Writers’ project brought Okies into WPA spotlight
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) — President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to promote and provide work for visual artists may be better known, but its Federal Writers’ Project stimulated research and produced a body of literature that continues to illuminate the American experience.
The history and significance of almost every wide place in the road throughout the country was recorded by the project’s “some 6,686 writers, editors, art critics, researchers, and historians.” In Oklahoma, the FWP left a rich legacy for all those interested in the state’s past. It was also troubled by the socialist outlook of its director, William Cunningham, who was imposed on the state by federal officials.
Cunningham’s 1935 novel, “The Green Corn Rebellion,” presented a sympathetic view of tenant farmers who organized a march on Washington in the summer of 1917 to protest the military draft and the greed of wealthy landowners. Although the “rebellion” had been quickly suppressed, the novel’s reminder of the lawlessness of protesting tenant farmers produced a reaction against Cunningham and other advocates of social reform who supported the New Deal.
The Tahlequah Daily Press reports that the problems caused by internal dissension within the Oklahoma FWP were compounded by federal guidelines requiring 90 percent of personnel come from the work-relief rolls. Nonetheless, many of the project’s more than 100 workers fanned out throughout the state, researching its past, reviewing back issues of newspapers, and compiling the most complete history of the state ever attempted.
Another federal program funded at the same time involved the Oklahoma Historical Society and the University of Oklahoma as co-sponsors. It authorized the employment of 80 people to interview Oklahoma’ pioneers, including Native Americans and black citizens who had been enslaved before emancipation. Ultimately, these interviews and accounts were transcribed as the Indian-Pioneer Papers under the direction of Muskogee historian Grant Foreman. Copies of the typed interviews were deposited at the Oklahoma Historical Society and the University of Oklahoma’s Western History Collection, where they were bound separately. The OHS copy has 116 volumes, and the OU copy 113; the pagination of each set is obviously different.
Rella Watts Looney, archivist at the historical society, spent untold hours of her spare time over several years, before her retirement in 1974, compiling a comprehensive card index of the collection in Oklahoma City. Researchers working with the IPP used that set or its microfilmed copies primarily until the advent of digitation and optical character recognition, which made it possible for the University of Oklahoma to put the images of its copy online. Since then, users have been able to search the extensive collection from their own homes or location of choice.
Of the IPP’s some 8,000 entries, 444 relate to Tahlequah. Some merely mention the name in passing, but many provide detailed first-hand information about the community and its inhabitants from the years of the Civil War, through the Land Runs, to the era of Oklahoma statehood and beyond. For example, on July 27, 1937, Ella M. Robinson, an IPP interviewer, submitted an account of how Almon Clamatus Bacone, principal teacher at the Cherokee Male Seminary, resigned his position to establish a boarding school at the Baptist Mission in September 1881. She described the school’s location, mentioned some of its prominent students, and traced its growth from three pupils to 75 three years later. She also mentioned Bacone’s decision to move the school to Muskogee where the city’s railroad connections would provide more opportunity for growth than in Tahlequah.
On Feb. 22, 1938, Elizabeth Ross, another IPP worker, interviewed Walter Leoser who related the story of his father’s arrival in Tahlequah early in the town’s history and his acquisition of a log cabin adjacent to what is now Northeastern State University. The “Leoser Cabin” is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and, according to the interviewee, the “oldest wooden building at Tahlequah.” Leoser also mentioned that his father, whom he described as an army surgeon, decided to practice medicine in Tahlequah, married a Cherokee girl, and remained in the community the rest of his life. Other entries explore many different aspects of Tahlequah’s colorful past and provide first-person accounts that breathe life into the story of the town’s bygone days not found in most textbooks. The interviews also offer insight into pioneer life in the Cherokee Nation and early Cherokee County and nearby communities.
As the IPP staff collected interviews, FWP workers indexed state newspapers, wrote drafts of the state’s history, geography, government, and economy, and compiled biographies of 100 prominent Oklahoma musicians. Staff members also prepared histories of the state’s Indian missions, developed a dictionary of the Comanche language, and prepared manuscripts on the development of cooperative enterprises in Oklahoma and on sales within the state’s communities. Controversy within the state’s FWP, external political hostility, and bureaucratic obstacles prevented publication of any of the project’s work until Cunningham accepted a position in the national office in 1938. Despite opposition within the project and the state, Cunningham engineered the selection of his assistant director, Jim Thompson, as his replacement.
Although Thompson’s leftist leanings were more pronounced than his predecessor’s, he was able to secure the publication of “The Labor History of Oklahoma, Tulsa: A Guide to the Oil Capital, and a Calendar of Annual Events in Oklahoma” during his brief tenure as director. Leon C. Phillips, a Democrat deeply suspicious of the New Deal, became governor in 1939 and refused to use state funds for the FWP if Thompson remained its director. In April 1940, highly esteemed Oklahoma historian Dr. Angie Debo was appointed to direct a reorganized program, purged of most of its left-leaning staffers and now financed by the state. While she too was plagued by bureaucratic impediments, Debo was able to press forward with the project’s most important work.
The centerpiece of the writers’ projects in every state was a comprehensive guidebook. Oklahoma’s volume, the last published, finally appeared in late 1941, just in time for Christmas. By that time, Debo had left the project, but the book’s quality owed much to her dedication. The book, “Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State,” was divided into four parts. The first includes 14 essays on the state’s spirit, natural setting, early Oklahoma, history, industry and labor, transportation, agriculture, sports and recreation, education, newspapers, literature, architecture and art, music, and folklore and folkways.
Part II features essays of 12 cities, not including Tahlequah; and the third and largest part contains 16 tours - with six alternate routes - through all parts of the state. Collectively, the tours provide an overview of the state more detailed than any commercial travel guide. While Tahlequah is not one of the featured cities, it receives more than a full page of coverage on Tour 3 and is mentioned frequently in other parts of the book. Part IV includes a chronology of state history from the Coronado expedition’s arrival in Oklahoma in 1541, to the census of 1940, which reported a decrease in the state’s population. It also includes an extensive reading list and a thorough index. The entire book is online and may be viewed at archive.org/details/oklahomaguidetos00writrich.
Two authorities on American cultural policy wrote, “To this day, the American Guide Series constitutes the most comprehensive encyclopedia of Americana ever published.” In 1986, Anne Hodges Morgan, who added a new introduction and restored an essay by Debo in a new edition, claimed, “Despite the passage of years it still offers travelers in the region an opportunity to see the state from a refreshed perspective.”
The Federal Writers’ Project employed personnel who had already established or soon would develop national reputations, including John Steinbeck, Richard John Cheever, Saul Bellow, and Oklahoman Ralph Ellison. The Oklahoma project also produced writers of national significance. Jim Thompson now enjoys a growing reputation for hard-boiled detective fiction that eluded him during his lifetime. Primarily known as a Western novelist, Louis L’Amour also wrote historical and science fiction, as well as non-fiction, after his work on the staff of the Oklahoma FWP. A prolific writer of more than 100 books, L’Amour has been called, “One of the world’s most popular writers.”
While the divergent political and economic outlooks fueled contention and animosity within the national and state writers’ projects, tolerance of clashing ideologies did no damage to the nation’s security. Immediate suppression of unpopular beliefs might have produced a more productive workplace in the short run, but the long-term consequences might have undermined the vitality produced by a free exchange of ideas.
Despite ideological differences, bureaucratic frustrations, and limitations imposed by the requirement to staff most positions from the relief rolls, the FWP not only provided work for the needy, it also left a literary legacy that promises to resonate long into the future.
Information from: Tahlequah Daily Press, http://www.tahlequahdaailypress.com