By Trudy Goldberg
One of a handful of New Deal programs that had progressive racial policies, the National Youth Administration and its leaders deserve a Black History Month salute. By contrast, African Americans were treated unfairly in otherwise admired New Deal agencies such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Civil Works Administration. For their leadership in aiding the Depression-blighted youth of the nation, their contribution to racial justice, and their standout feminism at a time when women’s rights were not at the fore, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the NYA’s Director of Negro Affairs Mary McLeod Bethune merit plaudits, not only in Black History month, but in next month’s observance of International Women’s Day. The NYA was a leader in gender as well as racial equity: the number of girls served sometimes equaled or exceeded the number of boys!
Sources disagree over how much our foremost First Lady had to prod her husband to establish the NYA. However, there is no question that Mrs. Roosevelt was deeply troubled over the plight of the nation’s youth—that they might become another stranded or lost generation. This fear, moreover, was the impetus for her vigorous role in the initiation, planning, and daily operation of the NYA—and her high-profile role in promoting public awareness of its achievements. Significantly, FDR referred to the NYA as “the missus’s organization!”
Bethune, who headed the New Deal’s informal “black cabinet” that advised the administration on racial policies, was responsible for the implementation of the racially progressive policies that both Mrs. Roosevelt and the Agency’s Director Aubrey Williams also espoused–in a nation too racist to enact a federal ban on such a barbarous crime against Negroes as lynching. Williams was born and raised in Alabama and deemed “a Southern rebel” by his biographer. He deplored the fact that blacks were not being treated fairly by government projects and was determined to make the NYA an exception. Williams considered work relief the only morally and socially acceptable form of relief, a policy that he had promoted with Harry Hopkins in his role of assistant administrator of the WPA and that he continued to implement in the NYA. His progressivism made Williams a target of increasing opposition to the New Deal among some Members of Congress. Interestingly, the Federal Theatre and the NYA—programs that stood out for enlightened racial policies—were abolished by Congress, the former in 1939 and the NYA in 1942–its contribution to the nation’s defense buildup notwithstanding.
America’s Youth in the Great Depression and the NYA Response
No age group escaped hardship during the Great Depression. But the cohort served by the NYA, young men and women, ages 16 to 25, was especially hard hit. In 1935, when the NYA was inaugurated, one estimate was that five million persons in that age group were out of school and out of work–one of four. Young persons were one-third of the unemployed. The unemployment rates of black youth were much higher than those of white youth—a condition that persists to this day. As historian Elaine Smith wrote, black youth “suffered most due to the marginal existence of their families before the economy crashed,” and they found it extremely difficult to find a job, even in agriculture or domestic and personal service. At the beginning of the New Deal, the Children’s Bureau estimated that 23,000 adolescent hobos traveled the country riding the rails and hitchhiking along highways in search of work.
The NYA provided work relief in the WPA mode for out-of-school, unemployed youth and work-study aid to make it possible for students to remain in high school or attend college. Reduced parental income and absence of part-time or vacation employment had led to a drop in college enrollment. A sampling of more than 700 student aid recipients in 338 colleges in April 1937 gives an idea of NYA aid to college students. Just over two-fifths were equally divided between research and community service, another 16% in ground and building maintenance, with the remainder in departmental service, library service, clerical assistance, laboratory assistance, and home economics. NYA money was provided directly to school principals who in turn disbursed it to needy students in return for work on the campus. The student aid programs were widespread and popular.
In order to get as many out-of-school young people working as possible, the first NYA work projects were established with little attention to training possibilities. They provided work experience but of a general, unskilled nature. The majority were in recreation or service areas. NYA youth helped build public parks and playgrounds and serviced them as well. Some worked as aides to public authorities, looking after crippled children, assisting state and local traffic departments, repairing books in local libraries… .This work was useful to communities but less so to enrollees. In a project for enrollees in the work projects, health consultants conducted examinations on these young people, referring those needing treatment to appropriate specialists. Youth who had lacked proper medical care for economic reasons received it regularly through the NYA.
To aid rural youth who weren’t able to come to work in the morning and return home each night, some live-in projects were developed. In one such residence, girls from neighboring counties worked on a machine sewing project in the afternoon and, having not completed high school, attended classes each morning. By mid-1938, 100 such centers were in operation, often in abandoned CCC camps or campuses of agricultural colleges where residents were instructed in farm methods and home economics while helping out with the college chores. In a short-lived project that exemplified William’s innovative leadership, the NYA partnered with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in a program to help youths who wished to take up farming on their own but lacked the financial wherewithal. The NYA would train these youths in efficient farming methods, and the FSA would lend them money. In a sense, training would lead to the availability of employment, in this case a farm.
The NYA and National Defense
In the early years of the NYA, Williams’ continuing, demanding leadership role in the WPA limited the time he spent as NYA chief. And much administrative leadership was assumed by his assistants. Williams assumed full charge when the NYA was called upon to contribute to defense preparedness. This was not a role Aubrey Williams assumed easily. He deplored war and the military lifestyle, but, like many affected by the horror of the First World War and drawn to the peace movement, the fascist threat to the nation and to democracy led him to put aside his qualms. When he announced the NYA’s shift to a defense orientation, Williams assured state directors that along with the change would be a reemphasis on democratic values. It is not clear how this role was carried out.
