Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Jill Watts's "The Black Cabinet"

Jill Watts is a Professor of History at California State University San Marcos and is also the author of Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood which has been optioned for film. She is the Brakebill Distinguished Professor of 2017-2018 and is also the coordinator of the History Department’s graduate program.

Watts applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt, and reported the following:
The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt explores the struggles of the black advisors who served in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. An unofficial group, the Black Cabinet fought for equal treatment for African Americans in depression-era relief programs as well as society-at-large. While never acknowledged by FDR, these Black Brain Trusters won major victories—among them were the establishment of anti-discrimination clauses in federal contracts (which would lay groundwork for later civil rights legislation) and the inclusion of African Americans in much needed educational, agricultural, health, public housing, and job programs. They also succeeded breaking down segregation in the federal workplace in Washington D.C., a battle that was hard fought and is captured on page 99:
[Robert Weaver and William Hastie] headed to the Department of Interior’s segregated cafeteria. On their way, they flipped a coin. Weaver lost. It meant he not only had to pay for lunch but had to be the one to request to be seated.

“Do you work here?” the hostess asked as Weaver and Hastie arrived.

“Yes,” Weaver replied.

“Would you mind giving me your name?” She responded.

“No. This is William Hastie and I am Robert Weaver. Now would you mind giving me your name?” Weaver asked.

“She looked as if she were about to have a stroke [but] she gave her name,” Weaver recalled. He wrote it down and she showed the pair to their seats.

They had broken a barrier by being seated in the whites-only dining room. Now protest rested on a single African American woman, waitress Dorothy Roane. The cafeteria’s rules prohibited her from serving Weaver and Hastie. To do so, could mean she would lose her job.

What can I get you? she bravely asked.

While Weaver and Hastie ate their lunch, a delegation of white female cafeteria workers made their way to Ickes’s office.

Without looking up from his work, Ickes huffed: “Good afternoon ladies. What can I do for you?”

“Mr. Secretary, do you know that Negroes are eating in the lunchroom?” they asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“What are you going to do about it?” they demanded.

“Not a damned thing, ladies,” he responded.

Shortly afterward Ickes issued a formal order directing that all of Interior’s dining facilities be fully integrated. It was a victory for Weaver and Hastie and the first step in ending the discrimination that had spread throughout federal buildings since the Wilson years.
Page 99 does reflect much of the spirit of The Black Cabinet. When African American advisors came to Washington to take federal posts, they found themselves subjected to hostility and discrimination at the very seat of American democracy. Bathrooms and some elevators were separated by race. When first hired, black administrators found they often had no office space or that their white bosses cold shouldered them. In many divisions, the white secretarial pool refused to work for African American administrators. And many of D.C.’s federal cafeterias would not serve black federal employees. The episode on page 99 recounts how the brilliant economist, Robert Weaver, and stellar legal mind, William Hastie, successfully challenged Jim Crow segregation in the Department of Interior’s cafeteria.

The story of the Black Cabinet is driven by its members and is told through the experiences of its five major leaders which, in addition to Weaver and Hastie, also included the savvy political operative and newspaper owner Robert Vann, the clever journalist Alfred Edgar Smith, and the celebrated educator (and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt) Mary McLeod Bethune. Page 99 exemplifies how this diverse group, some only one generation removed from slavery, pressured the federal government to expand New Deal philosophy and to embrace its responsibility to protect all citizens regardless of race. Although the Black Cabinet failed to completely achieve all of its goals, which included full integration, equal voting rights, and the end of racial violence, it did provide a bridge to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It was through the individual actions like those of Weaver and Hastie that Jim Crow slowly began to unravel—a struggle that continues today.
Visit Jill Watts's website.

--Marshal Zeringue