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date: 29 September 2023

African Americans in the Great Depression and New Dealfree

African Americans in the Great Depression and New Dealfree

  • Mary-Elizabeth B. MurphyMary-Elizabeth B. MurphyDepartment of History Eastern Michigan University


For African Americans, the Great Depression and the New Deal (1929–1940) marked a transformative era and laid the groundwork for the postwar black freedom struggle in the United States. The outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929 caused widespread suffering and despair in black communities across the country as women and men faced staggering rates of unemployment and poverty. Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), a Democrat, was inaugurated as president in 1933, he launched a “New Deal” of ambitious government programs to lift the United States out of the economic crisis. Most African Americans were skeptical about benefiting from the New Deal, and racial discrimination remained rampant. However, a cohort of black advisors and activists critiqued these government programs for excluding African Americans and enacted some reforms. At the grassroots level, black workers pressed for expanded employment opportunities and joined new labor unions to fight for economic rights. As the New Deal progressed a sea change swept over black politics. Many black voters switched their allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party, waged more militant campaigns for racial justice, and joined interracial and leftist coalitions. African Americans also challenged entrenched cultural stereotypes through photography, theater, and oral histories to illuminate the realities of black life in the United States. By 1940, African Americans now wielded an arsenal of protest tactics and were marching on a path toward full citizenship rights, which remains an always evolving process.


  • Political History
  • Cultural History
  • Labor and Working Class History
  • Women's History
  • African American History

Last Hired, First Fired: The Crisis of the Great Depression

On the eve of the Great Depression, African Americans across the country already occupied a fragile position in the economy.1 In the late 1920s, the vast majority of African Americans toiled as domestic servants, farmers, or service workers, jobs marked by low wages, weak job security, and fraught labor conditions.2 Approximately eleven million African Americans lived in the American South, where they principally labored as sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and wage workers. Approximately 10 percent of black southerners owned land, but most cultivated crops on white-owned land and received a small share of the harvest.3 Many regions of the South were already suffering from an economic downtown, and most black southerners were locked in an endless cycle of poverty, exploitation, and malnutrition. Disfranchisement and violence—especially the dangers of lynching and sexual assault—created a culture of fear for -black southerners.4

Between 1915 and 1930, approximately 1.5 million black southerners had migrated to northern and midwestern cities, such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia. Not only did New York attract southern migrants, but thirty thousand immigrants from the West Indies also settled in the city, which made the Harlem neighborhood a very cosmopolitan place.5 African Americans also streamed into western cities, such as Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco.6 Black migrants had aspired to improve their economic and political standing in their new cities. But most discovered that Jim Crow was ever present beyond the Mason-Dixon line, marked by racial segregation, interracial police violence, and labor segmentation. Some black men were able to secure low-level positions in industry, while most black women labored as servants, cooks, and laundresses. However, southern migrants were able to vote in elections, which created black political constituencies to be courted by politicians. The ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 enabled most migrant women to vote, and they participated enthusiastically in politics.7

In October 1929, the US stock market crashed, which precipitated the most serious economic crisis in the nation’s history. Banks began to fail, businesses closed, and workers across the nation lost their jobs. The Great Depression triggered immediate suffering in black communities. Economic conditions had been poor in the South since the early 1920s, but the Great Depression marked a new low. Between 1929 and 1933, the price of cotton dropped from eighteen cents to six cents, which only exacerbated black southerners’ precarious economic position. With a decline in cotton prices, the number of black sharecroppers fell.8 In northern and midwestern cities, white unemployment reached as much as 25 percent, but for black workers in Chicago, New York, and Pittsburgh, 50 percent were out of work, and that number climbed to 60 percent for black workers in Philadelphia and Detroit.9 African American workers were often the last hired, and thus, the first fired. The Great Depression initially slowed the pace of migration, but black African Americans continued to stream out of the South throughout the 1930s.10

With the crisis of the Great Depression, African Americans struggled to receive adequate relief from the crushing impact of unemployment and poverty. White officials distributed relief in the form of food, money, or work programs, but many reasoned that African Americans did not need as many resources as white Americans.11 At the federal level, President Herbert Hoover’s administration responded to the crisis of the Great Depression by creating the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which offered loan payments to large corporations in order to restart the economy, but very few of these dollars reached suffering workers in the United States.12

African Americans turned toward their community institutions to alleviate the worst effects of poverty and suffering. Middle-class African Americans spearheaded relief efforts by working with their churches, fraternal orders, and social and political organizations to assist unemployed workers.13 As the chief purchasers for their families, black women were keenly aware of the cost of living and used the power of their pocketbooks to cope with the Depression. In 1930, Fannie Peck formed the Housewives’ League of Detroit, asking members to patronize black-owned businesses as a way to protect these establishments and keep money in the black community. By 1934, the organization had ten thousand members. These organizations mushroomed in other cities, such as Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh, underscoring the importance of black women’s organizing at the grassroots level. Women also banded together to clothe, feed, and house their families. In New York, Detroit, and St. Louis, black women staged meat boycotts and protested rent evictions, while in Cleveland, they protested electricity shut offs.14 Some African Americans joined the Communist Party (CP) during the Great Depression, finding that this organization was an important vehicle to achieve economic survival for their families. Across the country, black activists united with the CP to fight against interracial police brutality, press for an economic redistribution in society, or protest the unjust criminalization of the thirteen men falsely accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama.15 As black citizens struggled to survive during the Great Depression, they pondered whether they should remain loyal to the Republican Party or cast their lot with Democratic candidate FDR and his vision for a New Deal in American society.

The New Deal and Racial Discrimination

African Americans supported President Hoover by a two-to-one margin in the 1932 election. While most African Americans still associated the Grand Old Party with Abraham Lincoln and civil rights, Hoover had an uneven record on racial justice.16 He made black equality a plank in his campaign platform and appointed black men to serve in patronage positions and tapped black women to sit on government advisory committees. But other practices in his administration distressed African Americans. In 1930, he permitted the War Department to segregate black and white gold star mothers on separate ships; gold star mothers were women whose sons had been killed in World War I.17 That same year, Hoover nominated John J. Parker to the US Supreme Court. A former governor of North Carolina and Republican, Parker had once declared that African Americans should not participate in politics and publicly supported disfranchisement laws. In response, African Americans in the nation’s two largest civil rights organizations—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW)—banded together to thwart Parker’s confirmation. In response to this robust lobbying, the senate narrowly voted not to confirm Justice Parker, and many scholars point to this victory as a new era in black politics.18

