Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 023/Lucy Reed
Lucy Reed was an African American woman from Knoxville, Tennessee. After losing her job during the Great Depression, she tried unsuccessfully to get government support and had to stay home to take care of her father. The Federal Writers Project interviewed her in 1938.
Lucy Reed was born in 1880 in Tennessee. Her father Robert Falls was born into slavery in a town north of Knoxville on December 14, 1840 and stayed in Tennessee most of his life. Reed had at least two sisters, but is it unclear from her interview who they were or if she had brothers, too. Her mother was also never mentioned. Reed had one known daughter named Larinda who lived in Philadelphia in the years following World War I and the Depression.
Life During the Depression
In 1938, when she was interviewed by the Federal Writers Project, Reed was fifty-eight years old and lived in Knoxville, Tennessee in an old, big house at 608 South Broadway. Reed rented the house from an African American family but struggled to pay for it. Reed’s daughter sent her money for rent when she could afford it.
Before the Great Depression, Reed had worked as a housemaid for a rich family that paid her good wages. After that, she worked for the Works Progress Administration as a sewer and later as a cook. In the 1930s, Reed and all the other African American women working for the local WPA were laid off at the same time. She then found work at a doctor’s office but had to quit soon after to stay home and take care of her father. It is unknown how long Reed was unemployed after she quit working.
Reed’s father, who was ninety-eight years old in 1938, could not move around easily and so stayed with Reed in Knoxville. He could not collect his old age pension in Tennessee, though, because he had lived in North Carolina for a couple of years. Without the pension, Reed could not afford to hire someone to stay home with him, so she had to do this on her own. Reed spent most of her time caring for her father and talking to welfare, security, and pension agencies in hopes that they would award him the money. They never paid her, though, and the most she could ever get them to promise was non-monetary aid (such as food rations).
Nothing is known about Reed’s life after her interview with the Federal Writers Project. The time and place of her death are unknown.
WPA worker receiving paycheck (1939)
Works Progress Administration (WPA)
On May 6, 1935, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 7034 to establish the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The goal of the WPA was to decrease unemployment and improve the national economy to end the Great Depression more quickly. When President Roosevelt took office in 1933, twenty-five percent of Americans were unemployed. The WPA focused on employing these Americans as opposed to paying them money directly without them working for it. President Roosevelt recognized that most of the unemployed wanted to truly earn their money, so he assigned them to public works projects. These projects included sewing, writing, and building roads, hospitals, airports, and football stadiums, and much more. The WPA employed 8.5 million Americans between 1935 and 1943.
President Roosevelt tried to keep politics away from the relief efforts of the WPA but found that he could not do this. Republicans and Southerners disapproved, saying that President Roosevelt was spending too much, that people were becoming dependent on and taking advantage of the government, and that African Americans shouldn’t be employed. A lot of Americans were also unemployed even after the WPA ended. But, the WPA was successful in its goal of supporting and re-employing Americans. It reassured Americans that the government was doing everything it could to end the Great Depression. One newspaper article published in 1936 wrote, “It gave notice that the people could depend on the United States Government, their government, when they were in need.” Of all the relief programs during the Great Depression, it spent the most money and employed the most people. More Americans also worked on WPA military projects after World War II started. Employment kept improving, and the WPA “succeeded in enabling millions of desperate Americans to survive the 1930s.”
African American Workers and the WPA
Discrimination was not allowed in the WPA, and in the first couple of years, it seemed that this policy would be followed. In 1936, twelve percent of WPA workers were African American, and the WPA employed a total of three hundred thousand colored workers.
But later, African Americans recognized that the nondiscrimination policy would not be followed in the South. The percentage of unemployed African Americans was double that of all unemployed Americans. The WPA paid the black workers lower wages and only allowed them to work in unskilled positions. One newspaper article in 1904 reported on an African American workers’ union that charged the WPA for discriminatory practices after a colored worker was refused a job, white workers were promoted over black workers, and work crews became segregated. The commissioner did nothing about the situation. Similar discrimination was found all over the South.
Yet, the WPA did employ thousands of African Americans during the Depression and encouraged them to look for work. Historian Wayne Dowdy wrote, “For thousands of African Americans in particular, the WPA provided much needed employment despite the fact that it condoned segregation and discrimination.
- Interview with Lucy Reed, Nov. 21, 1938, folder 984, collection 3709, Federal Writers’ Project Papers, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- J. Christopher Schnell, “Works Progress Administration (WPA),” Encyclopedia of the Great Depression, ed. Robert S. McElvaine, vol. 2 (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004), 1063. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
- Ibid., 1061.
- Ibid., 1063.
- Ibid., 1065.
- Wayne Dowdy, “Works Progress Administration (WPA),” Race and Racism in the United States : An Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic, ed. Cameron D. Lippard and Charles A. Gallagher (Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood, 2014), 1362. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost).
- Schnell, “Works Progress Administration (WPA),” 1063.
- Ibid., 1066.
- Dona Cooper Hamilton, "Great Depression and the New Deal,” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, ed. Colin A. Palmer, 2nd ed, vol. 3 (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006), 947. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
- Schnell, “Works Progress Administration (WPA),” 1067.
- Louis Easterling, “What the New Deal’s WPA Has Done,” Afro-American (1893-1988), September 26, 1936. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Schnell, “Works Progress Administration (WPA),” 1064.
- Ibid., 1067.
- Easterling, “What the New Deal’s WPA Has Done.”
- Hamilton, "Great Depression and the New Deal,” 946.
- Ibid., 941.
- Dowdy, “Works Progress Administration (WPA),” 1362.
- “Union Charges WPA with Jim Crow Practices,” Afro-American (1893-1988), November 9, 1940. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Dowdy, “Works Progress Administration (WPA),” 1363.