Be sure to see our photo gallery below!
The treatment of people of African origin has been a cloud over the American nation from the beginning . Until the Civil War, black slavery flourished in the South and was a foundation of the national economy . After the war, despite legal emancipation, a new racial order arose in the South based on sharecropping, cheap black labor and Jim Crow . Nor was racial oppression much better in the North, where White supremacy was the prevailing ideology and openly racist proclamations and legislation were commonplace .
The Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v Ferguson decision rationalizing “separate but equal” was symptomatic of a growing culture of separation and segregation across the United States. “After the ruling, Plessy became the catalyst for many states to separate Blacks and Whites in practically all aspects of life – including transportation, public accommodations, schools, and housing” . In the South, this meant separate bathrooms and drinking fountains; in the North it encouraged the racial segregation of urban neighborhoods .
This was the harsh reality the New Deal faced. As one New Deal historian puts it, “For three centuries racism had infected the national mind as well as the body politic… The majority of white Americans wanted no change in race relations. They favored neither desegregation nor equal opportunities for blacks” . An African American historian noted in a recent interview, President Roosevelt “was faced with a rock-solid granite wall of white supremacy within the ranks of his own party and that is a force that is very difficult to overcome” .
Given these obstacles, what did the Roosevelt Administration do to advance the cause of racial justice and improve conditions for African Americans? Despite adverse political forces and social attitudes in America, the personnel, policies and programs of the New Deal, while far from perfect, marked an important step forward and had an overall positive effect on the welfare of millions of citizens of African descent.
To begin with, the leadership of the New Deal featured some of the most enlightened and anti-racist policymakers in U.S. history up to that time. Administrators such as Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, Harold Ickes, Hallie Flanagan, Aubrey Williams, and Ellen Woodward were deeply committed to the goal of a more egalitarian society . First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was an outspoken advocate for racial equality and deeply committed to social justice. When she died, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The impact of her personality and unwavering devotion to high principle and purpose cannot be contained in a single day or era” .
Furthermore, President Roosevelt “appointed an unprecedented number of African Americans to high positions” in the federal government, such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Lawrence Oxley and Robert C. Weaver. These appointees gathered together to form FDR’s unofficial but important advisory group, the “Black Cabinet” . Many went on to become civil rights leaders in the coming decades . FDR also appointed the first African American federal judge, William Hastie .
Modern commentators have rightly criticized Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal for the exclusion of farm workers and domestic workers from the Social Security and National Labor Relations acts in 1935 – two of the most important pieces of New Deal legislation. The usual reason cited for the exclusions is that FDR had to compromise with Southern Democrats, who constituted a major voting bloc in Congress, in order to get those bills passed. But other historians argue that it was the influence of the American Farm Bureau (which had a strong southern component) or the resistance of the Treasury to deal with the scattered workforces. Another common criticism of Roosevelt is the failure to throw his weight behind a federal anti-lynching law, but again he chose not to butt heads with the Southern Democrats, who were essential to other parts of his legislative agenda .
In contrast, New Deal work-relief programs were open to unemployed people of all races. Millions of African Americans were hired for projects undertaken by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), Civil Works Administration (CWA), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and National Youth Administration (NYA), or in public works paid for by the Public Works Administration (PWA) and Treasury Department. Others found jobs in the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Virgin Islands Company , and other departments, as the regular employment of African Americans in federal line agencies tripled during the New Deal .
And the public works programs were not all segregated, as sometimes claimed . Blacks frequently worked alongside whites, as shown in the “Working Together” photo gallery accompanying this essay. The CCC—often cited as a segregated program—began without much overt discrimination, especially in the North, and only later divided camps because of intense racist reactions from white communities near the camps, particularly in the South .
The WPA was arguably the most vital New Deal program for African Americans. Executive Order 7046 (1935) barred discrimination against trained and qualified workers “on any grounds whatsoever,” and this policy was elaborated further by WPA Administrative Order 44 in 1936 . By 1939, there were about 425,000 African Americans employed by the WPA – one-seventh of the WPA workforce and a higher percentage of African Americans than in the overall U.S. labor force . Moreover, when a complaint was voiced by a white critic that African Americans earned more on WPA jobs than they were offered by private employers, Ellen Woodward, head of the WPA’s Women’s and Professional Projects division, responded, “Government isn’t justified in paying people starvation wages because they only got that much before” .
