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The Murals

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The WPA in Harlem

The WPA in Harlem

In 1933, while white Americans experienced 30 percent unemployment, nearly 50 percent of African Americans were out of work. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established by President Roosevelt in 1935 to alleviate the massive unemployment in the country, and was designed to include African Americans in its program. That same year, the WPA funded the Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), which was created specifically to employ artists. The director of the WPA/FAP, Holger Cahill, was known as a liberal curator and museum professional in the New York area before accepting his appointment in Washington, D.C. Although Cahill was an advocate for the inclusion of African Americans in his program, administrators working under him did not always live up to that ideal. A significant amount of lobbying was required to increase the numbers of African Americans who received WPA support.

The cultural center of Harlem during the WPA period was 135th Street. Along that corridor there were many WPA project sites, including the New Lafayette Theatre, where the famous WPA production ofMacbeth took place; the Harlem YMCA; the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, the cultural hub out of which the Schomburg Center emerged; and Harlem Hospital, which is where the murals featured on this Web site were situated. During this period, Harlem Hospital muralist Charles Alston had rented an old brick stable at 306 West 141st Street where he would teach art classes. "306," as it was simply known, would become a hub of great intellectual and political ferment in Harlem for people from all areas of the arts.

The WPA period is considered a major period of African American visual-art history. It is the bridge between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts movement of the 1960s.

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