Racism in the Nation's Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson's America

By Arnesen, Eric | The Journal of Southern History, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Racism in the Nation's Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson's America


Arnesen, Eric, The Journal of Southern History


Racism in the Nation's Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson's America. By Eric S. Yellin. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. [xiv], 301. $39.95, ISBN 978-14696-0720-7.)

The federal government's effort to segregate its offices and workplaces in Washington, D.C., during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson is a fairly well recognized chapter in American political history. What is less well known is precisely how and why segregation came to the nation's capital, and how it affected the lives of African American government employees. Eric S. Yellin explores these questions in his excellent new book on the racial transformation of the federal government's workplaces during the Progressive era, a momentous process that ushered in a racial regime that "remained a model for managerial white supremacy until the 1960s" (p. 206).

Long after Reconstruction's demise, Washington remained an "unusually promising city" for blacks, particularly ambitious men (and to a much lesser extent black women) with education and skill (p. 38). Through the early twentieth century the city avoided the extreme segregation and racial violence sweeping southern states, boasted excellent black schools, and offered significant cultural opportunities for its black residents. Federal jobs open to black applicants made a real difference, offering a firm economic foundation for the city's black community. By 1907, 11 percent of the city's federal workforce--some 2,785 people--were African Americans. If most labored in lower-paid, unpleasant, and difficult jobs, hundreds worked in better-paid positions as clerks, scientists, technicians, and the like. "For all the hardship" they experienced, Yellin concludes, "Washington was the best place in the United States for African Americans seeking economic security" (p. 35). With positions secured through political patronage or civil service exams, they found in federal employment a modicum of respect and a significant degree of upward mobility.

That was not to last, however. Even before Wilson's election in 1912, the William H. Taft administration's "declining enthusiasm for black patronage" reflected its "drastically narrowed view of the government's obligation to African Americans," resulting in fewer jobs (p. 66). Despite the support of a small but significant number of black voters, the new Democratic Wilson administration proved downright hostile to black aspirations. …

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