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Season 1 Episode 3: Issues of Labor and Equity
The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was designed as an open relief roll, operating without discrimination based on sex or race and only mandating that participants fall below a specific income threshold. While advancing equity, however, the WPA still faced hurdles from systemic sexism and racism, and it also ran into issues of support for laborers. Beyond the projects' inner workings, FSA (Farm Securities Administration) Information Division photographers grappled with documenting poverty and social unrest across the nation, which the artists themselves faced in their travels and in presenting their work.
Parks, Gordon, Washington, D.C. Government charwoman (Ella Watson), Photograph, 1942, (Library of Congress: LC-USF34- 013407-C), https://lccn.loc.gov/2017765074
Oral History Interviews Featured
- Victor Mantilla Chalela, 1964 July 28
- Dorothy Jeakins, 1964 June 19
- Andrew Chinn, 1965 May 24
- Fritz Eichenberg (read by Jacob Proctor), 1964 Dec 3
- Holger Cahill, 1960 Apr 12 and 15
- Margery Hoffman Smith, 1964 Apr 10
- Dora Kaminsky (Gaspard), 1965 Apr 22
- Mary Dill Henry, 1964
- Marion Post Walcott, 1965 Jan 18
- Bernice Fisher Banks, 1965 Feb 21
- Belle Goldschlager Baranceanu, 1964 Aug 1
- Boris Gorelick, 1964 May 20
- Ruth Gikow, 1964
- Audrey McMahon, 1964 Nov. 18
- Nan Sheets, 1964 June 4
- Charles Henry Alston, 1964 Sep 28
- Charles White, 1965 March 9
- Gordon Parks, 1964 Dec 30
- Patricia Walsh, Public Art and Civic Design Senior Program Manager at Americans for the Arts
- Richard Walker, executive director of the Living New Deal
- John Edwin Mason, Associate Professor of History at University of Virginia, Charlottesville and Gordon Parks scholar
[Theme music plays]
Boris Gorelick: We're talking about a period in American history that has to a very large degree been overlooked and perhaps been forgotten. And it's very well to go back to that period because it was a period of great privation, hunger stalked the country, and that's not putting it dramatically, but that's a fact.
Betty Hoag: Yeah
Boris Gorelick: Millions of people were involved in very desperate circumstances, and the professions were down the drain because they were at the bottom of the economic ladder, especially the art profession.
Ben Gillespie: Welcome to Articulated. I'm Ben Gillespie.
Michelle Herman: And I'm Michelle Herman. Support for this podcast comes from the Alice L. Walton Foundation.
Previously on Articulated, we discussed the general background of the New Deal arts initiatives and their foundations in and advancement of cultural democracy, which is to say how they shaped people's lives and conception of art itself. We also discussed how they informed the idea of an American art.
For a better sense of the scale and importance of the New Deal, go back and listen to episodes one and two.
While the New Deal arts initiatives left behind countless works of public art and set the tone of American aesthetics for decades to come, these sprawling projects employed tens of thousands of laborers during an economic catastrophe. The relief role created a tidal surge of opportunity and it also created a massive network to administer that opportunity. Designed to be open to all in need the WPA, or Works Progress Administration, was a massive driver of social changes and breakthroughs during a period of unprecedented instability. But it was nevertheless part and party of structural biases.
Ben Gillespie: During this episode, we’ll listen to accounts of the systemic and human challenges faced by artists and administrators of the New Deal, whether due to their sex, race, or immigration status, before learning about the unionization efforts by which many artists sought to protect themselves and their labor.
Please note that some speakers in these 1960s archival recordings use language that may be jarring to a modern audience, these terms reflect their times and evolving discourses.
In 1964, Victor Mantilla Chalela, a designer and mosaicist who was active in California and Peru, spoke about the necessity of the New Deal arts initiatives during the Great Depression as well as the gap between the opportunities he found during the WPA and after.
Victor Mantilla Chalela: Well I think, of course, politically speaking, it had to happen. I mean, something had to happen at that time because then it was a question of there not being any work, being unable to support yourself. There was no money. No work available of any kind; and the government was trying, in every way that it could to help you make a living.
Now, I don’t think that good things like that should stop just because it is now possible for you to find work. Certainly, I’m sorry that I can’t continue painting. I know a lot of other artists who can’t continue. They can make a better living doing something else. But all their talents are being wasted; whereas the government could uh save so many of these talents and give them to the children to study and to learn and to become acquainted with.
It seems a shame because the older men, the older artists have so much that they can teach the younger artists, but there’s no place for the younger men to meet the older men. We’re just completely shut off. Now, if there were projects being, work made available by the government and where the older people could go in just–not necessarily to advise–but more or less–not necessarily to criticize either–but to try and understand the ideas of the younger people, I think possibly, that’s one reason we’re having so much trouble.
Well, there’s no way for us of my generation, at least, to talk to the young teenagers of today. I can't There’s no common basis to talk to them. I have so many friends of mine who are teenagers. It’s a difficult thing to talk to them. There’s no common base, ground, that you can reach them. And I think if in the beginning they can be taught the niceties of the things; the value of the and the beauty of art
and can see it and be surrounded by it in the schools, I think that would do so much good and it would certainly be a step in the right direction.
