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the FWP was "a project designed to encourage participatory citizenship"

About The Institute


Long Island University-Brooklyn will host a virtual four-week Summer Institute for Higher Education Faculty from July 12 to August 6, 2021 on the Federal Writers’ Project, part of the New Deal’s Works Project Administration during the Great Depression.

The institute will explore the project’s history, accomplishments, and literary legacy as our country’s first government-sponsored public history program, particularly with respect to its mission to document underrepresented stories about everyday American life and its impact on African American literature.

The program will accommodate 25 participants, including at least five non-tenured/non-tenure track faculty and up to three advanced graduate students. Applicants from HBCUs, HSIs, and tribal colleges are strongly encouraged to apply. This Level 1 program is being offered for the first time.


July 11-August 6, 2021



The program’s focus is the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), part of the New Deal Era’s Works Project Administration (WPA). Though less visible than the WPA projects that transformed our nation’s physical infrastructure during the Great Depression (e.g., new public buildings, parks, and roads), the FWP’s impact on American culture is difficult to overstate. An unprecedented undertaking designed to document underrepresented stories across a growing, increasingly diverse country, the FWP was “a project designed to encourage participatory citizenship” that represented a “unique, socially transformative moment” in our nation’s history (Butts 2011). One titular example of its impact is the National Endowment for the Humanities itself. According to the NEH website, the agency has “funded the telling of America’s story . . . since 1965.” Like the FWP nearly a century ago, NEH sponsors projects like “A More Perfect Union,” a recent initiative designed to “advance civic education” and “share the story of all the people.”

History, Politics, and Legacy


With these legacies in mind, the institute will trace the history, accomplishments, and cultural legacy of the FWP. The topic is significant for and relevant to humanities scholarship and teaching in offering participants a unique perspective on the emergence of documentary writing, government patronage of cultural preservation, and new documentary tools, including ethnography and oral history.


Program Design

  • First, we will explore the FWP’s American Guide Series (1937-1941), a massive collection of books and pamphlets on each of the then 48 states, containing original photographs and essays on history and culture, and collectively forging what Alfred Kazin called “an extraordinary American epic.”


  • Second, we will consider the American Life Histories collection, recorded by federal writers working on the Folklore Project.


  • Third, we turn to Born in Slavery, the FWP’s remarkable collection of narratives of formerly enslaved people.


  • Finally, we examine the project’s impact on America’s literary scene, particularly African American literature, and the public humanities.

Institute's Goals

Based on the FWP’s mission, history, and cultural impact, four related objectives will guide this program and be taken up successively in the corresponding weeks of the institute:


  • to explore the FWP’s history and mission as a short-lived, government-funded, institution with an enduring cultural influence;
  • to study diverse examples of the FWP’s output such as state guides, interviews, and life histories now accessible due to republished and digitized work;
  • to utilize a resurgence of scholarship on the FWP to investigate its expansive, multivalent impact on American culture, literature, and ethnography;
  • to consider and appraise examples of the FWP’s legacy in 21st century public humanities projects in light of its shortcomings and its achievements.