Both President Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, directly addressed the concerns of black citizens throughout the Great Depression in the 1930s. Federal programs were innovatively designed to be colorblind in providing economic opportunities for all Americans, while black leaders were sought out by the Roosevelt administration for their insight into how to directly address the needs of black people.
The president's appointment of a "black cabinet" of prominent black leaders to advise him and his inclusion of such prominent black activists as Mary McLeod Bethune gave authenticity to the public perception of the Roosevelt administration as responsive to black peoples' needs. In actuality, however, the implementation of these programs often served to maintain the racial status quo rather than address discrimination.
Black men in Oakland and throughout the United States did receive jobs through the National Recovery Administration, and later Works Progress Administration and other New Deal programs. Yet unsurprisingly, black men were offered blue-collar manual labor jobs and not white-collar jobs, which seemed earmarked for educated white workers. The jobs later offered to black women were even more blatantly segregated, offering little beyond the racial status quo of working as domestic servants for white families, regardless of the black woman's education.
Furthermore, the New Deal programs did not change the low wages and substandard working conditions of manual labor occupations and domestic work; they only increased availability of government subsidized jobs. Even educational programs for youth were de facto segregated: white girls were trained to be housewives or hospital aides, while black girls were trained to be domestic servants or maintenance workers - although no mention of this was made in the program descriptions.
This unstated segregation in New Deal programs dovetailed with the widely accepted segregation in employment and education that was not implemented only in the segregated South, but across the country. In Oakland, blacks were grudgingly allowed to attend local community colleges in the 1930s and 1940s - if they listened to the lecture outside in the hallway, segregated from the white students. Photographs such as the one above foster the belief that many occupations in Oakland and the Bay Area in the 1930s were integrated, yet even in "integrated" occupations, blacks were often segregated to work only in certain locations or in certain shifts, and typically received lower pay than white counterparts.
In Oakland, as elsewhere in the country, highly educated middle-class leaders of the black community worked to ensure that the New Deal federal programs were at least open to black workers and that blatant discrimination against blacks did not occur. It was not, however, until World War II when the United States desperately needed black workers, that these black activists were able to obtain federal concessions to truly combat racist discrimination by employers against black workers.
11.6 Students analyze the different explanations for the Great Depression and how the New Deal fundamentally changed the role of the federal government. (11.6.4)