And I do believe that it’s a shame that the government does not help or do what they did back there when they had the Federal Art Project. I think it was one of the finest projects.
Michelle Herman: The equitable distribution of funding for the arts is still a multi-variable problem. Patricia Walsh is a Public Art and Civic Design Senior Program Manager at Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit organization that advances public and private arts and education. We spoke with her about the current model of municipal grant opportunities for public works artists.
Patricia Walsh: So a lot of these programs that started all these years [ago] and that continued to happen throughout the country...Because they've been happening for so long, we're starting to see ways, that they're not as equitably distributed or they're encouraging cultural inequities through communities as well. So there's a lot of conversations that have been happening over the past year or so, and I think will continue to happen, about how to address these programs, either rethink them,–which is starting to happen as well–rethink how they're structured so that there's more, equitable distribution of resources. And let me talk a little bit more about what that means. So one of the things that we noticed is because Percent for Art dollars are attached to the way cities built or designed or construct themselves, art follows the money, in the way those policies are typically outlined, not all of them, but where they're mostly outlined is that whatever funds come out of that for the art has to stay with that building.
And so what you start to see are these things called public art deserts. So there's places where cities or communities are getting really invested in, but there's other parts of the cities where they're not getting as invested. So you're not seeing the art money follow that. And so that's some of the challenges that we're seeing.
And so we're starting to see folks who were starting to rethink their policies about how do you still capture that type of funding, but then being able to distribute more equally across your community, across your city, across your county, whatever your municipality is overseeing.
Ben Gillespie: The WPA was designed as an open relief roll, only requiring that applicants demonstrated financial need; in theory, it was to be free from discrimination based on race, sex, creed, or ability, and the programs were massively diverse. Though it was during the Great Depression, several prominent figures decried the relief efforts as fostering unproductive citizens, even in work-based programs.
Hear Dorothy Jeakins, a Los Angeles-based painter, talk about her experiences with the WPA in her 1964 interview:
Dorothy Jeakins: We weren’t bums, or drifters, bohemians, or beatniks. We were there. We were Californians, I think most of all. Many of my friends were of the Japanese group. And Tyrus Wong, who was Chinese, was the same age. His father had been a coolie from Canton, South China. He’d come as a child, on a quota; and he lived in a slum in downtown Los Angeles; and never had enough to eat.
Neither did I. But we’d put our dimes together, and laugh a little, share our meals, all of us, Date and Benji and a painter names Ito and the son of a Japanese actor, Sessue Hayakawa, was there. We used to play Japanese card games on our lunch break at noon, in the garden, and talk and… I did a great deal of listening, I’m sure, because I was that age. It was thrilling in a dreamy kind of way. We weren’t bums…
Michelle Herman: The diversity of the WPA encouraged artists of diverse practices and backgrounds to bring their experience to the table or to gain new experience through hands-on training, Chinese American artists, Andrew Chinn and Fay Chong had been trained in traditional Chinese watercolor painting, a skill that they adapted for ongoing WPA needs, but they were victims of racist episodes, even as they carried out work for the Federal Art Project.
Andrew Chinn, who was based near Seattle, Washington recounts one such experience as he and Fay Chong collected material for a museum diorama in his 1965 interview with Dorothy Bester
Andrew Chinn: We were gathering trees, little trees and I had a pair of scissors in my hand, one hand, I was holding a paper bag. We were over Puyallup through some of that state parks looking for some special trees so we can cut. And that caused a lot of alarm
because the people in Puyallup, they called the police department.
Dorothy Bestor: Oh really?
Andrew Chinn: Yeah. Before we knew it, the police was after us. I was the one that they were after because they, yeah, the people report, "there's a crazy Japanese roaming the street with a pair of scissors in his hand and..."
Dorothy Bestor: Good heavens!
Andrew Chinn: That's right. So after that, we didn't go out anymore just to save a lot of embarrassment and trouble.
Michelle Herman: Racism against Americans of Asian descent had only grown over the years, both as part of rampant, anti-immigrant hatred and inflamed so-called yellow scares. The 1924 immigration act or Johnson-Reed Act included the Asian Exclusion Act, effectively barring immigrants from across the Pacific, and it also set quotas for immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italy, and Greece, so as to "preserve the racial homogeneity of the US," as the Department of State, put it. Nevertheless, at least 25% of the artists on the WPA were first-generation or recent Americans.
