Refugees on levee, April 17, 1897, photo by Carroll's Art Gallery
Sections: Colonization | Abolition | Migration | WPA

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933, he promptly set about to deliver on his presidential campaign promise of a "new deal" for everyone. In 1935 Roosevelt formed the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Work Projects Administration--WPA) to create jobs that would allow individuals to maintain their sense of self-esteem. Even though inequities existed under the New Deal programs, they included ethnic and marginal groups, the financially and politically disenfranchised, the geographically dispersed, and women and children. In particular, many blacks found new employment opportunities, and special programs focused on three centuries of cultural accomplishments of African-Americans, as well as European contributions to national development.

During its brief existence, the WPA generated numerous documents consisting of written histories, oral histories, guidebooks, fine prints, plays, posters, photographs, and architectural histories, many of them relating to African- American history. Many black participants whose talent was nurtured by the WPA continued to make significant contributions to American culture after they left the WPA. Many of these individuals are represented in the collections of the Library of Congress.

The WPA materials were acquired for the Library largely through the efforts of Archibald MacLeish while he was Librarian of Congress from 1939 to 1944. Included are thousands of measured drawings made for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS); hundreds of oral histories from former slaves; records of theatrical performances given by the Federal theater Project; thousands of Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographs of rural life; hundreds of prints and posters produced by WPA artists; and the archives of American folklife.

Exposition Celebrating Seventy-Five Years of Freedom for Blacks since the End of the Civil War

This poster promotes the sale of a book about the Diamond Jubilee Exposition held in Chicago, July 4 through September 2, 1940. The Exposition, the first of its size and scope, celebrated seventy-five years of freedom for blacks and their cultural achievements during that period since the Civil War.

Cavalcade of the American Negro Artist unknown Silk-screen poster Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (63)

Poster Advertising the Federal Theatre Production of Eugene O'Neill's Play The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones was one of several plays produced by the WPA's Federal Theatre Project in which blacks and black themes were featured. The play also was one among many controversial productions of the FTP. On the bottom of the poster, patrons are directed to the “white front cars” of the trolley when proceeding to the theater.

Federal Theatre Project presents “The Emperor Jones” with Ralph Chesse's Marionettes Artist unknown Silk-screen poster Prints and Photographs Division,Library of Congress (64)

Poster Advertising One of the Many Black Musicians' Concerts Sponsored by the WPA's Federal Music Project

Although offered during a less enlightened era in America when "separate but equal" was still the rule, this concert by black musicians, directed by Norman L. Black, reflects the widespread interest in black innovations in rhythm and blues.

Colored Band Concert Carken, Chicago, Illinois Silk-screen poster Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (66)

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Poster Welcoming Readers to Use the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Black History and Culture

With the entrance of the United States into World War II in 1942, the graphics units of the Fine Arts Project of the WPA was absorbed by the Defense Department's War Services Division. That Division produced hundreds of posters in support of the war effort, including this one encouraging reading about black contributions to the defense effort, among other subjects, in the Schomburg Center. The Schomburg Center was established within the New York Public Library system by Arthur A. Schomburg, a Puerto Rican of African descent, and it includes material by and about blacks throughout the world.

Books are Weapons. Read About...The Negro in National Defense; Africa and the War; Negro History and Culture J.P. (signed) New York, NY. Silk-screen poster. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (67)

Portrait of a Young Black Man

This portrait of a young black man was done by the African- American artist Dox Thrash, who supervised the WPA Federal Art Project's graphics division in Philadelphia. Like many artists of the Art Project, Thrash made numerous studies of ethnic "types" and of interesting places within their locale -- in Thrash's case, Philadelphia.

Bronze Boy Dox Thrash (b. 1892). Aquatint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (68)

Philadelphia's Pier 27 in the 1930s

Thrash's view of the Pier in Philadelphia during the 1930s is typical of hundreds of similar -- now priceless -- glimpses of local spots of interest produced by artists of the WPA's Federal Art Project. Many of these artistic creations were done by destitute artists whose support by the WPA was crucial to the continuance of their careers -- especially African-American artists.

Pier 27 Dox Thrash (b. 1892). Aquatint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (69)

Portrait of a Pensive, Aging Black Man

This brooding portrait of a black man is inscribed: “To Mr. Macleish (sic) From William E. Smith.” Nothing is known about the artist, but Macleish was the Librarian of Congress, as well as a famous poet and champion of democracy, at the time Smith presented the print to him.

“No Body Knows” William E. Smith Linocut, 7/50 Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (70)

The “Scottsboro Case” Defendants, Indicted for Rape and Sentenced to Death, March 31, 1931

The Scottsboro Case involved nine black youths who, on March 31, 1931, were indicted in Scottsboro, Alabama, for raping two white girls. Eight of them were sentenced to death, but after years of appeals and retrials, spearheaded by the Scottsboro Defense Committee, some were released, some remained in prison for years, and one escaped. The case was one of the most sensational of the time, and, as might be expected in the political hotbed of the thirties, became a centerpiece for charges and countercharges of radical communist involvement.

8 Black Boys in a Southern Jail Prentiss Taylor Lithograph, 40 prints Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (71)

Portrait of a Young Black Man

This engaging portrait of a young man is another of the many representations of ethnic and racial "types" that were done by artists of the WPA's Federal Art Project. Not only are the subjects mostly anonymous, but the artists as well, despite the fact that their names are often known. Much research needs to be done to identify these artists, black and white, and to relate their WPA experience to their subsequent careers.

Reggie Raymond Steth Carborundum Print, No. 25, 1940 Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (73)

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Sections:  Colonization | Abolition | Migration | WPA