In 1933 Mississippi was experiencing the depths of the Great Depression. Cotton, which accounted for nearly 80 percent of Mississippi’s gross farm income, had fallen from twenty cents per pound to just under five cents between 1927 and 1932. As farmers fell deeper into debt, farms were auctioned off for unpaid property taxes, and tenant farmers were thrown off the land. As landownership reverted to the banks, more than a million acres were taken out of production, and depressed property values resulted in eighty million dollars in lost state revenues from 1931 to 1933. The production of timber, the state’s other main agricultural resource, also fell drastically, and more than a thousand small plants closed and twenty-four thousand manufacturing jobs evaporated. With the decline in agriculture and industry across the state, annual per capita income fell from $239 to $117 between 1929 and 1933.
In December 1932 Gov. Martin “Mike” Conner named George B. Power the director of the Mississippi Board of Public Welfare. Using funds from Pres. Herbert Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Power organized state welfare programs on a county level, emphasizing work relief and home garden programs. Those programs expanded after Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in January 1933 and inaugurated the New Deal, a series of programs designed to advance economic and social recovery in the nation’s financial, industrial, and agricultural sectors. The New Deal also provided both direct relief and work programs to assist the poor and unemployed. Power became the state coordinator of New Deal relief programs.
In April 1933 Power became the state administrator of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program designed to put men between ages eighteen and twenty-five to work in reforestation projects, road and park construction, flood control, and fire prevention. More than ten thousand people applied for the four thousand job positions. Because of a shortage of state social workers, county eligibility committees chose job applicants. These committees often denied jobs to African Americans as a means of controlling labor during the fall cotton harvest.
The Board of Public Welfare also oversaw the distribution of Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) funds in 1933–35. The FERA provided grants to states on a matching basis—for every three dollars the state provided, the federal government would provide one dollar. Because of the state’s desperate financial condition, however, Mississippi was exempted from the federal matching provision of the program. By the end of June 1933 more than seventy-nine thousand Mississippi families had received FERA relief. Also that year, the Civil Works Administration (CWA) was created to provide emergency relief through the winter of 1933–34. The Mississippi CWA spent nine million dollars during the six months of its existence and employed seventy-four thousand people in jobs ranging from repairing schools and hiring teachers to building roads and reservoirs.
Disparities and discrimination were common in the administration of many New Deal programs. The Mississippi CWA employed sixty thousand men but only fourteen thousand women. Men received forty-five cents per hour, while women received thirty-two cents. Women were often relegated to sewing rooms and clerical positions, which paid considerably less than the construction jobs offered to men. In the spring of 1934, with the expiration of the CWA, relief and work programs reverted back to the control of the state-managed FERA. The Mississippi Emergency Relief Association transferred women from direct relief to work relief programs and employed women as clerks, nutritionists, health technicians, social workers, library assistants, school lunch workers, and teachers.
In 1935 President Roosevelt initiated a second wave of New Deal programs that provided federal assistance on a much broader scale. Mississippi established a permanent state welfare agency to coordinate federal relief programs begun under the Social Security Act. The State Planning Commission worked closely with the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) to build and improve parks, libraries, schools, roads, drainage basins, and reservoirs.
From 1935 until the beginning of World War II, the WPA provided Mississippians with a wide range of employment opportunities. Music education courses were offered in public schools, summer camps were conducted for youth and recreation, and community centers were opened for senior adults. The state also benefited from various WPA projects that collected and cataloged cultural, religious, and historical records.
- Sue Bridwell Beckham, Depression Post Office Murals: A Gentle Reconstruction (1989)
- Eric C. Clark, Journal of Mississippi History (November 1990)
- Mississippi Planning Commission, The Industrial Status of Mississippi (April 1937)
- Martha Swain, Journal of Mississippi History (February 1984)
- Roger D. Tate Jr., Journal of Mississippi History (February 1984)
- William Winter, Journal of Mississippi History (August 1979)