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Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal
An African American (Eugenia Martin) and the WPA

Eugenia Martin was an African-American woman who, when her husband died, was forced to seek work through the Works Progress Administration. After working several WPA jobs, she was no longer eligible for the program. In the excerpt that follows from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 , Ms. Martin talks about the WPA, the jobs she obtained through the WPA, and trying to find work outside of the WPA. What kinds of work did she do for the WPA? Besides money, what did Ms. Martin get out of her WPA job experiences? Why was it hard for Ms. Martin to find work when she was no longer eligible for WPA jobs?

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"I am the offspring of Thomas and Lucy Collier. Their parents were slaves. Mother and father were also slaves. . . .

"Mother and father have died. He did, however, live to see some of his dreams realized. For he lived to see some of his children through college and see the race enjoying some of the things for which he had worked, and prayed. Also eight of my brothers and sisters have died. Some of them died rather young and others later in life. . . .

"I married a young man who was a minister in the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. I entered heartily into this new life - a minister's wife. I took an active part in his church work, helping wherever possible. I worked from one place to another in the church. Sometimes I was a prayer leader in class meetings; other times I was working with the Missionary Society, or with the choir as organist. . . .

"The annual conference, of which husband was a member, was in session and he left home just three weeks before Christmas to be present at the conference roll call. He was stricken ill soon after reaching the conference and died before he was able to be brought home . . . and so he was brought back to me a corpse. . . .

"When we first came to Atlanta husband had a home built, and at his death he hadn't finished paying for it. I had to take hold and try to pay for it for I didn't have any children or anyone to help me; the job was mine. I had the notes readjusted and they were cut down to $36.00 a month. [this?] was as low as I could get them because the house cost a lot and when he lived he was able to keep up the high notes. His salary was good and being a general officer of the church he was paid regularly. With notes on the home of $36.00 plus my living expense and the general upkeep of the house I found it next to impossible to live. Of course husband left me a little money, very little however, at his death and this was soon exhausted. I then tried to get work to maintain myself. I made every attempt to get work in private industry and being unsuccessful, I was compelled to get work on WPA. I was reluctant at first to go to WPA, for heretofore it had seemingly been the consensus of many that only the shiftless, lazy and lower types resorted to relief agencies. The need of work was so great that this barrier was soon eradicated. Of course, as many, many others, I'm sure, I experienced the humilities that go with the process of securing this work and it was disappointing at times but I was growing more and more in need and this caused me to keep on trying. I finally succeeded in being certified and then was later assigned to work.

"I was assigned to a project known as the Survey of White Collar and Skilled Negroes. This was a most interesting work. We first went out and found all the white collar and skilled workers among the Negroes here in Atlanta. This was done through a house to house canvas. These workers were interviewed as to their father's occupation, their schooling and their occupation. We found those who had followed their father's occupation and those who had deviated. We checked on how many who had migrated from rural to urban localities, occupations trained for and whether they were engaged in those occupations or whether because of employment conditions they were forced to work at occupations not trained for. I enjoyed it so much. After we got all of the information together, it was then compiled in tables and put in book form.

"I worked hard every day and went to school at night where I took a two-year commercial course. I completed the course as prescribed by the Board of Education, City of Atlanta.

"After that project ended I was sent to the sewing project and here too found the work interesting. I had a knowledge of sewing and because of this experience I was put over a group of women as 'floor woman', and like the former project I enjoyed it much. After this work I was transferred to the Housekeepers Aid Project. This was a most unusual experience for me. I had worked in the church, coming in contact with the poor and needy, the sick and suffering but it was nothing compared with that which I found or experienced on this project. I never realized before just what was out there in those alleys, in the slums, the poverty and illiteracy that existed there. I am glad I have had the opportunity to work on WPA, first because it has provided me a livelihood and second for the experience I've gotten, which I wouldn't have gotten otherwise. It enabled me to keep up my notes on my home. I haven't been able to save anything since working on WPA but it enabled me to carry on. I simply could not have held out this long had it not been for WPA. The experience caused me to care for the sick and the old age pensioners and performing their household work which they were unable to do. In fact, all sorts of human suffering has been witnessed in my work.

"In working in the latter job, where I worked until the recent law was passed that all workers who have done 18 months service on WPA be released, I was able to learn much about the families and some of their backgrounds. . . .

"I have looked forward to being reassigned to WPA or getting work in private industry and something must come up soon for me or I don't know what will happen. The notes on my home are getting behind. See, I haven't been able to pay anything since I've been out of work. The holder of the notes gave me four months grace and I have been off three months already. I have made every effort to secure work that I may not have to go back to WPA but I have failed. There seems so little work for Negroes. We have so few places and they are all overcrowded. I am beginning to get afraid for I had only my earnings to depend on but I guess I'll be able to carry on somehow but something will just have to turn up for me soon. It must, I just can't give up here. Each new day brings me new hope and courage for that day and I can feel the presence of a good spirit with me, and so I go on like that each day."
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View Ms. Martin's entire interview from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 .Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.