July 19, 2017

How 75-Year Old WPA Records May Help You Find an Ancestor

WPA Church Record Inventory Sheet, Eliam Baptist Church, FL. Click to view.

WPA Church Record Inventory Sheet, Eliam Baptist Church, FL. Click to view.

Got a research brick wall? A “national temp agency” created resources that may help you find your family history in obscure historical records.

During the Great Depression, so many Americans were out of work that the federal government launched the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Works Projects Administration, thankfully keeping the “WPA” acronym intact).

I think of the WPA as a national temp agency that put thousands of residents to work on bookkeeping, building and conservation projects around the country. It’s the same concept I use when my kids want to earn some spending money: I give them a list of back-burnered chores: weed the flower beds, inventory the pantry, wash the walls.

The federal government did this on an enormous scale. Their “inventory the pantry” chores included jobs like indexing immigration and naturalization records and inventorying extant church records. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Let’s use the church records inventories as an example. In several states, WPA workers used a standardized form to capture data about church congregations. Included were:

  • the church name(s) and address, pastor name, details about the building(s), race and size of congregation;
  • a brief history of the church; and–even better–
  • the description and location of existing records, like minute books, financial records, and registers of baptisms, marriages, members and deaths.

The original inventories, where they still exist, have been scattered. They were not collected and maintained by any national agency. But some were published and some are now online. For example:

Church records inventories are just one type of helpful resource compiled by WPA workers. Learn more about WPA records from leading genealogical expert Paula Stuart-Warren in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 2. (A Premium membership required to access–and it’s totally worth it! Click here to learn about its many benefits.)

About Sunny

Sunny Morton is a genealogy writer whose work is read by thousands in magazines and online. As a Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, she frequently posts on the news, but also loves to share quick research tips, reveal little-known resources or take genealogists for an exhilarating dive into deeper research topics and techniques. She's also the author of My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories.