Howard Dodson: The Roosevelt administration came into office with a mandate to get the country out of the Great Depression. And a part of that was creating opportunities for people to get new jobs that they had not been able to find through the normal workings of the economy. And so there were federal investments in road construction, and in bridge building and virtually every other kind of some public buildings, all of these kinds of things are being done all over the country as part of the Roosevelt program to get the economy back to working again.
Now it's a very peculiar notion in my mind, it's something that I've never been able to understand, in a period of depression when the nation has no money, it's able to find money to fund artists and writers. And as soon as the depression is over the money disappears. Now explain this to me, I don't understand it. But the fact of the matter is that during that period of time the WPA program probably did more to support the work of writers and artists, black and white, across the nation, than any other major federal initiative until the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities in the 1960s.
Here in New York there was a Federal Writer's Project that came under this structure, and the writers project actually paid writers – to go around and put together as much documentation as could be found on the history of black people in New York from the beginning of their arrival here in the seventeenth century. We have a collection at the Center called The Negro in New York, which is based on the work of black and white writers who were working on this theme and topic. And a number of people, including people like Ralph Ellison and others, ended up working on this project.
There was a major theater initiative as well, and probably the most significant one was the project put together by, of all people, Orson Welles, who did this major production of Macbeth here in Harlem, and gathered together this huge cast of actors and actresses and of course stagehands and everybody else to do this major theatrical production that was actually covered by the major newspapers, both locally, nationally and internationally.
So it was something that happened for a relatively short period of time, but it turned out to be a very critical one in the history of both African American and American art because it actually provided the economic resources through which really the consciousness and the kind of political outlooks that had emerged during the Harlem Renaissance in other forms of expression, in literature, in music, began to manifest themselves in the field of the visual arts.