Martin Harvey

FDR’s Washington Is Jim Crow Town

Negro Paper Advises Roosevelt His ‘Fight For Democracy’
Can Begin Close to Home; Racism Reigns in Government Itself

(20 January 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 3, 20 January 1940, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As the local Negro newspaper, the Washington Tribune, puts it, President Roosevelt might very well try to lift the oppression bearing down on the Negro population in this city and the rest of the country, before starting any crusades to save “democracy" for England and France – those other great oppressors of the Negro people.

The opening here soon of the movie, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, brings strikingly to the fore the issue of Negro discrimination in the nation’s capital. This picture of the emancipator of the Negro slaves will be barred to Negroes during its run at the Keith Theatre, downtown RKO show-place.

Only the subject of the movie, however, makes the situation unusual. Jim Crow rules in the capital’s movies, restaurants, schools, etc., as effectively as anywhere in the deep South.

Roosevelt Is Responsible

The city of Washington is administered by the national government – controlled at present by the “New Deal." It is this government, therefore, whichbears the responsibility for the Jim Crow system here.

The public school system of Washington is Jim Crow. The Negro schools are mhch more overcrowded, understaffed and under-equipped than the white schools.

Jim Crow Government

The cafeterias in the government office buildings are also Jim Crow. Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, whooping it up for the “New Deal” at a meeting of Negro educators in the South recently, called for racial equality. Mr. Wallace would, no doubt, deny vigorously any charge of vote-getting demagogy.

Yet in the Department of Agriculture only one-third of the smallest of the several cafeterias is set aside for Negroes. In the main cafeteria, the one with the completest choice of foods, Negroes are forbidden. Mr. Wallace’s department is not an exception. Jim Crow cafeterias are well nigh universal – extending even to the eating places on Capitol Hill.

Negroes Kept Down

The policy of government discrimination against Negroes is perhaps best illustrated by the personnel policies of the various departments, where theoretically the “merit” system prevails. Almost everywhere Negroes are restricted to custodial positions – laborers, elevator operators, messengers.

Any white person just entering the Civil Service as a messenger considers his job mainly as a springboard to higher positions – clerks, administrators, etc. To a Negro it is the upper limit. In countless bureaus, Negroes with all the necessary qualifications of education and ability and with long years of service, are simply refused the opportunity to take even clerk’s examinations.

Forced Into Slums

Housing conditions are at least as bad. Negroes must pay higher rents for poorer living quarters. When we realize, in addition, that Negroes are the lowest paid workers in the community and that they are subject most to unemployment, we are no longer astonished at the miserable hovels in which so many of the Negroes are segregated. Only a few blocks from the Capitol, in the southwest section, are some of the worst slums in the country – inhabited mainly by Negroes.

It is widely believed that the chief reason the citizens of Washington do not have the right to vote is the fear of granting the large Negro population the same right. This seems to be borne out by the fact that, although both major parties and most civic and business groups have gone on record as favoring the extension of suffrage to Washington (leaving, it would seem, no one opposed), nothing has ever been done about it. In private conversations the opinion is often expressed by these Democrats and Republicans that no vote is better than a Negro vote.

Last updated on 16 July 2018