This week, I have been wrapped up in researching and submitting Mississippi’s New Deal projects for the Living New Deal. If you are a long-time reader, you already know about the Living New Deal and the effort to document every New Deal project in the US and former territories. I can easily get so caught up in it that I literally let every thing else go when I am on a roll…so yep, I have been on a roll. I have spent hours at the computer every day the past week, and in fact, since mid-June when I finally began tackling all the “to do lists” from the recent years. I had researched, photographed, and submitted 558 sites ranging from the Alaska territory (Alaska was not yet a state during the Great Depression) to the East Coast from January 2013 until March 15, 2020 and the great life change from the pandemic.
Beginning in June, I started back on the work and have researched and submitted another 44 sites in the last 71 days. Some projects are quick and easy, thanks to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History Historic Resources Inventory database–the most awesome online resource ever created. Others can take hours or even days and sometimes weeks to ferret out the details one needs to verify a project, which New Deal agency or program funded it, and when it was completed. Part of the reason the University of California at Berkeley began this project is because most of the research is buried in archives–in Washington DC, and regional archive locations, such as Atlanta for folks in my area. Our own Mississippi Department of Archives and History has many documents related to the New Deal, but they are in Jackson.
I have had excellent results using the two online newspaper archives I subscribe to, even with their limitations, and often search under a variety of key words or phrases until I can get what I need. Then there is the additional time-burner (though not wasted) when I run across some other New Deal project that I haven’t documented, and need to save that item for the future. I am getting pretty good at creating digital folders for my projects so I can at least keep up with what’s what and what’s where. One factor is often several projects–or even many–are listed in the news releases about work, and may or may not have later individual follow up items in the news. I also find that even though I think I have exhausted all the possible options for verifying a project, sometimes, that “one last shot” results in success. For example, I researched a gymnasium from the small town of Newcastle, Texas, where my dad went to high school for over a year before I could finally substantiate it. He knew it was built by the PWA, plus my grandfather was employed by WPA to transport men to work sites because he had a pick-up truck. I would work on it periodically, give it a rest and then come back to it later, and finally, there was the day I found a news item that indicated the new PWA gymnasium had been completed and was now open.
I will not belabor the point that not everyone is as meticulous in their documentation, of years, agencies, etc. Many people said WPA for everything, even though there was an “alphabet” of agencies with different purposes. Not everyone knows that only those agencies and projects developed from 1933-1945 are actually New Deal. That same Newcastle gymnasium has a monument at the site that dates its construction as 1931 by the WPA when there was no WPA in 1931, coupled with the fact that it was the Public Works Administration who funded the construction, not the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Works Project Administration).
While many of the projects are marked, ranging from something as simple as the letters WPA etched in concrete on a wall, or as elaborate as the plaques and markers identifying key people, there are many more that have no identifying mark and in some cases, the marker has been stolen or removed.
I have longed to get back on the road again–at least here in Mississippi–to photograph some of the sites I have been working on this past year. I have a couple of manuscripts in the works as well. Right now, the nation needs hope and a belief that we can overcome the challenges facing us. The New Deal was not perfect, but there is no denying the tremendous good that it accomplished in helping us rebuild the nation and our lives–perhaps more than anything else, gaining hope.
Hope is the fundamental ego strength we must have to navigate our very existence from the time we are infants. The fact that so many of these projects–in the form of bridges, courthouses, post offices, dams, roads, streets, sidewalks, and schools to name only a few–are still standing and in use are a reminder of what we can do, how government can lead and serve, and how we can all work together for an outcome that is good for all of us.