The Worst of Times: African Americans during the Great Depression

Great Depression: People and Perspectives. Editor: Hamilton Cravens. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

A Daunting Time

The Great Depression represented a giant step backward for the majority of African Americans. As the nation fell into the worst and longest economic downturn in its history, African Americans from all economic classes and from every region of the nation struggled to find employment, to maintain shelter, and to provide even the most basic necessities for their families. Black workers, who lagged behind their white counterparts during the relatively prosperous decade of the 1920s, fell even further behind as the economy sank to unprecedented levels for more than a decade. Yet, through a succession of New Deal programs such as the Public Works Administration (PWA), the National Youth Administration (NYA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Farm Security Administration (FSA), many Africans Americans once again gained a foothold, albeit tenuous, in the workforce. Similarly, the policies of organized labor, particularly the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), who organized unskilled and semiskilled workers in the mass production industries and on the nation’s docks and seaports, benefited black workers in important ways. Finally, the liberal racial policies of the Communist Party, which worked to abolish all forms of racial discrimination and routinely elevated African Americans to leadership positions within some unions, advanced the cause of blacks in organized labor.

At the height of the Great Depression, an estimated 25 percent of the American workforce was unemployed. This dismal statistic alone, however, disguises the fact that millions of American workers were reduced to part-time work, were severely underemployed, or accepted any job, no matter how marginal or lowly, that they could find. The United States Steel Corporation, one of the largest employers in the nation, with a workforce of 225,000, shifted entirely to part-time workers by 1933. For black workers, however, it appeared as if the bottom of the economy had dropped out altogether. The proportion of all persons in the nation on public assistance or relief was generally three times higher for African Americans as for white workers. In Detroit, for example, where blacks made up 4 percent of the population, they accounted for 25 percent of the relief cases. In St. Louis, blacks accounted for 60 percent of relief cases, although only made up 9 percent of the population. In Chicago, one-half of all black families were on relief. And in Norfolk, Virginia, African Americans accounted for 70 percent of all relief cases.

These stark figures underscore several critical points. African Americans worked the most marginal jobs in the economy, and these positions, generally unskilled or service oriented, were among the first to be eliminated. Second, when jobs were scarce, preference was given to white workers. In some areas of the nation, employers dismissed blacks to create jobs for whites. Black workers, as well as whites, were hit especially hard by the sharp decline in two industries, construction and coal mining, that suffered a catastrophic decline during the 1930s. Labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had systematically discriminated against black workers in every region of the nation. African American workers made up but 1 percent of all union membership in the nation in the early 1930s, and one-half of these black unionists belonged to the segregated Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BOSCP), the labor union of black railroad workers led by A. Philip Randolph. The lack of union protection within the AFL meant lower wages, fewer opportunities to move into supervisory or management positions, less seniority, and little, if any, job security during times of economic crisis. Finally, some cities exhausted their meager relief funds within several years, and others, such as Dallas and Houston, provided no relief funds whatsoever to African Americans or Mexicans. In Atlanta, white supremacist organizations demanded that all African American be terminated from the relief rolls to provide assistance to unemployed whites. Few cities went this far, although African Americans consistently reported greater difficulty obtaining relief than white workers. Black workers, who were no strangers to hard times or racial discrimination, were left to their own devices and ingenuity. Most managed to keep their heads above water, but the majority lived at the bare level of subsistence.

To no one’s surprise, many African American voters welcomed a political change as the presidential election of 1932 drew near. Black voters, who had migrated from southern farms and cities to northern urban centers in unprecedented numbers between 1916 and 1930, had become an important political voice in a handful of northern industrial cities. Chicago serves as a case in point. The “Great Migration” (1916-1919) had brought about 500,000 African Americans southerners to northern industrial cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit, the majority of whom were seeking factory jobs and a respite from the repressive violence in the South. The Chicago Defender, one of the leading black newspapers in the nation, initially welcomed these sojourners with open arms. Printing the most favorable train routes from the deep South to Chicago, the Defender called the migration the “Flight out of Egypt,” and wrote that black migrants sang “Going into Canaan” as they arrived in northern cities.

Although black migrants had been prevented from voting in the southern states, their vote was actively courted in Chicago. Not only did African Americans vote in large numbers in the North, but they staunchly voted for the Republican Party ticket. In closely contested elections, such as the mayoralty election in Chicago, black voters were fiercely loyal to William Hale Thompson, and their votes helped to elect him to three terms as mayor. Thompson reciprocated by appointing black Chicagoans to a number of minor political posts and backing several others to important elective offices such as alderman, Republican committeeman, and a U.S. congressman. Indeed, as the venerable black leader Frederick Douglass had opined in the wake of slavery, when newly freed slaves were weighing their political options, the Republican Party “was the deck, and all else was the sea” (Meier 1963, 33). To be sure, black voters, despite some misgivings, had supported Republican President Herbert Hoover in both 1928 and 1932, but the number of black voters who had defected to the Democratic Party by 1932 was sizable. Hoover’s policies had done little to end the suffering of unemployment for any group in American society, black or white, and more African Americans, as well as many white Catholic and Jewish voters, were shifting to the Democratic Party between 1932 and 1936.

