WPA 2/5, Oklahoma

The WPA was engaged in a huge variety of tasks, all focused on the SKILLS of workers. People need to be useful, and men need to make things.

Training develops the soul and brain most effectively and permanently when you’re MAKING THINGS that are visible and useful and a source of pride to your parents and friends and descendants.

In Oklahoma the WPA focused especially on building schools in poor rural areas.

Traditionally country schools were maintained by a semi-official group of farmers and businessmen. Often the teacher was a farmer’s daughter or wife. When a teacher had to be imported, she was kept in a farmer’s spare bedroom or a tenant cottage.

WPA built 800 new schools in Oklahoma, mainly in rural and black areas. (At least 3 Booker Ts and one Carver!) Country school projects included a teacher’s house, known as a teacherage by analogy with parsonage. (The word wasn’t coined by WPA; Google’s ngram shows that it started in 1919.)

WPA wanted to attract good teachers, so the teacherages were considerably upscale from tenant cottages. Most were brick or cement block, and all were substantial and spacious. In the ’30s a nice new rent-free house was a tremendous benefit. Nowadays, with minimum rent at $1100 for a studio apt, such a benefit might be attractive again.

Schools in bigger cities were designed by serious architects and built by serious contractors, using only money from WPA. Some were ‘deco classical’, some Greco-Roman style or New England colonial or deco moderne. Most of these professionally designed schools are still used as schools or admin buildings.

Country schools and teacherages were designed by WPA, built to fit local needs, and endowed with individual artistry by the masons and laborers. Most WPA structures in Okla were colorful native stone, with arches and original touches everywhere. (WPA = We Produce Arches.)

The schools and teacherages were built to last, but country school districts didn’t last. Small towns faded and the districts were merged into nearby cities. So the schools and teacherages were either abandoned or privatized.

WPA concentrated its work in the eastern part of Okla. There weren’t a lot of WPA projects in the part of the state I knew. As I observed earlier, Ponca and Enid and Stillwater were comparatively prosperous. In working-class white and black parts of Enid, 60% of the people owned their homes. Oil companies and oilmen provided the facilities and community services that WPA had to build elsewhere.

The eastern 1/5 of the state is part of the Ozarks. Not suitable for wheat or cattle, and not much oil. Some metals mining in the NE, but mining mainly supplied Rust Belt manufacturers, who were in serious trouble.

This map shows the difference dramatically. Around Ponca and Enid and Stillwater, 15% of the population was on relief, which is what you’d expect in normal economic times. In the eastern third of the state 70% of the population was on relief.