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The Negro and Relief – Part I



Forrester B. Washington, Director of Negro Work, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Washington, D.C.


A Presentation Given at the 61st Meeting of the National Conference on Social Welfare,

Kansas City, Missouri, May 20-26, 1934


The most striking fact in connection with the Negro and relief is that the Negro bulks on the rolls of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration all out of proportion to his numbers in the general population, both in the country as a whole and in practically all of the states. A survey made by the F.E.R.A. last October (1933) showed that Negroes constituted 18.4 per cent of all families on the relief rolls, while in 1930 the census showed that they constituted only 9.4 per cent of the entire population.

This is due largely to factors which can be controlled, but which are not in the control of the Negro; for instance, in the South many plantation owners have deliberately placed the Negro on the relief rolls during the “lay-off” season when plowing, chopping, and cotton-picking were over, and in the North, as well as the South, manufacturing concerns have forced him on the relief rolls by instituting color bans, either in the open or under cover, when they think public opinion is opposed to the employment of Negro labor, while white men and women are out of work. Thus, the United States government has become a subsidizer for southern and northern, rural and urban, employers of Negro labor during off-seasons in industry.

This practice of the displacement of Negro labor by white labor began even before the depression. The Negro felt its effect as early as 1927. From the very beginning it has been stimulated by outside forces. For instance, an organization called the Blue Shirts was set up in Jacksonville, Florida, about 1926 for the express purpose of replacing Negroes in employment with white men. An organization called the Black Shirts was formed at Atlanta, Georgia, late in 1927 for the same purpose. The  Black Shirts, whose regalia consisted chiefly of black shirts and black neckties, published a daily newspaper. They frequently held night parades in which were carried such signs as “Employ white man and let ‘Niggers’ go”; “Thousands of white families are starving to death-what is the reason?”; and “Send ‘Niggers’ back to the farms.”

Dishonesty and dissension within their own ranks put the Blue Shirts and the Black Shirts per se out of existence, but their purposes and policies have been perpetuated by new organizations who picked up where they left off. Public officials have made public statements urging the displacement of colored labor, immediately preceding and during the period of the depression. For instance, the mayor of a certain Virginia City said, “I will employ as few Negroes as possible on public works,” and added, “Private business should take the hint.” Again the secretary of agriculture of a certain state, who is now its governor, stated, “It is a shame that Negroes are employed in the hotels of the capital city and other cities when there are so many young white people unemployed.”

Public ordinances have been successfully urged by white politicians in such cities as West Palm Beach, Florida, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, restricting the use of Negro labor. Moreover, organized white labor, directly and indirectly, because of its insistence upon, and relative success in, dictating that only union members shall be employed under the recovery program, is an accessory in forcing the Negro on relief rolls, because so many of the important international crafts unions or locals thereof have bans against Negro membership.

The fourth factor in forcing Negroes upon relief rolls has been the inequitable local administration of certain departments of the government’s own recovery program, particularly in the rural South. For instance, in a recent report submitted to the secretary of one of the major departments of the government by an investigator, the following statements were made:

“One of the most striking difficulties encountered by Negro farmers in the South has been incident to the securing of credit. The Farm Credit Administration has not corrected this situation. In many instances, responsible persons working in the program for the agricultural development of the state showed me farms upon which Negroes had been unable to obtain a reasonable loan. In Jones County, for example, the tendency was to grant loans to colored farmers, but to limit the size of the loan to such an amount as to make it useless for the borrower to accept the offer. A Negro farm owner in the same county asked for $3,ooo on I20 acres. He was given $800. A white neighbor across the road from him received $900 on 30 acres. The nature and state of repairs of the buildings were about the same in both instances. Again a Negro farmer who applied for $i,ooo was offered $250. Appraisers for the Federal Farm Credit Administration have been most unsympathetic in their treatment throughout the state of colored farmers, and needless to say there are many cases in which colored farm owners are losing their property because of their inability to meet their obligations.”

Let me explain how the cotton-acreage reduction plan has been administered locally in such a way as to throw thousands of Negro rural families on relief. The cultivation of cotton gives rise to the employment of more Negroes than the production of any other commodity. Only about 12 per cent of the Negro farmers are owners in the cotton states. The great bulks are either share tenants, share croppers, or farm laborers. The chief benefits of the cotton-acreage plan goes to the owners and cash tenants. The direct payments are made to them.

Altogether too large a proportion of the owners are taking advantage of the reduction plan to exploit the share cropper and share tenants. First, they have not kept their promise to maintain the same number of families on their farms after the reduction as before; second, where they have not actually displaced families, they have given them only shelter and fuel and have failed to provide that one thing which is basic to the existence of the share cropper or share tenant, that is, a contract whereby he can produce a crop. Without such a contract, which provides seeds, subsistence, and equipment, there can be no income, and the helpless sharecropper has no certain means of supplying himself and his family with food and clothing.