Hoover’s opponent in the 1932 election, FDR, bore the burden of the Democratic Party’s long support for racial segregation and intolerance.19 Between 1913 and 1920, the last Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson, had installed racial segregation in the federal government and thwarted opportunities for black government workers.20 On the surface, FDR seemed little better. A northerner who served as governor of New York, he also maintained a home in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he received therapeutic treatments for polio and seemed comfortable in the white South, a crucial region in the Democratic coalition.21 Furthermore, FDR’s running mate was the Texas politician John Nance Garner—further evidence that FDR would likely embody the worst impulses of the Jim Crow South as a Democratic president. Although some African Americans supported FDR, most black voters remained loyal to the Republican Party.22

Even before FDR’s inauguration, his administration began to take a different path from his predecessors on race relations. Over half of the servants who were hired to work in the White House were African American, which was the largest number in recent years. Two of the most notable were a married couple from Georgia who had met FDR in Warm Springs; Irvin McDuffie worked as FDR’s valet and his wife, Elizabeth, labored as a maid in the White House. Both Irvin and Elizabeth McDuffie became active in Washington’s black community, and they helped to humanize the Roosevelt administration to African Americans in the early 1930s by giving interviews in the press and attending White House events with black performers. However, while FDR was willing to bring black servants into the White House, he appointed no African Americans to the cabinet or other administrative positions.23

Once FDR was inaugurated as America’s thirty-second president in March 1933, he pursued an ambitious agenda to bring relief to unemployed persons and set the economy on a path of economic recovery. In his first hundred days, FDR created five sweeping programs, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). White administrators oversaw all of these programs, and most were not attuned to racial discrimination, which meant that very few black workers experienced immediate relief. For example, both the TVA and AAA were aimed at the South, and without vigilance, it was easy to deny benefits to African Americans. The AAA evicted black sharecroppers and tenant farmers off of the land they were cultivating. The CCC hired unemployed young men to labor on public works projects and its white director, a native of Tennessee, believed that young black men did not need these jobs as much as their white men. As a result, the CCC admitted fewer black men, housed them in segregated dormitories, and barred black CCC workers from most administrative positions. The TVA tried to bring rural electrification and economic development to the South, but its strict practices of racial segregation thwarted black participation.24

The National Recovery Administration’s (NRA) program of regulated wage codes underscored how the federal government based their programs on the needs of white men and women. In theory, the NRA was intended to provide a minimum wage for worker in various industries. But in practice, the NRA did not recognize the ways that race intersected class and sex. The NRA’s cotton industry hours regulation excluded the central positions where black male workers labored, while the southern lumber industry’s wages were far lower than those wages paid in the North. Even when black workers were eligible for higher wages, employers preferred to pay this money to white workers.25 The NRA also sought to regulate the hours and wages for hairdressers. Most white hairdressers had white clients who received their treatments during regular working hours. But black domestics who worked during the day and received their treatments in the evening comprised the clientele of most black hairdressers. Across the country, black hairdressers banded together to protest this exclusionary legislation, pointing out that black women did not have identical interests as white women. One black hairdresser in Washington, DC, even declared that the New Deal was “a white man’s law.”26

The Social Security Act epitomized the New Deal’s negligence toward race and sex. Social Security was a revolutionary piece of legislation that granted unemployment insurance and retirement benefits to workers in the United States. It was designed to mitigate the worst effects of the Great Depression by providing income to unemployed workers and preventing poverty among the elderly. But, southern white men who were determined to preserve the South’s racial order served these on congressional committees and inserted a provision in the proposed Social Security legislation that excluded farmers and domestic workers.27 Representatives from two major black organizations—Charles Hamilton Houston from the NAACP and George E. Haynes from the National Urban League (NUL)—testified in Congress, stressing the importance of including all black workers.28 But when FDR signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935, it deemed farmers and domestics ineligible, which meant that 87 percent of all-black women and 55 percent of all African American workers were excluded.29 A broad swath of African Americans protested these exclusions, ranging from individual black workers to the NACW and the Grand Order of the Elks, but this legislation was not broadened until the 1950s.30

During the early 1930s, the one New Deal agency that took decisive action against racial discrimination was the Public Works Administration (PWA), a massive program of construction projects. During the 1930s, the PWA spent $6 billion and built thousands of projects across the country, including airports, schools, hospitals, libraries, and public housing (see figure 1).31 Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, a former president of the Chicago branch of the NAACP, headed the PWA, which was created as part of the NIRA. To express sensitivity toward race, Ickes announced that he would hire a “Special Advisor on the Status of Negroes” for the PWA and selected Clark Foreman, a white southerner. The appointment of a white man, especially when there were hundreds of qualified black men and women for this position, upset African Americans, causing them to express profound concern whether the New Deal would provide substantive change in black communities.32 However, Ickes also sought the advice of black advisors, who counseled him on the ways that African Americans could benefit from the PWA. He tapped two black graduates of Harvard University—economist Robert Weaver and attorney William Hastie—to serve in the PWA.33

Figure 1. Through their residency in these PWA housing complexes, African Americans were able to save money and plan for their future. “PWA (Public Works Administration) housing project for Negroes.” Omaha, Nebraska, November 1938.

Photograph by John Vachon, 1914–1975. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC, 20540.

One of the most important programs that the PWA spearheaded was the construction of fifty-one public housing projects, which marked the very first time that the US government erected housing for its low-income citizens. Since segregation was rampant in the 1930s, Ickes did not propose integrated housing projects. But he designated nineteen, or one-third, of these housing projects, for African American occupancy. In cities with large black populations, such as Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, African American families moved into affordable, new housing that was designed to be transitional and life changing.34 In September 1933, the NAACP lobbied Ickes to issue a non-discrimination clause in the PWA, stating that construction projects could not discriminate on the basis of race. Ickes’s advisors, including Clark Foreman, William Hastie, and Robert Weaver, supplemented this clause with a quota system, stating that all construction crews had to employ a number of black workers that was proportional to their population. They also recruited black architects to design some of these public housing complexes.35 The success of the PWA in assisting African Americans in such a concrete way demonstrated that black advisors could make a significant difference in New Deal programs, and prompted other government agencies to hire black consultants.

