The Federal Government and Negro Workers Under
President Woodrow Wilson
Editor’s Note: This lengthy paper describes a period of American social welfare history not often cited. It reflects another step in the evolution of the civil rights movement and a graphic description of some of the political and governmental obstacles the African-American community faced in becoming an integral part of American society.
By Judson MacLaury, U.S. Department of Labor Historian
Paper Delivered at Annual Meeting, Society for History in the Federal Government
Washington, D.C., March 16, 2000
On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia following the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and World War I began. This conflict “over there” set in motion a chain of events that would have profound consequences at home for the American Negro* workforce and people, and for the federal government in relation to them. The first consequence was that the flow of European immigrants, the main source of additional labor fueling America’s burgeoning industrial economy, was reduced from a torrent to a trickle. In 1914 more than 1.2 million came; in 1915 only 327,000 entered the country. European armies soaked up conscription age workers and many immigrants returned to their homelands from the United States. At the same time, European demand for U.S. agricultural and industrial products soared as belligerents struggled to meet wartime needs. U.S. labor was now in reduced supply and enhanced demand. A new source of labor was needed if production was ever to meet Europe’s requirements.
The one relatively untapped source of domestic labor at that time was the Negro population, spread out largely in the rural South. This able but under used and socially repressed minority was more than ready to respond to the new conditions, and respond they did in massive numbers. More than half a million Negroes migrated north to fill the workforce needs of the wartime economy and gradually brought families to fill growing urban ghettoes. This northward and also westward flow continued for more than half a century and resulted in large Negro populations ensconced in the nation’s cities. The Great Migration of World War I changed the lives of the migrants and of both the regions they came into and those from which they departed. The nation as a whole, not just one section, and the Negro now were both squarely faced with the social, economic and moral problem of how this group was to find good jobs and fair treatment in a modern industrial society. The federal government for the first time came into regular engagement with Negro workers and began to play an important role in relation to the labor side of the so called “Negro problem.”
The government was not, however, a passive bystander reacting to the migration but actually played a significant, if unintentional, role in promoting it. The groundwork for the particular mechanism through which this worked was laid years before in a very different context. Under the 1907 Immigration Act, a primitive employment service known as the Division of Information was established in the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization to help immigrants find jobs and to distribute them across the country. After the transfer of the Bureau into the Department of Labor upon its creation in 1913, the Division of Information was given a broader mission when a depression due to disruption of trade at the outset of World War I threw more than 3 million Americans out of work. Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson sought to solve this unemployment problem by expanding the Division into a nationwide network of distribution offices and giving it a new mission as the U.S. Employment Service (not to be confused with the office created by law in 1933). Bureau of Immigration staff oversaw the work in the local offices. A key element was the use of the postal system as a communications network. Every Post Office in the country prominently displayed a notice advising employers and workers of the new program. Interested parties were invited to fill out forms and turn them in to the postmaster who sent them to distribution branches where staff matched job seekers with job offers on a nationwide basis. As matches were made, the USES notified matched employers and workers. To help job candidates who lacked the means to take a long journey to the new job, the USES arranged to have employers advance one way railroad tickets to the workers.
As the USES extended its reach deeper into the labor market and demand for labor in the industrial North swelled, it inevitably came into contact with Negro job seekers in the South. No doubt the notices in post offices got their attention, and many were attracted by the provision of travel advances. In 1916, 7,352 Negroes turned in blanks at the post offices, and 7.1 percent of these were placed in jobs. While these numbers seem small, they indicate that the Department of Labor had became a factor in the Great Migration. In its Annual Report for 1917, the Department acknowledged that “[s]ome of the Negro migration northward had been through agencies of the U.S. Employment Service.” Negro sociologist Charles Johnson went even further when he wrote in 1930: “Quite unwittingly the [department], through its practice of assisting in the movement of labor to acute points of demand, was giving the first impetus to the Negro migration.”
