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How The Great Depression Affected Black Women…And What Black Women Did About It

In this article, we discuss the experiences of African Americans, and Black women in particular during the Great Depression. I’ll discuss how the New Deal fell short in addressing the needs of the most poor and the most vulnerable, and how Black women and radical black organizations challenged the Roosevelt administration to do better.

The Impact of the Great Depression

As economically devastating as of Great Depression was, black people in general and black women in particular experienced its harsh impacts disproportionately, as, “The socioeconomic conditions created by the economic collapse exacerbated existing employment problems for African Americans and women…” (Harris 23). When the economic crisis hit in 1929, the Hoover administration failed to meet Black demands for financial relief. Although more progressive and far-reaching, the Roosevelt administration was also plagued by racist policies that hurt Black employment and distributed relief inequitably.

“By 1934, when the federal government noted that 17 percent of whites could not support themselves, the figure for blacks had increased to 38 percent overall. The figures were even more dire for black workers in southern cities. In Atlanta, Georgia, 65 percent of black workers needed public assistance, and in Norfolk, Virginia, a stunning 80 percent had to apply for welfare.” (Hine 428)

In addition to the effects on wages, the Depression also impacted black families. In the early 1930s, the majority of black people were still living on farms in the South, where they had long been exploited by white landowners. In rural southern farm communities, families were often large and extended, a phenomenon that grew as families were forced to take in additional relatives such as cousins or family friends.Cotton pickers, Pulaski County, Arkansas

Black women faced an additional layer of hardship from the Depression. Many worked alongside their families as sharecroppers, but by the 1930s, African American women were also more likely than white women to work outside the home.  Often working in white homes as domestic servants, black women found that even these jobs were in jeopardy when the full brunt of the Great Depression hit as people of all races were struggling to find work.

As such, black women were influential in making their agenda clear and took full advantage of the New Deal era to either insert policy reforms addressing the needs of black people or to push an even more radical agenda.

The Failure of the New Deal

The New Deal refers to the domestic programs set up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ease the problems of the Great Depression. The first New Deal was ushered in with the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 1933. NIRA created a framework to regulate industry for fair wages and prices by establishing minimum wages and work hours. The goal was to stimulate economic recovery and put US citizens back to work. Although the New Deal has been hailed for helping Americans recover from the Great Depression, as we will find, for black people the New Deal often didn’t live up to the hype.

Sharecropper on Sunday, Little Rock, Ark., October 1935.

For example, the onset of the Depression sent the price of agricultural products plummeting due to overproduction. To address that problem, The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) was instituted to offer relief, by paying farmers to reduce crop production in order to eliminate surpluses and increase market prices. Yet because of local distribution, most federal funds ended up in the hands of white landlords. After being paid not to produce crops, these landlords simply evicted African American sharecroppers and tenant farmers without pay, leaving black farmers without work and without any means to earn a living.

Even under the more progressive second New Deal from 1935-1936, African Americans in general and black women in particular often failed to reap the benefits. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935, for example, establishing the federal social insurance program for those too old to work. However, the program excluded sharecroppers who are disproportionately black. Domestic servants who are disproportionately black and female were also among those excluded from Social Security benefits.

The shortcomings of the New Deal were largely a result resistance from northern Democrats and southern whites who opposed civil rights measures such as anti-lynching laws, fair employment practices, and antilynching legislation. Even so, a New Deal Coalition emerged made up of diverse groups that supported Roosevelt’s policies. The coalition consisted of farmers, laborers, people with disabilities, unions and women’s organizations.  The New Deal coalition was a major reason for Roosevelt’s victory in the presidential election of 1936.  Black folks formed a significant part of that coalition, even though the New Deal programs were often inadequate and unfairly administered. That’s because in many cases these programs were the only thing between them and starvation.

Nevertheless, that didn’t prevent black people from mounting a progressive challenge to the Roosevelt administration to do better. Some more radical blacks, especially black women, began to wonder whether the system could be saved at all.