African Americans Shift Political Allegiances

As historian Nancy J. Weiss has written in her book, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, the shift by African Americans from the Republican to the Democratic Party was complete by 1936, and for the first time since 1870, when black men were granted the vote as a result of the Fifteenth Amendment, they shifted their political allegiance to the Democratic Party, an allegiance that has remained intact until the present day. The Democratic Party juggernaut rolled throughout the nation’s cities, as even the popular black Republican politician Oscar DePriest, formerly a Chicago alderman and the first black person to go to Congress from a northern district in 1928, was defeated by the black Democrat Arthur W. Mitchell. Little known outside of the city of Chicago, Mitchell, in 1934, became the first black Democrat ever elected to Congress. African Americans, who were initially either lukewarm or critical of Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his first term in office, were now solidly behind the president. Indeed, African Americans had a more positive relationship with Roosevelt than with any other U.S. president in the twentieth century except perhaps William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton.

Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, which put millions of Americans of all races back to work and provided the bare minimum level of subsistence to survive, served as the principal reason for his broad-based appeal among black voters. Although the New Deal created no programs targeted specifically to alleviate the much higher unemployment rates among African Americans, many African Americans (and many white Americans) viewed Roosevelt as a Messiah because the New Deal put African Americans back to work. Moreover, this was a president who seemed to care about their problems. When Roosevelt came into office in the spring of 1933, approximately 3 million African Americans were on relief, three times the percentage of whites, and a solid indicator that blacks were feeling the sting of the Great Depression’s wrath more severely than whites.

Yet unlike other twentieth-century presidents who have actively sought the black vote but disregarded the concerns of African Americans while in office in favor of more important constituencies, Roosevelt appealed to both the American sense of “fair play” and racial justice. Roosevelt, for example, was one of the few American presidents to ever publicly denounce lynching. This heinous crime, which had claimed more than 3,000 victims by the Great Depression, the vast majority of them African Americans, had been used widely throughout the Southern states as a mode of social control and as a means for white southerners to reassert their authority in the wake of Reconstruction. Although President Roosevelt had neither embraced the cause of civil rights nor compiled a substantial record fighting racial discrimination as governor of New York, he learned to become sympathetic to African Americans as a result of political pressure and intense lobbying by black leaders. Prodded by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, his more racially egalitarian wife, Roosevelt stated in 1934 over a nationwide radio network that lynching was murder, “a deliberate and definite disobedience of the high command, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’ We do not excuse those in high places or low who condone lynch law” (Sitkoff 1978, 63).

In spite of the U.S. Constitution and the nation’s professed democratic beliefs, Roosevelt’s denunciation of lynching represented a bold statement for a U.S. president, the majority of whom had refused to confront the racial problems that our nation faced. The respected black leader W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in the Crisis Magazine, the official organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), that “[o]nly Franklin Roosevelt has declared frankly that lynching is murder. We all knew it, but it is unusual to have a President of the United States admit it. These things give us hope” (Sitkoff 1978, 63). Although the number of African Americans who were lynched had dropped significantly by the 1920s, lynching began to rise in the 1930s. Tuskegee Institute, which kept the most detailed figures on lynching and racial violence in the nation, reported that seven African Americans died at the hands of lynch mobs in 1929. However, the number had risen to twenty in 1930, nearly a threefold increase, and fifteen in 1934.

Roosevelt also made far better use of African Americans as presidential advisors than any previous president. In August, 1936, Roosevelt encouraged Mary McLeod Bethune, the president and founder of Bethune-Cookman Institute, a small black college in Daytona, Florida, and a prominent “clubwoman,” to assemble a group of black leaders to advise the president on racial matters. This loosely coordinated group of twenty to twenty-five advisors became widely known as the “Black Cabinet,” although none of these individuals had official cabinet status or would be permitted to sit in on the president’s regular cabinet meetings. The Black Cabinet, nonetheless, brought into government service a larger group of highly talented African Americans than ever before. It allowed blacks for the first time to work within the government to directly influence federal policies on racial issues. The black leader Booker T. Washington had played a similar role with presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft, but Washington had worked secretly and clandestinely within the government to shape racial policy.

The Black Cabinet’s presence demonstrated to African Americans across the nation that the Roosevelt administration cared about them and their problems. This was revealed most dramatically in the presence of Bethune, the highest ranking African American in the New Deal and a black leader who had an open invitation to the White House. This formidable black woman had come from lowly origin to emerge as one of the most powerful African American women in the twentieth century. The daughter of an illiterate sharecropper and one of seventeen children, Bethune had attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. In 1923, she established Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona, Florida, shaping the small black college along the lines of Hampton Institute, Tuskegee Institute, and other black colleges that focused on industrial education, rather than the liberal arts. In 1935, Roosevelt appointed Bethune to head the Division of Negro Affairs within the NYA, a New Deal program designed to put high school and college-age students back to work. Although Bethune drew some criticism from black male leaders because of her gender, she proved to be an effective spokesperson for unemployed African Americans. Indeed, Bethune channeled important New Deal funds into black schools at all levels.

