Viewing page 76 of 355

BLACKS IN AND UNDER THE ROOSEVELT ADMINISTRATION
Frederick S. Weaver

When Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded President Herbert Hoover in January, 1932, not only did he inherit the worse depression this country had even experienced, but a nation's capitol as rigid in its racial segregation as any village, town, hamlet or city iqn the deep South. He and his family took up residence in a Washington that had a dual public school system - one for Negroes [as they were then called] and one for whites. Each was divided into divisions - the Negro division under Dr. Garnet C. Wilkinson, with the title of First Assistant Superintendent. He operated under the white superintendent, Dr. Frank W. Ballou. The only high school that Blacks could go to was the old Dunbar High School, except a technical high school for those who wanted to study trades - Armstrong High School. Negroes were banned by tradition - not law - from eating in any downtown restaurants, attending down town night clubs and theaters except for the burlesque Gaiety Theater which permitted Negroes to sit in the highest balcony, after purchasing tickets at a separate window and entering the theater via an outside fire escape. Downtown hotels were offbeat, but when a Negro had a legitimate reason for visiting a white guest, he would be permitted to do so by using the service elevator.

It was in this setting that President Roosevelt's first innaugural activities were planned and executed. His planners followed the tradition established by his Republican predecessors of not permitting Negroes to participate in or attend as guests any of the inaugural activities except the taking of the oath of office in ceremonies held at the Capitol, and in this attendance they were segregated. Negroes invited consisted primarily of chauffeurs, maids, cooks and other personal domestic aides of white big shots. After a personal appeal to James A. Farley, who had headed Roosevelt's election campaign, four Negroes who had worked with Farley, and who called him "Mr. Jim," obtained inaugural tickets. Later becoming known as the "Big Four," they were Dr. William J. Thompkins, a physician from Kansas City, Mo.; Robert L. Vann, publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier; Julian Rainey, a Boston attorney, and Dr. Joseph Johnson, a Columbus, Ohio physician. That was it.

After the inauguration, Roosevelt named Farley Postmaster General of the United States and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Farley immediately began working on Roosevelt's re-election campaign, and in that planning formed a Negro Division within the Democratic National Committee. White staffers in the DNC, mostly southerners, were not ready to accept Black officials or staffers working with them at the Committee, so Farley operated his Negro Division primarily from the offices of the "Big Four," led by Dr. Thompkins. Finding it difficult to counsel "Mr. Jim" from their distant places of business and profession, it was easy for them to support their contention that each of the "Big Four" should be given government positions in Washington. Farley agreed and the fight was on among themselves. Which one would ask for which position in Washington? Dr. Johnson didn't want a Washington position, and insisted on becoming Minister to Liberia. That was a greater distance from Washington than Columbus, and the other three put thumbs down, much to Farley's displeasure. Johnson, miffed, quit the "Big Four," and to retaliate, the "Big Three" became "Big Four" again when they substituted Lester Walton for Dr. Johnson, and had him named as Minister to Liberia.

The only government office in Washington where Negroes could obtain white-collar jobs, with few exceptions, was the office of the Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia. It was a patronage office, with all personnel appointed by the Recorder, usually on the recommendations from members of Congress, the White House or the political party in power... Secondly, the position had the added prestige of being a Presidential appointment with Senate confirmation, with a salary of $6,400 per annum. Dr. Thompkins, with the backing of the Missouri machine boss, Tom Pendergast, won this coveted spot, which, because of its large patronage potential, gave him the upper hand over the other three - and he played it to the hilt. He eventually organized the Negro Democratic Party, with the blessing of the President and Farley. This organization would hold its meetings simultaneously with, and in the same city as, the Democratic National Convention. Negroes weren't being elected delegates to the major conventions anyway, and the white bosses rather liked the idea of the Negroes meeting separately.

To make them comfortable, and Dr. Thompkins look important, the President would send greetings and Farley and other Party bosses would address them in person.

With Lester Walton and Dr. Thompkins taken care of, only one of the two remaining members of the "Big Four" was interested in a job. Robert L. Vann, who had done publicity work for the Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations, as publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier, suddenly realized that he was an attorney as well, and asked for a position in the Department of Justice. Homer Cummings, the attorney general, agreed to take him on as a "special assistant to the attorney general." What he did at the Department was always a mystery, but it was generally conceeded that it couldn't have been important or much because there was never any publicity surrounding his activities and he was back and forth in Pittsburgh running his newspaper. He would travel by car to avoid passing through segregated Maryland, a State he would have to pass through if he used public transportation. On one of his trips, returning to Washington from Pittsburgh by car, his car crashed and Vann died from the injuries. Joe Rainey, the Boston lawyer, probably the wisest of the three, decided against a government position. As a result, he was the only one of the "Big Four" to become wealthy.

As is typical of political leaders, they must take care of themselves first. That having been done in the case of the "Big Four," attention was then devoted to trying to help their depressed and hungry brothers.

In October 1933, there were 13,600,000 persons on Federal relief, receiving money or dole, from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration established by Roosevelt. Negroes on Federal relief constituted approximately 18% of the total Negro population. Negro organizations could see a lot of job opportunities in the doling out of money to that many Negroes. They were soon able to have the government establish a "Department of Negro Work" within the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to handle problems of discrimination and equal participation. Forrester B. Washington, founder and director of the Atlanta School of Social Work was appointed "Director of Negro Work" and thus began a series of Negro appointments not only within his department but in practically every cabinet department. One would never have guessed that there were so many "important" Negroes looking for government jobs. Applications came from everywhere and from all walks of life, from the executive directors of the National Urban League, and NAACP, YM and YWCA's, to the chauffeurs of prominent and wealthy whites. When the Administration began appointing Blacks recommended by college presidents, the NAACP, the National Urban League, and social work organizations, without regard to their political backgrounds, the "Big Four" yelled like a wounded hound. "The mule that plowed the corn should eat some of it," they said...

Washington named Alfred E. Smith as his top assistant, and Smith succeeded Washington who had become frustrated with his inability to accomplish anything much and returned to the Atlanta School of Social Work after seven months. Smith added as his assistant John W. Whitten, and engaged the services of Dutton Ferguson and Edward Lawson, Jr., to handle press relations. When the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was organized, it was placed under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and Smith became the top dog in the whole relief effort, and thus began the mass appointments of the "petty bourgeoisie."

James Atkins became a specialist in Negro Adult Education; T. Arnold Hill, left the National Urban League as industrial relations secretary, to become a consultant on white collar workers. Sterling Brown left his professorial post at Howard University to become senior writer of Negro material for the Federal Writers' Project. Other government agencies set up by the President, with the approval of Congress, and designed to put people back to work in creative activity, followed the example set by the

76
Please note that the language and terminology used in this collection reflects the context and culture of the time of its creation, and may include culturally sensitive information. As an historical document, its contents may be at odds with contemporary views and terminology. The information within this collection does not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution, but is available in its original form to facilitate research. For questions or comments regarding sensitive content, access, and use related to this collection, please contact transcribe@si.edu.