Aubrey Willis Williams (August 23, 1890 – March 5, 1965) was an American social and civil rights activist who headed the National Youth Administration during the New Deal.
Aubrey Williams was born in Springville, Alabama, on August 23, 1890. He grew up in impoverished circumstances. His grandfather had been born relatively poor in North Carolina and migrated to Alabama, where he quickly accrued wealth and eventually became the owner of a successful plantation and a large number of slaves. He was, however, deeply troubled by the morality of slavery, and in 1855 voluntarily freed his workers. The rest of his property was nonetheless seized in the American Civil War, leaving the family destitute. Trained only for leisure, Aubrey Williams' father turned to manual labor, becoming a notably unsuccessful blacksmith. At the very young age of six, Aubrey went to work as a cash-boy in a Birmingham, Alabama department store. At times his whole family of four had to live on his $3.50 weekly wage.
As he grew older, Aubrey took on other jobs, while studying nights in a Y.M.C.A. He earned his way at Maryville College in Tennessee by painting signs, and at the University of Cincinnati by managing a Chautauqua, an early form of adult education. A post-War stay in France saw him earn a Doctorate from the University of Bordeaux. Not until he reached 30 was he ready to begin the career of social work in Ohio and Wisconsin which would eventually lead to his appointment by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Assistant Federal Relief Administrator, the second highest ranking U.S. relief official.
In this role, Williams reported to Harry Lloyd Hopkins (August 17, 1890 – January 29, 1946), one of President Roosevelt's closest advisers, and one of the architects of the New Deal. Hopkins directed the many relief programs of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which he built into the largest employer in the country. In World War II he was Roosevelt's chief diplomatic advisor and troubleshooter, and was a key policy maker in the $50 billion Lend Lease program that sent aid to the allies.
During the mid-1930s, the New Deal had already accomplished much good for the vast number of unemployed, for farmers, for Artists and Writers, for Homeowners, Bank Depositors and Investors. By the spring of 1935 though, 20 percent of the nation’s twenty-two million youngsters remained out of school and either on relief or wandering the country looking for work. In 1937, the President stated: "I have determined, that we shall do something for the nation's unemployed Youth...." Beneficiaries would be all male and female youths aged 16 to 25 not regularly attending school.
Time magazine of that year announced: “By executive order the President forthwith created a National Youth Administration, with Aubrey Williams as executive director, [and] Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Josephine Roche as executive committee chairman. Following the usual New Deal formula, there were to be 48 State Youth Divisions under 48 State Youth Directors, plus Youth Committees in cities, towns, counties.” The young man selected as youth director for the state of Texas was the 26-year-old future president of the United States Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Johnson had begun his political career as the congressional secretary and assistant to Congressman Richard Mifflin Kleberg. In 1935 he left the service of Congressman Kleberg to become Texas state director of the National Youth Administration, headed by Aubrey Williams. During his tenure, the two men established a lasting friendship. In his new position, with headquarters in Austin, Texas, Johnson soon put an elaborate program into effect. Years later, a notable African American leader of the time reportedly said: "In the middle thirties we didn't know Lyndon Johnson from Adam," and continued, "We began to get word up here that there was one NYA director who wasn't like the others. He was looking after Negroes and poor folks and most NYA people weren't doing that." Johnson carried that same progressive spirit into his presidency, as exemplified in his War on Poverty program and the Great Society. It has also be said that these early youth programs were the inspiration for such Johnsonian initiatives as the Job Corps and Upward Bound.
Speaking before the NYA’s advisory committee on Oct. 27, 1941, a meeting attended by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Aubrey Williams stated “I must confess to all of you that I am thoroughly frightened,” further declaring, “I think we are fighting with our backs against the wall all over this country.” In the six years since its creation, the NYA had grown into the closest thing the country had ever had to a comprehensive national youth development program, providing millions of young people with jobs and job training, community service work, recreation, remedial education and real-life lessons in the benefits of democracy at a time when democracy was fighting for its life. But the agency had made powerful enemies – particularly, Washington’s education establishment. Months after the NYA’s advisory committee heard Williams’ warning in the East Room of the White House, the United States Congress cut the agency’s budget and debated killing it altogether. Within two years, the NYA was ended.
- A Southern Rebel: The Life and Times of Aubrey Willis Williams, 1890–1965, by John Salmond
- Jonathan Daniels and Race Relations: The Evolution of a Southern Liberal, by Charles W. Eagles
- Time of Hope, Time of Despair: Black Texans during Reconstruction