The placing of Negroes through the distribution program drew the attention of employers in the South. In June 1916 southern members of Congress complained to the department that railroads and other northern corporations were stimulating a Negro exodus to the detriment of farmer constituents who were worried about losing cheap, docile Negro workers. In response, and not at all to its credit, the department withdrew its assistance to groups who wanted to migrate while continuing to serve individuals regardless of race.
The Labor Department’s engagement with the nation’s Negroes developed in the context of an Administration that was at best unsympathetic to their rights and needs. The White House of Woodrow Wilson and the Executive branch were filled with conservative Southern Democrats, a group that also dominated Congress. Washington was resistant to meeting the rising expectations of the Negro community and workforce.
During the 1912 presidential campaign Wilson, a progressive Southern Democrat, had encouraged Negro support with vague promises to be “President of the whole nation” and to provide Negroes with “absolute fair dealing.” He specifically promised that he would at least match past Republican appointments of Negroes to patronage positions. The NAACP endorsed Wilson and Negro groups worked vigorously for his election. Wilson’s victory was mainly attributable to the Taft-Roosevelt split and the Negro vote was not decisive. Yet Negroes were proud of their involvement in the campaign and, heartened by the idealism of Wilson’s inaugural address, looked forward to turning vague campaign promises into concrete advances for working Negroes and the whole race.
Hard political, social and racial realities lurked to counter this hopefulness once the inaugural euphoria dissipated. Wilson, despite his campaign promises of racial fairness, remained a man of the South and shared the paternalistic if benevolent racism of the men and women of his patrician class. Wilson also needed the support of Southern Democrats with strongly anti-Negro views if his ambitious program of progressive economic reform was to be enacted. This was his over-riding goal and, as historian Kendrick Clements wrote, “Wilson’s attitude was always that there were more important issues to be pursued than racial justice.”
Anti-Negro forces soon held the upper hand in Washington and Jim Crow began to hold sway. Negro patronage declined markedly from the low, token levels of previous Administrations. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan broke a precedent of many years by appointing a white as ambassador to Haiti. Wilson himself appointed only two Negroes in his first two years in office while allowing a total of 12 positions filled by Negroes appointed by President Taft to lapse into white hands.
Patronage had an important but largely symbolic value to the Negro community, whereas the government’s treatment of its own Negro workers had a direct impact. At a Cabinet meeting early in the Administration, Southern members expressed disingenuous concern over alleged friction between Negro and white government employees. Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, a Texan, proposed segregating the races to eliminate the supposed problem. Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo supported him. Burleson also claimed support for the idea from moderate Negro leaders such as Bishop Alexander Walters, president of the National Colored Democratic League. The rest of the Cabinet, along with the President, while not explicitly endorsing segregation, did not oppose it.
Some departments adopted the policy with a vengeance. Burleson immediately set out on a program to segregate, downgrade and, in some cases, discharge Negro workers. All of them but one were transferred to the dead letter office, and the Negro who remained had the humiliating experience of being surrounded by screens so that white workers would not have to look at him. Burleson also ordered segregated window service to the public. Fortunately segregation was not widely adopted elsewhere in the federal government. Many departments either failed to institute the practice or actively resisted it. Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis F. Post was a founder of the NAACP and his department was another that remained relatively free of the taint of Jim Crow.
By the end of 1913 the segregationist wave broke after coming up against a wall of resistance from the Negro community. In August 1913 the NAACP filed a formal protest against the practice. By late September the campaign against segregation was in full swing and the Negro press was filled with it. Wilson finally agreed to receive a delegation from the National Independent Equal Rights League which presented a petition signed by 20,000 opponents of segregation and discrimination. Wilson was evasive but cordial at the meeting and after that, while segregation remained entrenched in a few departments, the growth of the practice was largely halted by the end of 1913.
