In its $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, the Biden administration seeks to expand the public’s conception of what is and is not infrastructure. It is right to do so. Infrastructure is not just the bridge we drive across; it is the home health aides who look after our parents and grandparents. Infrastructure is not simply the train we ride, but also the day care where we drop our children off before heading to work. Democrats are in a position to expand that definition even further. The United States should improve its physical infrastructure and support the human infrastructure that sustains our society—but it should also build up America’s historical infrastructure. It should create a new Federal Writers’ Project.
The Federal Writers’ Project was a robust New Deal endeavor that employed teachers, historians, librarians, writers, journalists, and others to work on state and city guides, and even children’s books. What I have been most drawn to, however, are the program’s oral histories of the formerly enslaved, as well as those of many others. As the Library of Congress notes, the project chronicles “vivid life stories of Americans who lived at the turn of the century and include[s] tales of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the 1871 Chicago fire, pioneer journeys out West, grueling factory work, and the immigrant experience.”
In a piece for this magazine last month, I wrote about the more than 2,300 narratives of formerly enslaved people that were collected from 1936 to 1938 as part of the project. Books such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass are what people tend to think of when they consider the first-person accounts of enslaved people. And although they are valuable, the narratives of those who escaped or achieved other extraordinary feats do not reflect the lives of the majority of enslaved people. The Federal Writers’ Project’s primary source documents are some of the only first-person testimonies we have from enslaved people. They are not without problems. Many of the interviews were conducted by white southerners who, scholars say, may have asked questions in a way that muted the indignities of slavery, in addition to stereotyping Black speech in their transcriptions. Historians also believe that some of the formerly enslaved were not as honest and forthcoming as they might have been, because they feared that if they said the wrong thing, their government assistance would be taken away. Still, as the scholar Saidiya Hartman has written, despite their limitations, “these narratives nonetheless remain an important source for understanding the everyday experience of slavery and its aftermath.”
The country has an opportunity now to conduct a new Federal Writers’ Project, a national effort to build on existing oral-history programs and to collect, in a central place, the stories of Americans who have lived through some of the United States’ most consequential, most shameful, and most astounding historical periods—times that have much to teach us about who we have been and how different groups have navigated the American experience.
We have, for example, the chance to collect the histories of those who lived through Jim Crow and were, by law, second-class citizens in a supposed democracy. But this opportunity is fleeting. We are losing, at an increasing frequency, giants of the civil-rights movement. John Lewis, Elijah Cummings, Leah Chase, C. T. Vivian, Meredith C. Anding, Lucille Bridges, Charles Evers, Joseph Lowery, James Netters, and Vernon Jordan have all died just in the past two years.
Although many books and films exist about World War II, collecting even more first-person testimonies from veterans and from refugees who fled persecution during the Holocaust is enormously valuable. And it must be done soon. According to Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, just 2 percent of the Americans who served in World War II were alive in 2020.
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent on the West Coast into internment camps. More than 60 percent of them were U.S. citizens. Many camps stayed open for as long as four years. Some who were in those camps as children, such as the actor George Takei, are still alive. “We saw two soldiers, marching up our driveway, carrying rifles with shiny bayonets on them,” he explained in an interview with Seth Meyers.
They stomped up the porch and with their fists began pounding on the door. The way I remember it, the whole house seemed to tremble. My father came out and answered the door and, literally at gunpoint, we were ordered out of our house … That morning was a terrifying morning. The camps were just being built, so they took us to Santa Anita racetrack … We were herded over with other Japanese American families to the stable area and assigned a horse stall for us to sleep in. From a two-bedroom home, front yard, backyard, on Garnet Street in L.A., to a horse stall. For my parents, it was a degrading, humiliating, painful experience.
To have in one place the stories of those, like Takei, who lived through that time would allow this country to learn more about what it has done.
The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 encouraged many Native Americans to leave their reservations and move into urban areas, with the hopes that they might assimilate into mainstream American culture. But the policy had a disastrous effect on Native American communities. As Alexia Fernández Campbell wrote for The Atlantic in 2016: “Though the act didn’t force people to leave their reservations, it made it hard for families to stay by dissolving federal recognition of most tribes, and ending federal funding for reservations’ schools, hospitals, and basic services—along with the jobs they created. Though the federal government paid for relocation expenses to the cities, and provided some vocational training, urban Native Americans faced high levels of job discrimination, and few opportunities for job advancement.” Their stories would tell us much about the lineage of removal and relocation that Indigenous communities have long experienced.
Much of our immigration debate today is shaped more by caricatures than an acute understanding of actual people. Over the past few decades, millions of people have fled to the United States from Central America because of violence, climate change, and political instability. Capturing the testimonies of those who came to this country seeking a better life—those who are often villainized and whose lives are misrepresented—could help humanize them so that more people read their stories from a space of empathy rather than derision.
These are only some of the stories that need to be preserved. The Library of Congress, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the University of North Carolina Southern Oral History Program, the Native American Collections at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, and the UCLA Labor Center, among many others, have been collecting important oral histories for years. At its best, a new Federal Writers’ Project would not undermine these efforts, but build on them. I’ve spoken with a number of historians, and although the specific logistics of a new Federal Writers’ Project are still to be determined, many believe that a central database of such information, potentially held in the Library of Congress, would provide a remarkable place for scholars, journalists, students, and the public to engage with the testimonies of those across the American experience.
America’s historical infrastructure necessitates investment in the same way that our roads and bridges do. Soon, many of the people who lived through these important periods in American history will no longer be with us; many have already died. The president’s infrastructure plan is an opportunity to prioritize preserving our history, so that we can understand all that has made our country what it is.