As we work to gather support for H.R.3054 – 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act, we inevitably look back at the work of some of the 6,600 writers employed by the WPA Federal Writers’ Project. In this series we introduce a few that you may not have heard of, even though some of them were and continue to be very influential.
Aurora Lucero-White, a proud Nuevomexicana Author, Folklorist, Educator and Suffragist is credited with preserving New Mexican traditional culture as a member of the WPA New Mexico Writers’ Project, in Los Hispanos and several other books.
What if a single government initiative could (1) create fulfilling jobs for thousands of struggling Americans, (2) help irrigate “news deserts,” (3) create apprenticeships for recent humanities graduates, (4) preserve the vanishing stories of the disadvantaged and the elderly, and (5) reassure marginalized citizens that their stories are heard and valued?
Why on earth should anybody believe that one program could ever accomplish all this? The answer’s easy:
It worked the first time.
At its peak, the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project employed as many as 7,000 people, only a tenth of them professionals when the program began. It created cheap, informative, often funny, still delightful book-length “WPA Guides” to all 48 states, as well as 40 cities, 18 regions and territories, countless counties, and other, less mappable American phenomena. After dozens of local newspapers folded, the FWP reported lifesaving news of fire and flood. And it recorded the oral histories of 10,000 Americans—especially the stories of formerly enslaved people, creating by far the largest repository of its kind.
Congress is going to the movies this week, and you’re invited.
Rep. Ted Lieu has arranged a free public virtual screening for the nation – and for his colleagues on the Hill – of Soul of a People, a terrific Smithsonian documentary about the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. This follows a bill he and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez introduced in May, the 21st-Century Federal Writers’ Project Act, which is jockeying for inclusion this week in the upcoming $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package.
The bill would hire 900 writers to reinvent a New Deal initiative whose work can still educate and delight readers 85 eighty years later. Among the Federal Writers’ Project’s many gifts, it created the American Guides, a shelf of useful, cheap, shockingly well-written book-length explorations of all 48 states at the time, plus Puerto Rico and Alaska. The Project also recorded roughly 10,000 oral histories around the country, including 2,300 invaluable interviews with formerly enslaved people.
David Kipen talks with Jon Wiener, author of the revised and newly timely Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Seven and host of radio’s Trump Watch — recently re-christened, courtesy of Libros Schmibros’ expert naming service, Hey Joe.
Mike Davis and David Kipen discuss Los Angeles, City of Quartz and other writings which appear to be almost prophetic, viewed through the lens of COVID-19 and the current pandemic. Full interview, recorded April 2020.