Mary McLeod Bethune , NYA Director of Negro Activities, speaking with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with Aubrey Williams, Executive Director of the National Youth Administration, at the opening session of the National Conference on Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth, 1937. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

The African-American vote help elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, for the first time switching to the Democratic Party.
For decades prior to the Great Depression, African Americans had traditionally voted for the Republican Party, which was still seen as the party of emancipation from the days of Abraham Lincoln. The presidential election of 1932, however, saw a sea-change as African Americans began to switch their political allegiance to the Democratic Party. “My friends, go turn Lincoln’s picture to the wall,” Pittsburgh Courier editor Robert Vann implored African Americans in 1932. “The debt has been paid in full.”

In an oral interview, historian John Hope Franklin said African Americans were drawn to Franklin D. Roosevelt after years of inactivity under Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. “He had a purpose, had a message, had a program. And it seemed that was better than the inertia that preceded things,” he said.

Franklin also said African Americans could identify with Roosevelt’s personal struggles. “Roosevelt inspired large numbers of blacks, I think in part because he was handicapped himself. And although was not publicized as much as it might have been, blacks knew that he was a victim of polio, that he couldn’t walk, and that he had overcome these handicaps.”

Since Roosevelt needed the support of Southern Democrats to pass his New Deal agenda, he did not advocate for passage of a federal anti-lynching law or embrace efforts to ban the poll tax that prevented many African Americans from voting. Yet, the economic support received by African Americans under the New Deal solidified their newfound loyalty to the Democratic Party. By 1936, more than 70 percent of African Americans voted for Roosevelt, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

What was the “Black Cabinet” during Roosevelt’s presidency?
Roosevelt appointed far more African Americans to positions within his administration than his predecessors, and he was the first president to appoint an African American as a federal judge. According to the Roosevelt Institute, FDR tripled the number of African Americans working in the federal government.

New Deal officials appointed African Americans as special advisors. Although none actually filled Cabinet-level positions, these public policy advisors were referred to as the “Black Cabinet” and the “Black Brain Trust.” Perhaps the best-known member of the Black Cabinet was its only woman, Bethune, a close friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and founder of Bethune-Cookman University.

Men and women working a field on the Bayou Bourbeaux Plantation, a Farm Security Administration cooperative near Natchitoches, Louisiana. (Credit: Corbis/Getty Images)

Men and women working a field on the Bayou Bourbeaux Plantation, a Farm Security Administration cooperative near Natchitoches, Louisiana. (Credit: Corbis/Getty Images)

New Deal programs, however, still discriminated against African Americans.
Although New Deal programs provided African Americans with badly needed economic assistance, they were administered at a state level where racial segregation was still widely, and systemically, enforced. The New Deal did little to challenge existing racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws prevalent during the 1930s.

The Civilian Conservation Corps established racially segregated camps, while the Federal Housing Administration refused to insure mortgages in African-American neighborhoods. The Agricultural Adjustment Association gave white landowners money for keeping their fields fallow, but they were not required to pass any money to African-American sharecroppers and tenant farmers who farmed the land and were not eligible for Social Security benefits.

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