Activism in the Black Cabinet

By the mid-1930s, white administrators had begun to tap black advisors for government programs with more regularity. This shift can be traced to the PWA’s success in addressing racial discrimination, as well as growing black support for New Deal programs and the Democratic Party. In 1935, the National Youth Administration (NYA), an agency focused on finding work opportunities for young people, appointed prominent clubwoman and school president, Mary McLeod Bethune, to become the Negro Advisor, and later chair, of its Division of Negro Affairs (see figure 2). In taking this position, Bethune became the first black woman to head a government division. A native of South Carolina, she was the founder of the Bethune-Cookman School in Florida, a former president of the NACW, and an activist with deep networks in black women’s politics. In 1935, Bethune founded a new civil rights organization, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW).36 In the NYA, Bethune lobbied for African Americans to serve in leadership positions at the federal, state, and local levels. Under her watchful eye, more African Americans served in administrative positions in the NYA than any other New Deal program. And by the early 1940s, as many as 20 percent of black youth participated in NYA programs.37 Mary McLeod Bethune also cultivated a public friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and educated her about the particular problems that African Americans faced in the United States. Through this friendship, Eleanor Roosevelt elevated her standing with African Americans and became an ally of black civil rights causes. Eleanor Roosevelt supported a federal anti-lynching bill, an end to the poll tax, and increased funding for black schools.38

Figure 2. Mary McLeod Bethune was able to use her appointment in the New Deal to form the Black Cabinet and the NCNW. “Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, founder and former president and director of the NYA (National Youth Administration) Negro Relations.” Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, Florida, January 1943.

Photograph by Gordon Parks, 1912–2006. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC, 20540.

Not only did Bethune assume a prominent position in the NYA and inform the First Lady about racial justice, but she also used her new status in Washington, DC, to gather a group of black consultants into the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, which became known as the Black Cabinet. Composed of lawyers, politicians, and journalists, members of the Black Cabinet advised President Roosevelt on matters related to African Americans. Some members of the Black Cabinet included the economist Robert Weaver, lawyer Charles Hastie, Pittsburgh Courier editor Robert L. Vann, who was in the Office of the Attorney General, social worker Lawrence Oxley, and CCC advisor Edgar Brown. The black press covered the Black Cabinet extensively, thereby introducing African American readers to the cohort of black professionals who advised the Roosevelt administration. By 1940, one hundred African Americans served in administrative positions in the New Deal. But the Black Cabinet was not a formal government institution and Bethune convened its meetings in her office or apartment.39

Members of the Black Cabinet worked in concert with civil rights organizations to pressure New Deal agencies and programs to end racial bias. For example, in 1933, the CCC had enrolled a paltry number of young black men. But, after the NAACP put pressure on the CCC, two hundred thousand African American men participated in the program by 1940, and one-fifth of them learned to read and write while enrolled.40 In 1935, Congress passed the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which took over some of the work from the PWA. The WPA’s administrator, Harry Hopkins, built on Ickes’s example by appointing a series of black advisors to design programs that would assist African Americans.41 In the first year alone, two hundred thousand African Americans joined WPA programs, and that number climbed steadily each year.42 The WPA constructed black schools and community centers, opened domestic service training centers, conducted adult education classes, and oversaw a myriad of arts projects (see section on “Black Stories in the New Deal Era”). In the rural South, African American men and women flocked to literacy classes, which enabled them to learn to read and supplement the poor education they had received in deeply underfunded schools, or even attend school for the first time in their lives (see figure 3). By the end of the 1930s, black illiteracy fell by 10 percent.43

Figure 3. Older African Americans flocked to the WPA adult literacy programs. Pictured is an 82-year-old woman who is the “star pupil” in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. “Star pupil, eighty-two years old, reading her lesson in adult class. Gee’s Bend, Alabama.” May 1939.

Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott, 1910–1990. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC, 20540.

Despite the presence of racial advisors, however, many New Deal programs failed to address the black structural inequalities that lay at the root of American society. For example, the WPA limited black women’s employment opportunities to domestic service training programs and sewing programs, both of which paid low wages, while it enabled white women to seek opportunities in other industries, such as clerical work, gardening, and nursing.44 Similarly, when the PWA constructed black housing projects, they engaged in slum clearance by razing black neighborhoods. This practice actually created a housing shortage for African Americans in segregated cities and paved the way for urban renewal programs in the postwar era. When Congress created the United States Housing Authority in 1937, the bureau did not issue mortgages to African Americans in racially integrated neighborhoods. In all of these instances, New Deal programs did not touch America’s landscape of racial segregation and labor segmentation.45

New Deal programs were especially challenged to improve the lives of rural black southerners, which was a source of continual frustration. A significant number of FDR’s economic advisors were native to the South and determined to use the New Deal as an instrument to tackle poverty in the region. The Agricultural Adjustment Act tried to increase crop prices by paying farmers to decrease their acreage. But the AAA lacked programs to assist black sharecroppers, who could not receive these payments because they were not landowners. Moreover, prominent white men who served on the AAA’s local committees crafted policies that favored white farmers over black farmers, which sometimes forced black landowners off their land and squeezed sharecroppers out of their jobs. The Resettlement Administration tried to relocate southerners to planned communities, but ultimately, only 1,393 black families were able to benefit from this program.46 Cumulatively, the New Deal assisted black southerners by allocating money to African American schools, funding public health programs, and improving black housing.47 While black participation in New Deal programs was uneven, there was no question that it marked a new era for African Americans and enabled them to recast their ideas about citizenship and belonging in the United States. By 1935, 30 percent of African Americans were recipients of New Deal relief programs and many turned their political allegiances in these shifting times.48

The 1936 election marked a major test for black politics. In his bid for a second term in office, FDR actively courted the black vote, envisioning African Americans as a part of his expanding electoral coalition that included workers, European immigrants, and white southerners. President Roosevelt was very delicate on the race question. Without supporting anti-lynching legislation publicly, he appealed to black voters by touting his record of black appointments and government programs that assisted African Americans. By the mid-1930s, black voter registration was at an all-time high in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit. In southern cities, some African Americans had managed to escape the barriers of disfranchisement and formed Democratic political clubs.49 At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in June 1936, thirty African Americans served as delegates, which was a first for the party. Furthermore, the black press received seats in the press box, a black minister, Marshall L. Shepard, delivered the invocation, and black politicians delivered addresses.50 And, in the weeks before the election, FDR sent his maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, on the campaign trail to offer personal testimony about the Democratic Party’s commitment to African Americans. McDuffie traveled to midwestern cities where she held rallies and spoke to a total of fifty thousand black citizens. As the child of former slaves, McDuffie argued that the New Deal represented a second emancipation for African Americans.51 This outreach worked and FDR was reelected in a landslide victory in 1936. He captured 61 percent of the total vote, but he won 76 percent of the black vote. In this election, he cemented the relationship between African Americans and the Democratic Party.52 Not all African Americans switched to the Democratic Party, however, and some black voters lamented that neither party offered a robust response to black poverty and civil rights.53

