US History-Great Depression Essay
The Great Depression unnerved African Americans in south. Faced with the double burden of racism and Depression- induced poverty, black people struggled to survive. (Bramowitz, Mildred Winer, 1970)
Skyrocketing unemployment threw blacks into deepening poverty. In the first years of the Depression, an estimated 30 percent of black men and 40 percent of black women were unemployed; by 1934, half of all black were out of work (Leonard Leader, 1991, 6, 11, 14). Because blacks were disproportionately employed in the service sector, they were particularly vulnerable to the economic crisis that forced even well-to-do residents to scale back on luxuries like keeping servants, dining out, and traveling by rail.
At it was worst Volksgeistian Conservatism justification, an intellectual legitimation of a sad racial plight. In that it contended that whites could do nothing essential about blacks but must leave them room to find their own genius and salvation, Volksgeistian Conservatism sanctioned a white withdrawal from blackness both in the body and in the mind. A logical result of such thinking was the promotion of the invisibility of black people, the further removal of white people from the possibility of recognizing the equal humanity of blacks, and, finally, the loss of the black problem in the white mind. Volksgeistian Conservatism licensed the turning of the white elite away from its hereditary interest in blacks, and it encouraged them to channel their interest instead toward their white brothers and sisters. The fear and hatred engendered by Radicalism shifted, too, from blacks to the alien enemy–to Jews, Catholics, and the Communist threat from abroad.
The white South in the 1920s and 1930s became, in both its mind and body, what it had been seeking to be since the 1830s, a relatively solid, unitary, most-together place. It was precisely this fact that made it possible for Wilbur Cash, who had been born in 1900 and matured in the 1920s to write such a book as The Mind of the South ( 1941). The profound fissures that had existed in the South before those years–between black and white, between the slaveholding elite and the non-slaveholding mass and, subsequently, the social heirs of each, Conservative Democrats and Radical Populists, between racial Conservatives and racial Radicals, and between men and women–were not dissolved, but they were covered over by a heavy plastering of myth, troweled smoothly on by an elite determined to make it seem that there were no cracks in the structure that was their world and never really had been. Out of that labor of mythologizing the past and imagining the present, they brought forth a most peculiar phenomenon. In the South, white leadership adduced a silver age without there ever having been a golden one. They imagined a past that never was.
The most striking aspect of race relations in the South since the Radical era has been the inability of white people to grab hold of and securely retain an appreciation of the realities of black existence. Radicalism served to disengage white people from black people with unprecedented totality, practically to finish, in fact, a move toward unreality in race relations that had begun in the last generation of slavery and was signalized by the creation of the Sambo stereotype. It is ironic that, after such a great display of strength, by 1915 Radicalism had lost its hold on race relations and had died as a system of thinking about black-white relations. With that death went the death of the image of the Negro as beast. Of course, various ideas and attitudes of Radicalism persisted and evolved (such as an association of black people and super-sexuality), but Radicalism as a thought-set passed away and was soon lost to living memory. In spite of its short life, Radicalism had possessed great power, especially in the black belts. It had done its work there most effectively, more effectively in fact than its authors ever appreciated. In the black belts, it left black people in a society in which ruling institutions had been reshaped in an ethos that presumed their eventual demise. Those institutions persisted even though that assumption was forgotten by the society as a whole. The result was that black people lived in a world in which powerful forces worked automatically day by day to depress the quality of their lives. Moreover, Radicalism, by its very death, contributed to the continued reduction of black people because, as Radicalism dissolved, its absence induced Conservatism to flow quietly and gently back into the land, to fill young minds, and, in essence, to freeze race relations at the low levels generated by the Radical rage.
Individual Radical leaders lived beyond 1915, of course, and many of them continued to think, talk, and do battle as before. Shaking hoary heads, waving palsied hands, and crying out in reedy voices, like so many aging Cassandras, they warned of the race war to come. Most alarming to them were the apathy of uncommitted youth, and the tendency of these to lose sight of the black menace. Speaking in upcountry South Carolina in 1909, that unhappy and wrinkling warrior Ben Tillman struggled to muster troops for the new fight as he had for the old in 1876. (Stimpson, Eddie, 1976)
Tillman was undeceived by accommodationist dissembling, and he remained a Radical until he died of a stroke in 1918. So too did other Radical leaders keep the faith. Tom Watson passed away in 1922, having been elected to the United States Senate for the term 1921-27. The governor of Georgia appointed Rebecca Felton to fill the office until a special election could be held. Walter George was elected, and he very graciously allowed the still lively Felton, then aged eighty-eight, to occupy that seat for two days before appearing to take the oath himself. One can only imagine the sense of satisfaction Rebecca Felton must have derived from being the first woman ever to take a seat in the upper house of the highest legislature in the land. She died in 1930, and so too did James K. Vardaman, in his case after nearly a decade of mental illness. Tom Dixon lived on until 1946, but was virtually an invalid during the last ten years of his life. Radical leaders persisted, and often they thrived in the areas of their lives that lay outside of race, but like trees that fall in the deserted woods, their Radicalism tumbled and crashed where there was no ear to hear, no eye to see, and no one to care. They continued to preach a race war, but nobody came.
