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The Negro and Relief: Part II



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 Negro of the masses, in trying to escape from the dilemma which faces him, is doing many things that are obviously futile and some that would be fantastic and ridiculous if they were not so tragic. It must be borne in mind, however, that he is desperate, and that he is in the position of a drowning man who clutches at even a straw.

Some Negroes are joining religious movements which are new to them, in the vain hope that a new type of church affiliation will help them improve their economic plight. Perhaps the most interesting example of this attempted strategy is the increasing number of Negro Protestants who have joined the Roman Catholic church during the last three years.

The Negro is also attempting to improve his economic status by changing his politics. It is generally known that there was a large trek of Negroes from the Republican to the Democratic party at the last election; but it is not generally known that black voters were beginning to switch their party allegiance in elections two or three years before this. They had become disappointed in the Republican party as a solution for their economic problems as they had been disappointed in the Protestant church. More Negroes than ever before supported the Socialist party at the last election, although this affiliation was confined to leaders rather than to the proletariat.

A growing number of Negroes are turning toward communism, especially in northern cities, and a much larger number would probably be found associated with this movement in southern cities if it were not for the ruthless methods by which southern authorities suppress communisitic activities. Negroes of the masses do not know any more about ideology of communism than the common man knows about the theory of relativity, but they do know that the communist party advocates economic equality whether they obtain it for the Negro or not. Undoubtedly, this is disturbing to those who believe in the American form of government, and, undoubtedly, the Negro prefers the American type of government; but the attitude of many Negroes can be summed up in Lord Byron’s famous expression: “What care I how fair she be, if she be not fair to me?” In other words, the Negro takes the position that it does not make any difference to him how ideal the government of the United States may be if that idealism is not applied to him.

Moreover, in addition to changing his religion and his politics, a certain element of Negroes, out of the pressure of job displacement, are changing their “color,” and a large number of Negroes who at former censuses had allowed themselves to be counted as “colored” took advantage of their extreme light complexion for the first time at the I930 census and chose to have themselves classified as “white.”

But all this is practically futile. The Negro cannot lift himself by his bootstraps. The cards are stacked against him.


There are two schools of opinion as to what the F.E.R.A. has meant to the Negro. To the average white person it appears that the Negro has obtained more than his share of government support; that the F.E.R.A. has leaned over backward in aiding the Negro. On the other hand, the majority of Negroes, and many white sympathizers, claim that this is only a superficial observation; that while the relief administration has carried an inordinately large number of Negroes on its direct relief rolls and on the rolls of the unskilled phases of its work program, it has seriously neglected all Negroes above the lowest socio-economic class.

Complaints in the form of sworn affidavits sent to my office in reference to conditions in the capital city of a certain commonwealth state:

“We have not one representative on the clerical force of any of the C.W.A. projects, and only one as foreman on a paint project. There are now employed in the city on C.W.A. projects 167 carpenters of which number only six are colored, whereas, there are in the city 50 colored carpenters and carpenter foremen who are in destitute circumstances and burdened with families.

“We have registered and have been waiting for months for calls to service and when we call to find out when to go to work we are told “There is no place for people of your type!”

From another capital city in the North with a Negro population of almost  150,000, which constitutes 27 per cent of the total population, have come repeated complaints of Negro civic organizations that the placement of “white-collar” workers has been confined almost wholly to colored projects. This has resulted in colored persons obtaining less than 5 per cent of the white-collar positions. These organizations also complained that it was a policy to confine the placement of colored workers in industry to the unskilled occupations.

Another letter from a Negro organization in a city with one of the largest Negro populations in the country calls attention to the fact that more than twenty-five school buildings are being erected using C.W.A. labor and that not one of them-not even the one which is attended by 98 per cent colored pupils-is using a single skilled colored laborer.

In other words, taking the country as a whole, very few skilled Negro mechanics or Negroes of the professional classes, or Negroes of the clerical classes, were provided with employment. The truth lies somewhere between the two extremes of opinion -one which maintains that the Negro is obtaining more than his share of public relief and the other which maintains that only one element of the Negro group is being aided.