Militant Black Protest Politics in the 1930s

While African Americans caused a major political realignment by switching from the Republican to the Democratic Parties, they also formed new protest organizations and deployed strategies of mass action in order to achieve racial justice. Early 21st-century historians point to these activities in the 1930s as evidence of a “long” civil rights movement in the United States, which helped to pave the way for the postwar black freedom struggle.54 During the 1930s, the NAACP and NUL paid close attention to New Deal programs and put pressure on administrators to end racial bias. African Americans frequently reached out to their local branches or the national organization, and the NAACP was swift to conduct investigations and assisted thousands of African Americans across the country.55 The NAACP had brilliant lawyers in Charles Hamilton Houston and his student at Howard University Law School, Thurgood Marshall. This legal team won landmark cases: Murray v. Maryland in 1936 and Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada in 1938, which both whittled away at racial segregation in professional and graduate schools.56 They also scored a victory in the Supreme Court in Hale v. Kentucky in 1938 which opened jury service to African Americans. And the national NAACP, along with local branches, aligned with the CP, despite worries about the party’s radicalism, to secure justice for the Scottsboro Nine, black teenagers who had been accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama in 1931. All but the youngest were given a death sentence by electrocution in Alabama courts. Ada Wright, mother of two of the accused, traveled with the CP’s International Labor Defense throughout Europe in the early 1930s to spread awareness about the case, and her speaking engagements helped to educate a global audience about the injustices of the legal system for African Americans.57 Through mass marches, newspaper exposes, and a massive fundraising campaign, the defendants were ultimately exonerated and released from jail.58

African Americans also formed new organizations to fight for their economic rights and political interests in the 1930s. In 1931, black sharecroppers in Alabama established the Alabama Sharecroppers Union in connection with the CP and by 1934, it had four thousand members. Black women evaluated the strength of their organizations and tested new strategies. In 1935, Mary McLeod Bethune founded the NCNW, to serve as a civil rights organization for black women. The NCNW gathered members from the NACW, but also federated with sororities, church groups, and professional organizations. Seeking to distance herself from the NACW’s respectability politics, Bethune designed the NCNW to lobby for black women’s interests with a special emphasis on employment opportunities. However, the NCNW was largely a middle-class organization that did not directly assist working-class women. In 1936, John P. Davis and Howard Professor Ralph Bunche formed the National Negro Congress (NNC) and its youth organization, the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC). The NNC and SNYC reached down below to the grassroots level, recruiting activists, students, and workers to fight for black rights. By the late 1930s, the NNC established seventy-five local chapters across the country.59

Men, women, and especially, young people, banded together with these new protest organizations to stage militant campaigns across the country. Activists in the NNC fought to broaden New Deal programs, improve living conditions for African Americans, organize black workers into industrial labor unions, protest disfranchisement, and protect all African Americans from interracial violence, especially lynching and police brutality.60 In Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, DC, black women and men staged Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work campaigns. Citizens picketed the white-owned stores and restaurants in black neighborhoods that did not hire black workers.61 They also withheld their patronage from these establishments and intimidated black customers. These protests were largely successful and resulted in hundreds of jobs for unemployed and underemployed men and women, including teenagers who needed to supplement their family’s income.62 African Americans also celebrated a major success when the Supreme Court upheld their right to picket in New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery in 1938. These grassroots protests in the 1930s demonstrated the power of mass action and would help to inspire protests in the postwar era.63

Not only did African Americans fight for jobs, but they also formed labor unions within different industries. In 1935, Congress passed the Wagner Act, which upheld the right of workers to organize labor unions, participate in collective bargaining, and stage strikes, which nurtured a more supportive climate for industrial black workers. The largest black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), negotiated a contract with the Pullman Company to reduce their hours and increase their wages.64 White labor leaders formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which organized black and white workers in mining, automobile, meatpacking, and steel industries. The CIO made racial equality central to its organization by fighting against pay scales and hiring black organizers in all of its unions.65 The CIO also became a civil rights ally by lobbying against the poll tax, supporting a federal anti-lynching law, and fighting against labor discrimination.66 Black tobacco workers and Red Caps both joined CIO-affiliated unions to fight for economic justice during the 1930s.67 While black women joined some of these labor unions, they overwhelmingly assisted male workers.68 In the 1930s, with the backing of the NNC, some black women formed a domestic workers union in New York City. But the union proved unable to improve their circumstances significantly during the Great Depression and New Deal eras, and domestic workers remained one of the nation’s most exploited groups, as they still are.69

During the New Deal era, domestic workers suffered from abject poverty. Not only were they excluded from the Social Security Act, but white families reeling from the Depression fired servants or slashed wages. In 1935, activists Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke wrote a landmark piece that was published in the NAACP’s organ, the Crisis, entitled “The Bronx Slave Market.”70 This piece chronicled the desperate black servants who crowded the streets of the Bronx and the white housewives who would hire them for day wages. By terming this a “slave market,” Baker and Cooke underscored the severity of black women’s economic predicaments and the intersections of race, class, and gender during the Depression.71 One job coveted by Washington, DC, domestic workers was to become a federal “charwoman,” a worker who cleaned government offices. The positions paid higher wages than domestic service and offered retirement benefits, and when the federal government announced it was accepting applications for these positions, between ten thousand and twenty thousand black women showed up to apply for these jobs. Many had spent the night at the station in order to obtain a good place in line. Their numbers were so large that officials had to stop distributing applications and turn toward crowd control. When women learned that they could not receive job applications, they began to express anger and frustration as white police officers were dispatched to contain the crowds of rioting women. The episode illustrated the dire economic circumstances experienced by black women and black families, the women articulating their collective desire to leave domestic service in white women’s houses and their exclusion from many New Deal programs, especially Social Security.72

Black women and men who had suffered disproportionately from unemployment sometimes turned to the underground economy for survival. African Americans held rent parties, played numbers games, joined economic cooperatives, engaged in petty theft, and traded in sex to survive the effects of the Depression.73 Yet these activities also made black women and men vulnerable targets for interracial police violence in cities such as Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC.74

The visibility of African Americans in this era—whether they were marching in picket lines, staging boycotts, or rioting for jobs—underscored a new era in their culture of protest. Simultaneously, art, photography, writing, and oral history offered African Americans bountiful opportunities to recast their image in American culture and speak some of their truths.

