Works Progress Administration

 

Webpage Date: 02/25/2012

Revised by: PMK

 

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GENERAL INFORMATION

 

WPA Historical Records Survey

by Steve Paul Johnson, 28-Jul-1999

 

As part of the Historical Records Survey, WPA staff created indexes of historical records across the country, fostering today's interest in genealogy and history.

 

If you have surfed the Internet for genealogical records, chances are you have run across a site or two that published "WPA Cemetery Indexes". The WPA is now long gone, but their legacy lives on in the genealogical community.  What was the WPA, what did they do, and what happened to them?

 

When the Great Depression hit the United States in 1929, the American economy hit rock bottom.  The value of the dollar became nearly worthless and millions of Americans lost their jobs.  In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced "The New Deal", a series of new programs designed to pick America back up on to its feet and get the economy moving again.

 

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of those programs.  Initially designed to fund the building and improvement America's infrastructure, it also funded the arts, history, and culture of America.  In short, the WPA employed out-of-work Americans who were certified by local agencies as meeting certain qualifications.

 

The WPA was born in 1935 with an initial appropriation of $4.88 billion dollars from the Emergency Relief Fund.  Over the years, the WPA would employ some 8.5 million Americans, and spent a total of $11 billion dollars.  Interestingly, half of those workers were employed in New York City alone!.  Typical WPA workers were paid $15 to $90 dollars a month.  It remains today as the most vigorous attempt in history to stimulate the U.S. economy.  In 1939, the WPA was renamed to the Works Projects Administration.  The WPA lived for only eight years.

 

The WPA was responsible for building structures, such as airports, seaports, and bridges.  It paved 651,000 miles of road, built 78,000 bridges, 8,000 parks, and 800 airports.  The WPA also funded some programs in the humanities, including the Federal Arts Project, Federal Writers Project, Federal Theatre Project, National Health Survey, and the Historical Records Survey (HRS).

 

Originally organized in 1935 as part of the Federal Writers Project, the HRS documented resources for research into American History.  It later became a unit of the Research and Records Program in 1939.  The HRS was responsible for creating the Soundex indexes of the federal census which genealogists today have come to rely so heavily on.  The HRS also compiled indexes of vital statistics, cemetery interments, school records, military records, maps, newspapers, and the list went on and on.  Microfilms of these indexes were later made by other organizations.

 

The WPA was organized into regional, state, and local divisions.  Much of the work conducted by the HRS was done for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), as well as state archives agencies, and state historical societies, which these entities are still in possession of.  One can access the microfilms by paying a visit to these organizations.

 

As the years went by, government officials became highly critical of the WPA, arguing that money was being spent to fund projects that people did not need, such as tap dancing lessons, and murals painted in post offices.  Roosevelt claimed the high morale of the workers was well worth the money.  However, federal funding for the WPA decreased over the years, and certain projects were terminated.  WPA staff began waging labor strikes, which only fueled arguments against the WPA.

 

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Americans went to work building war machines.  Hundreds of defense contractors earned orders, which spurned the growth of yet thousands of more companies.  By 1943, it was clear that the WPA had run its course.  Roosevelt signed the order terminating the WPA, which ended on June 30, 1943.

 

After the WPA was dissolved, the records, now in the hands of state archives and historical societies, were microfilmed, indexed, and made available for use.  However, many other records were placed into boxes and stored away.  Fewer yet had been destroyed, and in some cases, destroyed purposely.

 

With the emergence of the Internet, WPA records have found their way into mass distribution.  Genealogists, who have long relied on microfilms of WPA records, are now finding the same records online.  The most prominent example is the USGenWeb Census Project, where volunteers are migrating the census index microfilms to the Internet.

 

Many WPA cemetery recordings are also finding their way online.  While no single WPA based project currently exists, hundreds of people across the United States have visited their local historical societies, copied some records, and published them to the Internet on their own personal websites. 

 

While critics might argue that federal money was wasted on unnecessary projects, it is clear that the work of the WPA fostered a greater appreciation for the arts and humanities.  The thousands of publicly accessible paintings, writings, plays, and music, stimulated the people's appreciation of the arts.  The thousands of parks and recreational facilities built by the WPA, is the reason why we have become used to having so many parks and facilities  nearby.  Likewise, the projects of the HRS created interest in the research of history and genealogy, which subsequently spurned the restoration of old cemeteries, erection of monuments, and establishment of societies and clubs.  Interest in genealogy would not be at the level it is now if not for the WPA.

