Edgar G. Brown (1898-1954)

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Edgar G. Brown was a key African American serving in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the New Deal. He worked on publicity for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration; served as a special assistant to the director of the Civilian Conservation Corps; and was part of FDR’s unofficial advisory group, the Black Cabinet. He was a fiery advocate for the rights of Black Americans and when he died, he was called “God’s Angry Man” [1].

Brown was born in Sandoval, Illinois in 1898, one of eight children. Little seems to be known about his early life, but his father apparently worked as a wagon driver, “hauling goods and coal around the area” [2] and also as “a domestic worker for a prominent family” [3]. Edgar excelled in tennis which helped him gain admission to Sumner High School, “an exclusive black boarding school in Saint Louis, Missouri” [4]. After high school graduation, he served in World War I, earned a degree at Northwestern University, worked in the newspaper business, and was the singles champion of the American Tennis Association in 1922, 1923, 1928, and 1929 [5].

Like most other African Americans at the time, Brown was a Republican until he switched parties to support FDR’s presidential campaign in 1932. He was brother-in-law to FDR’s valet, Irvin McDuffie [6], which probably helped him secure a position in one of the earliest New Deal programs, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). While African American leaders were often unsatisfied with the limited opportunities afforded to Blacks in the early years of the New Deal, Brown was exuberant. In a 1934 op-ed, he praised Harry Hopkins for promoting equal pay for Whites and Blacks on work-relief projects and extolled the New Deal generally:

“A new emancipation of the economic slave had been sanctioned by the Federal government in 1933; no less far-reaching than the stroke of Abraham Lincoln’s pen in 1865… On this historic incident hangs the glorious future of a larger cultural life and economic security for the breadwinner regardless of race or color born out of a greater spirit of patriotism and universal democracy among the American people” [7].

With FERA winding down in 1935, Edgar Brown became a special assistant to Robert Fechner, director of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Thanks to Brown’s efforts and the growing influence of Black voters in the Democratic Party, African American representation in the CCC increased from 6% in the early years to 11% by 1938 [10]. However, Fechner considered Brown to be disagreeable in his efforts for racial equality [8]. Such reactions to Black demands were common among Whites at the time, even liberal New Dealers. Nevertheless, Brown also alienated some of his African American colleagues, who would later recall Brown’s “ranting, raving, shouting, gesticulating, selling memberships, collecting funds” to advance his various anti-discrimination projects [9]. Still, Brown’s forceful actions seem to have paid off with greater opportunity for African Americans.

Brown lost his job with the CCC in 1942, the year the program ended, and was unable to find further federal employment [11]. He became disenchanted with FDR, the New Deal, and the Democratic Party, and threw his support once again behind the Republican Party. He wrote that the “so-called new deal democratic party has gone sour on the negro and capitulated body and soul to the ‘Jim Crow’ disenfranchisement and discrimination pattern of the south” [12]. The accusation highlights the contradictory politics of the Democratic Party, which included (among other groups) both progressive-minded northerners and segregationists from the south – though the Republicans had long since abdicated their role as followers of Lincoln on civil rights.

Edgar G. Brown died in Chicago on April 9, 1954, from a heart attack and subsequent car crash. His funeral services were held in Washington, DC and he was buried at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland. He was survived by his wife Paris, two daughters, and three sons [13].


(1) “Edgar Brown Dies: God Calls His ‘Angry Man’,” The New York Age, April 17, 1954, pp. 1 and 4.  (2) Jill Watts, The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics in the Age of Roosevelt, New York: Grove Press, 2020, p. 156.  (3) “Brown, Edgar G. (1898-1954),” Amistad Research Center (accessed July 4, 2021).  (4)See note 2.  (5) See note 3.  (6) See note 2, p. 157. Edgar Brown does not appear to have been related to Elizabeth McDuffie, Irvin’s wife at the time of his death; so, presumably, Irvin McDuffie had an earlier marriage, to a sister of Edgar Brown.  (7)Edgar G. Brown, “Social Emancipation SeenUnder FERA Program. During Past 18 Months Operation,” California Eagle (Los Angeles, California), October 19, 1934, p. 2.  (8) See note 2, pp. 157-159.  (9) See note 1, p. 4.  (10) See note 2, pp. 254-255.  (11) Ibid., p. 431.  (12) “Negro Leader Assails Byrnes Board Makeup,” The Greenville News (Greenville, South Carolina), October 10, 1942, p. 2.  (13) See, e.g., “Edgar G. Brown Rites Held in Washington,” St. Louis Globe Democrat (St. Louis, Missouri), April 15, 1954, p. 15; “Edgar G. Brown,” Chicago Tribune, April 11, 1954, p. 38; “Edgar Brown, Negro Council Leader, Dies,” Chicago Tribune, April 10, 1954, p. 14.

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