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The Indy Issue from Friday March 12, 2021

 

 

Visions of the Development of Salem

By Kevin Zorn

An oil on canvas mural is displayed in the post office in Salem, West Virginia. It was painted by an artist named Berni Glasgow and its production was funded
through the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture. It is titled “Visions of the Development of Salem” and depicts a group of people
receiving mail, in the background is a village and cattle.

 

Berni Glasgow was one of more than 800 artists commissioned to paint 1371 murals, the majority of which are featured in post offices.
Often mistaken as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative, these Treasury funded murals were created with the intent of fostering i
nspiration in the American people who were still feeling the devastating economic and social effects of the Great Depression.

 

It is a testament to the shift in the ideological landscape today that I cannot believe the US Government, in tandem with local governments,
was capable of doing what the WPA accomplished. Yet, here are just some of the facts: from 1935 to 1943 8.5 million unemployed men and
women were hired by the government to build over 10,000 bridges, 620,000 miles of streets and roads, 40,000 new and 85,000 renovated
buildings including thousands of schools, gymnasiums, auditoriums, playgrounds, parks, libraries, college dormitories, tennis courts, and skating rinks.

 

The WPA employed artists, writers, historians, and musicians whose work directly affected the lives of millions of Americans during some of the
country’s most painful years. Musicians hired under the Federal Music Project taught free lessons to 132,000 children and adults every week.
Those hired in the Federal Writers’ Project, in addition to their popular state tourism guidebooks, recorded over 2,300 slave narratives -
an invaluable collection for scholars and historians. Under the Federal Theatre Project 1,000 plays were performed across the country every month.
Incalculable is the number of children and adults inspired by this work.

 

Through the colossal endeavors of the WPA in both its pre-war effort and its public projects America achieved full employment by 1942,
the same year “Visions” was painted in Salem.

 

It is clear that the America many of us grew up in, the structures that supported our lives, the parks we enjoyed, the schools we attended,
the infrastructure we relied upon for travel, even the art classes that inspired the next generation of creators was largely built under the
auspices of the WPA and the New Deal.

 

This is a salient reminder that capital “H” History is not simply a collection of memorized facts and figures, dates and obscure names.
No, History is alive in the communities in which we live. It not only teaches us, it haunts us as well. It haunts us with what was
possible before and what is possible tomorrow.

 

Perhaps that is the greatest battle waged in the spectacle of media and politics today - the question of what is possible.
Our expectations are managed lower and lower. We learn that the climate crisis is inevitable, that homelesness is natural,
that workers are essential until they ask for a living wage. All to say that change is impossible. Visions of better futures recede from view.

But history haunts us with an alternative. By the time Berni Glasgow painted the mural in the Salem post office, the American
government had provided millions of meaningful jobs improving, with concrete and paintbrushes, nearly every community across the nation.

 

Nick Taylor, the author of “American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA”, writes this: 

 

“These ordinary men and women proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectation.
They were golden threads woven in the national fabric. In this, they shamed the political philosophy
that discounted their value and rewarded the one that placed its faith in them,
thus fulfilling the founding vision of a government by and for its people. All its people.” 

 

This weeks front page:

 

 

Advertising Rates

His story is taught in every classroom. His image fills our television screens every year. His voice has been played on every radio and radio station across the United States. Even his words, that towering statement built on four unbreakable blocks, each a single syllable I… Have… A… Dream... we’ve all read them. The man we know as Martin Luther King Jr. has become so great a hero, a herculean figure in our society that we quickly forget that he was a mortal man. He wrote letters and letters were written to him. He was a real tangible figure to which people were able to reach out. He had a mailbox that bursted with hate-mail and praise all at the same time. A letter of praise is what I offer today, not from some major figure in history, not from a politician, not even from a dear friend of Dr. King. I present a letter from Mr. and Mrs. Crosby of Newton Massachusetts…

 

“Dear Dr. King,

We enclose a check for $100.00 to be used in any way you need it for your cause. We are whites who have always been sympathetic to the Negro, but who felt for a long time that our best way to help was in our own small sphere of influence, as opportunities came, My husband was the first one to hire a Negro teacher on the faculty of Boston University, for instance. And in other ways we felt we did help, although we have also known it was not enough.

Nor do we pretend even to ourselves that this check in any way fulfills our obligation. But the stories and pictures in the newspapers this morning have at last stirred us this far, with their effect heightened by the movie we saw on TV last night, “Judgement at Nuremberg”. --I wonder whether additional showings of this picture, with its emphasis on individual responsibility and on the fact that injustice is just as wrong when it affects one person as it is when it affects thousands. It might be useful in your work. I know it had an effect on me…

...We shall try to send more from time to time if we can. May God protect you, your family, and your people in your struggle, and bless you with real success by opening the eyes and hearts of the rest of us. Sincerely yours,

Mr. and Mrs. Harry H. Crosby”

 

(This week’s letter was found in the archives of The King Center at www.thekingcenter.org)