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Great Depression

Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present

L. Diane Barnes

Great Depression. 

Lasting a full decade, the Great Depression of the 1930s was the worst economic downturn in U.S. history. Beginning with the stock market crash in October 1929, the Great Depression gripped the nation until mobilization began for World War II. For African Americans, the Depression magnified economic problems already mounting in the previous decades. The 1930s brought unemployment, malnutrition, disease, and family disruption to many blacks. Initially, African Americans received little if any relief from localities or states.

During the first years of the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's program to relieve economic distress rarely reached out to blacks. Only in the second half of the 1930s, under the programs of the Second New Deal, did African Americans benefit from government aid and work programs. Although the Depression era is credited with opening some government opportunities to blacks, the decade was one in which African Americans suffered substantially more hardship than their white counterparts.

The New Deal.

The rural South felt the heaviest economic toll of the Depression era; cotton prices dropped from eighteen cents per pound in 1929 to a mere five or six cents by 1933. At the beginning of the 1930s more than half of the 11.9 million African Americans in the United States lived in the South. Already a “sick” segment of the economy in the 1920s, cotton farming was a main source of income for millions of African Americans, whether they were landowners, cash tenants, sharecroppers, or wage laborers. One historian estimates that in the first years of the Depression nearly two-thirds of black cotton farmers reaped no profits at all from their crops, with many losing their land or going deep into debt. Some stayed and managed to eke out a living from growing vegetables and hunting, but many left the rural South for nearby cities in hopes of finding employment.

Rural African Americans found little relief in southern cities, where they competed with already established blacks and whites for menial jobs. Occupations previously race-typed, such as domestic service, garbage collecting, and street cleaning, were filled by whites as the Depression displaced workers in more skilled and prestigious lines of work. Black domestic workers, including maids, cooks, and housekeepers, formed the largest group of unemployed blacks in the South. In cities such as Atlanta, whites formed groups to ensure that whites received preference over blacks in service jobs that whites once disdained as “Negro work.” By 1932 more than one-half of black job seekers in the urban South were unable to obtain employment. To exacerbate the situation, local and state relief rarely extended to desperate African Americans. Even churches and charitable organizations sometimes refused blacks a meal in their soup kitchens or any other type of aid.

Outside the South, African Americans experienced less discrimination in obtaining relief but faced a similar employment situation. Black domestic workers in the North, whose employment depended on the prosperity of others, were particularly hard hit. By 1934 they accounted for 43 percent of northern blacks receiving relief. The employment and aid situation of northern cities was also taxed by a massive influx of black migrants from the South. Although the movement was not as great as the massive migration of the 1920s, some four hundred thousand African Americans increased the black population of northern cities by 25 percent during the Depression.

Despite their desperate situation, those African Americans who enjoyed the right to vote still clung to the Republican Party and Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election. Overall, some two-thirds of the black vote went for Hoover, even more than in 1928. When their candidate lost, African Americans looked on the newly elected Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt, with extreme caution and trepidation. Indeed, with a Congress controlled by southern Democrats, early in his presidency Roosevelt could hardly risk their alienation by extending aid to African Americans. As a result, the early programs of his New Deal offered little to blacks and frequently openly discriminated against them.

Those within Roosevelt's administration who sought to ensure the inclusion of African Americans in New Deal programs were often thwarted by more powerful influences. Southern contractors and labor unions opposed the employment of black workers on Public Works Administration (PWA) contracts. Many of the programs were operated at the local level, where officials felt free to discriminate against black applicants for jobs and relief programs. Even the Social Security Act of 1935 excluded farmers and domestic workers from its old-age pension program; a large percentage working in those occupations were African American. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), which aimed to provide relief to farmers, initially turned out to be one of the most detrimental programs for southern blacks. The AAA program sought to raise the dismal price of cotton by reducing the number of acres in production. This resulted in a mass eviction of as many as a half million black farmers. Those who owned land were often forced into tenancy or the indignity of sharecropping.

