Finding Place for the Negro
Robert C. Weaver and the Groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement
Spring 2005, Vol. 37, No. 1
By Walter B. Hill, Jr.
As World War II began to intensify in Europe during 1940, the United States, though still neutral, nonetheless began tooling up for war, even though its official entry was nearly two years away.
In June of 1940—the same month the Germans marched into Paris—President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the National Defense Advisory Commission. Its top priority was the equitable employment of all groups of Americans in the rapidly growing defense industries that were producing ships, airplanes, weapons, ammunitions, and supplies for the nation's arsenal.
As the commission began to staff up, Sidney Hillman, head of its Labor Division, turned to a young mid-level Negro staffer in the Department of the Interior. He had made a name for himself in the 1930s, working to ensure that federally funded jobs in the New Deal were available to Negroes, that they would be paid the same as their white counterparts, and that they received the same access to government programs and benefits, such as public housing, that whites were getting.
The staffer was Robert C. Weaver. Decades later, he would become the first African American to be a member of the President's cabinet. But now he was helping to sow the seeds for the historic movements that would lift him into history.
During the war years, Weaver's efforts on behalf of Negroes would focus on the most expansive program in U.S. history: the buildup of the U.S. industrial might needed to win the war against Germany and Japan. His efforts would help shape postwar America and the civil rights movement that would come into its own in the late 1940s through the 1960s.
Born December 29, 1907, in Washington, D.C., to Mortimer and Florence Weaver, Robert Clifton Weaver received his formal education at Dunbar High School. The school possessed a sterling reputation as a leading educator for Negro students in the metropolitan area. Middle-class values and aspirations and contempt for discrimination characterized Weaver's home environment and upbringing. His training at home and at Dunbar prepared him for the rigors of Harvard University, where he completed the degrees of bachelor of science cum laude in 1929, master of arts in 1931, and Ph.D. in economics in 1934.
Weaver returned to Washington in 1933 to enter into the racial politics of the New Deal. His experience during the policy and program formulations of the New Deal prepared him well for the dramatic changes brought on by World War II. Working for Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior (1933–1938), and Nathan Straus, director of the U.S. Housing Authority (1938–1940), as race adviser and special assistant equipped him with the necessary background to become one of the leading theorists on creating nondiscriminatory policy for these federal agencies.
As Weaver prepared to bring his skills and views to defense production, he could draw on seven years of experience in the New Deal, where he not only helped shape policies aimed at providing equity for Negroes in federally funded jobs and the salaries that go with them, but he also learned the intricacies of how government worked, how policy is really made and carried out, and how to make, or at least lay the groundwork for, lasting change in the U.S. Government and American society.
The New Deal and World War II were extraordinary years for African Americans, but not so much because of the discriminatory and segregation practices of the nation and collusion of the federal government. They were extraordinary because of the efforts of a small cadre of white New Deal liberals and Negro leaders within and outside the government who attacked traditions of racial subordination. For it was in the ideas and programs of the New Deal and the momentous events of World War II that Weaver formulated the ideological origins of the modern civil rights movement.
Weaver was clearly positioned as one of the major architects of the racial policies and procedures embedded in government power and action. He targeted housing, education, and employment, becoming a prolific writer and speaker on these topics, while working to improve these structures through his many federal appointments.
Weaver and the New Deal
Entering government service in 1933, Weaver combined a proactive conception of government interacting with the American people, creating economic and social reforms to benefit all, with a quick grasp of the New Deal potential for changing the existing racial structure of American society.
Weaver saw and understood the New Deal as an opportunity to establish needed reforms and knew that there were agencies that could expand the scope and activity of the federal government, particularly those that could benefit Negroes. He also perceived the issues surrounding race if government intervention proceeded, and he focused on how to ensure minority group participation. He recognized early on the need to develop clear and detailed policies and procedures for dealing with fairness and equal opportunity if the new programs were going to reach Negroes. The New Deal afforded Weaver and a host of other well-educated and dedicated Negroes to shape and influence the new terrain of government intervention and race.
