Highlights from a Book Discussion with Jill Watts on her new book The Black Cabinet

Jill Watts and Book Cover (Christine Vaughan; Gretchen Mergenthaler)

A month ago I reviewed a new book, The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt by Jill Watts which I highly recommend.

On May 17, 2020, I hosted a book discussion with Watts and several interested readers. In the discussion, Watts provided a general overview of her book by highlighting the five major individuals in the Black Cabinet (Robert Vann, Robert Weaver, William Hastie, Al Smith, and Mary McLeod Bethune) and their respective roles in the FDR administration. One of the key points in her talk was that this group was not Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet, as has commonly been known, but they actually assembled themselves into a Cabinet of informal advisors to his administration. During the Question and Answer section, participants asked several questions related to her new book and past work. Below is a summary of some of the topics discussed in the Q&A session.

Favorite and Hardest Black Cabinet Member to Write About

Watts stated that the hardest Black Cabinet member to write about was William Hastie, who served in the Department of Interior and was also a federal judge on the U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands. She stated that there was less documentation about him especially as it relates to how he personally feels, he was a very private person.

Hastie (NARA)

Her favorite Cabinet members to write about were Al Smith, who worked in the Works Progress Administration, and Mary McLeod Bethune, the leader of the Black Cabinet and Director of the Division of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration. Watts describes Smith as being very funny and bold in his newspaper columns, she also liked the strength he exhibited. Watts stated that Smith took risks leaking information to the Black Press so that African Americans were informed of what was going on in the government. Mary McLeod Bethune was an “infinitely inspiring” and amazing figure to write about. Bethune was “remarkable” because she exuded “boldness and courage”. Watts is considering writing a biography of Bethune in the future.

On Why She Wrote About the Black Cabinet

Watts was working on a different project around the time of President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and came across some documents asking the Warren Harding Administration about federal black appointments that had not been filled. Through her research she finds that the Black Cabinet was ultimately able to fill those appointments. She saw the Black Cabinet’s role as being one of the many positive steps forward that would lead to Obama getting elected in 2008. Watt’s sentiment was solidified when she read Dorothy Height’s quote about Obama’s election, “It took a lot of people a lot of work to make this happen”.

Dorothy Height (By Adrian Hood)

On Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt’s friendship and Influence on FDR

Watts describes Bethune as being a “crucial” figure in the Black Cabinet, because she was the only member who was able to meet with FDR, this was only possible because of her relationship with Eleanor. Watts also mentions that Eleanor evolves over the period of time that her book covers, Eleanor’s consciousness is raised. By 1945 Eleanor is not the same person that she was in 1933 and this transformation can be credited to Bethune.

Bethune and Roosevelt (Unknown Photographer)

On the New Deal’s Effectiveness in Helping African Americans

Watts says that one of the Black Cabinet’s message was that the New Deal was hurting and not helping African Americans, especially as it relates to the wage differentials that the jobs programs were employing. Minimum wage policies that were enacted left out farm workers and domestics who mostly tended to be African American. The Black Cabinet, according to Watts, advocated expanding the minimum wage law to include those workers but this does not happen until the 1950s.

On the Connections Between Each of Her Books

Watts states that she wants each of her four books to stand on their own because each one tells a different story. However, she has always been interested in how people who are marginalized in society use different channels to subvert the dominant power.

Watts Prior Books

In her first book God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story, she writes about how Father Divine used religion to subvert power, her biography of Mae West shows how the actress appropriated black culture to make it big in Hollywood. She followed those two books with a biography of the actress Hattie McDaniel who also tried to subvert the system in Hollywood through her various Black domestic roles. Watts believes that her new book on the Black Cabinet will enable readers to see Black leaders and scholars trying to subvert the system of government while working on the inside of the political system.

On Being A White Historian Who Writes About Black History and Culture

In history you are not creating voice, if you are doing your job, you are conveying voice” said Watts.

Watts stated that as a historian you have to put yourself second and the subject first when writing history. She mentioned that she was mentored by African American professors and she is honored to carry forward what they taught her. She also believes that she honors those professors by writing about Black history. One of those professors is Edward Reynolds who was influential in her becoming a History major at University of California San Diego. Watts is a firm believer that, “We need as much Black history as we can get”.

Dr. Edward Reynolds, Watts Mentor

Watts’ interest in African American history originated from her upbringing. She was raised in an African American community in San Diego, her father taught in African American schools, and they attended a Black church.

On the Books that Changed Her Life

Dr. Edward Reynolds’ book that made Watts a History Major

Her favorite books include Strength to Love and Strive Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told by Alex Haley, and, although not a book, she recommends reading Mary McLeod Bethune’s writings and speeches. A Night to Remember by Walter Lord about the sinking of the Titanic was the first history book she ever read when she was a young girl. Lastly, she mentioned Stand the Storm: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade by her former History professor Edward Reynolds, which he wrote when Watts was in his class, as being the book that made her become a history major.

Special thanks to Jill Watts for participating in the discussion and thanks to all the participants who attended: Audrey, Bonnie, Carlton, Carol, Carmella, Deb, Eddie, Irvin, Jacob, Jan, Julia, Ken, La Tonya, Maggie, Michelle, Tina, and Ramona.

Help local booksellers by purchasing this book at Bookshop. Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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