In a recent post for The Berkeley Blog, Professor Robert Reich proposes that the federal government respond to our ongoing recession by initiating a new Works Progress Administration (WPA). Almost seventy years having passed since the closing of the original New Deal “alphabet agencies,” recent oral history interviews can help us better comprehend the ongoing impact of these programs. A major aspect of the New Deal was the creation of over 100 federally-sponsored offices, so nicknamed “alphabet agencies” due to their near-obsessive propensity for acronyms. As a historian of museums and anthropology I have studied the extensive impact of alphabet agencies (which ran from roughly 1935 to 1943) like the WPA, National Youth Administration (NYA), and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) on museums and science in the United States. Numerous other historians have illustrated how these programs profoundly enriched cultural, environmental, and even intellectual life in the United States. Along with unskilled laborers, the WPA temporarily employed writers, authors, and artists; these programs even hired a deluge of underemployed historians and interviewers who completed oral histories (a story which I can identify with, probably for obvious reasons). These alphabet agencies contributed to museums, in particular, by providing labor with which to organize collections, create card catalogues useful for researchers, and design and built entirely new public exhibits. The youngest workers who were employed by these programs are now between about 85-90 years old. Workers who were hired earlier or joined at above the minimum age are today closer to 100 years old.
In studying the stunning impact of New Deal programs on museums, I continually wondered who these (mostly) young men were. How did they end up finding work in a public works program, and what sort of an influence did it have on their lives? In the case of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology on the UC Berkeley campus, I was curious about the experiences of the young men working for the museum through the NYA in the 1930s. Was this just a temporary, meaningless internship for them – or was the experience of working with a public works project during the Great Depression something that had actually influenced them in meaningful ways? The focus of my article on museums and the New Deal was how these public works projects benefited museums, but records shedding light on the perspectives of the workers themselves were virtually non-existent and thus their voices faded to the background of my historical narrative. Although critics have lambasted the public work projects of the New Deal as filled with incompetence and wasteful spending, the reality is that these programs left a powerful and lasting mark on American culture that is impossible to measure on a fiscal scale alone. Critics have rightly noted the many shortcomings of alphabet agencies, including the stark inequalities (in terms of both race and gender) in their hiring practices. Nevertheless, archival sources at repositories such as the Smithsonian Institution (which ran its own WPA office for museum projects) indicate that the vast number of public works employees hired during the midst of the Great Depression accomplished a staggering amount of work. Occasional stories of incompetence and sloth, however, were also present (rumors still swirl around the halls of the National Museum of Natural History about WPA workers stealing nips of alcohol from the countless storage jars preserving the millions of exotic creatures from around the world). In this entry, I would like to consider two recent interviews recorded by the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) of The Bancroft Library. Although both of the interviews primarily focus on the period of the Second World War, portions of these interviews also provide great insights into the era of the Great Depression and New Deal. Indeed, because the lives of the many individuals we have interviewed were often filled with rich experiences before and after World War II, our collection offers a partial snapshot of American life in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Importantly, those with lived experiences related to these programs are advancing in age, and it is critical that we record their stories as quickly and efficiently as possible. Historians and journalists have rightly called attention to the fact that members of the Second World War generation are quickly passing away, and we should take a moment to recall that the memories of life before the war—when many of the men and women who lived through the conflict were children and adolescents—are disappearing with them. The two men highlighted in this post—both white and nearly 90 years old— describe in their oral histories their work as part of the agencies. They detail their time working for New Deal era public works programs as benefiting them in the long-term, affording them opportunities to further their education and contribute to society in an inspiring fashion. These things are only clear in distant retrospect, making oral history an important tool in documenting these experiences.
The NYA was established in 1935 and was actually a branch of the much larger and overarching WPA. The program lasted from 1935 to 1943, and focused on finding work for individuals between the ages of 16 and 25. More than 700,000 students enrolled in the program. Most jobs were part-time and many were based in cities and towns rather than in rural areas. The NYA mostly hired young men who aspired to advance their education or were already enrolled in college. Between 1936 and 1942 at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, a modestly sized, rotating crew of young men assisted in producing research and aided in organizing and caring for collections. Outside of museums, NYA workers tended to city parks and landscapes, worked after hours at schools, and completed an untold number of odd tasks for modest wages. The CCC began in 1933 and hired individuals to assist in maintaining and improving forests, parks, and other natural resources. The program put about 2.5 million men to work, based mostly out of camps operated by the U.S. Army.
Several members of Leon Mason’s family, including his father, worked for New Deal agencies. In the late 1930s, Mason (Foster City, 89 years old) joined the CCC and worked with forest rangers near the Trinity National Forest. Mason helped as a typist as well as in the field, maintaining roads, cleaning up brush, and lending a hand with forest fires—he still recalls battling a forest fire on July 4, 1940. Mason ruminated on the import of his work, “Cutting steps into national parks, when you climb the steps in national parks, they cut those steps in; they did a lot of things.” Indeed, hundreds of parks and forests still bear the physical marks of labor performed seventy years ago. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mason tried to enlist immediately but was declined due to poor eyesight. He immediately signed up for a job at the nearby Kaiser shipyard in Richmond, California. With his family still recovering from the Great Depression, he wanted to make as much money as possible so he alternated working between all three shifts at the yard. Mason later transferred over to the Marin shipyards before finally joining the Navy in the midst of the war. Mason became a Seebee (“CB” is short for construction battalion). When asked how his experience in the CCC compared to his time in the armed forces, Mason replied, “my attitude was [that] I was able to take the discipline that I learned [with] the CCC’s going into the service.” The skills may have been entirely different, but the experience of performing productive, organized labor with young men of diverse backgrounds and abilities helped prepare Mason, even in some modest way, for the experience of the Second World War. Mason used his benefits from the GI Bill (both the federal and California versions) to fund his college education. He then became an elementary school teacher, teaching in South San Francisco for thirty years.
