Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era

Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era

Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era

Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era


In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration-unwilling to antagonize a powerful southern congressional bloc-refused to endorse legislation that openly sought to improve political, economic, and social conditions for African Americans. Instead, as historian Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff shows, the administration recognized and celebrated African Americans by offering federal support to notable black intellectuals, celebrities, and artists.

Sklaroff illustrates how programs within the Federal Arts Projects and several war agencies gave voice to African Americans such as Lena Horne, Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, and Richard Wright, as well as lesser-known figures. She argues that these New Deal programs represent a key moment in the history of American race relations, as the cultural arena provided black men and women with unique employment opportunities and new outlets for political expression. Equally important, she contends that these cultural programs were not merely an attempt to appease a black constituency but were also part of the New Deal's larger goal of promoting a multiracial nation. Yet, while federal projects ushered in creativity and unprecedented possibilities, they were subject to censorship, bigotry, and political machinations.

With numerous illustrations, Black Culture and the New Deal offers a fresh perspective on the New Deal's racial progressivism and provides a new framework for understanding black culture and politics in the Roosevelt era.


Four years after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt remembered her frustrations when racial issues, such as the antilynching bill and the abolition of the poll tax, reached her husband’s desk. “Although Franklin was in favor of both measures, they never became ‘must’ legislation. When I would protest, he would simply say: ‘First things come first, and I can’t alienate certain votes I need for measures that are more important at the moment by pushing any measure that would entail a fight.’” A powerful southern congressional bloc influenced the executive treatment of race relations during the Depression and World War II. To the chagrin of many civil rights leaders, the support of this southern contingency always outweighed the administration’s commitment to endorsing measures that would explicitly improve political, economic, and social conditions for black Americans.

Still, the federal government did not completely ignore civil rights in this politically explosive atmosphere. One important method that the Roosevelt administration employed to acknowledge African Americans and to involve them in the president’s “New Deal” was through federally sponsored cultural programs. Initially conceived under the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Arts Project (FAP) and then continued under wartime agencies such as the Office of War Information (OWI) and the War Department, fine art and media-based programs represented an important strand of civil rights policy during the Roosevelt era. Through the publications of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), the plays of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), the endorsement of black celebrities such as Joe Louis, and the production of wartime films and radio shows, liberal administrators demonstrated a sustained commitment to addressing the . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.