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The Black Cabinet

For the first time in American history, a majority of those African Americans who were able to vote voted for the Democratic nominee for president, New York Governor, Franklin Roosevelt. Since the Lincoln administration, African Americans had supported the Republican Party, but in 1934 that all changed. As an acknowledgement of the debt he owed to the African American voters who helped elect him, President Roosevelt dedicated his administration to be the first since Reconstruction to seriously address the plight of African Americans.

While President Roosevelt did not believe the nation was ready to confront the white racist southern system of Jim Crow, he could appoint African Americans to positions within the Executive Branch, thereby giving them a voice in at least one branch of the federal government. All-told, by 1935 there were some 45 African Americans working in the Roosevelt administration.

The most prominent of these was Mary McLeod Bethune. Mary was a personal friend to the President and First Lady and starting in 1935 she served as Special Advisor on Minority Affairs and in 1936 she became the first African American woman to head a federal agency when she became the Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. Recognizing the need to work together to promote opportunities among African Americans and challenge segregation and inequality, Mary formed a working group of African Americans within the Roosevelt administration. This group was named the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, but was popularly known as “The Black Cabinet.” Their founding was strongly encouraged by the First Lady who wanted African American issues to take a higher priority in the New Deal policies that the Roosevelt administration was pursuing.

The Black Cabinet had some victories, but they had many more defeats. They successfully lobbied the Roosevelt administration to ensure that ten percent of welfare funding be set aside for African Americans struggling to get by during the Great Depression. They also got New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the National Youth Administration (NYA) to set aside ten percent of funds to go for African Americans workers. And during World War II they successfully got the Roosevelt administration to issue an Executive Order banning the exclusion of Blacks from serving in the military. They fell short of actually integrating the military, something that didn’t happen until after World War II. They also failed in their attempt to require the federal government to provide equal pay for black and white workers, to make lynching a federal crime, and to abolish the poll tax that prevented so many poor African Americans from voting in the South.

One of the achievements of the Black Cabinet was the set aside for the funding of black writers through the Federal Writers Project. Groups of black writers traveled throughout the south interviewing former slaves saving their oral histories for posterity. This work is generally regarded by historians as one of the most important acts of cultural preservation in American history.

During World War II, Mary protested the decision to exclude African American women from the national advisory council of the War Department’s Women’s Interest Section in 1941. She and Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied the Secretary of War and Mary was eventually included on the council. Through Mary’s participation she was able to ensure that African American women became officers in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Following the war she also worked as a consultant to the U.S. delegation involved in writing the United Nations charter.

Classroom Resources

Primary Document: The Black Cabinet
A personal account of the Black Cabinet from the Columbus Free Press, edited by Max Millard based on interviews of Thomas Flemming.

Primary Documents: Slave Narratives
This Library of Congress collection of slave narratives compiled by the Federal Writers Project is an excellent resource for student research.