Content Frame
Skip Breadcrumb Navigation
Home  arrow Student Resources  arrow Chapter 15: The New Politics of the Great Depression  arrow First Person Documents  arrow The Negro Worker in the 1930s

The Negro Worker in the 1930s

The fullest contemporary description of economic conditions confronting the Afro-American people during the depression was the book The Negro and Economic Reconstruction, by T. Arnold Hill, who had been executive secretary of the Chicago Urban League and at this time was director, Department of Industrial Relations of the National Urban League. This work was part of a series edited by Alain Locke; it is of some interest that originally Locke asked Dr. Du Bois to write on this subject for the series. Du Bois did produce a study of "The Negro and the New Deal" but Locke rejected it-after paying Du Bois for his work. Du Bois' manuscript will soon be rescued from the unpublished condition to which its quite critical tone then consigned it.

Whether the plight of Negro workers began three centuries ago, or whether it is of more recent origin, the fact is that the Negro remains the most insecure man in a program planned for the protection and utilization of the millions of workers neglected and exploited in the broil between men and money. In latter years the traditional job insecurity has been intensified by pressure from conditions of comparatively recent beginning.

No group suffered more severe devastation in the depression period than did the workers in agriculture and household employment-the two major classifications in which Negroes predominate. Government reports teem with evidence of unemployment and dire want throughout the agricultural regions of the country. The number of workers in the domestic service classification who found themselves on relief during the whole period of unemployment, was greatly out of proportion to the rest of the workers.

The effect of unemployment upon these groups as revealed in a study of "Six Rural Problem Areas" was summarized in a Government release which included the following quotations:

Approximately half of the heads of relief families in this area in June 1934, had usually been tenant farmers, sharecroppers or farm laborers. This area had the highest proportion of totally unemployed on rural relief of any problem area reflecting the great extent to which farmers had lost their land. About 70 percent of all relief family heads were unemployed. The other 30 percent were employed, but earning too little to live on their jobs or farming.


About 19 percent of the whites and about 38 percent of Negroes were regarded as incapable of self-support in any occupation.


Negroes got less relief than whites, and much less chance at work relief. While 35 percent of the whites had work relief only, but 18 percent of the Negroes had work relief only.


The white families received an average of $13 a month relief, and the Negroes received an average of $7, the lowest of any area except the Western cotton.

That the pressure among household employees worked havoc among the domestic and personal service employees is also proved from numerous Federal Government figures, from which the following are extracted: Of one and a half million Negro workers in domestic and personal service, more than 275,000 of them were on relief in March 1935. Included among these were 125,000 servants in private families, 42,000 laundresses outside of laundries, 15,000 porters, and 17,000 cleaners and charwomen.

The second factor which steered Negro workers into an unfavorable position, came from the impact of skilled workers who moved down into unskilled fields as is customary during periods of business dislocation. Skilled workers, better paid in normal times, are willing in a crisis to accept semi-skilled or even unskilled jobs rather than give up entirely. Some 82 percent of all employed workers receiving urban relief in 1934 were working at jobs below their usual occupational level. Fully 90 percent of Negro workers in industry fall into the marginal or unskilled class. This accounts for the terrific amount of unemployment among Negroes in cities; which, as is commonly known, is out of proportion to their actual numbers in the population.

From a list of selected cities which follows, it is clear that the percent of Negroes among employable on relief in 1935 was greatly in excess of the ratio of Negroes to the total population:

City Percent Negro in total population: 1930 Percent Negro among employable on relief: 1935
Atlanta, Ga. 33.4 65.7
Birmingham, Ala. 38.2 63.3
Charlotte, N.C. 30.4 75.2
Cincinnati, O. 10.6 43.5
Kansas City, Mo. 9.6 37.2
New York, N.Y. 4.7 11.2
Norfolk, Va. 33.9 81.3
St. Louis, Mo. 11.4 41.5
Wilmington, Del. 11.3 43.9

By January 1935, these conditions had culminated in one-fourth of the total Negro population being on relief as compared with 15.5 percent of whites and other races on relief.

A report of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration indicates that:

An analysis of twenty-three states, each having a total Negro population of 100,000 or more in 1930, revealed that the largest urban proportion occurred in Missouri, New Jersey, and Ohio, each having approximately four times as great a percentage of Negroes as of whites on urban relief rolls.