Fritz Eichenberg was a political cartoonist who fled Germany for the United States when Hitler came to power. He describes this in his 1964 interview, reread here by Archive’s New York Collector Jacob Proctor:
Jacob Proctor [Reading the words of Fritz Eichenberg]: I did political cartoons for the UHU, this magazine I mentioned. There was another evening paper, which I have forgotten, also Ultstein, for which I did anti-Hitler cartoons. That lasted but two or three years, and we had long conferences with the editorial staff, and it became more and more clear to me that they were folding up. They didn't want to resist really. They wanted somehow or other to play footsie with Hitler. My origin not being Aryan, although I was not in any way Jewish conscious, never had any occasion to confess anything religiously or racially – you lived like a German, you know. By the time Hitler was in the wings ready to jump, I was ready to jump too, and that was in `32 before he was in power. I had long conferences with editors at Ultstein who said, "You are just foolish. Nothing is going to happen. I don't know why you want to leave us. We need you very much. You have a sense of humor. You are one of the great cartoonists we have." I said, "I don't feel any more like being funny. I would like to travel." I got myself several contracts from various newspapers both outside of Ultstein and inside of Ultstein. Ultstein was not very cooperative. They did not want to let me go. In March of 1933, I had everything assembled. I had a big pack of contracts. I had one with Hopok, the shipping line which plied the ocean between Germany and the United States. There was some Ultstein paper in Cologne and some in my hometown for which I worked. I worked for about a half a dozen different newspapers and magazines.
I still got some little money from Germany from the articles which had been accepted, but after a while, I didn't want to work for them anymore. It would have been risky for my friends there if they had published me. It just dried up. I gave it up. I had some contracts for a children's book for instance, which I never consummated. I concentrated on the things here. At that time, Alvin Johnston said, "Have you tried the WPA?" He knew all the people. He is a marvelous guy. I said, "No." As far as I remember he must have said go and see someone. It could have been Groschurtz or it could have been Cahill. I am not quite sure. I went there with a few of my wooden engravings, or prints and asked him what I could do. It was just as simple as that. He said, "Oh, this is marvelous work. Go ahead and do what you want to do." It was that simple.
Ben Gillespie: Though skilled non-citizens were permitted to join the WPA early on, their inclusion was a major source of political strife. Federal Art Project director Holger Cahill, who was born Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnarsson in Iceland before his family emigrated to North Dakota in hopes of escaping poverty, discusses famed artists who got their start on the project and the ensuing difficulties for recent immigrants and refugees in his 1960 interview with John Morse:
Holger Cahill: Well, you're quite right in saying, Mr.
uh Morse, about the number of leaders of American art, that is of American art today, the art that has impressed Europe terrifically, and who've been shown all over the world. It was very great. And Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, of course, were among them. The curious thing about Willem de Kooning was that he was not an American citizen, and this, I think, is one of the things that we can put down to the generosity of Uncle Sam. That he allowed aliens to work on the program until finally Congress got mad and said you can't hire them anymore.
John Morse: Well, how was that problem resolved?
Holger Cahill: Well, it was resolved by a resolution of Congress. I never saw the thing myself, but we were ordered not to have any more aliens on the project.
Michelle Herman: Only a few years after women gained the right to vote in the United States, the New Deal faced a bevy of structural and human hurdles in the treatment and onboarding of women artists, and administrators, whose value was often overlooked or dismissed as the labor economy evolved.
Many women served in prominent roles throughout the WPA: Hallie Flanagan led the Federal Theater Project, Audrey McMahon led the New York Region of the Federal Art Project, and Mary Kellogg Rice was the art director of the path-breaking Milwaukee handicraft project.
Despite these roles, they were often subject to disproportionate scrutiny.
Marjorie Hoffman Smith was an Art Project director in the Portland, Oregon region, and in her 1964 interview, she recounts how her authority was undermined:
Margery Smith: I told you about the time they decided I needed a male assistant director because this one artist who was supposed to do a study of the Barlow Trail. He lived near the Barlow Trail. See, that was one thing we tried to do...
Lewis Ferbrache: The old pioneer trail of the covered wagons?
Margery Smith: Yes, and he produced the most dreadful picture that was a deliberate insult to the Project. So they decided I couldn't handle my...some of the artists; they'd better give me a male director who'd be a little...
Lewis Ferbrache: ...stronger with them?
Ben Gillespie: Printmaker and painter Dora Kaminsky observed the resentment towards New York Regional director Audrey McMahon in her 1965 interview:
Dora Kaminsky: well I thought she had a heavy load and she was very agreeable, as I recall. And, although artists are very prone to criticize, you know she withstood a lot of that criticism. The sculptors in the sculpture division, I know, did not like a woman at the head of the Project, and whatever criticism was there...came from that group.
Ben Gillespie: Women comprised less than 18% of the total paid New Deal workforce. In an era where marriage was universally expected and men were expected to be the breadwinners, the WPA prioritized employing men; even when women were able to secure positions, deep-seated biases remained. Women had a more difficult time making ends meet, and those who spoke out against abuse or discrimination often suffered retaliatory measures, whether during their time on the arts projects or in their careers afterwards.
Women comprised less than 18% of the total paid New Deal workforce. In an era where marriage was universally expected and men were expected to be the breadwinners, the WPA prioritized employing men; even when women were able to secure positions, deep-seated biases remained. Women had a more difficult time making ends meet, and those who spoke out against abuse or discrimination often suffered retaliatory measures, whether during their time on the arts projects or in their careers afterwards.
In 1964, west coast-based painter Mary Dill Henry describes the prejudice she encountered in getting on the project in the first place, evincing the fear of reprisal she held in even voicing her experience:
Mary Dill Henry: One of the things that really irritated me was…I don’t know if I should say this or not...