The legislation which created the F.E.R.A. specifically stated that there should be no discrimination as regards race. The F.E. R.A., itself, in its policies and pronunciamentoes has taken more than a negative stand in the matter. In fact, in work bulletins issued by the National Office, it has been specifically stated that there should be no such discrimination. On the other hand, there is no question that in many local communities-in fact, in the average local community-there has been discrimination ranging from that which might be called slight to that which amounted practically to criminal malfeasance in office. It is, of course, not much consolation to a Negro white-collar worker in a local community to know that the national office of the F.E. R.A. is opposed to discrimination if he or she is unable to obtain a white-collar job in his local community because he is a Negro.

Therefore, summing the matter up, the situation seems to be that while the Negro has bulked large on relief rolls of the F.E.R.A., he has bulked large in direct relief and in the unskilled phases of work relief.


But, on the other hand, it must be recognized that, in spite of its shortcomings locally, and in spite of the fact that it has meant very little, taking the country as a whole, with one exception, to the skilled Negro mechanics, the Negro technician, the Negro of the profession, and the Negro business man, the F.E.R.A. has been a godsend to the Negro of the masses.

Before I discuss what it has meant to the Negro of the masses, I wish to make clear the one exception in the technical classes to which I referred. I have in mind the large number of college trained Negro men and women who have been hired by the various state and local relief administrations as case workers and case work aides. Previous to the establishment of the F.E.R.A. there were a little less than three hundred paid Negro case workers in the country; today a conservative estimate puts the figure at something over three thousand. An increase in the employment of Negroes of I,ooo per cent in one skilled occupation cannot be overlooked or sneered at.

I have said that the F.E.R.A. has been a godsend to the Negro of the masses. Without it he could hardly have survived. It even brought to some Negroes a standard of living superior to that to which they had been accustomed before the depression. In some communities the minimum budget for food and necessities exceeds their previous highest wages. It is a curious commentary on industrial conditions in the South that at the height of prosperity many Negroes never earned as much or ate as well as is the case under relief-and no fair-minded person claims that relief budgets have been extravagant anywhere in the South. The rural rehabilitation program of the F.E.R.A. is the first ray of hope that thousands of Negro share croppers and tenant farmers have seen in decades. It must not be forgotten that under the C.W.A. more was done for Negro schools than any state has ever done. The C.W.A. opened schools for rural Negroes at a rate known equal only to that of the Rosenwald Fund in the old days.

Moreover, the adult illiteracy classes which were set up under C.W.A. auspices in many sections have brought a new outlook on life to thousands of Negroes, especially in the South. A letter addressed to President Roosevelt and referred by one of his secretaries to my office within the last few days with reference to an adult illiteracy school maintained by the F.E.R.A. in a certain southern state reads:


“The Adult School here is the grandest thing that has ever happened since the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. There have been many old white haired grown up colored people made proud after learning to read and write. After knowing that they were eager to learn I put forth every moment I had to help them, working over time day and night. There were some that could not attend day school so they would come at night.

“This work has been a joy of my life to help my own people and really give service. And the adults are asking if the school will continue next fall. Please.

“I am enclosing letters from some of my adult students from the age of fifty-three up. They could not write their names when we opened last November; could not even count five. And now you see how well they are getting along. They asked me to send these letters to you that you may know they appreciate what is being done for them.

“May God bless you and family.”

Let me make my point of view on this situation clear. I believe the advantages to the Negro of the F.E.R.A. program far outweigh all the suffering growing out of irregularities in local administration and the totality of the injustices.

We must remember that the.F.E.R.A. was an emergency organization developed almost overnight. Its personnel was practically drafted. Results had to be obtained in a hurry. Under such circumstances the F.E.R.A. could not be expected to change instantaneously the mores of whole sections of the country which the government itself has been unable to change during the seventy years since emancipation-even during times when conditions were normal.


About the only source to which the Negro can look for real aid today is the United States government. Experience has shown that local authorities cannot be trusted to administer equably government funds in many sections of the country so far as Negroes are concerned. I am satisfied that the national administration is eminently fair and wants to reach out and see the benefits of its recovery program extended to every citizen, but this ideal is neutralized in many local communities. On the other hand, one does not need to argue for complete centralized control by the federal government, but rather for a degree of protection for a group which experience has proved suffers at the hands of local administrators. Some definite and vigorous precaution should be taken to prevent the perversion of the intentions of the federal government. The Negro of the masses feels this keenly, as is evidenced by the thousands of letters he is now writing to the national headquarters of the government in Washington and particularly to the President, whom many of them have come to look upon as a sort of “great white father.”