Mary McLeod Bethune and the “Black Cabinet”

Mary McLeod Bethune (1949)

Among those advocating progressive change, Mary McLeod Bethune was the informal leader of a group of advisors who counseled the Roosevelt administration on racial affairs. Although not an official organization, the Federal Council on Negro Affairs (often referred to as the “Black Cabinet,”) called on the administration to address the shortcomings of the New Deal. The Council was quick to point out that blacks were disproportionately impacted by the Great Depression and disproportionately excluded from the benefits of the New Deal programs.

The Works Progress Administration is where Bethune’s influence and that of the black cabinet became apparent. The WPA was a New Deal program established in 1935 that provided job creation and economic relief for the unemployed. The WPA is most often associated with the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) and the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). Both created programs to provide jobs for unemployed artists and writers. These programs brought relief to black artists in the age of the Harlem Renaissance when the once flourishing artistic community was now struggling in the onslaught of the Great Depression. As the head of the Division of Negro Affairs within the Works Progress Administration, Mary McLeod Bethune worked within the agency to set up public art projects that employed black muralists, sculptors, photographers, and writers. Most notably, writers and social scientists like Zora Neale Hurston collected narratives and first-hand accounts of former slaves in the Southern states in the collection of interviews still available today. Those interviews can be accessed online through the Library of Congress website.

Still, many believed that more radical change was necessary. Some questioned whether the New Deal reforms served only to preserve the systemic exploitation and racism embedded within the capitalists system. Was capitalism even worth saving?

Black Radical Organizations

Radical organizations seized on the economic failures brought about brought about the Great Depression to gain a wider audience within black America. Many saw the new Deal reforms is simply a stopgap measure to stave off more radical economic transformation. As Lashawn Harris points out, the “moderate approach of the ‘old guard,’ represented by those leaders who wanted to maintain a somber, reformist stance, contrasted sharply with that of a more militant ‘new crowd,’ which was emerging from the economic turmoil of the Great Depression.” (Harris 38).

The Communist Party, for example, had begun to target Black Americans as potential new members. Blacks were attracted to  the CP because it actively fought to alter the conditions of the working class and the poor. They also had a strong commitment to uniting blacks and whites in struggle. Members were drawn to its campaign against racism, inadequate relief, unemployment, and its fight for tenant farmers. Communist-sponsored groups such as the League of Struggles for Negro Rights (LSNR), the Unemployed Councils (UC), and the International Labor Defense (ILD), for example were active within Black communities during the 1930s. (Harris 25).

At great personal risk, members of the Communist Party also undertook the dangerous work of organizing sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the American South. For those faces at the very bottom of the well, black women, reformism and the status quo was simply no longer tenable.  “Some African American women were attracted to the CP because it actively fought to alter the conditions of the working class and the poor.” (Harris, p.24) For many Black women, from their perspective, the bold agenda and actions of radical groups like the Communist Party seemed a more viable option.

As such, a “significant group of African American women viewed the CP as a potential vehicle for black liberation, along with gender and working-class advancement.” (Harris, 22) Their support for the communist party set the stage for an ideological battle between reformists like the NAACP and those who sought more radical transformation. NAACP leader, Walter White for example, wrote in a 1931 article for the Daily Worker that African American women who joined the ranks of the Communist Party were “ignorant and uncouth victims who were being led to the slaughter by dangerously bold radicals.” (Harris 21)

The Great Depression left many Black women without opportunities to escape poverty and oppression. As a consequence, these women sought programs and organizations that were progressive in their politics and offered support to Black communities in the form of economic relief and social services. Even though they were often at odds, the programs and platforms put forward by folks like Mary McLeod Bethune, the NAACP, and the Communist Party collectively became integral to the struggle for black liberation, and helped lay the foundation for future Civil Rights victories.


This presentation contains images that were used under a Creative Commons License. Click here to see the full list of images and attributions:

Harris, Lashawn. “Running with the Reds: African American women and the Communist Party during the Great depression.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 94, no. 1, 2009, Gale Literature Resource Center.

Hine, Darlene C, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold. African Americans: A Concise History: Combined Volume. , 2012. Print.