Jessie and the WPA

Jessie and Tricia

“Tricia had started to school, and Mama decided to brush up on her shorthand and typing and try to get a job. She had not worked since before she married. There weren’t many jobs available then except those provided by the New Deal, a program started by President Roosevelt to help pull the country out of the Depression. The Works Progress Administration, or WPA as it was called, provided jobs for thousands of people, building roads and streets and public buildings, and developing recreational programs and parks, writing projects and numerous other activities.

“Mama got a job doing secretarial work on one of the projects, and she, like many of the others, continued to hold a job long after the WPA was phased out. Though there were many jokes about the WPA being a waste of money, it helped an awful lot of men and women find work. Many of the people who held WPA jobs had been wealthy or had had good jobs before the Depression hit.”

Jessie, dressed for work in front of the Stott house.

What kind of courage must it have taken for Jessie, 43 years old, unemployed for more than twenty years after the briefest of secretarial careers, to march out of that safe house on East Washington Street, turn towards downtown and present herself as someone with something to contribute? Her days at the business college in Memphis must have seemed like a dream, dimmed by years of marriage and children and sudden widowhood and struggle. I’m fairly sure Big and Uncle Roy didn’t push her to look for a job once the last little Evans was out the door to Davis School. But she did, and she got herself hired and she never looked back.

My early memories of my grandmother include visits to her office at the Red Cross building on the south end of Howard Street in the old fire station. Granny’s desk was off to the left side behind the huge dark counter, and its drawers were full of thick white note pads and sharp pencils and mysterious forms dealing with every conceivable sort of emergency aid. She let me type on her manual typewriter and gave me nickels to feed the Coke machine in the dark, cold storage room behind the office. When I had reached Junior High age, I would walk over and have lunch with her on occasion, and I like to think she continued working there for as long as she did so we could have those visits. I wish I had realized then what a brave lady she was to have created a career for herself. I just thought she was a cool granny.

About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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