Episode 10, Season 4
Opportunities created by the New Deal were often denied to African Americans. And that legacy of exclusion from jobs, loans and services can be seen today in federal programs and policies as well as systemic inequities in housing, education, health and the accumulation of wealth. Historian Jill Watts examines the complicated history of the New Deal, beginning with the growing political influence of Black voters in the 1930s, the election of FDR and the creation of the Black Cabinet.
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- Learning for Justice Lesson, Mary McLeod Bethune (grades 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning for Justice Lesson, The Real Monopoly: America's Racial Wealth Divide (grades 9-12)
- Learning for Justice Lesson, The New Deciders (grades 6-8, 9-12)
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I began teaching in the history department at The Ohio State University in 2003. It was my first tenure track job. I was one of three people to join the history department that year. The other two new faculty members were white women, and one, like me, was in her early 30s and was also from New York City.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That summer, when my wife and I moved to Columbus, we rented a townhome apartment about 25 minutes from campus. It was a pleasant upgrade from the one- and two-bedroom apartments we had lived in since college. But when my new colleague—the one my age from New York—moved to Columbus, she moved into a trendy neighborhood just south of downtown, in a house that she bought. She explained that her father gave her the money to make the purchase.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I thought, "Must be nice!" Because when I moved to Columbus, my father? He gave me a pat on the back. Now that's not because he didn't want to give me more. He knew that home ownership was the way to build wealth. He just didn't have the money to give.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: My parents were social workers and owned their own home—a row house in a Black neighborhood in Brooklyn that they had purchased for $55,000 in 1981. Some 20 years later, that house was their sole asset. It was also the first property that my family had owned since my great grandfather lost his land in Jasper County, Georgia. He had been born during Reconstruction, but when he died at the hands of parties unknown in 1917, his wife—my great grandmother—had to leave the South, and leave that land behind.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: My grandfather grew up in Newark, New Jersey. He never owned a home. Not because he didn't try. During the New Deal era, racial discrimination in mortgage lending prevented him from securing the home loan he needed to purchase a house. And after World War II, even if he could have gotten a home loan, he wouldn't have been able to escape overcrowded Newark for a new suburban community like Levittown—the gateway to the middle class—because these federally-subsidized developments explicitly excluded African Americans. My grandfather would have been in the same boat as his sister, Aunt Bessie, who managed to buy two houses in Newark for a few thousand dollars. But because these properties were in a Black neighborhood, they never appreciated in value. Decades after purchasing them, the two houses were worth about as much as they were when Aunt Bessie bought them.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But my white colleague's family was able to purchase a home in one of those whites-only, Levittown developments, which enabled her family to build intergenerational wealth. And this made it possible for her father to help her buy her first home.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Racial inequality isn't born simply of personal prejudice. It is a product of purposeful public policy. And the impact of racial prejudice isn't confined by time. It stretches far beyond the moment of discrimination, impacting Black families for generations. To see exactly how this happened and how Black people have responded, we need look no further than the New Deal.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we're offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction. In each episode, we explore a different topic—walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In this episode, historian Jill Watts examines the complex history of the New Deal with my co-host Bethany Jay. They begin their discussion with the growing political influence of Black voters in the 1930s, the election of FDR and the creation of the Black Cabinet. I'm glad you could join us.
Bethany Jay: I'm here today with Dr. Jill Watts, who's a professor of history at California State University-San Marcos, and the author of The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt, as well as other books. And I'm so excited to be here with you, Jill, because I have devoured your book. It's great reading and so on point for our discussion today about African Americans and the New Deal. So thanks for being here.
Jill Watts: Well, thank you for having me. I'm really looking forward to our conversation.
Bethany Jay: Can you start us off a little bit today by sort of orienting us to the era of the New Deal? What should we know about the early deployment of the New Deal so that we can understand the experience of Black Americans during this time?
Jill Watts: I think one of the things about the New Deal is that it actually in a way starts before Roosevelt takes office. It's the height of the Great Depression, or maybe I should say it's the depth of the Great Depression. And it's on the campaign trail when he's running against Hoover. And as they're facing off against each other, unemployment is almost 25 percent, and we know in the communities of color it runs much higher. African Americans in some urban areas, it's double, it's up to 60 percent unemployment.