It was in the Interior Department that Weaver first focused in on concerns of Negro workers. When the National Recovery Administration (NRA) argued for a regional wage differential, Weaver argued that it was an attempt, particularly by employers in the South, to give Negroes lower wages.
Implicit in the case for lower wages for Negro workers was the idea that they would work for less, had a lower standard of living, and were less efficient than white workers. Weaver rejected this notion and cited studies of the efficiency of Negroes as workers, saying there existed no logical and rational reason for establishing lower wages for Negroes. His campaign drew support from others in government as well as the national Negro leadership and the press. Eventually, the NRA decided not to sanction lower wage and hour standards for Negro workers. Despite this, southern employers used geographical classifications that allowed them to continue the practices of lower wages for Negroes.
Focusing on another New Deal program, the Public Works Administration (PWA), Weaver then looked into whether Negro workers were getting their fair share of PWA jobs. The large government projects were union contracted and existed in "closed shop cities" with rampant discrimination against Negroes. Ickes decided to move on the issue. On September 21, 1933, he sent an order to state engineers of the PWA that called for "no discrimination . . . against any person because of color or religious affiliation." Weaver quickly recognized that the nondiscrimination clause, while helpful, failed to improve the situation. He concluded that to minimize discrimination, there needed to be objective measures.
At Weaver's instigation, PWA contracts for low-cost public housing contained the following clause:
In the employment of labor under the Contract there shall be no discrimination exercised against any person because of color or religious affiliation. For the purpose of determining questions of such discrimination as concerns Negro skilled labor, it is hereby provided that the failure of the Contractor to pay to Negro skilled labor at least 12 per cent of the total amount paid in any one month under the Contract for all skilled labor (irrespective of individual trades) shall be considered prima facie evidence of discrimination by the Contractor against Negro skilled labor. (For the information of the Contractor, the fifteenth census, 1930, showed that 24.4 per cent of skilled laborers employed in the city of Atlanta were Negroes and the above figure of 12 per cent therefore represents merely a minimum percentage limitation to be considered as a matter of evidence only in determining whether the Contractor is guilty of discrimination against the Negro skilled labor under this section.)
Instead of the government having to prove the existence of discrimination, the burden rested on the contractor to show the absence of discrimination. This strategy was also used with some success in contracts involving unskilled Negro labor.
Weaver in World War II
In the summer of 1940, Weaver got a call from Sidney Hillman, head of Labor Division of the National Defense Advisory Commission. President Roosevelt had created the commission in June, and it quickly moved to announce a labor policy in July 1940 that stipulated that no worker should be discriminated against because of age, sex, race, or color. Its Labor Division realized that the integration of Negro workers into defense employment would require federal initiatives and regulatory procedures due to the exclusionary practices of unions and industry.
Hillman called upon Weaver to head a unit in the commission as special administrative assistant on race relations in the Labor Division.
Perhaps the single most critical issue confronting the United States in 1941 was the effective and efficient use of human resource to fight and produce for the war. The Office of Production Management made it known to all defense contractors on April 11, 1941, that "every available source of labor capable of producing defense material must be tapped in the present emergency."
The U.S. Office of Education had earlier in the summer of 1940 initiated a program of defense training and incorporated in its announcement that "in the expenditure of Federal funds, for vocational training for defense there should be no discrimination on account of race, creed or color." This became the standard language put into the legislation for national defense training. Rising discrimination of Negro workers in the training and employment programs and a threatened "March on Washington" pushed the President to issue Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941, which in effect outlawed discrimination based on race in the national defense program.
For Weaver, the war in Europe and the national defense program meant a repositioning of the employment landscape of American society not only for the present emergency but also for the future. He believed that the rising racial tensions had much to do with the changing economic structure and status of the Negro in employment and housing. Despite the persistence of discrimination, he saw Negro workers entering new and higher types of occupations, receiving training and education to perform these new employment opportunities, and pressing the government for wider job opportunities.
