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BLACKS IN AND UNDER THE ROOSEVELT ADMINISTRATION 

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with whom he had become associated in early days. During his first term he remembered that while Assistant Secretary of the Navy, under President Wilson, he had a Negro messenger named Frederick Pryor. He wondered out loud what "old Freddie is doing now." Sending for him, he learned that "old Freddie" had graduated from law school and was practicing law. He gave him a staff position at the White House as a confidential assistant, called in the Negro Press to meet, photograph and interview him, and when that was over admonished the Press not to come back any more to see him because of the confidential nature of the work he would be doing. And so, out of sight, out of mind. Which probably accounts for the fact that many Blacks thought that Frederick Morrow, appointed as an assistant to President Eisenhower, was the first Negro to serve on the White House staff. 

When the question of Negro participation in his second inaugural came up, he felt that he owed them something because of the massive manner in which they had supported and voted for him. And so he dug up another Negro, this time one who had been a classmate of his at Harvard. He wondered out loud what G. David Houston was doing. He learned that Mr. Houston was the principal of the Negro Dunbar High School. He thought that was safe enough, and therefore appointed him an assistant director of his inauguration in charge of Negro participation, with instructions to let them whoop it up, but to do so separately. Houston had learned well how to keep Negroes separated from whites as head of a separate and unequal high school. And so he went to work building a staff of other "safe" Negroes to work with him. 

Negroes in the District of Columbia during that period had their social activities, their theaters, restaurants, etc., centered on U Street, in Northwest Washington. In the 1300 block of U Street was their most popular and beautiful dance hall, and so it was decided to have the social activities in this ballroom - the Lincoln Colonnade, located in the basement of a white-owned theater for Negroes, the Lincoln. 

Negroes were invited in larger numbers to the inauguration of the President at the Capitol, but there it ended. At night, those who were fortunate enough to be invited to purchase tickets to the inaugural ball, ate, drank and danced to the tune of a popular band and gaped as theatrical stars from Hollywood who were in Washington to attend the white inaugural activities, were paraded one by one on the platform of the Colonnade, and either spoke, danced, played drums or did something to delight their Negro friends. Among them were such stars of the day as Pat O'Brien, Jackie Cooper, Betty Grable, Harry James, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, etc. And then the final piece was the entrance of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, on the arm of a Presidential military aide. She broke up the house. Strange as it seems, there were no objections raised by Washington's elite over this arrangement, tending to prove what whites had been saying all along, "Negroes love to be themselves." As a result the third and fourth inauguration activities of President were a repetition of the second and followed its pattern strictly, with one extra Jim-crow addition. Congressman William L. Dawson, the Black Congressman from Chicago had become head of the Negro Division of the Democratic National Committee, and in that capacity, with DNC funds, hosted elaborate receptions for Blacks who had come from out of town at his behest to attend the segregated jim crow inaugural balls. 

During Roosevelt's third term war had broken out in Europe and the President signed the Selective Service Act in September, 1940. Up to this time barriers to Negro participation in the Armed Forces were numerous. Negroes could volunteer for service in the Coast Guard and Navy only as menials. The U. S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. would not admit a Negro. The Marine Corps admitted whites only, and this was true of the Army Air Corps, the Army Artillery, Engineer, Signal and Tank Corps. The Selective Service Act contained a provision prohibiting discrimination based on race in the selection and training of men under the Act. Roosevelt saw to it that a Negro, Col. Campbell C. Johnson, was appointed Executive Assistant to General Lewis B. Hershey, director of the Selective Service System, to see to it that the anti-discrimination provision of the Act was adhered to. Still the Generals found ways to get around an integrated Armed Service. 

Meetings were held with the President, the Secretary of War, Navy and others. After much pressure, William H. Hastie was appointed Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War [Henry L. Stimson], to get him in there and break up discrimination in all of the Armed Services. Simultaneously with the appointment of Hastie, the President nominated the highest ranking Negro in the Service, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, to be a Brigadier General - the first Negro general in American History. General Davis traveled from military post to military post where Negroes were stationed and segregated. He felt it his duty to calm waters by telling the Negroes to be good soldiers and remain quiet, while on the other hand, Hastie was jabbing and jabbing at the military power structure to abolish segregation in the Service. The Air Force in particular, which had no Negro pilots, was willing to go along with using them only if they were in a separate installation. And so, over the protest of the Negro press and Hastie, the 99th Pursuit Squadron for Negroes was established at Tuskegee Institute. In disgust and in protest, Hastie, always a man, submitted his resignation on January 6, 1943. On January 28, 1943 the Air Force announced a new policy which would permit Negroes to be trained throughout the entire Technical Training Command, as well as the Air Force Office Training School at Miami. Thus began a significant step towards integration. The next day, January 29, the Secretary of War accepted Hastie's resignation. 

Earlier, just as the Armed Services were resisting the use of Negroes, it became apparent that the defense industry was no less enthusiastic about employing Negroes. We couldn't get in the Service except on a segregated basis, and we couldn't find jobs in war industries. Despite the agitation of Black organizations and their leaders, together with the ever-growing militant Negro press, nothing was being accomplished. Then, from amongst all Negroes, stepped A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, who advanced the proposition that 100,000 Negroes, marching on Washington, and demanding that their government do something to assure that Negroes obtained jobs in war plants and in the defense industry, would bring results. "100,000 people is power," he said. "100,000 of anything is power." Soon a full-scale March on Washington Movement developed, supported by the heads of all major Negro organizations. The March was set for July 1, 1941. Roosevelt appealed to Randolph to call the March off, without offering any relief. Randolph stood steadfast. Appeals from Mrs. Roosevelt and Mayor LaGuardia of New York also fell on deaf ears. The March must and will go forward, Randolph said. Just as Negroes were assembling from all over the Country to March on Washington, Roosevelt told Randolph that if he would call off the March the President would issue an executive order prohibiting discrimination in employment in defense industries. To this Randolph agreed, and on June 25, 1942, the President issued  his now famous Executive Order 8802. The Order also set up a Fair Employment Practices Commission to implement and enforce the terms of the Executive Order.

By the time Roosevelt decided to seek another unprecedented term - a fourth - he had so galvanized himself into the hearts of Negroes that they again were unwavering in their support of his fourth re-election.

And so it was that when word flashed around the world on April 12, 1945 that "Roosevelt is dead," the Negroes stood side by side with white mourners as they lined the funeral cortege from Warm Springs, Georgia to Washington, D.C., to Hyde Park, New York in deep and everlasting respect for a man who had done more than any previous President of the United States to bring peace to the world, but more importantly, to bring peace and tranquility to all the people of the United States.

By Frederick S. Weaver

Copyright (C) 1976 by Frederick S. Weaver
All rights reserved.

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