Altogether, while Negroes comprised one-tenth of the total population of the United States, they have comprised an average of approximately one-sixth of the relief population.

The results of the pressure of whites upon Negro workers are seen not only in the high percentage of the latter on relief, but in the loss of status in types of employment in which large numbers have heretofore been engaged. There was actual supplanting of Negroes in bulk on particular jobs or in particular factories where they were employed as household employees, bellmen, waiters, elevator operators, railroad track laborers, diggers of ditches, drivers of wagons and carts. Evidence of the replacement of Negroes in these accustomed fields is everywhere so noticeable that specific instances do not have to be mentioned.

So continuous has been this substitution of whites for Negroes that it has caused many leaders to proclaim that conditions are worse for Negroes than they have been at any time since 1860. It has baffled educational authorities, who, knowing that the public is not yet willing to accept Negroes in all fields, and realizing that business houses are switching from Negroes to whites, are wondering which fields students should prepare themselves to enter.

The impact of this rivalry for status has intensified racial friction at the point of greatest irritation-trade unionism. Negroes have vehemently criticized the American Federation of Labor because it has refused to intervene against the discrimination of its nationals and internationals. The A. F. of L. has retorted in the language it has always employed, namely, that is not opposed to Negro membership, but cannot compel its autonomous bodies to follow the edict of democratic action it has set for itself. In 1918 the A. F. of L. was memorialized by a group representing the National Urban League. At frequent intervals since, this same organization, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have constantly called the attention of the A. F. of L. to flagrant abuses on the part of various nationals and locals. Numerous resolutions have been presented on the floor of recent Conventions by Negro labor leaders.

But the A. F. of L. continues to refuse Negro members, unmoved by the certainty that poorly-paid, unorganized Negro labor will ultimately depress the wages of white organized workers. Flagrant abuses against the workers of the nation, though nullified during the depression, were not sufficient to instill realism in a movement which needs the unification of all workers to secure decent guarantees and recognition as a bargaining unit.

The plight of the Negro employed in the railroad industry is a tragic illustration of union hypocrisy. Of the 162,630 Negroes employed on railroads, all except porters, maintenance of way workers and certain shop employees are excluded from membership in those unions that are the bargaining agencies for railroad employees, known as the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen. The problems faced by Negroes in this field have been summarized by one authority:

The non-inclusion of or discrimination against Negroes as practiced by the four transportation brotherhoods, several of the shop crafts, and the telegraphers and the maintenance of way employees;

The prejudicial contracts between railroads and certain unions that limit and tend to reduce the number of Negro employees;

The resorting to physical violence (and other unfair tactics) as methods of reducing the number of Negroes employed as trainmen and switchmen on certain roads.

The result of deliberate discrimination of railroad brotherhoods against Negro employees in their contractual relations with carriers is well illustrated by the extent those contracts "negotiated during the last few years have prevented Negroes from regaining the place which they held on Southern roads before War industries attracted so many of them to more remunerative jobs. The Southern Railroad, where the firing force was 80 percent black before the War now employs but 10 percent colored firemen on its central division. On the Atlantic Coast Line the percentage has been reduced from 90 to 80. On the Seaboard Air Line the ratio has fallen from 90 to 50 percent, and the Brotherhood has recently been seeking a contract to reduce it to 40 percent. On the Shreveport division of the Illinois Central, where white firemen worked on a fifty-fifty basis, the Brotherhood has also been seeking a contract confining blacks to 40 percent of the jobs."

The following excerpt, taken from a 1927 agreement between the Atlanta Joint Terminals and its firemen and hostler helpers, illustrates how union strategy has been used to reduce Negro trainmen:

White firemen will be given preference over Negro firemen in filling all jobs when the following changes in conditions of work are made:

A change of 30 minutes or more in the starting time of a job.

Filling vacancies.

Creation of new jobs.

Violence has been resorted to as a means of eliminating Negroes from employment in transportation. In 1932 a reign of terror, a revival of similar tactics used in 1919 and 1920, resulted in the murder of seven Negro trainmen and in injury to more than ten others in the employ of the Illinois Central Railroad. In addition, others have been falsely accused of violating rules and regulations and discharged after prejudiced trials. The "Big Four" Railroad Brotherhoods have been attempting to lobby a "full crew" bill through Congress, which, if passed, will hasten the elimination of Negroes from positions as trainmen. The bill calls for a full crew on a train, to consist of a front end brakeman, a flag man, conductor, engineer and fireman. Most of the 2,743 Negroes who do the tasks of a front-end brakeman are classified as porters and thus eliminated from union protection.

