Providing a New Deal for Young Black Women: Mary McLeod Bethune and the Negro Affairs Division of the NYA
Today’s blog is written by Dr. Jametta Davis, Appraisal Archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
The Great Depression was one of the most devastating economic periods of the twentieth century. Between 1929 and the early 1940s, countless American citizens experienced high unemployment rates, increased poverty, and great uncertainty. For black girls and young women, the period created even greater challenges due to the fact that prior to 1929, they were typically employed in the lowest paying jobs within the labor market. Also discrimination, marginal education, and growing competition for their already meager wages made circumstances even more difficult for black women during the Depression. Recognizing these unique challenges, prominent civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune, and the Negro Affairs Division of the National Youth Administration provided thousands of black girls and women with educational programs and vocational training to prepare them for better job opportunities.
The National Youth Administration (NYA) was a New Deal program created in 1935 within the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The mission of the program was to provide economic relief to young people aged 16 to 24 through educational aid, job training skills, and employment opportunities. In 1936, in an effort to better address the needs of black youth, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Mary McLeod Bethune as Director of the NYA’s Division of Negro Affairs. With this appointment, the prominent civil rights leader became the first black female administrator in the federal government. In this capacity, Bethune worked closely with federal and state agencies, black college presidents, and black businesses and organizations to establish numerous resources to aid black girls and women through the auspices of the NYA.
For instance, the NYA’s Special Negro Fund provided educational aid and work-study programs to black college students. Such programs allowed young women to remain in college, acquire additional job skills, and participate in wage-earning projects that provided them with opportunities to instruct and assist other NYA participants in the various vocational programs. For Bethune, it was just as important to assist students who could not afford to attend college. Therefore, the NYA also collaborated with local schools, hospitals, and organizations, such as the YWCA to provide girls with training in nursery school work, home economics, gardening, cafeteria work, nursing, clerical skills, and factory jobs. A number of residential training centers on and near the campuses of black colleges in thirteen states were also created. Selected girls, usually from rural areas, traveled to the centers where they resided for extended periods to learn new trades and skills.
Female participants in each of the agency’s programs earned wages for their part-time work on projects. In fact, unlike most New Deal work programs, the NYA paid black and white students equal wages for the projects they participated in. However, participants were not the only ones to benefit. Through their work, they also contributed much needed resources for the communities in which they worked. Resources provided to the community included: meals and services, improvements to the various facilities in the black community, including recreational and educational amenities for youth, assistance for Tuberculosis patients, and resources to charitable institutions that provided for the black community’s most needy.
As World War II began and the need for defense goods and materials grew, young women in the NYA program were increasingly trained for industry work related to the war efforts. As a result, black NYA participants were readily prepared in cities throughout the country to work in programs which emphasized industrial sewing, welding, machinery, pattern-making, and to a smaller degree, clerical work. Because the war had also stimulated the economy and the general labor market, the NYA industrial training programs had also prepared numerous black girls and women for jobs in the defense industry.
The improved economy eliminated the need for the NYA’s existence and, as a result, its programs were discontinued by 1944. Despite this fact, Mary McLeod Bethune and the Division of Negro Affairs made incredible strides for the black youth who participated in the NYA’s educational and vocational training projects. The work of the agency marked the first time in the history of the federal government that black youth and young adults were assisted through such programming efforts. In the end, the agency had assisted close to 300,000 black youth and as such, paved the way for thousands of young black women to participate in better opportunities within the job market.
The images used in this blog can be found in RG 119 Records of the National Youth Administration (NYA), located at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.