Black Stories in the New Deal Era

Through the New Deal, the federal government first began to finance arts projects that, in turn, involved significant black engagement. Not only were writers, actors, photographers, and painters suffering from higher rates of unemployment than other categories of workers, but New Deal administrators also argued that the arts were a crucial part of the nation’s vitality. Largely through the WPA, the federal government organized the Federal Theater Project (FTP) and the Federal Writers Project (FWP), which employed writers and playwrights. The FWP also dispatched interviewers to travel to the South and interview thousands of former slaves in the United States, which became an invaluable resource for historians of slavery. Finally, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) hired photographers to travel across the country and document the lives of ordinary Americans. Not only did the FSA recruit black photographers, but white photographers also snapped searing and indelible images of African Americans. Collectively, all of these initiatives enabled African Americans to defy some of the pernicious racial stereotypes that were perpetuated against them throughout American culture.75

African Americans participated enthusiastically in both the FWP and the FTP. During the 1920s, cities such as Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC, had witnessed the flourishing of black arts through literature, poetry, painting, film, and playwriting. These artistic communities laid the groundwork for black participation in New Deal artistic programs.76 Both the FWP and the FTP had Negro divisions that oversaw black projects. The FTP’s Negro Division staged plays, hired black actors and directors, and took black stories seriously. Prior to the FTP, most black actors were limited to artistic opportunities related to minstrelsy. In rare cases, black actors were able to perform in the early phase of black film with auteurs, such as Oscar Micheaux.77 The FTP’s Negro Division traveled to twenty-two cities across the country, which enabled African Americans to interact with this new, innovative type of theater. Black performers not only acted in plays with themes rooted in African American history and culture, such as racial prejudice, the Haitian Revolution, and lynching, but they also performed all-black productions of Macbeth and Swing Mikado, which reset expectations about black actors portraying historical white and Asian characters.78

The FWP hired luminaries in black culture, including the writers Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, the scholars St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, and the poet Sterling Brown. These writers documented the contributions of African Americans to United States history and culture.79

The gathering of ex-slave narratives may have been the most important aspect of the FWP’s work. In the mid-1930s, the last generation of enslaved men and women were about to die. Members of the FWP recognized that this project represented a transformative opportunity for interviewers to speak with the men and women who had survived the trauma of racial slavery and narrate their experiences. Prior to the ex-slave narrative project, the vast majority of historiography about racial slavery was written from the viewpoint of white masters and mistresses. By inviting former slaves to share their recollections and offer their personal testimony, the nation would be able to reckon with its traumatic past.

Between 1936 and 1938, dozens of black and white researchers traveled to the American South to interview over two thousand former slaves. When the project had concluded, they had amassed ten thousand typed pages and thousands of hours of testimony. These interviews proved invaluable in illuminating some of the hidden worlds of slavery, including sexual violence, physical brutality, and black survival strategies. The vast majority of these former slaves had regional accents, or in some cases, spoke in black dialect. Since white interviewers conducted the majority of the interviews, power relations were imbalanced and former slaves were not as direct as they would be with black researchers, especially around issues of trauma and sexual violence. Moreover, the interviews starkly illuminated the abject poverty that former slaves experienced.80 The ex-slave narratives offered invaluable information to future historians, who continue to use the narratives as major sources for understanding both American slavery and the disappointment of Reconstruction.

In addition to listening to African Americans through testimony, the FSA hired a series of black and white photographers, who traveled across the country to visualize African Americans and black culture in the 1930s (see figure 4). Photography was a revolutionary instrument that could be wielded for social change. In this era, mass culture, such as advertisements, cartoons, and films, depicted African Americans in derogatory stereotypes as lazy, immature, childlike, and dangerous. These stereotypes were not simply abstract images, but rather, evidence that fueled a social, cultural, and political narrative about who African Americans were.81 A documentary photograph that depicted a person hard at work, then, made it that much more difficult to deny basic human rights and dignities. These photographs helped to give a human face to African Americans who were suffering as ordinary Americans. White FSA photographers, such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, traveled across the country and snapped indelible photographs of African Americans. These images revealed the complexities of black life across the country.82 Gordon Parks, one of the most notable black FSA photographers, used his camera as a weapon and captured images of thousands of African Americans throughout the country. His image of Ella Watson, a charwoman in the federal government, dramatically portrayed her between an American flag and a broom, meditating on a black woman who literally mopped the floors of the federal government yet was denied access to major government programs. It is now known as the black American gothic (see figure 5).83

Figure 4. In this photograph, Dorothea Lange depicts a 13-year-old sharecropper boy in Americus, Georgia, in an image that defies racial stereotypes. “Thirteen-year old sharecropper boy near Americus, Georgia.” July 1937.

Photograph by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC, 20540.

Figure 5. In his photograph of government charwoman Ella Watson, Gordon Parks meditates on a black woman who cleans government offices, yet is excluded from government programs. “Washington, D.C. Government charwoman.” August 1942.

Photograph by Gordon Parks, 1912–2006. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC, 20540.

Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial became one of the most significant cultural moments for African Americans during the New Deal era. Anderson was a classically trained opera singer popular among both black and white audiences. It had been customary for Anderson to perform a concert with the Howard University Music School each year in Washington, DC. But organizers struggled to find a venue that was large enough to accommodate the audience as Anderson’s fame grew. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution lent their concert space, but then rescinded the invitation, explicitly because of Anderson’s race. After a protracted battle to find a place where Anderson could perform, a coalition contacted Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, who had been an important white ally for African Americans in the New Deal. Ickes arranged for Marian Anderson to perform her concert on Easter Sunday in 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Anderson’s stunning voice sang the sweet words, “America (My Country Tis’ of Thee).” Only dedicated in 1922, Anderson’s concert marked the first time when Americans would use the Lincoln Memorial as a site of protest. Her concert foreshadowed future civil rights demonstrations, most notably the iconic March on Washington in 1963.84


The Great Depression and New Deal represented a watershed moment for African Americans throughout the country and reshaped the 20th-century trajectory of black life in the United States. By 1940, black politics had undergone a radical change. The majority of voters now identified with the Democratic Party and used the party as a vehicle for civil rights and economic justice. Through the Black Cabinet and racial advisors, the federal government now turned toward African Americans for advice on the distribution of programs. African Americans scored important legal victories in the United States with the right to serve on juries, stage pickets, and integrate some graduate and professional schools. These legal triumphs were crucial ingredients for the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education and the postwar black freedom struggle. Leaders such as Robert Weaver and William Hastie had experimented with non-discrimination clauses and quota systems that would pave the way for this implementation on a national level as well as the rise of affirmative action in the United States in the 1960s. At the grassroots level, black women and men formed local organizations, staged economic boycotts, picketed businesses, joined labor unions, and engaged in strikes and riots for better jobs. Black women brought their deep organizational networks to all of these campaigns and played a transformative role in the struggle for racial equality and justice. Culturally, African Americans were able to defy racial stereotypes and illuminate the beautiful complexities and contradictions of the black experience in the United States.