Jill Watts: Hoover has dug in in his philosophy of not intervening in the economy, and that any intervention in the economy, any kind of regulation would delay recovery, with the slogan "Prosperity is just around the corner," which has worn thin by 1932 when they're running against each other. And FDR is offering a New Deal. He intends to intervene in the economy and use the federal apparatus in order to heal the nation's economy and end the economic chaos.
Jill Watts: And he's also got this forgotten man theme—and it was "man." [laughs] The idea that no American would be forgotten. And that resonated with the nation. So if you think about that as the beginning of the New Deal, the promises on the campaign trail, and then FDR wins this landslide victory unlike any that we've seen before. He launches into the New Deal and begins the first 100 days. And never before in our history had we ever talked about the first 100 days of an administration, and he's the one who initiates the expectation that something really amazing is going to happen in those first 100 days. And every president since has been measured by that.
Bethany Jay: You talked about the landslide election of FDR, and African Americans and their votes are important to that landslide election of FDR, are they not?
Jill Watts: Yes. You have a number of important African-American leaders who defect from the Republican Party. African Americans have been voting for the Republicans, they're the party of Lincoln. That goes all the way back to Reconstruction. And amongst those leaders who leave the Republican Party in '32 is Robert Vann, who's the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier. It's one of the nation's most important Black newspapers. It circulates nationwide. And Robert Vann really dramatically in September of 1932 makes a speech that says to Black communities, "Turn Lincoln's picture to the wall. The debt has been paid." And this is because of the Hoover administration's philosophy of non-intervention, and also the Hoover administration's racial policy, which is zero. Hoover wouldn't even have his picture taken with Black leaders up until October of 1932. [laughs]
Bethany Jay: Oh, wow. A last ditch effort. Yeah.
Jill Watts: Yeah, to try to keep Black voters in the fold. And at the end, most Black voters still voted Republican. It was really hard to cross over and trust Democrats because it was the Southern Party. It was the party of the Confederacy in people's minds. But there was a significant group that moved because of Hoover's affronts and Hoover's unwillingness to do anything to help the community.
Bethany Jay: That's interesting. And then that early New Deal policy, you talked a little bit about FDR's first 100 days, how did that impact African-American workers and families?
Jill Watts: Well, it actually doesn't impact the African-American population. The African-American population is pretty much bypassed. There's agricultural policy that comes out of the New Deal which offers farmers support to reduce production of farm commodities in order to increase the prices, which is kind of a great contradiction in an era when people are starving, you're trying to increase the cost of food. And then you have the business and industry policy, the National Industrial Recovery Act, which was a comprehensive program to uplift business and industry, but also to provide jobs. And it had these massive job programs that were initiated as quickly as possible. And in both cases, those policies actually at the beginning completely not only bypassed the Black community, but it actually made things worse.
Jill Watts: In the agricultural policy, for example, farmers were paid to not produce and to take land out of cultivation. Well, most African Americans, they worked as sharecroppers and as tenant farmers, so when landlords took land out of cultivation, that's the land they took out of cultivation, and in areas where they received subsidies to do that. In many cases, the program intended it to go to the sharecroppers to help them get through, but white farmers kept it and they didn't distribute it. So it drove people off the land.
Jill Watts: And then if you look at industrial and business recovery, the National Recovery Administration wanted businesses to establish fair codes of competition, stabilize prices and production, and businesses got incentives like tax breaks. And you also got the blue eagle to hang in your window or to put on your product to say that you did your part. But Black businesses, they can't afford to buy into that. You know, there's minimum wage, maximum hours established under that act, and if you're a small Black business, it's really difficult to cut production if you've got a business that does that, or to cut your prices or stabilize your prices at a certain rate. So that doesn't help. But the biggest problem was the work programs, the jobs programs. The job programs totally discriminated against African Americans. In that first 100 days, very few African Americans were able to find relief in the job programs. And they would go in and apply, but they would be bypassed for white workers. So the New Deal is not a New Deal for Black Americans in that first 100 days. In fact, for the first year almost, it's just the same old deal.
Bethany Jay: Yeah, so how do African-American communities then respond to this exclusion?