The WPA’s striving for fairness did not go unnoticed. An editorial in the African American newspaper, Opportunity, declared at the time: “It is to the eternal credit of the administrative officers of the WPA that discrimination on various projects because of race has been kept to a minimum and that in almost every community Negroes have been given a chance to participate in the work program. In the South, as might have been expected, this participation has been limited, and differential wages on the basis of race have been more or less effectively established; but in the northern communities, particularly in the urban centers, the Negro has been afforded his first real opportunity for employment in white-collar occupations” . An African American who grew up during the 1930s recalled: “The WPA and other projects introduced black people to handicrafts and trades. It gave Negroes a chance to have an office to work out of with a typewriter. It made us feel like there was something we could do in the scheme of things” .
New Deal public works such as parks and recreation facilities were meant to be open to all Americans, regardless of race. The eleven WPA-built municipal swimming pools in New York City are a famous instance of such integration, in a context where race mixing was previously unheard of . But elsewhere local practices and policies often prevailed over New Dealers’ good intentions. For example, New Deal public housing programs provided a helping hand by moving many thousands of African Americans from unsanitary housing into modern units built by the Public Works Administration (PWA) and United States Housing Authority (USHA). Some were integrated; most were not .
At the same time, many New Deal projects expressly targeted black communities, providing health clinics and hospitals, immunizations, new schools and college buildings, education courses, and recreation programs. The Bankhead-Jones Act of 1937 assisted black tenant farmers in purchasing their own land. Finally, farm and domestic workers were brought more fully into the Social Security program in the early 1950s .
African Americans featured prominently in New Deal cultural programs. Artists such as Charles Davis and Sargent Johnson were hired by the Treasury Department and the WPA’s Federal Art Project to create public murals and sculptures for federal buildings . The WPA undertook a major effort to interview former slaves – an extraordinary resource for historians and citizens alike. Alan Lomax and others were paid to travel through the South recording the songs of folk and blues musicians, creating a magnificent repository of African American music. “Negro Theatre Units” were established under the Federal Theater Project. Memorably, Helen Tamiris’s box office hit How Long Brethren?, a federal dance project, “depicted the despair of unemployed Southern blacks and was danced to Lawrence Gellert’s ‘Negro Songs of Protest’ sung by an African American chorus” .
A criticism of the New Deal heard often of late is the long-term effect of Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) policies, which “redlined” certain neighborhoods as too risky for mortgage lending. All too often, this meant African Americans were refused loans and unable to take advantage of the surge in home ownership after the Second World War . White households moved enmasse to segregated suburbs, while black families were left behind in ghettoes with deteriorating rental housing; the effects on relative wealth, security and well-being of the two groups were dire . The blame for this cannot be placed on the New Deal, however, without realizing that the FHA was enacted in concert with powerful private interests. The National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) played a central role in housing policy and its members helped create and enforce the racial covenants, exclusionary zoning and race-based methods of appraisal that were the rule of the day in American cities. NAREB’s chief lobbyist, Homer Hoyt, was brought into the FHA and wrote red-lining into the federal regulations in the late 1930s .
In sum, African Americans saw significant gains during the New Deal. The author of A New Deal for Blacks concludes that even though Roosevelt himself was never an ardent champion of the black cause, the movement toward Civil Rights was aided by New Deal programs and attitudes . Although the Civil Rights movement still lay a generation in the future, America’s black folks were already building a foundation to fight for more equal treatment and greater opportunity .
Click on the images below for more information.
