Keegan, MaineDec. 23, 1933Dear Friend,Mrs. Roosevelt I am writing to you to ask you a little favor. Please if you have some old cloth[es] to send us, we would be very glad. For we are a poor family. I am the oldest one. I am 16 years old. We are 14 children in the family. . . . My father works, he earns only $14 a week. With fourteen dollars we can't spare any money to dress ourselves. I tried to have some work but they wouldn't give me some work because there is more married man that they can't employ. If you have some old clothes that you have spear . . . please send a part of it to us. If you send us anything you can spear we'll pray for you. We're in need of so much that three of my sisters would go to school, but they're not dress to go. We are six that goes to school. . . . We're writing you because every person in town that talks of you say that you're the only woman to look [out] for the poor . . . [so] much. . . . Yesterday we were reading on the newspaper in the first page was written in black, "Mrs. Roosevelt looks [out] for the poor." We read that about you and it says that since last Christmas that you was were pic[k]ing cloth[e]s and toys for the poor. I don't ask you any toys but I ask you clothes that you have spear. It makes three years that we didn't have Christmas and my little sisters don't know what's Christmas. Your the first presidents wife that looks for the poor. It's nearly insulting for a poor little boy like me to [write to] a person like you. We didn't write to other presidents wifes because they only tries to owns-money, but not you. I am asking you some old clothes that can be remade for my sisters and brothers. If you want information to know if it's true, write to the priest of our church. His names is Rev. Father [S.M.], Keigan Maine. I'm wishing you a Mery Merry Christmas and a Happy new year.Your friend,J.B.J.
1.Introduce students to the youth crisis of the 1930s. Open discussion with the statistics on homelessness, unemployment, malnutrition, school closings, and college drop-outs found in the opening paragraphs of "Dear Mrs. Roosevelt" (p. 271). Invite students to consider possible responses by the federal government to youth's problems, by contrasting Hoover's limited government approach with FDR's experimentalism. Use the summary of Eleanor Roosevelt's leadership on problems of youth and poverty as background to discuss why she would prove to be such a magnet for young letter writers.
2.Ask students to read the letter on this page to Mrs. Roosevelt from J.B.J., dated December 23, 1933, and then pose the following questions:
a.What was the age and economic status of J.B.J.?
b.How and why did J.B.J. try to document his respectability and credibility to Mrs. Roosevelt?
c.What was the most pressing material need of J.B.J. and his sisters and brothers?
d.Why do you think J.B.J., who had so many younger siblings, insisted he was not asking the First Lady for toys?
e.How was this family's poverty interfering with the children's education?
f.What does J.B.J.'s description of his unsuccessful job search suggest about the special problems youth faced in the Depression job market? Why might the young be the last hired and first fired?
g.What did J.B.J. mean when he said that his family had not had a Christmas in three years?
h.What were this young letter writer's perceptions of Mrs. Roosevelt? Why did J.B.J. think the First Lady would help him and his family?
i.How did J.B.J. compare Mrs. Roosevelt to previous First Ladies? What does this comparison suggest about the nature and depth of Mrs. Roosevelt's popularity among the poor?
3.Involve your students in activities that allow them to compare their economic status, material needs, and attitudes toward Washington with those of their youthful counterparts in the 1930s. Ask each student to write a private letter to an adult he or she loves or admires requesting the material things the student desires most. After these letters are written, ask if the people they have chosen to appeal to were friends or family members, and if any have directed their letters to a politician or the First Lady. If most have not written to a political figure, discuss why this was so. Why might youths today be less likely than their counterparts in the New Deal era to feel directly connected to Washington, the federal government, and the White House? Can they name anyone currently in government who is closely associated with youth issues the way that Eleanor Roosevelt was during the Depression decade? Is there a youth problem today that commands attention from the federal government? If so, how does it compare with the youth crisis of the 1930s? Invite students to compare the contents of their own letters (i.e., what items they requested) with those in the Depression-era letter, and explore the historical and economic implications of that comparison.
April 14th, 1934
Dear Mr. President,
When we went to school, C.C.C. meant flunk. It still means that. And insofar as we are concerned, it means flunk outside of school.
Your efforts are sincere. We know you have not established C.C.C. as a fascist cannon-fodder factory. We know that the C.C.C. does some good. Its regular meals and outdoor work are healthy but that is all. It takes people away from their homes, families, and friends. It takes them away from living and puts them on an existing basis like animals. It is not different from war, in that it separates human beings from civilized life, except that war holds out the hope that one could fight his way to peace. . . .
No Mr. President, by sticking a shovel in some hands and stuffing some mouths with grub, you may have solved the problems of a few numbskulls for whom anything would be good. For young men and women who have no responsibilities, no careers, no purposes, your camps have provided their simple need-a meal, a resting place, a minimum all animals need.
But for the majority of us, both at camp and those who could not go, you've no solution. Of course, C.C.C. is but part of a program which includes NRA, NIRA, AAA, PWA, etc. Yet none of these has done anything specifically for youth, except the NRA, which abolished child labor-more or less. And we are not referring to that generation of youth.
We have in mind the youth of working and voting age, of youth who for the past five years have not been able to establish themselves; youth who could not continue their studies; youth whose careers have been interrupted and shattered by the economic upheaval and cannot find their niche in society.
They are very much disconnected. They must do something. Inactivity, listlessness, failure imbue them with hopelessness. For an older generation which has experienced defeat and success in a normal course of events, another failure means little. But two, three, and four failures for youth piling up like wolves seizing upon a helpless creature, tear their lives to pieces. . . . With youth futility becomes despondency, and in its wake follows degeneracy . . .So the young woman becomes a prostitute; the young man a beggar, a vagrant, a criminal-and they cannot be held at fault. The discontent of youth, moreover, is in danger of being used by the ingratiating tentacles of organized forces with selfish interests to protect and foster.
Something must be done. C.C.C. is not the way. It is but a vain effort to placate youth. . . . It shows your lack of a plan . . . [for] youth, youth who are ambitious, energetic and resourceful. It shows your failure to take a courageous, bold stroke into the future, to experiment with new ideals. . . . Something must be done and it must be done by you . . .
You can devise some plan whereby youth can be subsidized, as easily as ship and airplane companies. . . . You can apprentice youth to industry, if that is their inclination; or establish them on farms, if they wish so; or prepare them for the professions, if they display ability and talent in that direction. You can, at least, end the modern anomaly for youth; without experience they cannot get jobs and without jobs they cannot get experience. You can do much better than C.C.C. which keeps youth from the orderly procession of life and society from the progress of civilization.
You can . . . give youth a new deal, give them a code, give them work. If youth is not to be considered now, how can the future be? And if so, what is youth living for? And where to, Uncle Sam? . . .
We demand to know what you intend to do-with the warning that once the idea of flunk saturates our minds the decay and decline . . . of America has set in. . . .
I write as a youth at the moment moved by a mixed feeling of despair and desire to do something. But I write generally of American youth because talks with hundred of young people have convinced me that I am not alone stranded on an economic and social desert island. And certainly if I alone have come in contact with so many who share the views herein expressed, how many must there be throughout the country? And how serious the problem!
Respectfully and sincerely,
1. Introduce students to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). They should know that it was the first New Deal relief program that gave jobs primarily to the young. Point out that, unlike subsequent New Deal employment programs, the CCC provided jobs for male youths only. The CCC's origins were linked not only with President Roosevelt's desire to offer fast relief to the unemployed, but also with his long-standing interest in conservation. The CCC's scope was large enough to have employed some 2.5 million youths.
The controversial features of the CCC should also be discussed, especially the fact that although it was a civilian agency, its camps were administered by the Army. This aroused strong (but groundless) concern, especially from the political Left, that the CCC was aimed at regimenting and militarizing youth much as fascist youth corps were doing in Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. A more well grounded criticism was that the Army-still segregated itself-ran many CCC camps on a segregated basis, and operated others in a discriminatory fashion that kept African Americans out of supervisory positions.
2.Hand out the letter to President Roosevelt from J.R.Y. dated April 14, 1934. After students have read the document, pose the following questions:
a.What is the tone of this letter?
b.Why is J.R.Y. so critical of the CCC?
c.How does J.R.Y.'s viewpoint compare with Mervin Johnson's memories of the CCC as reported in "A North Dakota New Deaquot;?
d.Which view of the CCC is more persuasive to you? Why?
e.What ideas does J.R.Y. offer to expand the New Deal youth program beyond the CCC?
f.Why does the author think that the Depression hurt the morale of youth even more than that of adults?
g.What dangers does the author see to both the young and the American political system if the New Deal does not do more to address the youth crisis?
3. J.R.Y. wrote his letter to FDR before the New Deal's youth program had been fully developed. Many of the ideas he proposed would, in modified form, be implemented by the National Youth Administration (NYA) from 1935 to 1943. The NYA is examined in the second part of the article, "Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Cries for Help from Depression Youth," in this issue of Social Education (pp. 274-275). Use this article for background in asking students to consider the following questions:
a.Did President Roosevelt offer a New Deal for Youth?
b.If so, what was the content of that New Deal?
c.Is there a connection between New Deal and subsequent federal programs to aid the young? If so, describe that connection.
1For conservative attitudes toward the New Deal, see James T. Patterson, Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal: The Growth of the Conservative Coalition in Congress, 1933-1939 (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1967).
Robert Cohen is Associate Professor of Social Studies Education and Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Georgia, Athens. He is the author of When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America's First Mass Student Movement, 1929-1941.