Other New Deal agencies also maintained policies harmful to blacks. The Federal Housing Administration, created under the 1934 National Housing Act, boosted the ailing construction industry while simultaneously encouraging residential segregation. Its official documentation warned of deteriorating property values if blacks moved into predominantly white neighborhoods. The agency also refused to grant African Americans mortgages on homes purchased in white communities. Agencies providing direct work on government-funded projects excluded blacks as well. The employment rolls of the rural electrification project of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) were less than 1 percent African American, and vocational schools and training programs of the TVA excluded blacks. In the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the most prominent government programs in the rural South, only 5 percent of those enrolled were black in 1933. By 1935, a conference held in Washington titled “The Position of the Negro in the Present Economic Crisis” gathered prominent equality advocates including Ralph Johnson Bunche of Howard University and the black labor leader A. Philip Randolph. The outcome of the conference was a resounding condemnation of every program of the New Deal as antagonistic to African Americans.

Despite the influence of southerners in Congress and other powerful opponents of African Americans, blacks could count on some allies during the Great Depression. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was the most prominent advocate for racial equality in Roosevelt's cabinet. A former president of the Chicago chapter of the NAACP, Ickes worked diligently to remove discrimination from New Deal programs. After 1935 Ickes influenced others, especially First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who worked hard to open more relief and government opportunities to black Americans.

The Second New Deal.

Beginning in 1935, with the introduction of the so-called Second New Deal, African Americans found the federal government more responsive to their needs. A variety of forces outside the Roosevelt administration, along with Ickes, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, and Eleanor Roosevelt, pushed for the New Deal to change. Among the outside influences pushing for change were black voters, southern liberals, northern radicals and unionists, civil rights activists, and antifascist scholars. One of the driving forces for change was Mary McLeod Bethune, an African American activist and president of the National Council of Negro Women, who gained the ear of Eleanor Roosevelt and was subsequently appointed to the advisory committee of the National Youth Administration (NYA), which provided work and educational projects for youth. Another was Walter White, the first black NAACP secretary. These two guided the president's wife as she became a national leader and the leading white advocate of racial integration. Within Roosevelt's administration additional support for including blacks in New Deal policies and programs came from Will Alexander, a southern Methodist minister who headed the Farm Security Administration; Aubrey Williams, director of the NYA; and Clark Foreman, a white Georgian appointed as the president's special assistant to explore the economic status of African Americans.

The influence of these forces and individuals brought improved circumstances to many Depression-era blacks. Ickes insisted that construction projects undertaken by the PWA hire African Americans in both skilled and unskilled positions. By 1936 blacks were employed in 15 percent of skilled and 64 percent of unskilled jobs in PWA construction projects. Ickes also ensured that blacks occupied at least a third of the housing built by the PWA. Other New Deal agencies followed suit. In May 1935 President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 7046, which banned discrimination on projects under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Harry Hopkins began to insist that the major works programs he administered, including the massive WPA treat blacks equally and by 1939 the WPA provided a living for a million African American families. Receiving equal wages with whites, blacks employed by the WPA probably earned more than they could have in private employment. The various programs of the WPA provided work opportunities for teachers and administrators in its Education Program, performers and composers found work under the Federal Music Project, and the Federal Art Project supported such important black artists as Jacob Lawrence and Samuel Brown. Other WPA programs supported other aspects of African American cultural traditions including the Federal Theatre Project and the famous Federal Writers’ Project, which employed and published the work of some two hundred black authors, including Ralph Ellison and Richard. Among its most lasting legacies are hundreds of interviews with former slaves collected under the project's direction. Another significant aid to African Americans, the NYA administered by Williams, aided some three hundred thousand young blacks between 1935 and its end in 1943.

