At the Roosevelt Library, an unflinching look at race
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At the Roosevelt Library, an unflinching look at race
An Alabama election ballot from 1932, when Black Americans still primarily voted Republican, on display in the exhibition “Black Americans, Civil Rights and the Roosevelts, 1932-1962,” at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., July 27, 2023. The new exhibition explores the president’s “mixed” record on civil rights — and the charged debate over racism in the New Deal. (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

by Jennifer Schuessler



NEW YORK, NY.- In October 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had his administration send letters to thousands of clergy across the country, asking if the New Deal was helping their communities.

Even from admirers, the news wasn’t always good. Local administrators did not “carry out your will and purpose,” J.H. Ellis, a Black pastor in Hot Springs, Arkansas, wrote, “especially as it relates to the Negro group.” J.W. Hairston, an African American minister in Asheville, North Carolina, lamented that in the South “there are two states and two cities, one white — one black.”

The Northern Black press, meanwhile, was more blunt. The New Deal, more than one newspaper proclaimed, was also a “Raw Deal.”

Eight decades later, that charge still hangs in the air. Conservatives have long assailed the New Deal, which radically expanded the government’s involvement in the economy, as the epitome of big-government overreach. But in recent years, progressives have increasingly argued that this pillar of 20th-century liberalism rested on a Jim Crow foundation, and laid the groundwork for the yawning Black wealth gap that persists today.

Now, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, is entering the fray. “Black Americans, Civil Rights and the Roosevelts, 1932-1962,” on view through December 2024, takes a frank, deeply researched view of what it calls Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s “mixed” record on race, from their personal attitudes to the policies they championed. But the exhibition is just as much about the Black Americans — civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens alike — who pushed them, and American democracy, on true equality.

William A. Harris, the library’s director, called it part of a “paradigm shift” in the approach toward presidential history.

“Presidential libraries aren’t just about the name on the building,” he said. “They have to tell the story of everybody.”

And that shift, Harris said, requires a more “candid approach” than the partisan, selective history often associated with presidential libraries, which are run by the National Archives but financially supported by private presidential foundations.

“We believe it is a fundamental responsibility to provide a forum for civic education and discourse,” he said, “not for hagiography and political commercialism.”

The FDR library, which opened in 1941, is the oldest in the system. It was intended as a home for Roosevelt’s papers, which he donated to the National Archives. Initially, the museum galleries displayed his personal collections of stamps, model ships and other memorabilia.

Over time, discussion of his political career was added. In 2013, a $6 million overhaul of the permanent exhibition brought high-tech design, along with substantial new sections on topics like the incarceration of Japanese Americans and Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust, created in consultation with outside historians.

Timothy Naftali, a former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, said the current exhibition reflected the FDR Library’s record as a standard-bearer for independent, critical history within the federal system.

“Doing nonpartisan public history is really hard,” he said. “And not all the foundations have an interest in it.”

Planning for the show began in 2019, under the library’s former director, Paul Sparrow, but took on new urgency amid the racial justice protests of 2020.

Black activism “was central to the story of the 1930s and ’40s,” Harris said. “And what’s going on today is directly impacted by the intended and unintended consequences of that era.”

He and the museum’s supervisory curator, Herman Eberhardt, assembled a team of 11 scholarly advisers, while the archives staff, led by Kirsten Strigel Carter, began combing through the library’s collection of more than 17 million documents and artifacts.

Material relating to Black Americans wasn’t just in the White House files labeled “Colored Matters,” but laced throughout the library’s holdings, including hundreds of thousands of letters to Roosevelt from ordinary Americans.

“There was a tremendous effort to really mine the whole collection,” Eberhardt said.

Echoes of the present — and the exhibition’s flipped perspective — are seen in the blown-up photograph at the entrance, which shows Black activists picketing the White House in May 1933, holding signs demanding “Full Equality for Negros!”

You have to peek around the corner to see Roosevelt himself, shown addressing the 1932 Democratic National Convention. The delegates who nominated him, the wall text notes, were all white.

