On the eve of the Great Depression, most Texans lived on farms or ranches or in small towns. Though the previous decade saw successes in oil, the economy was still dominated by agriculture – cotton in the north, livestock in the west and a growing citrus industry in the south. When the stock market crashed in 1929, many Texans believed the state’s rural nature would insulate the region from the worst of the financial crisis. As the nation’s economy collapsed, it became clear that Texas would suffer, too. Across the state, agriculture and the new industries of oil and lumber fell victim to the growing economic depression.
The state’s economy was further crippled by the devastating effects of the Dust Bowl. In the second half of the 1930s, as the Depression wore on, a major drought devastated the southern plains. The Texas Panhandle suffered greatly, as winds eroded the parched land and made life on farms and in towns all but impossible. At times, the dust storms were so severe they blocked the sun for hours.
New Deal programs offered some relief, putting people to work building parks, highways, and public buildings and helping to improve farmland and agricultural practices. The legacy of these programs can be seen across today’s Texas. Workers built bridges, dams and roads. They planted trees to help control erosion and promoted modern farming techniques. In state parks, Civilian Conservation Corps workers created new infrastructure – cabins at Bastrop and Caddo Lake, visitor centers at Longhorn Cavern and Palo Duro Canyon, the Indian Lodge at Fort Davis, a reconstructed mission in Goliad and rooms for visitors to Balmorhea Springs.
New Deal photographers Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and John Vachon crossed the state to capture images of daily life in Depression-era Texas. Their photos take us to big cities and small towns, introduce us to elderly people and children, and take us into the homes of people struggling to survive. Through the images they took, we see people at work, at play, at worship and at rest. Their subjects show a huge diversity of life in Texas at the time – people who are black, white and Hispanic; young and old; able-bodied and sick; surrounded by family and completely alone. Through these photos, we’re connected to that era in a very personal way.
Government workers also captured oral histories across Texas. They included the memories of dozens of former slaves – a collection known as the slave narratives. By the time of the Depression, the people who shared their stories had grown old. But their memories are often filled with vivid detail – a first-hand account of Texas life from a very different time.
For rural Texans, the most important New Deal projects focused on improving the land and daily life. Farmers gathered to learn about soil conservation and modern planting techniques. Workers planted trees to control erosion. And newly-built dams controlled floods and provided electricity – something that was unavailable in many areas until well into the 1930s. For people who lived without electricity, daily life had changed little since the 1800s. Food was kept in ice boxes – a poor match for summer heat. Water was pumped from the ground or carried from springs. Clothes were washed by hand, in washtubs heated over open fires. Much of that back-breaking work was done by women, who labored at home while men worked on the farm and in the fields. A young congressman from the Hill Country named Lyndon Johnson knew that life well, and he worked to bring electricity to rural Texas. When electric power began to arrive in the late 1930s, it brought modernity to remote parts of the state.
For many Tejanos and African Americans, the Depression brought new challenges to already-difficult lives. Texas remained deeply segregated – by race and by custom. Job opportunities were limited, schools for Hispanic and black students were inferior and in many parts of the state the threat of violent attacks against blacks and Latinos remained very real. The Depression exacerbated each of these problems. But the era also brought a new push for change. Organized opposition to race-based inequalities began to grow, as organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) worked to organize activists. They brought the first legal challenges to segregation in Texas, fighting to improve access to education and end race-based violence. The change they sought came slowly. But the activists’ work would lay the foundation for bigger gains in the years after World War II.
The 1936 Texas Centennial boosted the state’s economy and spirits. Events were held across the state to mark the hundredth anniversary of Texas independence from Mexico. But the main event was a World’s Fair – the Texas Centennial Exposition. More than six million people visited, held at the Texas State Fair Grounds in Dallas. The money they brought and the jobs that were created helped to buffer Dallas from the worst of the Depression. The event also helped to focus the world’s attention on the state, promoting the idea of Texas as a place to vacation and do business.
It took U.S. participation in World War II, however, to finally achieve economic recovery. With its long coastline, oil reserves and abundant land, Texas was ideally situated for war-related industrial and military facilities. New industries emerged, luring large numbers of people to the state and enticing rural residents into rapidly growing urban centers. More than 1.2 million troops – many from outside the state — trained for service at bases and camps in Texas. Camps were also established for prisoners of war, and for people who were held in internment camps.
Texans made up a full seven percent of American forces who served in the military during World War II. About 750,000 entered the service, and more than 22,000 were killed or died of wounds. The war’s military leaders included many Texans. Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, came from Fredericksburg. Dwight Eisenhower, supreme Allied Commander in Europe, was born in Dennison. Former Texas first lady Oveta Culp Hobby served as commander of the Women’s Army Corps. And the war’s most decorated solider, Lieutenant Audie Murphy, came from the town of Farmersville. The country’s political leaders also included powerful Texans, like House Speaker Sam Rayburn.
For some Texans, the war offered new opportunities. Factories fueled by the war needed labor, but many of the most traditional workers – white men – were fighting overseas. Women and minority workers filled the gap, taking high-skilled, high-wage jobs that were closed to them before the war. Military service also offered a new kind of job. When war erupted, African Americans and Tejanos joined the military in large numbers. Twelve thousand Texas women also served. Still, most black Texans served in segregated units, led by white officers. And for Latinos, discrimination was less official, but often present.
Even so, work in factories and military service opened minds and doors. When the war ended, many women were reluctant to leave the workforce. And many black and Hispanic soldiers returned with a new determination to end discrimination. They had served their country just as white soldiers had. They came home from the war determined to gain access to all their country had to offer.
It was a time of great change – for Texans, and for Texas. From the beginning of the depression to 1945, the state’s population increased by 33 percent and manufacturing increased four-fold. No longer rural and agrarian, Texas emerged from the war urbanized and with a strong, diversified economy.