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Roosevelt's Black Cabinet

Roosevelt's Black Cabinet

Disaffected by Republican Party politics in the decades following the Civil War, victimized by racism, and ravaged by the Great Depression, African Americans transferred their allegiance to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic Party during the New Deal when they perceived that his efforts to improve conditions for all citizens included them as well. While Roosevelt did not propose specific civil rights legislation during his administrations, he did move to repeal particularly egregious racial restrictions within the federal government bureaucracy, many of which had been initiated by his Democratic predecessor, Woodrow Wilson. Moreover, the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, remained a vocal and active champion of racial equality. As a consequence of Mrs. Roosevelt's lobbying, of the concerns and interest of former Chicago NAACP president Harold Ickes, a key figure in the Roosevelt administration, and, most important, of concentrated efforts to secure political appointments for blacks, Roosevelt was made aware of the plight of black Americans. In response, African Americans came to view the Democratic Party as a haven.

Two seminal events in 1933 helped to set the stage for the appointment of a number of blacks to second-level positions within the administration. The first was the Second Amenia Conference, hosted by Joel Spingarn, the chairman of the board of the NAACP. The second was the Julius Rosenwald Fund meeting to discuss the economic status of blacks. Out of both of these meetings grew a determination to seek and secure appointments of racial advisers in the administration in order to ensure that blacks would not be excluded from New Deal programs. An Interracial Interdepartmental Group (IIG), supported by the Rosenwald Fund, was set up to promote black appointees. Working closely with Ickes and Eleanor Roosevelt, the IIG helped to secure the appointment of at least one black adviser in all but five of some two dozen New Deal agencies by 1937. This network of officeholders became known as the "Black Cabinet."

Appointees included people such as Robert Weaver, later appointed by Lyndon B. Johnson to serve as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Mary McLeod Bethune, director of Negro affairs, National Youth Organization; Henry Hunt and Charles Hall, who, along with Weaver, were original members of the IIG; Joseph H. B. Evans, Farm Security Administration; Lawrence A. Axley, Department of Labor; Edgar G. Brown, Civilian Conservation Corps; N. Robinson, Agriculture; and Alfred E. Smith, Works Project Administration. Bethune convened the members of this unofficial Black Cabinet in 1935. Thereafter, they met regularly (although unofficially), remaining in constant touch with one another and creating a network whose purpose and goal was to promote the interests of black Americans. With greater direct access to power than they had ever had before, they lobbied actively throughout the administration. Although their achievements were limited, they did realize some success. The Black Cabinet helped to ensure that by 1935 approximately 30 percent of all black Americans participated in New Deal relief programs.

See also Bethune, Mary McLeod; Great Depression and the New Deal; Politics in the United States; Weaver, Robert Clifton


Louchheim, Katie, ed. The Making of the New Deal: The Insiders Speak. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Sitkoff, Harvard. A New Deal for Blacks. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

christine a. lunardini (1996)

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