Jill Watts: There's all kinds of pressure coming down on FDR. Eleanor Roosevelt actually has ties in the Black community at this time, and she's very supportive. She's a way in which Black leaders—especially in the NAACP, because that's where most of her ties are at that time—are able to try to get to Roosevelt. Even before FDR takes office, the NAACP is requesting a meeting, asking to meet with FDR in order to bring to his attention the fact that the Black community can't be bypassed, but they're told he's too busy to see them. After he takes office, the Urban League writes him and says, "Very often in cases of emergency, Black people are bypassed, and you can't do this. We're an important part of the nation's citizenry, and we are also an important part of the nation's economy."
Bethany Jay: Hmm.
Jill Watts: FDR is getting pressure from the Black press. Personal letters to the administration. So the administration receives numerous personal letters addressed to the Roosevelts pleading for help from Black Americans.
Bethany Jay: Do you have some examples of those that you could share with us that might be useful in the classroom?
Jill Watts: Yes. And in fact, there's a book by Robert McElvaine called Down and Out in the Great Depression, and there's an entire chapter that has primary source letters that teachers can use. And that book is easily accessible, so you can bring those letters into the classroom and use them with students. I'm going to read some samples from McElvaine's Down and Out in the Great Depression. And these are written by people with very little education, so I'll have to translate them a bit. "Dear Mr. President, would you please direct the people in charge of relief work in Georgia to issue the provisions plus other supplies to our suffering Black people? I'm sorry to worry you with this, Mr. President. But as hard as it is to believe, the relief officials here are using up almost everything that you send for themselves and their friends." And the relief officials would be all white.
Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.
Jill Watts: All white. "Please help us, Mr. President, because we can't help ourselves and we know you is the president and are a good Christian man. We are praying for you. Yours truly. I can't sign my name, Mr. President. They will beat me up and run me away from here. And this is my home."
Bethany Jay: Oh my goodness. Yeah.
Jill Watts: Yeah. Yeah. There's a great fear that if people are seen asking for what is due them rightfully as American citizens, that they're going to face racial violence.
Bethany Jay: And rightfully so, right? I mean, they're very justified in that fear, knowing what we know about the Jim Crow South. As we're talking about all of the different activity that is happening within the Black community to lobby Roosevelt to do more, what's the impact of all of that work? How does he, and how does his administration respond?
Jill Watts: So Black leaders are asking for—and this is an NAACP agenda, but it's also in the Urban League and other Black organizations and in the Black press—is for Roosevelt to appoint more Black advisers, to create a Black voice within the administration or within the New Deal programs. That was the major agenda. The Democrats are waking up to the possibility that what was just a trickle of Black voters coming into the Democratic Party, that that could eventually become a stream, and that maybe Black voters could cross over, that they'd be willing to cross over and vote Democrat. And that would secure victories. And by the fall of 1933, it's still early in the New Deal, you'll start to see some key appointments of major Black leaders. And Robert Vann is the first appointee from the Black community into the Roosevelt administration. He receives an appointment in the summer of 1933 in the Justice Department. It took a long time actually to get him that appointment, even though it had been promised.
Jill Watts: Eugene Kinckle Jones, who was the head of the Urban League, he's appointed into the Department of Commerce. And that's the first time you have an activist organization have a leader appointed to an advisory position. And then Robert Weaver, who's the first African American to earn a PhD in economics from Harvard. So Robert Weaver arrives in the Department of Interior, and is embedded within a specific office that's been organized to deal with African-American problems.
Bethany Jay: And it's the—am I right in this? That those members become members of the Black Cabinet?
Jill Watts: Yeah. The Black Cabinet is an informal group of African-American advisers who kind of forged their own Black cabinet within the administration. It wasn't sanctioned.
Bethany Jay: It seems like the Black Cabinet is wielding influence where they can, but have little to no actual institutionalized power within the New Deal structure. Is that fair to say?
Jill Watts: Exactly, exactly. They form themselves and they demand to be heard, but FDR never acknowledged the existence of a Black cabinet.
Bethany Jay: Mary McLeod Bethune is somebody that she's really a driving force in the Black Cabinet. She seems to be just a force of nature her entire life and, you know, forges that close relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and really does make a big influence on policy. Can you talk a little bit about Mary McLeod Bethune and her role in the Black Cabinet?