The agonizing and enduring problem of lynching was another flashpoint of White House-Negro relations. The NAACP pursued an unsuccessful campaign for a federal law against the practice. Finally in August 1918, with the U.S. at war with Germany, Wilson finally spoke out against lynching and mob-violence, emphasizing that it played into the hands of German propagandists. Wilson did not mention the Negro race and did not push for federal legislation against lynching, which mounted ever higher.
Wilson’s call to end domestic violence in order to further national unity was emblematic of a war driven shift in federal policy toward Negroes. With the U.S. declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, Negro support and Negro labor were now crucial to both the civilian and the military war efforts. Wilson and his Cabinet began to rebuild ties to the Negro community that had been damaged by his toleration of Jim Crow in the government. Negro leaders buried the hatchet and quickly rallied in support of the national war emergency.
It was in the military that wartime issues involving Negroes first arose. The Selective Service Act of 1917 allowed, but did not guarantee, the induction of Negro conscripts by local draft boards, but the U.S. Army was permitted to continue its tradition of segregated Negro units. Under pressure from the NAACP, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker allowed the training of Negro officers at a new, if segregated, facility. After a conference with Negro educators and others in August 1917, Baker agreed to the creation of a new all-Negro combat division, the famous Ninety-Second, which broke existing bars to service by Negroes in combat duty.
In October 1917 Secretary Baker created a Special Assistant post to deal with Negro issues in the military. As head he named Emmett Scott, a long time associate of Booker T. Washington. At the time there was only one other federal office dedicated to Negro affairs, the obscure Division of Racial Groups in the Bureau of Education. Several other federal agencies followed the lead of the War Department, including the Food and Drug Administration, the White House Committee on Public Information, and the Federal Railroad Administration. The latter, which took over the nation’s railway system during the war, required payment of equal wages to whites and Negroes doing the same work.
A program to mobilize Negro workers and deal with their issues during the Great War was created in the War Labor Administration under Secretary of Labor Wilson. Known as the Division of Negro Economics, it established a national program to maintain Negro workers’ morale and promote better race relations. The Division originated after Negro leaders began to call for government involvement in their issues. In January 1918 the National Urban League, long involved in issues of the migration and concerned that the exodus was about to intensify, held a conference which called for “one or two competent negroes [sic]” to be appointed in the Department of Labor to assist in the distribution of Negro labor.
Following up on the resolution, a group of Negro leaders presented a more detailed proposal to Louis Post on Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1918. He recommended their idea to Wilson and argued that “there is an absolute necessity that the Department of Labor come into comprehensive and comprehending relations with … the Negro race.” With his scribbled “Approved Feby. 16 -18, WBW,” Wilson officially endorsed a policy of engagement with the Negro from which the federal government occasionally strays but which it has never repealed.
It was no surprise when Secretary Wilson created the position of Director of Negro Economics to advise him “in all matters affecting Negroes.” He selected George Haynes, the educational secretary of the Urban League and a Negro, for this historic position, effective May 1, 1918. Haynes was already a pioneer for his race. Born of a domestic servant in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1880, he managed to go to college and graduated from Fisk University. After several years divided between graduate studies in sociology and working in the YMCA to support his mother and sister, he enrolled at Columbia University and in 1912 became the first Negro to receive a Ph.D. there. Haynes believed that Negroes and whites needed to apply social work techniques in order to ease racial friction and promote the adjustment of Negroes to urban life. To that end he helped found the National Urban League in New York City while teaching at Fisk.
Secretary Wilson met with Haynes on his first day in office and charged him with a mandate to advise him “on matters relating to Negro wage-earners” and direct programs promoting cooperation between Negroes and whites in the workplace. Haynes, Post and Wilson developed a three part program to realize this goal: 1) organizing inter-racial committees of Negro and whites from local bodies to promote mutual understanding and deal with problems of discrimination; 2) mounting a national publicity campaign to promote racial harmony and cooperation with the Department’s war effort; 3) developing a competent staff of Negro professionals to operate the Division.