The presence and compassion of Eleanor Roosevelt also greatly enhanced President Roosevelt’s appeal within black communities across the nation. Here was a First Lady who cared about the plight and suffering of African Americans, and unlike her more cautious husband, who had to be careful so as not to offend white southerners within the Democratic Party, for fear of political retaliation, Eleanor consistently crossed these racial boundaries and breached longstanding racial etiquette between blacks and whites. Eleanor visited many New Deal programs, reporting to her husband not only about the efficacy of these programs, but also about whether African Americans were treated fairly and received their fair share of jobs. According to historian Harvard Sitkoff, Eleanor Roosevelt routinely invited black leaders to the White House and spoke long into the night about racial matters and the best strategies to confront discrimination within the New Deal and American society. The First Lady, for instance, persuaded her husband to increase the appropriation for both Howard University, the preeminent black university in the nation, and Freedmen’s Hospital in the nation’s capital. Despite the ire and horror of the white South, Eleanor Roosevelt also dined and mingled socially with African Americans, and permitted herself to be photographed with blacks in New Deal projects.

Eleanor Roosevelt maintained an intimate professional relationship with Mary McLeod Bethune, which no doubt proved a pivotal factor in Bethune’s appointment as the NYA’s head of Negro Affairs. But it was an even bolder move, though largely symbolic, that would forever endear Eleanor Roosevelt to African Americans during the 1930s and for decades to come. In 1939 Marian Anderson, the world-renowned black contralto, had been scheduled to present a concert in Washington, D.C., at Constitution Hall, but the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) announced that they would not permit Anderson, because of her race, to use their facility. Amid widespread public disapproval of the DAR’s position, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in a newspaper column that she published regularly that she could no longer remain a member of the DAR in light of this incident. Amid some shrewd maneuvering, the federal government worked with the NAACP and other civil rights organizations to schedule a free public concert to be held at the Lincoln Memorial to focus on the hatred and bigotry of the DAR. An estimated 75,000 people turned out to hear Anderson sing in front of Lincoln’s famous statute on a frigid Easter day, including many diplomats, congressmen, Supreme Court judges, and dignitaries. This episode demonstrated how Americans, when they possessed the will and commitment, could join together to defeat racial prejudice. But it demonstrated, too, that the president and the First Lady were willing to make a symbolic gesture in support of racial equality and a racially just society, a gesture that no previous president during the twentieth century had been willing to make.

A Segregated New Deal?

These symbolic gestures notwithstanding, the New Deal put many African Americans back to work who had been devastated by the Great Depression. African Americans benefited from every New Deal program to some degree, but some programs had a greater impact on both the morale and the purchasing power of black families than others. The CCC, established by Congress in March, 1933, was designed to provide relief to young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five through a variety of jobs in the nation’s parks, forests, recreation areas, and soil conservation projects. Young men were sent to camps, where they were directed by army officers and foresters and worked under a strict military discipline. For their labor, they received the sum of $30 a month. The CCC enrolled 200,000 African Americans in their camps between 1933 and 1942, and, like the majority of New Deal programs, the camps were segregated. Even thought the CCC had a nondiscrimination clause, historian John A. Salmond noted, “it was never the policy of CCC officials to attempt to create a nationwide system of integrated camps” (Salmond 1967, 91, 93). In communities where the black population was relatively small or inconsequential, blacks and whites were integrated into the same camps. Yet segregation persisted even in these camps on occasion, as black newspapers reported numerous instances in which segregation existed. San Francisco’s black press, for instance, attacked the CCC because it segregated African Americans in the dining facilities at some of its camps. The white residents of Contra Costa, California, also complained that the presence of a “Negro camp” in their town constituted a “menace to the peace and quiet of the community,” although there is no evidence to substantiate their claim.

At a time when most African Americans resided in the southern states where life was brutal even under the best of circumstances, and when segregation was still the law of the land, it would have been remarkable if the CCC had maintained a nationwide system of integrated camps. On the whole, the 200,000 black youth who enrolled in these camps, stayed an average of fourteen months, learned a vocational skill, participated in the Corps academic training, were provided with adequate living conditions, and received better meals than they had access to prior to enrolling in the CCC. Although the majority of African Americans who left the Corps were placed in menial positions as janitors and waiters, some used their newfound skills to become cooks, gardeners, and poultry farmers.

African Americans fared less well under the Agricultural Adjustment Acts (AAA), which was signed into law in May 1933. These broad-based acts were designed to bring relief to the nation’s farmers and reflected the Roosevelt administration’s emphasis on centralized planning. They revolutionized American agriculture by providing government assistance to American farmers in the form of a subsidy, provided that farmers agreed to restrict their output. Yet black farmers were hurt severely by the AAA’s policies.

Almost all black farmers (97 percent) lived in the southern states, but less than one in five owned their land. Many who did own land engaged in subsistence farming. Thus, when the AAA attempted to artificially raise the price of cotton, which had declined by two-thirds from 1929 to 1933, by restricting output, white farmers were the primary beneficiaries. Although the federal government advised landowners to distribute the cash payments fairly to those who worked the land, the AAA did not require landowners to show receipts for payments distributed to tenants, who worked their land. While the law stipulated that a landowner’s benefits could have been terminated if he refused to follow this policy, it was never enforced. Black tenant farmers were also hurt when the AAA asked farmers to keep as much as 40 percent of their land out of production, reducing the need to hire tenant farmers or sharecroppers of any race to work their land. As many as 192,000 black farmers (and many whites as well) were removed from the land, representing about 15 to 20 percent of all sharecroppers. Many of these displaced farmers migrated to urban areas, swelling the already overburdened relief rolls in southern and northern cities.

