The Negro in the New Deal Resettlement Program, Author Donald Holley

The Negro in the New Deal Resettlement Program, Author Donald Holley

The Negro in the New Deal Resettlement Program

Author: Donald Holley

To Negro Americans, Franklin D. Roosevelt symbolized justice and equality. More than any previous president, Roosevelt showed compassion for blacks and other minority groups outside the mainstream of American life. “These unhappy times,” he said in April 1932, “call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten…that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”1 After his election, Roosevelt brought to Washington people who had a genuine concern about improving conditions among blacks. Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes was a former president of the Chicago chapter of the NAACP. Rexford G. Tugwell and Will W. Alexander both spokesmen for the disadvantaged farmer, and relief administrator Harry L. Hopkins all gained reputations for promoting welfare of minorities. Eleanor Roosevelt was perhaps the most outspoken figure in the New Deal on the subject of Negro rights. Roosevelt himself was hardly a civil rights activist; his actual commitments to Negro Americans were small. Still, for the first time, federal social legislation under the New Deal dug deeply enough to reach a large segment of the nation’s black population.2

Negro sharecroppers, tenants, and migrant workers had long been the chronic victims of rural distress. For a generation, large numbers of black farmers had been leaving the rural South to seek better jobs in Northern cities. But in 1930 the majority of all Negro Americans still lived in the South. Almost two thirds of them relied on agriculture for a livelihood; and most worked in the region’s cotton economy, an industry already suffering from overpopulation, soil exhaustion, the boll weevil, and a decline in America’s share of world markets. The Southern states contained 1,393,000 black owners, managers, tenants, croppers, and wage laborers. Over 77 percent of all black farm workers did not own their own land.

Although white tenants outnumbered blacks almost two to one, a large proportion of Negroes occupied the lowest tenure levels. Two out of every three Negro farmers were either sharecroppers or day laborers, the most marginal groups in southern agriculture. Negro sharecroppers and farm workers had the lowest income of any labor group, many earning less than $100 in cash during the entire year of 1932. They had little chance of moving up the agricultural ladder toward ownership.3

The depression made their plight even worse. By 1933, the entire cotton tenancy system of the South was on the verge of collapse. Landlords and merchants could no longer give tenants credit. Rural overpopulation became more acute than ever. Since Negroes were more dependent than whites on the staple crop economy, the burden of low cotton prices and a mounting cotton surplus fell heaviest on the black population. The breakdown of cotton tenancy threatened to expel thousands of black farmers from the land. Now they had nowhere else to turn. Even the cities had momentarily stopped providing jobs to absorb large numbers of rural migrants.4

At first, the New Deal hurt rather than helped Negro farmers. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration, a cornerstone of the early New Deal, reflected the interests of large farmers who still owned their own land. Tenants, white or black, had no place on the AAA county committees which supervised the program locally, nor did AAA cotton contracts adequately safeguard their interests. The cotton plow-up and acreage reduction programs revitalized the South’s plantation economy, while worsening the position of tenants and sharecroppers. As southern landowners accepted benefit payments for taking acreage out of production, many of them cheated tenants and croppers out of their share of the money and evicted thousands whose labor was no longer needed. Between 1930 and 1940, the impact of the AAA, along with worldwide changes in agriculture, uprooted 200,000 Negro owners, tenants, and croppers. By contrast, the number of white farm operators remained almost constant. Most Negro sharecroppers slipped to the status of wage laborer; others became homeless migrants.5 But once the South’s tenancy problem broke into the headlines, the New Deal moved in the opposite direction from the AAA with a program which boosted farm production and made farm tenure more secure for small operators. The rural resettlement or community program was the most controversial New Deal experiment in helping the little man in the farming business.

Roosevelt had long dreamed of turning poverty-stricken sharecroppers and farm tenants into independent, self supporting farmers, each on his own homestead. As President, he had a chance to put his ideas into action. The Division of Subsistence Homesteads of the Department of the Interior was the first New Deal agency to resettle low-income families on subsistence plots. Soon afterward, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, under Harry Hopkins, launched its own community projects as part of a rural rehabilitation program. More importantly, the Resettlement Administration, created in 1935, not only absorbed the old subsistence homesteads and FERA rural rehabilitation projects, but also initiated a whole new series of communities located mostly in the South. Two years later, operating under authority granted in the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act, the Farm Security Administration replaced the RA, inherited its organization and most of its personnel, and completed the resettlement program. The latter two agencies left one of the best records in the New Deal for providing equitable treatment for Negroes.6

The early New Deal resettlement program drew inspiration from the back-to-the-land movement, a bit romanticism that captured the popular imagination in the early depression. After the stock market crash, many Americans despaired of life in the city and began to talk nostalgically of the land and of substinence farming. A few people sought escape into a pastoral utopia where they could get away from the materialism of industrial society; but, for most, substinence farming was a means of temporary relief. The ideological origins of the back-to-the-landers also went back to nineteenth-century communities like Brook Farm and New Harmony. Negro Americans had little history of communitarianism, but they had been the subject of many resettlement and colonization schemes. A few Negro leaders ironically shared the nostalgia about farm life that attracted white agrarians-ironical in view of what Negroes had suffered on the land and how desperately many had sought to get away to the city.7