Mary McChesney: Certainly, we want any criticism...
Mary Dill Henry: Yeah because I was interviewed you know by these people at the courthouse maybe on the 1st floor where they put you through a kind of grilling to find out what you are qualified for and the best thing they could come up for me was a housekeeping job and this after getting a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine Arts you know and it didn't matter to them, evidently, that I'd had this training and if there was an opening waiting for me in the art project
Michelle Herman: Marion Post Walcott described a similar disparity in treatment over qualifications. Even after she had already secured a post with the esteemed FSA photography project. She discusses those attitudes and restrictive norms in her 1965 interview with Richard Doud:
Marion Post Wolcott: I think that most people feel, or felt at that time, that it was a man's field and that a man would just automatically do a better job and be better equipped to do it. I think that many times they were just being polite or felt that it was something they had to...cooperating was just something they had to do, or that it was the gentlemanly thing to do or part of their job, but I don't...
On the other hand, they were also perhaps more helpful to me than they would have been to a man, as far as my equipment and socially perhaps.
Richard Doud: Well, one thing that prompted that, a couple of things, one was that John mentioned that right after the war started there were times when people would sort of look at him, you know and "Why aren't you out helping to win the war?" And Russell Lee – Jean was telling about one time she and Russ were someplace and he'd been taking pictures all over and some old farmer came over and asked Jean what Russ did for a living, and she said, "He takes pictures." And the guy said, "You'd think a big guy like that would go out and get himself a job." You know, there's the two sides to it, one where they sort of look down on men for taking pictures, and the other where perhaps they didn't respect a woman for doing the same thing.
Marion Post Wolcott: Yes. Well, they certainly were suspicious very often of my traveling alone, and staying in motels or rooming houses and that kind of thing, or wandering around at night, or . . . there were lots of places I couldn't go into because I was a woman. Now I took some pictures in some saloons and places of that kind in Mississippi, but I had to have somebody with me.
Ben Gillespie: Reinforcing those social burdens on women were uneven standards in work expectations. Throughout her 1965 interview, California-based ceramicist and sculptor Bernice Fisher Banks notes the undue labor that she was expected to manage just to remain on the project, which she conveys sardonically:
Bernice Fisher Banks: Wherever you have people you’re going to have some kind of difficulty. The people that were in charge...I think that they took a great deal of liberty so they could have free time. I didn’t have free time, but Jonny had a lot of free time.
Michelle Herman: Adding insult to injury, women were often restricted even in their clothing choices due to the vestigial influence of 19th-century anti-cross-dressing laws, which forbade wearing clothes of a gender other than what appeared on one's birth certificate. This often meant that women weren't allowed to wear pants, even while working on installations.
San Diego based painter and muralist Belle Baranceanu describes the lengths she went to in order to obey the law in her 1964 oral history:
Belle Baranceanu: I did one for the fine arts gallery in wet plaster that I plastered myself.
Betty Hoag: You did? I mean, you were always in coveralls, you were really doing a lot of work.
Belle Baranceanu: well the prior problem, because I, there were no suits for women that hadn't really come. No, not that I, I wanted a one-piece suit. This was when I was working in the hall of education and that building wasn't finished and it was very cold and there were 40 men working in the building. And when the foreman or somebody that came in and talked to the architect, he told the architect, ee– she isn't going to paint on that scaffold in skirts? is she? And so the architect told me and I went down and got what the architect called was a tent because the smallest suit that I could get, the smallest men's suit had the seat of the pants way down at the knees under that I can wear a ballet suit to keep me warm. And I also wore a suit of my father's woolen underwear. And this is funny because the day that I wore fathers' woolen underwear, under this suit because I was so cold, I fell through the scaffold and let out one grand howl. And all of these men came and didn't know what to do. Fortunately, the architect came and he just picked me up and carried me over to first aid.
Ben Gillespie: The 1930s also saw major fluctuations in employment laws and the regulation of labor in the United States. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 guaranteed wages, hours, and the ability to form unions, but it was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935. In its stead, the National Labor Relations Act, or Wagner Act, of 1935 guaranteed the right to collective bargaining and established the National Labor Relations Board, a major force for employee protections.
With union numbers surging through the decade, artists on the WPA fought to organize themselves in the face of vacillating congressional oversight and local administration.
Russian-born American painter Boris Gorelick was one of the founders of the Artists’ Union in New York City, which emerged as a major advocacy group for artists as laborers in the mid-1930s. He spoke about the Union’s impetus and early climate in his 1964 interview with Betty Hoag:
Boris Gorelick: We're talking about a period in American history that has to a very large degree been overlooked and perhaps been forgotten. And it's very well to go back to that period because it was a period of great privation, hunger stalked the country, and that's not putting it dramatically, but that's a fact.
Betty Hoag: Yeah
Boris Gorelick: Millions of people were involved in very desperate circumstances, and uh the professions were down the drain because they were at the bottom of the economic ladder, especially the art profession.