Jill Watts: Yeah. Mary McLeod Bethune is a teacher, and she embraces the passion of education, believes that education is the one equalizer in the nation. She was the daughter of slaves, and had grown up in tremendous poverty, but had forged a career in education simply through sheer determination, intelligence and this unstoppable character that she is. And she was the first Black woman to found an HBCU, a historically Black college, and actually the first and only Black woman to found a historically Black college. And she comes to Washington, DC, as an adviser first to the National Youth Administration, which was established to provide young people with relief, with education and job training. And she's sitting on the advisory board, and she's pressuring the administration to establish a specific program targeted at Black youth because what she sees and what she knows is that those programs are going right past Black communities into white communities, and Black youth aren't experiencing the benefits of that. And through a series of fortunate connections—including Eleanor Roosevelt—she's able to secure the position as the head of the Black Division of the National Youth Administration, and with that, she becomes the first Black woman to head a federal program in Washington, DC. She not only was Black America's leading Black female leader, she was Black America's leading leader. But then also she was one of the nation's most highly-regarded female leaders period. So to have her incorporated within the administration, that was a big step forward.
Jill Watts: And at that time, the Black advisers are kind of really loosely affiliated. They're scattered throughout the administration. And she's the one that calls all these young men, mostly young men, together in her home. And they've been working throughout all these different agencies, and not always getting along because those agencies compete for programs and funding. So Mary McLeod Bethune calls this group together and says, "We're going to have to work together. You're not working together. If we're going to make any progress in the administration, we have to unite together as one. And we will march forward. We will share the information we have from all our divisions with each other, and we're going to make progress."
Bethany Jay: I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how members of the Black Cabinet interacted with FDR.
Jill Watts: I think that's really important in understanding their experience, because with the exception of Robert Vann very briefly, none of them except for Mary McLeod Bethune had any interaction with FDR at all. And Vann only met with him a few times. And one of the meetings was actually after he'd left the Black Cabinet because he was furious with how conscribed he'd been in terms of trying to do good work in the administration. He'd been kind of reconciled to pushing paper at a desk. But Mrs. Bethune had access primarily through Eleanor Roosevelt, and was able to gain appointments, but they were often after hours and never on the books because they didn't want it to be publicly known that he was meeting with her.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources, as well as a full transcript, complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Let's return now to Bethany's conversation with Jill Watts.
Bethany Jay: Just to give a sense of what these Black leaders are up against, can you tell us a little bit about what these mostly men, but men and women found when they got to their posts at these different New Deal agencies? What was the situation when they went for their first day of work, you know, as the associate director of such and such alphabet soup organization?
Jill Watts: Yeah, I think it's a really interesting microcosm of what people, Black people found in the nation as a whole. When Black advisers arrive on the job, in the vast majority of cases in these divisions, their division heads who are white don't welcome them and don't know what they're going to do with them. Robert Vann, he's the first appointee, when he arrives literally he has no place to work. Nobody has created office space for him. He's sitting out in hallways trying to begin and commence his work. The secretarial pool was all white. They refused to work for any of the Black appointees, and what that did is trigger a hiring of a Black secretarial pool to serve the Black appointees. The office spaces were segregated. In many cases, they would seat Black advisers in another space, in the kind of open offices apart from everybody, or give them small offices like in a closet.
Jill Watts: Elevators were segregated. A lot of people had to take freight elevators up and down. The cafeterias where people relied on to go eat, they were segregated. The federal government is in a Jim Crow city. Washington, DC, was a segregated city. So yeah, they dealt with insults on a daily basis.
Bethany Jay: But despite all that, they do have an impact, mostly it seems, from sheer force of will and drive. Can you talk to us a little bit about some of the successes that the Black Cabinet helped to bring about for the African-American community during the New Deal?
Jill Watts: Yeah. I mean, in addition to expanding Black voices in federal service and pushing to integrate the Washington, DC, workplace, if you think about it, they have two goals. The first goal is to achieve adequate New Deal relief for Black Americans, but they have a broader goal. Their idea is that the New Deal is an opening for a change in American society, that the philosophy of the New Deal—that no Americans should be forgotten—can be applied broadly, and to the idea of racial uplift and desegregation, voting rights. And so they see it as an opportunity for a philosophical shift, as not just an economic program, not just as something to get us out of the Great Depression, but as something to revitalize the nation and compel the nation to live up to its democratic promise.
