The Work Projects Administration was originally named the Works Progress Administration when it was established as a national agency on May 6, 1935, by an executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Harry Hopkins, who had been chief of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Civil Works Administration during 1933 and 1934, was appointed head of the new WPA, which succeeded these organizations. The name of the agency was changed to Work Projects Administration on July 1, 1939, when it was made a part of the Federal Works Agency, but its continuity was unbroken and the purposes of the WPA remained the same. It was established as a relief measure during the Great Depression and lasted until it was phased out in 1943, after it was rendered unnecessary by increased employment and reduced relief rolls. Prior to the WPA the problems of unemployment in Texas had been faced by Governor Miriam Amanda Ferguson, who issued an executive order establishing the Texas Relief Commission in March 1933. The commission used FERA funds, enabling Texans to participate in various early New Deal programs such as construction and white-collar projects of the Civil Works Administration and the camp programs of the Civilian Conservation Corps. One CWA program, the Public Works of Art Project of 1933–34, employed dozens of Texas artists in the decoration of public buildings (see POST OFFICE MURALS), but the program was not administered by the Texas Relief Commission. Due to the PWAP administrative procedures under the United States Treasury Department, payrolls were routed through federal customs officers in the sixteen CWA regions, and expenditures were authorized by the federal government. The FERA, under which these projects had been organized, was discontinued in December 1935. Prior to that, in July 1935, Texas had established an administration in San Antonio, directed by H. P. Drought, to coordinate WPA activities. The WPA functioned in Texas until after unemployment had begun to fall off sharply in 1942. The phaseout was completed in 1943, and the final report of state administrator Drought was written in March of that year.
Under the WPA 600,000 persons in Texas were helped to provide subsistence for themselves and their families. According to its regulations anyone employed by the WPA had to be the economic head of his family and had to be certified as destitute on the rolls of the Texas Relief Commission. People of both sexes and of all races were employed. WPA wages in Texas ranged from forty-five to seventy-five dollars per month. Peak employment under the Texas WPA program was 120,000 persons in February 1936. This figure perhaps reflects the level of administrative efficiency at that time rather than the need for employment, since the peak caseload of the relief commission came later, in February 1939, when 218,291 of the unemployed were on relief rolls. Soon after that time, in September 1939, the name of the state relief organization was changed by legislative act to the State Department of Public Welfare. State WPA administrator Drought blamed the increase in caseload in 1939 on widespread crop failure in Texas in that year. The caseload remained high from 1939 through 1942, always staying between 120,000 and 150,000, while the number of workers employed by the WPA was never more than half of the caseload figure. The biggest drop in caseload in Texas did not come until the period February-October 1942, when a reduction of 75 percent occurred, with a proportional drop in WPA employment. The major reason for a worker's leaving WPA relief employment was that he found other work, although some were forced off by lack of project funds. The 1942 drop in Texas WPA employment was undoubtedly due to the increase of business activity following United States entry into World War II.
Activities of the Work Projects Administration in any given area of the country were dependent on the needs and skills of the persons on relief in that area, since the main prerequisite for WPA employment was one's certified relief status. In Texas this had the effect of limiting projects in the arts. There was only one attempt at a theater project, which lasted only a month. There were no programs in painting or sculpture. This fact is deceptive, however, since Texans were being employed by the Treasury Department's relief art project and section of fine arts during approximately the same period that the WPA was in effect. At least seventy separate mural projects were carried out by Texans under these two projects. The WPA activities in Texas were varied. As its art project the state conducted an excellent survey of folk art objects for the Index of American Design. There were so few artists on relief rolls that better-than-average craftsmen had to be employed and trained on the jobs. The objects were listed and pictorial records were made of them. The original plates for this index are on deposit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The WPA Archeological Survey studied the Indians of Texas. This study entailed the location mapping, and excavation of Indian villages, camp sites, and burial mounds (a total of fifty sites in all); the collection of specimens from these locations; and the analysis of all resultant information and material. In the paleontologic-mineralogic survey, WPA workers, again under the supervision of professional scientists, worked many sites in Texas for fossils, mineral resources, and combinations of both. As war requirements increased, work became involved with mineral investigation, especially for the location of road materials and mineral resources designated as strategic.
The Federal Music Project in Texas consisted of the organization of groups of musicians into ensembles of various sizes, including dance bands, a Mexican folk group, and two Latin-style orchestras. The program also included teaching in CCC camps, in underprivileged parts of three metropolitan areas, and in public schools having no musical curriculum. A broad adult-education program was instituted to provide instruction in such basic areas as literacy and citizenship, in vocational training and home economics, and in foreign languages and other academic subjects. Programs designed primarily to answer the needs of unemployed women were a child protection program, for training in the care of preschool children; a clothing program, for the operation of shops that trained workers to make and repair garments and shoes for free distribution to the needy; a feeding program, which included storage and distribution of relief food, as well as the provision of school lunches, matron service, gardening, and food preservation; a housekeeping aid program, which trained women to fill positions as domestic workers and provided emergency aid in home services; and a health service program, which provided training and personnel for work in health agencies and institutions. The American Imprints Inventory employed library workers and supervisors, first as a part of the Texas Historical Records Survey program and later in cooperation with the library service program. This inventory included books, pamphlets, broadsides, broadsheets, maps, newspapers, and periodicals in public, semipublic, and private collections in the state for the period from the beginning of printing into the nineteenth century; it calendared or transcribed three major manuscript collections. Copies of these materials were deposited at the University of Texas and other institutions. This program also included compilation of a list of all libraries in Texas. Other archival and literary programs were the research and records programs, which provided clerical labor to public agencies for the installation or improvement of records systems; the library training program, which covered every phase of library science; and the library service program, which gave support in labor, funds, or technical knowledge to all types of libraries in Texas. Perhaps the best known was the Texas Writers' Project, which conducted large-scale research into the state's cultural history and its geographical points of interest. This work resulted in many publications, including several state and local guides to Texas. All manuscript materials from the writers' project were deposited in the University of Texas at Austin archives.
The greatest single area of WPA public spending in Texas was construction. As in most of the other WPA projects in Texas, one-fourth of the construction costs had to be provided by sponsors. This was a regulation imposed by the Texas WPA administrators, there being no federal requirement for matching monies. Construction projects included parks, swimming pools, highways, bridges, stadiums, and other public buildings. Recreational facilities were increased, but recreational leadership and organizational help were also boosted under the WPA. An attempt was made to provide leisure-time activities for persons of all ages, races, and economic groups during all seasons of the year. The WPA in Texas built and organized pre-school play centers, playgrounds, community recreation centers, toy loan centers, athletic leagues, boys' clubs, girls' clubs, and, during the period of World War II, centers for all branches of armed forces personnel. All recreational programs were begun with the idea of establishing permanent facilities.