Franklin Roosevelt kept my father a Republican

By Dr. Harold A. Black

When Roosevelt first ran for president most blacks were Republicans. This is not surprising given that the Democrats were opposed to abolishing slavery, resisted Reconstruction, and instituted the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens Council and Jim Crow laws. Roosevelt, serving as Woodrow Wilson’s undersecretary of the Navy, helped resegregate the military. He received only 20 percent of the black vote in 1932 in his first presidential election. All that changed by the time he ran for reelection in 1936 when he got 71 percent of the black vote.

What happened to cause the massive shift in black votes? Note that these were mostly northern blacks because southern blacks, in the main, were denied the right to vote. In the South, if blacks were not explicitly denied by law the vote, they were denied de facto. My mother said that in Jones County, Georgia, blacks could always register to vote. Her father would take blacks in his wagon to register (as Republicans) at the country courthouse. However, on election day blacks were not allowed to cast their ballots inside the courthouse. Rather, there was a ballot box outside guarded by a white deputy (there were no black deputies in those days). Mother said they put their ballots in the box but had no idea if the votes were ever counted. Moreover, there was a literacy requirement.

When I first registered to vote at age 18 the white clerk took my application and had me read a section of the U.S. Constitution and then asked me to interpret it! She scarcely paid attention to what I was saying and registered me (as a Republican). However, in the same year in Augusta, GA, a professor at Paine College (the local HBCU) was denied registration because the white high school educated clerk did not like his interpretation of the passage from the Constitution. But by this time, even most southern blacks were registered Democrats despite being in the same party as virulent racists.

Roosevelt had converted blacks to Democrats by paying lip service to blacks and using his wife Eleanor as an ambassador. He established a “Negro Cabinet” composed of leading blacks of the day and a few of the blacks in his administration. Eleanor Roosevelt was close friends with Mary McLeod Bethune the founder and president of Bethune-Cookman University. Bethune actively campaigned for Roosevelt in 1936 and argued that many of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs would help blacks devastated by the Great Depression. So while Roosevelt was projecting an image of caring, the Republicans did little to counter. In reality, Roosevelt resisted efforts by the Negro Cabinet for significant change in the legal status of blacks and in integration lest he alienate his racist southern base. He never invited Jesse Owens and black Olympians to the White House after their triumph in the Berlin Olympics. He kept the military segregated. But most of all, the housing policies of the agencies in his administration actively caused black homeownership to fall.

The two Federal agencies chartered in the 1930s were instrumental in promoting racism in housing. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLCC) was established in 1933 to refinance home mortgages that were in default. The HOLC made maps of neighborhoods and color-coded them according to risk. The most risky neighborhoods were colored red leading to the term redlining. However, the HOLC made loans in these areas which were in many cases black neighborhoods. This was in contrast to the actions of the FHA which as a matter of course denied Federal insurance guarantees to black borrowers. In fact, the FHA targeted black borrowers as well as black neighborhoods when denying guarantees. While the HOLC concentrated on existing housing, the FHA focused on new housing. The denial of loan guarantees therefore affected the growth in new homeownership and had an adverse impact on new black homeownership.

When my father attempted to purchase his first home in 1938 in Madison, GA, the FHA denied him a loan guarantee. Although both my parents had college degrees and were well known in the community (Mother taught second grade and Dad was the principal at the all-black elementary school), they were forced to rent rather than purchase their home. As a result, Dad detested Roosevelt and would never register as a Democrat.