When the WPA Created 400,000 Jobs for Black Workers

In response to the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created jobs for over 8 million people between 1935 and 1943. While data on the racial composition of WPA workers isn’t available for all of these years, the data we have for 1939, 1941, and 1942 make clear that the WPA employed hundreds of thousands of Black workers. At its peak in 1939, the WPA employed over 400,000 Black men and women (Figure A) who accounted for one of every seven WPA workers (Figure B). These approximately 400,000 jobs would be equivalent to roughly 1.4 million jobs in today’s larger labor force.

The WPA shows that the federal government can provide subsidized employment for a large number of individuals doing all types of work. The WPA was involved in a wide variety of construction projects, including building roads, airports, housing, sewers, and parks. Although most of the work was in construction, the WPA also supported manufacturing, service work, recreation, and the arts. Not only did Black workers participate in the wide range of work supported by the WPA, a portion of WPA funds was spent on building or repairing segregated Black schools, colleges, hospitals, and public housing. The WPA also funded Black scholars doing research on Black history, and the work of Black artists.

The United States during the 1930s and 1940s was a country with strong and overt anti-Black racial discrimination. The WPA provided jobs for hundreds of thousands of Black people but within a system of racial hierarchy. Despite some new federal requirements requiring equal treatment, Black workers were often placed at the back of the line for jobs, and they were often relegated to the lowest paid positions regardless of their skills. (See Cheryl Lynn Greenberg’s To Ask for an Equal Chance: African Americans and the Great Depression for more details.)

As the US economy revived with the growth of the defense industries serving World War II, the WPA wound down and then ended in 1943. Just as Black workers were among the last hired for WPA jobs, when the US economy recovered, they were among the last hired into the reviving US economy. This meant that Black workers became relatively more dependent on the WPA as White workers were more able to obtain conventional work. As a result of this dynamic, as the economy recovered the share of Black workers in WPA jobs increased. As Figure B shows, the Black share of WPA jobs was 14.2 percent in 1939, and had increased to 19.9 percent by 1942. The WPA provided jobs that helped many Black families survive the Great Depression, but within a context of strong White employment preferences.

Today, it is important to remember that the federal government can create a large-scale subsidized employment program. Although the country is experiencing a historically low national unemployment rate, there are many communities that are still struggling with high unemployment. There are still roughly 15 million people of all races who are unable to find work, but Black people are overrepresented among the jobless. The country can still benefit from a subsidized employment program targeted to the communities facing high rates of joblessness, but this time without the anti-Black racial discrimination. Sign on to a call for a federal subsidized employment program here. 

Algernon Austin, a senior research fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has conducted research and writing on issues of race and racial inequality for over 20 years. His primary focus has been on the intersection of race and the economy.