The head of Subsistence Homesteads, M.L. Wilson, was anxious to see Negroes participate in the community program. Yet when more than two hundred Negroes applied for the first project at Arthurdale, West Virginia, project manager Bushrod Grimes refused to consider them, announcing that Arthurdale was open only to “native white stock.” Subsistence Homesteads officials later decided that no project should bar anyone on account of race, but they always based family selection on the “sociological pattern of the (local) community…keeping in mind the success of the project.” This requirement in effect meant segregated homesteads.8

Wilson and his successor, Charles E. Pynchon, did make plans for several all-black projects. Bruce Melvin, the head of a special section on Negroes, Mexicans and Indians, worked closely with members of the black community in selecting project sites. In all, Wilson and Pynchon considered thirty Negro subsistence homesteads and approved fifteen: but by early 1935 not one of these projects was under construction. The protests of white citizens killed plans for Negro projects at Dayton, Ohio, and Indianapolis. In March, Pynchon resolved not to construct any more white homestead projects until Negroes made up at least ten percent of all homesteaders; roughly the proportion of blacks in the total population. But only the Negro project on which Pynchon ever began construction was Aberdeen Gardens, a rural-industrial homestead on the outskirts of Newport News, Virginia. Even here, the Peninsula Association of Commerce and other local citizens petitioned to have Aberdeen Gardens turned over to white families. Resettlement officials, who soon took over the project, refused them, but did leave a belt of woodland around the perimeter, isolating the homes from view. A Negro engineer, C.V. Smith, and a black WPA work crew had sole responsibility for construction work. The community manager, William R. Walker, Jr., was also a Negro. Eventually, the project consisted of 158 two-story brick veneer homes, a community center, and a school. Each family had a small tract of land where they raised much of their own food, while earning their cash income in local shipyards. When the project officially opened in November 1936, Aberdeen Gardens became the New Deal’s first completed Negro community.”9

The FERA, though less self-conscious about Negro rights than the Division of Subsistence Homesteads, provided more assistance for black farmers. The FERA’s Division of Rural Rehabilitation and Stranded Populations, under Lawrence Westbrook, made emergency loans and grants to needy farm families, but stressed long-term rehabilitation as the best kind of relief for farmers.10. Westbrook initiated a series of rural communities designed to take farmers off relief and put them back on farms full-time. Negroes took part in five FERA rehabilitation projects, beginning with the Tillery projects at Roanoke, in Halifax County, North Carolina. The state rural rehabilitation corporation, the FERA’s action arm at the local level, bought about 10,000 acres of farm land, broke it up into 200 individual farm units, and got as far as building about forty of the houses. When the Resettlement Administration inherited Tillery, Rexford Tugwell combined it with Halifax Farms, a white project a few miles away, and together they made up Roanoke Farms. As finally completed, the Roanoke project contained two sections; one, at Halifax, was for 145 white families and the other, at Tillery, for 149 Negro families. Each family lived in a four, five or six room home, completely furnished, with indoor plumbing and electricity. The homesteaders also had a barn, poultry house, smokehouse, and tobacco barn. There were separate community buildings for recreational purposes.11

The FERA also included Negroes in its plans for “infiltration” projects, a type of resettlement with individual farm units scattered in ones and twos or in small clusters throughout several counties, rather than grouped together to form a separate community. The individual farmsteads were scarcely identifiable from other small farms. Alabama Scattered Farms was an all-Negro project for about thirty families. Three others - Coffee Farms in Alabama, Arkansas Central Valley Farms, and Florida Scattered Farms - included both races, with a combined black population of about sixty families.12. But neither the FERA nor the Division of Subsistence Homesteads lasted long enough to finish more than a fraction of its plans. By early 1935 the New Deal had accomplished little toward relieving the distress of landless, poverty stricken farmers.

On 30 April, President Roosevelt signed an executive order which brought together all New Deal rural poverty programs into a new, independent agency. Tugwell, the new Resettlement Administrator, had served as Assistant Secretary in the Department of Agriculture and then as Undersecretary of Agriculture. To his critics, he was the archetypal New Deal liberal - disdainful, professorial, anti-business, maybe even a “red.” Tugwell was primarily known for his commitment to conservation and economic planning, not Negro rights; but he did make plans for bringing black farmers fully into resettlement work.13. Most important, he picked as his Deputy Administrator Will Alexander, a veteran crusader for Negro rights.

