A magnificently researched, dramatically told work of narrative nonfiction about the history, evolution, impact, and ultimate demise of what was known in the 1930s and 1940s as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet.
In the early 20th century, most African Americans still lived in the South, disenfranchised, impoverished, terrorized by white violence, and denied the basic rights of citizenship. As the Democrats swept into the White House on a wave of black defectors from the Party of Lincoln, a group of African American intellectuals—legal minds, social scientists, media folk—sought to get the community’s needs on the table. This would become the Black Cabinet, a group of African American racial affairs experts working throughout the New Deal, forming an unofficial advisory council to lobby the President. But with the white Southern vote so important to the fortunes of the Party, the path would be far from smooth.
Most prominent in the Black Cabinet were Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator close to Eleanor Roosevelt, and her “boys”: Robert Weaver, a Harvard-educated economist who pioneered enforcement standards for federal anti-discrimination guidelines (and, years later, the first African American Cabinet secretary); Bill Hastie, a lawyer who would become a federal appellate judge; Al Smith, head of the largest black jobs program in the New Deal at the WPA; and Robert Vann, a newspaper publisher whose unstinting reporting on the administration’s shortcomings would keep his erstwhile colleagues honest. Ralph Bunche, Walter White of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph, and others are part of the story as well. But the Black Cabinet was never officially recognized by FDR, and with the demise of the New Deal, it disappeared from history.
Jill Watts’s The Black Cabinet is a dramatic full-scale examination of a forgotten moment that speaks directly to our own.
Watts (Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood), a professor of history at California State University, San Marcos, delivers a unique and enlightening portrait of "the informal group of black federal employees" who sought to advance African-American interests during the New Deal. Led by Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman College and a friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the "Black Cabinet" included housing expert Robert C. Weaver, attorney William H. Hastie, and Robert Vann, editor of the Pittsburgh Courier and a leading advocate for shifting black votes from Republicans to Democrats. Watts details the group's internecine political quarrels as well as their efforts to integrate the federal workplace, end "race-based wage differentials," and rally support for antilynching legislation, among other objectives. Lesser-known civil servants such as Lucia Mae Pitts, "the first African American woman to serve as a secretary to a white federal administrator in Washington, D.C.," receive overdue attention, as does the influence of the black press on Roosevelt's staffing decisions. Watts finds drama in committee meetings and unemployment surveys, and expertly tracks her subjects across the maze of federal bureaucracy. The result is a groundbreaking reappraisal of an unheralded chapter in the battle for civil rights.