Discussion of the Literature

Since the institutionalization of African American History in the 1960s, scholars have devoted significant attention toward the periods of the Great Depression and New Deal eras, and this historiographical literature reflects a rich and complex body of work. Early historians focused on the relationship between African Americans and the New Deal, especially as it related to region. Raymond Wolters’s essay—“The New Deal and the Negro,” in the edited volume, The New Deal: The National Level—and Harvard Sitkoff’s important essay—“The Impact of the New Deal on Black Southerners,” in another edited volume, The New Deal and the South—both offer an excellent overview about each New Deal program and the precise ways that African Americans did and did not benefit from these government initiatives.85 Nancy Grant’s TVA and Black Americans: Planning for the Status Quo and Owen Cole’s The African-American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps, both followed in this vein by centering on specific government programs.86 In several important works—such as Harvard Sitkoff’s A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue; John Kirby’s Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era: Liberalism and Race; and Nancy Weiss’s Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR—historians have debated the reasons for black political realignment in the 1930s, with some pointing to the New Deal’s economic benefits and others emphasizing the Democratic Party’s (slow) embrace of civil rights.87 Scholars in this period also highlighted the white allies in the New Deal who spoke out for racial equality, including Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, FSA administrator Will Alexander, and especially, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Patricia Sullivan’s Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era added complexities and nuance to this literature.88 Finally, in the 1980s and 1990s, historians explored the black alliance with the CP, with Mark Naison’s Communists in Harlem during the Depression and Robin D. G. Kelley’s brilliant Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Depression.89

In the early 21st century, historians have focused less on electoral realignment and interracial alliances, and more on the ways that African Americans worked at the grassroots level to wage an early civil rights movement in the United States. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s seminal article, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” credits leftist black protest during the Depression and the New Deal with the success of the postwar black freedom struggle even as it struggled to survive during the Cold War and rise of the New Right.90 In Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights, Erik Gellman builds on Robin Kelley’s work to chronicle the grassroots organizing of the NNC and SYNC in cities such as Richmond, Virginia, Washington, DC, and Chicago.91

In this turn toward the flourishing of black activism in this period, historians have particularly emphasized women’s participation, stretching from their leadership in organizations and government programs to their grassroots advocacy for social change. In Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta, Karen Ferguson puts gender at the center of her analysis of the Great Depression and New Deal, while in For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, Lisa G. Materson analyzes the political activism of both migrant women and clubwomen.92 In “Running with the Reds: African American Women and the Communist Party during the Great Depression,” LaShawn Harris analyzes the complex ways that black women forged relationships with the CP.93 Other historians have chronicled black women’s widespread participation in housewife boycotts, labor riots, and underground economies. Finally, cultural historians have analyzed black participation in New Deal arts programs. Lauren Rebecca Skarloff’s Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era analyzes the relationship between black participation in arts programs and visions of democracy.94

Primary Sources

Government Sources

For African American experiences with the New Deal, the National Archives’ trove of records are a good place to start. The majority of these collections are housed at the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland, and many have finding aids that list the Negro division for each branch and contain a wealth of materials. Additionally, New Deal Agencies and Black Americans offers a curated set of documents that can be a helpful entry point for further research.95 These documents are available on microfilm or on LexisNexis. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Censuses can illuminate information about the lives of ordinary Americans and whether they were the beneficiary of government programs. These census records are available at any branch of the National Archives or through

Manuscript Collections

Organizational records from the NAACP, the NCNW, the NUL, the NNC, and the BSCP, all offer information about black activities in this era and all are available in the manuscript reading room at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The George Meany Memorial Archive at the University of Maryland, College Park, has collections related to the American Federation of Labor-CIO unions. The Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, has the papers of the Housewives’ League of Detroit. Additionally, many of the leaders of this era—including Nannie Helen Burroughs, Charles Hamilton Houston, Irvin and Elizabeth McDuffie, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Robert Weaver—have personal papers that are rich with information. The Houston papers are at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University in Washington, DC; the Burroughs papers at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC; the Bethune papers at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane in New Orleans; the Irvin and Elizabeth McDuffie papers at Robert W. Woodruff Library at Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia; and the Robert Weaver papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library in New York City. Finally, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, has an immense amount of materials related to African American participation in New Deal programs, as well Eleanor Roosevelt’s correspondence with a range of black individuals and organizations.

Newspapers & Periodicals

The 1920s and 1930s were a golden age in the black press. To chronicle some of the political activities as well as everyday experiences, newspapers such as the Baltimore Afro-American, the Chicago Defender, the New York Amsterdam News, the Norfolk Journal and Guide, and the Pittsburgh Courier are all excellent resources, and they are digitized through ProQuest. Additionally, the Crisis and Opportunity were two periodicals that offered updates about black life and activism in the 1930s.


The FSA photographs are outstanding sources for gathering information on African Americans. The Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress have all of the FSA photographs, and the digital website Photogrammar from Yale has digitized the photographs in an excellent database that is searchable by region, photographer, and subject. Finally, the WPA Slave Narratives at the Library of Congress offer an important assessment of some of the material circumstances of African Americans in this era.

Further Reading

  • Kirby, John B. Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era: Liberalism and Race. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980.
  • Ferguson, Karen. Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  • Gellman, Erik S. Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
  • Grant, Nancy. TVA and Black Americans: Planning for the Status Quo. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
  • Greenberg, Cheryl. “Or Does It Explode?” Black Harlem in the Great Depression. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Kelley, Robin D. G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
  • Materson, Lisa G. For the Freedom of Her Race: African American Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
  • McMahon, Kevin. Reconsidering Roosevelt on Race: How the Presidency Paved the Road to Brown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Murphy, Mary-Elizabeth B. Jim Crow Capital: Women and Black Freedom Struggles in Washington, D.C., 1920-1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
  • Naison, Mark. Communists in Harlem during the Depression. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
  • Sitkoff, Harvard. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • Skarloff, Lauren Rebecca. Black Culture in the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  • Sullivan, Patricia. Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
  • Watts, Jill. The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics during the Age of Roosevelt. New York: Grove Atlantic, 2020.
  • Weiss, Nancy. Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.
  • Wolcott, Victoria. Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.


  • 1. Major historiographical works on African Americans in the Great Depression and New Deal include: Raymond Wolters, Negroes and the Great Depression: The Problem of Economic Recovery (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970); Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); John B. Kirby, Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era: Liberalism and Race (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980); Nancy J. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983); Nancy Grant, TVA and Black Americans: Planning for the Status Quo (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists in the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); Cheryl Greenberg, “Or Does It Explode?” Black Harlem in the Great Depression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Karen Ferguson, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Lauren Rebecca Skarloff, Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); and Jill Watts, The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics during the Age of Roosevelt (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2020).