The New Deal never adequately addressed the issue of rural poverty for either whites or African Americans. Indeed, one of the many ironies of the New Deal is that rural poverty actually worsened as the general state of agricultural improved between 1932 and 1935. During these years, farm income increased by 58 percent, part of it attributable to the AAA’s policies and part to a devastating drought that reduced production and created the Dust Bowl migration. Yet the large number of displaced black and white farmers stimulated an interracial alliance that had not been seen since the Populist movement in the 1880s. In 1934, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) was organized in Arkansas. This grassroots, interracial union was remarkable if for no other reason than for a brief moment black and white farmers shed their racial differences and attempted to improve their status along class, rather than racial lines. The union attracted 30,000 members, and had 200 locals spread across six states. Even more remarkably, black and white farmers worked together, no small feat in the South during the 1930s. African Americans were employed as STFU organizers, and E. R. McKinney, an African American, was elected vice president.

The white labor leader H. L. Mitchell presided over this union, which attracted national attention and served mainly as a protest organization. The STFU demanded that the rental and parity payments that landowners received should be made directly to tenants and sharecroppers, rather than be funneled through landowners. The union also demanded that evictions from the land be halted. The STFU was unsuccessful in achieving either of these ambitious goals, but it succeeded greatly in focusing the national spotlight on the status of rural poverty and the dismal plight of the nation’s tenant farmers and sharecroppers. The NAACP was so impressed with the work of the STFU that it provided limited financial support. Walter White, the NAACP’s executive secretary, called the STFU the “most significant labor movement created in the United States in many years” (Wolters 1970, 49). Similarly, a number of liberal newspapers and magazines such as The Nation and the New York Times began to feature stories on the difficult plight that tenant farmers faced. While this union achieved few of its concrete goals, its very presence revealed that black and white farmers could temporarily put aside their racial grievances and prejudices to cooperate when it was in their economic interest.

Neither Congress nor President Roosevelt ever entertained the idea of creating a special program for black farmers, so their prospects would rise or fall depending on the success of broad-based programs to assist American farmers in general. In 1937, Congress created the Farm Security Administration (FSA), whose purpose was to provide low-interest loans to farmers. Headed by Will Alexander, this program differed from earlier farm programs in that some of these loans were provided to sharecroppers and tenant farmers, essentially farmers who had not previously purchased land. With the help of Joseph Evans, a black administrative assistant, Alexander, despite the fiscal limitations of this program, attempted to address the wide disparity in land holding between blacks and whites. About 2,000 African Americans received tenant loans and another 1,400 were resettled in community projects where they were given the opportunity to purchase their land over a period of forty years. Many of these families were able to purchase land for the first time, were educated in modern farm techniques, and were introduced to new methods of production and marketing. One of these resettlement communities, Gees Bend, in rural Alabama, survives to the present day, and the African American women of Gees Bend are known nationally for their artistic quilting expertise. Indeed, the Gees Bend Quilting exhibition enjoyed a nationwide tour in 2006. White southerners expressed intense opposition to the liberal policies of the FSA as well as any New Deal program that suggested even a semblance of self-assertion or equality by African Americans. Southerners also balked at the prospect of resettling a substantial pool of cheap black labor.

The most successful New Deal programs not only put large numbers of African Americans back to work, but often employed black advisors or whites officials who were sensitive to the disproportionate number of unemployed black workers. The NYA serves as a case in point. When Roosevelt appointed Bethune to head the NYA’s Division of Negro Affairs, African Americans succeeded in gaining a number of jobs that equaled their percentage in the U.S. population. In California and in every western state, the percentage of blacks who worked on NYA jobs was actually higher than the percentage of African Americans in the populations of those states. Although some African American leaders criticized segregation within New Deal programs, many others accepted or welcomed segregation because they believed that they would gain greater control over their own affairs in a segregated program.

The PWA and the WPA were highly responsive to the needs of African Americans. Established in 1933 with an initial appropriation of $3.3 billion, the PWA was created to build useful projects such as roads, schools, post offices, and government buildings. A number of PWA projects have stood the test of time, such as the Chicago subway system, New York’s Triborough Bridge, and the Overseas Highway from Miami to Key West. The PWA was under the direction of Harold Ickes, a former president of the Chicago NAACP, Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, and an avid racial reformer. Ickes, for instance, had ended all segregation in the Interior Department and refused to hire whites who would not work with African Americans. As head of the PWA, he hired African Americans in skilled as well as unskilled positions. In an even bolder move, Ickes required that all PWA contracts include a clause stipulating that the number of blacks hired and their percentage of the project payroll be equal to their proportion in the general population. This form of quota, although derided by white southerners and many critics of the New Deal, would later be adopted in Affirmative Action programs during the 1960s and 1970s. The quota system remains as controversial today as it was when it was adopted by Harold Ickes in the 1930s.

Yet largely because of this quota and the leadership and commitment of Ickes, some African Americans saw a resurgence of construction in their communities. About $13 million was spent to build hospitals, community centers, and playgrounds. Ickes was equally concerned about the poor housing that many black families occupied. President Herbert Hoover had appointed a committee to study the state of African American housing in 1931 and the findings were gloomy. The committee concluded that less than half of the dwellings occupied by African Americans met modern standards. Thus the PWA constructed forty-nine low-rent housing projects and African Americans made up about one-third of the occupants of these units. Fourteen projects were built exclusively for African American occupancy, reinforcing the segregated housing pattern that had long existed in most American cities. However, one-third of these projects were designed for joint occupancy, permitting residents to cross racial boundaries. Whether segregated or integrated, thousands of African Americans for the first time were able to enjoy the modern conveniences of above-standard housing, such as gas, electric appliances, and indoor plumbing. The PWA’s housing division was continued by its successor, the U.S. Housing Authority (USHA) in 1937. Like its predecessor, the USHA also favored the greater housing needs of African Americans, providing one-third of all units constructed to black families between 1937 and 1942.

