Minority Groups and the Great Depression

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Minority Groups and the Great Depression

As difficult as the economic crisis of the Great Depression was for white Americans, it was even harder on racial minorities, including black Americans, Mexican Americans, American Indians, and Asian Americans. In 1933 the general unemployment rate in the United States was over 25 percent; at the same time, unemployment rates for various American minorities ranged up to 50 percent or more. Given the severe racial discrimination in almost every facet of daily life in America through the 1920s, it was hard for many minorities to distinguish much difference between the Great Depression and "normal" economic times. Nonetheless, for these groups the Great Depression was worse than "normal" economic hardships they had suffered.

During the Depression racial discrimination was widespread, and minority workers were normally the first to lose jobs at a business or on a farm. They were often denied employment in public works programs supposedly available to all needy citizens. They were sometimes threatened at relief centers when applying for work or assistance. Some charities refused to provide food to needy minorities, particularly to blacks in the South. Violence against minorities increased during the Depression, as whites competed for jobs traditionally held by minorities. Minorities were excluded from union membership, and unions influenced Congress to keep antidiscrimination requirements out of New Deal laws. The New Deal was a broad array of federal social and economic programs created under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) to bring relief to the struggling nation. As a result of all these factors, minorities suffered greatly during the Depression. In deep frustration many minority citizens called Roosevelt's programs a "raw deal" instead of a "new deal."

Some improvements did occur by the mid-1930s. For American Indians, John Collier (1884–1968) of the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs introduced the Indian New Deal in June 1934, a program that dramatically changed the course of U.S. Indian policy. Instead of forcing Indians to blend into U.S. society, the new policy provided increased funding for economic development of tribes, promoted continued Indian traditions, and supported tribal governments.

Black Americans began to see some positive changes by 1935. Through the influence of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes (1874–1952), and others, the Roosevelt administration ended racial discrimination in some federal programs, set aside larger amounts of relief aid for blacks, and appointed several blacks to federal positions. As a result, the vast majority of black voters voted for Roosevelt, a Democrat, in the 1936 presidential election, ending a seventy-five-year period of black loyalty to Republican candidates that began with Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65). Roosevelt created an advisory group (cabinet) of black American government employees to advise him on issues important to them.

Unlike American Indians and black Americans, Mexican Americans and Asian Americans saw almost no advances. For minorities overall, the Depression was a period of great economic suffering, small political gains, and lost social opportunities for gaining greater equality with white Americans.

Black Americans

Hard times were nothing new for blacks in America. Southern slavery had ended only a few generations earlier. Racism remained woven into every aspect of life in the United States in the 1920s and was freely expressed in public. With the onset of the Depression in late 1929, minorities began losing jobs at a high rate. By 1932 the unemployment rate for blacks was over 50 percent, ranging up to 75 percent in some communities. Previously, minorities had held jobs as elevator operators, farm laborers, street cleaners, garbage collectors, waiters, and bellhops; suddenly those jobs were needed by the larger white population. White women, many seeking work for the first time, took positions as maids, housekeepers, and cooks—positions traditionally held by black women. Only low-paying, dirty jobs that no one else wanted were left for minorities. In Atlanta, Georgia, the degrading slogan "No Jobs for [Blacks] Until Every White Man Has a Job" became popular among whites. Blacks who were able to keep their jobs often had their wages drastically reduced.

Approximately 40 percent of all black American workers in 1930 farmed, but very few owned their own land. Most were sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the South, working on farms of white landowners. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers rented the land they farmed. Landowners supplied sharecroppers with tools to work the land; tenant farmers provided their own tools. As part of the arrangement, both types of farmers owed a portion of each year's crop to the landowner. Families of black sharecroppers and tenant farmers lived in one- or two-bedroom shacks with no electricity, insulation, or running water. Sharecropper and tenant families would move from one farm to another every few years in search of better work and better living conditions. Black sharecroppers formed their own unions seeking better conditions, but they met harsh resistance from white landowners and local law authorities. In addition, although very needy, blacks received little relief aid. This was especially true in the South.

As the economy declined, violence against minorities rose. The lynching of blacks by white mobs increased, primarily in the South. In the United States overall there were eight lynchings in 1932, twenty-eight in 1933, fifteen in 1934, and twenty in 1935. Lynching is mob violence in which a mob executes (kills), especially by hanging, a person for an alleged crime.

Escaping the poverty and increased racial violence of the South, four hundred thousand blacks journeyed to northern industrial centers during the Great Depression to seek employment. However, jobs were scarce in the North, and blacks had to join the breadlines at relief centers. Organizations such as the Colored Merchants Association in New York City were established to help black businesses survive. Boycotts were organized against stores serving mostly black customers but employing few black workers.