Jill Watts: So New Deal relief, Robert Weaver and others are able to get relief increasingly more and more to the African-American community. Al Smith, in his position at the WPA, is able to get literally hundreds of thousands of jobs out to Black Americans, and as well as education opportunities. Agriculturally, they were successful in getting agricultural relief, having African Americans integrated into what was called the resettlement programs. Black Americans had been excluded from those, but that was collective farms or individual farms that were set up by the government. And opening up schools and recreational facilities and community centers for Black Americans.
Jill Watts: And then there's this other kind of policy-level achievement, which is they are able to get the government to integrate the first anti-discrimination clauses into federal contracts. That really lays a groundwork for what's to come later in terms of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That's kind of amazing when you think about, gosh, back 30 years before that, they're able to compel the government, at least within the instance of the New Deal, to do that. And, you know, in addition, they lead the migration out of the Republican Party.
Jill Watts: It's 1936. Mary McLeod Bethune calls this group together and says, "The first thing on our agenda is to get FDR re-elected. Despite the deficiencies that we see in the New Deal, if a Republican comes back into office, there'll be no deal. So what we have to do is get behind FDR, get him elected, and then after the election, the administration owes us." And that's what they did. They went out and they campaigned. And in the '36 election, African Americans voted for FDR. They moved over. They left the Republican Party and began voting Democrat.
Jill Watts: On the other hand, you know, there was a lot that they didn't achieve, and it was in that broader agenda of shifting the nation's attitudes towards race, they pushed for anti-lynching legislation, which they never achieved, which today is still tabled in the Senate.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Jill Watts: Broader integration, they weren't able to achieve that. And that was a great disappointment. Bethune is really determined to see a lot of the New Deal programs made permanent, not just for the emergency, but her argument was that all poor will need long-term assistance. You can't just discontinue college scholarships or educational grants or funding for training young people because there's going to be poor after the economic crisis will seem to be resolved. So they weren't able to institute a lot of the things that they felt were needed for the long run to keep America on a healing path.
Bethany Jay: And it seems as though at every turn, they're also meeting with a lot of resistance from white Americans. You know, so not only meeting with resistance within the government, but also within the larger nation as they're taking on these projects.
Jill Watts: Right. One of the responsibilities of their job is to do field visits. And you can imagine doing field visits in the South in the 1930s with the Ku Klux Klan active. And so people really had to be very careful. And there were cases where Black advisers were literally attacked for visiting the area. And the Black community often, they would try to go into Black communities and try to see if relief was getting to where it was supposed to go. And they encountered resistance where the Black community would say, "No, we don't want to talk about this because if we complain, after you're gone, you know, there'll be a retaliation against us and people could lose their lives."
Bethany Jay: One of the things that I'm thinking about as you're talking about the Black cabinet figures traveling to all of these different places across the American South and meeting with resistance not only from white Southerners, but from Black Southerners who are a little nervous about talking to them, is the WPA slave narrative project, which we've talked about on the podcast before but is for the study of African-American history, really one of the major successes of the New Deal, I would say.
Jill Watts: Right. We often use those in the classroom. Bethany, you use them in the classroom, yes?
Bethany Jay: I do. And the context of them being taken during the New Deal and, you know, in the Jim Crow South by mostly white interviewers is the hurdle that we have to sort of get through in order to interpret them successfully in the classroom, right? So for so long that context seemed to be insurmountable, that they almost seemed like these are too flawed to be able to tell us much, but we can get past that. And if we take that context into account and think about what the people being interviewed are actually saying, they're really powerful resources.
Jill Watts: Yeah. I think so often you see teachers using them to study slavery and enslavement, right? But I think they're an interesting way to study Black-white relations, but also there's a lot of commentary in them going on about the New Deal and how Black lives are being impacted. And these narratives are taken not just in the South. There are some narratives from outside the South. And yeah, so they're an interesting resource to kind of get a peek into how the Depression is impacting Black people, but what their perceptions are. Because they will often mention—they often presume that the person is there on behalf of the government and is going to extend relief.
Bethany Jay: Have some kind of aid for them, yeah.
