Mississippi and the WPA
Reviewed by Will Campbell
Vol. 12, No. 4, 1990, pp. 20-23
If I were asked to name one agency of government which has done the most good in my lifetime I would not hesitate. The Works Progress Administration of the Great Depression. The WPA.
For proof, I offer the newly republished Mississippi: The WPA Guide to the Magnolia State, with a new introduction by Robert S. McElvaine. This volume, first published 52 years ago, is about a lot of things. But to me, for the University Press of Mississippi to consider it important enough to publish a golden anniversary edition is a tribute to the agency that made it possible in the first place. So I wish to join the applause for the WPA. It seems appropriate, so that the majority of Americans who were not even born when the book was first published might know from whence it came.
When millions of people were idle in the mid-1930s they were given jobs. Thus few “street people.” Not high paying jobs but something to do for pay. My father, a yeoman farmer, among them. Because of his work for the WPA he was able to save the family farm when crops failed from drought, when what corn as did grow sold for five cents a pound, shelled corn was worth a can of Prince Albert for the men, a Baby Ruth for the children with nothing left over for the women, and the bank came calling. I remember it well. This summer, at 92, my father died, leaving the small Mississippi acreage to his children and grandchildren.
I also remember that the WPA built two ten-hole outhouses for the East Fork Consolidated School which we attended. I was never allowed to see the one for girls but the one for boys is vivid in my mind. I was in the fifth grade. The day it was completed my friend, J.D. “Wart” Pray, and I meandered down to look it over. The urinal, a V-shaped cement trough, stretched the length of the back outside wall. J.D. suggested that we scratch our initials on the glistening surface of the still soft cement so that all the world would know we had been there, sure that this sturdy structure would be there at least as long as the world stood.
The proud proprietor of this facility, the school principal, appeared in the fifth-grade room shortly after we had resumed our places. He moved directly to J.D.’s desk, bellowing with each stride. “And who is H.B.?” I had feared at the time that leaving our mark on the WPA outhouse might be considered a major infraction. So instead of W.D.C. I had inscribed the initials H.B., meaning nothing. J.D. answered that he didn’t know who H.B. was, that he had been “down the hill”-our euphemism for the outhouse-by himself. I sat frozen in terror, certain that Mr. Stuart would soon exact from J.D. the name of his accomplice. He knew that J.D.P. stood for Jefferson Davis Pray, and that he had defaced this near holy place. There had never been such an elaborate facility at East Fork before. The inevitable five hefty licks of the rubber tube Mr. Stuart carried did not persuade J.D., two years older than I, to betray the trust of his little friend. The irate principal jerked J.D. from his seat and fiercely directed him to the office. I knew that more severe punishment awaited him there. I considered confessing that I, WDC, was the erring HB. But I quickly convinced myself that J.D.’s swift glance was saying that since he was going to get a beating anyhow, why both of us. We heard the hard licks
and J.D.’s loud yells. But the loyalty held firm. He never told. And J.D. “Wart” Pray is still one of my dearest buddies, despite serious ideological differences during the civil rights days in Mississippi. Such is the stuff of friendships forged by the WPA.
But the WPA did more than save small family farms and build outhouses. They built parks, theaters, museums, roads, bridges, gymnasiums, and many other projects of long-range public benefit.
There were also arts programs known collectively as Federal One. Under this umbrella were the Federal Writers’ Project, the Federal Theater Project, the Federal Art Project, and the Federal Music Project.
In addition to my father’s road building job and the East Fork outhouse I was further introduced to the work of the WPA through Federal One, the parent of this volume. There was a program for people in the various communities to read and study literary works as well as to produce them. We were a close knit neighborhood, most of us related by blood or marriage. The idea was for someone in the community to organize and lead discussion groups among their neighbors. There was a small stipend involved. Aunt Ruth organized such a group in our neighborhood. On the appointed summer evening we-men, women, children, and babies-gathered at Aunt Ruth’s house. We had been told that a supervisor of the project would be present and that it was important that everyone enter into the discussion so as to impress her. The adults sat in chairs in the parlor, yearling boys and girls sitting on the floor, babies on pallets or in mothers’ arms. Aunt Ruth announced that we would be discussing a passage from the Bible, the book with which we were most familiar and the only book to be found in may of the households. She read from the eighth chapter of The Acts of the Apostles. It was the story of Philip encountering an Ethiopian eunuch, a man who was treasurer for Candace, rich queen of Ethiopia. Philip found the eunuch sitting in his chariot, climbed up on the chariot with him, converted him to the new Christian faith and baptized him in a nearby stream. After reading the story Aunt Ruth did a brief exegesis and opened the floor for questions and discussion. Uncle Bill, Aunt Ruth’s husband, having been coached on the importance of lively discussion, was first to speak. Raising his hand to be formally recognized, and given permission to
speak, not generally a part of marital mores in Amite County, Mississippi in this rural depression era, he asked his question.
