 30 hours in a week.  For the most part the jobs were intended to be temporary and there was little attention to teaching skills for permanent job placement.

Aquatic Park Bathhouse, Beach Street, West of Polk Street, San Francisco, San Francisco County, CA – WPA 1939

The result was buildings, bridges, dams and other structural projects were funded in communities in every state.  Artistic endeavors were encouraged.  It is hard to find a community that does not have a striking example.  In San Francisco the Beach Chalet has wonderful murals painted by Lucien Adolphe Labaudt and the Botanical Gardens were planted with WPA funds.  In Inglewood the “History of Transportation” a massive mosaic by Helen Lundeberg, most likely the largest New Deal art work commissioned has been restored. In Fresno the Memorial Auditorium is a prime example of New Deal architecture.  Details of other California WPA projects can be found on the website of University of California – Berkeley’s  The Living New Deal.

The WPA was run at four levels federal, regional, state administrations and district offices.  Most federal records, including those of special projects and field offices are held in Washington D.C.  Many have been microfilmed including over 10000 rolls of field office records, 634 for California.  Those records include correspondence, administrative files, project folders, sponsors’ reports organizational and functional charts, accomplishment reports, as well as other records, covering the years 1935-1943. (RG 69.6).  

The Library of Congress has hundreds of online items in their WPA collections, including: photographs, films, manuscripts, narratives, books, music and more.  Finding Aid to Works Progress Administration Records at LOC, search the aid for California for more specific information on California Collections.

The Online Archive of California lists 257 collections with WPA references. These include records for many statewide and local projects.  Many of these records are of great importance to genealogists and historians and will be covered more fully below or on the CSGA Blog, where a posting on the 15th of each month has been supplementing the information in this series on FDR’s Alphabet Soup.

The Federal Writers’ Project (1935–1943) –  At its peak, the Writers’ Project employed about 6,500 men and women around the country as writers, researchers, editors, historians, and other field workers, paying them a subsistence wage of about $20 a week.   

 For more information on the WPA

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FDR’s Alphabet Soup: Records From the Great Depression

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The WPA might have shut down in 1943, but some projects took years more to complete. Among those is San Francisco’s last WPA project, the Rincon Annex Post Office. The building’s architect was Gilbert S. Underwood (Ahwanee Hotel in Yosemite). The design with hints of classic Greece and Moorish Spain is termed “art-deco moderne”.Map of Rincon Center

With the building complete, the W.P.A. held a competition for a mural in 1941. The winner was Anton Refregier, a Russian emigrant to the United States.

His work, entitled, “History of San Francisco” was begun that year. Comprised of 27 panels painted with casein tempuro on white gesso over plaster the work covered 400 square feet of wall space. Work was soon interrupted by WWII. And it wasn’t until 1946 that Refregier resumed painting. The mural finished in 1948, cost $26,000 and was the largest single commission of the Painting and Sculpture devision for the WPA.

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It is an impressive work. It is even more impressive when one learns of the controversy that ensued. Refregier designed and painted the entire history, but along came the revisionists. This painting showed the Padres in a bad light, the hanging man was a little too dark, the workers on the railroad a little too chinese, Sir Francis Drake had blood on his sword, there was too much red which might support communism. Refregier fought to keep what he could, but in the end made 92 changes to the murals before they were finally finished in 1949, possibly the last WPA project to be completed.  You can read about the controversy in individual panels of the mural on Art and Architecture – San Francisco: The Embarcardo – Rincon Annex Murals.

But the story wasn’t over. On 1 May 1953, the House Committee on Public Works, fueled by the fears of the “McCarthy Era” began debate on a resolution by Rep. Hubert Scudder (R-Sebastopol) to destroy the murals as they slandered California pioneers and pushed Communist propaganda upon unwitting postal customers.  The resolution was waylaid, but not before the California Senate passed a resolution supporting Scudder’s resolution. Rob Spoor elaborates on the trial in Art (and History) on Trial: Historic Murals of Rincon Center – Rob Spoor Guidelines

In 1978 the Rincon Annex Post Office was closed.  The city, hoping to avoid destruction of the murals, had the building placed under the protection of the National Registry of Historic Places in 1979.  Today it is the entrance to the Rincon Center, offering a delightful mix of old and new architecture and art.

While you can definitely check this building out on your own, you might want to consider taking a tour.  City Guides offers many free tours in San Francisco including the waterfribt area. The tour I took was sponsored by the Commonwealth Club and led by historian  Rick Evans.  I am sure there are others.  Getting out and walking around is a great way to see any city.