Jill Watts: Yeah. You know, there's that great interview with the same woman by the two different interviewers. One is a white woman and the other is a Black male. And to have students kind of compare those two to see what the flaw that you mentioned about as historical evidence. But at the same time, her presumptions in which she shares about her current experience is really interesting. So that's a great tool that you can use with students, and can get at not just slavery, but also at the New Deal.
Bethany Jay: If listeners want to find the WPA narrative that Jill mentioned, it's Susan Hamlin, also Susan Hamilton. So she used two different names, but it is the same person who's interviewed twice, and you can go and find those online fairly easily. And we'll link to them in the resources for this show.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Learning for Justice has a special opportunity just for educators. After listening to this episode, you can earn a certificate for one hour of professional development. All you have to do is go to LearningForJustice.org/PodcastPD—PD for professional development. That's "PodcastPD," all one word. Then enter the unique code word for this episode: uplift. All lowercase. You'll also find a link in the show notes. It's a great way to get even more out of Teaching Hard History.
Bethany Jay: Can you talk to us a little bit about how this played out in Northern cities? How did the New Deal sort of impact Black Americans outside of the South, and what kind of resistance did it face there?
Jill Watts: Yeah, I think one thing that we don't teach is racism in other parts of the country outside of the South. And in the North and Midwest and the West, Black Americans encounter racism at a vicious level as well, and the efforts to deploy the New Deal in these areas, in many ways, they encounter the same kinds of resistance. In fact, one of the New Deal Black advisers was visiting a site in Pennsylvania and he was attacked.
Jill Watts: A great test to this, Bethany, is the Civilian Conservation Corps. Black advisers decide what they can do is they can really push to integrate the Civilian Conservation Corps camps. And the Civilian Conservation Corps camps enroll young men, you know, teenagers and young adult males. And the idea is that outside of the South where segregation isn't legalized, that you could integrate those Corps, and that would be a place where you could get the same resources to Black Americans, and then at the same time bring about integration. But the Civilian Conservation Corps are run by the US military, and the US military is strictly segregated. And the commanders of the camps are white military commanders, and they block that over and over again.
Jill Watts: Eventually, they succeed in some places of getting Black youth incorporated into these conservation corps. Like in Minnesota, okay? But then what they find out is the young Black men are being used as servants and as cooks, rather than being sent out to be trained in—oh, they did things like trained young men in woodshop and in iron work, and they built roads, and in construction. And there's cases in the North. There was one case in one camp where the young Black men were sent to fan the camp commander. And they really resented that. And it wasn't uncommon for these military commanders to use the worst of racial slurs against the young enrollees. There were cases where these young Black men would continually file complaints with the Black Cabinet member who was overseeing the camps, but they did so at their own risk because they'd file a complaint and then they'd be dismissed. So in the end, they did set up some separate camps. You know, there were very few young Black men who were integrated into other camps, although it did happen, but they ended up setting up separate camps.
Jill Watts: So that'll give you a sense of outside the South what young Black people faced in New Deal programs attempting to get New Deal relief. And it was an important relief. You know, they sent the money home to their parents. The whole family was dependent on this.
Bethany Jay: I was wondering if we could talk about a specific New Deal policy like housing, and think about how housing policy sort of evolved during the New Deal, and how the legacy of that policy is still impacting us today?
Jill Watts: Right. This is a great example of where you can look around in your own community and see the impact of the New Deal. You have the founding of the Federal Housing Authority in 1934. The Federal Housing Authority is going to get homes for people. It's addressing the issue of homelessness. But the author Richard Rothstein in the great book The Color of Law, he talks about it as state-sponsored segregation, because the federal government decides where they will fund mortgages and home loans. They look at the areas and designate the ones that are most valuable, the properties that are the best properties and the best bet if you're going to fund a loan. And what they decide is that they won't fund mortgages or home loans in Black communities. So that brings about the origins of what's called redlining.
Bethany Jay: My understanding of how the FHA loan policies worked during the New Deal era is that really no African-American person could get an FHA loan because just by nature of the fact that they were buying that house, it made it a Black neighborhood and therefore an at-risk property, and not somewhere that the federal government would underwrite a loan.
Jill Watts: I think that's the byproduct of that policy, yeah. It creates areas that are reserved for whites only, and then hence whites buy in those areas with the help of those loans, which not only entrenches residential segregation, but it entrenches school segregation. And on top of it, it creates what we now talk about as generational wealth.
