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Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Americans React to the Great Depression
WPA Road

In 1935, Congress created the Works Progress Administration to put unemployed people back to work on a variety of public projects. By 1943, more than 8.5 million people had been put to work on WPA projects. In the excerpt from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 below, a WPA road building project in South Carolina is depicted. How would you describe the men who worked on the project? A typical day on the WPA road project? How were these men reacting to the depression?

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The man who work on the Etiwan WPA road project, reported for duty at eight o'clock sharp. Thirty-nine Negro laborers answered the roll call, their voices ringing out cheerfully in the frosty air.

All of them had long handled shovels in their hands. They were variously dressed; some in overalls, some in coats and trousers held together in important places by brightly colored patches. The thermometer was hovering around 35, and many of the men were wearing two pairs of trousers, old shabby pants covering the newer ones. Tin buckets and bottles of coffee were in evidence. There was not a sullen face in the group. The laborers all appeared to be in good health.

The superintendent, the timekeeper, the foreman, and the truck drivers were white men. The foreman was a college man and an ex-army officer; the superintendent, a small farmer; the timekeeper, a mechanic out of a job; and the truck drivers, farm youths detached from the soil by adverse circumstances. None of them except the foreman had seen the inside of a college.

Most of the workers, white and black, rode to work in automobiles. A few . . . who lived only a few miles away, walked; a handful rode horses. The Negroes paid on the average of twenty cents a day for their transportation in passenger cars or trucks. For them walking was out of the question. Those who rode, lived on the other end of Etiwan Island, at least twelve miles from the job.

"I get up at six every morning," said the foreman. "Of course it is black dark then and I feed the animals by lantern light. I get my own breakfast. It is too much to expect of my wife. She has plenty to keep her busy beside getting up in the cold dark."

The other workers had similar experiences. Some of them said that they had to arise at five when they had firewood to cut, water to draw and cows to milk. Generally their wives fixed lunches for them the night before. "Too dark for fumble 'round with bittle 'fore day crack," one Negro remarked. "The old hen got for dress my kettle off 'fore she fall sleep." . . .

The water boy came by with a bucket from which projected the handle of a tin dipper. He was a serious looking Negro youth of about 25, neatly dressed, and wearing dark glasses. The nearest well is three quarters of a mile distant. Until knock-off time, the water boy will keep walking between the well and the place where the dirt is flying. Wielding shovels for hours at a stretch is dry work, even on a cold, dampish January day. . . .

"Do the men knock off to rest now and then?" . . . "I should say not." The superintendent seemed irritated at the question. "They don't knock off for any purpose except to eat lunch. They are supposed to take care of their bodily needs before they leave home. But I can tell you this - the work doesn't hurt them. They thrive on it."

"They are hardly ever sick," the foreman adds. "None of the laborers have lost more than five percent of the working hours on account of sickness during the past ten months. As a matter of fact they cannot afford to be sick for more than five days in succession. If they are absent five days hand-running, they are automatically dropped from the rolls. That's the regulations."

The timekeeper looks at his watch, turns to the superintendent and announces: "Twelve o'clock."

The superintendent, a stockily built little man, draws himself up to his full height and shouts: "All right, boys, Knock off for lunch." . . .

y half past twelve the men are back at work. Three and a half hours before time to knock off for the day. The minutes pass slowly when the lunch is behind them; the last hour is the longest, so the foreman says. . . .

About one third of the workers, including the white men, run small farms on the side. They say that there is little if any profit to this farming business, but it helps to provide them with vegetables and meats, and if they are lucky they can pay taxes out of cotton sales. On the whole they break about even with their farming ventures from a cash standpoint. Thrown out of the WPA job, they declare that they could not make a decent living. A large stake is needed for successful truck farming. There is no money in planting a few acres of cotton. Thousands of dollars must be available to equip a modern, motorized farm. . . .

The superintendent says that the road is laid out by an engineer from the county road commission, and that the work is inspected at regular intervals. The county commission furnishes the tools and the two motor trucks for hauling earth. The WPA pays the laborers. . . .

The superintendent turns to the timekeeper and says: "Lord, this has been a cold day. I have been cold every minute. Wish I had my feet propped up in front of a roaring fire. How is the time going anyhow?" He looks at his watch. The timekeeper consults his. Ten more minutes yet.

The men in the ditch seem to be working like automatons. Lines of weariness are appearing on the older faces. The young men are apparently as fresh as they were eight hours ago.

The watch hands crawl around slowly and finally one points to four and the other to six.

The superintendent yells: "Time up. Store your tools."
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