Monday, March 09, 2009

The Works Progress Administration and Genealogy

The Works Progress Administration was one of the programs that made up President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” in 1933. This was a time of high unemployment and the hopelessness that comes with the despair that unemployment brings. The Works Progress Administration employed out of work Americans in various trades to do diverse work projects. Although only in existence for 8 years, the WPA employed approximately 8.5 million workers.

The WPA was responsible for a multitude of projects including building roads, bridges and other infrastructures. My own grandfather was part of the WPA in Arizona and helped pour cement for sidewalks around the town he lived in. Humanities projects were also part of the WPA, hiring artists and writers. The WPA was also responsible for documenting and cataloging resources vital to American history. One such project was the indexing of the 1920 U. S. Federal Census. Other indexes compiled by the WPA, include cemetery internments, military records, vital statistics, and newspapers.

Genealogists benefit from these WPA indexes and may not even know it. Microfilmed records and some online transcriptions originate from the work of WPA employers. According to Steve Paul Johnson’s article on the WPA, entitled, WPA Historical Records Surveys at, the US Genweb Census Project is a result of volunteers utilizing WPA census indexes. This census project can be found at

To look for WPA interviews and records, consult state and university libraries, state archives, and state historical societies. Also consult the Family History Library Catalog and Google.

A keyword search on the term “WPA” in the Family History Library Catalog, , provides a list of 167 titles of microfilmed records that are the result of the WPA and its indexing projects. These records include, indexes to cemeteries, historical records surveys, court records, and marriage indexes. One interesting entry is that of the Kentucky Medical History, that was a WPA project that includes health professional’s biographies, information on medical schools, and the development of medical services in Kentucky since the Civil War. This is listed as “Kentucky medical history, WPA research project records, 1801-1940” in the online catalog. This resource does not circulate to Family History Centers; it must be looked at the Library in Salt Lake City.

In Arizona, and other places, the WPA interviewed “pioneers” of the state. Arizona pioneer interviews are available through the Arizona State Library Archives and Public Records. An index of the names of those Arizona pioneers interviewed is found on Jean Carhart’s website at I ordered a copy of my great-great grandmother’s interview, which was about 2 pages long and detailed her life in early Arizona. There are a few of the interviews online on Jean’s website, just look at the index and click on the hyperlinked names, that can help you get a sense of what information was included on the interviews. Another place to search for interviews is on the Library of Congress website, American Life Histories, These stories are listed by state, and then indexed by first name. There is also a search engine available. You can then click on the name of a person and read their interview. States included in this database are Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin and Washington. The number of interviews vary greatly in this collection. There is only 1 for Utah and over 440 for Texas.

The Library of Virginia also has an online search engine to search through 1,350 life histories and 50 interviews with former slaves done by the WPA at

Other websites include WPA interviews such as the website entitled, American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology at which includes a handful of interviews done with former slaves and includes a picture of many of those interviewed. This website also include a bibliography that would be helpful in researching further American slave narratives. The Special Collections section of the University of Arkansas has uploaded pdf files of transcripts of WPA interview forms for interviews done with 17 African Americans at There are also books that provide information on WPA former slave interviews. Consult Barnes and Noble ( or Amazon and conduct a search for the term “WPA”.

One source for records of people who worked for the WPA in Los Angeles, is found through the University of Southern California (USC) Digital Archives at You can look at the 248 digitized employee census cards at this website.

For more information on the WPA and its genealogical connections check out the article , WPA Telling Living History at .

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