Betty Hoag: People thought they really didn't need artists; art was about the last thing they thought they needed, probably.
Boris Gorelick: No, no, they didn't. They had nothing else, and they certainly didn't need any aesthetic uh reminders that they had a heritage or anything of the sort. Art was overlooked completely, and uh since um all of the economic tensions and pressures were crushing, the artists suffered uh especially under this kind of privation. And because there was no provision whatever for the artist, um the artists sought amongst themselves to find a way of solving this particular problem. And taking the example from other organizations and groups that were fighting for some kind of recognition or means of surviving, they also formed organizations, which subsequently became the Artists' Union.
Betty Hoag: And it was a direct result of that, that the Artists' Union was formed in New York?
Boris Gorelick: Well, this was the beginning of a process of awareness, shall we say, and eventually organization, and eventually the formation of the Artists' Union. It was not one of the first organizations, but uh it was the first amongst the cultural workers and uh subsequently played a very leading and very important role in, uh, for one thing, bringing about recognition of the responsibility of government to the artist per se and also the need for unity amongst the artists for their own survival.
Michelle Herman: While the Union was a major force in negotiating for more and better jobs for artists, many artists remarked upon the difficult negotiations that existed between artists as individuals and their collective wants. From her 1964 interview here is New York-based painter and muralist, Ruth Gikow discussing the shifts she saw in her peers.
Ruth Gikow: Maybe it is a question of losing individuality, or maybe...I don't know, I remember when I first got on the project, and I got into...somebody got me to come to the Artists Union when the Artists Union first started, and it was fascinating because the artists were coming from all over and their money had been stopped and the depression had brought them back, and they were a very colorful and very uh articulate and uh kind of an interesting group, you know.
And there was a lot of cooking, and everyone was very, very active in committees, and there was an excitement in the air. This was the beginning, but you know it's interesting what happened as the $23.86–or 27–$23.86 was the standard wage–as that kept on coming in, you know, the beards came off, and people got more and more conservative.
Ben Gillespie: The Unions often had friction with the administration overseeing the WPA, and Audrey McMahon, director of the New York region of the FAP, talked about the importance of artists as indicators of social consciousness and how working with the union shaped her role as liaison to congress in her 1964 oral history:
Audrey McMahon: That's right, longer, but of course they are. Artists are the seers of the political world and on the body politic and so they should be. They are the sensitized people and they should be the avant-garde. We should not resent it. We should be glad that we have healers in our people. We should listen and watch. We don't have to follow and accept but we should be glad for that.
Once I got inducted into the ways of the unions and they learned a little trade, but it wasn't necessary to throw ink wells and so on as well, which is the way they started, and all that that you could just have five people talk to five people, and that they might come out with something. And that even when you didn't,
it might conceivably be that the administration’s hands were tied, you see.
But it wasn't always ill will. We were able to get somewhere. And of course, I did present hundreds of appeals to Washington, not always to Cahill because they were not effective, but to Hopkins, and Baker, and sometimes to the president, directly.
Audrey McMahon: And sometimes we got what we went after or a part of it, but less and less as time went on.
Audrey McMahon: And we knew what was ahead. We all knew. We knew.
Michelle Herman: The Artist's Union emerged from John Reed Clubs, which were groups associated with the communist party USA. Largely oriented towards antifascist goals, the clubs sought to expand Marxists’ influence in American intellectual circles but dissolved into American Artists' Congress, which was the successor of the Artists' Union. The John Reed Club's slogan was, "art is a weapon in the class struggle," and in the wake of the first red scare, the US government feared that the solidification of workers would result in revolution or anarchy.
Nan Sheets was a major force in the Oklahoma art scene; a painter and printmaker who oversaw the Oklahoma art center during the WPA years before it became a museum, which she then directed for over 50 years. In her 1964 oral history, she describes the oversight from the federal government regarding fears of communist infiltration throughout the WPA
Nan Sheets: There was only one instance in the whole program that irritated me, and I could not understand and never will understand. It was a decision made to send out over the United States to all of these little art centers someone from New York and the East who could help us in designing our shows. In fact, even to design one show for us. Because, in many instances, directors of these little centers had never done anything like that before and they wanted to step up the program by getting a little professional help in there. Well, they could use these men that they would send out and the government paid them. Well, one came to Oklahoma and I don't like to say this but the boy was a Communist and while he was here he tried to organize a group of artists and I caught it in time to stop it. He took a vacation. He went to a Communist school that was in operation over in Arkansas and he left his map–
he didn't mean to–of his route marked on the map exactly where he went for his little vacation. He was allowed two weeks vacation. If I had not been alert to this and talked to him and stopped him, I would have had trouble. The WPA workers were watched very carefully and we had these WPA investigators who would come every so often and ask all about your workers.
Ben Gillespie: In his 1965 oral history, Harlem-based muralist Charles Henry Alston describes some of the advantages and drawbacks of the union. He goes on to detail his perspective on its members' experiences after World War II during the second red scare and during the rise of McCarthyism, when many artists were blacklisted as suspected communists no matter their actual values, which decimated many careers.