There was something more than humor in the case of the Negro farmer, Sylvester Harris of Mississippi, who got through a long-distance call to President Roosevelt. Fundamentally, it was an expression of the lack of faith in the possibility of getting a square deal locally and an indication that the Negro has learned to complain and believes his chief hope is in the federal government.

This feeling on the part of the Negro that he needs more protection from the national government is not confined to the Negro masses. In a speech at the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the oldest and largest Negro College Fraternity in the country, on December 28, I933, Rayford W. Logan, distinguished Negro historian and professor at Atlanta University, made the following statement:

“It was the national government that freed the great masses of Negro slaves. It is the state governments that have allowed them to remain in peonage. It was the national government that gave the freedmen the right to vote. It is the state governments that have curtailed those rights. It is the national government that gives employment to thousands of Negroes. It is the state and municipal government that refuses to give them that employment in the South. Count, for example, the hundreds of Negro mail carriers against the total absence of state employees in even a liberal Southern state like Virginia. It is the national government that pays Negroes equal salarieswith many limitations of advancement, it is true. Let the mail carriers again serve as an example-colored mail carriers are paid the same salaries as whites, while Negro school teachers almost universally in the South receive a much lower wage than do white school teachers. The Second Morrill Act requires States with separate land grant schools to make equitable appropriations for Negroes whereas the iniquitous allocation of Southern state funds through the counties is a shame that stinks to heaven-and I use those words advisedly.”


It is imperative that the following seven remedial measures be undertaken to change the situation:

First, the President, or some public power almost as important, must impress upon the employing class, both in the North and in the South, that they are committing not only a social injustice but a civic blunder in deliberately throwing the support of the Negro labor on the relief arm of the federal government. I think this same power should be brought to bear-and for the same reasons-upon certain local political officeholders who have used their legislative or executive power or the influence of their position to encourage the discharge of Negro labor. Again I think some sort of federal curb should be placed upon certain private organizations who for the last six or seven years have been definitely organized for the purpose of ousting Negroes from industrial employment.

Incidentally, I think that it is as much a function of the relief arm of the national and state governments to diagnose those general evils within the business and industrial life of the nation which have caused unemployment and the pathological consequences of unemployment as it is to administer relief, and to bring to the attention of the President and Congress, for remedial treatment, these underlying evils which have been discovered.

Second, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration must so integrate the Negro into its work program that it will preserve the industrial stability and morale of Negro labor which private industry is destroying.

Third, the F.E.R.A. should put at the disposal of the Negro group the full benefits of its self-help program in order that cooperatives and government subsidized industries may be developed in Negro communities.

Fourth, organized labor should be compelled to remove the bans that are set up against Negro membership in the worthwhile crafts unions, or these unions should not be allowed to have any preferential treatment from the N.R.A., the P.W.A., or any other agency which, expends funds of the federal government.

Fifth, that Negroes be placed on all committees having to do with the distribution of government funds intended for the rehabilitation of victims of the unemployment crisis. This is the only satisfactory means to guarantee equitable distribution of these funds to Negroes.

Sixth, that colored workers be used throughout the relief organization in communities where there is a considerable Negro population. This will further insure equitable distribution of government funds in local communities and, incidentally, is the only effective way to reduce Negro case loads where there happen to be Negroes who are taking advantage of the relief organizations, for Negro case workers can locate resources, relatives, etc., of whom white investigators would know nothing.

Seventh, special efforts should be made by the federal government at Washington to insure that the right kind of administrators are appointed in various local communities. This could best be obtained if the national heads of every department of the recovery program would see to it that their state administrators are sound on race. These state administrators can do more than anyone else to put a stop to the exploitation of Negroes in local communities. There would not be much of a problem if local authorities were persons of fairness and vision. The best way to obtain this type of local authority is for the centralized government to see that state administrators are persons of fairness and vision.

Thus, while there would not be, strictly speaking, centralized control, it would exist in a modified form, and I make no apology for advocating such moderate and modernized, centralized control, because, as I have already said, it is the only way that the Negro can be guaranteed a fair chance for rehabilitation now, during the depression, and in the future.

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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