Ickes deserves much of the credit for the success that African Americans received under the PWA, but the presence of Robert Clifton Weaver, a black advisor to Ickes, one of approximately forty-five who served as advisors in New Deal agencies, was also pivotal. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1907, this son of a postal clerk graduated from Dunbar High School and later earned a doctorate in economics from Harvard University in 1934. He was hired shortly thereafter by Ickes as the PWA’s race relation’s advisor. Weaver was a brilliant man. He was instrumental in helping Ickes develop the quota that required that black workers receive a certain percentage of the payroll of PWA projects. Weaver also served as a member of Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet. His competence would lead to a succession of impressive appointments. Weaver left Washington, D.C., in 1944 to work for the United Nations. He taught later at Columbia and New York University, and in 1961 was appointed by President John Kennedy to head the Housing and Home Finance Administration, the highest federal position ever held by an African American. In 1966, Weaver was appointed by Lyndon Johnson to head the newly formed cabinet position of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the first African American ever to hold cabinet rank.

While African American leaders and the black press lauded the PWA, the WPA proved the most effective New Deal agency in providing economic assistance to African American families. Roosevelt, however, issued an executive order in May 1935 stipulating that no discrimination shall exist in WPA projects. Harry Hopkins, who headed the granddaddy of all New Deal relief programs affirmed the president’s commitment to nondiscrimination on two occasions by administrative orders from his office in Washington. The reality was quite different, for the white South had to be placated in the same manner as when Roosevelt spoke out forcefully against lynching but failed to push for antilynching legislation. Southerners insisted that the longstanding etiquette of race relations in their region, which required a separate and unequal status for African Americans, be maintained at all costs. Thus here, too, was a segregated New Deal program that paid African Americans in some regions of the country lower wages for similar work than whites. Blacks were dismissed en masse without cause from some WPA jobs to make additional room for whites and to ensure that white planters had adequate labor to pick crops during the harvest season. Black southerners in particular found it difficult to sign up for WPA jobs.

Yet for all of its bias, the WPA, according to Robert Weaver, represented a “godsend” for African Americans. “It made us feel like there was something we could do in the scheme of things,” affirmed one black worker. As St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton wrote in Black Metropolis, their classic study of African American life in Chicago, “Though the first few years of the Depression resulted in much actual suffering in Bronzeville, the WPA eventually provided a bedrock of subsistence which guaranteed food and clothing” (Drake and Clayton 1945; Drake and Clayton 1945, vol. 2, 386). This one New Deal program alone by 1939 provided the basic earnings for 1 million African Americans. It put black folks back to work, provided a basic and predictable income, and restored pride in many wage earners. Small wonder that the black press consistently lavished praise on Harry Hopkins for the fair-minded way in which he administered this program. In a number of cities such as New York and Chicago, African American workers received more than two or three times the proportion of WPA jobs as their percentage in the population.

The WPA also employed African Americans for many white-collar jobs and skilled positions in cities where these jobs had been either scarce or nonexistent. In Chicago, many black workers received their first experience in white collar and clerical jobs as a result of WPA employment. Many others were trained for the first time in skilled jobs. More than 5,000 African Americans, for instance, were employed throughout the nation as teachers and supervisors in the WPA education program, and hundreds of others, such as the black artists Jacob Lawrence and Sargeant Johnson, were employed in the WPA’s Federal Art Project. The WPA’s Federal Theatre Project, which contained a Negro Unit, employed African Americans to stage plays and dramatic productions, many of which had particular relevance to black history and the African American struggle for racial equality. The renowned black writers Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright were both employed by the WPA and published some of their earliest writings under the auspices of WPA programs. Historians owe a special debt of gratitude to the WPA, for its Federal Writers Project conducted approximately 2,300 interviews with former slaves, and this material ultimately transformed the way that modern historians and writers would interpret American slavery.

Scholarly and Political Challenges to Racism

The 1930s was also a time when scholars from a variety of academic disciplines began to challenge and undermine long-held scientific excuses and beliefs used to enforce white supremacy and racial inequality. As the historian Sitkoff wrote, a new intellectual consensus emerged that rejected the notion of innate black inferiority and, for the first time, stressed the damage done by racism to both African Americans and whites. Some scholars even depicted racial prejudice as a sickness, crippling the individual racist and the well-being of the nation. The fact that millions of whites had been displaced from work, and their unemployment had nothing to do with their inferiority or some innate racial characteristic was one factor. The rise of Nazism and the extreme racism against Jews that it inspired was perhaps more salient. Adolf Hitler had indeed given racism a bad name, although most white southerners would disagree. These changes in racial attitudes, which affected the general American population gradually, also transpired because new scientific information began to discredit old ideas and stereotypes (Sitkoff 1978, 190-192).