From mid-1940, defense began to dominate the NYA. By early 1942, the regular out-of-school program had been abandoned; construction projects ended, and the work study programs were terminated. The emphasis was on industrial training. Trainees were given “actual production work under conditions similar to those of private industry,” mainly in machine-shop work, sheet-metal trades, welding, and electrical industries. This amounted to two conditions for success of an employment program: on-the-job training or preparation for jobs that exist in the economy. Evidently, this training was very effective. For example, a structural steel manufacturer wrote that the NYA-trained youths he employed had a higher degree of skill and ability to learn than any other class of labor he could recruit. A manufacturer of airport-landing gear attested to the high quality of female lathe operators who were outproducing men at the same type of job. Trainees themselves thanked the NYA for the training they got—“for what it takes to make a welding”; that they were the only workers at a New Jersey Western Union plant that had ”radio training.” 
The proposed job guarantee program of the National Jobs for All Network features on-the-job training and employment until workers can find jobs in the regular economy. The availability of employment in the defense industry supplied that vital ingredient of job training—a requisite often missing in a depressed economy.
Growing opposition to the New Deal, Republican victories in the 1942 mid-term election, education officials’ fear that vocational training encroached on their domain, and Williams’ progressivism— “one of the pinkest of the pink,” according to Representative Hamilton Fish–contributed to the demise of the NYA in January 1944. Congress killed the NYA, despite its exemplary contribution to war production.
Mary McCleod Bethune’s Unique Contribution to the NYA and Racial Justice
Mary McLeod Bethune is an almost mythical figure. The daughter and sister of slaves and the only one in her family to attend school, Bethune studied at a seminary school for Negro girls in North Carolina, at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and went on to establish the Bethune-Cook College in Daytona Beach Florida. She founded the National Council of Negro Women and became a friend and advisor to Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. When she met Bethune in the 1920s, the future First Lady, according to ER’s biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook, immediately recognized Bethune’s “feminism, race pride, and compelling magnetism.” Bethune took part in the defense of the Scottsboro boys, African-American youth accused of raping two white Southern women. She also led protests in DC urging blacks to boycott stores where they couldn’t work. She was a gifted orator who could talk truth to power and still remain respectful. In her Senate testimony on behalf of legislation to make the Fair Employment Practices permanent, Bethune declared, “The right to work is a right to live.” It would be a fitting slogan for a full employment movement!
One of two blacks on a National Advisory Committee for the NYA, Bethune immediately perceived its possibilities for assisting youth and for aiding financially strapped black institutions like Bethune-Cook College. She catapulted her membership on the advisory committee into her position as Director of the NYA’s Division of Negro Affairs, a role she created for herself. According to historian Elaine M. Smith, the “centerpiece of her drive towards equity” was the employment of black administrators who would interpret black needs to state NYA directors and influence them to allot a fair share of benefits to African Americans. Praise for Bethune was ubiquitous. According to the African American magazine, the Pittsburgh Courier, she won “unanimous praise” for her work in integrating Negro youth into the activities of the NYA.
New Deal work programs were exemplary, but they served only a fraction of those in need. They were not entitlements that serve all persons who meet eligibility criteria for a government benefit or service. Together, the NYA and the CCC provided jobs and income to less than one-third of all young people in the country who were unemployed. Why should some Americans in need benefit from a government program and others who meet eligibility criteria for such programs remain unaided? Think, for example, of the long waiting lines for government housing assistance today.
Of course, the reason given is the costliness of entitlements and of serving everyone who meets the eligibility criteria for a service or benefit. But have our elected officials—spenders and budget balancers alike—refused to meet all perceived defense needs? Have defense needs been treated partially? Indeed, the expression “overkill” has been used to describe the excessive number of weapons in our nuclear stockpile. To provide a good or service to only a portion of those who meet eligibility criteria is to deny those who are unserved our vaunted “equal treatment under the law.” That is why the National Jobs for All Network proposes and advocates legislation to make decent jobs an entitlement or a guarantee of living-wage work.
Major Works Consulted for This Article
Dona Hamilton and Charles Hamilton, The Dual Agenda: Race and Social Welfare Policies of Civil Rights Organizations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World: Essays and Selected Documents. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999.
John Salmond, A Southern Rebel: The Life and Times of Aubrey Willis Williams, 1890-1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.
Elaine M. Smith, Mary McCleod and the National Council of Negro Women: Pursuing a True and Unfettered Democracy: Montgomery: Alabama State University, 2003.
Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2, 1933-1938. New York: Viking, 1999.
 In “How the New Deal Won World War II, their article in the May 2020 issue of the NJFAN Newsletter, Robert Leighninger and Harvey Smith argue that “the programs that re-employed the U.S. workforce and re-energized the economy also were vital in providing a solid foundation of experience, personnel, and infrastructure that allowed us to meet, early and effectively, the threat of the Axis Powers and the Japanese Empire.”