May 1940: Unemployed locals grow frustrated with Works Progress Administration

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A local request to employ more people by reducing the number of hours assigned to each person hired for Works Progress Administration projects was shot down by national leaders in May 1940.

The Jasper Advertiser reported that there was much grumbling from some of the 1,100 jobless WPA workers who had gathered for a meeting of the Walker County Board of Revenue.

"The workers left the chambers with heavy hearts, some muttered that they had to get something to eat for their families some way. No threats have been made by any of them until now, but the general talk Saturday was that if they didn't get work soon the workers might get desperate," an article that appeared on May 1, 1940, stated.

Chairman J.R. White told the crowd, "They have give us the run-around in Washington."

The board had asked if hours for WPA workers could be cut in half from 130 hours per month to 60 hours. 

The official reply was that not only would the plan increase administrative expenses but that limiting hours to less than 130 a month was not allowed by the Relief Appropriation Act. 

"It is the considered judgment of this Administration that the request made by the Board to stagger employment with reduced earnings is not consistent with the purposes of the Works Program and would result in serious difficulties at a later date," Fred Rauch, assistant to the national WPA head, wrote in the letter.

A second article in the same issue announced that the board was demanding the removal of Walker County native W.D. Armstrong as the WPA's superintendent of projects for the county.

Armstrong, who had been an engineer for several years at Empire Coal Company and Pratt Fuel, had been named to the post in late March after completing construction work in Tuscaloosa County and other areas.

The board passed a resolution demanding that WPA officials in Montgomery and Washington D.C. act immediately on a previous resolution in support of ousting Armstrong. Their reason for wanting him gone was that he "had been entirely unsatisfactory in every way since he was put on the job two months ago."

Specifically, they charged that he had not cooperated with them on countywide road projects, which Armstrong denied.

Instead, he insisted that he had done his job and acted according to instructions from his supervisors.

Walker County was also at the center of an investigation into alleged irregularities involving contracts early in 1940.

The Jasper Advertiser reported in March that the acting manager of the district had been suspended and that a former district manager had been suspended from his new job with the state WPA headquarters.

At that time, approximately 2,000 workers were idle because the state office had suspended work on the county's road projects until funds arrived from Washington.

In April, about 500 WPA worker picketed after the county's quota was cut, resulting in 1,100 jobs being eliminated. 

"The whole trouble was caused when the board of revenue requested and was granted the closing of all county projects. The reason for this was to reassign workers according to their financial status. The most needy workers were supposed to have had preference over the less needy. This, the group claims, was not done," the Jasper Advertiser reported.

In late May, the Advertiser reported that another 420 WPA workers were being laid off across the district, with most of the losses expected to occur in Walker County.

Finally, the WPA district office was relocated from Jasper to Birmingham in August 1940.

Although much less ink was given to the projects themselves, I compiled my own list. 

In 1940, the WPA was working on several malaria control projects, a street improvement project in Carbon Hill, and construction of a football field at the new Cordova High School, which was also a WPA project.

In 1939, the WPA paid more than $23 million to Alabamians working on various projects.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.