The very success of the Radicals in their first great effort promoted their failure in this last campaign. Conservatism had been practically muted in the black belts, and there were no whites willing to give vigorous battle. But most of all, Radicalism was defeated by the fact that its basic assumption was grossly in error. Black people were not retrogressing, and they were most definitely not going to disappear. Indeed, as the census of 1900 clearly showed and that of 1910 confirmed, the number of black people, like that of white people, was steadily increasing decade after decade. Intelligent young Southerners, noting those statistics, seeing blacks all around, and not having matured in the world to which the Radical leadership had matured, simply had no faith in the dissolution of black people. Blacks were here to stay, they thought, and, further, that fact did not demand much attention because blacks would stay in their places. The new generation took Booker T. Washington at what they thought to be his word: that he spoke for all Negroes, that all Negroes were happy in their then low estate, that they were content to put down their buckets where they were and work with what they had, and that they were to be, essentially, hewers of wood and drawers of water.
Throughout the South the new generation of white people, the generation that was born about 1900 and came to maturity in the 1920s and 1930s strangely lost the Radical idea of race, but they lived with the fruit of their Radical fathers’ thought. Their racial patrimony, however unwillingly bequeathed, dwindled from a Negro dead and dissolved to a Negro felled and fixed in a new low of super-subordination. The base line of the new orthodoxy, the anchor that held it firmly to earth, was the reality of Negro life. Negroes in the mass in the black belts were undeniably low. To white people in the new order, it seemed that a simple recognition of material and moral realities argued that blacks were indeed what whites assumed them to be. In white minds, the fact supported the idea, and the idea supported the fact. The power of white people in the South was not without limits, but at the local level it had terrific force to press black life downward and outward.
White-hot Radicalism melted white people away from racial realities so thoroughly that they were unable to re-establish relatively effective contact with blacks for some two generations afterward. The image of the black beast had been born suddenly and grew prodigiously. Everywhere was the potential rapist, waiting for the unwary prey–to rape, mutilate, and murder. It was indeed a system to raise emotional fevers and breed insanities. The horror of the black image in the white mind was soon matched, and overmatched, by the real horror that was inflicted upon blacks by whites in riots and lynching. Ultimately they turned and walked away, and they did not look back. There followed a decade of relative vacuity, a racial hiatus. Whites were certainly not talking much about black people, and, apparently, they were not thinking much about them either.
What came out of the hiatus was still another image, another stereotype of the Negro–the neo-Sambo. Neo-Sambo, the Negro who appeared in the white Conservative mind in the 1920s and after, was substantially diminished from the 1890s’ version. Strangely he had somehow lost his progressive capacity. His engine in the model described by Booker T. Washington had somehow lost power. The sage of Tuskegee had died in 1915, and there was no longer a single conspicuous person who seemed to have a license to speak for blacks or to lead them. Instead there were many lesser leaders and in the South they seemed to voice only fading echoes of Tuskegee. Neo-Sambo did not press forward as a separate finger of the social hand. Indeed, it seemed to whites that he hardly thrust for- ward at all, but he did continue to be unthreatening. Like the original Sambo, he was docile, subordinate, pliable, conforming, and loyal. What had changed was that blacks, male and female, were allowed to gain a species of adulthood and a measure of independence within a separated world not permitted in the pre-Civil War model. These qualities would be handy to Southern whites if blacks were a permanent presence, and if they were to remain essentially “out there” rather than to be invited “in here.” Blacks had learned to survive in the world without the constant and immediate supervision afforded by slavery, and they were marginally useful. They could be released after work on Saturday to do whatever marvelous things it was they did on Saturday night, and usually they could be trusted to show up again Monday morning, if only in jail. In the eyes of white people, blacks did retain some of the qualities of children, but they were child-like young adults rather than the raw children of the Sambo model. They were naïve, physical, easily frightened, sometimes innocently wise, usually harmless, and frequently amusing. They often engaged in “antics,” guffaws, knee-slaps, jumps, and turns.
Some few exceptional black people were comfortably mature, much above the common type, and they usually became the local leaders by white designation. Often the local leader was a minister, undertaker, restaurant owner, landlord, storekeeper, or hip-pocket banker. His money came from the hands of black people who worked for the whites, and he drew a measure of insulation and hence of independence from that fact. Whites in the know quoted him as the authority on all things black. Whatever the words, the message was always the same: “He says that black people like it down there, and they always behave that way.” The mass of blacks in their separate communities could be safely left to the management of these local leaders who understood them so well and explained them in confidential voices to interested whites.
The black leader had an elevated status only in his local world. If he left home he melted into the black mass. In the eyes of the whites, all Negroes looked alike unless they knew them very personally, and, in the opinion of whites, all could be treated essentially alike. Black people who resisted the neo-Sambo role were either exiled, jailed, killed, or they became, quite simply, “invisible.” The new image of black people was suggested accurately enough by characters who appeared in the world of white entertainment–first on the stage, then on the radio, and finally on film. The black person in the abstract often was the singularly talented entertainer, dancer, or musician who, it seemed, had no other life than that of delighting white people. Beloved among whites were such characters as Amos and Andy, the Kingfish, Aunt Jemima, Stepin Fetchit, Buckwheat of “Our Gang” comedies, Scariett O’Hara’s Mammy, and Jack Benny’s man Rochester. Among the favorites in a different, more serious vein, was George Washington Carver of peanut butter semi-fame. Credits were given by whites to black talent, but it was always discounted even as it was awarded.
