April 16, 2021
A New ‘New Deal’?
Biden’s Infrastructure Plan & the WPA
Boys in a Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded handicraft class, Chicago, Illinois, 1936
In recent weeks, President Joe Biden announced his bold $1.9 trillion infrastructure plan with much anticipation and need amidst comparisons to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Great Depression, and his American New Deal programs. This historically relevant period is notable also as it represents the momentous shift of African Americans from the Republican to the Democratic Party. 
Robert L. Vann (left) and Charles Diggs, Sr. (right)
African Americans joined the Republican Party in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but in the early 1900s, four decades after the end of Reconstruction, African Americans became increasingly disillusioned with the Republican Party's paternalism and abandonment of issues important to the black community. But the Democratic Party, tightly controlled by racist Southern Democrats, particularly under President Woodrow Wilson, left them nowhere to go. Robert L. Vann, editor of the influential black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, said that it was time for African Americans to “emancipate themselves from blind allegiance to the Republican Party.”[1] There was also Charles Diggs, Sr., a Republican funeral home owner in Detroit, who, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential run in 1932, began organizing Black Democratic Clubs. However, during the presidential election of 1932 in the middle of the Great Depression, most African Americans still voted for Republican candidate Herbert Hoover.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Democrats won the election, though, and President Roosevelt took office at a time when unemployment hovered at 25% with nearly 15 million people unemployed.[2] For African Americans, the unemployment numbers hit an astronomical 50%. President Roosevelt’s administration responded to this crisis with his plans for the American New Deal, which “helped reduce unemployment to 21.7% in 1934, 20.1% in 1935, 16.9% in 1936, and 14.3% in 1937.[3] Likewise, “New Deal spending boosted GDP growth by 17% in 1934. It grew another 11.1% in 1935, 14.3% in 1936, and 9.7% in 1937… [but] the government cut back on New Deal spending in 1938 [due to Republican opposition]… and the economy shrank 6.3%.”[4] Perhaps the most significant of the New Deal programs was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), enacted in 1935, which put about 8.5 million Americans back to work, emphasizing public works projects such as the building of roads, schools, hospitals, and bridges. Although roundly criticized for extreme economic interventionism and prioritizing collectivism over individualism, Roosevelt’s approach was the antidote to the effects of the Great Depression on African Americans and the working class and Roosevelt’s New Deal would go down in history as having saved the American economy. In his Fireside Chat announcing what is known euphemistically as the Second New Deal (1935-1936), which included the WPA, President Roosevelt stated: “We will continue to seek to improve working conditions for the workers of America… we will provide useful work for the needy unemployed… we will continue our efforts for young men and women so that they may obtain an education and an opportunity to put it to use… we will continue our help for the crippled, for the blind, for the mothers, our insurance for the unemployed, our security for the aged.[5]
WPA advertisement
In her HistoryMakers' interview, curator and artist Leslie King-Hammond explained: “FDR [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] created this system… [And] believed that all Americans needed a job to support themselves, to preserve their dignity, and to support their country. And, when he went to create the system of the Works Project Administration, he went to the census records to identify all of the jobs which are acknowledged by the federal government to which people subscribed themselves for employment. And, according to these job categories, he created divisions, units, and projects where people could go sign up and be paid.”[6]
A WPA worker at a construction site at Bolling Airfield, Washington, D.C., 1936
Labor activist Reverend Addie Wyatt (1924 - 2012) recalled the impact the WPA had on her family in Chicago: “When the WPA… was created, my father then could find stable work… He became a foreman on the lakeshores… putting the stones around the lake. And things were better for him. And it was better… for the family.”[7] Donald "Duck" Porter, a member of the Doowop group, The Spaniels, told in his interview of the impact the WPA had on his family: “My dad… always worked. I remember even during the [Great] Depression time he worked… with this work program called WPA… a government-sponsored work program. And pretty soon after that, he got a job in the steel mill… and when he began to make too much money for us to live in the projects. And… we brought a new home in Gary, Indiana.”[8]
A WPA dance band, Detroit, Michigan, 1938
The WPA also included the arts-and-humanities-based Federal Project Number One that included the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers' Project, and the Historical Records Survey. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied her husband to sign the executive order establishing the project, which comprised only a small part of WPA expenditures. Roughly $27 million of the nearly $5 billion that had been earmarked for WPA work programs went to the arts.[9] Leslie King-Hammond added that “one of the greatest anomalies was that he [President Roosevelt] created a whole series of projects for artists. Meaning, artists could go sign up and you could be an easel artist. Who would imagine during… the '30s [1930s]… That a black man, black woman could get paid every week to paint pictures, to make prints, to run a community art center.”[10] The arts flourished in the 1930s due to the numerous paid opportunities provided by the WPA for visual artists, musicians, and actors of all races and genders. 
