African Americans and the New Deal: A Look Back in History

Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

As we celebrate Black History Month and reflect on the decades of struggle that was required to bring the African American community into the mainstream of American life, it seems fair to ask what impact, if any, the New Deal had on the movement to secure equal rights for Blacks during the difficult years of the 1930s and beyond.

Judged from the standards of today, of course, there is much we can criticize about the New Deal/Roosevelt era. It did not bring to an end the tremendous injustices that African Americans had to suffer on a day-to-day basis, and some of its activities, such as the work of the Federal Housing Administration, served to build rather than break down the walls of segregation that separated black from white in Jim Crow America. Yet as Mary McLeod Bethune once noted, the Roosevelt era represented “the first time in their history” that African Americans felt that they could communicate their grievances to their government with the “expectancy of sympathetic understanding and interpretation.” Indeed, it was during the New Deal, that the silent, invisible hand of racism was fully exposed as a national issue; as a problem that at the very least needed to be recognized; as something the county could no longer pretend did not exist.

This shift in attitude, as Havard Sitkoff, the noted historian of the African American experience in the New Deal observes, helped propel the issue of race relations onto the national stage and usher in a new political climate in which “Afro-Americans and their allies could begin to struggle with some expectation of success.” In short, the New Deal, and the rhetorical support given to the cause of civil rights by both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt gave the African American community hope; the chance to dream of a better future, no matter how difficult the struggle might be along the way.

It is also important to recognize that this hope was not merely based on empty promises of change, but on the actual words and deeds spoken by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and taken by the federal government at a time when racism was deeply seared into the American psyche. With respect to the critical issue of employment, for example, we know that by 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was employing approximately 350,000 African Americans annually, about 15% of its total workforce. In the Civilian Conservation Corps, the percentage of blacks who took part climbed from roughly 3% at its outset in 1933 to over 11% by the close of 1938 with a total of more than 350,000 having been enrolled in the CCC by the time the program was shut down in 1942. The National Youth Administration, under the direction of Aubrey Williams, hired more black administrators than any other New deal agency; employed African American supervisors to oversee the work the agency was doing on behalf of black youth for each state in the south; and assisted more than 300,000 Africa American youth during the Depression. In 1934, the Public Works Administration (PWA) inserted a clause in all government construction contracts that established a quota for the hiring of black laborers based on the 1930 labor census and as a consequence a significant number of blacks received skilled employment on PWA projects.

African Americans also benefited from the Federal Music Project, which funded performances of black composers; from the Federal Theatre and Writing Projects, which hired and featured the work of hundreds of African American artists; and from the New Deal’s educational programs, which taught over 1 million illiterate blacks to read and write and which increased the number of African American children attending primary school.

As the leader of a political party that was heavily represented in Congress by racist Southern Democrats who supported segregation and even opposed the adoption of a federal anti-lynching law as an infringement of state’s rights, FDR had to choose his battles carefully and at times appears timorous in the face of racial injustice-especially when viewed from today. But this is the President who appointed a far greater number of blacks to positions of responsibility within his government than any of his predecessors, so much so in fact that this group became known as the “Black Cabinet” or “Black Brain Trust” in the press. FDR was also the first president to appoint an African American as a federal judge; to promote a black man to the rank of Brigadier General in the Army; and, incredible as it might seem, the first president to publicly call lynching murder — “a vile form of collective murder”-which W.E B. Dubois applauded as something that sadly was long overdue. Overall FDR’s administration tripled the number of Africa Americans working for the federal government, including thousands of black engineers, architects, lawyers, librarians, office managers, and other professionals, and under his leadership, and with the strong support of Eleanor Roosevelt, the Democrats included the first specific African American plank in the party platform at the 1936 convention.

The New Deal was not perfect. It could not and did not eliminate segregation, or the pernicious discrimination in employment, wages, and working condition that plagued so many African Americans during the difficult years of the 1930s. Moreover, in spite of the best efforts of federal officials like Harry Hopkins to forbid discriminatory practices among neighborhood relief agencies, such practices often continued at the local level, especially in the South. But in spite of these and other shortcomings, the willingness of the Roosevelt Administration to recognize the existence of a racial problem in American and to take steps at the federal level to ameliorate that problem, was, as Sitkoff notes, unprecedented. It made it clear that the federal government had a responsibility to ensure the civil rights of all Americans were protected; rendered civil rights a core part of the liberal agenda; and inspired a generation of African American leaders to continue to pressure not only the federal government, but also the federal courts, to strike down the laws that underpinned the widespread racial injustice that African Americans had endured since the promise of reconstruction.

Braintruster David Woolner is senior vice president of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.