Praise for The Black Cabinet:
“This sweeping history looks at how a core group took on the racist machinations of post-Reconstruction government to give Black communities a chance to influence one of the most powerful men in the world. Though they never achieved official recognition, they still helped change the course of history . . . A dramatic piece of nonfiction that recovers the history of a generation of leaders that helped create the environment for the civil rights battles in decades that followed Roosevelt’s death.”—Library Journal
“Fascinating . . . revealing the hidden figures of a ‘brain trust’ that lobbied, hectored and strong-armed President Franklin Roosevelt to cut African Americans in on the New Deal . . . Meticulously researched and elegantly written, The Black Cabinet is sprawling and epic, and Watts deftly re-creates whole scenes from archival material.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Watts is . . . at her best when she gives a frank accounting of the barriers the Black Cabinet encountered. Again and again its members pushed for a desperately needed reform, only to have it rejected — or simply ignored — by an administration much more interested in appeasing the segregationist South . . . The value of this thoughtful book [is] clear.”—New York Times Book Review
“Meticulously researched and beautifully written . . . This absorbing look at a pivotal point in civil rights activity before the 1950s and ’60s is well done and should be of interest to us all.”—BookPage
“A unique and enlightening portrait . . . [The Black Cabinet] is a groundbreaking reappraisal of an unheralded chapter in the battle for civil rights.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Drawing on government documents, newspapers, and an extensive number of archives, historian Watts vividly recounts an important chapter in black American history.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A well-researched, urgent, and necessary history of black folks during the New Deal that excavates the too often ignored history of black female genius behind racial progress.”—Michael Eric Dyson, New York Times bestselling author of What Truth Sounds Like
“Jill Watts’ timely, deeply absorbing narrative unravels the little known but highly significant behind-the scenes account of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unofficial Black Cabinet, and their relentless determination that New Deal socio-economic justice include Black Americans. The voices of the historical actors come right through the pages and give a flavor to the narrative as though you were actually on the scene. . . A powerful piece of scholarship and a great story.”—Margaret Washington, author of Sojourner Truth’s America
“My great-uncle Frank Horne, a poet, a doctor and an educator, was a member of FDR’s so-called ‘Black Cabinet.’ For the first time, this fascinating new book tells the whole story of the victories and defeats of these brilliant black New Dealers and the dynamic, charismatic black woman, Mary McLeod Bethune, who was their leader.”—Gail Lumet Buckley, author of The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family
“Jill Watts here tells stories of the fascinating characters who formed what has been nicknamed the ‘Black Cabinet’ of FDR. Making her subjects come alive for the reader, she portrays them as courageous individuals motivated by a combination of personal ambition and principled devotion to the cause of black rights, which the New Deal by no means embraced with enthusiasm. These crusaders paved the way for the political transformation of the African-American community from Republican to Democrat, and prefigured the Black Civil Rights Movement.”—Daniel Walker Howe, author of Pulitzer-Prize winning, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
“Watts’ compelling account of a diverse set of early twentieth-century public figures—with the remarkable Mary McLeod Bethune at the center—who labored to make the Federal Government work for and be accountable to African Americans is important and timely. One comes away from this deeply researched and engaging narrative with a rich and textured sense of the work the members of the Black Cabinet accomplished in the decades before the modern Civil Rights Movement and the stakes and significance of their efforts.”—Judith Weisenfeld, author of New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration
In this thoroughly researched history, Watts (Hattie McDaniel) traces the birth of the relationship between the Democratic Party and Black America through the influence of African Americans on Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies. Thanks to the tireless work of Mary McLeod Bethune, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, along with an informal group of Black federal employees in Washington, DC, the concerns of Black citizens were added to Roosevelt's agenda. Consisting of lawyers, educators, teachers, and politicians, the team informally advised the president on social issues in the midst of the Great Depression. In the author's telling, this led to the start of a political change that would help define the civil rights movement and American politics for the 20th century. This sweeping history looks at how a core group took on the racist machinations of post-Reconstruction government to give Black communities a chance to influence one of the most powerful men in the world. Though they never achieved official recognition, they still helped change the course of history. VERDICT A dramatic piece of nonfiction that recovers the history of a generation of leaders that helped create the environment for the civil rights battles in decades that followed Roosevelt's death.—John Rodzvilla, Emerson Coll., Boston
A history of how Franklin Roosevelt’s policies were decisively influenced by a group of African American advisers.
Drawing on government documents, newspapers, and an extensive number of archives, historian Watts vividly recounts an important chapter in black American history: the place of black advisers in Roosevelt’s administration. Among the many ambitious, well-educated men and women who took up government roles during the New Deal were Robert Clifton Weaver, a Harvard-educated economist; William H. Hastie, the first African American to hold a federal judgeship; Alfred Edgar Smith, the leader of the Works Progress Administration; Eugene Kinckle Jones, who had a position at the Department of Commerce; newspaper publisher Robert Vann; and, prominent among them, the outspoken, tireless mover and shaker Mary McLeod Bethune, celebrated by African Americans as the “First Lady of Our Negro Nation.” The Black Cabinet—never officially acknowledged as such by Roosevelt—came to be knowns as “her boys.” Roosevelt could be ambivalent about advancing the cause of African Americans, fearing to alienate Southern voters, and his administration, Watts reveals, “was often explicitly hostile.” Eleanor Roosevelt, however, “awakened to the brutalities of American racism” through her close friendship with Bethune, became a stalwart supporter of equality and justice for blacks. The Democratic Party saw the advantage of courting black voters once it seemed likely that they would defect from Republicans, which looked to many blacks less like the party of Lincoln than heirs of the old Confederacy. Watts chronicles rivalries, frustrations, and disillusionments among the Black Cabinet but also considerable achievements: a growing voice within the federal government; better New Deal relief for many African Americans; nondiscrimination clauses in Interior Department contracts; and documentation of the impact of racism on the black community. As much as possible, they raised Roosevelt’s awareness of the reality of life for blacks in 1930s and ’40s America. After Roosevelt’s death, his group of black advisers “came to be celebrated as yet another one of FDR’s accomplishments.”
A thoroughly researched history of important black activists.