Jill WattsNov 30, 2020
The Black Cabinet
The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt
Grove Press 2020
When did Black Americans move from stalwart Lincoln Republicans to dedicated New Deal Democrats? How did a group of self-organized Black economists, lawyers, sociologists, and journalists call out inequality in the New Deal and push President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to consider the relief of Black Americans? Dr. Jill Watt’s The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt (Grove Press, 2020) traces the origins of a group of self-organized Black men led by a remarkable Black woman to answer these questions and help readers reflect on parties, policy, data, and diversity in American politics.
The book is divided into three periods – tracing two versions of the Black Cabinet.
Early in the century, a group of African-American office holders who had come to Washington, DC as appointees of President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt) began meeting regularly for “talkfests” at an upscale black-owned DC restaurant. When they started meeting in 1908, most Black Americans lived in the South: disenfranchised and denied equal access to the criminal justice system. Despite the power and violence of White supremacy, a group of highly educated men had secured positions in the federal government. They included Ralph W. Tyler (auditor of the Department of the Navy), James A. Cobb (special assistant to Washington, DC’s district attorney); Robert H. Terrell, Washington’s first Black judge), John C. Dancy (DC’s recorder of deeds), Calvin Chase (newspaper editor), and Kelly Miller (Howard University professor. As men who had come of age during Reconstruction, they were Republicans who associated Democrats with blocking access to the polls and vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Although Republicans abandoned Black voters and Reconstruction, President Rutherford B. Hayes nevertheless appointed Frederick Douglas and other Black men federal positions and President Teddy Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House (the first Black American ever to be a dinner guest). Washington subsequently provided Roosevelt with recommendations for appointments to federal posts.
But these appointments were often without sufficient power and national conflicts demonstrated that Republican presidents would not protect Black citizens (e.g., in Atlanta, Teddy Roosevelt refused to send in troops to protect the black population from white mobs and Brownsville, Texas Roosevelt dishonorably discharged Black veterans after false, racially-motivated charges). Although widely covered by the Black press throughout the country, the Black Cabinet was unable to thwart the segregation of federal employees (particularly once Woodrow Wilson became president) and, by 1915, the Black Cabinet folded – even as individuals fought the virulent racism in the GOP and Democratic parties.
By 1932, many of the original members of the Black Cabinet were dead but a new group of leaders – Mary McLeod Bethune, Robert Vann, Robert Weaver, Alfred Edgar Smith, Bill Hastie – ambitiously moved to ask Black voters to turn the picture of Lincoln to the wall. In the election of 1932, a small minority of voters moved from the GOP to the Democratic party to vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936, a significant number of Black voters (many who consider themselves Republicans) vote for Roosevelt.
Yet the New Deal was hardly a fair deal for Black Americans. The programs did not address crucial needs, increasingly institutionalized “racist practices into programs and policies at the federal level.” The Black Cabinet used their interdisciplinary backgrounds to create data-rich reports that forced the Roosevelt administration to acknowledge racially disparate situations and remedies. Yet the sophisticated social science wasn’t sufficient to change hearts and minds to apply the New Deal to Black Americans. Watts demonstrates how Mary McLeod Bethune – famed American educator –transformed a fragmented (and often warring) group of intellectuals into a political and policy power. Bethune’s keen sense of communication and strategy allowed her to dramatize their findings and uses her access to key political figures (including Eleanor Roosevelt) to craft a message such that more money flowed to programs and more Black Americans were appointed to federal positions.
Jill Watt’s rich, sophisticated, and detailed book provides a page-turning narrative and context essential to fully understanding the interplay between party, policy, and race in the United States. In the podcast, Watts reflects on the legacy of the Black Cabinet (e.g., Robert Weaver was the first Black member of the White House cabinet, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) and the manner in which the Black cabinet’s interdisciplinarity – their ability to coordinate across departments – might be crucial to President Elect Joe Biden’s ability to assemble a cabinet capable of solving the problems – some already identified during the New Deal by the Black Cabinet – in the 21st century.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.