In 1934, when David and other young professionals arrived in Washington to work in President Roosevelt’s New Deal, they found a limited cultural arts scene. Government programs were soon formed that offered to help artists and musicians struggling to survive the Great Depression. Recognizing the importance of the arts in terms of their cultural benefits and economic recovery efforts, the New Deal gave birth to the Federal Art Project during the years 1935–1943. Sponsored by the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Art Project built over one hundred community centers around the country and supported more than ten thousand artists whose works were placed in nongovernment buildings. To this day, many of these works are still on display. The Federal Art Project funded and employed artists to create murals, paintings, sculptures, theater scenic design, and crafts.
By the time David and Carmen married in 1938 and settled into their first apartment in Virginia, the nation’s capital was beginning to undergo significant cultural changes. David reflected on the times in his memoirs:
The population was less than half a million, 75 percent White, 25 percent Black, thoroughly segregated in schools, restaurants, theaters, hotels, and housing. The neighboring counties had no more than 200,000 inhabitants, no less segregated. Trolleys were the principal means of transportation, running along Pennsylvania Avenue through several streets in Georgetown and up Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenues. The National Symphony, started only a few years earlier, consisted of about forty or fifty musicians whose livelihood depended on other jobs such as teaching, taxi driving, selling cars and clerking in shoe stores.
He described the racial segregation policies maintained by the major theaters in Washington:
A curious dichotomy was presented by the National Theater, which admitted Blacks on stage but not in the audiences, and Constitution Hall, which had exactly the reverse policy. The latter precipitated a dramatic public confrontation in the late 1930s when the famous singer Marian Anderson was denied permission to perform at Constitution Hall. Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to sing at the White House. Three years later when she was again denied permission to appear at Constitution Hall in 1939, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes proudly presented Anderson in an open-air recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000. After World War II, Actor’s Equity picketed the National Theater to end its segregation policy. Rather than submit, the theater became a movie house, and for two years from 1948 to 1950, Washington theater fans had to travel to Baltimore, Philadelphia, or New York for their plays, but gradually Washington, DC came of age.
It can be said that the transformation of 1930s Washington into today’s modern cultural metropolis began with the arrival of those passionately idealistic young men and women (“enthusiastic youngsters,” as David called them) who had come to work in President Roosevelt’s New Deal.
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