Franz Boas, a distinguished professor of anthropology at Columbia University, was one of the pivotal figures. Boas and his students, who included Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Ashley Montagu, concluded from their research that all mankind evolved from a single species, and there was no such thing as a “pure race.” Instead, they maintained, racial intermixture had been continuous throughout human history. More important, Boas illustrated that previous data revealing that African Americans had higher mortality and morbidity rates than whites were unreliable, for whites died at higher rates than blacks from some diseases. Therefore, no creditable scientific evidence existed that African Americans constituted a lower order of species (Sitkoff 1978, 192).

An even more devastating blow to scientific racism was delivered by Otto Klineberg, a white social psychologist, who reexamined the results of World War I army intelligence tests, which had shown a large number of African Americans with test scores far below whites. Klineberg was interested in the effect that black migration to northern cities had on the intelligence scores of African Americans, and whether their scores would improve as their environment improved. In a pathbreaking study published in 1935, Negro Intelligence and Selective Migration and Race Differences, Klineberg found that the intelligence scores of individuals of different races changed according to their education and socioeconomic background. In a number of northern and midwestern cities, African Americans reported higher intelligence scores than both southern blacks and southern whites. The impact of Klineberg’s findings were widely accepted in academic circles, although it took more than three decades for the majority of white southerners to agree that blacks were not innately inferior because of their race. These new studies also set the tone for future research on American race relations as well as illustrated the power that academics would have in shaping future public policy issues.

These changing racial attitudes were far more prevalent in the northern and western states, but racial inequality remained the defining feature of the American South. Although lynchings had declined significantly from their abysmal nineteenth-century figures, when two African Americans were murdered every week by white mobs, the South remained a rigidly segregated society. The Plessy v. Ferguson decision (1896), which affirmed the separate-but-equal principle in American law, regulated the races. Even minor transgressions of the southern racial etiquette could be dealt with harshly. Perhaps the greatest fear in the minds of white southerners was interracial sex, but only if it applied to black men and white women. Crossing this boundary, even if the relationship was consensual, could mean death to any African American male, no matter his reputation or economic standing in the community. Nine young black men, known as the Scottsboro Boys, would come face-to-face with this unyielding southern principle.

In 1931, as the Great Depression swept throughout the South, thousands of Americans of all races rode the rails in search of work. On one evening in 1931, a fight had broken out between groups of black and white men as one of these trains rode through the Alabama countryside. When the train reached the next town, nine African American boys were arrested and charged with raping two young white women who had been aboard the train. The Scottsboro Boys would spend the next two decades fighting for their freedom and defending themselves from these charges. Even though one of the women recanted her testimony and the medical evidence revealed that the women had not been sexually assaulted, the State of Alabama and indeed the entire white South saw this case as their duty to protect white womanhood and exercise racial control. The questionable character of these two women aside, the Winston-Salem Journal (North Carolina) expressed this position adamantly in 1932 when it wrote: “In the South it has been traditional … that its white womanhood shall be held inviolate by an ‘inferior race’” (Carter 1979, 105). If a white woman, any white woman, was willing to swear that she had been raped or sexually assaulted by an African American, “we see to it that the Negro is executed,” stated another leading white southerner. In other words, the death penalty was the only punishment suitable for this crime.

The Scottsboro Boys were fighting both an entrenched and obstinate attitude, and the nation’s leading civil rights organization, the NAACP, initially was reluctant get involved in the case for fear that the nine boys might be guilty as charged. After it became clear that the Scottsboro Boys did not have adequate counsel and the NAACP still was reluctant to take on this controversial case, the Communist Party agreed to defend the young men. Through its legal section, the International Labor Defense, the Communist Party supplied a highly capable defense for these men, saving them from certain execution. As Sitkoff wrote, “Communist propaganda transformed Scottsboro into the most searching indictment of Jim Crow yet to appear in the United States” (Sitkalf 1978, 147). This case is important for several additional reasons. The Scottsboro Boys attracted international support and attention, as thousands of prominent Americans and foreigners wrote letter to the president, the Supreme Court, and the governor of Alabama in support of the Scottsboro Boys. This case also resulted in a significant U.S. Supreme Court decision. In Powell v. Alabama (1931), the high court ruled that a victim is entitled to adequate counsel in capital cases. Failure to provide adequate counsel violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. The NAACP also conducted rallies and fundraisers for the Scottsboro Boys through their various branches, helping to defray their massive legal expenses. It was impossible for any African American to receive a fair trial in Alabama during the 1930s. In one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in American history, the nine Scottsboro Boys served more than 100 years in prison for a crime that they, in all likelihood, did not commit. The last Scottsboro Boy was released from prison in 1950.

Although less well known than the Scottsboro case, which attracted international attention, the Communist Party also supported Angelo Herndon, an articulate nineteen-year-old black coal miner from Birmingham, Alabama. Herndon, like many African Americans during the 1930s, was enticed by the liberal rhetoric and nondiscriminatory platform of the Communist Party, and joined the party in the early 1930s. Immediately, Communist Party officials recognized his leadership ability and persuaded him to work as an organizer, focusing particularly on the African American community in Georgia. The Communist Party was as feared in Georgia as in every other state. White southerners feared both the size of the crowds that Communist Party organizers could attract and the fact that the crowds were interracial. Thus radical activity would be combined with class solidarity and interracialism, the worse of all possible nightmares for white southerners. In July 1932, following a demonstration of Communists in Atlanta, two white detectives arrested Herndon after he retrieved his mail from a local post office. After he was booked at police headquarters on the charge of “suspicion,” police wrote the word “Communist” across his name. Herndon was eventually charged with violating an 1869 Georgia insurrection statute. In other words, his presence at the Atlanta rally, the purpose of which was to persuade Atlanta city officials to appropriate more relief funds, was viewed not merely as threatening, but also as attempting to incite an insurrection or revolt. This charge was a capital crime in the state of Georgia. Following his trial, Herndon was sentenced to eighteen years in prison.