Bethany Jay: And then those redlined districts, or those districts I should say, that allow Black Americans to buy properties also become targets of industrial building and, you know, they are zoned to allow for all sorts of things, right? Dumps, heavy metal factories in some cases. So through no fault of the African-American community at all, a lot of those neighborhoods become increasingly sort of less desirable.
Jill Watts: Well, and these communities are subjected to environmental pollution and undermines the health of the community residents.
Bethany Jay: And we're still seeing the impact of that today in many cities and towns around the nation.
Jill Watts: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
Bethany Jay: One of the things that I find with my students is that the New Deal, this era, seems like forever ago to them. You know, the 1990s seem like forever ago to my students. And it can be hard for students to really visualize how these policies actually played out in the ground in communities like theirs. Can you give us some sort of activities or ways that you make this real for your students?
Jill Watts: So they can do all kinds of visual things: creating websites, writing visual essays, that would really make the New Deal come alive to them. The Library of Congress has these great photographs from the New Deal era, right? The Depression era of photography. And I actually have students right now writing essays interpreting the photographs. But there's a whole segment of photographs dedicated to documenting the lives of Black Americans, and there's descriptors associated with it in the Library of Congress that give students a jumping-off point to do a little more research about who's in the photograph or where the photograph was taken and the community in which it was taken, and the purpose. You can ask them to look around in their world and see what legacy there is of the New Deal: social security, student loans, the idea that the nation does have a responsibility to the individual. Every time you go get a COVID shot, right? They're free. And it's the government that provides it for you. And many places across the country, when you drive on a road, that road was built probably in the '30s, or at least planned then, right? A bridge. There's a great site called the Living New Deal which maps New Deal sites throughout the country, and that's really great to use with students. And you can offer a contribution to it in your community. And it's surprising how many communities still have buildings that they're still using that were built in the New Deal.
Jill Watts: I think in terms of looking at federal housing policy and relating it to the New Deal, you can find your community's maps often online, the redlining maps that determined who got home loans and who didn't, and rated different areas within your community. And students are pretty shocked when you pull them up because they see how literally the government considered communities of color in the New Deal era. So you can have students look at those maps and then compare them to the current communities that they're living in or the communities that they know, and see how those maps entrenched a certain kind of segregation and inequality.
Bethany Jay: And I'm just looking, and the 1950 census will be released sometime next year, right? So that will allow students to be able to use census records on top of those redlining maps to look at a good portion of time and how those communities change.
Jill Watts: Mm-hmm. Yeah. It would be interesting for students to take 1930 and 1940 and 1950.
Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.
Jill Watts: A good thing you can get them to do too, is you can use Google Earth and have them travel through communities using Google Earth. Google Earth has these overlays that can take you back several years. You can set Google Earth to look at an aerial view at a certain period of time, and you can see how communities shift.
Jill Watts: There is a set of tools by Knight Lab that came out of Northwestern University. It has timeline tools and it has mapping tools, and what you can do with students is they can take the redlining maps and use that to make a story map, and talk about a story of a community and do some research. They can use historic newspapers and use that to look at segregation and just the New Deal overall. But they can also create timelines too, which is kind of interesting, if they can create a timeline of how a community shifts and changes. So those tools, I've used those tools with students, and they've really enjoyed doing that. There's something about using that digital world in order to make the world of the past come alive, and for them to come to the realization on their own to say, "Oh my gosh, you know, well, this is the kind of community I live in now, and here's what it was like back then."
Jill Watts: And in many cases, some students will be able to say, "My community isn't any different. It's the same as it was. And here's why my community hasn't changed." Or, "My community—this community has now become gentrified," right?
Bethany Jay: Right.
Jill Watts: This was a Black community. I'm living in an area where Black people built these places and built these structures and lived in these homes. So you can do these kind of community studies, folding in all kinds of historical techniques and archival work.
Jill Watts: You can do family histories. You can get out of the community mode and look at families as they move. And especially in Black families for Black students, doing Black genealogy, as you know, the challenge is great because of the roadblock that slavery creates. But from 1870 on, the records are there. And if students can look at that period from 1870 on and look at the migration patterns of their families, you know, throughout the nation, and you can kind of trace the first Great Migration where African Americans arrive in these communities, and then look at the impact of the Depression. And then the second Great Migration, which occurs, you know, triggered by World War II.
