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Greenbelt History Lesson – How the Pioneers were Chosen

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Sally Sims Stokes, a faculty librarian in the Art and Architecture Libraries at the University of Maryland, is a  scholar and historian, former Friend of Greenbelt Museum Board member and a museum volunteer.  She shared her research on the Resettlement Administration’s selection of Greenbelt’s pioneer families as part of the Museum’s lecture series – to a full house.  Here’s what I learned.

The criteria for choosing the ideal tenants were determined by administrators in the Resettlement Administration.  Their vision for a model city or utopia may have been influenced by a conference of reformers who convened in 1935 to explore management of resettlement projects and the role of social responsibility in the management of such so-called “green towns”.

In 1936 the RA was absorbed by the Farm Security Administration, which was headed by the minister and social reformer Will Winton Alexander, who put Wendell Lund in charge of tenant section – Lund had had experience with relief programs in West Virginia.  It was Lund who came up with the process for choosing tenants with input from sociologists and others in New Deal relief programs, such as Azile Aaron, who were experienced in populating model communities and subsistence homestead projects.

Residents Chosen by Questionnaire and Site Inspection
Nicknamed Tugwelltown or Tugwell’s Folly, Greenbelt was suspected of becoming a conclave of Communists!  But one look at the criteria for selecting the tenants must have disproved that rumor because the goal was to find all-American, church-going, rule-abiding, community-minded families.
One part of the screening process was a site visit to the existing homes of potential residents, and a local reporter reported that the reports noted whether kids were kept clean and flies were duly swatted.  (“Tidy” was mentioned more than once in the news article.)  The news report about the process referred to Greenbelt as “America’s First Test-Tube City” and also as a “Utopia”.   Site reports also indicated whether applicant homes had adequate ventilation and lighting, whether the heat source was dangerous, as well as, of course, whether the tenants were keeping the place tidy enough.
But one puzzlement for me is whether giving credit for already having good housing meant that the people who most needed better housing were less likely to be chosen, though at least the income cap prevented the well-to-do from being eligible.
Applicants also filled out a survey, which asked for information about employment, stability as renters, whether they paid their rent on time, community involvement, family size and configuration, and more.  (One interesting social note is that despite the limited number of bedrooms in Greenbelt homes, parents were not allowed to have daughters and sons sleep in the same room.)
“Negroes” were excluded, though D.C.’s Langston Terrace was built just for them.  (Separate but equal?)  Well, nobody ever said our history was spotless in character, and that injustice was finally removed in the ’60s.
Of great interest to our speaker and her audience were the quotas designed to ensure religious diversity, which were central to accomplishing what was considered a community ideal.  The quotas may be considered “benign” because they DID ensure diversity and that included by Jews, who were excluded from many communities in that era.  Here are the target percentages for various religious groups and the percentages actually achieved.
Catholic:  target:  34.5% , achieved  20%
Episcopalian: target 16.9%, achieved 5.8%
Methodist: target 15.8%, achieved 15.8%
Presbyterian: target 5%, achieved 6.7%
Jewish:  target 7%, achieved 7.5%
Baptist:  target 6%, achieved 8.15%
All others, including “none:” target 14.8,%, achieved 36%.
Reading over the numbers for “all others” makes me wish I’d asked if there’s more information on that catch-all.  E.g. do we know if and how many atheists were admitted, or did “none” just reflect non-church-goers.  And were any of the other religions something other than Christian denominations?  [I wrote to our speaker for clarification on this point but received no response for publication.]
Also interesting are the targets regarding employment and the actual percentages achieved.
Federal government:  targeted 50%, achieved 75%
DC government: targeted  5%, achieved 2%
Nongovernment: targeted 45%, achieved 23%.
Within the federal government the largest sector represented was the USDA, with fully 151 families headed by workers there (out of 879 original families).  Next was the Department of the Treasury, with 107 families headed by workers there.

The education levels of the original tenants was high, but there were no specifics about that in the presentation.

The quota system ended in ’38 and wasn’t used in the early ’40s when the frame units were built for wartime workers.
The audience for the Museum lecture included seven who raised their hands to say that their parents had been part of this original group of tenants, chosen using this system.
Photo source:  Library of Congress.
Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog weekly at GardenRant.com.

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