Depression-era program built state-of-the-art hospital for public health

Hidden Memphis feature story for The Commercial Appeal

May 8, 2011

In 1935, America was still in the grip of the Great Depression. Thousands of men were out of work, and families shifted, hungry and anxious, looking for employment and a helping hand of any sort. Out of this panic, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was created, a series of economic programs meant to provide relief, recovery and reform to our country.

Of the New Deal programs, the most aggressive by far was the Works Progress Administration, begun in 1935. The WPA employed millions and invested nearly $7 billion in carrying out public works projects across the land. Shelby County was a large beneficiary of the upgrades and pay with $20 million in assets by 1937 to show for the work.

The goals of the WPA in Memphis were to employ men and women and improve health, recreation and, by default, community. Projects overseen by WPA district supervisor M.E. Williams at the time included the installation of 5,500 feet of sanitary sewers and the resurfacing of alleyways. Crump Stadium was built to hold 15,000 at a cost of $161,270, Union Avenue was paved, many area public schools were painted and repaired, and a dog pound was built at Front and Auction.

In Overton Park, an open-air band stage and shell were built for $17,609, while in the nearby zoo, a monkey island was constructed at a cost of $14,573.

As to health, for a city still reeling from the effects and memories of the yellow fever epidemic, the fight against mosquitoes and malaria was paramount, and money and manpower were spent to shore up ditches, culverts and bayous around the area, and a new hospital was built … (read more)