In the 1920s, 1930s, and on into the 1940s, neo-Sambo washed over the black beast in Southern white minds, rendering Marcus Garvey merely pretentious and ridiculous, obscuring W. E. B. DuBois and the NAACP, fading to fleeting shadows the image of the black beast rapist, and totally erasing any active memory of Nat Turner and black men in the Union Army during the Civil War, black rebels against white rebels, double rebels, ready, willing, and able to shoot down white men upon the field of battle. Again in the mid-twentieth century, as in the last generation of slavery, white Southerners were insisting that their Negroes were good Negroes, and there was really no Negro problem at all as long as Negroes remained in the place made for them, and misguided and ill intentioned whites left them alone.
For those of all races, the Great Depression presented American workers with unprecedented hardships and misery, but also with an extraordinary new opportunity. The creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1936 brought into the American labor movement legions of unskilled and semiskilled workers who had long been excluded by the narrow craft unionism of the AFL. Union membership rose from 20,000 at the beginning of the Depression to more than 150,000 by 1938 (Leonard Leader, 14). In cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Birmingham, where blacks were a substantial part of the automobile, steel, and meatpacking labor forces, the CIO became a potent ally in the battle for racial equality, often joining with local civil rights groups and churches to campaign against racial discrimination at work and at home (August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, 1979).
But in Los Angeles, where blacks were either excluded from most industries or limited to unorganized custodial work in factories, they were prevented from garnering the benefits of the CIO’s official commitment to egalitarianism. Mexican workers, however, did benefit from organized labor’s growing strength in Los Angeles, where the CIO became a vehicle for their politicization. Organizing warehousemen as well as textile, agriculture, steel, and transportation workers, the CIO fought against the “Mexican wage” and actively recruited new workers in the Mexican community. The Los Angeles CIO Council created the Committee to Aid Mexican Workers, which protested police harassment and encouraged Mexican Americans to become active participants in the American electoral process. By the end of the Depression, the CIO had organized more than fifteen thousand Mexican workers in the Los Angeles area. (John H. M. Laslett and Mary Tyler, The 1989, 37–52)
With the exception of several integrated locals of the AFL’s Waiters, Letter Carriers, and Bricklayers unions, most union activity involving African Americans was limited to black-only unions. The Southern Pacific’s redcap station porters organized in Los Angeles in 1932 and gained an AFL charter in 1933. Though small, with approximately eighty members in 1938, this union was powerful because white preference for black servants effectively gave black redcaps a monopoly on their positions. In 1937, the Red Cap Station Porters Federal Local 18329, which represented West Coast redcaps, negotiated the first contract in the nation between an all-black redcap union and a railroad company, the Southern Pacific. The contract governed hours of service, rate of pay, and working conditions for West Coast redcaps. Most important, it abolished the classification of redcaps as “voluntary workers, ” a classification that had allowed the railroad not to pay these workers, forcing them to survive on tips alone. (Eric Arnesen, 2001, 170).
In 1925, porter Charles Upton organized local of the independent Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). But the BSCP ran into more difficulties than the redcaps had encountered. Until the passage of the Amended Railway Labor Act of 1934, which protected railroad workers’ right to organize, Pullman Company representatives threatened Upton for his union activities, forcing him to hold meetings in his car and other secret locations. He reported that this intimidation was highly effective at discouraging porters who “were married, had responsibilities and were either buying or owned their homes; for those reasons they could not come out into the open with their union activities.” Yet, even after 1934, Upton complained that “a number of the older men retain a reticent attitude and do not ally themselves with the unions, ” an explanation for why fewer than half of Los Angeles porters were union members in 1938. Nor were those porters who joined the union particularly enthusiastic “union men.” Upton complained about dwindling attendance at union meetings and grew exasperated when Los Angeles porters failed to donate a portion of their wages to the defense fund for labor radical Harry Bridges in 1939, writing privately that his porters were “a bunch of reactionaries. ” More likely, however, porters in Los Angeles were neither “reactionaries” nor naüve. Rather, their dream of life in Los Angeles was one of comfort rather than conflict.
If blacks benefited only minimally from organized labor’s sweeping Depression -era campaign, the anti-poverty programs of FDR’s New Deal proved far more ameliorative. According to Douglas Flamming, Mayor Frank Shaw, a Republican, elicited tens of millions of dollars from the federal government and oversaw 444 New Deal projects in Los Angeles, employing approximately forty thousand workers. For blacks, New Deal programs paradoxically both provided vital job opportunities and perpetuated racial segregation. The National Youth Administration (NYA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) unabashedly discriminated against African Americans; in the case of the CCC, black and white youths were often divided into separate work camps. Nonetheless, the heavily segregated NYA ultimately employed more than two thousand black youths in California at the height of the Depression. Similarly, the CCC hired numerous black workers to help maintain California’s parks and roads. Twenty-year-old Ersey O’Brien worked at a CCC camp just north of San Diego, earning thirty dollars a month fighting fires, digging ditches, building roads, and driving trucks. Despite segregation, O’Brien remembers, his CCC days were important, not only because they provided a much-needed paycheck but also because “most of us had never been anywhere away from home and this taught us how to live with other people” and instilled a sense of discipline (Olen Cole Jr., (1991):385–402).