Charles Henry Alston: There was a sort of democracy about the whole thing that was very rewarding, very beneficial. As I stated before, just going down to get your pay–which was a thing that didn't have great dignity–you stood on a line and you waited your turn. Some of those days, by golly, in the wintertime were cold. You'd stand out in rain, or snow, or sleet, or cold. And you got to talking; you got to know people. As I say, I got to know Gorky. As you look back on it, these were valuable experiences. I think the fact that it provided a forum... It provided a situation where artists got to know each other. It provided artists with a consciousness of being an artist and having problems. And, of course, out of that your Artists Union and whatnot. I think the Artists Union, by and large, was a good thing. I think it was a thing to perpetuate the Project.
These were the people who had some sense of organization. These were the people who were willing to work, and so they did set policy to a great degree. In those days it wasn't a sin to be very left. I mean, there was a time when it was all right to be very left. Some of the painters have found out recently that it wasn't always that way, you know.
Harlan Phillips: Did you have a position in society? What is it?
Charles Henry Alston: Yes.
Harlan Phillips: You know, whether you had an industrial orientation or whether you went back to a loner as an individual.
Charles Henry Alston: That's right. Even if you weren't an active party member–and I would suspect that the great majority of the people involved in the painting were not. Certainly, I wasn't. But at the same time, you supported the things that looked like they were going to help the situation of the artists, which meant that you signed petitions or you donated here and there to things that seemed to be beneficial to the artists. This was the kind of thing that has come back to haunt so many of the artists–that they signed these petitions, whether or not they were Communists or anything like that. We need, and this organization is working for it, you know.
Michelle Herman: The Artist's Union in Chicago came together to strike against discrimination by Illinois' State Project supervisor. In his 1965 oral history with Betty Hoag–painter and muralist–Charles White recalls that saga and the dynamic between the Union and the artists on the WPA:
Charles White: Well, it started off with a little bit of turmoil. One of the first Supervisors of the whole Illinois State Art Project was a woman and I can’t remember her name now, and I wasn’t that involved with the activities because at the time that this became a real problem with her, a question of pretty serious disagreements with her, between her and the artists who were working on the Project at the time. This was before I went on and again as I mentioned, we had an artists union.
This was the first time in the history of America that artists had unionized. So the difficulty arose out of some of her practices and administrative practices, as well as charges that there was discrimination in terms of the Negro artists because at that time, in the beginning, there was only one Negro artist on the Easel Project, and I’m not sure if there was any in Designing or what, but I know there was only one artist. And his name was Archibald Motley, Jr. Archibald Motley, Jr. was probably at one time one of the best-known Negro artists in the country. He’s the brother of Willard Motley, the writer who died this past week in Mexico.
Betty Hoag: Was he an old-school painter?
Charles White: Yes, quite an academician, but a very competent painter. And he was the only one hired on the Art Project, so there were other artists in Chicago who qualified as was later proven by their being hired. So these charges resulted in a strike of the artists on the Project, and was probably made one of the first sit-down strikes. Because the artists I remember very vividly the artists sitting down in the headquarters of the Art Project, and the police coming and trying to move them, and so forth. So it started out with little problems. And then they got a Supervisor. She was later transferred or fired, I don’t remember what. But they got a Supervisor who was a very wonderful human being, by the name of Richard...the first name may not be right, but the last name was Thorpe.
Betty Hoag: Thorpe?
Charles White: Thorpe. And he was a very warm, sensitive human being who had a lot of administrative abilities, an education, and was a very competent person as well as being a very warm sensitive human being. And then the Project began to move. Negro artists were hired. Whether it was due to this woman’s policies or not, I’m not really in a position to say. But, and interestingly enough, our Project worked ...there was certain camaraderie between Artists’ Union and the Project because most of the artists on the Project were members of the Union. So that, for instance, in the selection of painters to be hired by the Project, the Artists’ Union had representatives on the committee that selected the artist.
Ben Gillespie: The systemic issues that confronted many Americans were not resolved by the New Deal, which provided significant boosts for many, but also exacerbated pre-existing disparities.
Richard Walker, executive director of the Living New Deal, told us about how he sees these issues evolving historically:
Richard Walker: An important point, of course, is the representations of American history and American ideology in public art. And we run into, of course, the Black Lives Matter movement and the historical absolutely fundamental awakening of Americans in 2020, and in general in our times to the offensiveness of white supremacy and how it shows up in everyday education, everyday art artworks and other, you know, writings and so on. So what do we do about that and how do we handle that? So we have two conflicting things. On the one hand, you have the greatest investment in public art and public culture in American history was during the New Deal, and that alone makes it a means that it merits some effort at preservation. The New Deal as official policy had anti-discrimination and in many fields, in many ways, it did a brilliant job of providing opportunities for African Americans Native Americans Asian Americans. At the same time, some of its policies just fell in line with existing segregation, Jim Crow, like the Federal Housing Administration's redlining policies.
Ben Gillespie: Jim Crow laws refer to the legal mechanisms by which segregation was perpetuated in the United States,
starting from the 1870s then entrenched by the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” decision in 1896’s Plessy v Ferguson, and generally maintained until 1955’s Brown v. Board of Education and the 1960s Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
Jim Crow, for the record, was a reference to a blackface caricature “Jump Jim Crow” from the early 19th century.
