Review: The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt by Jill Watts

If you have ever taken an American History course, the topic of the Black Cabinet usually gets a cursory overview. The Black Cabinet is usually described as a group of African American leaders and intellectuals who President Franklin Roosevelt assembled to advise him on issues important to the African American community. That well known description is FALSE. In Jill Watts’ new book, she tells the true story of how the Black Cabinet formed in the FDR years and the successes and failures that the group faced.

Addison N. Scurlock (1938)

The Black Cabinet is a well-researched book on the history of national African American politics from the early 20th Century through the age of Franklin Roosevelt. Readers will be amazed to learn about the Black Cabinet’s roots and its battles with Presidents of both parties in the first three decades of the 20th Century. However, things began to change during the Depression years and the African American vote which had been reliably Republican since the time of Lincoln was now up for grabs. Lifelong Black Republicans began to flirt with voting for the Democrats and in 1932 Franklin Roosevelt is elected president, with the help of Black votes, promising a New Deal for the American people. However the New Deal was not beneficial to African Americans at the very beginning and throughout FDR’s tenure; progress for African Americans came in fits and starts. The Black Cabinet was influential in pushing and advocating for policies that would help African Americans. Watts’ unveils that the Black Cabinet consisted of over 100 members but had five core influential members: Mary McLeod Bethune, the titular leader of the Cabinet, Robert Weaver, Bill Hastie, Al Smith, and Robert Vann. Many students of African American history may be familiar with Bethune but may not be familiar with her “boys” as they were affectionately called. Watts does a great job covering their lives, their successes and the challenges they faced as Black Cabinet members. All five core members had to fight to be heard and were strong advocates for their causes, all at the risk of losing their jobs, being transferred to other agencies, or being labeled a Communist by Members of Congress.

Many American historical books put the president as the focal point of the story; however Watts’ book does not do that. FDR is of course an important figure but this book is about the bureaucratic figures behind the scenes that pushed for change. The members of the Black Cabinet were not officially appointed by FDR, neither were they confirmed by the Senate, but these informal leaders and scholars had a major impact on civil rights and economic policies affecting African Americans in the 1930s and 1940s. They were also precursors to the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the policies that they advocated for did not come into fruition during their time in the Roosevelt administration but were enacted in the decades to come. Watts’ phenomenal book sheds light on these figures; they need to be known by more people. Students of history and politics will enjoy reading this groundbreaking work.

Thanks to NetGalley, Grove Press, and Jill Watts for a free ARC copy in exchange for an honest review.

Update: On May 17, 2020 I hosted a book discussion with the author and some of my friends and family. You can read some of the highlights from it here:

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

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