However, for many politically active African Americans, the perpetuation of racial segregation in federal programs was intolerable, whatever the real economic, and perhaps social, benefits such programs conferred. Floyd Covington, Urban League director and local caseworker for the State Emergency Relief Administration, inveighed against segregation in the NYA; and the local NAACP vigorously protested discrimination in the CWA. Although these particular protests met with only limited success, black organizations played a central role in anti-poverty efforts in the black community. The Urban League’s job placement program, for example, proved to be a highly effective complement to the New Deal programs. Statistics from the early years of the Depression suggest that more blacks sought employment through the Urban League than through California’s expansive State Employment Agency. More broadly, the Los Angeles NAACP aggressively challenged racial discrimination in education, housing, and job training. For example, attorney and Los Angeles NAACP president Thomas L. Griffith sued the suburban Monrovia school district for forcing the area’s black and Mexican students into a segregated school building deemed structurally unsound by the State Architect Department.
The New Deal brought to black southerners both the change of hopefulness and the continuation of suffering and misery. More potent in promise than in performance, the New Deal significantly conditioned the future of Afro-Americans but could not escape the black past. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whatever his own racial inclinations or ideology, had no tabula rasa upon which to work. The heritage of racism shaped the circumstances in which the New Deal operated. It set the limits on possibilities for racial reform in the 1930s. And because the hand of history weighed more heavily on certain regions, the New Deal positively affected blacks less in the South than in the North, and rural southern blacks least of all.
Past politics severely circumscribed the potential of a new deal for black southerners. Because of an entrenched one-party sys tem in Dixie, Democratic weakness above the Mason-Dixon line in the 1920s, and the continuation of the seniority rule to determine congressional power, Roosevelt had little alternative to seeking the support of, and capitulating to the racism of, the white southerners who controlled Congress. He needed their votes for New Deal legislation and appropriations, and the president would take no action on the racial front that would estrange the white southern politicians who commanded over half the committee chairmanships and a majority of leadership positions in every congressional session during the 1930s. “I did not choose the tools with which I must work,” Roosevelt explained when declining to press for antilynching legislation:
Had I been permitted to choose them I would have selected quite different ones. But I’ve got to get legislation passed by Congress to save America. The Southerners by reason of the seniority rule in Congress are chairman or occupy strategic places on most of the Senate and House committees. If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take that risk. (John B. Kirby, 1980)
Powerful traditions of decentralization and states’ rights also undermined the quest of Afro-Americans for equitable treatment in the Great Depression. The local administration of relief and recovery projects, despite numerous executive orders and legislative clauses prohibiting racial discrimination in the New Deal, left southern blacks at the mercy of those planters, industrialists, union chieftains and political officeholders who stood to profit the most by continuing to oppress Afro-Americans. Those who made the decisions at the local level made sure black southerners never shared fully or fairly in the material benefits of the New Deal.( Allan Morrison, 1951, 9)
The deficiencies of broker state leadership for the least influential, moreover, prevented blacks from receiving the kind and amount of governmental assistance they desperately needed. A political system dispensing aid on the basis of the strength of the groups demanding it necessarily worked to the disadvantage of the largely poor and unorganized black community. As Henry Lee Moon of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wrote:
The public interest, democratic principles, justice, ethics, or even the law are seldom the bases upon which conflicts are resolved. Faced with the necessity of resolving a conflict, administration invariably yields to that group which can bring the greatest pressure to bear, illustrating anew that government in a democracy is government by compromise. Too frequently this compromise is characterized by the forced yielding on the part of the weaker to the stronger of two contending groups…. It is obvious that under such conditions, the claims of the Negro, however sound, just and legal, are seldom granted when they appear to conflict with the claims of a white group. (Henry Lee Moon, 1943, 69)
Southern blacks could not get a new deal when their oppressors held all the power cards and could stack the deck against Afro Americans.
In addition, the very ubiquity of the worst depression in American history determined the limited parameters of the New Deal’s efforts to remedy the plight of blacks. Hard times defined Roosevelt’s mandate and kept the pressure on the New Deal to promote economic recovery at the expense of other needed changes. All else had to wait. “First things come first,” the President repeated again and again, “and I can’t alienate certain votes I need for measures that are more important at the moment by pushing any measures that would entail a fight.” Roosevelt would not permit New Deal solicitude for blacks to jeopardize the economic reconstruction that he and the vast majority of the American people considered their immediate and preeminent priority. Therefore caution, often timidity, governed the New Deal’s fundamental approach to racial matters in the South. (Henry Lee Moon, 1943, 69)
Most importantly, three centuries of southern history prior to the New Deal had trapped the mass of blacks in what Oscar Lewis would later call the “culture of Poverty.” The wrongs of the past continued to injure blacks who sought to survive the depression. Millions of blacks in the 1930s remained enslaved by disease and disfranchisement, by a dearth of opportunity for employment and education, by social disorganization and dormancy, by isolation and intimidation. Fear, weakness, and resignation bred a crippling paralysis of will to struggle. Those most likely to resist oppression went north when they could, convince that migration was the surest path to advancement. Those that stayed lacked the where with all to overcome those insisting that they remain the mudsill. Their debilitated status left black southerners without the weapons to fight for the rights of citizenship or a rightful share of New Deal largess. The heritage of black poverty and powerlessness underlay the constraints on Roosevelt, and the New Deal’s failure to attack Jim Crow or to succor southern blacks to the extent warranted by their distress (Robert C. Weaver, 1942, 47-59).
