How the Historical Records Survey Saved American Cemeteries While It Put Writers to Work

The Historical Records Survey, which began its work in 1935 as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers Project, left a lasting legacy by recording burials across the United States and by preserving information about them that has led to restoration and preservation projects. These records are now widely available to researchers because they have been digitized and collected at sites such as the USGenWeb Project. The writers employed over the eight years of the WPAs’s life gathered and inventoried “mouldering and scattered records, including census documents, cemetery interments, school and military records, birth and death records, land transactions records, maps, and newspapers,” according to Nick Taylor’s American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work. They also influenced how people today remember marginalized people and honor their burial grounds.

In addition to recording information from gravestones that are missing or unreadable today, the WPA workers could be highly motivated researchers who supplemented data on tombstones by interviewing local residents for help identifying unmarked graves. Newspapers and conservative critics often criticized those employed by the FWP and the later HRS, both for the slow pace of their work and for their left-leaning political views. Although well-known writers such as the poet Conrad Aiken were the most likely to draw criticism, progressive ideas also emerge subtly in the cemetery inventories of workers such as Anson G. Melton, who surveyed hundreds of cemeteries in North Carolina. Melton was a Baptist preacher as well as the author of poems, essays, sermons, and a novelette. As his many letters to the editor of the Richmond, VA, News Leader show, Melton ardently supported civil rights during the Jim Crow era and demonstrated his commitment to social justice by drawing attention to segregated cemeteries their substandard conditions. Today, his records are one reason that a local group has formed to preserved a segregated graveyards in Shelby, NC, and memorialize those buried there.

Author: June Hobbs