By Susan Floyd, Archivist
In February, we published a finding aid for records relating to a New Deal program: the Texas Writers’ Project, an undertaking of the Work Projects Administration. Originally established as the Works Progress Administration on May 6, 1935, the WPA was a federal relief agency created by an executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In Texas, the WPA employed 600,000 in a wide variety of projects based on local needs and workforce skills. These projects included construction, vocational training, childcare, garment manufacturing, gardening and food production, healthcare, libraries and archives, recreation, and the arts.
The Texas Historical Records Survey and the Texas Writers’ Project, both organized in 1935, were two major WPA-led archival and literacy programs. The Writers’ Project, directed by author and newspaperman James Francis (J. Frank) Davis, employed researchers and writers to compile guides to the state and its regions focusing on cultural, geographic, and historical points of interest. The Project’s best-known publication was Texas: A Guide to the Lone Star State (1940). Writers also worked on major publications such as America Eats; Hands That Built America (sometimes also referred to as Hands that Built the Nation); and, together with the Texas Historical Records Survey, The Western Range: The Story of the Grasslands.
In 1939 the federal government withdrew funding from the Writers’ Project; the University of Texas Bureau of Research in the Social Sciences sponsored its work thereafter. After the program ended, the bulk of its manuscript materials were deposited in the University of Texas at Austin archives (now the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History).
The Texas Writers’ Project records are comprised of three records series: county histories, city and county materials, and Hands That Built America materials. The county histories series includes guides to the following counties: Bell, Burleson, Falls, Fayette, Gillespie, Kleberg, Milam, and San Saba, which highlighted local history, geology, flora and fauna, accommodations, parks, religious institutions, etc.
This city and town historical materials series includes materials from following cities: Ballinger, Bastrop, Beaumont, Bird’s Point, Bryan, Concho, Corpus Christi, Corsicana, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Fort Worth, Gainesville, Galveston, Gatesville, Houston, Marshall, Palestine, Paris, Peters Colony, San Angelo, San Antonio, Sherman, Tyler, Uvalde, and Waco. These are primarily transcriptions of newspaper articles and excerpts from published histories, biographies, theses, and dissertations, as well as other publications such as magazines and city guides, illustrations removed from books, and a few photographs. This series contains two book-length unpublished manuscripts along with research notes, outlines, etc.
San Antonio is especially well represented in these records. There is a rich trove of research material, including:
- large quantities of transcriptions of newspaper and other published articles and original records, dating from 1731 through 1941;
- nine photographs of the Alamo and its immediate environs dating to 1916, along with undated photographs of Missions Concepción and San Jose (see below);
- oral history interviews with, among others, Adina de Zavala, Mother Loyola, and Mother Francis about the history of the Ursuline Academy;
- transcriptions of court records dating to the 18th century;
- the typescript of the unpublished work, Fiesta!, dating to 1940, is also here and contains a full calendar of San Antonio’s major annual festivals at that time, complete with colorful descriptions (see below).
Note that some of the items in this series are in Spanish, particularly large portions of the transcriptions, which were made from original Spanish colonial documents.
The Hands That Built America series contains materials that were produced collaboratively by Writers’ Project contributors and consist of a chapter-by-chapter outline of the proposed book project and a collection of research notes, primarily transcripts of archival materials translated from Spanish primary sources (dating 1715-1865 and 1921-1933) by researcher Julius C. Anguiano in 1941-1942. Topics covered include crafts within early Spanish missions and presidios; imported luxury items; ranch-, plantation-, and homestead-based equestrian, agricultural, and household crafts and implements; the Civil War and Reconstruction household; cowboy clothes and handicrafts; and urban crafts since the late 1840s. Hands That Built America (sometimes referred to as Hands That Built the Nation) was never completed, likely due to the staffing shortages that impacted the Program.
These records are now open for research. To view the finding aid, visit Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Texas: An Inventory of Texas Writers’ Project Records at the Texas State Archives, 1903, 1912-1916, 1931-1958, undated, bulk 1936-1942.
- Johnson, John, G, “Texas Writers’ Project,” Handbook of Texas Online
- Randle, Mallory B., ” Works Projects Administration,” Handbook of Texas Online
- Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Texas; Texas State Highway Commission. Texas; a guide to the Lone Star State. New York, Hastings House, 1940