The agency’s program centered around the state level, concentrating on the regions most involved in the migration: the South, the Northeast and the Middle West. Haynes developed a broad, national program and, assisted by a corps of state Supervisors of Negro Economics whom he appointed, set the stage for grass roots action in the states. This went forward primarily by means of multiracial Negro Workers’ Advisory Committees. The Division and the Supervisors complemented the work of the Negro committees with their own mobilization and antidiscrimination efforts, in turn supplemented by other federal agencies.
Appointing a staff was an important issue for Haynes and he took great pains both in implementing it and in explaining his actions. Since he was creating an all Negro organization he felt a special responsibility in making appointments. Mindful of “serious doubt about the expert efficiency of Negroes in official positions,” he made sure that staff were well trained and fully experienced in their specialties. He later praised the staff and, looking at the broader context of Negroes functioning in a white world, wrote: “Their services as a part of this experiment in the Federal Government’s relation to Negro wage earners has [sic] been a contribution to the experience with Negroes.”
Haynes embarked on a ten-day tour in early June 1918 to meet with white and Negro representatives in the principal cities of eight Southern states where the problems of Negro workers were particularly urgent. He targeted North Carolina as the starting point for the federal-state program. Shortly after he visited Raleigh, NC, the governor held a conference of white and Negro leaders which quickly set up a system of state and local Negro Workers’ Advisory Committees. The pioneering North Carolina system became the model for other Southern states. Mississippi, Florida and Virginia soon held conferences and organized their own Negro Committees.
Attention then turned to the North. Haynes selected Ohio, as a major employer of Negro migrants, to lead the way. Jointly with Governor James M. Cox (who became the 1920 Democratic nominee for President), Haynes called a state conference. Cox assured an enthusiastic Negro audience that “We … need your people and need them badly in the war … [and] in the industrial life of this country.” Ohio immediately set up a program similar to that in North Carolina and served as an example to the Northern states.
By the Armistice in November 1918, only half a year after Haynes’ appointment, most large states East of the Mississippi had Negro labor programs. A total of 11 states had formal Negro committees, buttressed by 225 local committees with a membership of over 1,000. Their work included investigating conditions of Negro workers, educating Negroes and whites on the need for good race relations, helping in job placements, alleviating discrimination and race friction, and developing recommendations for federal action.
The state Supervisors of Negro Economics assisted the Negro committees and associated groups and also worked directly with employers and others to reduce discrimination, place Negroes in defense jobs, and improve Negro morale and productivity. The supervisors were more productive in the Northern States than in the South where the Negro committee system handled the bulk of the work. Like the states, the Supervisors engaged in a wide range of activities but had to be very selective since they were operating with little or no staff. One of the most effective supervisors was Charles Hall in Ohio. Working both with the USES, which had national responsibility for placing workers in war production industries, and directly with Negro workers, Hall made sure that they could find where work was available, what the pay and hours were, and what the attitude of the surrounding white communities was toward them. The last point was a key concern because whites feared, usually unjustifiably, that the arrival of Negro workers meant strike breaking and union busting.
Once the state programs were set in motion and Supervisors deployed, the main wartime role for the Division in Washington was to watchdog local efforts and proselytize for maximum Negro war labor production and racial harmony. The proselytizing was done both directly through speeches and talks by George Haynes and his staff, and indirectly through press releases published widely in both the white press and the rapidly expanding Negro press. The public relations blitz also included distribution of prepared speeches and articles used by speakers and magazines around the country. For example, on July 4, 1918, an estimated 2,000 orators declaimed a speech on “Labor and Victory” promoting the Negro’s role in the “world struggle for democracy.” Haynes estimated that these messages reached at least one million Negroes each month.