Racial tensions and conflicts, he concluded, would persist because "preventive measures" had not been taken to avoid them, and the "long neglected issues in racial relation" would continue. Weaver felt that a federally centered program to target the reduction of racial tensions should begin by improving the situations that forced Negroes to feel disconnected from mainstream American life. Such a program should establish fair employment practices to allow greater and equitable participation of Negroes in the war production program and permit them to serve in the military services on the same terms as their white counterparts. These actions, he believed, would enhance greater loyalty among Negroes, giving them a sense that they were wanted and appreciated by their fellow Americans. Weaver felt as strongly as Hillman and the Office of Production Management did regarding the full utilization of Negro manpower for the war effort.
Weaver's vision of a federal program arose out of his training as an economist and his thoughts on economics, class, and race in American society. Based on his experience, thoughts, and notions of the New Deal programs, he perceived the federal government as the one historic institution able to transform society. He understood the war as having far-reaching possibilities to embed further revolutionizing concepts into American society. Weaver believed economics—fear of job security and competition—to be at the core of racial problems in America.
"The black worker has become a symbol of potential threat to the white worker, and the Negro's occupational advancement is consciously or unconsciously feared," Weaver wrote. "This fear has been bred in the economic realities of America."
For Weaver, this fear of black labor grew "out of the American worker's experience with an economy, which has seldom had enough jobs to absorb the labor supply. In such an economy, its development was an inevitable consequence of a caste system which perpetuated the concept of white men's jobs and black men's jobs; while, at the same time, it was used to secure the support of the white worker for such a system."
Weaver viewed the current resistance to advances in the economic and occupational status of the Negro as a challenge to this "accepted color caste system." In the long run, Weaver believed the war provided the nation a platform to take "rapid strides towards achieving equal economic opportunity for the Negro and to avoid the racial conflicts we have recently seen [the Detroit race riot]." He considered the upgrading and expansion of Negro employment as wartime economic necessities that should bring about institutional reforms for the future. He cleverly argued for maximum war production instead of emphasizing equality. In his view, the full utilization of Negro labor equated to some degree of equality and economic justice for working people in general. He also believed that realizing this goal required "conviction and resolution" on the part of the government.
Serving as Hillman's administrative assistant on racial relations, Weaver's primary responsibility centered on the integration of Negro workers into the training and employment phase of the national defense program. His task loomed large because Negro workers were virtually shut out of the national defense program. In the defense industries alone, where shortage of skilled and semiskilled labor had developed, employers avoided Negro labor, and those hired were relegated to janitorial services. On April 11, 1941, Hillman made Weaver chief of the newly created Negro Employment and Training Branch (NETB) of the Labor Division, expanded his staff, and instructed him to report directly to him.
That same month, committed to the idea of securing job opportunities for Negroes in the defense industries, Weaver approached Channing R. Dooley, director of the Training Within Industry (TWI) Service in the Bureau of Training of the War Manpower Commission. Weaver wanted a closer working relationship with TWI, and the two men met on April 24 to discuss how they could work together. Weaver, who was responsible for coordinating and directing the government's approach to the general problem of Negro participation in defense training and employment, wanted Dooley to appoint someone to work on Negro employment. Weaver outlined specific duties for this person and offered precise responsibilities of his office. He further recommended that a memorandum go to TWI field representatives setting forth guidelines and responsibilities in handling employment problems confronting Negro labor.
Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802 also established the Committee on Fair Employment Practices (FEPC). The committee remained under the auspices of the Office of Production Management (OPM) until July 30, 1942, when it was transferred to the War Manpower Commission. It received and investigated complaints of discrimination against workers in defense industries and took appropriate steps to redress grievances where it found them. The committee recommended to the President and government departments measures to ensure participation of minority groups in the national defense program.
The FEPC worked closely with Weaver's unit as the NETB helped Negro workers participate in the training and employment opportunities of the national defense program. Weaver and the Minority Group Branch, headed by Will Alexander within the Labor Division of OPM, worked jointly to perform primary investigations and make employer contacts on complaints involving Negro workers that had been filed with the FEPC. Weaver's unit attempted to find solutions for complaints filed with them, but if that was not possible, the cases went to the FEPC for further action. Weaver acquired additional responsibilities when he and Alexander were appointed to the Federal Labor Supply Committee, which comprised 12 officials of government agencies.