In many cases the tenant farmers have not received the full amount specified by the I933 cotton plow-up contract. Landlords have been allowed to take advantage of certain confusion in classification of types of tenants in the I934 contract and have, contrary to the law, reduced the status of their share tenants to that of share croppers. This allowed the landlords to receive the full payments from the acreage-reduction plan without having to share with his tenants. Moreover, when landlords did pay tenants a share, in many cases, the latter have not received the full amount specified by the I933 contract.

While the type of landlords to whom reference has been made are exploiting both white and black share croppers, they are exploiting the Negro most because they have less to fear from him and from public sentiment.

A large section of the plantation-owning class believes that the prosperity of their group is dependent on the maintenance of what might best be described as “serf labor.” Naturally this section of the plantation-owning class will be opposed to the extension to that serf labor of political rights, equal educational opportunities, justice before the law, and the like. Clark Foreman, adviser on Negro affairs in the Department of the Interior, in an article published in Opportunity last month says:

“Down-trodden and terrorized into peonage by those who claim that “white supremacy” must be insured by such measures, the majority of rural Negroes are confined to abject servitude and hopeless poverty. Time and time again it has been publicly stated by spokesmen of the exploiting land owners that the only way to treat a Negro is to work him as hard as possible and give him just enough to live on. The economic advantage to the landlord of such a precept is obvious.”

These local abuses in the administration of federal aid to the Negro farmer did not begin with the initiation of the recovery program. They existed in connection with the federal farm-relief measures inaugurated during the Hoover administration.

The following statement is quoted from a picture of the situation prior to the New Deal presented at a Conference on the Economic Status of the Negro, held under the auspices of the Rosenwald Fund at Washington last May:

“The feed, seed and fertilizer loans have been variously administered. Although in a few black areas the tenants received and spent their loans according to the intent of the law, the planters often got control of the tenants’ checks. As a matter of fact, the landlord virtually forces the tenant to deliver  the check to him; the landlord explains to the tenant that he will not waive his rent to the government-one of the requirements for the loan-unless the tenant agrees to bring the check to him when it comes. When the check came it was delivered to the landlord and the latter often took the money and deposited it to his own account, issuing cash back to the tenant as he felt the tenant needed it. For this service the planter usually charged eight per cent interest. “Thus, the tenant pays double interest-six per cent to the government for the money and an additional eight per cent to the planter for keeping it for him.” This practice is common in the upper part of the Georgia Black Belt.”

Of course, white share croppers and share tenants suffered too, but the difference between their situation and that of the Negro was that whatever effective protest there was against this exploitation was available, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, only to the white share croppers and share tenants. They had the strongest weapon of defense, namely, the ballot, which in a majority of southern communities the Negro did not possess. A voteless people cannot bring much pressure to bear and conversely are not to be feared.

But this back-fire against the Negro of local application of various divisions of the government’s recovery program has not been confined to the agricultural division.

The imposition of the N.R.A. codes has resulted in the discharge and forcing on relief of many Negro workers. Southern manufacturers, particularly, have put up a stubborn fight to pay the Negro a lower wage than the codes provided, and where they have been unable to accomplish their purpose they have, in many cases, discharged Negro employees rather than pay the same wages someone else was paying whites. It was more a blind allegiance to the mores than anything else, because if they could not have afforded to pay the wages demanded by the codes, they would have closed their shops. It was simply part of the southern tradition not to pay Negroes the same wages as whites, and so they took on whites.

Many of the occupations had been held traditionally by Negroes, hence the employers had no factual basis for concluding that white labor would be more efficient than black in the particular trades in question. In fact, there were instances in which the white labor proved so unsatisfactory that the employers turned back to Negro labor.

Perhaps I have dwelt at too great a length upon conditions in the South. I have done so, however, only because the great mass of Negroes still reside in the South-and especially in the rural South. But, I do not wish to give the impression that the North is guiltless in disfranchising the Negro in industry and forcing the race to become in large numbers clients of the relief organizations.

In industrial and commercial centers throughout the North, the Negro has been (and is being) displaced by whites in jobs which he has held traditionally. If space permitted I could insert a long list of occupations in northern cities in which pale faces have been substituted for black ones.

It does not destroy the validity of the argument if these displacements do not always take place in the large concerns. The aggregate effect of the displacement, in thousands of small businesses, of Negro elevator operators, waiters and waitresses, porters, bellmen, hotel maids, teamsters, and the like is just as serious as if the same number had been displaced in a few industries which are large employers of Negro labor. An individual Negro is just as much a financial charge upon the relief organization whether he was a car-washer in a small garage or a carmaker in a great Detroit automobile factory.