The early New Deal efforts at economic recovery starkly revealed the institutional and structural determinants inhibiting salutary change for black southerners. Afro-Americans played no role in the planning or implementation of the programs handled by the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). They had no influence with the officials who managed these matters. And they could hardly gain from policies which callously neglected those at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.
Quickly following its inception, Afro-Americans jibed that NRA meant “Negro Run Around,” “Negro Removal Administration,” or “Negroes Ruined Again.” The NRA primarily affected black southerners by increasing the prices they had to pay as consumers and by inducing employees to replace black labor with white workers. The NRA’s effort to raise labor standards largely bypassed southern blacks since the wage codes excluded those who toiled in agriculture and domestic service. Less than one in four employed blacks worked in industry or commerce. In addition, the manufacturing and retail codes of the NRA were heavily weighted in favor of large-scale, efficient, modernized enter prizes, and against those firms operating at the margins of the economy, which included the bulk of southern black businesses. Consequently, the NRA hastened black bankruptcies and forced disadvantaged black entrepreneurs to close shop and join the ranks of the unemployed.
The NRA’s requirement that labor receive higher wages, moreover, led to thousands of black workers being displaced by white employees. The NRA certainly did not initiate this process. Given the surplus of available white labor, precious few southern industrialists saw any reason to hire blacks. But, ironically, the NRA hastened the mass firing of Afro-Americans by not acquiescing to the white southern demand for a racial differential, a lower wage scale for blacks. Few southern bosses could stomach the notion of nonracist equal pay for equal work; and when the NRA increased the average wage in tobacco manufacturing from 19¢ to 32¢ an hour, and the Fair Labor Standards Act later raised it to 65¢ an hour, the upshot was a halving of black employment and a simultaneous gain in the number of white workers by more than 40 percent. For most southern black laborers, the only alternative to displacement was acceptance of spurious occupational classifications. These meant either lower wages than whites received for the same work, as happened in the southern foundries, or exclusion from NRA coverage, which transpired for the thousands of blacks employed in southern cotton oil and textile mills. Few blacks dissented when the Norfolk Journal and Guide categorized the Blue Eagle as “a predatory bird instead of a feathered messenger of happiness.”(John P. Davis, 1934, 7-9).
The administration of the Agricultural Adjustment Act proved even more harmful for southern blacks. The AAA aimed to raise farm prices by creating scarcity; it provided subsidies for farmers who restricted acreage and crop production. But, never intending to reform landlord-tenant relationships, the AAA eschewed safeguards to protect the exploited landless peasantry that constituted a quarter of the southern population. The result for more than 5.5 million southern whites and nearly 3 million southern blacks was either the forced exodus from the lands they toiled or the worsening of a miserably poor existence marked by chronic squalor and servility.
The AAA cotton program did little for southern tenant farmers that a plague of boll weevils could not have done. It reduced cotton acreage, and acquiesced in the massive cheating of croppers out of their share of the subsidy and in the eviction of tenants whose labor was no longer needed. This callous indifference to the plight of the South’s “forgotten farmers” by the large landowners who dominated the county committees, abetted by the Farm Bureau—Extension Service—land grant college axis which set agricultural policies in Washington, undoubtedly reflected as much class as racial bias. But because more than three out of every four black farmers worked land they did not own, compared to slightly less than half the white farmers in the South, and because black agricultural operators constituted some 40 percent of all employed black southerners, the tragic harm perpetuated by the AAA wreaked epidemic affliction on Afro Americans. Instead of higher incomes, the AAA brought greater indigence to the black tenantry (Thomas J. Woofter, 1940, 53-59).
The economic boom promised by the Tennessee Valley Authority proved similarly illusory. The TVA’s vaunted rhetoric of “grassroots democracy” once again meant local control by those southern whites most determined to prevent Afro-Americans from getting a new deal. Those who had traditionally oppressed blacks in the Valley stayed “in the saddle,” and white racism rode high. White southerners excluded blacks from living in the new model town of Norris; segregated work crews relegated blacks to the least skilled, lowest paying jobs; refused to admit blacks to TVA vocational schools or to training sessions in foremanship; denied blacks clerical positions; established racially separate employment offices and drinking fountains; and Jim-Crowed blacks in housing and recreational facilities. Although TVA’s employment situation gradually changed for the better for blacks, so that by the end of the decade the number of blacks in the work force and their percentage of the total payroll constituted a higher proportion than their population in the area, TVA continued to conform to the racist byways of the region. Segregation and white supremacy remained inviolate.
The recovery program simply did not take the needs of black southerners into account. It sought to restore the morale and jobs of middle-class America. It never contemplated reforming the structural bases of black impoverishment and infirmity. NRA administrator Hugh Johnson would not permit his subordinates even to consider the special plight of blacks in the South. TVA chairman Arthur Morgan, ever-fearful of provoking local white hostility to the Authority, would offer Afro-Americans nothing more than the admonition that they continue “inching along.” And Cully Cobb, the head of the Cotton Section, implanted into AAA policies all the prejudices acquired from a lifetime of work with the white southern agricultural establishment.
