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A New Deal for the arts
This weekend is the kick off for a month of events celebrating the Federal Writers' Project
'Book Repair,' a FWP image courtesy of Georgia Historical Society

On October 3, a month-long series of events called "Soul of a People: Voices from the Federal Writer's Project" will kick off at the Bull Street Branch of the public library.

A collaborative effort of Live Oak Public Libraries, the Georgia Historical Society and AASU, among others, the events celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), which created millions of jobs during the Great Depression. It will aslo look back at work from the Federal Writers' Project (FWP).

For AASU professor June Hopkins, her interest is more than academic: Her grandfather Harry Hopkins worked directly under Roosevelt as head of the WPA.

Connect Savannah caught up with Hopkins to discuss the program and the parallels between the Great Depression and our current recession.

What were some of the works that were done locally or regionally?

June Hopkins: These were the projects that had to do with the American Guide Series, which were the volumes that the Federal Writers' Project initiated that were descriptions of each state and some cities. We have a Georgia guide, and we have a Savannah guide. There are oral histories that were done under the FWP that included many of the people in Savannah. Drums and Shadows is the name of the book, and that's going to be one of our five events, where Dr. Fertig is going to discuss Drums and Shadows. These guides were the centerpiece of the FWP, and one of the most important historical descriptions we have of our nation.

This whole series of events has a special meaning for you because of your grandfather. Did he ever talk about his work with the WPA?

June Hopkins: I'm sure he did, but he didn't talk about it with me because I was only about three years old when he died. This was a really very important part of the WPA in his mind.

It was something that he took a lot of political flak for because people just didn't think that just because you were a writer, actor or musician that you should get some federal relief money, but he did. He thought these people were workers just as a builder was a worker. The WPA was crucial to the New Deal. This Federal Project One, which provided jobs for people who were in the creative arts, was crucial for him.

You mentioned that funding writers and artists was unpopular, and it certainly would have been laughed off the table these days.

June Hopkins: There were a lot of people who supported it, but there were also a lot of people who criticized it for being a waste of money. It brought American culture to outlying areas, rural areas, and small towns across the country. It provided symphonies. It provided theater. It provided literature for the common people. It essentially democratized culture in America. So it did have an enormous impact, and it still has, as you can see, we're celebrating it now, so it's had a long term impact. It prevented a lot of people from giving up their art.

Looking at some of the FWP projects, there's a lot of folklore and oral histories. Are we missing a golden opportunity in not having a cultural component to our current stimulus package?

June Hopkins: I think so. We're certainly not at the level of destitution that we were in 1935, and from what I understand, some of the stimulus money has gone to the National Endowment for the Arts, but certainly not to the extent that it was done in the 1930s.

I think we are missing out. I think it would be terribly unpopular now and I don't think it could possibly get through, although Obama, at one point early on, did talk about it. It would be a very tough political barrier right now to suggest that we're going to fund artists, writers and musicians, and especially actors. It would be tough.

There are certainly some parallels between now and mid-1930s. But how similar or different are the New Deal and the stimulus in scope and effect?

June Hopkins: There's a really important difference. In the 1930s, unemployment was seen by Roosevelt and Hopkins as being one of the most important problems they had to deal with, not just economically but emotionally. People needed jobs, they wanted jobs. I think the stimulus package today is directed more toward financial institutions and industry than to the unemployed.

The WPA, its goal was to employ people, that was its primary goal. The secondary goal, which was also important, was to stimulate the economy, to jumpstart the economy by putting money in the pockets of workers so that they would buy the goods that were sitting on the shelves so that business could recover as well. The WPA had a goal to be labor intensive, to use as many men on as many projects as they possibly could in order to solve this huge unemployment problem.

That doesn't seem to be the focus of Obama's agenda now. It seems to be more of an economic stimulus from the top down rather than the bottom up. It certainly has had some effect on the nation because they tell use we're coming out the Great Recession now, but still there are people on an individual level who are suffering terribly because of this recession. They don't seem to be the focus of attention that they probably should be.

Is there one thing you're most excited about, or that you might not have expected when this was in planning?

June Hopkins: I'm excited about all five programs. I think the film that is coming out, The Soul of a People: Voices from the Federal Writers' Project by Sparks Media and the NEH is excellent. If people would see that film after going to these events, they'll get a lot out of it. It will open people's eyes to what was going on in the 1930s and how Americans were interpreting their environment, their cultural environment, their economic environment, their political environment, because the Federal Writers' Project exposed America warts and all. It didn't pull any punches.

The kickoff celebration at the Bull Street Library is sort of an opening gala on all levels for families and people in the community to give people a taste of all the following events so people will know about them. The three events in between are done by local scholars and people here at Armstrong who are so well-informed and excited about this.

'Soul of a People' Kick-Off Event

What: The first in a series of events celebrating the 75th anniversary of the New Deal and the Federal Writers Project.

When: Sat. Oct. 3, 1 p.m.-5 p.m.

Where: Bull Street Library, 36th and Bull

Cost: Free