Left: Velma Buckner, artist in the WPA’s Federal Art Project, Washington, D.C., c. 1935-1939
Right: Around the Corner at Kelly's by Allen Stringfellow
Helen Marshall (1929 - 2017), the first African American president of the borough of Queens, New York, spoke of her father’s participation in the Federal Art Project: “They taught him how to be a real painter… It was a real government sponsored work program that… worked beautifully… it helped to build New York City… But for my father, it gave him a skill that he could sell.”[11] Gloria Toote (1931 - 2017), who served as an advisor to four American presidents, also stated: “You talk about the Harlem Renaissance, what helped the Harlem renaissance was the WPA and the infusion of that money, that stipend so that you could paint the murals, and write the books, and do the plays.”[12] WPA artist Allen Stringfellow (1923 - 2004) described the WPA as “a blessing… before that time you never had proper things to work with. You never had made any money doing it… you worked daily, and you got paid, and that was the biggest part then, you got paid… [and] I was doing something that I liked.[13]
Interviewees in the WPA Slave Narratives, Frank Childress (left), age 84 and Nathan Best (right), age 92
WPA Slave Narrative interviewee Rose Holman, around age 84
The HistoryMakers Digital Archive
The Historical Records Survey division was also incredibly significant, because it was this division that produced the WPA Slave Narratives, the largest recording of African Americans until the creation of The HistoryMakers. Northwestern University’s African American studies librarian Kathleen E. Bethel reflected on the importance of the WPA Slave Narratives: “There were years, people ignored the WPA Slave Narratives… and they don't think of oral histories. But, I think of oral history as such a primary source… these eyewitness accounts, these biographies, I think are so important… we love stories and we love storytellers and why not have people tell their own stories.”[14]
President Roosevelt’s ‘Black Cabinet’, featuring Mary McLeod Bethune (front, center), the first African American woman to lead a federal agency, who was instrumental in organizing this group, 1938
The WPA also brought more appointments for African Americans in the Roosevelt administration than all other past U.S. presidential administrations combined spurred on in 1933 by two events: “The Second Amenia Conference, hosted by Joel Spingarn, the chairman of the board of the NAACP… [and] the Julius Rosenwald Fund meeting to discuss the economic status of blacks. Out of both of these meetings grew a determination… to ensure that blacks would not be excluded from New Deal programs.”[15] The Interracial Interdepartmental Group (IIG) was subsequently founded, and they worked closely with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Harold Ickes, a white man who was former president of Chicago’s NAACP and headed another New Deal program, the Public Works Administration. Together, they secured “the appointment of at least one black adviser in all but five of some two dozen New Deal agencies by 1937. This network of officeholders became known as Roosevelt’s ‘Black Cabinet’ …and included: Robert Weaver, later appointed by Lyndon B. Johnson to serve as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Mary McLeod Bethune, director of Negro affairs, National Youth Organization [who led the organizing of the Black Cabinet]; Henry Hunt and Charles Hall, who, along with Weaver, were original members of the IIG; Joseph H. B. Evans, Farm Security Administration; Lawrence A. Axley, Department of Labor; Edgar G. Brown, Civilian Conservation Corps; N. Robinson, Agriculture; and Alfred E. Smith, Works Project Administration.”[16]
Black Political Party Identification, 1936-2004, compiled by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies
The appointments of African Americans to New Deal agencies, the efforts of African American community leaders, as well as New Deal policies that benefitted the black community, all helped to reshape “the party system… Roosevelt and the Democrats favored federal government activity to combat the Depression and proposed programs to benefit disadvantaged groups. The Republicans… were critical of this expansion of government interference in the economy and creation of a variety of social welfare programs. By the late 1930s, the lines between the two parties were clearly drawn.”[17] Judge Lillian Burke (1917 - 2012), a Republican and the first African American woman to sit on the bench in the State of Ohio, noted this shift amongst African American voters: “At that time, as I remember, most of the black people were Republicans. And after that [the New Deal]… black people became Democrats… So, it must have been that Mr. Roosevelt had a great influence on black families.”[18] President Roosevelt would go on to sweep the 1940 and 1944 elections with the support of African American voters.