  • 2. US Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930, Population, Vol. IV, Occupations by States (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1933), 25–34.

  • 3. Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, 35; Kelley, Hammer and Hoe, 35–36; and Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: Liverlight, 2013), 163.

  • 4. Greta de Jong, A Different Day: African American Struggles for Justice in Rural Louisiana, 1900–1970 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 90–91; Joe William Trotter Jr., “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?, 1929–1945,” in To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans, eds. Robin D. G. Kelley and Earl Lewis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 417.

  • 5. Irma Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations: Caribbean Immigrants and the Harlem Community, 1900–1930 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).

  • 6. Definitive works on the first Great Migration include James Grossman, Land of Hope: Black Southerners and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); Joe William Trotter Jr., ed., The Great Migration in Historical Perspective: New Dimensions of Race, Class, and Gender (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, Abiding Courage: African American Migrant Women and the East Bay Community (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Milton C. Sernett, Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); Kimberly L. Philips, Alabama North: African-American Migrants, Community, and Working-Class Activism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); Victoria Wolcott, Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); James N. Gregory, The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Douglas Flaming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (Berkeley, CA: University Press of California, 2005); Davarian L. Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); and Beth Tompkins Bates, The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

  • 7. Grossman, Land of Hope; Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, “Discontented Black Feminists: Prelude and Postscript to the Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment,” in We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible: A Reader in Black Women’s History, eds. Darlene Clark Hine, Wilma King, and Linda Reed (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1995), 487–504; Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, “In Politics to Stay: Black Women Leaders and Party Politics in the 1920s,” in Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History, eds. Vicki L. Ruiz and Ellen Carol Dubois (New York: Routledge, 2000), 292–306; Nikki J. Brown, Private Politics and Public Voices: Black Women’s Activism from World War I to the New Deal (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007); and Lisa G. Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877–1932 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 60–184.

  • 8. Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 409.

  • 9. Wolcott, Remaking Respectability, 170; Greenberg, “Or Does It Explode?,” 65–66; and Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, To Ask for an Equal Chance: African Americans in the Great Depression (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 27; and Shawn Leigh Alexander, W. E. B. DuBois: An American Intellectual and Activist (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), 93.

  • 10. Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, 34–39.

  • 11. Ferguson, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta, 51; and Greenberg, “Or Does It Explode?,” 47–56.

  • 12. Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 412.

  • 13. Sernett, Bound for the Promised Land; Ferguson, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta, 48–54; and Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy, Jim Crow Capital: Women and Black Freedom Struggles in Washington, DC, 1920–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 113–117.

  • 14. Darlene Clark Hine, “The Housewives’ League of Detroit: Black Women and Economic Nationalism,” in Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism, eds. Nancy A. Hewitt and Suzanne Lebsock (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 223–241; Annelise Orleck, “‘We Are That Mythical Thing Called Public’: Militant Housewives during the Great Depression,” Feminist Studies 19, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 147–172; Wolcott, Remaking Respectability, 181–183; and Bettye Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion (New York: Knopf Press, 2000), 303–305; and Keona Ervin, Gateway to Equality: Black Women and the Struggle for Economic Justice in St. Louis (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2017), 39–42.

  • 15. Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983); Kelley, Hammer and Hoe; LaShawn Harris, “Running with the Reds: African American Women in the Communist Party during the Great Depression,” Journal of African American History 94, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 21–43; Erik S. McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Gellman, Death Blow to Jim Crow: The National Negro Congress and the Rise of Militant Civil Rights (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); and Murphy, Jim Crow Capital, 75–109.

  • 16. Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, 19–30; and Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 22–25.

  • 17. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 16–17.

  • 18. Kenneth J. Goings, “The NAACP Comes of Age”: The Defeat of Judge John J. Parker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990); Patricia Sullivan, Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Free Press, 2009), 138–142; and Murphy, Jim Crow Capital, 37–38.

  • 19. Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, 19–30; and Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 22–25.

  • 20. For information on Woodrow Wilson’s segregation of the federal government, see Eric S. Yellin, Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

  • 21. Kaye Lannings Minchew, A President in Our Midst: Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Georgia (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2016).

  • 22. Kirby, Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era, 16–18; Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, 19–30; and Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 22–25.

  • 23. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 38, 104; Adrian Miller, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 133–136; and Mary-Elizabeth Murphy, “‘The Servant Campaigns’: African American Women and the Politics of Economic Justice in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s,” Journal of Urban History 44, no. 2 (March 2018): 189–190.

  • 24. Raymond Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro,” in The New Deal: The National Level, eds. John Braeman, Robert H. Bremmer, and David Brody (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975), 170–178; Harvard Sitkoff, “The Impact of the New Deal on Black Southerners,” in The New Deal and the South, eds. James C. Cobb and Michael Namorato (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984), 117–124; Grant, TVA and Black Americans; Owen Cole, The African-American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999); Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 411–416; and Neil M. Maher, Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 109–110.

  • 25. Sitkoff, “Impact of the New Deal on Black Southerners,” 120–121; and Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro,” 180–185.

  • 26. Tiffany Gill, Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 70; and Murphy, Jim Crow Capital, 119–121.

  • 27. Mary Poole, The Segregated Origins of Social Security: African Americans and the Welfare State (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Katznelson, Fear Itself, 163–174; Murphy, Jim Crow Capital, 122–123.

  • 28. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 166–168.

  • 29. US Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States, 25–34.

  • 30. Murphy, “The Servant Campaigns,” 190–191.

  • 31. Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro,” 186–187; and Kirby, Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era, 17–18.

  • 32. Sullivan, Days of Hope, 24–40.

  • 33. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 67–68.

  • 34. For a discussion of the PWA housing projects, see Gail Radford, Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 85–110, 147–176; Ferguson, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta, 186–220; and Richard Rothenstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liverlight, 2017), 20–23.

  • 35. Marc W. Kruman, “Quotas for Blacks: The Public Works Administration and the Black Construction Worker,” Labor History 16 (Winter 1975): 37–51; Paul D. Moreno, From Direct Action to Affirmative Action: Fair Employment Law and Policy in America, 1937–1997 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997); Sigmund Shipp, “Building Bricks without Straw: Robert C. Weaver and Negro Industrial Employment, 1934–1944,” in Historical Roots of the Urban Crisis: African Americans in the Industrial City, 1900–1950, eds. Henry Louis Taylor Jr. and Walter Hill (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000), 209–226; and Wendell E. Pritchett, Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City: The Life and Times of an Urban Reformer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

  • 36. Deborah Gray White, Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894–1994 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 148–154; and Rebecca Tuuri, Strategic Sisterhood: The National Council of Negro Women in the Black Freedom Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 15–18.