Rincon Annex isn’t the only WPA Post Office.  In fact,  during the years of the New Deal, the federal government built over 1,100 post offices, three times the number that it had built in the previous 50 years.  Many were PWA projects that not only provided work for the unemployed, but strove to  ensure “public works of an ensuring character and lasting benefits.”  Many of these post offices included murals.   Read more…….

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Genealogist’s Declaration of Rights

Have you signed the Genealogist’s Declaration of Rights?  genealogists vote

Fellow CSGA member, Jan Meisels Allen, who wears many hats in the genealogical community (1), has written a letter to California societies urging all California genealogists to sign.  But as individuals you can also sign and get your friends to sign as well.  As Jan states:

 “Genealogists are having increased difficulty with access to records that are needed for our research—due to misinformation that our access could and has led to identity theft—that is wrong. What causes identity theft is computer hacking into government, commercial, financial and health care businesses where the “bad guys” appropriate personal information and misuse it. (Recently released California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s second annual report on identity theft indicated 18.5 million Californians were involved in data breaches in 2013. Retailers, banks, health care providers and other organizations reported 167 different breaches in the state during 2013. That is six times more than the 2.5 million accounts hacked in 131 breaches in 2012, and represents nearly half of the state’s 38 million residents. The problem to be solved is how to stop hacking of secure data NOT limiting access to already public data.

RPAC believes that it is essential to let our elected officials—federal and state—know that their constituents are deeply interested in access to vital records. One of the RPAC state liaisons, Bob Rafford from Connecticut, developed the idea of the Genealogists’ Declaration or Rights and presented it to RPAC and all three sponsoring organizations approved the Declaration. At each of the FGS, IAJGS and NGS national conferences in 2014 there were RPAC information tables where we asked conference attendees to sign the declaration. We currently have approximately 4,000 signatures and to make an impact we really need about 20,000.

“Both the California Legislature and the US Congress start again in January and the earlier we can get the necessary number of signatures to make an impact the better prepared we will be to address any proposed legislation and or regulations in 2015 ….. There is also an electronic version where people can sign …. They must be US citizens to sign.”

If you are a member of a society Jan encourages you to take the Declaration of Rights and Signature Sheet to a society meeting and submit them according to her Instructions for Signing at Meetings.

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Records Preservation and Access Committee
GENEALOGISTS’ DECLARATION OF RIGHTS
27April 2014

WHEREAS, Americans have pursued the research of their family heritage since the beginning of our country; and

WHEREAS, millions of Americans derive enjoyment from genealogical exploration, consistent with the pursuit of happiness recognized by the founders of our country in our Declaration of Independence; and

WHEREAS, Americans derive substantial emotional benefit from genealogical exploration into their heritage; and

WHEREAS, many Americans derive financial benefit from the practice of professional genealogy and have performed such throughout this nation’s history; and

WHEREAS, genealogists make meaningful contributions to the fields of forensic genealogy, identification of kinships, determining the facts in legal cases such as probate court, cases involving tribal and other relationships; and

WHEREAS, thousands of genealogical and historical societies, libraries, museums, and other institutions and associations have been established throughout our land to assist all Americans in the pursuit of their family heritage; and

WHEREAS, genealogy adds substantially to the ethnic, cultural, and racial richness of which our country is composed; and

WHEREAS, the American people have recognized that the right to open government and unfettered access to the records of our government are rights which find expression in the constitutions and legislation of our federal and state governments and which enrich the lives of all Americans; and

WHEREAS, genealogists have been at the forefront of efforts to protect and preserve the precious records and documents of our genealogical and historical heritage; and

WHEREAS, genealogists, no less than other Americans, are vitally concerned for personal privacy and safety from untoward acts that diminish our freedom; and

WHEREAS, most records, including vital records, have, for all of our nation’s history, been substantially open to access,

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT KNOWN

That we, the undersigned genealogists, in pursuance of our individual and collective rights as Americans, do hereby

DECLARE

That genealogists possess the right to the pursuit of genealogical exploration through unfettered access to the records of our government; and

WE CALL upon our governmental representatives to recognize our rights by;

PRESERVING the freedom of the American people to access the public records of our government in a timely and orderly manner through appropriate legislation; and

REFRAINING from legislation which would prevent or render extraordinarily difficult access to the public records, principally birth, marriage, and death records collected by our state and federal governmental agencies; and

PROMOTING those principles that enhance, not diminish, our freedom of access to records; and

CELEBRATING with genealogists the valuable benefits of exploring, researching, and compiling the histories of our families, and as a result, the history of our exceptional nation.

WE SIGNED,

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(1)Chairperson, International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) Public Records Access Monitoring Committee;  IAJGS Sponsoring Member to the Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC)*;  President, Jewish Genealogical Society of the Conejo Valley and Ventura County (JGSCV)

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