Black Americans and the First New Deal

Franklin Roosevelt had little to offer blacks during his 1932 presidential campaign. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had urged him to openly oppose racial discrimination, but Roosevelt, a northern Democrat, wanted the votes of southern Democrats in the election. He looked to those same leaders for support of his economic recovery measures after the election. Roosevelt believed his economic legislation would benefit both whites and minorities. However, because racial equality was not made a priority, discrimination became widespread within New Deal programs.

Major New Deal programs established in 1933 offered little opportunity to black Americans: Regional wage rates established by the National Recovery Administration (NRA) did not cover many black occupations, such as farm laborers and domestic helpers. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), created to bring economic relief to the nation's farmers, paid farmers to cut back crop production in hopes of increasing market prices. This policy only decreased jobs for black sharecroppers and tenant farmers. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) barred blacks from skilled positions, management, and higher-paying construction jobs. Because of discrimination by local administrators, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enrolled few young black men to work on conservation projects.

Black Americans and the Second New Deal

Some hope arrived by the mid-1930s. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962), the president's wife, had long sympathized with the less fortunate in society, and she became committed to changing public attitudes toward racial minorities and improving the economic condition of minorities. She was the first First Lady to take a strong role as a social activist. The president, sensitive to the criticism that his early New Deal programs harmed small farmers and minorities, tried to make changes. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes directed local public works administrators to hire black workers on public projects in proportion to their presence in the local workforce. The CCC increased its black enrollees from 6 percent in 1936 to 11 percent by 1939. President Roosevelt created the Resettlement Administration (RA) and appointed as its head Will Alexander, who was highly knowledgeable about black poverty issues. The RA sought to end sharecrop-ping and migratory labor by promoting land ownership. The agency's initial goal was to resettle thousands of poor farm families on productive land.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in 1935, taught almost 250,000 blacks how to read and write. The WPA arts programs established sixteen black theater groups around the country, staged concerts showcasing works of black composers, employed hundreds of black artists, and provided opportunities and training for young black writers and scholars. Roosevelt created the National Youth Administration (NYA) in June 1935 to assist youth. He appointed Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) as director of Negro affairs within the NYA. She was the first black American to head a government agency. The NYA became a model of government assistance for blacks, helping six thousand black youths complete their education.

In response to these government actions under the Roosevelt administration, black voters made a historic

Asian Americans

During the second half of the nineteenth century, many workers came to the United States from Asia seeking jobs. They played a highly important role in developing the U.S. economy during this time, particularly in the West, including their participation in mining activities, railroad construction, and agricultural work. By 1882 some 300,000 Chinese had entered the United States for various lengths of time to make money and return back home to assist their families.

It was common, at this time, for Chinese workers to work for less pay than white Americans, causing many to blame the Chinese for lowering the American standard of living by driving down wages. By the late 1870s a strong anti-Chinese sentiment began to surface nationwide driven by fears of massive Chinese immigration. As a result, in 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, a highly restrictive immigration law that largely stopped the flow of peoples from China into the United States. It marked the first effort by the U.S. government to restrict immigration. Chinese already in the United States were denied future citizenship as a result of the law, and faced severe discrimination and exclusion from mainstream white American society. In 1907 national policies were also adopted restricting Japanese immigration. In 1924 Congress passed the Immigration Act essentially banning all Asian immigration.

As a result of the immigration laws, Chinese and Japanese populations in the United States had become concentrated in isolated ethnic communities (communities in which the residents largely derive from a single culture) known as Chinatowns. During the Depression years, the work that had drawn Chinese men to the United States during the nineteenth century was no longer available.

By 1965 Congress passed a new Immigration Act largely lifting the bans on immigration from Asian countries. Asian Americans became the fastest growing immigrant group in the United States, rising from 250,000 at the close of the Depression in 1941 to over seven million in 1990.

change in the 1936 presidential election. Optimistic about Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, many black voters shifted from voting Republican to voting Democrat. Herbert Hoover (1874–1964), a Republican, won 66 percent of the black vote in 1932 (but still lost the election); Roosevelt, a Democrat, won 76 percent only four years later. After his reelection, President Roosevelt appointed forty-five blacks to various federal positions and created a cabinet of black advisers including Bethune. In 1937 Roosevelt appointed NAACP attorney William Hastie (1904–1976) as the first black federal judge in U.S. history, and in 1939 the Justice Department established its civil rights section.

