Willous Floyd Sharp (1896–1969)
Willous Floyd Sharp was a longtime government official. While he served in a number of different capacities at the local, state, and federal levels, he was best known for his leadership of Arkansas’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs during the New Deal.
Floyd Sharp was born on March 28, 1896, in Union, Tennessee, one of seven children born to Rufus Sharp and Mary Jane Sharp. The family moved to Idaho in 1899. In 1907, the family moved to Arkansas, settling in Garland County. Sharp received his early education in the area’s local schools.
He served in the U.S. Army during World War I, and upon his discharge from the military, he got a job working as a printer for the Hot Springs (Garland County) New Era newspaper. Later, he worked for the Arkansas Gazette. His experiences as a printer made him a lifelong union man. At the same time he was working at the paper, Sharp was studying law. He received his law degree in 1925 and began work with the law firm of Poe and Poe. He also worked as a statistician with the Arkansas Department of Labor. From there, he moved to the Emergency Relief Commission, a New Deal forerunner financed by the Herbert Hoover administration’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation.
W. R. Dyess was the original head of the Arkansas WPA, which began operation in July 1935. Serving as Dyess’s executive secretary, Sharp traveled around the state assessing the devastation wrought by the Great Depression. His findings and observations were subsequently published in “Development and Administration of Emergency Programs, Traveling Recovery Road: The Story of Relief, Work-Relief and Rehabilitation in Arkansas, August 30, 1932 to November 15, 1936.” In 1936, Sharp became Arkansas administrator of the WPA after Dyess died in a plane crash.
As state administrator, Sharp oversaw the allocation and implementation of millions of dollars of federal funds, adapting the responsibilities and mission of the WPA to the state’s distinctive—and predominantly rural and agricultural—economy. The agency had to utilize some of that agricultural labor for things like improved roads leading to markets, which in turn helped stimulate the agricultural economy. Under Sharp’s direction, the WPA completed 11,000 miles of country roads. In addition, local schools were improved, and all the WPA’s efforts contributed to a psychological revival for Arkansas’s citizens. The WPA infused the state with significant capital, spending just under $117 million in the state by the time it ceased operation in 1943.
Sharp—whose control over WPA’s millions of federal dollars put him in the middle of state politics—was often at odds with Governor Carl Bailey, who accused Sharp of using the WPA as a political machine against him. Their public feud reached a peak in 1939, when Bailey sought to embarrass Sharp by having his allies launch an investigation into the Dyess Colony, a controversial New Deal agricultural resettlement project overseen by the WPA. However, Sharp’s legislative allies were able to fend off the effort with a filibuster.
While Sharp’s work with Dyess was a central part of his efforts over the years, it would remain something of a political football. Indeed, before its functions were subsumed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1944, a trio of WPA officials, dominated by Sharp, controlled the lives and fortunes of the Dyess colonists, and Sharp personally became somewhat of a cotton baron. And while his early work as a printer had influenced his union views, he was once called to task and summoned to Washington DC because of his failure to fully include tenant farmers in the allocation of WPA funds.
As the government moved from fighting the Depression to fighting World War II, Sharp’s role at the WPA was redefined. After President Franklin Roosevelt’s December 1942 order calling for the full-scale dismantling of the massive relief effort, it fell to Sharp to facilitate this phase of the program. Under the order from Washington, he was to determine which jobs were necessary for either the defense effort or the general welfare of Arkansas. Those would continue, but all others were to be closed down and dismantled by May 1, 1943. At the same time that he was shutting down the Arkansas WPA, he was also serving as the state’s war manpower director, and he also served as the state director of the War Assets Administration from 1942 to 1945. In 1943, Sharp served on the state utilities commission, and he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination in 1944 to run for mayor of Little Rock (Pulaski County).
After the war, he mixed business and government. From 1950 until 1964, he was executive vice president of the politically influential Fagan Electric Company in Little Rock. In addition, he served on the Little Rock Airport Commission for eleven years, stepping down in January 1962 only when he was appointed by Governor Orval Faubus to the State Board of Review as its business representative, an appointment that precluded membership on other local or regional bodies.
Sharp and his wife, Crystal Leone Sharp, were living in Little Rock when he died on December 18, 1969.
For additional information:
Floyd Sharp Scrapbooks. Arkansas State Archives, Little Rock, Arkansas.
“Former Head of State WPA Dies at Age 73.” Arkansas Gazette, December 19, 1969, p. 9B.
Smith, Fred C. Trouble in Goshen: Plain Folk, Roosevelt, Jesus, and Marx in the Great Depression South. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.
“W. Floyd Sharp Lawyer, Executive; Headed WPA.” Arkansas Democrat, December 19, 1969, p. 7B.
William H. Pruden III
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