Nearby is a 1932 ballot from Alabama, showing the insignia of the state Democratic Party: a rooster standing under the words “white supremacy.” Meanwhile, the title of the opening wall text makes the central question plain: “A New Deal for All Americans?”

While a mainstay of scholarship for decades, that question has recently reached a broader public, thanks to books like Ira Katznelson’s “When Affirmative Action Was White” and Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.”

On a recent afternoon, a docent directed visitors toward what she called “the most amazing thing” — a 1937 Home Owners Loan Corp. map of the nearby city of Poughkeepsie, labeling predominantly Black areas as “hazardous” for lenders.

In 1935, the newly created Federal Housing Administration issued a manual for lenders, endorsing redlining (so named for the pink shading of “hazardous” areas) and warning that Black families should not be approved for mortgages in white areas. “Incompatible racial groups,” it noted, “should not be permitted to live in the same communities.”

Housing policy is widely seen by historians as one of the New Deal’s most consequential failures, one which over time dramatically deepened residential segregation. But while the exhibition deals bluntly with the issue, it also avoids any simplified counternarrative of the New Deal writ large as inherently, and intentionally, racist at its core.

Patricia Sullivan, a historian at the University of South Carolina who consulted on the exhibition, said such failures were real. But the Roosevelt era, she said, was a time of expanded economic and political opportunity, as Black Americans saw real promise in the New Deal and demanded it include them.

“It’s a big messy brew,” she said. “And out of it, you see the Roosevelts’ evolution, and the way they faced and responded to Black activism.”

When it comes to the New Deal’s biggest program, Social Security, the exhibition complicates the common claim that the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers was racially motivated. While Black citizens were disproportionately in those jobs, a wall text notes, nearly 75% of excluded workers were white.

Racial discrimination, the show notes, varied across programs, and changed over time. Black farmers were “largely excluded” from the programs of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration of 1933, thanks to state-level administrators, which resulted in many losing their land. But they were represented in some employment programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration.

The exhibition deals directly with what the library calls the “greatest stain” on Roosevelt’s racial record: his refusal to publicly support federal anti-lynching legislation, out of fear it would alienate the Southern Democrats who dominated Congress and imperil the New Deal.

The show details Eleanor Roosevelt’s public support for the law, and the close alliances she built with Black leaders like Mary McLeod Bethune, the de facto leader of the president’s informal “Black Cabinet.” But it makes one thing clear: Where opportunities expanded, it was because Black Americans demanded it.

“In this period of power politics,” activist A. Philip Randolph declared in 1941, “nothing counts but pressure, more pressure, and still more pressure.”

That pressure also came at the ballot box, as Black voters began questioning their traditional loyalty to the Republican Party. “My friends, go turn Lincoln’s portrait to the wall,” Robert Lee Vann, the editor of The Pittsburgh Courier, urged fellow African Americans in 1932.

That year, Black Americans voted 2-1 in favor of Roosevelt’s Republican opponent, incumbent Herbert Hoover. But in the 1934 midterms, the Black vote turned “decisively” toward the Democrats, as African Americans migrated North and West, where they formed an important voting bloc.

In 1940, Roosevelt won two-thirds of the Black vote. That was in part, the exhibition argues, because of the real gains delivered by Roosevelt’s policies.

Those gains expanded during the lead-up to World War II, as Roosevelt, in response to pressure from activists issued Executive Order 8802, which outlawed discrimination in the defense industry.

But the military itself remained segregated until 1948, while Black veterans were effectively shut out of many postwar benefits, most notoriously on housing. On paper, the GI Bill was race-neutral. But in reality, banks — drawing on what the show describes as discriminatory federal regulations — often denied Black veterans’ applications. (In New York and the northern New Jersey suburbs, fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured under the GI Bill went to nonwhite applicants.)

The exhibition’s closing video notes the continuing inequalities rooted in such policies. But the show also highlights the judgment of W.E.B. DuBois, who, shortly after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, said his administration “gave the American Negro a kind of recognition in political life which the Negro had never before received.”

After the show closes, Harris said, some of the material will be incorporated into the permanent exhibit.

“An archive or museum should never be static,” he said. “The scholarship is ongoing and evolving.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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