When Jack Rosston (San Francisco, like Mason he is 89 years old) became a student at UC Berkeley in the late 1930s, he filled out government paperwork in order to find a job. He took a series of part-time jobs with the National Youth Administration. His pay enabled his being able to further his education by funding his transportation to and from campus. Rosston could not yet afford to move to campus, so a job that could pay for his trips to Berkeley from San Francisco was a necessity. Many of his books and some of his tuition were paid for by scholarships. Rosston’s NYA job brought him to a chemistry laboratory on campus that was working on research that would become critical for the creation of the atom bomb. He recalls helping sweep the lab, collecting dangerous mercury pellets that had spilled to the floor. Rosston possessed a reading knowledge of French, so the faculty soon took him out of the lab and sent him to the library to find articles on heavy water. Although he recalls not being as much of a scholar as he perhaps should have been in his early years at Cal, he soon fell in love with the campus and the intellectual environment that defined the university.
Rosston would later become one of the most dedicated alumni of UC Berkeley in the second-half of the twentieth century. He served as the President of the California Alumni Association and on the Board of Regents. His leadership of important library committees, including The Friends of The Bancroft Library, helped usher the library into the modern age. His knack for fundraising helped the university modernize facilities and acquire important collections. Just as with Mason, Rosston’s job with the NYA was critical in allowing him to advance his education. Along with millions of young men and women, New Deal programs helped him achieve his goals and allowed him to become a major contributor to institutions like UC Berkeley. For others, including many older citizens, New Deal programs served as a temporary bridge, a respite from the seemingly endless state of economic struggles.
Those who lived through the New Deal era are occasionally beset with conflicting emotions surrounding agencies like the WPA, NYA, and CCC. For the vast majority of seniors I have interviewed in recent months, however, these sorts of agencies provided a valuable lifeline in an era defined by breadlines, unemployment, and devastating poverty. When I asked Marcia Henning (Walnut Creek, Rossmoor) about the many stereotypes that accompanied New Deal programs she responded by explaining her belief that these negative conclusions about the agencies were unfounded. She commented about unemployment today, “I even think that today, we could use the CCC.” She added, “If [the unemployed] had a reason for being, a reason for joining, a reason for doing something with somebody else. That’s what it gave people. People responded to that. They really did. It was amazing.”
Nancy Deanda Miramontes (Fremont) offers a similar perspective, despite possessing a very different story from Henning, Mason, or Rosston. Miramontes’ family immigrated from Mexico to Nebraska before she, her sister, and father all found work at shipyards in the Bay Area during World War II. She and her sister proved to be capable welders and, even after the war, Miramontes helped repair ambulances and other military vehicles returning home from overseas. Sharing a recent conversation with her brother, she reconsidered the current economic downturn through the lens of her family’s experiences during the New Deal era, “I talked to my brother about it, how come they don’t open up jobs like the way President Roosevelt did?” In the wake of a series of disasters including floods, hurricanes, nuclear emergencies, forest fires, and tornados, a more robust, permanent, civilian works programs seems logical for the modern day. Among those who have witnessed, first hand, the enormous power of such programs, calls for modern day analogies are quite common. In their own lives and for their own families, New Deal agencies provided opportunities that helped them move somewhat closer to achieving their American Dream. Certainly, the Smithsonian—as just one example out of many—could use a new wave of skilled and semi-skilled workers to help preserve their rich collections and to help educate the public through new websites, exhibitions, and other resources. Instead of building a new “melting pot” museum, as Virginia Representative Jim Moran has suggested, we should first lift the hiring freezes at the Smithsonian and consider hiring new workers to assist the existing 19 museums, the zoo, and the additional nine research centers.
In the 1930s, New Deal agencies oversaw the collection of hundreds of oral histories (especially with former slaves living in the US South). Today, by embracing modern oral history techniques, we can now turn the tables and create a more richly textured understanding of these agencies through interviews with individuals who actually worked for these programs. Since the thoughts or impressions of the young men working for agencies like the NYA were rarely recorded at the time, oral histories can add to our available primary sources in a unique manner on this subject. Although this small selection of examples is in no way entirely representative of the complete range of experiences for those who worked in alphabet agencies such as the WPA or NYA, it might be recognized that these agencies held a significant place in the lives of many young individuals who would go on to be successful and productive contributors to our society. These programs, more often than not, offered anything but a simple government “handout.” When considering the benefit of public works projects, we should consider not just the benefit of the project at hand—building a bridge, maintaining a park, or caring for a museum collection—but we should also consider the extraordinary impact it can have on the lives of workers in dire need of an opportunity. We should honor rather than stigmatize important work that contributes to the public good. Through the benefit of oral history, we can learn to fully appreciate the benefit of New Deal programs by embracing a much longer lens. While it is impossible to fully predict the long-term effect of such major legislation in the future, it is important to recall that opportunities are typically not singular, and providing our citizens with productive jobs, education, artistic outlets, and allowing overall contribution to the welfare of our society will both enrich individual lives while also contributing to our collective American society.
Note – the interviews quoted above are from recent oral history interviews with the author. They are to be made available to students and scholars in the coming months and will ultimately be deposited at The Bancroft Library, UCLA, the National Park Service, and the Richmond Public Library.