By Larry Teren
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was enacted by the Roosevelt Administration in 1935 and stayed in business providing work for a few million otherwise unemployed people until it was disbanded in 1943. The main reason that the Federal Government closed down the WPA was that millions of young, able-bodied men were being sent overseas to fight for this country during World War II. Even with a good number of US soldiers today fighting overseas we have major unemployment problems.
The Works Progress Administration took care of the unemployment problem by putting able-bodied men and women to work during the Great Depression that started in late 1929. It took several years for the Federal Government to come up with a plan that seemed to please the majority of Americans. The Federal Government program was geared toward teaching skills as well as giving opportunity to some to update their skills. Another significant aspect was that it gave opportunity to a class of citizens who otherwise would be left out in the social order. This, of course, was the Black Americans.
If you were to believe all the old movies you saw, you’d think that until the 1960’s most Black women were maids, dancers, singers or cleaning ladies. Black Men were bartenders, janitors, taxicab drivers, train porters, as well as dancers and singers. For certain, they weren’t teachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, sales clerks or typists. Luckily, the Federal Government bureaucrats who ran the Works Progress Administration didn’t believe that. The statistics they compiled indicated that:
10% of the population was Black
16% of the Blacks were unemployed
25% of the Blacks were on some form of relief
A remarkable newsreel put out in the late 1930’s entitled We Work Again showcases how the WPA gave substantial opportunities to Black men and women to work in all fields of endeavor- clerical, construction, medicine among others. The passing of time, however, has a way of changing perspective upon review of what took place. The narration back then probably conveyed a sense of benevolence when viewed by white audiences. Today, most would cringe and find it somewhat patronizing.
There were subtle efforts to not offend white sensitivities by making sure closeup shots did not show black laborers mixing in the workplace environment with whites unless the white persons were in an obvious superior relationship. The Black nurse tended to a Black patient and the Black teacher taught a class of Black students.
Two scenes would particularly cause grief today to a politically conscious Black person:
One was where the white announcer spoke with pride how 300,000 adults were learning to read and write for the first time while focusing the camera on a class of adult Black men and women. Another was where the announcer again proudly explained how young black women were being taught domestic skills such as cooking and cleaning so that they could get jobs. The camera panned on these ladies learning how to make a bed. To be fair, there were scenes showing Black men and women working in an office environment using their filing and typing skills. The documentary also bragged on how local Black men were given construction jobs to help rebuild Harlem.
The question is why is there no effort to do something like this today? In 1938, at the height of the WPA, there were over 3 million workers in the program. Instead, the Federal Government found it more beneficial a couple of years ago to the economy to bail out General Motors. Is it that the labor unions want to mix in and not allow anyone to be hired at less than the published rate for that particular skill? Is it that too many people in decision-making authority do not feel the siuation is as bad now as it was eighty years ago?
Are we afraid of playing favorites and allowing one segment of society to benefit over another? Let’s be honest- it took at least thirty years after the Great Depression for society to fully accept the desegregation of the American workforce. Baby boomers lived through the racial unrest of the 1960s. We know very well that not everyone goes home happy when changes are made. There is no such thing as compromise. Many of us will not be around in thirty years (present company excluded) to see the outcome of the changes in our working environment from today’s upheaval.
Instead of that shoe company slogan of “let’s do it!”, how about “let’s do something!”
Here is our You Tube clip which we edited for time and content:
note: this is from the public domain archives provided by Prelinger.