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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:

 

 

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In the letter we examined last week General Robert E. Lee mentions that “The enemy is quiet after his conquest of Port Royal.” He was referring to Port Royal Harbor in South Carolina where Union troops had liberated ten-thousand slaves from Confederate control. The harbor town was abandoned; only overgrown cotton fields, run down plantations, and ten-thousand recently freed black men, women, and children remained. Leaders from several private charity organizations traveled from the North to Port Royal and attempted something peculiar. The town became home to the “Port Royal Experiment” where the charity workers attempted to coax the recently freed men and women to go back to work growing and picking cotton on the plantations they had so recently been liberated from, only now they were to be paid for their work.

The results were mixed. The experiment ran from 1861 to 1865 when it was officially shut down by President Andrew Johnson. In that four year span there were fights, droughts leading to poor crop yields, and countless arguments waged by the former slaves for more pay. Although many at the time believed the experiment was a failure, certain letters collected from the charity workers suggest the opposite. For example, a letter written by one of the charity workers with the initials  W. C. G. describes a very promising event late in the course of the “experiment.” In 1864 he writes, 

“May 19. We had a queer scene here on Tuesday. It is probably the first time that the slaves—contrabands—freedmen—have asserted themselves our fellow-countrymen by claiming the right of voting. A meeting was called in Beaufort to elect delegates to the Baltimore convention. It was assumed that we could stand for the sovereign state of South Carolina, and so we sent her full complement of sixteen representatives, and furnished each with an alternate. There are hardly thirty-two decent men in the Department, it is commonly believed. A large half of the meeting consisted of blacks, and four black delegates were chosen, Robert Small among them; the others I believe were sergeants in the South Carolina regiment. At one time there was considerable excitement, and white paired off against black,—but on the whole both colors behaved very well.

The whole affair will be laughed at by the North, and it is hardly probable that the delegates will be received. I hope they will.

W. C. G.”

None of the chosen delegates were received by the North and the “Port Royal Experiment” was ended by Andrew Johnson who returned the land to the previous white owners in 1865. Not until 1870, six years after the events chronicled by W. C. G., the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified and black men were officially provided the right to vote.

(Letters provided by Project Gutenberg)