Alexander always thought in terms of people. For twenty five years, he had headed the Commission on Interracial Cooperation at Atlanta, an agency working for justice and harmony in Southern race relations. He was also founder and first president of Dillard University in New Orleans. After 1934 he became interested in the relationship of rural poverty, farm tenancy, and race. In 1935 Alexander, along with Charles S. Johnson, a Fisk University sociologist, and Edwin R. Embree of the Rosenwald Fund, co-authored a small, hard hitting book entitled The Collapse of CottonTenancy, which predicted an early doom for the entire farm tenancy system. As Tugwell’s successor and first head of the Farm Security Administration, Will Alexander did more than any other one man to insure the Negro farmer, his share of New Deal benefits.14

Tugwell and Alexander brought new enthusiasm to a faltering resettlement program. They planned a simultaneous attack on the erosion of both natural resources and Human Resources. The Resettlement Administration took submarginal land out of cultivation, resettled farm families on better land, and gave them a chance for a decent living. Tugwell himself favored the suburban or Greenbelt towns like Aberdeen Gardens, but he also approved thirty farm communities and infiltration projects for low income farmers.15

The Farm Security Administration was eventually responsible for more than 150 rural resettlement projects, almost all of them inherited from predecessor agencies. In racial terms, Tugwell developed three types of projects: those for whites only, those for Negroes only, and those which included both white and Negro families. But like Subsistence Homesteads and the FERA, he never challenged the Jim Crow system. There were nine all-Negro projects. Every Deep South cotton state had at least one; two states had more. In Alabama, Gee’s Bend was located near Camden, and Prairie Farms was almost halfway between Montgomery and Tuskegee. Arkansas had three Negro projects: Desha Farms, in Desha and Drew Counties; Lakeview, a farm community near Helena; and Townes Farms, near West Memphis. The others were Flint River Farms, near Montezuma, Georgia; Mounds Farms, near Tallulah, Louisiana; Mileston Farms,near Mileston, Mississippi; Allendale Farms in Allendale County, South Carolina; and Sabine Farms, near Marshall, Texas. Besides these, Negroes shared in twenty-six predominately white projects throughout the South.16. Since every resettlement project went through similar stages of development, what the RA and FSA did at one project illustrates what they did elsewhere.

About twenty miles south of Selma, the Alabama River makes a wide, horseshoe turn, forming an isolated area known as Gee’s Bend. Before the Civil War the Pettway plantation had occupied this fertile river bottom land. But when the depression struck in 1929 Gee’s Bend was a rundown farm community of about one hundred and fifteen Negro families barely able to eke out an existence. These families, the descendants of the Pettway slaves, had lived to themselves for generations. They actually formed a clan, with their own social mores and superstitions. Although isolated, they could not escape the effect of five-cent cotton. After the current owner died in 1931, they not only lost their last source of “furnish”; they lost almost everything they owned when his estate went into probate - the year’s crop, livestock, farm equipment, even household goods. Only their weather-beaten shacks remained. The entire community faced the winter without necessities of life; they had to scavenge in the woods for food and fuel. The Red Cross helped them keep alive; and the men later worked on state road projects. The Alabama Rural Rehabilitation Corporation also supplied temporary relief. Finally, in 1936, the Resettlement Administration took over Gee’s Bend.17

First, the RA and then the FSA helped them get back on their feet. “We gave the Pettway Negroes steers and seeds and some fertilizer, and they made a crop,” Alexander later recalled. “We got a few cows and pigs and chickens back to their farms. They did so well that the next year we helped them get their mules back. We finally decided to see what would happen if they got their land back,”18. The regional office at Montgomery invested months of preparation in Gee’s Bend before developing it as a resettlement project. Farm Security officials never selected any location for resettlement, Negro or white, without first obtaining the support of local community leaders. Every landowner adjoining Gee’s Bend had to request the project. The Camden board of aldermen, the sheriff, and the other local officials had to make a personal appeal. The FSA hardly wanted to place any group of families in hostile environment. The white community at Camden posed no objection; Gee’s Bend had aways been a Negro settlement, and it was relatively isolated from its neighbors anyway. In 1936 and 1937 the Resettlement Administration went ahead with the purchase of the Pettway tract and two adjacent plantations, paying $121,920 for 10,161 acres of land.19

In September 1937 the project manager, W.A. Cammack, started breaking up the land into individual farms; building new homesteads, and selecting families to occupy them. Most of the Gee’s Bend families easily qualified as resettlement clients. They were low-income people with farming experience. They already possessed a strong sense of community.

