In 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the presidency with the help of key African American defectors from the Republican Party. At the time, most African Americans lived in poverty, denied citizenship rights and terrorized by white violence. As the New Deal began, a “black Brain Trust” joined the administration and began documenting and addressing the economic hardship and systemic inequalities African Americans faced. They became known as the Black Cabinet, but the environment they faced was reluctant, often hostile, to change.
“Will the New Deal be a square deal for the Negro?” The black press wondered. The Black Cabinet set out to devise solutions to the widespread exclusion of black people from its programs, whether by inventing tools to measure discrimination or by calling attention to the administration’s failures. Led by Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, they were instrumental to Roosevelt’s continued success with black voters. Operating mostly behind the scenes, they helped push Roosevelt to sign an executive order that outlawed discrimination in the defense industry. They saw victories—jobs and collective agriculture programs that lifted many from poverty—and defeats—the bulldozing of black neighborhoods to build public housing reserved only for whites; Roosevelt’s refusal to get behind federal anti-lynching legislation. The Black Cabinet never won official recognition from the president, and with his death, it disappeared from view. But it had changed history. Eventually, one of its members would go on to be the first African American cabinet secretary; another, the first African American federal judge and mentor to Thurgood Marshall.
Masterfully researched and dramatically told, The Black Cabinet brings to life a forgotten generation of leaders who fought post-Reconstruction racial apartheid and whose work served as a bridge that Civil Rights activists traveled to achieve the victories of the 1950s and ’60s.
Praise for The Black Cabinet:
“A well-researched, urgent, and necessary history of black folks during the New Deal that excavates the too often ignored history of black female genius behind racial progress.”—Michael Eric Dyson, New York Times bestselling author
“Jill Watts’ timely, deeply absorbing narrative unravels the little known but highly significant behind-the-scenes account of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unofficial Black Cabinet, and their relentless determination that New Deal socio-economic justice include Black Americans. The voices of the historical actors come right through the pages and give a flavor to the narrative as though you were actually on the scene… A powerful piece of scholarship and a great story.”—Margaret Washington, author of Sojourner Truth’s America
“Watts’ compelling account of a diverse set of early twentieth-century public figures—with the remarkable Mary McLeod Bethune at the center—who labored to make the Federal Government work for and be accountable to African Americans is important and timely. One comes away from this deeply researched and engaging narrative with a rich and textured sense of the work the members of the Black Cabinet accomplished in the decades before the modern Civil Rights Movement and the stakes and significance of their efforts.”—Judith Weisenfeld, author of New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration
“Jill Watts here tells stories of the fascinating characters who formed what has been nicknamed the ‘Black Cabinet’ of FDR. Making her subjects come alive for the reader, she portrays them as courageous individuals motivated by a combination of personal ambition and principled devotion to the cause of black rights, which the New Deal by no means embraced with enthusiasm. These crusaders paved the way for the political transformation of the African-American community from Republican to Democrat, and prefigured the Black Civil Rights Movement.”—Daniel Walker Howe, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848