President Biden at the unveiling of the American Jobs Plan, March 31, 2021
With calls for reparations occurring across the country at a time when unemployment in the black community is high and social unrest and police killings showing no abeyance, what innovative policies will come out of this period that are lasting and impactful? Some have boldly claimed that President Biden’s American Jobs Plan will ring “in the ‘dawn of a new economic era’ and [secure] his title as a ‘latter-day FDR.’[19] Hopefully inspiration is also drawn from President Harry Truman’s Fair Deal policies, which focused more on civil rights protections. Only time will tell. But it is our hope and need that it will.
[1]  Sue Pennington. “African Americans and the Democratic Party,” UMBC, accessed April 8, 2021. https://www.umbc.edu/che/tahlessons/pdf/African_Americans_and_the_Democratic_Party(PrinterFriendly).pdf
[2] Kimberly Amadeo. “The 9 Principal Effects of the Great Depression,” The Balance, March 29, 2021, accessed April 5, 2021. https://www.thebalance.com/effects-of-the-great-depression-4049299
[3] Kimberly Amadeo. “The 9 Principal Effects of the Great Depression,” The Balance, March 29, 2021, accessed April 5, 2021. https://www.thebalance.com/effects-of-the-great-depression-4049299
[4] Ibid.
[5] “Franklin Roosevelt's Address Announcing the Second New Deal,” FDR Library, accessed April 9, 2021. http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/od2ndst.html
[6] Leslie King-Hammond (The HistoryMakers A2007.164), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 26, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 7, Leslie King-Hammond talks about the National Conference of Artists.
[7] Reverend Addie Wyatt (The HistoryMakers A2002.096), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 1, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 7, Addie Wyatt remembers her family's financial struggles--Part I.
[8] Donald "Duck" Porter (The HistoryMakers A2003.097), interviewed by Adele Hodge, May 5, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 7, Donald Porter describes his childhood environment.
[9] History com Editors, “Works Progress Administration (WPA),” HISTORY, accessed April 16, 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/works-progress-administration.
[10] Leslie King-Hammond (The HistoryMakers A2007.164), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 26, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 7, Leslie King-Hammond talks about the National Conference of Artists.
[11] The Honorable Helen Marshall (The HistoryMakers A2005.131), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 8, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, The Honorable Helen Marshall describes her father's involvement with the Works Progress Administration in the 1920s.
[12] Gloria Toote (The HistoryMakers A2006.150), interviewed by Shawn Wilson, December 4, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 8, story 8, Gloria Toote recalls her role as the assistant director of ACTION.
[13] Allen Stringfellow (The HistoryMakers A2001.071), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, January 8, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 13, Allen Stringfellow discusses the Works Progress Administration and the National Youth Administration.
[14] Kathleen E. Bethel (The HistoryMakers A2008.087), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 15, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 8, story 7, Kathleen E. Bethel reflects upon the importance of oral history.
[15] “Roosevelt's Black Cabinet,” Encyclopedia, accessed April 8, 2021. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/roosevelts-black-cabinet
[16] Ibid.
[17] “The New Deal Realignment,” University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, accessed April 6, 2021. https://www.icpsr.umich.edu/web/pages/instructors/setups/notes/new-deal.html
[18] The Honorable Lillian Burke (The HistoryMakers A2004.082), interviewed by Regennia Williams, June 17, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 8, The Honorable Lillian Burke talks about life during the Great Depression in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
[19] Eric Levits. “Biden Doesn’t Need to Be FDR or LBJ to Change America,” New York Magazine, March 27, 2021, accessed April 5, 2021. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/03/biden-fdr-lbj-transformational-presidency.html