In response to the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the New Deal, a series of domestic programs focused on relief for the poor and unemployed, economic recovery, and reformation of the nation’s financial system. Two of these programs—the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—employed millions of men and women and created a variety of records that can be useful to genealogists today.
Works Progress Administration
The Works Progress Administration—later known as the Works Projects Administration—was created in 1935 to generate public jobs for the unemployed. The agency offered jobs (mostly to unskilled laborers) related to the construction of roads, streets, highways, bridges, public buildings, parks, landing fields, and electrical systems, and also on war and defense projects. For several drama, arts, and literacy projects, the WPA provided jobs to musicians, actors, writers, and artists. The WPA also surveyed many historical records and developed indexes that are useful to genealogists today. Between 1935 and 1939, the WPA included the National Youth Administration (NYA), an agency that offered work and educational opportunities to Americans between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. After 1939, the NYA operated under other agencies. Overall, the WPA employed over 8.5 million Americans over nearly nine years of operation before the program was terminated in 1943.
Men and women eligible for work included United States citizens over the age of eighteen who were unemployed but able to work. Most WPA workers were employed on projects near their homes, and did not require relocation. The average salary was $41.57 per month.
A number of records related to the WPA can provide information about these men and women, and about the projects to which they were assigned. WPA workers were federal government employees and have personnel records that include biographical information (name, address, date of birth, and residence) as well as details about assignments, transfers, and terminations. These personnel records are available from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in St. Louis, and can be ordered via mail or viewed in person (if requested in advance). Requests for NARA to locate a personnel record should include as much of the following information as possible: the worker’s full name (and known variants), Social Security number, date and place of birth, residence at the time of application to the WPA, parent or spouse’s names, approximate dates of service, and employing office.
In additional to personnel records, numerous other WPA records exist and are part of NARA Record Group 69. More information about specific projects and the program’s administration can be discovered through a variety of record types: correspondence (indexed alphabetically by subject), reports, newsletters, statistics, registers, newspaper and magazine clippings, investigative reports, maps, scrapbooks, and indexed still and motion pictures of workers and activities. WPA records are held at several NARA regional branches. NARA’s Preliminary Checklist 37, titled Preliminary Checklist of the Central Correspondence Files of the Work Projects Administration and Its Predecessors, 1933–44, serves as a finding aid to WPA correspondence. Not all records exist for every time period or for each WPA project; however, the records that are available can serve as useful resources for pulling together a relative’s WPA service, learning more about the projects he or she worked on, and understanding what skills they contributed to the effort.
Civilian Conservation Corps
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was established in 1933 as another relief program to create jobs and increase employment. The program offered jobs to young men, and they worked to promote environmental conservation by renewing the nation’s forests, planting trees, improving parklands, building roads, installing telephone lines, erecting fire towers, fighting fires, and building or revitalizing canals, wildlife shelters, campgrounds, rivers, lakes, and beaches. Over 3.5 million men served in the CCC, including approximately 80,000 Native Americans and 250,000 African Americans (who, along with other minorities, were segregated from whites). In 1942, the CCC lost funding as the focus turned to the war effort.
Eligible CCC enrollees included unmarried, unemployed U.S. citizens between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six who were in good physical health. (An exception to this rule was made for some veterans of the Spanish American War and World War I, who were allowed to enroll with no age or marital restrictions.) Initial enlistments were for six months, but many men reenlisted and served for longer time periods.
Most CCC enrollees were from the eastern part of the United States, but the majority of the work took place in western states. Many men left their homes. They lived at the CCC camps where they worked, and received vocational training and education. CCC enrollees were provided with lodging, food, and clothing, and were paid $30 per month. They kept $5, and the remaining $25 was sent home to their families.
Federal personnel records are available for CCC enrollees. These records provide basic information including the enrollee’s name, address, and date and place of birth, as well as names of parents and other relatives (who may have received the enrollee’s stipend), physical examination results, payment allotments, previous education and work, educational activities while in the CCC, certifications, achievements, and more. Most importantly, the records provide details about the camps to which the enrollee was assigned, the types of work performed, and dates of assignments, transfers, and discharge. CCC personnel records are held at NARA in St. Louis, and can be ordered via mail or viewed in person (if requested in advance). Requests for NARA to locate a personnel record should include as much of the following information as possible: the enrollee’s full name (and known variants), Social Security number, date and place of birth, residence at the time of application to the CCC, parents’ names, position(s), and CCC company number(s) and location(s).
Records of the CCC are part of NARA Record Group 35. Once an individual’s CCC company number or numbers are known, additional information can be discovered about the camps and projects. NARA holds indexed correspondence, status reports, camp directories, the CCC weekly newspaper, statistical reports, inspection reports, biographical sketches, injury and accident reports, death reports, and still and motion pictures documenting the projects and recreational activities. Most of these records are held at NARA in College Park, Maryland. NARA’s Preliminary Inventory 11, titled Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Civilian Conservation Corps, provides additional detail on the arrangement of Record Group 35.
Identifying WPA or CCC Employment
Some researchers may have knowledge of a relative’s involvement with the WPA or CCC; however, if this is not the case, numerous records can offer clues. Many of the men who were employed by the WPA and CCC later served in World War II. Military enlistment records usually indicate previous WPA or CCC involvement. Additionally, employment records—for both public and private sector jobs—can indicate previous WPA or CCC service.
The 1940 census can also provide many clues to WPA or CCC service. The census enumeration includes a column (number 22), which asks whether or not the individual enumerated was assigned to public emergency work, specifically during the week of March 24 to 30, 1940. An affirmative response indicates WPA, CCC or other public service. Additionally, the 1940 census identifies young men and women who had recently finished schooling, but had not yet held a permanent job, as “new workers.” Many of these individuals were employed by the WPA or CCC shortly after the 1940 census was enumerated. WPA workers, who typically worked close to home, are often enumerated in the census with their families and are identified as working on WPA projects.
Some CCC camps are captured on the 1940 census; however, in many cases, only key staff (and not all workers) were enumerated. If a relative is not enumerated with his family in 1940, he may have been working at a CCC camp. Additionally, the column in the 1940 census that provides an individual’s residence in 1935 can serve as a clue to CCC employment for men who were enrolled in the program early on.
The records created by the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps are valuable resources to genealogists. Personnel records offer biographical details about those who worked during the Great Depression, and the records related to administration of the agencies can provide interesting details about camps, projects, and the daily lives of workers.