Collage of WPA photos from Library of Congress.
The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring oral history, community life, traditions, sustainability in the Yell County area. The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier. Please remember to support your local paper and independent media!The Seed and the Story column is just of many features you can find on the Boiled Down Juice. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoy our posts, please tell a friend. And thanks for reading.
Last week’s column discussed the Federal Writers Project, an offshoot of the Works Progress Administration, which provided jobs for out of work Americans during the Depression. The Arkansas Writers Project, like other state-based writers programs, hired historians, journalists, and educators to create a series of publications about Arkansas history and culture, including the well-known WPA Guide to 1930s Arkansas. As discussed last week, the second half of the book is a selection of driving tours across Arkansas—a fascinating, if a bit surfacy, look at life along the highways before the creation of the rivers dams, the interstate system, and the rise of big box stores.
The first half of the book is broken up into subjects such as “Arkansas Today,” “Natural Setting,” “Resources and Conversation,” “Agriculture,” “Religion,” and “Industry, Labor and Commerce.” Most sections are only a few pages in length, touching on topics including Arkansas’s perpetual fight against outsider’s stereotypes, the growth of Little Rock as a commercial center, the disappearance of mountain lions, bears, and wolves from Arkansas’s woods, and, on a superficial level, the large wage disparity between white and black workers. The introductory section labeled “General Information” provides a hodgepodge list of everything from the names of companies owning bus lines to state liquor regulations: “Spirited liquors may be sold in licensed liquor stores, in original package” and “No liquor sales are permitted Sundays or until after closing of the polls on election days.”
For people interested in Arkansas architecture, there’s a tiny little bit about the prevalence of dogtrot houses and handmade wooden shingles. The section on handcrafts notes the revival of old weaving skills thanks to the Home Demonstration Agents and the “uninterrupted popularity” of quilting, including the custom among rural families of giving a quilt to all “marriageable daughters.” Largely focused on life in white communities, there is tiny bit of information about African American community life, although it overlooks the complexities of Jim Crow and opts instead for a few sentences about “Negro folktales” and the movement of many African Americans north in search of work and a more hospitable environment. While there were a few African American writers who worked for the Arkansas Writers Project (more on this topic in next week’s column), it does not appear these writers worked for the guidebook itself.
Zora Neale Hurston
Of the approximately 6,600 writers who were employed by the Federal Writers Project, some were white-collar workers while others were drawn from local unemployment rolls and gained their first experience writing via the program. Many of the employees of the project went on to have well-known, important, and complex careers, including folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston (who worked for the Florida WPA), oral historian, radio host, and champion of working class history Studs Terkel, and novelist Richard Wright, whose controversial and best-selling autobiography Black Boy helped to generate a larger discussion about the evils of racism in the United States. As fellow folklorist Mike Luster pointed out, Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph worked for the neighboring Missouri Writers Project, a fact he discusses in the biography by Robert Cochran, Vance Randolph: An Ozark Life.
Despite the wealth of information the state guidebooks offer today, and the numerous and invaluable oral histories the employees gathered, the Federal Writers Project was not always championed. Partially because the project was known to hire writers who were left leaning, many conservatives accused the organization as a haven for what they deemed anti-American activities and had the project investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Did someone in your family work for the Federal Writers Project in Arkansas or elsewhere? Do you have stories to share about any of the information included in the Guide? I’d love to hear about it.
Arkansas Writers Project (Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture)
Library of Congress Web Guide to Federal Writers Project
Manuscripts from the Federal Writers Project
Celebrating New Deal Arts and Culture (Indiana University)
Federal Writers Project Papers: University of North Carolina Southern Historical Collection