Encouraged by African-American and interracial organizations at the start of the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration appointed over one hundred prominent blacks to race relations advisory positions within federal departments and newly established agencies throughout the 1930s and the war years. Although some blacks had been given federal positions by Republican administrations following the Civil War, the Depression-era experience was unique. Although the increased importance of the black vote to the Democratic Party during the Roosevelt years certainly influenced the decision to bring racial advisers into the government, few blacks were actually chosen because of their involvement in partisan politics. An exception was the former Republican stalwart, Pittsburgh Courier editor and publisher Robert L. Vann, who became an assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice and whose selection was clearly aimed at producing a favorable political response.
Most appointees, however, came from backgrounds that more closely resembled that of the black educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune or the Harvard educated economist Robert Clifton Weaver. Bethune, adviser to the National Youth Administration, and Weaver, first in the Department of Interior and Public Works Administration and later in the United States Housing Authority, were also key figures in the formation in 1936 of the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, also known as the Black Cabinet. An informal organization in which Bethune often served as chair and Weaver vice chair, the Black Cabinet met on an irregular basis, frequently at the home of individual members. Its primary purpose was to coordinate African-American opinion both in and outside the Roosevelt administration. Black advisers often shared information among themselves and kept close ties with certain black and interracial organizations. Some advisers, such as Forrester Washington in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and Eugene Kinckle Jones in the Department of Commerce, had held positions in the National Urban League. The majority of black advisers were middle-class and most were college graduates and trained professionals. The Black Cabinet provided them with the opportunity to communicate common personal struggles in government as well as to develop strategies to ensure African-American participation in critical New Deal programs.
The impact of these advisers on departmental and agency policies and in affecting conditions of black people during the 1930s depended upon a variety of factors. The ability to actually shape policy was determined frequently by whom they worked for and the willingness of their superiors to circumvent bureaucratic restrictions and resist adverse public opinion. For many government administrators, the adviser's role was viewed simply as providing information and serving as a public relations spokesperson for existing New Deal programs. Bethune's relationship to Aubrey Williams in the National Youth Administration and Weaver's with Clark Foreman and Harold Ickes in Interior were unique in terms of the support and authority that those white New Dealers gave to their black appointees. In contrast, Attorney General Homer Cummings never even knew Robert Vann was in the Justice Department, and Edgar Brown, who served with the Civilian Conservation Corps, worked out of a makeshift office at the end of a corridor. Moreover, civil rights legislation and racial desegregation were never central to New Deal reform in the 1930s. Instead, New Deal economic and class-oriented policies affirmed the ideal of equal opportunity through the inclusion of all groups and classes, and black advisers had to work within the restraints of that political and ideological framework. Few blacks were satisfied ultimately with those limits, and some left in frustration. Yet the Black Cabinet remained important as a symbol of the New Deal's special recognition of black needs, in the educating of white New Dealers on racial issues, and the precedent established for future black participation in the Democratic party and the national government.
Green, Thomas Lee. "Black Cabinet Members in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Administration." Ph.D. diss., University of Colorado, 1981.
Kirby, John B. Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era: Liberalism and Race. 1980.
Motz, Jane R. "The Black Cabinet: Negroes in the Administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt." M.A. thesis, University of Delaware, 1964.
Ross, B. Joyce. "Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Youth Administration: A Case Study of Power Relationships in the Black Cabinet of Franklin D. Roosevelt." Journal of Negro History 60 (1975): 1–28.
John B. Kirby