The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was established in 1935 as one of four cultural projects within President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). It lasted until 1942, when funding was diverted to fighting World War II. During the depths of the Depression, the FWP employed thousands of writers, including many aspiring African American authors, to write a comprehensive history of the United States. Among those who worked on the project were Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Dorothy West, Sterling Brown, Claude McKay, Margaret Walker, Fenton Johnson, Richard Durham, Robert Hayden, Chester Himes, and Frank Yerby. At its height, the FWP employed 25,000 people. They produced guidebooks, one for each state, which together would present a comprehensive history of the United States. When the earliest guidebooks rolled off the press, however, they made little mention of the contributions of African Americans. Members of Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet” called on the administration to address this glaring omission. Sterling Brown, a poet and Howard University professor, was appointed Editor of Negro Affairs, a position he held from 1936 to 1940. Brown came up with a list of seventeen different projects highlighting the role of African Americans in the country’s history. He also planned to write his own ambitious study, “The Portrait of the Negro as American.” Black field workers gathered material on local history, housing, health, education, literature, music, and folklore. Only two of Brown’s studies became books before the project doors were closed. It was several decades before project studies—The Negro in New York, The Negro in Illinois, and others—were published. One of the best-known studies was the collection of more than 2,300 slave narratives, which have been published in several volumes over the years and are now entirely available online. The Federal Writers’ Project was initially slow to respond, but later hired numerous African American writers. Constantly under attack by politicians as a breeding ground for communism, the project was slowly scaled back, and eventually shut down by the war. For a time, it served as an incubator for black literary talent in the years after the Harlem Renaissance had waned. For many, it was the first chance to make a living at their chosen craft.
There remains a dearth of scholarship on the Federal Writers’ Project, despite the great influence it had on American literature, and specifically African American literature. To date, no book-length study has been written about African Americans on the Federal Writers’ Project. This is partly due to the delayed publication of the project manuscripts. The most authoritative account of the FWP is The Dream and the Deal (Mangione 1972) by Jerre Mangione, an upper-level administrator who worked for the director, Henry Alsberg. It includes significant firsthand information about black WPA writers. Penkower 1977, a more objective study, gives details of Sterling Brown’s appointment, as well as the involvement of other black writers on the project. Tidwell 1995 and Hirsch 2003 discuss Brown’s intentions for the project to present an “accurate” and “adequate” depiction of African Americans. Brown’s essay “The Negro in Washington” (Brown 1937) was one of the most controversial FWP writings. Otherwise, the experiences of black writers are included in autobiographical and biographical accounts. The Federal Writers’ Project has generally been regarded by literary critics as merely a means for providing financial support to struggling writers. Those that followed the conventions of “social realism” fell out of favor during the 1950s and have never fully regained appreciation by scholars. A collection of essays from the Harlem project, Bascom 1999, refers to these writers as “lost voices.” More recent literary works, such as Wald 2002 and Jackson 2011, emphasize the formative role the WPA played in shaping black writers during the interwar years.
Bascom, Lionel. A Renaissance in Harlem: Lost Voices of an American Community. New York: Bard, 1999.
This is an excellent collection of WPA writings by black authors on the Harlem chapter of the New York Writers’ Project. It includes an introduction by the editor, with a discussion of several major figures, including Ralph Ellison, Dorothy West, and Zora Neale Hurston. More than just supporting authors, the project extended the literary momentum of the Harlem Renaissance.
Brown, Sterling. “The Negro in Washington.” In Washington: City and Capital. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1937.
Brown’s most important written contribution to the project, his essay is a critical portrait of racial segregation in the nation’s capital. It gained the attention of conservative politicians for mention of Maria Syphax, the slave daughter of President Washington’s step-grandson and adopted son.
Hirsch, Jerrold. Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Written by a cultural historian, this study emphasizes the diversity of the project, and in particular the participation of African Americans. There is a lengthy discussion of Sterling Brown’s editorial efforts to insert African Americans into the FWP guidebooks.
Jackson, Lawrence P. The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934–60. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.
In what is one of the best scholarly accounts of African American writers during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Jackson says the FWP had a “dramatic” impact on the development of black literature. He also acknowledges that some black writers felt exploited for their work.
Mangione, Jerry. The Dream and the Deal. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.
The first comprehensive firsthand account of the Federal Writers’ Project, this is essential reading on the topic. It covers the FWP in national scope, although heavily emphasizes New York writers. It is a favorable account of how the project, for many struggling writers, represented the best of the American “dream.”
Penkower, Monty Noam. The Federal Writers’ Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
The first scholarly history of the FWP, this is the most in-depth and objective study. Based extensively on archival work and interviews, it recounts in detail the creation of the project, and its downfall.
Tidwell, John Edgar. “Recasting Negro Life History: Sterling A. Brown and the Federal Writers’ Project.” Langston Hughes Review 12.2 (Winter/Summer 1995): 77–82.
Further archival evidence of the campaign to appoint Sterling Brown to national editor is provided in this essay. Brown’s efforts on the project are placed in the context of his interest in black folklore.
Wald, Alan. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
One of the foremost scholars of Depression-era literature, Wald takes seriously the role played by the FWP in the careers of African American authors Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Arna Bontemps, and Robert Hayden.
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