The relief and welfare operations of the New Deal, on the other hand, did assist black southerners to a significant extent. At the least, they enabled Afro-Americans to survive the depression. More sensitively administered, overall, these New Deal programs took some real strides toward ameliorating black distress. In the face of strident southern white opposition, such New Dealers as Will Alexander, Harold Ickes and Aubrey Williams battled for a fair share of relief for blacks. Although their commitment proved salutary, their accomplishments remained limited. Black southerners endured, but did not advance in the 1930s. The New Deal could neither aid Afro-Americans to the extent their privation required nor vanquish Jim Crow in the South.
Robert Fechner never tried. The director of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a southerner and former head of a white only labor union, Fechner even sought to impose segregation in northern locales that opposed Jim Crow. Throughout the South, Fechner cooperated with state directors of selection like John de la Perriere of Georgia who desired to see black youth only chopping cotton, and who argued that “there are few negro families who … need an income as great as $25 a month.” Despite unemployment rate for young black males twice that of white youth, the southern local officials who picked the CCC enrollees consistently gave preferences to whites. Blacks constituted less than 3 percent of the first 250,000 in the CCC. Counties with black majorities in Georgia had no blacks in the CCC, and Mississippi, over half-black, permitted but 1.7 percent of its CCC allotment to go to Afro-Americans.
Gradually, protests from Negro organizations and pressure from New Dealers sympathetic to the plight of blacks forced Fechner to relent, somewhat. Although blacks in the South stayed in segregated CCC units, were kept out of training programs that would lead to their advancement, were generally excluded from educational and supervisory positions, and continued to remain numerically underrepresented, their numbers and opportunities slowly increased. By late 1936, they made up some 6 percent of the youths in the Corps, nearly ten percent a year later, and 11 percent in 1938. That year about 40,000 young blacks were sending $700,000 a month home to their parents and dependents. By the start of 1939, almost 200,000 blacks had served in the CCC, and, because the defense boom caused a drop in white enrollments, when the Corps ended in 1942 the number of blacks who had joined the CCC totaled 350,000. Over 40,000 Afro-Americans who had entered the CCC as illiterates had learned to read and write (John A. Salmond, 1965, 75-88).
Despite the perpetuation of Jim Crow, it is obvious how much such assistance meant to blacks. And a hint of a new deal did appear in many relief and welfare operations. The Unemployment Relief Act of 1933, setting up the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, specifically banned racial discrimination, and Harry Hopkins, FDR’s choice to head the relief program, conscientiously worked toward that goal. Both FERA and the Civil Works Administration, the work-relief effort of the winter of 1933-34, sought to provide adequate allotments without regard to race. But resistance from southern whites came swiftly. They found CWA’s uniform wage scale and FERA’s equal relief grants bitter pills to swallow. Complaints poured in of blacks spoiled by relief, no longer beholden to local landlords, no longer hungry and a willing source of cheap labor, earning more on work-relief than white laborers in private enterprise.
Relief thus jeopardized dearly held class and racial arrangements, and Hopkins’s resolve slackened. New regulations prohibited relief payments from exceeding prevailing salaries in a region, lowered the hourly minimum wages on work-relief, permitted the closing of relief projects during the cotton-picking season to provide the labor planters desired, and gave great discretion to state and local relief officials in the administration of their programs. Consequently, the Negro’s chance for obtaining relief, and the amount of relief, was greatest in the urban North, less in the cities of the South, and least of all in the rural South, where the majority of Afro-Americans still lived in the 1930s.
Discrimination was rife and blacks remained at the mercy of the lily-white personnel in local relief offices. Yet, federal relief enabled southern blacks to survive the depression. Although they never received assistance commensurate with their need, blacks comprised a higher proportion of the work relief rolls than their percentage of the population almost everywhere in the South throughout most of the decade.
Much the same pattern of assistance with discrimination in the South prevailed in the Works Progress Administration. Executive orders prohibiting discrimination notwithstanding, local relief officials made it more difficult for blacks than whites to get on the WPA rolls and paid blacks less for the work-relief they performed than they did whites. By mid-1940, the fourteen southern and Border States still had only eleven blacks among its more than ten thousand supervisors. Yet, the millions of dollars spent by the WPA for southern blacks meant survival, when even that had been in doubt. In 1938, some 140,000 black southerners worked on WPA projects. The following year, nearly three‐ quarters of a million black families in the South lived primarily on their WPA earnings. Indeed, the Works Progress Administration by the end of the 1930s rivaled both agriculture and domestic service as the chief source of black income in the South.
The Public Works Administration also provided work-relief for the unemployed. Tightly run by Harold Ickes, a former president of the NAACP in Chicago, who insisted “that Congress intended this program to be carried out without discrimination,” the PWA stipulated that all its construction contracts specify that the number of blacks hired and their percentage of the project payroll be equal to the proportion of blacks in the 1930 occupational census. Although sometimes disregarded by local officials and contractors, this quota resulted in unprecedented wages for southern black laborers and led to the admission of hundreds of blacks into previously all-white southern construction trade unions. It later led to similar quotas by the United States Housing Authority, the Federal Works Agency, and the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practices.
