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[Detail] Fishermen. Key West, Florida

The Great Depression and Works Progress Administration | Florida's History and Ethnic Heritage | Music and Social History

The Great Depression and Works Progress Administration

In the essay "A Florida Treasure Hunt," Stetson Kennedy writes about the Depression:

Those were hard times back then, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. People sometimes referred to them as the "root-hog-or-die" days, meaning that if you didn't keep grubbing you were a goner. Lots of folks were "hollerin' hongry," and longing for a little gravy on their grits. A black preacher on the Sea Islands prayed, "Hear us, Oh Lord, we're down here gnawin' on dry bones!" And on New Year's Eve, Florida Latins intoned, "Go bad year, so we can see if the coming one is better!"

From "A Florida Treasure Hunt"

The Works Progress Administration was the largest of all the New Deal agencies established to deal with the economic problems faced by Americans during the Depression. The agency was created in May 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt and funded by Congress. Most of the funds went toward employing people to build infrastructure—roads, highways, buildings, and airports—but 7 percent went to arts projects, including the Federal Writers' Project, which gave work to approximately 6,600 unemployed writers, editors, historians, and others. Some well-known American writers worked in the FWP, including John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston. As Stetson Kennedy reports in his essay, "All of us working on the WPA (except administrators) had to sign a Pauper's Oath--that we had no job, no money, no property, and no prospect of getting any of those things."

Shortly after Roosevelt's executive order establishing the WPA and Congressional appropriation of funds, the Florida Writers' Project (FWP), under the directorship of Dr. Carita Doggett Corse, began a program to reach out to the state's ethnic communities to collect folklore. Stetson Kennedy, who had worked with the FWP, became the director of the Florida Folklore, Oral History, and Ethnic Studies program when it began operation in Florida in 1937. Although initial work collecting recordings for the Florida Folklife program began in 1937, the bulk of the collecting work occurred in 1939 and 1940.

On May 23, 1939, Dr. Corse wrote to the Director of the Federal Writers' Project in Washington, enclosing a "Proposed Recording Expedition Into the Floridas" drawn up by Zora Neale Hurston, an author and Florida Federal Writers' Project editor. Hurston's proposal outlined Florida's diverse heritage and concluded with an emotional appeal for the recording project.

. . . No other State in the Union has had the history of races blended and contending. Nowhere else is there such a variety of materials. Florida is still a frontier with its varying elements still unassimilated. There is still an opportunity to observe the wombs of folk culture still heavy with life. Recordings in Florida will be like backtracking a large part of the United States, Europe and Africa for these elements have been attracted here and brought a gift to Florida culture each in its own way. The drums throb: Africa by way of Cuba; Africa by way of the British West Indies; Africa by way of Haiti and Martinique; Africa by way of Central and South America. Old Spain speaks through many interpreters. Old England speaks through black, white and intermediate lips. Florida, the inner melting pot of the great melting pot -- America.

From "Proposed Recording Expedition into the Floridas"

  • What argument does Hurston make to encourage the collection of sound recordings in Florida?
  • What values underlie her argument? Do you think similar values provided the foundation for the entire Federal Writers' Project?
  • If funding were available for a similar project in your state today, what aspects of culture do you think should be recorded? Provide reasons for your selections.

The establishment of the New Deal programs meant growth in the government. The bureaucracy, the administrative offices of the government, grew substantially in the 1930s. Bureaucracies are sometimes criticized for being too hierarchical, too rigidly bound by complicated rules and procedures, and too slow to act. Read the letter from C.E. Triggs, an administrator at the WPA in Washington, to Roy Schroder, an administrator in Florida. What evidence do you find in this letter that the WPA had some of the negative traits bureaucracies are often said to have?