Weaver wanted to highlight those national defense firms adhering to the nondiscriminatory policy and the efforts of the government to combat discrimination. He corresponded with Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People regarding press releases announcing plans to increase Negro labor at specific companies holding government contracts. When the Michigan Chronicle, a Negro newspaper, reported that the Employment Security Review devoted its July 1942 issue to the problems of minorities in the national defense program, Weaver lauded the staff for publicizing a national issue of importance. He stated to John J. Corson, executive director of the U.S. Employment Service, that more of this kind of publication was needed, and the Negro press would certainly do its part to educate and inform the American public about the problems in the national defense program.
In the fall of 1942, Weaver took great interest in the National Smelting Company in Cleveland, Ohio, when his field representative reported that the company had made significant strides incorporating Negro workers in its training and employment programs. His discussions with the vice president of the firm and union officials revealed what he believed to be a fine joint labor and management committee and a long history of working with Negro labor in the area. Weaver attended labor rallies and promotional events of the company. Weaver felt this company demonstrated that nondiscrimination should be part of all overall good labor relations policy.
Exclusion from defense jobs was more than an employment issue, and Weaver's work as chief of the NETB also drew him into the issue of housing. With the developing war in Europe, the U.S. Housing Authority (USHA) shifted its focus from public housing and slum clearance to housing for national defense workers. The public housing program had become the major opportunity for affordable housing for Negroes, but the government's emphasis on housing war workers meant that they had to become a part of this growing labor source to gain from the housing program.
In early 1942 Eleanor Roosevelt communicated with Weaver regarding the slow pace of integrating Negroes in the national defense program, which affected the allocation of defense housing for them. She asked Weaver to investigate the growing problem, and he reported that two principal issues exacerbated the housing situation for Negroes.
The first had to do with Defense Housing Coordination's policy of restricting housing to only in-migration populations, and the second concerned the difficulty in securing available sites for Negro occupancy after housing priorities had been established for defense housing units.
"The crux of the problem seems always to be the fact that even if Negroes are employed, the local reserve of colored labor will be sufficient and no immediate in-migration will be required," Weaver wrote. "Because there is no immediate in-migration, the Office of Defense Housing Coordination has rejected priority application for USHA-aided projects."
Weaver contended that this policy had serious consequences for Negro citizens. Although there was a housing shortage for Negroes, in many locales in-migration of white workers continued to absorb what little housing existed and precluded any extension of Negro areas.
"The failure to replace housing units which have been depleted as a result of demolition incident to the United States Housing Authority projects, makes it extremely difficult for Negroes to move into defense areas when employment opportunities are opened to them in such centers," he said.
Weaver surmised that the failure to provide defense housing units had become a justification to avoid employing Negroes and restricting in-migration to white workers. He concluded that the federal government had to address the problems of securing priorities to construct housing projects for Negro defense workers in the South and securing sites for the construction of such projects in the North and South.
Weaver suggested a conference with Mrs. Roosevelt and other housing and race relations officials to discuss these issues. Prior to the meeting, Weaver and those officials had crafted a statement regarding 55 USHA projects for Negro occupancy that had been held up by the Division of Defense Housing Coordination. Shortly after the January 20, 1942, meeting, Mrs. Roosevelt requested James M. Landis of the Office of Civilian Defense to appeal to the Office of Production Management to complete work on the 55 projects. She made it clear that something must be done because the morale of the Negro population would continue to deteriorate and this, she believed, was detrimental to the war effort.
Weaver served as chief of the Minority Groups Service in the War Manpower Commission in the last two years of his wartime federal service (1942–1944). He continued to work in the area of war housing programs with an emphasis on Negro war workers—housing, training, and employment. Weaver routinely conferred with the National Housing Agency (NHA) on matters of housing Negroes, providing information and opinions relative to the demand for Negro war workers in certain areas around the nation. NHA depended on Weaver's office whenever it encountered resistance and opposition to the establishment of housing facilities for Negroes.
