The Black Cabinet is a history of the informal group of Black federal employees who worked within FDR’s New Deal agencies in order to influence them to help Black Americans. They helped ensure that Black people were hired by New Deal jobs programs like the WPA and the CCC. This history also tracks the history of the Black vote shifting from the party of Lincoln to the party of Roosevelt.

The Black Cabinet in 1938

Republicans took the Black vote for granted, believing they were still owed for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation sixty years after it happened. However, Black people were devastated by the Depression and the GOP philosophy of limited government made it worse. With FDR, they saw a belief in an activist, involved government. Wisely, they reasoned that a government willing to regulate business to protect workers could become willing to regulate in order to protect civil rights while a party that believed in keeping its hands off could never come around to using the law to guarantee the rights of Black people.

With amazing details such as how a manicurist made the initial personal connection that led to Black leaders agreeing to support the Democratic Party, a party deeply associated with slavery and the Klan. They believed by helping Democrats win, they could influence policy and their gamble paid off, though not nearly so well as they hoped.

The Black Cabinet is fascinating, full of the small personal details that make history so engrossing. It also shows the throughline of civil rights activism throughout the 20th century. Fans of FDR will probably be disappointed. He is so often a distant figure, one who is most consistent in reluctance to lead on civil rights when he was focused on the Depression and World War II. Eleanor is far more active and has a much bigger role in this history. It is definitely a history of two steps forward and one step back – as is the history of Black liberation.

I would recommend The Black Cabinet to anyone interested in the history of civil rights and Black liberation. The New Deal played a huge part in building the middle class and middle class wealth such as housing equity and more. The New Deal did far less for Black people, creating a wealth gap that continues to this day. But imagine if the New Deal had gone forward without the tempering influence of The Black Cabinet.

I received an e-galley of The Black Cabinet from the publisher through Edelweiss.