They wanted to help themselves, but could not get credit on reasonable terms from other federal or private lending agencies. The regional family selection staff approved ninety-seven of the families, leaving out approximately fifteen elderly couples. As construction progressed over the next three years, one family after another moved into a new house, wood-frame structures with two and three bedrooms, living room, kitchen, and dining room. The homestead units also included a barn, smokehouse, poultry house, sanitary privy, a well, and a three or four acre garden plot. The dwelling, furniture, outbuildings, livestock, and about eighty acres of land all cost about $3,000. The Gee’s Bend families occupied the units on lease-and-purchase contracts; after a five year period, they entered into a sales contract with the government for purchasing their farmsteads over 40 years at three percent interest.20. Regional officials organized the project families into the Gee’s Bend Cooperative Association, a legal device which enabled them to finance and operate a gin; general merchandise store, blacksmith shop, grist mill, and heavy equipment service. The association also cooperatively marketed the cotton grown at Gee’s Bend. A medical cooperative retained the services of two local physicians and a public health nurse. Finally, the FSA built a community center and a school. By 1940, when construction came to an end, Gee’s Bend was a revitalized farm community of about seven hundred people.21

The FSA assigned a white man to Gee’s Bend as community manager, but Negroes played a large role in project administration. Gee’s Bend had a black farm supervisor, home management supervisor, and secretary. Robert Pierce was the principal of the school; and the cooperative association hired two Negroes, Ike Dumas and a clerk, to manage the store. Miss Annie Shamburg worked as a full time nurse for the medical association. One of the patriarchs at Gee’s Bend, Little Pettway, served as chairman of the board of the cooperative association.22

The community staff was responsible for the project’s operations on a day-to-day basis. Working with the Wilcox County FSA office, the farm supervisor gave the client families the benefit of the best technical advice. Together each farmer and the supervisor worked out a detailed farm plan - what crops to plant, how much acreage to devote to each, what livestock to keep, and what garden crops to raise. The farm plan contained provision for a cash income and enabled the farmer to pay for his farm. At Gee’s Bend, the principal cash crop was cotton, but the clients also marketed corn, cattle and later, peanuts. In addition, residents followed a live-at-home program of home management. Practicing self sufficient farming, they supplied most of their own food, especially milk, poultry, and pork. The project’s home demonstration agent worked with the wives in planning a budget for household expenses. The key to the home management program was the pressure cooker; the women learned how to can fruits and vegetables they raised in their gardens, thereby insuring a balanced diet for their families during the winter months.23

The FSA revolutionized life at “The Bend.” Although some of the older people found it difficult to adjust, Gee’s Bend proved to be a successful projects. When it went into liquidation in 1946 Cammack transferred a title and mortgage to each family. By then the government had invested over $4,000 per unit, but sold them to the residents for about $1,400. The cooperative association remained, now operating without government supervision, and trimmed of all enterprises except the store and cotton gin. Gee’s Bend had provided a few Negro families with the opportunity to rise out of tenancy and become independent landowners.24

From the beginning, Resettlement officials made a determined effort to include blacks on projects like Gee’s Bend in the same proportion that they represented among all farmers. They succeeded. By 1940 there were 1,393 Negro families living on resettlement projects. These families made up about one forth of all such families, the precise proportion of Negro farmers among Southern farm operators. Yet 1,393 families hardly represented blacks in terms of their needs. In 1935, for example, Negroes accounted for thirty seven percent of the very group, low income farmers, which the Resettlement Administration sought to help.25

Blacks took part in other programs, besides resettlement projects, for small farmers and tenants. Rural rehabilitation was the emergency phase of RA activity, and, though less spectacular, involved more money and more people than the better known community projects. The Rural Rehabilitation Division made loans and grants to individual families to help them become self supporting, sponsored rural cooperatives for purchasing farm machinery and livestock, and helped work out satisfactory debt adjustment between distressed farmers and their creditors. As with resettlement, the number of black rehabilitation clients was proportionate to the number of Negro farm operators. Between 1936 and 1939, standard rehabilitation loans went to 154,381 white families and 45,335 black families in the South; in other words, twenty three percent of all Southern rehabilitation clients were black, although in certain states the percentage was much less. The Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937 authorized the FSA to make loans to tenants, sharecroppers, and farm laborers for the purpose of helping them become the owners of family-sized farms. The “tenant purchase” loans, unlike rehabilitation loans, always involved the purchase of land, but the scope of the program was far more limited. In the program’s first three years, the FSA approved 1,919 Negro families, about twenty one percent of all borrower’s in the South.26

Too often Negroes were victims of differential treatment even in the programs designed to help poor farmers. The resettlement agencies never intended to operate a program for the most down and out sharecroppers and tenants. The selection of clients and the size of loans did not depend on need alone. Since clients had to pay for their farms, they had to be “good risks,” with good credit ratings and reputations for hard work and honesty. The poverty stricken condition of most Negro applicants automatically disqualified many of them as resettlement clients and tenant purchase borrowers. They could more easily qualify for rehabilitation loans, but even here Negro farmers were at a disadvantage because they had few assets, little experience as independent operators, and little education. In addition, FSA officials were sometimes overly concerned that the loan programs “make a good showing.” Instead of digging down into the lowest levels of poverty, they tended to “skim off the cream”; that is, they often selected borrowers most like to succeed and rejected applicants needing special assistance. Finally, the Farm Security Administration like the AAA, worked through committees of local citizens in awarding both the rehabilitation and tenant purchase loans. Since Negroes held no memberships win such committees, these programs could reflect local racial attitudes.27