The FEPC also relied on Weaver's expertise and his staff to provide background materials relative to employment issues for Negroes. Other government agencies concerned with gathering information and promoting programs affecting the war effort also called upon Weaver's office for data on Negroes' participation in the war industries and housing programs. In many cases, his office set up and developed their racial policies and programs. In his work with other government offices, Weaver concentrated on positioning his office with the two principal government entities that influenced his work—the War Manpower Commission and the FEPC.
The FEPC heard cases and investigated complaints of discrimination and was also responsible for recommending ways to eliminate discrimination in training and hiring in war production industries. The War Manpower Commission was created to assure the most effective mobilization and utilization of the nation's manpower for war. Weaver wanted to ensure that the new agreement between the two commissions adhered to the principles of Executive Order 9346, which stated that government contractors should not discriminate in hiring.
He recognized that Negroes, although progressing, continued to lag behind in employment statistics. Weaver reported that at the beginning of 1942, they constituted roughly 3 percent of the labor force in plants relative to the war effort. The figures rose by September 1942 to 5.7 percent, by January 1943 to 6.4 percent, and by March 1943 to 6.7 percent. They began to fare better in industries such as shipbuilding and aircraft, despite registering between 4 and 5 percent employment figures in the two industries by the summer of 1943. In January 1944, Weaver had witnessed a steady increase from a virtual shutout to employment and occupational progress.
"As compared to the situation in 1940, the status of Negro employment in the spring of 1943 represents a significant absolute and relative improvement," he said. "On the other hand, the free acceptance and full use of Negro labor were far from being achieved."
Weaver understood that while a dent had made, his vision of full and fair employment would probably require a lifetime of work. He saw the war as opening new dimensions to the American industrial and manufacturing complex, and many questions remained as to the place of the Negro in postwar America.
"Current employment patterns indicate that the pressing future problems will be the acceptance of colored women in industrial employment and the upgrading of the Negro workers," he said. "Economic necessity alone will occasion rapid expansion in the use of Negroes. This will mean more diversified occupational and industrial employment of colored men and women."
* * *
On May 1, 1944, Weaver resigned from federal service. He had come to Washington in 1933 to work for a government and a secretary of the interior who were seeking to change the fabric of government services to the American people through some rather radical and idealistic means.
This is where Weaver must be understood. He became a part of a new and different school of thinking about solutions for America, and in particular the Negro. Young, intelligent, brimming with fresh ideas, and part of the growing well-educated Negro middle class, Weaver epitomized the new Negro intelligentsia emerging in the interwar period (1920–1941). Weaver, like some of his contemporaries, viewed issues of race through the economic structure of American society—a structure that had created a diversified class structure making education and training critical components for Negroes. In an era when "separate but equal" legally ruled and white supremacy was an unwritten ethic, Robert C. Weaver argued that the problems Negroes confronted were economically and politically grounded and coated with traditional historical patterns and beliefs about race. Negroes were not considered an integral part of the national body politic but instead were treated as a group apart.
"So generally accepted has been this approach to the racial problem that many otherwise liberal-minded persons have failed to see the essential paradox of a program ostensibly intended for all the people but which excludes the Negro or makes 'special' provisions for him," Weaver said.
Certainly paradox lay within Weaver's logic because he had to emphasize places for the Negro to be included in the body politic. Even so, he believed that having racial advisers and race relation policy in government were "valid in that it emphasized the importance of keeping race problems in the proper perspective and as a normal consideration of the administrative setup."
In this respect, Weaver viewed problems beyond the matter of race and desired to integrate the special problems of Negroes within the larger issues facing the nation, and this did not mean the establishment of "special treatment of minorities." For Weaver, it meant the expansion and protection of civil rights. He saw low wages, lack of housing, substandard housing, long work hours, unemployment, poor education, and health care not as unique to Negroes but as universal issues for all Americans. He also understood that traditional patterns and thought had attached elements of race to these common problems and influenced leaders to search for racial solutions.
