When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in 1945, he was praised for the significant advances African Americans made during his administration. One editorial said black Americans had “lost the best friend they ever had in the White House.” The New Deal did provide African Americans with substantial assistance and more reason to hope, but FDR needed the support of Southern Democrats in Congress to advance his agenda, and he was reluctant to take actions on race that would upset them. What he was able to achieve came largely thanks to the efforts of an informal group of black activists, intellectuals and scholars working within the government. As historian Jill Watts shows in her meticulously researched and beautifully written The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt, these “black cabinet” members succeeded in stopping or modifying many policies that would have made institutionalized racism even worse than it was.
At the center of this effort was Mary McLeod Bethune. A passionate advocate for civil rights and the first African American woman to head a federal division, Bethune was an educator, the founder of a college and a magnetic and strong-willed personality with a talent for organizational politics. Watts includes portraits of many other figures, as well, including Robert Weaver, who, in the 1960s, became the first African American to serve in a White House cabinet position.
Two other African American women, though not part of the black cabinet, also played crucial roles. Eva DeBoe Jones, a Pittsburgh manicurist, was able to organize a meeting that led to many black voters deserting the Republican Party. College graduate Elizabeth McDuffie was a maid at the White House who was close to the Roosevelts and helped manage their relationship with the black community.
This absorbing look at a pivotal point in civil rights activity before the 1950s and ’60s is well done and should be of interest to us all.