Bethany Jay: Yeah, it's really so interesting to bring these sort of large national conversations down to the community level.
Jill Watts: Yeah.
Bethany Jay: You know, we talked a little bit about the legacy in terms of housing. What are some of the other legacies of the New Deal as it relates to African Americans that we see today?
Jill Watts: Well, I think one of the major legacies of the New Deal is we see that the migration into the Democratic Party continued and then it will solidify in the 1960s. And that's really important because Black Americans proved the power of their vote, and having established themselves within a party, able to continue to advocate for policies that make the nation more equal. And so you can't say that that's not a major contribution to not just reforming the Democratic Party, but also contributing to public policy in the nation and also placing Black Americans not just as advisers but in political office. That's a big deal.
Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.
Jill Watts: That's a big deal. So I think that that's a legacy that we can see. The anti-discrimination clauses that were brought in under the New Deal, I said earlier, they provide this groundwork for civil rights legislation and for us thinking about what kind of safeguards need to be placed within law and within legislation, within policy to make sure that people get equal treatment and equal share of the goodness of American society in jobs and education. So you can see this generation as the bridge to the next generation of the civil rights movement, the classical civil rights movement, and how it influences Dr. King, Martin Luther King. And you can imagine Martin Luther King as a child sitting in his home church in Atlanta where his father is the minister, and sitting in the pew listening to a visitor. And that visitor is Mary McLeod Bethune there in the 1930s to talk to the congregation about uplift and about the New Deal and about the potential of those programs. You know, his father was a friend of hers. He was exposed to her. So that's why this group is so important and so empowering, because it leads us to the next generation and the next victories of civil rights leaders.
Bethany Jay: The New Deal is such a standard part of US2 curriculum. And I'm wondering if you could give us a sense of how integrating this story of the New Deal, you know, the Black Cabinet and the impact of the New Deal on African-American people, why is it important that we should do that? And what changes have you seen it bring about in your students in your classrooms?
Jill Watts: I think that it gives the New Deal a different dimension. I think what we do when we teach the New Deal, and we were talking about the alphabet programs, we run through these alphabet programs, you know, you can tell me what NRA stands for, right? And yeah, it's surface, it's flash card, but this gives the New Deal a depth, and it helps them see the complexities. And students in K through 12, they can handle these complexities. I think students respond to stories where people encounter hardships but persist. You know, it's true the Black Cabinet didn't win everything they wanted and they fell far short, actually, if you asked them. But they won a lot of victories and they were important. I think it makes it real because these are real people who went to work in Washington, and they had these experiences. And it's empowering. You think, "Oh, I could go to Washington. Maybe I could make a difference. I could make a change." And I think that that's a story that not only just teaches us history, but it shapes you if you encounter it early in your life.
Bethany Jay: And particularly for African-American students, I think this becomes an empowering story, not just talking about African-American people during this era as victims, but talking about some of these, you know, real heroes that had a major impact.
Jill Watts: Yeah. Yeah, I think to strike that balance as we narrate our history, I think that that's really important. And it's encouraging if all—you know, you have to acknowledge the realities of the past and the brutalities of the past. That's imperative. But acknowledge perseverance and resistance and agency. That's important, too. And that gives us hope. I always teach with hope. I think that that's the best way to approach history is it's not a history of failure, but it's a history of hope. The people who had the hope are the ones who made the change. What the Black cabinet did was about hope. And I think the whole entire New Deal is all about hope, if you think about it. The bigger picture is about hope.
Bethany Jay: Thank you so much for being with us and taking us through a story that is maybe familiar but we looked at it in a very way, and I'm thankful for that and for all of your time today. So thanks so much for being with us, Jill.
Jill Watts: Oh, thank you so much. I so enjoyed this.
Bethany Jay: Great.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Jill Watts is a professor of history at California State University-San Marcos, where she was awarded the Harry E. Brakebill Distinguished Professorship in 2017. Dr. Watts is the author of several books, including The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt and the biography, Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice, the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow Era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight, examining its history and lasting impact.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. Watts for sharing her insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. "Music Reconstructed" is produced by Barrett Golding. And Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what you’ve heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.
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