‘Well, that’s Eleanor’: The Roosevelts and the fight for Black civil rights

MILLBROOK — Jeff Urbin arrived at the Millbrook Library on Thursday, Feb. 15, sporting a tie bedecked with pictures of FDR and several of his campaign buttons.

Urbin, education specialist at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, was there at the invitation of the Millbrook Historical Society, to speak about the roles played by the Roosevelts in the development of Black American civil rights. The presentation was based on the exhibit “Black Americans, Civil Rights and the Roosevelts, 1932-1962” at the FDR Library.

Urbin began by announcing that initially, the attitude of the Roosevelts, both personally and administratively, was one of “benign neglect.”

But he since has become interested in how they educated themselves about how government policies impacted the lives of the African American community.

Black politics under FDR

The Black American vote was largely Republican in the Roosevelt era: they tended to support the party of Lincoln, the great emancipator, over the Democrats, who had supported the Confederacy and held the support of white southerners.

That changed under FDR, and his talk of a “new deal”: in 1936, running for his second term, Roosevelt won 71% of the Black vote.

At the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933, America was deep in the Great Depression.

In one early iteration of the New Deal, the Public Works Administration (PWA) was engaged in building public buildings and facilities. The money went to private contractors who hired white workers almost exclusively.

Roosevelt then started the Works Progress Administration, which the government ran, hiring over 350,000 Black workers, 15% of their work force.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, meanwhile, had become friends with Mary Bethune, a leader in Black education and the Black civil rights movement.

Bethune, along with Robert Vann and 100 other Black federal employees, formed an unofficial Federal Council on Negro Affairs, which became known as the Black Cabinet.

They lobbied the administration for equal rights and other opportunities for Black people. The Black Cabinet was the first movement to confront racial discrimination from inside the government, said Urbin, though it was never officially recognized as a government entity by Roosevelt.

Some members of Roosevelt’s administration made a point of hiring Black people to fill federal jobs, and several African Americans gained prominence in the government during his tenure.

Bethune was the first Black woman in charge of a federal program: she was appointed director of the Division of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration (NYA) in 1935.

Vann, a publisher and lawyer, was assistant to FDR’s attorney general. William Hastie served as assistant solicitor in the interior department, and Eugene K. Jones was advisor for Negro Affairs to the Commerce Department.

There were some things the president would or could not do — he needed the Southern Democratic vote to win reelection, and by embracing certain policies, he’d lose that vote.

When an anti-lynching bill was proposed, he refused to endorse it. Although lynching was a problem throughout the country, it was identified most closely with the South. Instead, Roosevelt said that lynching was murder, and murder could be handled at the local level, where lynchings often went unpunished.

He also did not condemn poll taxes, although he did make it known that he was against them, as a form of racial oppression.

Unofficially, FDR sent Eleanor out on fact-finding missions, telling her to ask the train conductor to let her know five minutes before getting to their destination, so that she could study the living conditions of those on the margins out the windows. Officially she’d be shown only the better side of things; he asked her to study what people on the outskirts were experiencing, what their dwellings looked like, what their children were playing with, how they were dressed.

The Tuskegee Airmen

By the end of 1941, Roosevelt was in his third term, and America was embroiled in a two-front war, with Germany and Japan.

Though Black people were always among the first to sign up to defend the country, they were always given lowly jobs that didn’t take training or skill because it was believed that they weren’t smart enough to learn.

But some enlisted Black men were able to successfully lobby to be trained to fly: They were sent to Tuskegee and trained as a segregated unit.

Eleanor Roosevelt visited the facility, and took a flight with one of the Tuskagee pilots. She came back to Earth beaming for photographers and the world.

A close friend of Amelia Earhart and a seasoned flyer, she told the world that the Tuskegee pilots flew as well as anyone.

She also made sure that their living quarters and equipment were upgraded and they got the respect they deserved. The Tuskagee Airmen had a 93% success rate at the end of the war.

Throughout Urbin’s talk, it was evident that FDR relied on his wife to do the work he thought would hurt his own credibility.

Said Urbin: “He had a catch phrase that he used often. If something he sent Eleanor to do went well, he’d boast, ‘Oh, well, that’s Eleanor.’ Something others looked askance at, he’d shake his head and say, ‘Oh, well, that’s Eleanor.’”

Urbin had several photographs, including some of political cartoons, that were passed to the audience, including one of Eleanor Roosevelt with some members of the Black Cabinet.

Her interest in Black civil rights continued after her husband’s death in 1945; she worked with presidents Truman through Kennedy and others to further the cause.

“Black Americans, Civil Rights and the Roosevelts, 1932-1962” will be on display at the library in Hyde Park through Dec. 31. The FDR Library is located at 4079 Albany Post Road in Hyde Park, NY.

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