 

The manuscript records of counties, cities, churches and similar organizations are recognized as the most valuable sources for students of social and economic history.  Despite their value these records have usually been more inaccessibly and carelessly stored than almost any other class of material.  The reasons are obvious; public offices are subject to ever increasing pressure from the accumulation of papers; the county records are often far from the centers where students can conveniently work; the records of churches and other organizations are usually scattered, and in the keeping of individuals who have no fireproof facilities in their homes.

Various efforts have, from time to time, been made to meet this situation.  For years the University Library made copies of valuable manuscripts whenever it was practicable.  In 1934 the Daughters of the American Revolution sponsored a CWA and ERA statewide project through which copies of South Carolina wills were placed in the University Library and in Continental Hall, Washington, D. C.

In 1935 the Carolina Committee of the University of South Carolina proposed to the state officials of the WPA a much more comprehensive plan for reservation of records and for making them readily accessible to students.  On October 1, 1935 the Statewide Historical Project, sponsored by the University, with Dr. Anne King Gregorie, supervisor, and fifty copyists, was authorized to make copies of the older and more valuable records; and, in addition, to compile a comprehensive list of state and local records.  The task of preliminary planning and organization was done by Miss Gregorie.  On March 1, 1936 the Historical Records Survey, a federal project, undertook the task of listing public records on a national scale, and Miss Gregorie was given charge of the work in South Carolina.  Seven months later the Survey was housed by the University, and was thereafter carried on in close cooperation with the Statewide Historical Project supervised by Miss Gregorie's successor, Miss Flora Belle Surles. The work of these two projects, thanks primarily to the indefatigable and resourceful supervisors, constitutes an outstanding achievement. The copyists, without preliminary training to fit them for the task, have with great patience and, in many cases, with fine devotion and real skill, deciphered the dim and crabbed writing of crumbling pages that otherwise would be a permanent loss. These projects have been under the administrative direction of Mrs. Margaret D. Davies, State Director of Women's and Professional Projects; without her appreciation of the value of the work and her capable support the results would have fallen far short of the actual achievement. The University has also been fortunate in obtaining copies made by local projects in Charleston, through agreements with the College of Charleston and with Mr. E. P. Grice, Jr., of the WPA; and local projects in Chester and Edgefield have contributed some copies.

The thanks of all persons interested in the history of our state are due to these officials and workers, to the public officers who at great inconvenience to themselves have given working space and aid, and to custodians of other records who have been equally generous with their time and help.

R. L. Meriwether, Professor of History, University of S. C., Chairman, Caroliniana Committee

 

DAR Library:

 

The DAR Library owns about 1,000 volumes of the publications of the Historical Records Survey of the Works Progress Administration (later the Work Projects Administration). Because of the DAR's involvement at the local level in supporting the work of the W.P.A. during its lifetime from 1935 to 1942, the W.P.A. donated many of its publications to the DAR Library because of the work of DAR members in supporting the activities of the W.P.A.

 

The majority of the published volumes is in the series "Inventory of the County Archives." These inventories of county records list local records found in courthouses in the states at the time the survey was completed. Not all counties in every state have a published inventory. Even if a county of interest is not available, researchers may wish to review an inventory for another county as a representative example of the types of records which should be in any county in that state. Many of the publications have useful introductions and discussions of records and record-keeping practices.

 

Portions of other W.P.A series are available in the Library's special "W.P.A. Collection." These include inventories of federal records in the states, calendars of manuscript collections, guides to the records of religious bodies, and indices to a few newspapers. All are of potential value to genealogists and should not be overlooked.

 

Separate from the special collection of W.P.A materials, researchers will also encounter many transcriptions of records at the county level prepared by the W.P.A.'s Historical Records Survey. Several state sections, particularly Michigan, Tennessee, and West Virginia, include numerous such volumes. Once again, because of the DAR's local support for W.P.A projects, the DAR Library received many of these transcriptions which are very similar to the DAR's own Genealogical Records Committee reports.

 

 

References:

  • Jim Couch, "The Works Progress Administration" Eh.Net Encyclopedia (2004)

  • Ginzberg, Eli. "The unemployed". New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2004

  • Hopkins, June. "The Road Not Taken: Harry Hopkins and New Deal Work Relief" Presidential Studies Quarterly Vol. 29, (1999)

  • Howard; Donald S. The WPA and Federal Relief Policy (1943), detailed analysis of all major WPA programs.

  • Leighninger, Robert D., Jr. Long-Range Public Investment: the Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press (2007), providing a context for American public works programs, and detailing major agencies of the New Deal: CCC, PWA, CWA, WPA, and TVA.

