For Teachers, Paperless Research
Zora Neale Hurston and the Depression-Era Federal Writers' Project
In 1933, the US government established the first of many New Deal projects and initiatives. Four years later, in September 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston was published in New York. The connection between the two? While many readers know of the novel's seminal status (it has been one of the most lauded—and banned—books of its time) and its foundation in Hurston's earlier research into African-American culture and folklore, some might be unaware that from 1935-1937 Hurston was employed by the US Government as a chronicler of life histories in the state of Florida as part of a 'back to work' project for intellectuals and artists—the Federal Writers' Project.
This New Deal initiative "was created in 1935 as part of the United States Work Progress Administration (WPA) to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers" (Library of Congress, Federal Writers' Project).
Originally, the writers were tasked with compiling information for state guides and other explicitly informational and didactic endeavors. However, what the project morphed into was one of the most comprehensive collections of life histories and primary source material on US folklore and slave narratives that exist.
For Hurston, the Federal Writers' Project allowed her to utilize her training as an anthropologist—she completed her BA in anthropology at New York's Barnard College under legendary anthropologist Franz Boas—and continue her work collecting African-American folklore that formed the basis for her first publication, the nonfiction anthology Mules and Men. For the Federal Writers' Project, workers were dispatched throughout the states and tasked with collecting and transcribing the life stories and folklore of each state's diverse communities. In the state of Florida, where Hurston was stationed, these interviews included members of the African-American, Arab-American, Cuban-American, Greek-American, and Italian-American communities. Specifically, it was these firsthand interviews with African-Americans in Florida—many of them former slaves or the children of slaves—that inspired much of Hurston's most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
However, Hurston's novel is not the only body of literature to draw upon or be influenced by this New Deal project. For his award winning nonfiction title, To Be a Slave (originally published in 1968), Julius Lester drew upon both primary and secondary sources to depict the experiences of slaves in the United States—and for much of his original source material, Lester drew upon the collected WPA Slave narratives.
In addition, other notable writers that worked for the Federal Writers Project include:
- Richard Wright
- Ralph Ellison
- Saul Bellows
- Studs Terkel
- John Cheever
- Harold Rosenburg
- Conrad Aiken
- Nelson Algren
- Arna Bontemps
- Edward Dahlberg
- Anzia Yezierska
All told, the Federal Writers' Project created two large collections of primary source material: (1) American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 and (2) Born into Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938.
These two collections represent one of the largest publicly accessible, copyright free snapshots of life of American life and memories from the Reconstruction right up to and through the Great Depression.
Many of FWP and WPA are now available digitally for research and classroom use:
- American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 (via the Library of Congress online)
- Born into Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 (via the Library of Congress online)
- Photographs of African American ex-slaves from the Federal Writers' Project slave narratives collections (via the Library of Congress online)
- Text from the Federal Writers' Project (via the Digital Public Library of America)
- WPA Photographs (via the NYPL Digital Collections; taken during the compiling of the WPA Guide to New York City—includes snapshots of all 5 boroughs from the 1930s)
- San Francisco in the 1930s (via the NYPL; includes a calendar of annual events held in San Francisco held in the 1930s, including the Japanese Cherry Blosson festival held every April, the Scandinavian Midsummer Day Celebration held every June 24th, or the 'Parade of the Witches' held every Halloween)
- Los Angeles in the 1930s (via the NYPL; includes a section entitled, "the Business of Pleasure" which tracks the tourism industry in Los Angeles from the 1840s-the 1930s)
- Virginia Folk Legends (available via the NYPL Research Libraries)