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As Richard Walker mentioned, the New Deal also directly brought about "redlining" in the US, a practice enabled by the Federal Housing Administration to selectively deny mortgages or insurance to specific communities. To this day, racially motivated home value manipulations have shaped wealth and access to resources, particularly access to the arts and education.
Michelle Herman: Our awareness of the inequities that existed before and during the new deal have been greatly enriched by the documents made by the artists of that time. Let's turn to Gordon Parks, a photographer who joined the FSA after it had achieved some success. Parks would go on to become one of the most celebrated documentarians of the civil rights movement and racial inequity in the U S. His time with the FSA was a tremendous boost in his early career, especially when he collaborated at the Chicago South Side Community Arts Center with luminaries like Charles White, Langston Hughes, and Margaret Burroughs. To contextualize this moment in Park's life, we spoke with John Edwin Mason Associate professor of history at the University of Virginia Charlottesville and a leading Parks scholar:
John Mason: it's hard to find the right contemporary language to describe Park's relationship with the FSA. In 2021, we might call it an internship. Uhm, I liken it more to graduate study. Maybe like a postdoc. It came at a time when Parks was emerging as a photographer. He had discovered photography while he was working on the railroad as a dining car, waiter and dining car porter. He had immediately shown a tremendous talent, and you know, there is such a thing as having an eye and parks had it. Parks also had an immense capacity for hard work, and to this point in his life he was largely self-taught as a photographer.
Michelle Herman: Here's how Parks described it in his 1964 oral history with Richard Doud. Please note this recording has dominant background music. If you have a hard time hearing what they're saying, please feel free to check out the oral history transcripts on our website or our show notes.
Richard Doud: Well, then, after you got this Rosenwald, how did you hook up with the FSA?
Gordon Parks: Well, actually, Jack Delano came to...whom I admired very much, a very good photographer...was in Chicago on the southside and on some sort of project. I can't remember what it was. And he, too, saw some of my work. He was the one first who mentioned that if I got the Rosenwald Fellowship certainly they would be happy to have me down with the FSA. And I went around with Jack on several of his assignments; he took me around and naturally I was rather thrilled, for here was a photographer from FSA; and he was such a gentle and wonderful guy, and still is. And so that sort of set my sights and when the Rosenwald people asked me exactly what I wanted to do I said I would like to be with the FSA. I then boned up on it to find out exactly what was being done. And that was the initial interest. I don't know, as Roy tells it, I don't think he wanted to take me because of the conditions that existed there at the time. It was an all-southern laboratory. Washington, D.C. in 1942 was not the easiest place in the world for a Negro to get along.
Ben Gillespie: Parks had received a fellowship from the Rosenwald fund, which covered his expenses and provided a salary as he joined up with the FSA, which spurred many new connections and created a career path for him. John Edward Mason describes the significance of that period.
John Mason: The other element in parks education as a photographer was his connection with the Southside Community Arts Center in Chicago. So parks at the time that he was working on the railroad was living in Saint Paul. But as I said, he had a run that took him to Chicago regularly and in Chicago, he would have layovers and that only not only gave him an opportunity to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. But it also provided the opportunity for him to be introduced to the young African American artist and intellectuals at the South Side Community Arts Center. This was a federally funded program. It was part of the Federal Arts Project. There were these. Community art centers that were scattered about the United States. I think the one in Chicago was probably one of the most important and one of the most active. So you had people there. Like Charles White like Margaret Burroughs, like Margaret Walker, the poet, an extraordinary collection of people. Parks found himself there in this incredibly stimulating artistic and intellectual community. This is something that he had lacked in his life. He had grown up very poor.
He had experienced a period of homelessness when he was a teenager. In his 20s he had gone from one dead-end job to another was the depression, but it was also the fact that being African American.
He was at the bottom of the totem pole when it came to being hired. And when he discovered photography, photography was not only a means of self-expression and something that clearly gave him a lot of pleasure 'cause he was able to do it so. Oh, but photography was a way out of poverty. It was a way out of poverty.
Gordon Parks: I think Roy created stirred uh the interest in me to try to encourage me to get to know people and get to know all kinds of people better and investigate their ills and their prejudices and their goods and their evil. It was just like research into the mind of the one you met and in that way I'm sure you felt that you'd grow in a sense and that sometimes would be doing some sort of service by recording as much of it as you could with a camera.
I don't know that I was any better equipped. I probably . . . in some instances I was, more than probably the white photographers because of an emotional something that probably I was closer to or akin to which has certainly been in my favor since.
And Roy more or less expected all this, because he could see that I was green as a pea when I came to Washington and not too involved in all this as I might have been, in humanity. So he said, "Go out and see these things, the people, eat here, go to a theatre, go to the department store and buy yourself a coat.
You need a coat." And I came back roaring mad and I wanted my camera and he said, "For what?" and I said I wanted to expose some of this corruption down here, this discrimination. And he says, "How are you gonna do it?" "Well, with my camera." So he says, "Well, you sit down and write me a little paper on how you intend to do this," and I said, "Fine."