One proof of the RA’s interest in the Negro was its personnel policy. Within a few days of becoming Resettlement Administrator, Tugwell ordered the personnel department to accept Negro job applicants on the same basis as whites. He wanted to hire a “suitable proportion” of Negroes for work in staff offices, on resettlement projects, and in the rehabilitation program. Since Resettlement would reach a segment of the rural population with a large proportion of Negroes, Tugwell felt that black personnel could make the agency more effective in reaching their own people.28 By early 1936 the Washington staff included 102 Negro employees. Most of them held traditionally “Negro jobs” building and custodial workers, messengers, chauffeurs - but about thirty percent were in clerical and professional positions. They were clerks, stenographers, typists, architects, engineers, and draftsmen. The number of Negro employees grew as the agency itself grew.29

The New Deal also provided opportunities for blacks to fill advisory positions in Washington. Harold Ickes began the practice of employing advisors on racial matters. In 1934 he brought in Clark Foreman, a white liberal from Atlanta, as advisor on Negro affairs’ and Foreman in turn hired Robert C. Weaver, the first Negro racial advisor in the Department of Interior. In September 1934, with Foreman’s assistance, Subsistence Homesteads chief Charles Pynchon recruited Joseph H.B. Evans as an executive assistant, placing him in charge of Negro personnel in the Division’s Planning Section.30 After Subsistence Homesteads was abolished, Will Alexander, while still Tugwell’s Deputy Administrator, took Evans into the RA as “Race Relations Specialist.” Evans became Alexander’s administrative assistant on Negro affairs, a position similar to that Robert Weaver held under Foreman. He followed the work of all programs, sought to prevent discrimination against Negro families, and tried to place more Negro personnel at every level where Negroes were involved. In 1940, Mrs. Constance E.H. Daniel joined the FSA as a senior administrative assistant and took over Evans’ duties, while he went to work for the National Youth Administration. Neither Mrs. Daniel nor Evans ever held policy making positions. Eventually, each of the FSA’s three southern regions had a Negro advisor attached to its staff.31

Tugwell and his successors in the FSA also placed Negro personnel in the field. The bulk of Negro field employees were women serving as home economists on Negro projects, with some in charge of home management work for an entire projects; and men who worked as farm management supervisors and as field representatives in the rural rehabilitation or tenant purchase programs. By 1941 the FSA employed fifty five Negro home management supervisors and forty one Negro farm advisors. In addition, Negro nurses worked in ten medical associations.32

William Walker of Aberdeen Gardens was the only Negro ever to run a New Deal community without white supervision. Tugwell originally intended to have a Negro staff wholly responsible for projects involving black clients. Ye the RA did place whites in charge of Negro projects, although most such project manager’s regular responsibilities, this position was a public relations job, a consideration which ruled out Negro leadership at the top level. Within all administrative regions and other subdivisions, RA policy called for personnel to match the proportion by races of people on relief. This goal was also seldom reached. Negro workers were used only when their work would bring them into contact exclusively with members of their own race. A white person filled any job that required contact with both races.33

Negroes lost little time in protesting the RA’s personnel policy. In November 1935, Isaac Webb, a former Negro employee, visited a land use project in Macon County, Alabama, near Tuskegee Institute. While there, he saw a work crew of seven Negroes and four white men. “Each one of the white men,” he wrote Tugwell the next day, “is holding a job some Negro could hold.” Although a Negro, Thomas N. Roberts, was in charge at Tuskegee, Webb protested the fact that more Negroes were not filling administrative positions in the RA. Where the Negro population within any region was as large as it was in the southeastern states, he argued, “the employment of Negroes should extend even to the regional staff in order that Negroes themselves should have a hand in the solution of problems in which their group is involved.”34. What Webb had seen at Tuskegee was a crew of men who were temporarily employed to do appraisal work. “The Resettlement Administration wishes to use the greatest fairness in its employment,” an official assured him. Negroes had charge of the Tuskegee land use project and would eventually operate it without supervision. About six months later, T. Arnold Hill of the National Urban League inquired if Negro projects would have Negro managers. That indeed would be the case, Alexander promised him. “The matter of putting white people in charge of Negro projects has never at any time been considered by the (Resettlement) Administration.” But Webb and Hill did not see their complaints fully corrected.35