  • Lindley, Betty Grimes & Lindley, Ernest K. A New Deal for Youth: the Story of the National Youth Administration (1938)

  • McJimsey George T. Harry Hopkins: Ally of the Poor and Defender of Democracy (1987)

  • Meriam; Lewis. Relief and Social Security. 900 pp. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1946. Highly detailed analysis and statistical summary of all New Deal relief programs

  • Millett; John D. & Gladys Ogden. Administration of Federal Work Relief 1941.

  • Rose, Nancy. The WPA and Public Employment in the Great Depression (2009)

  • Singleton, Jeff. The American Dole: Unemployment Relief and the Welfare State in the Great Depression (2000)

  • Smith, Jason Scott. Building New Deal Liberalism: the Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956 (2005)

  • Taylor, David A. Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America. New York: Wiley & Sons, 2009

  • Taylor, Nick. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work (2008)

  • United States Senate. "Report of investigation of public relief in the District of Columbia". Washington D.C.: 1938

  • Williams, Edward Ainsworth. Federal Aid for Relief. New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1939. (Ph.D. thesis)

  • Wood, Margeret Mary. "Paths of loneliness: the individual isolated in modern society". New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1953

  • Young, William H., & Nancy K. The Great Depression in America: a Cultural Encyclopedia. 2 vols. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007

The WPA Library Project In South Carolina

 

 

ABBEVILLE COUNTY

 

Cemetery Tombstone Inscription Records:

 

Works Progress Administration Historical Records Survey for SC Cemetery Tombstone Inscriptions:  This information represents cemetery surveys that were taken by the WPA during 1935-1943.  Surveys Available For: Abbeville, Aikin, Allendale, Anderson, Bamberg, Barnwell, Beaufort, Berkeley, Calhoun, Charleston, Cherokee, Chesterfield, Clarendon, Colleton, Darlington, Dillon, Dorchester, Florence, Greenville, Greenwood, Hampton, Horry, Jasper, Kershaw, Lancaster, Laurens, Lee, Lexington, Marion, Marlboro, McCormick, Newberry, Oconee, Orangeburg, Pickens, Richland, Saluda,

Spartanburg, Sumter, Union, Williamsburg & York Counties.  (The A#'s are simply reference numbers for A.C.C. use.)

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Church Archive Accession Records:

 

Works Progress Administration Historical Records Survey for SC Church Accession Archives:  This information represents surveys that were taken by the WPA in 1936.  Survey Form Questions:  County, City or Town, Name of Church, Street Address, Denomination, Date Organized, Date of lapse if Now Defunct, Information as to Previous Buildings, Date Present Building Dedicated, Rebuilt, Architecture (bells, inscriptions, special features of building), First Settled Clergyman, Tenure, Educational Background, Minute Book Location, Register Book (baptisms, confirmations, marriages, members, deaths) Location, Record Book (Sunday School or other organization) Location, Financial Record Location, Unpublished Historical Sketches, Published Histories (sketches & directories), Other Record ( miscellaneous manuscripts) Location, Condition of records, Other Information (origins, history & previous names of church).  Some surveys also contain additional church history information.

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ANDERSON COUNTY

 

 

Cemetery Tombstone Inscription Records:

 

Works Progress Administration Historical Records Survey for SC Cemetery Tombstone Inscriptions:  This information represents cemetery surveys that were taken by the WPA during 1935-1943.  Surveys Available For: Abbeville, Aikin, Allendale, Anderson, Bamberg, Barnwell, Beaufort, Berkeley, Calhoun, Charleston, Cherokee, Chesterfield, Clarendon, Colleton, Darlington, Dillon, Dorchester, Florence, Greenville, Greenwood, Hampton, Horry, Jasper, Kershaw, Lancaster, Laurens, Lee, Lexington, Marion, Marlboro, McCormick, Newberry, Oconee, Orangeburg, Pickens, Richland, Saluda,

Spartanburg, Sumter, Union, Williamsburg & York Counties.  (The A#'s are simply reference numbers for A.C.C. use.)

 

Church Archive Accession Records:

 

Works Progress Administration Historical Records Survey for SC Church Accession Archives:  This information represents surveys that were taken by the WPA in 1936.  Survey Form Questions:  County, City or Town, Name of Church, Street Address, Denomination, Date Organized, Date of lapse if Now Defunct, Information as to Previous Buildings, Date Present Building Dedicated, Rebuilt, Architecture (bells, inscriptions, special features of building), First Settled Clergyman, Tenure, Educational Background, Minute Book Location, Register Book (baptisms, confirmations, marriages, members, deaths) Location, Record Book (Sunday School or other organization) Location, Financial Record Location, Unpublished Historical Sketches, Published Histories (sketches & directories), Other Record ( miscellaneous manuscripts) Location, Condition of records, Other Information (origins, history & previous names of church).  Some surveys also contain additional church history information.