The organization of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids is the one advanced step in unionism among Negroes. It came after continuous and persistent activity extending over a period of twelve years. Before union recognition was granted, the minimum wage paid porters was never higher than $77.50 per month. Hours averaged from 400 to 600 a month, and overtime, if and when granted, began after a porter had traveled 11,000 miles during the month. Each porter was expected to report four hours before train time each trip without pay, to prepare his car for service.

Under the direction of A. Philip Randolph as president, the Brotherhood grew to that point where the Pullman Company was forced to recognize the right of the union to bargain collectively for porters and maids. The contract as recently signed grants a 240-hour month, time and one-half for overtime, a minimum wage of $89.50 a month for the first year with progressive increases to $100.50, and abolition of the company union known as the Pullman Porters and Maids Protective Association. Over 8,000 porters and maids benefited by a wage increase of $1,152,000 for 1937.

There are several other important efforts now under way to meet the problems of Negroes employed by railroads. A newcomer to this field is the Association of Railway Employees, an industrial union which is trying to serve Negro shopmen, brakemen, switchmen and firemen by challenging the legality of contracts that discriminate against those not party to the contract. Another is the International Brotherhood of Red Caps, formed in 1937, which has been successful in completing negotiations in several large cities for improved wages and hours for station employees. Dining car waiters and cooks have several organizations and numerous contracts giving them better wages and shorter hours. They are now attempting to merge with other transportation units for a solid national front in this field. The newly organized Transport Workers' Union, an industrial union affiliated with the Committee for Industrial Organization, includes a number of Negro workers. Its strength is now limited to electric railways and buses. The International Brotherhood of Firemen and Oilers, an American Federation of Labor affiliate, is now admitting Negro railroad employees, though the organization is not basically a transportation union.

The one bright star in an otherwise dark union firmament, is the democratic policy of the Committee for Industrial Organization. In the unions of workers in the manufacture of steel, automobiles and garments, Negro membership is large. They are also members of the unions for electrical, transport, laundry and food workers. In the professional unions such as those for clerks, social workers, and newspaper employees, Negroes are also to be found. The C.I.O. is unique among existing American labor movements, not only in its philosophy, but in its policy of equality for all workers, Negro as well as white.

How did the various Governmental agencies relieve the unemployment pressure among Negroes? The Recovery agencies were helpful in ameliorating the suffering of the total population, irrespective of race, color, or religion. When assistance involved direct relief, housing, commodities, or camping, it reached a larger proportion of Negro families than when it involved work relief. As to administrative positions, whether in Washington or in local areas, there was not the slightest approach to a fair balance between Negroes and whites. Clerks, investigators, interviewers, intake workers and supervisors were employed throughout the country in relief and W.P.A. offices, though each category was not everywhere represented. There were wide variations between Negroes and whites in the size of relief grants, the number of workers on projects and salaries paid staff members.

The regular or normal departments of the Federal Government, varied little from the established practices of racial discrimination which in one form or another have long permeated the Washington scene. Recently established permanent bureaus, continuing the pattern of racial segregation, have followed the precedent of equality in service but discrimination in employment.

Local units of government responsible for administration in their areas, are blamed by Washington for unfair racial practices, but they have been much more liberal in according professional and white collar opportunities than has the Federal Government itself. In succeeding paragraphs an attempt has been made to summarize briefly the relationship of the Negro to the emergency program.

The National Recovery Administration (N.R.A.), which acted on Codes presented by the employer group, permitted wage differentials to be so devised as to force Negro workers into a separate orbit by the payment of wages to them lower than those paid whites for comparable classes of employment. While the discharges of Negroes from customary occupations preceded the introduction of the N.R.A., it is a fact that as wages were raised by virtue of the N.R.A., employers dismissed their Negro workers in order to pay the higher wage to whites. This cannot be charged against the intent of the law as drafted, but it does raise the question as to whether or not the N.R.A. proved of benefit or of harm to Negroes engaged in unprotected occupations in the South. Further, it raises the question as to the efficacy of a measure which does not provide for effective standardized administration of the provisions contained therein. This is not true of the Wagner Labor Relations Act, for under it workers may not be dismissed because of their labor union affiliation. Had it been possible under the N.R.A. to prevent the dismissal of workers when the Codes forced a higher wage, the N.R.A. would not have played into the hands of prejudicial racial sentiment.

