The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, June 24, 2004
 

Did Warren Harding desegregate federal offices?


One of those pebble in the shoe points, this.

David Bernstein is piqued by some survey or other placing Warren Harding as worst US president to list some of his accomplishments. Included in the list is:
after the horribly racist Wilson years, undoing Wilson's segregation of federal offices, supporting anti-lynching legislation, and delivering a bold speech (in Birmingham!) in favor of equality for African Americans;

Now, Wilson is a character whom I loathe for his sanctimonious expansionism and the respectability his ism lends to modern-day missionary-adventurers (from various parts of the political spectrum) in their plans to win democracy for the world by blood and iron.

Wilson was a son of the Carolinas, and, as a boy, a witness of Radical Reconstruction; Thomas Dixon sang his life in The Leopard's Spots and The Clansman; yadda, yadda, history written in lightning.

Although he had [1] appealed to Negro voters (promising increased patronage jobs) and gained the endorsement of the NAACP (its first!), Congressional arithmetic demanded indulging the sensibilities of Southerners:
At a Cabinet meeting early in the Administration, Southern members expressed disingenuous concern over alleged friction between Negro and white government employees. Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, a Texan, proposed segregating the races to eliminate the supposed problem. Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo supported him. Burleson also claimed support for the idea from moderate Negro leaders such as Bishop Alexander Walters, president of the National Colored Democratic League. The rest of the Cabinet, along with the President, while not explicitly endorsing segregation, did not oppose it.

Burleson, it seems, was particularly thorough in implementing the policy at the Post Office. Other departments dragged their feet, and the enthusiasm for segretating Federal offices abated, such that,
while segregation remained entrenched in a few departments, the growth of the practice was largely halted by the end of 1913.

There seem to have been no further proposals to segregate Federal offices during the rest of Wilson's presidency.

What, then of Harding? The online evidence in favour of the desegregation contention that I've located is vanishingly thin, viz this piece:
In 1913, Wilson introduced segregation into the federal government...It was left to Wilson's successor, Republican Warren G. Harding to scrap the segregation policy.

Interestingly (well, barely), a second piece boosting Harding does not include desegregating Federal offices on the list of things for which we should be grateful.

Moreover, a third piece positively states:
Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge...failed to reverse the policy of segregation in the civil service that had been initiated by [Wilson]...

To judge by the Labor Department paper (the only half-decent source I've found on the subject), Federal offices in Washington were bequeathed to Harding in 1921 part segregated and part not and the presumption (weak as water!) must be that nothing changed until World War 2 at the earliest.

Further research is so necessary!

  1. My source a useful Department of Labor article on The Federal Government and Negro Workers Under President Woodrow Wilson.

    Other pieces of varying utility, whilst the URLs are to hand: here, here, here, here.



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