For instance, the significance of the displacement of Negro domestics in northern cities must not be overlooked. Whites are being “taken on” in large numbers in positions formerly held by Negro household workers. If anyone doubts this-all he or she has to do for confirmation-is to compare the “want ads.” columns of any northern newspaper of seven years back with those of the same paper today. The great increase in advertisements today which ask for white domestics, as compared with a few years ago, will, I am sure, be surprising.

I think I ought to make the observation that some of the larger northern firms are “canny” and retain a mere handful out of a formerly large Negro force, so that it cannot be said (theoretically) that they have instituted a color ban. But, practically, the effect is the same. What difference does it make if ninety-eight or a hundred out of a hundred Negro workmen are replaced by whites? The fact remains that the racial policy of the company has changed and that the 98 per cent of the Negro employees will soon be on the relief rolls.

And so the Negro finds himself, in his endeavor to maintain some semblance of a status in industry in America, caught between the two horns of a dilemma-the employer on one side and organized labor on the other.

All these various factors which have been cited have operated not only to make him the worst victim of the depression, but they have also operated, as was stated at the outset, to throw him on the relief rolls of the government in numbers all out of proportion to his numbers in the general population.


There are potential dangers involved in this situation. First, there is the danger of making the Negro, as a race, a chronic dependent and forcing upon the Federal Emergency Relief Administration a fourth major problem, that is, Negro relief, in addition to the three it now recognizes as basic, namely, the care of distressed rural families, the unemployed of the cities, and stranded populations; and, second, there is the danger of developing racial friction through creating resentment on the part of the majority public against the presence of so many Negroes on the relief rolls. Already community-chest executives in certain cities have stated that they are averse to the publication of data touching on the number of Negroes on relief rolls because, in spite of the fact that community-chest agencies are not carrying Negroes on relief, nevertheless, certain of their large contributors have indicated an intention to discontinue their contributions if so many Negroes continue to be supported on relief.

Even some employees of various local relief administrations are becoming emotional and “jittery” on the subject, and in their exasperation are beginning to blame the Negroes themselves for their presence in large numbers on relief rolls. These social workers have become blinded by the masses of Negroes to the underlying factors which are forcing them on the relief organizations. They are predisposed to allow one or two examples of Negro “chiseling” to convince them that the great mass of Negroes are “chiselers.” They use this assumption as a justification in proceeding to solve the problem by arbitrarily reducing Negro case loads.

These arbitrary methods of reducing the preponderance of Negroes on the relief rolls do not by any means solve the problem. The process does get the Negroes off the rolls, but it does not get them employment. In fact, it makes criminals out of many of them and the communities simply have to take care of them in correctional institutions instead of taking care of them as relief cases. This exchange in the method of caring for the Negro is stupid because it substitutes for a possible program of rehabilitation at public expense a program of demoralization also at public expense and at an expense which is considerably more costly.

The loss of employment and the consequent reduction in income of the Negro has reflected itself throughout his entire socio-economic structure.

A large amount of the progress the Negro has made, especially as a result of his migration to the industrial centers during and after the World War, has been lost. He no longer has a secure place in industry, he is losing the decent housing he had acquired for himself; his death-rate, which had been declining, is now rising, and he has seen crime within his group increase. His forward movement in education has been-at least temporarily -checked, as many of his schools and colleges have been forced to close.

The first real advance he has made in business has been all but swept away, and, in general, his community and family life has become seriously disorganized.

Therefore, as has already been stated, the Negro has massed very largely on the relief rolls as a result of the depression. He massed on these rolls before the F.E.R.A. was set up, when unemployment relief was administered by the local communities or states exclusively, which proves that his present massing on the F.E.R.A. rolls is due to conditions other than the attractiveness of public over private relief. The fact is that the Negro was hit so much harder than any other group in the country by the depression and the economic conditions immediately preceding it that he would have massed large on any relief rolls, whether public or private, federal or local.

It is interesting, on the other hand, to recall that previous to the depression the number of Negroes on the rolls of relief agencies was less than their proportion of the general population in the majority of communities. The standard of their living and working conditions may have been lower than that of any other group in the community, but they cared for themselves, and only extreme necessity forced them to seek organized, private, or public charity. But it is possible by sheer attrition to convert a group that has not been seekers of charity into professional mendicants.

(Note:  This presentation continues in THE NEGRO AND RELIEF: Part II)

Source: National Conference on Social Welfare Proceedings On-Line. The web site for this resource is:

The proceedings of annual meetings of the NCSW, 1874-1983, are available on the web thanks to a digitization project undertaken by the University of Michigan Library, with assistance from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota.  The web site for this resource is:


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