Negroes were also quick to protest what they believed to be racial discrimination in the resettlement program. The FSA, for example, ran into Negro protests over its handling of the Transylvania project in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana. When the RA made the Transylvania purchase, about 250 Negro families were farming the land under private ownership. But Transylvania became a white project, meaning that all 250 Negro families moved off and white families took their places. The Associated Negro Press - a wire service for such papers as the Pittsburgh Courier, the Kansas City Call, and New Orleans’ Louisiana Weekly - challenged this action on the grounds of racial discrimination.38. In response, FSA officials were anxious to keep the confidence of the Negro press. In February 1939 regional and state officials met for two hours in New Orleans with a Pittsburgh Courier reporter, Leon Lewis. They presented a plan which would ensure fair treatment for Negro farmers in northeast Louisiana. The Mounds project, Lewis learned, would take care of qualified Negro families displaced at Transylvania. According to one report of the meeting, Lewis “was not only satisfied - he was enthusiastic”; his personal investigation convinced him that his race “was, if anything, getting the best of the bargain there.” In reality, Lewis was still skeptical. There was no discrimination in the incident, he reported to his paper. “The same thing that is being done to Negroes is being done to whites, and they are complaining (just) as much.” The Information Division afterward made a conscious effort to keep the ANP informed of progress at Mounds.37

Negro protests generally contained less potential danger to resettlement work than the opposition of the white majority over racial issues. Despite all precautions, racism was a nagging problem. When the FSA purchased a tract of land near Orangeburg, South Carolina, and began subdividing it into individual farms for Negro families, white citizens hired an attorney to take their protest to Washington. Farm Security officials went ahead with the project, but promised to keep the races separate with a protective belt of land on which no Negroes would live. In this case, the FSA showed a partial deference to local opinion, but they were also capable of complete acquiescence.38

In 1939 a group of Adams County, Mississippi, citizens decided the FSA had gone too far. They drew up a resolution protesting the employment of a Negro in the FSA office at Natchez. (He was serving as assistant rural rehabilitation supervisor for Adams County.). They called attention to the fact that the FSA office was in the courthouse, that “young white ladies” were employed in the office and came into contact with the Negro employee. Senator Theodore G. Bilbo also strongly protested this “outrage.” He wrote Mississippi state director M.T. Aldrich, “You, as a good Mississippian, should clean out this situation at once.” “Mississippi is still a white man’s country,” he said, “and we do not want Negroes bumping up against our white girls in the official life of the state.39

The FSA quickly yielded to prejudice. There were 133 Negro clients in Adams County, regional director T. Roy Reid explained; “It is necessary for someone to contact them and go into homes and work with them in the home and farm planning operations.” He added, “The Negro employee does not have an office with white people…It is not the desire of this office to place a Negro worker where it is objectionable to the people.”

Taking a parting shot, FSA assistant administrator Milo Perkins argued the FSA had acted in accordance with the well established principle throughout the South of letting Negroes work with Negroes. In addition, Perkins noted, the Adams County assistant supervisor “was to spend all his time in the field. Consequently, he would have had no occasion to enter into office relationships with other employees of the county unit.” The unfortunate man was nevertheless transferred out of Adams County, presumably to a more congenial location.40

During its brief history, the FSA was the most enthusiastic defender among all New Deal agricultural agencies of equal benefits for Negro farmers. The Division of Subsistence Homesteads and FERA laid the groundwork for a liberal policy in resettlement work, but their actual accomplishments were meager. The New Deal did nothing substantial for the poverty stricken rural Negro until 1935. The RA and its successor, the Farm Security Administration, provided black farm tenants and croppers with a large share of benefits, almost enough to equal their proportion of all southern farmers. The resettlement agencies also placed Negroes in jobs at almost every level of activity. Unlike most New Deal programs, Farm Security had more than a peripheral concern for the Negro. Alexander’s background equipped him to take a special interest in the Negro farmer’s welfare. He took an interest in blacks as blacks, not merely as poor people. Even though almost all the top leaders of the FSA were Southerners, the agency entered the South as a “disturber of the peace,” quietly but steadily subverting the region’s status quo on such touchy questions as race relations.41

Yet the FSA dealt cautiously, even timidly, with racial problems. Farm Security officials acknowledged southern attitudes and practices regarding race. Most of all, they could never challenge the tradition of segregation for fear of jeopardizing the help they could offer both groups. The New Deal’s model communities were all Jim Crow communities. When caught in protests between the two races, they most often yielded to the will of the white majority. Although numerically strong, tenants and sharecroppers of either race formed the most vulnerable kind of political constituency. The FSA, struggling with a small budget and continuous congressional harassment, had all the troubles it could handle without getting involved in a crusade for racial justice. As a result, the black farmer never received the attention from the New Deal that corresponded to his needs. In the years before Pearl Harbor Negroes actually accounted for only 50,000 standard rehabilitation loans, less than 2,000 tenant purchase loans, and about 1,400 resettlement farms. The FSA could do practically nothing for the great mass of some 1,100,000 Negro tenants, sharecroppers, and day laborers throughout the South.

