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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


In June 1935 the U.S. government approved funds for the Federal Writers' Project (FWP). The four Works Progress Administration (WPA) arts appendages, the Writers' Project, the Art Project, the Theater Project, and the Music Project, fell under the designation Federal One. The FWP organized an Oklahoma office toward the end of 1935. The national mandate for this organization consisted of creating a popular consensus that would help the American public accept Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The development of State Guides, while revealing the varying states' distinct history, created, as Michael Dittman argued, hegemony in the nation and helped guide America away from the fascism that swept Europe during that time. Each guide had strict organizational guidelines that originated in Washington, D.C. and helped unify the series, emphasizing the same qualities on a national scale.

Controversy swirled around the Oklahoma office from the beginning. Sen. Thomas P. Gore and other influential Oklahomans opposed the national choice for director, William Cunningham, and instead supported A. L. Emery. Henry Alsberg, the project's national director, wanted a published writer familiar with Oklahoma history and culture. Cunningham's first book, The Green Corn Rebellion, revealed him as just such an author. With Alsberg's recommendation, William S. Key, Oklahoma's WPA chief administrator, appointed Cunningham, a former Marxian economics teacher at Commonwealth Labor College in Mena, Arkansas, director of the Oklahoma Federal Writers' Project.

Many artists and writers of the era had gravitated, like Cunningham, to leftist ideas. Cunningham's father, an early Oklahoma socialist, fostered his son's radical views. Initially Cunningham hired a conservative professional staff, including Zoe Tilghman, former literary editor of Harlow's Weekly, Dr. Lucille Blachly, author of medical journals, and Charles Clark Smith, a textbook writer. Later the ranks in the project swelled with more liberal writers and researchers, including the state secretary for the Communist Party. Many of these young men caught in the tide of the left emerged as successful writers years later, for example Jim Thompson, Louis L'Amour, and Gordon Friesen.

The Oklahoma Writers' Project initiated many programs under Cunningham, but no publications emerged. Jerre Mangione, an FWP employee in Washington, speculated that the problems might have been based on Alsberg's failure to appoint a director that Oklahoma politicians favored. The Oklahoma project gathered data for the Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State, interviewed formerly enslaved African Americans, compiled information on Oklahoma musicians and an index of feature articles in the Daily Oklahoman from 1925 to 1936, and developed a manuscript on cooperatives and sequel on community sales during Cunningham's tenure. Problems beset the first director. Many of his employees, who were formerly on the relief rolls, did not have the skill to write or even properly research. A rift developed in the staff over the influence of communist activity. Tilghman led a group that charged Cunningham and his eventual successor, Jim Thompson, with giving special treatment to employees with ties to the Communist Party.

Cunningham left to work with the Washington department under Alsberg and, over Tilghman's protest, maneuvered Thompson to take his place. Although Thompson attended Communist Party meetings and did not conceal his party affiliation as much as Cunningham did, the project began publishing its work. In 1938 a guide to Tulsa and a calendar of annual Oklahoma events appeared on bookstore shelves. In 1939 the project published a small number of The Labor History of Oklahoma. Afraid the subject matter would bring a deluge of protest to the Writers' Project, Thompson protested the development of this book. Senators Josh Lee and Elmer Thomas backed the writing of a labor history, which ensured that the project would produce the document. Although Thompson worked to make the manuscript noncontroversial, this book helped critics engineer a purge, removing most leftist employees. In 1938 project writers authored a series of radio plays, mostly based on Oklahoma history, which aired on KOMA in Oklahoma City, lasting into 1939.

Under Thompson the project endeavored to produce a history of the African American in Oklahoma. Lawrence Lay headed this effort, along with other African American assistants. They formed a plan to meet with many of the larger African American communities in the state and apparently signed a contract with influential members of their race, including Roscoe Dunjee, to publish the work, although the document disappeared. A later transfer of the Writers' Project to state control and a full-scale change of staff quashed these plans, but nevertheless the work added a great deal of African American cultural material to the WPA files for future historians.

By May 1939 the Oklahoma project had expended $147,390.75 in its operation. In the fall the Oklahoma project closed. The U.S. Congress shut down Federal One and forced the state projects to find local sponsors. Gov. Leon Phillips refused to sponsor the project if Thompson or anyone associated with the Oklahoma communist movement continued on staff. On April 22, 1940, the project reopened as a statewide WPA project with Angie Debo as the director and with a goal of completing the state guidebook. In 1939 the Washington office had approved a draft of the guide for publication, but the University of Oklahoma Press balked at publishing it. The controversy surrounding many project workers, the publication of the labor history, and Governor Phillips's boast about purging radicals may have led the university to distance itself from the Writers' Project.

Debo, an esteemed historian, took firm control over the revamped project and its workers. Monty Noam Penkower, a biographer of the FWP, claimed, "Historians, apparently allergic to deadlines, fared poorest as state directors. Their insistence on super-thoroughness was out of step with the guides' purposes." This may be applied to Debo's reign and have been part of the reason that Oklahoma's state guide was the very last to be published. While E. E. Dale, a historian at the University of Oklahoma and Debo's early mentor, in 1937 had approved a draft of the historical essay for the guide, Debo called the manuscript unsatisfactory and criticized it for errors of fact. She, like the other former directors, complained about the administrative details that kept her from preparing a "comprehensive and accurate picture of the Oklahoma scene." Unlike the other directors she received permission to hire an assistant to do the administrative work so she could stay home and write and edit the guidebook. She rebelled against assistance from Washington, claiming it would waste her time and impede progress. After meeting with the federal representative, Stella Hanau, however, she seemed to soften her stance. John Oskison also proved invaluable as her assistant. After revising the guide she left the project in March 1941, and J. Stanley Clark took over. The University of Oklahoma Press published the guide in January 1942 to good reviews. The historical essay reflected the position of the national office but irked Debo, who bristled at the changes made from her original work. Hanau, in a letter to Clark on the topic of Debo's complaints, stated that she would in polite and polished terms convey to Debo "what my son means when he waves his hands and says 'skip it.'"

The beginning of United States involvement in World War II shifted the focus of the government and doomed the FWP. With its shift to the defense effort, the FWP essentially shut down in early 1942. This demise ended planned projects including an American Indian series sponsored by the Oklahoma Writers' Project and the University of Oklahoma. Among other national projects not completed were America Eats, Men at Work, and Hands That Built America. After the completion of the Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State, the national series won praise and credit as an effort to unite the country. The Oklahoma project mirrored the controversy and success of other state projects. It trained many young writers and compiled a large archive of historical material on Oklahoma. Much of this is housed at the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Larry O'Dell

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Michael Dittman, "The Federal Writers' Project and the Creation of Hegemony," The 49th Parallel 2 (Spring 1999).

Jerre Mangione, The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935–1943 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1972).

Monty Noam Penkower, The Federal Writers' Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977).

Robert Polito, Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

Mary Ann Slater, "Politics and Art: The Controversial Birth of the Oklahoma Writers' Project," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 68 (Spring 1990).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Larry O'Dell, “Federal Writers' Project,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=FE005.

Published January 15, 2010

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