8. HOPKINS IN LOUISIANA

Harry Hopkins resurfaced after the election. On November 28, he traveled to the Louisiana capital of Baton Rouge, where he encountered a reception that was markedly different from the one he would have gotten fourteen months earlier, when Huey Long was still alive. The Kingfish’s death had brought a change in the state’s attitude toward federal officials. Once viewed with suspicion, now they—and the relief dollars they had the power to distribute—were welcomed unreservedly. And this new hospitality had been rewarded. Tens of thousands of Louisianans had WPA jobs, many of them working on the very structure that Hopkins had come to Baton Rouge to dedicate.

The administration could not have chosen a better project for winning the hearts of Louisianans, whose allegiance to the Louisiana State University Tigers football team verged on the fanatical. Since the first of the year, at a cost of $700,000, WPA workers had been building a horseshoe around one end of the LSU football stadium, linking two existing grandstands and doubling its seating capacity to 48,000. Under the new grandstand were dormitory rooms for 1,000 male students. The WPA was spending $1.5 million in improvements on the LSU campus, but the stadium was the largest single project and by working at a furious pace the construction team had finished it six weeks early, in time for the undefeated Tigers’ season-ending game against Tulane, its traditional downstate rival from New Orleans. With temporary seats added, a crowd of 52,000 was expected, the largest sports crowd ever gathered in the South. They were still filing into the stands when Hopkins joined university, state, and WPA officials on a speakers’ platform on the field.

The pregame speeches were effusive. Senator John H. Overton compared the fight against the depression to a football game between the “WPA Invincibles and the Unemployment Wave.” Governor Richard W. Leche—credited with the winning touchdown in Overton’s speech—offered “our most heartfelt appreciation to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who made the WPA possible.” Across town, beneath the state capitol grounds where he was buried, Huey Long was spinning in his grave.

Hopkins keynoted the dedication. In vintage style, he took on the critics who disparaged WPA workers as shovel-leaning idlers and defended the unemployed, their right to work, and the program that was giving them the opportunity. “A whole army of Americans got penalized nearly all the way to the goal line through no fault of their own,” he said. “I think we ought to dedicate this stadium to the workers of the WPA, not only those who worked on it directly, but also the millions who are creating a hundred thousand other public improvements all over America.

“I want to ask every one of you here today, whenever you hear anybody making an unkind remark about the workers of the WPA, to tell him about this stadium. The reason you are here in such numbers is because it was finished forty-five days ahead of schedule. The reason we can be so comfortable and so safe in this tremendous tier of seats…'is because the quality of this workmanship compares favorably with any structure on the campus….

“You can start out from Baton Rouge in any direction and pass through town after town which has water facilities or sewer facilities or roads or streets or sidewalks or better public buildings, which it would not have had but for the Works Progress Administration,” Hopkins continued. He pointed out that the improvements were based on local needs. “We didn’t go into a bureaucratic huddle in Washington and just imagine them,” he said. “They were originated and asked for by local officials.”

Not to have done such work would have been bad enough, said Hopkins. “But far worse than that would have been the destruction by their long idleness of [workers’] spirit and their very ability to work. 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.”

As he spoke, an outsized version of the familiar WPA billboard loomed above the highest tier of new seats where everybody in the stadium could see it. And just in case they missed it, the LSU Cadets marching band took the field before the kickoff and arranged itself into a formation that spelled out “WPA” from one goal line to the other.

Stadiums were a staple of WPA construction, though not everybody liked them. The Charleston (South Carolina) News and Courier said that building stadiums to feed the hungry was reminiscent of the Roman circus, since only the rich could afford stadium events. But the Leader Call in Laurel, Mississippi, shared Hopkins’s view of both the physical improvements and the benefits of work.

“The high school stadium is nearly finished,” the paper wrote. “The bricks for it were made by WPA employees. The wood to burn those bricks was cut by other WPA employees. At first this cost the government nine dollars a cord. Before the project was finished, it cost the government one dollar a cord.

“Where lay the difference of eight dollars? In the skill of hands that had to feel their way at first, and minds that were indifferent to begin with; but the hands learned to work swiftly and gladly in a task that gave a living.

“In the same stadium, the first row of seats was built by nine masons in two and a half days. The last row, exactly like the first, was constructed by four masons in one and a half days.

“Magnificent things have been accomplished in Laurel by WPA workmen. The stadium is one example; others are found in schools re-painted, sidewalks built, parks and school grounds improved. But there have been changes not so apparent: changes in the hearts of men who were discouraged and unhappy, and are that no longer; in whom hope is revived and life once more holds a promise.”

At Baton Rouge, when the speeches were finished and the game began, fans of the Tigers had rhapsodic moments of their own. LSU won the game, 33–0, to complete its undefeated season and went on to the 1937 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, where it lost to California’s Santa Clara Broncos, 21–14.

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