Well, they liked the Depression-era equivalent, the New Deal. Lately, I came across a compilation of some small-town Alabama Chamber of Commerce types and their supportive testimonials from 1939.
Some of these guys might have put on sheets at night, burned a few crosses, even joined in for the occasional lynching. (Perhaps not, as per dead letter office's comment.) But they "got" that the New Deal was working. As in the diary I posted yesterday, captions add a lot to the meaning of the pictures.
I've come across several photographic profiles of towns and of families during the New Deal. One of them, for the small mining town of Carbon Hill, Alabama (NW of Birmingham) caught my attention.
Unique amongst these profiles, the subjects of portraits were also interviewed, and their comments, specifically about the WPA, offer a window into the times.
Unlike most of the others in this series, this picture didn't come with any quotes. The man was working on telephone service upgrades - the town of 2500 only had 71 phones.
Carbon Hill had 2500 population back in 1939, nowadays it's a bit smaller - just over 2000 in the 2000 US Census. Before we get to the testimonials, here's a few pix of WPA projects in the town. One little town with 2500 people. For one thing, there was the swimming pool:
There was little acknowledgment of race issues in the record I found. I'm assuming that this was a whites only pool, and likely, the blacks didn't get a "separate but equal" one of their own. Likely the same was true for the school built by the WPA, and work on the high school grounds:
The thing that struck me, in interview after interview, was how everyone was pleased with the sidewalks and gutters WPA installed throughout the town. Despite all those testimonials, there's no photograph of that work. Maybe sidewalks are too durn uninteresting to photograph, even if everyone raves about them. WPA built some culverts in Carbon Hill, too. I wouldn't be surprised if at least some of them are still there today, even if most people are unaware that they are the product of an earlier generation's government "stimulus package":
On to the testimonials:
Rev. O.M. Fox, with son
Baptist (white) Church. "I passed the post office this morning and Doc. Baker was in there. He said he didn't know the Southern Bell Telephone Company was employing WPA labor, I looked where he pointed, and there was a lineman sitting up there with an umbrella over his head!
When I came to Carbon Hill five years ago the streets were in very poor shape. We had no curbs or gutters except this little piece here by the church and over the paved street. Really, it was a dirty unimproved little place. When I first saw it I thought 'This sure is a dirty town.' But WPA has brought quite a change.
It's been a wonderful help to the town all right and it has employed numbers of our people. Some few members of our church are on the WPA. I think the casement in their financial condition has had some influence on the spiritual life of the town... People are more cheerful and courageous when they are able to make ends meet. It helps our merchants a lot. Merchants don't prosper unless the payroll comes in so people can pay up."
I like how this pastor's not entirely "pie in the sky" about things. And he likes the sidewalks and gutters, too. All of the Chamber of Commerce types seem to share that opinion.
Druggist, mixing soft drink. "It's done a wonderful work here; it's done lots of good. The best things are the sidewalks and curbs - they've improved out town more than any other one thing.
There used to be little wooden bridges at every corner four of them; over three hundred bridges we removed when the sidewalks and curbs and gutters were put in."
There's something charming about the modest ambitions to be pleased with the mundane civic improvement of sidewalks. Others recognize that their own small business survival depends on customers with money to spend in their establishments. I guess it's always worth visiting the barber shop:
Barber and customer in barber shop. J.E. Fairley, proprietor: "They've done a wonderful work here. WPA has made a difference in my business." W.B. Cummings, customer: "The WPA is all right - it puts money here that wouldn't be here otherwise."
K. E. Kropp,
"It's been a wonderful help to the business men in general. Industries have been down and it kept the people going. WPA was put to good use and made the town for us. It's helped business too."
This doctor sees public health benefits:
O.H. Whitney, MD
"The New Deal is all right. We appreciate what the government has done for us here - nothing at all against it... They put in improvements that will be here for years and years. What they did here had absolutely been substantial work.
They've done wonderful things here on drainage. They've filled up all the old abandoned workings that had collapsed and filled with water, and that's gotten the mosquitoes away from here...
There's been a real decrease in sickness because of this drainage improvement - has cut malaria two-thirds. All the stagnant water in the old mines has been cleared up. They've eliminated all that."
Here's a token female businessperson:
Maude Patterson, Beauty Shop operator and owner
"I don't know how we would have existed in Carbon Hill without WPA work. It has brought money into the town. This is one of the poorest towns in the county, and one of the poorest counties in the state. So I don't know how we would have existed without WPA payroll. The mines don't work during the summer." Mrs. James Sides, customer: "They have done a great deal. I guess we would have gone hungry without WPA - I mean at the store (Sides Mercantile Store) without WPA."
These are Southern white Chamber of Commerce types. Today, a core element of the base of the Republican party. And, in fact, this survey of the town visited with the head of the local Kiwanis Club, one A.E. Williams, who also owned the Ford dealership, & served on the board of the local bank:
"I really think WPA has performed miracles - it has been the salvation of Carbon Hill. I don't know what we would have done without it. In aiding the needy people we have accomplished permanent improvements with it. I think the swimming pool is one of the finest assets...
WPA has caused lots of merchants to be here today that wouldn't be here otherwise. I can't conceive what the people would have done, because we couldn't have fed them. There would just about have been a revolution here without WPA. There would have been plenty of disasters here with the rather rough mining element.
We've made more progress in our town in the last five years than at any other period."
Mr. Williams is saying out loud something more often left unsaid. That the desperation in the land was fomenting unrest such that the status quo was not an option. A little more of that kind of unrest might be helpful nowadays, too, don't you think? A miner employed at the local coal operation expresses a similar idea in another way:
Ben Pair, Laborer
"If they hadn't had WPA people would've just gone down to the stores and taken what they needed. When the kids look an' say "Daddy, I'm hungry, why--you just got to have food."
Not so many women as men found work with WPA, CCC, etc. This one did, and displays a little populism in her comments, as well joining the chorus praising everyone's favorite project:
Mrs. Aileen Brown, WPA Household Aides
"Some turn up their noses but if it hadn't been for the WPA the doors of half the stores'd been closed. Sidewalks make it easier to keep the house clean. Curbs and gutters keep the streets from washing out. Roosevelt has been a wonderful, wonderful president."
There were three blacks in this documentary project, too - two laborers and the preacher. (All three of them commented about improvements to roads and sidewalks.) But my purpose in this diary was to look at rural white southerners, the heart of today's Republican party. It seems to me that the arguments coming out of their mouths then are good ones to use regarding the stimulus projects getting launched now.
Previous entries in the series: