By Pedro Ponce
Textbook accounts of the Great Depression usually cover topics like the stock market crash of 1929 and the New Deal legislation of the 1930s. Often lost in such accounts are the human faces behind the facts.
The everyday struggle with plummeting salaries and widespread unemployment is vividly conveyed in letters of the time written by children to then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. A girl from Springfield, Massachusetts, asks for money to help her parents pay for a refrigerator. Another girl, writing from Gravette, Arkansas, asks for old dresses she might wear to school. To explain a lack of Christmas presents, a mother in Mason, Wisconsin, tells her daughter that a blocked chimney foiled Santa Claus.
The letters may not at first seem like essential historical documents. But these and other primary sources can be valuable for bringing history to life. And they are even more valuable when combined with the latest teaching technology, according to historian Thomas Thurston, project director for the New Deal Network, a website devoted to scholarship on the New Deal's recovery programs. Its URL is newdeal.feri.org.
The Internet has changed the way the period is taught, Thurston says, by providing access to resources "that reflect the lived experiences of people who are generally not covered in the chapter on the Great Depression in the history textbook."
Letters and other research materials on the era have not always been readily available from libraries or even previously published. "Those kinds of documentary resources would be hard to find even in a university environment, aside from some major research universities," Thurston adds.
The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute launched the New Deal Network in October 1996. It is based at the Institute for Learning Technologies at Teachers College, Columbia University, where Thurston serves as a research fellow. In 1998, the network received an NEH grant to expand its collections.
The network currently contains more than six hundred documents and four thousand photographs detailing the work of federal agencies trying to rebuild a devastated U. S. economy. Educators and students from around the country have turned to the site for primary materials and the chance to share their research on the period.
The New Deal arose from proposals hammered out by President Franklin Roosevelt during his first hundred days in office in 1933. Based on these and later proposals, Congress passed legislation that insured banks, distributed monetary relief to the states, and fostered employment through agencies like the Public Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Other measures safeguarded organized labor and formed the basis for Social Security and welfare programs used to this day.
"This was really the formation of the modern American state taking place during this period," says Thurston.
Visitors to the New Deal Network can explore the period from a number of perspectives. Besides Eleanor Roosevelt's letters from children, the network's document library contains selections from President Roosevelt's fireside chats, the radio addresses in which the president reassured the public about the progress of economic recovery. Students can also read interviews with ex-slaves collected by writers employed as part of the Works Progress Administration.
The network's photo gallery illustrates the day-to-day lives of people coping with a collapsed economy. A New York City hunger line snaking its way around a corner at 6th Avenue and 42nd Street--one of several pictures of soup kitchens and breadlines--shows students just how extensive poverty was at the time. Recovery efforts are also portrayed in photographs of New Deal workers watering trees in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and building an irrigation channel in Modesto, California. With the click of a mouse, viewers can enlarge the pictures for closer inspection.
Some primary resources are linked with lesson plans designed for junior high and high school classes. Teachers interested in studying the WPA slave narratives can choose from three lesson plans that involve reading and discussion, additional research on slavery, or evaluation of the narratives as historical tools.
The Eleanor Roosevelt letters are packaged with four lesson plans, including an assignment in which students compare their own lives with those of young people during the Depression.
While the WPA assignments were created in-house by New Deal Network curriculum developer Dick Parsons, the ideas on the Roosevelt letters were contributed by Rachel Yarnell Thompson, an adjunct professor of education at George Washington University who has taught social studies in Fairfax County, Virginia.
The range of contributors, says Thurston, makes the site more than a place to post information. It serves as a social network for teachers and scholars to exchange ideas.
"We wanted to be able to connect people to one another," he says, adding that he spends three to four hours a day fielding e-mail inquiries to the website.
Some of those inquiries have led to unexpected connections. In 1998, Thurston received an e-mail from a man who grew up in the Julia C. Lathrop housing project in Chicago from 1935 to 1952. During research for an account of his years living in federally subsidized housing, he had come across pictures of the project featured on the network. His request for additional information led Thurston to put him in touch with Gail Radford, an associate professor of history at the State University of New York at Buffalo, who has written a book on housing policies developed during the New Deal.
Radford recalls the man's frustration at trying to convince his children that the housing project was a good place to grow up. But Radford was not surprised. She says early housing developments of the Public Works Administration, which included the Lathrop project, did provide homes that were comfortable and affordable. But these promising experiments were eventually set aside.
For Radford, the unforeseen e-mail exchange bolstered an alternative view of public housing borne out by her research. "Part of my intellectual project," she says, "is to help people recover the memory of past policy initiatives that might prove beneficial in the future."
Radford, who teaches an undergraduate course on the United States during the New Deal, also praises the way Thurston has organized the network's historical materials. "Because he is a scholar in this area and he's a thoughtful person, the materials that he puts on his website, they don't just float free of grounding," she says. "He tells who wrote them. Things are dated. This is scholarly, such that it's very useful at the college level."
Thurston sees the site as a tool for revisiting a lot of conventional wisdom about American history. Mention the Great Depression, for instance, and many people think of Tom Joad, the protagonist of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The book relates Joad's experiences as a white migrant laborer who leaves Oklahoma with his family in search of work in California. But, Thurston observes, the plight of migrant laborers also affected blacks, Latinos, and other groups all over the United States. A feature recently added to the network seeks to present a broader view of agricultural labor during the depression.
The network's resources have not only been useful for classroom discussions of the past. They have also informed current efforts to preserve the legacy of the New Deal. Last year, a speech by President Roosevelt found in response to an e-mail inquiry was used in the debate over a living wage initiative in Santa Monica.
In 1998, the network offered web support to a campaign seeking to save a group of murals at a New York City apartment complex in the Lower East Side. The site links visitors to letters supporting the preservation of the murals and a lesson plan about public art.
The network also featured a discussion of the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. Advocates for the disabled protested that the memorial, which opened in 1997, neglected to fully portray the president's paralysis from polio. Congress and the White House have since agreed to expand the site to depict him openly in a wheelchair.
The New Deal Network has made good on its commitment to bring together scholars of the period. John Dodson, who teaches history at Rocky Gap High School in Rocky Gap, Virginia, says he has used the site to download pictures of the Civilian Conservation Corps for his students. A quasi-military program established in 1933, the CCC brought young men into rural areas to cultivate forests. Some CCC workers brought into surrounding Bland County, Virginia, decided to stay, says Dodson, adding that the workers' grandchildren and great-grandchildren have made up a sizeable proportion of his history classes.
Through its Curriculum Development Projects page, the network links up with the Bland County History Archives website, a collection of oral histories, photographs, and other material maintained by students at Rocky Gap. Dodson relishes the chance to share their work with scholars around the country.
"What the Internet is doing is erasing what disadvantages small schools had," says Dodson, who notes that Rocky Gap has approximately one hundred and sixty students. Dodson says he has not used a chalkboard in seven years, choosing instead to make presentations with a big-screen TV connected by computer to the Internet.
Among the other student-run sites linked via the New Deal Network is "We Made Do: Recalling the Great Depression," a project of students at Mooresville High School in Mooresville, Indiana. Survivors of the depression who come to this site can record their stories by filling out a posted form that asks them about work, family life, and any experience in New Deal programs.
In addition, the network links up with the New Deal Art Project, an online gallery that studies murals funded during the New Deal. Matt Fidler, a U. S. history teacher at the Rome Free Academy in Rome, New York, says that these murals--which depict the Underground Railroad and other scenes emblematic of democratic ideals--can be rich sources of historical insight. Besides the mural in Rome, the site currently features images of murals from fourteen other New York State towns.
"I've learned right along with the kids," says Fidler.
The social network that has developed through the site also includes international scholars. Two history instructors in Canada and the United Kingdom respectively have written to Thurston to commend the range of primary sources the network makes available online. He hopes to expand the site's resources through a recently added project on the Great Depression in Puerto Rico.
Combining convenience with comprehensiveness, online history sites like the New Deal Network may make the typical textbook treatment of the Great Depression obsolete. Says Thurston: "I think that the access to more materials has raised the bar for the way the period has been taught."