The New Deal did not eliminate rural poverty among farmers, black or white, just as it did not end the depression. The rural poor today, as Michael Harrington has observed, can be found exactly where they were during the 1930’s - in certain parts of the South. “The New Deal and post war prosperity,” he writes, “…passed over these areas without really touching them.”42. In the past thirty years, southern farm tenancy has declined drastically, but the relative number of rural poor has shown remarkable persistence, remaining around a third of all commercial farmers. The resettlement agencies can take credit for only a small part of what actual improvement took place. Yet at a crucial time in American history, the FSA did bring hope and help into the lives of a few members of an unfortunate class of people.

1. Samuel I. Rosenman, ed., The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt 13 vols. (New York: Random House, 1938-1950), I:624

2. See Allen Francis Kifer, “The Negro Under the New Deal, 1933-1941” (Ph.D dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1961); Leslie H. Fishel, Jr., “The Negro in the New Deal Era,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 48 (Winter 1964-1965): 111-21; Frank Dreidel, F.D.R. and the South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965), 71-102.

3. Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944), 182-201, 235-37; Richard Sterner, The Negro’s Share: A Study of Income, Consumption, Housing and Public Assistance (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1943), 10-20; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1957 (Washington: GPO, 1960), 278

4. Charles S. Johnson, “The Negro,” American Journal of Sociology 47 (May 1942): 854-64; David Eugene Conrad, The Forgotten Farmers: The Story of Sharecroppers in the New Deal (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), 11-18.

5. Myrdal, An American Dilemma, 251-73; Conrad, The Forgotten Farmers, 64-82; Charles S. Johnson, Edwin R. Embree, and Will Alexander, The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935), 34-63. See Van L. Perkins, Crisis in Agriculture: The Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the New Deal, 1933 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).

6. See Paul K. Tonkin, Tomorrow a New World: The New Deal Community Program (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1959); Sydney Baldwin, Poverty and Politics: The Rise and Decline of the Farm Security Administration (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968); “History of the Farm Security Administration,” n.d., National Archives Record Group 96 (hereinafter cited as NA,RG, followed by number), Records of the Farmers Home Administration; The Solicitor (R.H. Shields) to Frank Hancock, 17 November 1943, ibid.

7. Conkin, Tomorrow a New World, 11-36; Pascal K. Whelpton, “The Extent, Character, and Future of the New Landward Movement,” Journal of Farm Economics 15 (January 1933): 57-72

8. John P. Davis, “ A Black Inventory of the New Deal, “The Crisis” 42 (May 1935): 141-42, 154; Memorandum, Division of Substinence Homesteads, 20 March 1935, NA, RG 96, quoted in Conkin, Tomorrow a New World, 200.

9. Bruce L. Melvin to Glenn E. Riddell, 17 November 1933, NA, RG 96; Melvin to Riddell, 13 March 1934, ibid.; J.B. Watson to J.W. Hull, 15 October 1935, ibid.; Conkin, Tomorrow a New World, 200-201; Kifer, “The Negro Under the New Deal,” 156-78; John O. Walker to E.G. Roberts, 29 May 1939, NA RG 96.

10. Conkin, Tomorrow a New World, 131-34; Lawrence Westbrook, “The Program of the Rural Rehabilitation Division of the FERA, “Journal of Farm Economics 17 (February 1935): 89-100; Alfred Edgar Smith, “The Rural Negro and Rural Rehabilitation: A Report on Some Phases of the Fare of the Negro Under the Rural Rehabilitation Program of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration,” March 1935, NA.RG 69, Records of the WPA.

11. Select Committee of the House Committee on Agriculture, Hearings on the Farm Security Administration, 78th Congressional., 1st sess., 1943-1944, pt 3, pp. 1089-90; Kifer, “The Negro Under the New Deal,” 178-90.

12. Hearings on the FSA, 1034-35, 1040, 1052

13. Bernard Sternsher, Rexford Tugwell and the New Deal (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1964), 262-78; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt, vol. 2, The Coming of the New Deal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959), 354-81; Conkin, Tomorrow a New World, 146-60; Rexford G. Tugwell, “The Resettlement Idea,” Agricultural History 33 (October 1959): 159-63.

14. Wilma Dykeman and James Stokely, Seeds of Southern Change: The Life of Will Alexander (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962); Mark Ethridge, “About Will Alexander,” New Republic 55 (22 September 1941): 366-67; Statement of Dr. Will W. Alexander, Second National Conference of Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth, 13 January 1939, mimeo., NA, RG 96: Will W. Alexander, “Our Conflicting Racial Policies,” Harper’s Magazine 190 (January 1945): 172-79.

15. RA, First Annual Report (Washington: GPO, 1936), 2-5, 33-40; Conkin, Tomorrow a New World, 146-59; Sternsher, Rexford Tugwell, 262-78

16. RA, “Project Description Book,” March-December 1936, mimeo, NA, RG 96: Hearings on the FSA, pt. 3, contains a factual summary of all resettlement projects.