I sat down, wrote several papers, brought them in. He kept after me until he got me down to one simple little project. That was my first lesson in how to approach a subject, that you didn't have to go blaring in with all horns blasting away, but I did a picture there that he often laughed at because of, I suppose, of what I thought was the shock appeal of it.
He finally got me to talk to a charwoman out in the hall, a Negro lady, and ask her some questions. As simple as that, you know, and I came to find out a very significant thing.
She had moved into the building at the same time she said as the woman who was now a notary public. They came there with the same education, the same mental facilities and equipment and she was now scrubbing this woman's room every evening.
So out of her I got a charming story but in the heat of all this I took her into this woman's office and there was the American flag and I stood her up with her mop hanging down with the American flag hanging down Grant Wood style and did this marvelous portrait, which Stryker thought it was just about the end.
He said, "My God, this can't be published, but it's a start." So it was published. I sneaked it out and published it in an old paper that used to be in Brooklyn.
John Mason: Now two things come together in his first great photograph.
He was making photographs that, like I said, heroicized working-class Black people.
But he's also making photographs that exposed the consequences of racism and discrimination.
Those two desires those two impulses come together in his first great photograph, which is a portrait.
Of a custodian in a government office building named Ella Watson. He poses her with the tools of her trade, a mop, and a broom. In front of an American flag. So here is this late-middle-aged African American woman. Dressed in. The smock that she wears a mask while she's cleaning the government office building late at night.
Being posed in front of an American flag. And you instantly see. What he wants you, what you want you instantly see what he wants you to see that this African American woman is because of the color of her skin. Consigned to work as a housekeeper and can rise no further, despite the promise of American democracy, despite the promise of American equality, which is embodied by the flag. It's a brilliant photograph and it, you know, and it tells a story instantly. It is, you know, an expression of the kind of the social realistic art that he was surrounded by when he was in Chicago.
That great picture, that famous picture of Ella Watson made in August of 1942. You can see an extraordinarily creative mind at work you can see. Somebody who's committed to the fight against injustice at work. And you can also see Ella Watson cooperating with him. You know, she's immensely generous on the two nights where Parks photographs her in her office building, the office building that she cleaned. Yeah, I think Ella Watson deserves in fact a lot of credit for this. Working with Ella Watson was a tremendous learning experience for Parks
Remember that the doors of racial segregation are just beginning to creak open. So at the very time that Parks is successfully freelancing and will soon join the staff of Life magazine as their first and only African American on the professional staff. It's also time when Jackie Robinson is about to integrate Major League Baseball. And you have. In these scattered places, the first African American X, the first African American Y.
But those doors are starting to open. And so, in the world of photography and journalism, then, Gordon Parks is very much the Jackie Robinson of that world, with one caveat. You know, after Jackie Robinson joined Major League Baseball, within about 10 years, every Major League Baseball team had at least one Black player that he really did open the doors to African American talent.
Photography and journalism was slower. You know Parks was the one and only African American photographer, the only African American on the professional staff at Life for 20 years. And if you looked around the other glossy magazines, you didn't find any African Americans. And if you looked around the major newspapers all over the country, you didn't find African Americans.
So in some ways, he was like...he certainly was in the generation of Jackie Robinson.
But on the other hand journalism and photography were behind Major League Baseball, significantly behind.
Gordon Parks: I just really couldn't say because I wasn't there at that period. I can't be much help. But I can only surmise that the pictures themselves were so powerful and in touch with reality and to such an extent that they were their own power and they grew out of themselves. You know? Such pictures as they were making at that time anyone with any feeling about the sufferings of people were bound to look and notice and try in some way to absorb the message that they were preaching and take it for them. I'd say that these things sort of grew out of themselves, their own strength. These men were all, I think, dedicated to enlightening the rest of the nation in a sense. Whether they knew it or not, it was that taking place. At least I . . . the type of men that I've met there and have known since. They just had a marvelous chance to do it. I don't know at times it looked like an indictment of the government itself. But . . . .
Richard Doud: Congress thought so, too, apparently.
Gordon Parks: But I think it served a great purpose. No country should be afraid to face its weaknesses.
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Michelle Herman: For show notes, work cited, and additional resources visit aaa.si.edu/articulated.
This podcast is produced by Ben Gillespie and Michelle Herman from the Smithsonian Archives of American art.
Audio engineering is by Hannah Hethmon of BetterLemon Creative Audio.
With music compositions by Viet Cuong that were performed by the Peabody wind ensemble, conducted by Harlan Parker.
Special thanks to Kyrie Blackman, Evan Blackwell, Laura Foose, Mikala Jones, Cassandra Leon, Misty Lizarraga, Tiffany Nall, Mimi Tarter, Osimiri Sprowal, and Tabara Sy for their research contributions.
The Archives of American art at the Smithsonian Institution is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations from individuals like you to sustain our ongoing operations and special programs like Articulated. To support our work, please visit our website at aaa.si.edu/support. Thank you.
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