The best books on Black Americans and the Roosevelt era

Jill Watts Author Of The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt
By Jill Watts

Who am I?

I am a Professor of History at California State University San Marcos where I teach United States Social and Cultural History, African American History, Film History, and Digital History. In addition to The Black Cabinet, I am also the author of three other books. Two of my books have been optioned for film and I have consulted on PBS documentaries. I believe that knowing history is necessary and practical, especially in these times. At this critical point, we can draw much wisdom from the lessons of Black history and the history of the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


I wrote...

The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt

By Jill Watts,

Book cover of The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt

What is my book about?

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the Presidency in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, most Black Americans lived in poverty and were denied citizenship rights. As his New Deal was launched, a “Black Brain Trust” evolved within the administration and began documenting the inequalities that African Americans faced. Known as the Black Cabinet, they encountered an environment that was often hostile to change.

Black Cabinet members pushed to increase Black access to New Deal relief. Led by the dynamic educator Mary McLeod Bethune, they won several victories—the incorporation of anti-discrimination clauses into federal contracts, the creation of jobs and farming programs, and the growth of Black educational opportunities. But they also experienced defeats—FDR’s refusal to support federal anti-lynching legislation and the overall resistance to extending Black voting rights and ending segregation. The Black Cabinet never won official recognition, and with FDR’s death, it dissolved. But it had successfully laid the foundation for the later Civil Rights Movement.

The books I picked & why

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Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of F.D.R

By Nancy Joan Weiss,

Book cover of Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of F.D.R

Why this book?

Nancy Weiss traces how Black Americans, who traditionally voted Republican, abandoned the Party of Lincoln for the Democrats during the Roosevelt era. By 1932, Black dissatisfaction with the GOP had surfaced and centered on Herbert Hoover’s mishandling of the Great Depression. Although Hoover still won Black votes, Black Americans crossed over to support FDR in key electoral districts. Roosevelt’s New Deal economic programs neglected to remedy Black poverty and inequality but the President’s progressive reputation made him popular with many in the Black community. Creative campaign strategies targeting the Black community increased Black support for FDR and solidified the Democratic party’s hold on Black votes in 1936 and 1940. This important transformation shaped the future of the America political landscape and increased Black voices in the American political process.

Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era

By Patricia Sullivan,

Book cover of Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era

Why this book?

In a pathbreaking examination of the New Deal and race, Patricia Sullivan does a deep dive into how the Roosevelt administration’s policies played out and, in most cases, failed Black people. While that story is a disappointing one, she also shows how the era created opportunities for a biracial coalition of Black and white progressives to come together to push for a vision of a revitalized American Democracy based in racial equality. Sullivan offers compelling accounts of the dynamic leadership provided by the NAACP, Black New Dealers, and Black activists in challenging American racism as they worked with white allies. It was these interracial crusades that began to flourish during the Roosevelt era that would provide a model for later collaboration during the Freedom Movement campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s.

12 Million Black Voices

By Richard Wright,

Book cover of 12 Million Black Voices

Why this book?

In this moving work, writer Richard Wright offers a personal and eyewitness testimony of the Black experience during the Roosevelt years. The text is emotional and functions simultaneously as art and history; as poetry and social criticism. A celebration of Black perseverance, he explores Black life in the farm belt and in urban areas. Born in Mississippi and a Chicago resident, Wright was uniquely positioned to offer this holistic expose on American racism and the New Deal’s failure to address discrimination and Black poverty. During the Great Depression, the Work Progress Administration’s Federal Writers Project supported him as he wrote his acclaimed novel Native Son. Accompanied by Edwin Rosskam’s photographs, Wright documents suffering, remembrance, resilience, and resistance: “What we want, what we represent, what we endure is what America is.”

The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice

By Patricia Bell-Scott,

Book cover of The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice

Why this book?

In this engaging read, Patricia Bell-Scott explores the close relationship shared between Black feminist activist, lawyer, and writer Pauli Murry and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. This is a story of two divergent lives becoming intertwined as both women fought for self-definition and for their respective causes. One of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century, Murray did not hesitate to criticize the Roosevelts. Nonetheless she was not only able to secure support from Eleanor Roosevelt for civil rights causes but also transform, in many instances, the First Lady’s thinking on racial affairs. This book takes us beyond FDR’s death and demonstrates the lasting impact that Black leaders, who emerged during the 1930s and 1940s, and Eleanor Roosevelt subsequently made on Black American lives specifically and the nation as a whole.

Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era

By Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff,

Book cover of Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era

Why this book?

Sandwiched between the creative outpourings of the Harlem Renaissance and the Cold War, Black cultural expression during the Roosevelt years is often overlooked. Lauren Skalroff corrects this by exploring the various venues where Black artists contributed during the New Deal era. Black cultural workers encountered overwhelming discrimination as they navigated the world of art, theater, music, writing, radio, film, and other cultural outlets that were controlled by white Americans. But the New Deal’s arts programs did offer some opportunities for Black artistic autonomy and genuine expression. In some cases, Black artists were able, to a degree, to challenge negative stereotypes. Sklaroff builds the story chronologically and takes the reader through WWII showing how culture and political activism were intricately linked during two of the nation’s most historically challenging times.

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