17. Dykeman and Stokely, Seeds of Southern Change, 311-12; Kifer, “The Negro Under the New Deal,” 190-93.

18. Quoted in Dykeman and Stokely, Seeds of Southern Change, 312-13

19. Monthly Report of Gee’s Bend Project Community Manager for January 1943, NA, RG 96; Hearings on the FSA, 1035-36. See also Donald Holley, “The New Deal and Farm Tenancy: Rural Resettlement in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi (Ph.D dissertation, Louisiana State University, 1969), 177-202; E.B. Whitaker to Holley, 30 October 1970.

20. For family selection procedure, see Wendell Lund, memorandum to Mordecai Ezekiel, 20 September 1937, NA, RG 96; RA, Administrative Order 105, Revision 3, 25 September 1936. Ibid.; Kifer, “The Negro Under the New Deal,” 193-95; RA, “Project Description Book,” NA, RG 96; Gee’s Bend, Economic Justification docket, with J.O. Walker to Milo Perkins, 29 June 1938, ibid.

21. Katharine F. Dietz, Justification for Co-operatives at Gee’s Bend, 25 April 1938, ibid.; Articles of Incorporation, Gee’s Bend Cooperative, Inc., 31 May 1938, ibid.

22. Kifer, “The Negro Under the New Deal,”195.

23. Gee’s Bend: Oral Discussion led by W.A. Cammack, 30 January 1943, NA, RG 96: see Rena B. Maycock, “Home Economic Work in the Resettlement Administration,” Journal of Home Economics 28 (October 1936): 560-62.

24. Walton Dodge, memorandum to E.S. Morgan, 11 July 1945, NA, RG 96: Kifer, “The Negro Under the New Deal,” 201; Dykeman and Stokely Seeds of Southern Change, 313-14.

25. Sterner, The Negro’s Share, 306-9, 423. According to Sterner, 1,761 resettlement farms were available for Negro families in June 1940, but not all of them were occupied.

26. Sterner, The Negro’s Share, 298-307; “The Southern Negro on the Farm: His Problems and What the FSA is Doing About Them,” n.d., mimeo, NA, RG 96: Rural Rehabilitation Division, Program Analysis Report No. 15, Racial Aspects of Rural Rehabilitation Family Progress, December 1940, ibid.

27. Myrdal, An American Dilemma, 273-76; Baldwin, Poverty and Politics, 196-97. These committees, however, were merely advisory. See Alexander to Charles H. Houston, 12 February 1937, NA, RG 96.

28. Alexander to Joseph H. B. Evans, 12 July 1935, ibid. Tugwell to T. Roy Reid, 16 March 1936, ibid.

29. George S. Mitchell to Issac Webb, 28 January 1936, ibid. See also John O. Walker to E.G. Roberts, 29 May 1939, ibid; J. Jerome Robinson to Clifford E. Minton, 24 April 1942, ibid.

30. John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (3rd ed., New York:: Alfred A. Knopf, 167), 530-34; Department of the Interior, Appointment of Joseph H.B. Evans, 19 September 1934, NA, RG 96.

31. Kifer, “The Negro Under the New Deal,” 208. For examples of Evans’ work, see Evans, memorandum to John O. Walker, 15 September 1937, NA, RG 96; Evans, memorandum to Alexander, 1 November 1937, ibid.

32. Kifer, “The Negro Under the New Deal,” 207-8.

33. E.E. Agger to T. Arnold Hill, 29 May 1936, NA, RG 96; Alexander to Hill, 13 June 1936, ibid.; E.B. Whitaker to Holley, 30 October 1970.

34. Isaac Webb to Tugwell, 30 November 1935, NA, RG 96: Webb to Tugwell, 30 December1935, ibid; Philip Weltner to C.B. Baldwin, 18 December 1935, ibid.; Baldwin to Webb 27 December 1935, ibid.

35. T. Arnold Hill to Alexander, 9 June 1936, ibid.; Alexander to Hill, 13 June 1936, ibid.

36. Nathan W. Robertson, memorandum for Alexander, n.d., ibid; George Fischer, memorandum to C.B. Baldwin, n.d., ibid; Louisiana Weekly, 10 September 1938, and Kansas City Call, 16 September 1938, clippings, ibid.

37. O.E. Jones to Nathan Robertson, 8 February 1939, ibid.; Leon Lewis to Claude Barnett, 4 February 1939, ibid; Division of Information, FSA to Associated Negro Press (telegram), 7 February 1939, ibid.

38. Baldwin, Poverty and Politics, 279-80. See also Ruby Pugh (Mrs. J.J. Pugh) to George Mitchell, 9 September 1941, NA, RG 96.

39. Dan R. McGehee to C.B. Baldwin, 31 October 1938, ibid. Theodore G. Bilbo to M.T. Aldrich, 29 October 1938, ibid.

40. T. Roy Reid to Bilbo, 4 November 1938, ibid; Milo Perkins to Pat Harrison, 18 November 1938, ibid. See A.D. Stewart to C.B. Baldwin, 10 December 1940, ibid.

41. Baldwin, Poverty and Politics, 279-86.