Similar to the Scottsboro case, the International Labor Defense sprang to Herndon’s defense. Yet unlike the Scottsboro case, the Communist Party viewed Herndon’s conviction as a serious threat to basic civil liberties, such as the rights of free speech and free assembly. After a costly five-year court battle, in 1937 the International Labor Defense’s vigorous battle to free Herndon succeeded. In that year the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Georgia insurrection statute unconstitutional. The high court ruled by a five-to-four vote that Herndon had been deprived of the rights of all Americans guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The court’s decision, writes Charles H. Martin, the definitive scholar on this case, also strengthened the principle established by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that free speech may not be curtailed because of a “dangerous tendency” to incite civil unrest, but only when a “clear and present danger” exists (Martin 1979).

The Left, Labor, and African Americans

These two cases, Scottsboro and the Angelo Herndon episode, reveal the important role that the Communist Party played in the civil rights struggle during the 1930s. The Communist Party proved far more radical in pushing for civil rights and racial equality for African Americans and the dispossessed than more traditional organizations such as the NAACP or the National Urban League. Taking the position that the racial conflict in America was part of a larger class struggle, the Communists adopted aggressive nondiscrimination policies within various CIO unions such as the ILWU, the National Maritime Union, and unions representing steel workers and packinghouse workers. If industrial unionism was going to succeed, racial discrimination, in their view, had no place. A white union leader such as Harry Bridges, who headed the ILWU, instituted a nondiscriminatory policy in all union affairs, including wages and supervisory positions. Indeed, the Communists went further than any other group or political party to place African Americans into leadership positions within industrial unions.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) had similar success by the late 1930s organizing African Americans in Detroit under the leadership of the CIO. Convincing African Americans that it was in their best interests to join the UAW was initially very difficult, as Henry Ford was held in high esteem by Detroit’s black leadership. Ford had employed blacks in large numbers at several of his auto plants, accounting for nearly 12 percent of the total employees at the Ford Motor Company. Almost all of these workers, however, worked at the massive River Rouge plant. Henry Ford, although an openly avowed white supremacist and fiercely anti-Semitic, employed black autoworkers in all departments and positions, including foreman. Ford paid among the highest wages in the auto industry, and even though small wage differentials existed between blacks and whites, noted August Meier and Elliott Rudwick in their study of blacks and the UAW, African Americans earned more money at Ford than those employed in other industries (Meier and Rudwick 1979). As a consequence, black leaders in Detroit were solidly antiunion in the early 1930s. But the UAW ultimately convinced black auto-workers that it was in their long-term interest to affiliate with an industrial union that permitted no segregation. This strategy proved success, as African American autoworkers joined the UAW in large numbers. In return, the UAW became one of the staunchest supporters of the civil rights movement. They endorsed numerous campaigns of the NAACP for racial justice, including the Scottsboro Boys, as well as supported legislation to end the poll tax and to make lynching a federal crime. The UAW would also be included among a group of distinguished organizations and leaders who spoke in support of a federal civil rights bill in August 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I have a Dream” speech in the nation’s capital.

African Americans were also the earliest group to equate southern racism with Adolf Hitler’s racism against German Jews. Black journalists, in particular, took the lead in associating the trials and tribulations of the Scottsboro Boys, lynching, and Jim Crow with the Nazis’ brutal treatment of Jews. They insisted, despite the protestations of white journalists to the contrary, that southern racism represented its own, but just as virulent, strain of Nazism. African American newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and the Atlanta World, among others, led the assault on Jim Crow, and were unrelenting in attempting to convince a skeptical white public that racism and Nazism were two sides of the same coin. As James Goodman noted in his book on the Scottsboro Boys, “Tales of Southern racism ran side by side with articles about Hitler’s racism in Germany, and for many Northerners one story became an aid to understanding the other” (Goodman 1994, 151).

Jesse Owens’s plight during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, served further to drive home this point. The “Buckeye Bullet,” as Owens was known, was an athletic marvel and arguably one of the greatest track and field athletes of his generation. A brilliant sprinter and broad jumper, Owens was just as talented in the low hurdles. At five feet, ten inches tall and weighing 160 pounds, sportswriters, wrote Jeremy Schaap, “often likened him to a big cat, or, alternately, to a thoroughbred” (Schaap 2007, 6). Representing the United States in four events, the 100- and 200-meter dashes, the broad jump, and the 4 × 100 meter relay, Owens set four Olympic records and two world records. Never before in the history of the Olympics had a track and field athlete dominated international competition with such ease. Hitler, the German Fuehrer, had personally greeted and congratulated each gold medal winner, but neither Owens nor any other black athlete would receive this honor. When he returned to the United States, however, Owens stated that it was President Roosevelt, not Hitler, who had snubbed him. “The president didn’t even send me a telegram,” he reported. This served as proof, in Owens’s mind, that his own country did not respect his accomplishments because of his race.

