Nov 20, 2004
Stetson Kennedy told The Kitchen Sisters that throughout his travels for the "America Eats" project, "one of the most stringently segregated aspects of life was eating." The photo at left, from an unidentified event, illustrates his point.
Credit: Provided by: Library of Congress
I was lisenting to NPR and heard a great quote from one of the WPA writers. "I've eaten in sorrow's kitchen and I licked the pots clean." It was from an African-American, female author who was writing for the "America Eats" project in the 1930's. The America Eats project gave WPA writers the assignment of writing about, you guessed it, what America eats. While this may not seem like an important project (or perhaps not even an interesting one), American tastes, cooking technology, and the availability of foods have changed throughout America's history, so this becomes a facinating peek into a Depression era cultural time capsule. I chose the picture above because at first it seemed so ludicrous that there was such a strict separation of races, but then I remembered that the school cafeteria at my high school in 1984 looked almost that divided. The difference of course being that in 1984 the teenagers in that cafeteria were separated by choice (with the freedom to intermingle), and the separation was not enforced by law, but rather by cliques, in fact the most racially integrated table was the football players.
The WPA was the Works Progress Administration (later called the Works Projects Administration), one of the several administrative projects set up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his New Deal. The WPA was established as relief measure to help the unemployed earn money that could be spent on necessities, which would in turn stimulate the economy and help America recover from from the depression.
The WPA was established in 1935 and ran for eight years, during which time it employed millions of people and spent money on a wide variety of programs running the gamut from building and highway construction, to reforrestation and rural programs designed to help bring roads and electricity to rural areas. I did not realize until a few years ago how extensive and the WPA was, nor did I know that it supported the arts programs including: The Federal Writers' Project, The Federal Arts Project, The Federal Music Project and The Federal Theatre Project. There was also a Historical Records Survey, which archived the projects, census records and vital statistics set up as part of the WPA.
The practical aspect of the project was that thousands of writers, painters, musicians, playwrites and actors were paid to be creative. The true beauty of the programs was that the creative work produced by the WPA workers carried the arts to rural communities that would not have otherwise had access to these types of cultural programs. During an unbearably bleak period of history, murals were painted and sculptures were created and placed in public spaces and buildings. Novels and stories were written and many of the WPA authors would later become some of the most acclaimed American authors. Symphonies were created and performed, as were plays. The arts were brought to rural areas, which previously had no access to these types of cultural programs. The WPA also created an invaluable archive of the Great Depression.