Similarly grants under the Agricultural Adjustment Act (A.A.A.), intended for Negro farmers, were often dissipated and misappropriated. The large farm owners took advantage of illiterate sharecroppers and tenant farmers, whose checks in most instances were paid direct to the owner or manager of the plantation, who in turn was never too careful that the proceeds reached the hands of the dependent farmers. It was the dishonesty of the plantation managers and farm owners, practiced against both white and Negro farm workers, and encouraged by the administrative procedures of the A.A.A., that was the occasion for the organization of unions among the sharecroppers in the South. The original regulations have been so changed that crop payments must be made directly into the hands of the farm workers; but rural relief, as administered by the Federal and local units of Government, still makes an unfavorable difference in relief grants as between Negroes and whites.

Not even relief as formerly administered by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (F.E.R.A.), and later in the shape of jobs, as administered by the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.), has been free from numerous inequalities. Relief in kind-food allowances, clothing, commodity surpluses and the like-approximated fairness in many communities, particularly in the North; but work relief has been unequal in the clerical and white collar positions, even when it was reasonably adequate for unskilled workers. Skilled workers have also had little opportunity, and objection to Negroes working in certain places while on W.P.A. was never too forcefully met. Several special national projects and many local ones provided employment to professional and white collar Negroes in a wide range of occupations. In the South, figures published by the various relief organizations prove conclusively that separate budget allowances for Negroes resulted in much smaller grants for them than for other people.

A program of major significance to the employment and housing of Negroes has been the slum clearance and low-cost housing activities conducted under the Public Works Administration (P.W.A.). Housing congestion has been somewhat relieved in Indianapolis, Atlanta, Cleveland, New York, and a number of other cities as a result of this program. Out of a total of 47 units, 26 will be used fully or partially by Negroes. Projects in which Negroes are to live will be staffed in whole or in part with Negro personnel, and are of fireproof or semi-fireproof construction. They will be furnished with modern electrical and gas appliances, and will have facilities for recreation and health.

Under the Public Works Administration, contracts drawn for housing construction stipulated that the proportion of Negroes in skilled trades in a given city in 1930 should serve as the basis for their employment. A Negro staff in the Housing Division, combined, along with other duties, the responsibility of checking and enforcing this regulation.

The National Youth Administration (N.Y.A.), has come the nearest to meeting adequately the relief situation among Negro youth, with a staff of assistants at the head of a Negro Department. There are State and local supervisors in the districts in which large numbers of Negroes live, and N.Y.A. educational and work grants have been widely distributed among Negro people eligible for such support.

Since it began in 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.), has made progress in its treatment of Negroes, although its policy of segregation is, of course, to be condemned. And, too, its methods of recruiting have been criticized in various sections of the country. The C.C.C. now employs Negro Educational Advisers, and other staff members in Negro camps, but there is still a shortage of technical employees. The colored work is supervised by a Negro who is a member of the Director's staff.

Throughout the whole process of Government subsidy, as illustrated especially by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (H.O.L.C.), the Federal Housing Administration (F.H.A.), the Tennessee Valley Authority (T.V.A.), there was either gross neglect of the claims of Negroes, or assignment to jobs within certain limited categories; although the Farm Security Administration (and its predecessor the Resettlement Administration) has shown a fairly liberal attitude in its employment of technicians and professional workers, and the program has likewise benefited Negroes. To a limited degree, architects, draftsmen and research specialists have been employed in several other Recovery bureaus.

Segregation or complete exclusion is a fixity in the older departments such as the government Printing Office, the Army, and the Navy. Clerks and stenographers, when they qualify for positions in Government service, have been refused appointments when their racial identity became known.

Discrimination has been carried over into the administration of the Federal Civil Service. It is flagrantly apparent in the administration of the Social Security Board. Despite the fact that good grades were made by Negroes in recent examinations given by the Civil Service Commission, there probably is no full-time paid employee of the Social Security Board at its national headquarters, above the status of messenger, and only a handful in some 336 Regional and Field offices, save for a group of less than two hundred housed in Baltimore.

