Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why We Need A New Deal Museum (part 7 of 10): A monument to hard work, an answer to insults, a bulwark against cruelty

(The gravestone of Francis H. Dryden. Photo by Brent McKee.)

In a cemetery in Salisbury, Maryland, the remains of Francis H. Dryden rest. His gravestone (above), reads, "Francis H. Dryden, Maryland, Colonel, US Army, World War I & II, Jan 5, 1891 - Feb 1, 1968." In addition to his war service, Mr. Dryden served Maryland and the nation in various other capacities, even serving as the acting national director of the WPA from April through July, 1942. An engineer, Dryden received his education at the University of Maryland.

Mr. Dryden, in his roles as the WPA director for Maryland, WPA field representative in charge of Region II (Delaware, Washington, D.C., Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia), WPA assistant commissioner in charge of all construction projects across the country, and acting national director for the WPA, is responsible for much of America's great infrastructure improvements during the 1930s and early 1940s--infrastructure that, in many cases, we are still using today. As far as I can tell, during my years of researching the WPA, there is not one street, bridge, or building named in honor of Dryden.

When I contacted a Maryland state legislator's office, about the possibility of a small memorial or monument for Dryden, they expressed interest in Dryden's story. However, when they reached out to various organizations in Maryland, there was no interest at all. So, Dryden will most likely remain a forgotten, unsung hero of America. (I have never run across anything scandalous about Dryden. Indeed, in his Baltimore Sun newspaper obituary he seems to have been a very upstanding citizen, a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Salisbury Rotary Club, the Salisbury Chamber of Commerce, the Free Masons, and the Wicomico County Presbyterian Church.) 

In the United States, we often say that we value things like hard work, sacrifice, and military service. But, when I see a man completely forgotten, a man who served in both world wars and helped modernize America in such a profound way, I have to question the sincerity of that sentiment.

A New Deal museum would honor Americans like Francis Dryden, and put some muscle behind our declarations of appreciation for hard work, sacrifice, and military service (recall that many New Deal workers, the formerly unemployed, also served in World War II and/or worked in the defense industries).

(Harry Hopkins, addressing a crowd at the Louisiana State University football stadium, in November, 1936. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.)

After WPA workers expanded and improved the football stadium at Louisiana State University, Harry Hopkins said, "The things they have actually accomplished all over America should be an inspiration to every reasonable person and an everlasting answer to all the grievous insults that have been heaped on the heads of the unemployed" (quote from the book American-Made by Nick Taylor).

Today, the Republican Party has made a sport out of insulting and behaving cruelly towards low-income Americans. For example, various Republican officials and candidates for office have recently called them lazy pigs, compared them to wild animals, pleaded with us not to feed them because they'll breed, scoffed at the idea that they have a right to food and medical care, denied them health insurance assistance, and even recommended sterilization for women who are on Medicaid. Glenn Beck, a prominent thought leader for the political right, implied that some Americans who suffer through long-term unemployment shouldn't even be considered Americans. The actions, insults, and innuendos have been so relentless and merciless that even some Republican politicians have expressed concern (see, e.g., "GOP Governor: 'There Seems To Be A War On The Poor' With Republicans In Washington," Business Insider, October 29, 2013). 

A New Deal museum, by highlighting the immense work performed by impoverished and unemployed Americans during the Great Depression, in programs like the CCC, CWA, WPA, and NYA (work that we still derive enormous benefits from today), would stand as a strong defense against the never-ending barrage of insults coming from the political right.

A New Deal museum would be a monument to hard work, an answer to insults, a bulwark against cruelty.

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