World War II (1939–45) brought many new jobs for all Americans. However, minorities were often the last to be hired from relief program lists. In 1940 less than 2 percent of workers in the growing aircraft industry were black, and many of those workers were hired into lower-paying janitorial jobs. In June 1941 black labor leader A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters pressured President Roosevelt to issue an order prohibiting racial discrimination in defense industries receiving federal contracts. Greater job opportunities came by 1943, as labor shortages in the work force became critical.

Mexican Americans

Over one million immigrants came from Mexico to the United States between 1900 and 1930, filling the demand for low-wage, unskilled workers in the growing U.S. economy. Most were farmworkers who settled in established Mexican American communities in California and the Southwest; others found work in mines and manufacturing industries. The goal for many of these workers was to save up enough money to go back to Mexico and purchase farmland or establish a business. However, many Mexican immigrants and their children eventually became U.S. citizens.

The demand for minority laborers suddenly ended with the onset of the Great Depression. Competing with whites for whatever low-paying jobs were available, Mexican Americans faced increasing hostility. They were considered part of the economic problem—blamed for taking jobs away from white Americans and absorbing government relief funds. As a result, Mexican Americans became the subject of the largest mass removal effort ever promoted by the U.S. government.

Under the direction of the Hoover administration, federal immigration agents, county sheriffs, and local police approached deportation (the removal of noncitizen immigrants from a country) like a military operation, launching raids and massive roundups of Mexican Americans. Anyone who looked Mexican, including U.S. citizens of Mexican descent, was picked up and taken into custody during street sweeps. Mass arrests were made in public without arrest warrants or any specific reason. Besides conducting street sweeps, agents would go door-to-door demanding proof of legal residency and jailing those who were unable to quickly produce the proper papers.

Racial harassment by government agents was widespread and included beatings and intimidation. Not allowed to post bail for release from jail, the detained were held until the next deportation bus, ship, or train was available. As intended, the raids created chaos and a climate of fear in Mexican American communities across the nation. Many immigrants decided to leave on their own to avoid further threats. In the early 1930s a congressional committee known as the Wickersham Committee investigated the deportation practices and issued a report denouncing the government tactics. However, the Hoover administration denied any wrongdoing and successfully maintained general public support.

Mexican Americans during the Depression

Between 1929 and 1932, 365,000 people returned to Mexico (75,000 of them departed from the Los Angeles area between 1930 and 1932). An additional 90,000 left for Mexico between 1933 and 1937. Because of the forced migration, stricter immigration policies, and reduced job opportunities, far fewer Mexicans were entering the United States. After one million Mexican immigrants entered the country between 1900 and 1929, between 1930 and 1934 the number of Mexican immigrants entering the United States dropped to half of that number. Those who did come during the Depression were usually joining family members already settled in the United States.

Mexican Americans who remained in the United States during the Depression suffered economically. Unemployment rates in Mexican American communities averaged 50 percent. Farm wages fell from an average daily wage of $2.55 in 1930 to only $1.40 a day in 1933. Some laborers were making only fifteen cents an hour. Faced with racial discrimination, low pay, and poor working and living conditions, Mexican American farm laborers increased their efforts to organize unions, efforts that had begun in the late 1920s. In 1933 the Mexican Farm Labor Union led a widespread strike in southern California; union members demanded a minimum wage of twenty-five cents per hour. Some concessions were gained by the strike. The Confederation of Mexican Farmers and Workers Unions (Confederación de Uniones de Campesinos y Obreros Mexicanos, or CUCOM) became the most active farmworker union in California, with ten thousand members by 1935. Mexican women also organized. Seamstresses in the garment industry formed the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). A massive strike in 1933 brought garment production in Los Angeles to a stop and led to a new contract that included increased wages.

New Deal programs had both positive and negative effects on Mexican Americans. The programs offered them limited relief assistance, because many Mexican American families did not have a permanent address, a standard requirement of the programs. The crop reduction program promoted by the Agricultural Adjustment Administration cost many farm laborers their jobs. On the positive side, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration employed many Mexican American youths. The Reset-tlement Administration tried to revive small subsistence farming among some Mexican American farmers in the Southwest. In some regions Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs hired workers to document and preserve traditional music, art, folklore, and social customs.

American Indians

By the 1920s American Indians had lost most of their traditional lands. Most were isolated on reservations or in remote rural communities, trapped in poverty with little education and poor access to health services. Government programs discouraged the practice of Indian traditions. Like other minorities in the United States, American Indians were economically depressed before the Great Depression. A 1928 study by the Brookings Institution, The Problem of Indian Administration, documented in detail the plight and the needs of American Indians.