The New Deal and World War II created the environment for a man with a purpose regarding race and class. As Weaver watched the transformation of democracy, capital, and labor, he believed that in the interest of Negroes, he and the other new generation of educated and professional Negroes should design and guide public policy to be inclusive for all Americans. Weaver understood he was in the intersection of race, class, economic change, and social science. As the United States entered a new postwar era, the government, Negroes, and the nation were ripe for a revolution in civil rights. Weaver was a part of the generation that laid the foundation for the ideological debate and discourse that would occur between 1945 and 1965.
His career in the federal government began with the New Deal in 1933 as a "racial adviser" and concluded as the first black member of a President's cabinet (under Lyndon B. Johnson). After leaving federal service in 1944, he returned in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy appointed him to head the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA). Under his leadership, the functions of HHFA and three major housing agencies were combined into one single organization—Housing and Urban Development—and subsequently made a cabinet-level post with Weaver as the first secretary of Housing and Urban Development, serving from 1966 to 1968. After leaving government for a second time, he was president of Bernard Baruch College and professor of urban affairs at Hunter College in New York. He died in 1997.
Note on Sources
This article is dedicated to the American scholar and icon, Dr. John Hope Franklin, a contemporary and fellow Harvard University colleague of Robert C. Weaver's. Dr. Franklin said Weaver was one of the smartest students he met while at Harvard.
Records in the National Archives relating to Robert C. Weaver's federal activities during the New Deal and World War II are found in several record groups. Below is a list of the major series consulted for this article.
Record Group 9, Records of the National Recovery Administration, General Files Unit, Classified General Files, 1933–1935, File Number 581; and Robert C. Weaver, "A Wage Differential Based on Race," transcript, n.d., in Records of the Division of Review, Records of the Tobacco Unit, May–December, 1934–1935, File: Southern Differential—Negro Labor. This article was later published in Crisis, August 1934, pp. 236–239; see also his "The Negro Worker and the NRA," Crisis, September 1934, pp. 262–263, 279.
Record Group 40, General Records of the Department of Commerce, General Correspondence of the Office of the Secretary, 1903–1950, File Number 88449.
Record Group 44, Records of the Office of Government Reports, Records of the Division of Applications and Information, Summaries of WPA and PWA Projects, 1935, contains a breakdown of employment figures for both races.
Record Group 48, General Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior, Central Classified Files, 1907–1936, File Number 1-280, Part 2, Racial Discrimination, 9/17/35 to 12/21/36.
Record Group 171, Records of the Office of Civilian Defense, General Correspondence, June 1940–May 1942, file: 280, Negroes in Defense, box 90 (for Eleanor Roosevelt's correspondence with Weaver and James Landis in January 1942).
Record Group 183, Records of the Office of Employment Security, Records of Lawrence A. Oxley, Correspondence with Other Government Agencies, 1933–1937, File: Robert C. Weaver.
Record Group 196, Records of the Public Housing Administration, Records of the Intergroup Relations Branch, 1936–1963, File: Correspondence Regarding History of Public Housing for Negroes, box 1. See especially the report, "Employment of Negro Construction Labor on Public Housing Projects."
Record Group 211, Records of the War Manpower Commission, Records of the Bureau of Training, Records of the Training Within Industry Service, General Records, 1940–1945, File: Minority Groups, box 10; and Records of the Reports and Analysis Service, Records of the Historical Analysis Section, Subject—Classified General Records, 1940–1946, 1B4H.
The Schomberg Center Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library holds the Robert Clifton Weaver Papers (Additions), 1930–1987. The collection's oral history interviews with Weaver give insight into his own assessment of his work.
Walter B. Hill, Jr., is a senior archivist and subject area specialist in Afro-American history with the National Archives and Records Administration. He would like to thank Heather McRae, Eleanor Roosevelt High School intern, and Maryellen Trautman, librarian and document specialist with NARA, for their wonderful assistance in the research stage of this project.