The WPA commonly refers to the many agencies established by the Federal Government in the 1930s during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Brought into being on May 6, 1935, as an independent agency funded directly by Congress, the Works Progress Administration was the Federal Government’s most ambitious undertaking yet to provide employment for the jobless.
Created to replace earlier attempts to bring the Depression under control with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the purpose of the Works Progress Administration was to provide jobs for the unemployed who were able to work. It was not a program for the aged, handicapped or other unemployables, all of whom would be helped by state and local governments, but rather it provided assistance to people who simply could not find a job. Sometimes called a “make work” program, the WPA eventually employed approximately one-third of the nation’s 10,000,000 unemployed, paying them about $50.00 a month.
The Works Progress Administration of 1935 continued the work of building and improving a wide variety of public facilities. It differed, however, from the previous programs by also addressing the employment needs of non-construction workers. For example, it assisted communities in expanding educational, library, health, and related community projects. Professional and white collar workers, on the other hand, found employment with “Federal One.” Federal Project No. 1 of the Works Progress Administration was developed to give artistic and professional work to the unemployed who qualified. It consisted of the Federal Art Project (FAP), Federal Music Project (FMP), Federal Theatre Project (FTP), the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), and the Historical Records Survey (HRS).
HISTORICAL RECORDS SURVEY (HRS)
With the advent of Federal One, the Historical Records Survey was created as a part of the Federal Writers’ Project.
Its mission was to conduct a national records survey. In 1936, Luther Evans was appointed director and the agency became an independent section of Federal One.
The HRS was financially the most efficient of all the Federal One programs and averaged 2,500 employees a month with a high in 1938 of 6,000 employed at an average salary of $73.00 per month. With the end of Federal One in August, 1939, Luther Evans resigned and the new director, Sargent Child tried to complete all the survey projects already underway. The Historical Records Survey subsequently became a part of the Community Service Program, and by 1941 the central staff was reduced to only 12 employees
by Bryan L. Mulcahy
Highlights of the most useful information from a genealogical research perspective include:
1. Burial listing in cemeteries
2. Federal and state census indexes
3. Indexes to naturalization records
4. Indexes to newspapers
5. Inventories of records found in county courthouses
6. Descriptions of manuscripts found in various libraries, private collections, and agencies
7. Place-name guides
8. Inventories of church records including the range of years and content covered by a church’s
christening records, and the names of those buried in church cemeteries
9. Historical narratives of slaves, immigrants, native Americans and other groups as part of the
American Folklore Project
From the standpoint of genealogical and historical research, the WPA Historical Records Survey
produced a tremendous legacy of information that may have otherwise been lost due to age and neglect.
While many WPA workers were engaged in projects to build up our internal infrastructure such as
bridges, roads, county fairgrounds, and airports, another major project involved having workers compile
what became known as the Works Project Administration Historical Records Survey.
The Historical Records Survey Program focused on the following objectives:
1. The task of creating and or organizing bibliographies, inventories, indexes, and other
historical materials were prepared by out-of-work historians, lawyers, teachers,
researchers, and clerical workers.
2. The long term goal was to organize historical materials, particularly the unpublished
government documents and records which are basic in the administration of local
government and provide valuable data for students of political, economic, and social
3. Create or update archival guides to facilitate and enhance the daily administration by
federal and local government officials.
4. Create guides to assist the local business, legal, and educational communities whose
functions and success depend on information from public records to conduct daily
5. Inventories produced by the Historical Records Survey Program attempted to do more than
merely provide lists of records. The long term goal was to sketch the historical
background of the county or other unit of government, and to describe precisely, and in
detail, the organization and function of the governmental agencies whose records were
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