Due primiarly to Ickes’s vigilance, moreover, blacks received 59 percent of the federally subsidized PWA and USHA housing in the South, and some $40 million in PWA funds went into the construction or renovation of over eight hundred hospitals, school buildings and libraries for southern blacks. This was a sum far, far greater than the federal government had spent for blacks during the seven decades after Emancipation.
Following Ickes’s lead, Aubrey Williams, the head of the National Youth Administration until its end in 1943, also made assistance to blacks one of his top priorities. Although the NYA accepted segregated projects in the South and employed a disproportionate number of southern blacks in servile work, Williams was attacked by white supremacists as a “nigger lover” and traitor to his native Alabama because he hired black administrative assistants to supervise Negro work in every southern state, forbade either geographical or racial differentials in wages, and insisted that Afro-American secondary and college students in every southern state receive aid at least in proportion to their numbers in the population. Still, the NYA helped only a minority of southern black youth who needed assistance. Despite Williams’s fervor and the presence of more Afro-Americans in administrative posts in the NYA than in any other New Deal program, ably led by Mary McLeod Bethune, who headed the Office of Negro Affairs, the presence of proportionally far fewer black students than white in the South and the extremely limited scope of the out-of-school work program minimized the impact of the National Youth Administration.
Similarly, despite the best of intentions toward Afro‐ Americans, the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration also barely scratched the surface of the needs of impoverished rural blacks in the South. The federal government’s first “war on poverty” was simply overwhelmed by problems beyond its resources. Both Rexford Tugwell, chief of the RA, and Dr. Will Alexander, head of the FSA, showed real concern for southern blacks. Against determined opposition by the southern agricultural establishment and its spokesmen in Congress, even against the wishes of their own local committees in the South that administered RA and FSA programs, Tugwell and especially Alexander managed to insure benefits for black farmers roughly proportionate to their percentage of southern farm operators. But they could not prevent local committees from discriminating against blacks in the amount of loans awarded. And they could not force appropriations out of Congress to provide for more than a mere 1,393 black families on FSA resettlement communities by 1940. Even this minimal effort, however, earned the FSA a reputation as a “disturber of the peace,” and a top place on the southern conservative’s “death list” of New Deal agencies. (Donald Holley, 1971, 179-93)
Whether the New Deal could have done more to aid black southerners economically is problematic; the shortcomings of what it did are obvious. It never spent the kind of truly massive sums for relief that might have provided a new deal for those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. And, except for the small minority of New Deal projects actually controlled by officials in Washington, like the contracts for PWA construction, it largely capitulated to local prejudice against blacks and allowed racial discrimination in the administration of relief. The great mass of black southerners remained in 1941, as they had been in 1933, victims of a brutally inequitable caste system. They continued to be mired in the ranks of menials, sharecroppers, unskilled laborers and domestics, twice as likely to be unemployed as southern whites and earning only half the income of them when they could find work.
Nevertheless, in no small part because of the economic assistance that Afro-Americans did receive, blacks supported the New Deal enthusiastically. They expressed their gratitude for New Deal efforts to relieve black distress in letters to the White House, in responses to interviewers, in lofty proclamations and in earthy blues music, in how they voted and struggled to vote. Black southerners who had never before received more than crumbs eagerly accepted half a loaf. Despite receiving less aid than they needed, the New Deal exceeded their expectations. Hence, for the vast majority of southern blacks, the continuity of discrimination seemed secondary to the significance of work relief, access to better housing, a government-sponsored health clinic or infant care program, a federal program of part-time employment so youths could stay in school, a FSA loan to purchase a farm, new recreational or educational facilities in the neighborhood, a chance for vocational training or the opportunity to learn to read and write in WPA literacy classes.
Black southerners responded to the New Deal record on race relations comparably, glorifying Roosevelt on the basis of what they believed could be and has been rather than damning him on a standard of what might be. They expected the leadership of civil rights groups to criticize the president’s failings yet, overall, blacks judged FDR as far superior to past presidents on racial matters. They credited him for taking political risks for blacks and for defying white supremacists, however deficient his actual effort to insure racial justice. Southern blacks well understood the stiff resistance encountered by even racial moderation and gradualism. Their expectations did not yet demand a frontal assault on Jim Crow, and the New Deal’s limited immediate consequences seemed of less import than the implied promise of change. (Lowitt, Richard and Maurine Beasley, 1966)
In this spirit, blacks lauded the growing roster of Afro Americans working for the government. The number of blacks on the federal payroll more than tripled during the depression decade, doubling the proportion of blacks in government jobs in the 1920s.