It should be mentioned that certain departments recognized the dilemma of Negroes and attempted to make adjustment through Negro Advisers, or assistants, whose business it was to check complaints and restrict unfair practices as much as possible. Among the Recovery bureaus that adopted such a practice were the W.P.A., the Department of Interior in conjunction with the P.W.A., the N.Y.A., the A.A.A., the Farm Credit Administration, the C.C.C., and the Farm Security Administration. Among the regular branches of the Government were the Departments of Commerce, Justice and Labor, the Bureau of the Census, and the Office of Education. Up to the limit of their power, these officials have been helpful in receiving, reporting and adjusting complaints.

When it is remembered that Negroes form 11 per cent of the total working population, it should have been possible for the Department of Labor to place more people at work in the various Bureaus of its large office. The other Departments would appear equally culpable, except for the fact that the Department of Labor is committed by statute to improving conditions among working people. It does make studies of Negro workers, and knows all the conditions of their employment and unemployment; yet it fails to touch the problem at its most vital point, namely, offering them an equal chance for employment and thus setting an example for others. There is a Negro Assistant in the United States Employment Service who has several workers on his staff; but there is no one in the women's Bureau, no one on the regular staff of the Children's Bureau, no one in the Conciliation Service, nor in the important Bureaus of Labor Statistics and Labor Standards. When Negroes have passed merit examinations given for the State Employment Services, the Department of Labor contends that it is without power to secure their appointments; despite the fact that the Federal Government contributes 50 percent of the funds when State Services have qualified by meeting the standards set by the Department of Labor.

The final answer to the effectiveness of Government support to Negroes during the depression is that while they were not neglected, they were also not helped in proportion to the degree of unemployment that existed among them. Prejudice was beaten back frequently, and flagrant abuses were often corrected, but there was no recognition of the magnitude of the problem and no unified comprehensive plan made to remove or adjust unfair racial practices. A Negro's chance of securing a position as bureau chief, division head, auditor, accountant, stenographer or clerk, has improved but little, and as a result the total number of colored employees in the Washington offices, aside from postal employees, messengers and elevator operators, is negligible.

A hurried glance at huge Government staffs in Washington-so large in many instances that buildings outside of the business area have to be rented to house them-will convince the most skeptical that the Federal Government, the largest employer of labor in the country, draws the color line against Negroes as effectively as do private corporations. How successful can Government officials be in increasing employment opportunities for Negroes in private industry, when their own policies result in such definite discriminatory practices?

Small wonder, therefore, that the relief figures in Washington, D.C., show a greater disparity as between whites and Negroes than in any place in the country. In 1933, out of a population of 132,068, 28,850 Negroes were on relief, or 21.8 percent of the total; whereas only 8,591 whites out of a total of 353,914, or 2.4 percent were unemployed.

Negro workers are insecure and will remain insecure as long as individuals in positions to change habits and morals remain adamant and afraid. Private industry and Government employment are both in the hands of persons to whom democracy is a shibboleth and not a course of action. All important Federal officials have had their attention called repeatedly to discrimination against Negroes. Some defied it-still others shifted it-and some went reasonably far, considering the depths of restriction existing beforehand-but none entirely removed it.

With 24 percent of the total Negro population on relief, private industry (according to a special study in six selected cities), absorbed Negroes from relief rolls only one-half as frequently as it did whites, although Negroes went on relief to a degree twice as great as whites.

A public assistance program relieving at the point of greatest stress and need; a Government serving its citizens justly and mercifully; a labor union movement endeavoring to protect the interests of the masses; business men eager to increase consumer purchases-each has a part to play in righting a social system so grossly uneconomic. Bad as the Negro's economic plight is, individually considered, it is even more grave and significant as a symptom of general unbalance and maladjustment.

From T. Arnold Hill, The Negro and Economic Reconstruction (Washington, DC: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1937), Bronze Booklet Number 5, pp. 50-66.

Pearson Copyright © 1995 - 2010 Pearson Education . All rights reserved. Pearson Longman is an imprint of Pearson .
Legal Notice | Privacy Policy | Permissions

Return to the Top of this Page