Enduring Segregation and the New Deal

Owens’s dissatisfaction with Roosevelt notwithstanding, the majority of African American voters continued to endorse the presidency of Roosevelt. They expressed their gratitude, in spite of segregation in New Deal programs, for the jobs and economic support that the president distributed to the black community. Roosevelt, however, increasingly faced critics within his own party as well as from black leaders who were dissatisfied that the New Deal never addressed the more critical employment needs of African Americans. The influential Pittsburgh Courier, which had endorsed Roosevelt during his first two terms, aligned with Republican Wendell L. Willkie in the 1940 presidential election. Similarly, the Baltimore Afro-American defected from the Democratic Party, critical of Roosevelt’s accommodation to segregation within the CCC and other New Deal programs. The Afro-American also criticized the fact that several New Deal programs purposely excluded large categories of African American workers from wage and hour protections. When Congress passed legislation protecting the rights of workers in these areas, they purposely excluded farmworkers and domestics, both large categories of the African American workforce, particularly in the South. Nor did Congress provide Social Security benefits to these same workers when the Social Security Act, which Roosevelt referred to as the “cornerstone of the New Deal,” was passed in 1935. African Americans made up 53 percent of all people engaged in agricultural labor in the nation in 1930. They represented 50 percent in 1940. The vast majority of these farmworkers were sharecroppers, who eked out the barest living imaginable, even in the best of times. Only a mere 10 percent of black farmers owned their own land, and their acreage, which averaged 63 acres in 1935, compared with 145 acres for white farmers, indicates the wide disparity between these two groups. Allison Davis accurately described the dismal plight of black farmers during the Great Depression when he wrote that “most [black] tenant families lived in semistaravation.” Approximately two-thirds of the nation’s African American population was not covered by the Social Security Act that Roosevelt signed in 1935. Not until 1954, when Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of congress were these occupational exclusions eliminated.

One of the darkest episodes of the Great Depression involved the use of rural black southerners as human guinea pigs to test the long-range effects of syphilis on the human body if left untreated. This study, known as the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment, conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service in Macon County, Alabama, only came to public light in 1972. The study involved more than 600 black men, the vast majority of whom were illiterate and uneducated sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and unskilled laborers, who agreed to participate in the study, but were never told the truth. Rather than being informed that they had a serious venereal disease that could be fatal if left untreated, government doctors and nurses told them that they had “bad blood,” a common euphemism for an array of illnesses used by rural blacks. The men were treated with vitamins and aspirin. Even after the drug penicillin was discovered in the 1940s and proved to be extremely effective against syphilis, the Public Health Service withheld treatment of the drug, a decision they had made at the start of this sordid experiment. Nor did it matter to government doctors that withholding medical treatment was a violation of Alabama state law. In 1972 after a reporter broke the story, the government agreed to compensate the victims and their families.

On balance, African Americans faired relatively well during the 1930s, even accounting for segregated New Deal policies and the exclusion of some categories of workers from the protection of social security. Those who succeeded in gaining employment on one of the public works projects of the PWA or the WPA faired best of all. Yet those African Americans who enrolled in the CCC or the NYA also found that the security of a monthly wage and a predictable income trumped unemployment every time. Given the choice between starvation and segregated employment, African Americans chose employment every time. Most African Americans, like the black leader W. E. B. Du Bois, were realists and understood that Roosevelt, even if he possessed the will, was powerless to change longstanding racial mores and attitudes against the wishes of a strong bloc of southern Democrats who insisted on segregation. “I feel without the slightest doubt that Franklin Roosevelt has done more for the uplift and progress of the Negro than any president since Abraham Lincoln,” echoed Du Bois, as he supported Roosevelt’s fourth term as president in 1944 (Katznelson 2005, 205). Du Bois and others were certainly aware that Roosevelt had failed to address numerous areas of inequality in American society. But in their political calculus, the good work of this president in the African American community and the widespread feeling that he cared about their problems far outweighed any negative assessment. Black Americans could point with pride to the number of African American advisors in New Deal agencies, the important role of Bethune in the NYA, the appointment of William Hastie as the first African American federal judge, and the appointment in 1940 of Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., as the first African American to hold the rank of general in the U.S. Army. These were much more than merely symbolic appointments in the black community. African Americans remembered all too well the indifference of previous presidents during the 1920s, and the cavalier manner in which Herbert Hoover had dismissed their suffering, as well as the massive unemployment that gripped the country.

Yet, in the final analysis, the New Deal failed to end the Great Depression or to bring about full employment in either the African American community or the nation. Only the massive demand for manpower as a result of the entrance of the United States into World War II would bring an end to the worse economic era in American history. Nor did any of the major civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, or the National Council of Negro Women, established in 1935 and led by Bethune, possess the clout to force the president to address their problems in a more meaningful and decisive manner. Roosevelt, like every politician, listened to more powerful constituencies and organized blocs, and while he was sensitive to African Americans, he had to weigh their interest against a formidable group of white southern Democrats. Many important changes, nonetheless, transpired during the era of the Great Depression. The militancy of the NAACP, particularly the success of its legal campaign against racial discrimination, set the stages for more important victories during the 1950s and beyond, such as the historic Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka decision in 1954, outlawing segregation in public schools and overturning the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. This assertiveness would encourage African American leaders in both the North and South to demand a larger share of equality when the United States entered World War II, ultimately leading to the integration of the U.S. armed forces in 1948. That African Americans achieved as much as they did during the Great Depression was a testament to their ingenuity and their ceaseless struggle to achieve social and racial justice.