Although most of the 150,000 black federal employees in 1941 worked in unskilled and semiskilled positions, New Dealers unprecedently hired blacks as economists and engineers, as lawyers and librarians, as scientists and office managers. Gunnar Myrdal termed this novel development “the first significant step toward the participation of Negros in federal government activity.” And to prepare the way for future steps, the Roosevelt Administration abolished the Civil Service regulations that had required job-seekers to designate their race and to attach a photograph to their application forms. Numerous New Deal officials, moreover, desegregated the cafeterias, restrooms, and secretarial pools in their agencies and departments, further signifying that black interests counted, that the Democratic constituency included blacks, and that the New Deal sought—in Ralph Bunche’s words—”the full integration of the Negro into administrative government.”( Laurence J. W. Hayes, 1941)
The appointment of over a hundred blacks to administrative posts in the New Deal proved an even more visible reminder of a concern for Afro-American needs shown by no previous administration. Reversing two decades of diminishing black patronage, Roosevelt elicited howls from his white southern supporters that “Negroes were taking over the White House” by his selection of a far larger number than ever before of race relations advisers in formal government positions and his placement of them in positions of public importance so that both other government officials and blacks regarded their presence as significant. Popularly referred to as the Black Cabinet or Black Brain Trust, these black officials pushed for more equity in the relief and recovery programs and for greater concern by the Roosevelt Administration on all issues of civil rights. They rarely succeeded. They never possessed real power. But the very fact of such a large number of black government officials, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP emphasized, “had never existed before.” Their presence and prominence symbolized a New Deal effort to break with prevailing customs of racial conservatism, as did Roosevelt’s selection of William Hastie as the first Afro-American federal judge in American history. In political language, such appointments meant that blacks now mattered.
So did the rhetoric and gestures of the Democratic Party in election years. To garner black votes, Roosevelt orchestrated a series of precedent-shattering “firsts.” Thirty black delegates attended the 1936 Democratic national convention. Never before had the Democrats accredited an Afro-American as a delegate. For the first time, moreover, the Democrats in 1936 invited black reporters into the regular press box, chose a black minister to offer the convention invocation, selected black politicians to deliver the welcoming address and one of the speeches seconding Roosevelt’s renomination, and even placed a Negro on the delegation to notify Vice-President John Nance Garner of Texas of his renomination. During the campaign, Roosevelt pointedly promised that in his administration there would be “no forgotten races” as well as no forgotten men. In 1940, the President publicly affirmed his administration’s intention to include blacks fully and fairly in defense training and employment, promoted the first black to the army rank of brigadier general, and, for the first time, included a specific Negro plank in the party platform, pledging “to strive for complete legislative safeguards against discrimination in government service and benefits and in the national defense forces.” Such political tokens promised more than they delivered; but in the context of the times they had significant impact in their future implications and in whetting the appetites of blacks for truly decisive government action. One consequence was the very significant increase in the size of the black electorate in the north during the Roosevelt era, and the mobilization of a large number of black southern organizations to promote voter registration and to arouse an interest in political participation among the masses of apathetic or apolitical blacks.
The civil rights activities of members of Roosevelt’s official family also implied change, gave hope, and raised racial expectations and consciousness (August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, 1979). However much the president often remained outside the racial fray, he generally allowed those around him to plunge in. No previous administration had ever had so many prominent officials regularly conferring with black leaders, addressing the conventions of civil rights organizations, and declaring publicly for racial justice and equality. The racial statements and actions of Will Alexander, Harold Ickes, and Aubrey Williams repeatedly gained the plaudits of the Negro press and civil rights groups, as did those of W. Frank Persons of the Labor Department, Hallie Flanagan of the Federal Theatre Project, John M. Carmody of the Rural Electrification Administration, and Nathan Straus of the United States Housing Authority. Their outspoken advocacy of black rights helped make that issue a part of the liberal agenda and gave unprecedented official recognition to the plight of blacks. No administration had ever before devoted as much public attention to black needs, or expressed its sympathies so openly.
The president’s appointments to the Supreme Court, moreover, immediately and vitally affected the progress of black southerners toward full citizenship. With the exception of James Byrnes, Roosevelt’s eight appointees proved to be true partisans of the civil rights cause. They began the dismantling of a century of law discriminating against blacks in their decisions involving the exclusion of blacks from juries, the right to picket against discrimination in employment, racial restrictive covenants, segregation in interstate transportation, peonage, disfranchisement, and discrimination in payment of black teachers and in graduate education. Their federalizing of the Bill of Rights left blacks less at the mercy of states’ rights. Their expansion of the concept of state action severely circumscribed the permissible boundaries of private discrimination. And their insistence on inquiring into the facts of “separate but equal,” rather than just the theory, diminished the possibility of segregation meeting the test of constitutionality. Accordingly, when the Supreme Court struck down the white primary of 1944, the only dissenter was the single justice then sitting whom Roosevelt had not appointed.
“It is true that the millennium in race relations did not arrive under Roosevelt,” the Crisis summed “but cynics and scoffers to the contrary, the great body of Negro citizens made progress.” Blacks did not expect miracles in the Great Depression. They dared to hope for progress not perfection; and the intermixture of symbolic and substantive assistance, of rhetoric and recognition, swelled further hope in the formerly disheartened. Despite the fact that little had changed for the better in the concrete aspects of life for most black southerners, a belief that “we are on our way” took root. A new faith emerged. Blacks associated the New Deal with it, and idolized Franklin D. Roosevelt for it. A quarter of a century after his death, southern blacks would still be naming their children after FDR, and hanging his picture on the wall, more than that of any other public figure, white or black. Given the heritage of racism that shaped the political circumstances of the 1930s, they credited the New Deal with establishing government precedents favorable to blacks, with helping to end the “invisibility” of the race problem and make civil rights a part of the national liberal agenda, with generating reform and, as never before in our nation’s history, propounding the federal government’s responsibility in race relations. These changes did little to ameliorate the continuity of racism staining the New Deal, but they would help transform the despair, the discouragement, the dreadful apathy of black southerners into a fighting conviction of a better world that could soon and surely be achieved.
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