“Yes, yes,” he began. “I have a question. What is a eunuch?”
Aunt Ruth, embarrassed by her husband’s question, looked at the visiting supervisor, a woman none of us knew. The woman nodded that it was the discussion leader’s responsibility to deal with any inquiry.
When vexed Aunt Ruth pronounced her husband’s name as “Beale.” “Now Beale!” she pleaded.
Uncle Coot, as we knew him, had been urged to participate, to ask questions. So he persisted. “What’s a eunuch?”
A few of the older boys and girls snickered. The adults sat in squirming silence, waiting for Aunt Ruth to answer. “Beale. Now Beale. You know what a eunuch is.”
Uncle Coot, getting impatient and sensing that he had asked an inappropriate question, asserted himself further. “No, Ruth, I understood everything you explained except what a eunuch is. Now if you know yourself, just tell me what it means.”
Aunt Ruth, seeing that he wasn’t going to let go, made answer. Soft but awkward. “A eunuch is like an ox.”
Uncle Coot was on his feet, roaring with incredulous laughter. “Now Ruth, you know damn well no ox didn’t get up in a chariot with a man! Now what the hell is a eunuch?”
That pretty much ended our literary evening but I lived it again as I examined the new edition of Mississippi: The WPA Guide to the Magnolia State.
With a helpful new introduction by Professor Robert S. McElvaine of Millsaps College the book takes the young back in time half a century. At the same time it reminds my generation of how many things have changed in, to us, so short a time. And how many things have remained the same.
It is a one volume history of one of our most complex states, going as far back as history can go. It is an archaeological and geographical study, an outline of four centuries, a treatise on religion, folkways, education, architecture, music, arts and letters. It is also a detailed guide of twenty-four interesting tours, from the Delta to the Gulf Coast. And it is a fascinating reading experience.
Young readers will be appalled to learn that in a serious book of the 1930s it was written of black citizens:
As for the so-called Negro question-that, too, is just another problem he has left for the white man to cope with. Seated in the white man’s wagon, and subtly letting the white man worry with the reins, the Negro assures himself a share of all good things.
But it was written, and yes, believed, and the WPA did us a service by having it recorded so that we never forget.
Maybe it is a weakness of the book that we know the names of none of the researchers and writers. A few of the photographers, like Eudora Welty, are named but not the wordsmiths. They were people who could write but were not well enough known to make a living at it. So the WPA paid them small amounts to weave their patterns of beautiful words about what they knew best–Mississippi and
her people. Did some of them, like Miss Welty, go on to become celebrated authors? We aren’t told. And maybe it is just as well. Still and yet, maybe there should have been a byline for the men and women who put these words to paper and received in return a small check from the WPA. Words such as these:
The earth is not ours, and if we should doubt, we need only to look to the clean, unsodded plot flanking the church-house. Here sunlight by day and moonlight by night glide down cold marble headstones and are absorbed in dark, oval-shaped mounds; and here we gather once a year to hold Memorial Services for our fathers, who came over the mountains and down the wilderness with just such a zealous preacher leading them. We came out of the land and we will return to the land, and, the preacher’s voice drones on, we will be contented there.
It would be an ambitious project for someone to search the records. From Harry Hopkins, administrator for the WPA, to county courthouses, bank and family records and elsewhere to let us know what happened to the hundreds of Mississippians who strung pretty words together because that was what they did best and because there once existed a federal administration that believed in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. As for me, I will be content knowing that the words were written and are once more available to us.
Will Campbell’s most recent book is Covenant, with photographs by AI Clayton. Mississippi: The WPA Guide to the Magnolia State, with a new introduction by Robert S. McElvaine, is available from the University Press of Mississippi.