  • 37. Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro,” 193.

  • 38. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 143–145; Kirby, Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era, 76–105; and Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2: The Defining Years, 1933–1938 (New York: Viking Penguin, 1999).

  • 39. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 136–156; Kirby, Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era, 106–151; and Watts, The Black Cabinet.

  • 40. Sitkoff, “Impact of the New Deal on Black Southerners,” 124.

  • 41. Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 418–419.

  • 42. Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro,” 189.

  • 43. de Jong, A Different Day, 90–91; Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 417.

  • 44. Ferguson, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta, 121–128; and Murphy, “The Servant Campaigns,” 194–198.

  • 45. Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 415; and Ferguson, New Deal Politics in Black Atlanta, 165–185.

  • 46. Sitkoff, “Impact of the New Deal on Black Southerners,” 127.

  • 47. Sullivan, Days of Hope, 41–69; and Ferguson, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta.

  • 48. Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro,” 189.

  • 49. Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 431; and Elizabeth Gritter, River of Hope: Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865–1954 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014).

  • 50. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 184–193.

  • 51. Murphy, “The Servant Campaigns,” 191–193.

  • 52. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, 204–208.

  • 53. Leigh Wright Rigueur, The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 13–51.

  • 54. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History 91, no. 4 (March 2005): 1233–1263.

  • 55. Sullivan, Lift Every Voice, 145–206.

  • 56. Mark V. Tushnet, The NAACP’s Strategy against Segregated Education, 1925–1950 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 49–81; and Sullivan, Lift Every Voice, 207–211.

  • 57. James A. Miller, Susan D. Pennybacker, and Eve Rosenhaft, “Mother Ada Wright and the International Campaign to Free the Scottsboro Boys, 1931–1934,” American Historical Review 106, no. 2 (April 2001): 387–430.

  • 58. Dan T. Carter, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969); Kelley, Hammer and Hoe; James Goodman, Stories of Scottsboro (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994); and Sullivan, Lift Every Voice, 145–151.

  • 59. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe; Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 151–155; White, Too Heavy a Load, 157–165; Tuuri, Strategic Sisterhood, 16–20; and Gellman, Death Blow to Jim Crow.

  • 60. Gellman, Death Blow to Jim Crow.

  • 61. In Harlem, the movement was known as the “Jobs for Negroes” movement. For the historiography on the Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work campaigns, see Greenberg, “Or Does It Explode,” 114–139; Michele F. Pacifico, “‘Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work’: The New Negro Alliance of Washington,” Washington History 6, no. 1 (Spring–Summer 1994): 66–88; Ervin, Gateway to Equality, 79–96; and Traci Parker, Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement: Workers, Consumers, and the Civil Rights Movement from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 61–65; I fixed it to be 61-65

  • 62. Marcia Chatelain, South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 96–129.

  • 63. Pacifico, “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work,” 82.

  • 64. Beth Tompkins Bates, Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 126–147.

  • 65. Robert H. Ziegler, The CIO: 1935–1955 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); and Michael Goldfield, “Race and the CIO: The Possibilities for Racial Egalitarianism during the 1930s and 1940s,” International Labor and Working-Class History 44 (Fall 1993): 1–32.

  • 66. Trotter, “From A Raw Deal to a New Deal?,” 422–424.

  • 67. Robert Rodgers Korstad, Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); and Eric Arnesen, Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

  • 68. Melinda Chateauvert, Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998).

  • 69. Danielle Phillips, “Cleaning Race: Irish Immigrant and Southern Black Domestic Workers in the Northeast United States, 1865–1930,” in U.S. Women’s History: Untangling the Threads of Sisterhood, eds. Leslie Brown, Jacqueline Castledine, and Ann Valk (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017), 36–27; and Vanessa May, Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 146–173.

  • 70. Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke, “The Bronx Slave Market,” Crisis 42, November 1935.

  • 71. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 76–77; and LaShawn Harris, “Marvel Cooke: Investigative Journalist, Communist, and Black Radical Subject,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 6, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 91–126.

  • 72. Murphy, Jim Crow Capital, 133–138.

  • 73. Wolcott, Remaking Respectability; and LaShawn Harris, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 123–166.

  • 74. Simon Balto, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 82; Murphy, Jim Crow Capital; and Clarence Taylor, Fight the Power: African Americans and the Long History of Police Brutality in New York City (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 51–58.

  • 75. Skarloff, Black Culture in the New Deal, 1–14.

  • 76. David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Random House, 1981); Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes; and Treva B. Lindsey, Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017).

  • 77. Jacqueline Jajuma Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005); and Baldwin, Chicago’s New Negroes, 91–154.

  • 78. Skarloff, Black Culture in the New Deal, 33–80.

  • 79. Trotter, “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal,” 419; and Skarloff, Black Culture in the New Deal, 81–122.

  • 80. William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts: The Origins and Administrative History of the Arts Projects of the Works Progress Administration (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1969); Stephanie J. Shaw, “Using the WPA Ex-Slave Narratives to Study the Impact of the Great Depression,” Journal of Southern History 69, no. 3 (August 2003): 623–658; and Skarloff, Black Culture in the New Deal, 81–122.

  • 81. Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993); and Skarloff, Black Culture in the New Deal.

  • 82. Linda Gordon, Dorothea Lange: A Life beyond Limits (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), 259–278.

  • 83. Gordon Parks, A Choice of Weapons (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965); Nicholas Natanson, The Black Image in the New Deal: The Politics of FSA Photography (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992); Deborah Willis, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000); and Richard J. Powell, Maurice Berger, and Deborah Willis, Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work, 1940–1950 (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2018).

  • 84. Scott Sandage, “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory,” Journal of American History 80, no. 1 (June 1993): 135–167; and Raymond Arsenault, The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009).

  • 85. Wolters, “The New Deal and the Negro”; and Sitkoff, “Impact of the New Deal on Black Southerners.”

  • 86. Grant, TVA and Black Americans; and Cole, African-American Experience.

  • 87. Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks; Kirby, Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era; and Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln.

  • 88. Sullivan, Days of Hope.

  • 89. Naison, Communists in Harlem.

  • 90. Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement.”

  • 91. Gellman, Death Blow to Jim Crow.

  • 92. Ferguson, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta; and Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race.

  • 93. LaShawn, “Running with the Reds.”

  • 94. Skarloff, Black Culture and the New Deal.

  • 95. John B. Kirby, ed., New Deal Agencies and Black Americans (Arlington, VA: University Publications of America, 1984).