After the Armistice the Division continued its mission of racial harmony. In this era of revolutions abroad and Red Scares and race riots at home, Haynes and his program responded in various ways to the sometimes frightening social landscape of post war America. Wartime rumors of German propaganda efforts among Negroes gave way to peacetime concerns about similar attempts by those branded as “Reds.” While the federal-local coalition’s efforts to help Negro workers escaped smear and attack in most areas, the Florida program ran into rough waters because of whites’ fears of radicalism engendered by the circulation of several leftist journals. This tainted the efforts of the Negro Committees and the Division in the minds of many employers, who associated welfare efforts among Negroes with Bolshevism. While Secretary Wilson did not agree with such unreasoning criticism, he decided to suspend the Division’s work in Florida until the critics realized that it posed no threat to them. While the Florida critics saw the program as a problem, George Haynes saw it as a solution in need of greater support. For example, in Ohio migrants were often badly housed, isolated into urban ghettoes, and made unwelcome by resident whites. Lacking strong leadership, they were, in Haynes’ opinion, “a very ripe field for critical developments of unrest, friction and disturbances” and were the object of various efforts seeking “to arouse the Negro group to radical action.” He insisted, “I do not see … how we can help the situation” unless he could hire more Negro field assistants.
The work of the Division and the state and local activities which it spawned during and after World War I generated hope and enthusiasm among Negroes throughout the nation and among those who sympathized with their cause. Charles Hall reported that Negroes in Ohio “watched with increasing interest” the Division’s activities on their behalf and developed an appreciation of government at all levels. Ohio Negroes felt that “the Government has recognized them industrially, that they now have a medium through which to voice their complaints, and that … they will be less subject to exploitation.” An investment banker from Memphis wrote to Secretary Wilson praising George Haynes and expressing the hope that Haynes would continue the Division’s work.
Unfortunately for the fortunes of the Negro population and the agency dedicated to helping them in the workplace, the hot summer of 1919 was one of bloody racial confrontation as whites and Negroes returned from the services seeking scarce jobs in an unsettled social and economic environment. From Omaha to Chicago to Washington, D.C., and many cities in between, anti-Negro riots broke out. The timing was bad for the Division as the Department was seeking funding for it in the new fiscal year beginning on July 1, 1919. Haynes remained hopeful of success for his Division since “everyone who has looked into it commends the work as valuable and necessary.” However, a Congress dominated by southern Democrats had different ideas. On a spurious procedural point, an unknown legislator excluded the Division, along with two other wartime agencies, from the appropriations bill. In the enacted legislation the other two bodies were restored their funds, but the Division was left virtually penniless. It disappeared altogether when the Harding Administration took office in March 1921 and showed no interest in its activities.
Even when he knew the Division was doomed, Haynes was undeterred. He sent Secretary Wilson an ambitious proposal for a national effort by the Department of Labor to thoroughly investigate the working and living conditions of the Negro workforce and seek improvements in their lot. Haynes’ vision of a major government program to help the nation’s working Negroes was not to be realized for many years. Nevertheless, the Division of Negro Economics was a true trailblazer for substantial federal programs to benefit this long neglected class of Americans.
* The term “Negro” is adopted throughout this paper to refer to the racial group now known as African Americans. “Negro” was the most widely used term in scholarly and journalistic publications during the Wilson era and for many years afterwards. It appears to have been a neutral word, used objectively by speakers and writers of all races. In the author’s judgment the word adds historical authenticity to research on this time period; conversely, terms such as “black” or “African American,” while logically appropriate, would be less authentic in this context. The distinguished African American historian John Hope Franklin wrote of this chronological dilemma in his preface to the Seventh Edition (1994) to his book From Slavery to Freedom. He noted that during the lifetime of the book, originally published in 1947, the racial group in question had three different preferred names and pointed out that the terms could be expected to change in the future. Cautioning that “we must take care not to impose recent designations on persons of an earlier period,” he explained that he “made every attempt to use terms that seem consonant with the period under question.” While Prof. Franklin provides an important precedent, the author takes sole responsibility for applying it and welcomes any comments from readers on the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the use of the term “Negro” in his paper.
Source: U.S. Department of Labor, History Section
(Accessed: May 6, 2020)