Sources:(1) This is especially true of the East; the western U.S. always had a different racial order, relating to peoples of Asian, Latin and Native descent. (2) See, e.g., Gavin Wright, The Political Economy of the Cotton South. New York: Norton, 1978. (3) See, e.g., Jay Mandle, The Roots of Black Poverty: The Southern Plantation Economy After the Civil War. Durham: Duke University Press, 1978; Gavin Wright, Old South, New South. New York, Basic Books, 1986. (4) Audrey Smedley, Race in North America. Boulder: Westview Press; Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race. New York: Verso, 1994. (5) F. Michael Higginbotham,
“An American Tragedy: The enduring legacy of Plessy vs. Ferguson,” Baltimore Afro-American, May 25, 1996. (6) St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, Black Metropolis. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World; George Lipsitz, How Racism Takes Place. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011. (7) Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade, 30th Anniversary Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 248. (8) Gerald Horne quoted in “Undoing the New Deal: African-Americans, Racism and the FDR/Johnson Reforms (Pt5),” The Real News, December 18, 2017. (9) See our biographies for these leaders at “New Dealers.” (10) “Eleanor Roosevelt and Civil Rights,” George Washington University (accessed April 17, 2018). (11) “The ‘Black Cabinet’,” In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library (accessed April 18, 2018). (12) For an interesting example, see “Lawrence Oxley (1887-1973),” Living New Deal. (13) “Hastie, William Henry (1904-1976),” BlackPast.org (accessed April 18, 2018). (14) The main source for the Southern bloc case is Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Times. New York: Liveright, 2013. This is strongly opposed by Larry DeWitt, “The decision to exclude agricultural and domestic workers from the 1935 Social Security Act.” Social Security Bulletin, 70/4, online version (accessed September 6, 20180. See also Frances Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew, New York: The Viking Press, 1946, pp. 297-298. On the influence of agribusiness on the Agriculture Adjustment Act (AAA) and northern corporate capitalists on Social Security and labor law, see William Domhoff and Michael Webber, Class and Power in the New Deal. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. (15) For data, see our summaries at “New Deal Programs.” (16) Sitkoff, note 7, p. 249. (17) For example, in an otherwise excellent book by Michael Hiltzik, The New Deal: A Modern History, Free Press, 2011, the author states: “No CCC camps were integrated” (p. 313). There were integrated camps, even if they were a minority and mostly in the early years of the CCC. (18) Olen Cole, Jr., The African-American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps, Tallahassee: University Press of Florida, 1999. (19) Donald S. Howard, The WPA and Federal Relief Policy, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1943, p. 287. (20) Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, pp. 45, 107. (21) Martha H. Swain, Ellen S. Woodward: New Deal Advocate for Women, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1995, p. 100. (22) Quoted in Donald S. Howard, note 19, p. 295, citing Opportunity, Vol. 17, No. 2, February 1939, p. 34. (23) Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, New York: The New Press, 2000, p. 92. (24) Marta Gutman, “Race, place and play: Robert Moses and the WPA swimming pools in New York,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 2008, vol. 67(4), pp. 532-61. (25) See, e.g., American Negro Exposition, Official Program and Guide Book, 1940, p. 21, 23 (accessed April 18, 2018; Gwen Wright, Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981; and Marc Gelfand, A Nation of Cities: The Federal Government and Urban America, 1933-1975, New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. (26) See our summary, Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act (1937) and DeWitt, note 14 above. (27) See, e.g., our posts: Richmond County Courthouse: Charles Davis Murals – Staten Island, NY and “A New Deal Muralist’s Work Lives On.” See also American Negro Exposition, Official Program and Guide Book, note 25 above. (28) “Helen Tamiris: American Dancer and Choreographer,” Encyclopedia Britannica (accessed April 18, 2018). (29) Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Norton, 2017. Charles Lane, “The New Deal was a raw deal for blacks in segregated communities,” Washington Post, May 25, 2017. (30) The best overall analysis of what happened in the postwar era is David Freund, Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. (31) Marc Weiss, “The origins and legacy of urban renewal,” IN: J. Paul Mitchell, Ed. Federal Housing Policy and Programs, New Brunswick: Rutgers Center for Urban Policy Research,1985, pp. 253-276; Kevin Gotham, “Racialization and the state: the housing act of 1934 and the creation of the Federal Housing Administration,” Sociological Perspectives, 2000, volume 43(2): pp. 291-317; Jeffrey Hornstein, A Nation of Realtors: A Cultural History of the Twentieth-Century American Middle Class, Durham: Duke University Press, 2005; Amy E. Hillier, “Redlining and the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation,” Journal of Urban History, volume 29(4), 2003, pp. 394-420. (32) Sitkoff, note 7 above. (33) Thomas Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, New York: Random House, 2008.