Other programs of the Second New Deal were less successful, even when administered by advocates of civil rights or integration. Always poorly funded, the Farm Security Administration was established in 1937 to aid small family farmers, including tenants and sharecroppers. Despite the difficulties of ending racial discrimination in a program administered locally by committees of white farmers, the FSA administrator, Alexander, made significant strides. Hiring within the FSA was scrupulously egalitarian, and the project's loans to blacks matched the percentage of African American farmers, even in the South.

Older New Deal programs also shifted to be more responsive to African Americans after 1935, especially after Roosevelt's reelection in 1936. The percentage of blacks receiving old age pensions and aid for dependent children exceeded the proportion of those groups in the population at large. Agencies such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) stepped up the integration of African Americans into its programs. By the time the CCC disbanded in 1942, about 250,000 blacks served in the agency's camps, with most in integrated corps.

The Depression era programs under the New Deal also laid foundations for the civil rights movement that sprang to life in the 1950s. Under pressure from civil rights advocates, including his wife, Roosevelt assembled a group of black leaders to advise him on race-related matters. Dubbed by the press as the “Black Cabinet,” members of the group did not hold as much power as official cabinet members, but their influence was more than African Americans had enjoyed under any previous administration. Among those advising the president was Robert C. Weaver, who held a Harvard PhD in economics. Along with Foreman, a southern white, Weaver served as a special assistant to the president on matters pertaining to African Americans. Working closely with Ickes, the two recruited other blacks to act as race relations advisers in the various agencies of the New Deal. By the middle of 1935, some forty-five African Americans held posts on the advisory boards of most cabinet departments and New Deal agencies. Continuing this trend, in 1937 Roosevelt appointed William Henry Hastie, a black attorney for the NAACP, to the federal bench. He was the first African American appointed to a federal judgeship and blazed a path for others, including Thurgood Marshall, to follow. Attorney General Frank Murphy created a Civil Rights Section in the Justice Department in 1939.

The shift in New Deal policies and the influence of African Americans is best exemplified by the three-day National Conference on the Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth held in Washington, D.C., in 1937. Sponsored by the government, the conference was addressed by several of Roosevelt's cabinet members, Eleanor Roosevelt, and six New Deal agency heads. In her opening remarks, Bethune declared, “This is the first time in the history of our race that the Negroes of America have felt free to reduce to writing their problems and plans for meeting them with the expectancy of sympathetic understanding and interpretation” (quoted in Sitkoff, p. 82). The movement of the federal government toward a more supportive role for blacks was also evident in its support of the popular black contralto Marian Anderson. When in March 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Anderson's performance in their Washington, D.C., Constitution Hall, officials from Roosevelt's administration organized a free concert at the Lincoln Memorial. An integrated crowd of about seventy-five thousand attended the performance. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in protest of the group's discriminatory attitudes.

Indeed, despite continued discrimination in some programs the New Deal ultimately had a stronger social and economic impact on African Americans than it did on whites. Significant programs advanced black education, health, and economic situations. It also set the stage for more to come in the area of civil rights by creating a modern precedent of government intervention. Some immediately mensurable benefits included a rise in life expectancy, although blacks still lagged behind whites in this important indicator of health and quality of life. During the 1930s the statistic rose from forty-nine to fifty-five years for black women and from forty-seven to fifty-two years for black men. Illiteracy rates for African Americans dropped from 16.4 percent at the Depression's onset to 11.5 percent at the decade's end. By 1941 the United States began mobilization for World War II, and the government spending in preparation for war wiped the last traces of the Great Depression from the nation. For African Americans and race advocates, the Depression and New Deal awakened a dream of racial equality that had been extinguished at the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s. Although the expectations raised during the Depression remained a mere dream for the time being, the seeds of the civil rights movement were firmly planted and awaiting the watershed of the 1950s and 1960s.


McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. New York: Times Books, 1993. First published 1984.Find this resource:

    Sitkoff, Harvard. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue. Vol. 1, The Depression Decade. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.Find this resource:

      —L. Diane Barnes