The prospects for change arrived when President Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) named Harold Ickes (1874–1952) to serve as secretary of the interior. Ickes was a champion of civil liberties (ability of individuals to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights), and he favored a policy of perpetuating traditional native cultures. He appointed John Collier (1884–1968), a leading critic of past federal policies regarding American Indians, to serve as U.S. commissioner of Indian affairs.

The Indian New Deal

With Ickes and Collier in the lead, the 1930s became a turning point in American Indian history. The policies they instituted became known as the Indian New Deal. Collier used the 1928 Brookings Institution report as a road map to reform the administration of American Indian affairs and rejuvenate Indian cultures and traditions through the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs (later named the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA). The Indian New Deal policy supported the political and cultural existence of tribes and better social services for American Indians. The policy sought to decrease
government efforts that attempted to force American Indians to blend into the dominant American culture. Collier's goal was to give tribes both legal and organizational capabilities to pursue economic development while maintaining their individual cultures.

To achieve this goal Collier shepherded through Congress the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), signed into law on June 18, 1934. The act gave tribes the option of adopting written constitutions and establishing democratic forms of government. By creating an IRA government, a tribe would be eligible for federal funds to purchase land, start business ventures, and receive various social services. Of the 252 tribes that voted on the IRA question, 174 tribes voted to accept IRA conditions. However, only 92 tribes actually adopted IRA constitutions. Despite its limited acceptance by tribes, the Indian New Deal stopped the steady loss of American Indian lands and provided a major source of funds for economic recovery among tribes. In these ways the Indian New Deal took a big step toward increasing tribal economic and political independence.

Given the decline of funds available for public schools throughout the nation during the Depression, Congress decided that in some parts of the country it was no longer economically practical to operate health and educational facilities for American Indians separate from those for white Americans, as it had done in the past. Therefore American Indian children living outside reservations would have to begin attending public schools in their area while children living on reservations would generally still have their own schools. However, the addition of more students in already financially strapped public school districts could potentially have led to anger and discrimination against the Indian children. Therefore, Congress passed the Johnson-O'Malley Act in April 1934. Under the provisions of this act, the federal government would pay the public school districts for expenses related to educating American Indian children. With the availability of additional federal funds, many public school districts welcomed Indian children to their schools.

On August 27, 1935, Congress created the Indian Arts and Crafts Board to encourage the production of traditional and contemporary arts and crafts by American Indians and to expand markets for the sale of this artwork. Standards for Indian crafts were adopted, and Indians could trademark their designs. Galleries were established in Washington, D.C., Montana, South Dakota, and Oklahoma, and at the World's Fair in San Francisco in 1939 and 1940. In New Mexico the Works Progress Administration hired artists and musicians to teach crafts and traditions that were in danger of being lost.

John Collier also established the Civilian Conservation Corps–Indian Division (CCC–ID). This special branch of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) sponsored programs on reservations. The CCC, created March 31, 1933, employed young men between eighteen and twenty-four years of age to work on conservation projects. Collier obtained $100 million from Congress for irrigation, soil erosion control, and road construction projects. Between 1933 and 1942 fifteen thousand American Indian young men served in CCC-ID. The agency taught useful skills, provided income for unemployed young men, and restored land that had been highly eroded by overgrazing of livestock.

For More Information


balderrama, francisco e., and raymond rodriguez. decade of betrayal: mexican repatriation in the 1930s. albuquerque, nm: university of new mexico press, 1995.

brookings institution. the problem of indian administration. baltimore, md: the johns hopkins press, 1928.

daniels, roger. asian america: chinese and japanese in the united states since 1850. seattle, wa: university of washington press, 1988.

davis, mary b. native america in the twentieth century: an encyclopedia. new york, ny: garland publishing, 1994.

greenberg, cheryl lynn. "or does it explode?" harlem in the great depression. new york, ny: oxford university press, 1991.

kelley, robin d. g., and earl lewis. to make our world anew: a history of african americans. new york, ny: oxford university press, 2000.

levinson, david, and melvin ember, eds. american immigrant cultures: builders of a nation. new york, ny: macmillan, 1997.

philp, kenneth. john collier's crusade for indian reform. tucson, az: university of arizona press, 1977.

Web Sites

ancestors in the americas.http://www.pbs.org/ancestorsintheamericas/ (accessed on august 14, 2002).

immigration and naturalization service (ins).http://www.ins.gov (accessed on august 14, 2002).

national congress of american indians.http://www.ncai.org (accessed on august 14, 2002).