In 1928, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover took action for the civil rights of African Americans that was both momentous and ultimately trivial – he desegregated the Commerce Department.
As his assistant, George Akerson pointed out, the official policy of the Coolidge Administration was that segregation was prohibited in Federal employment. In reality, an “unwritten rule” had held sway for decades, especially in southern cities like Washington DC, whereby African Americans were relegated to the most menial jobs, and whenever possible, were physically segregated from white employees.
In March 1928, Hoover was approached by a group of prominent African American leaders led by Neval Thomas of the NAACP, with a number of suggestions for how the Commerce Department could assist African American communities. One issue they raised were complaints of segregation in the Census Bureau, a division of the Commerce Department. As a Quaker, Hoover believed in the fundamental equality of all people, and was uncomfortable with the racial attitudes of the time. He immediately requested a full report on the matter.
At that time, there were some 3800 employees in the Department of whom 900 were African American, mostly scattered in low-ranking positions throughout the various divisions. The report Hoover received explained, “The Bureau of the Census in the course of its work developed a division dealing with statistics, particularly affecting colored people, and in a desire to extend employment to colored members of the staff it placed this division in their control, and naturally the whole division was concentrated in one room.”
Further investigation revealed there were actually two segregated offices in the Census Bureau, totaling 23 employees, both tucked away in a basement. Hoover ordered that the two offices be broken up; the employees retained their same jobs, but were given workspaces among the white clerks.
Observers on both sides of the issue saw Hoover’s action as a significant departure from the status quo. Neval Thomas wrote to Hoover, “The colored people of the country are deeply sensible of the highminded statesmanship you showed in your abolition of the humiliation they suffered in the Census Bureau.” The Washington Eagle, a black newspaper, commented, “Unlike Ogden Mills, under secretary of the Treasury and Hubert Work, secretary of the Interior Department, Mr. Hoover did not vehemently deny the existence of segregation. He promised to investigate in a few days, which he did with the result that he quickly abolished the segregated area and the clerks who were jim-crowed were assimilated in the bureau among the other clerks. What Mr. Hoover has done in his department all of the other Cabinet officer could do were they so minded. The only difference between them and Mr. Hoover is that he has the necessary backbone to do the right things.”
Southern newspapers and politicians were quick to condemn Hoover. Senator Cole Blease of South Carolina accused Hoover of issuing the order for political purposes, to attract the vote of African Americans in the upcoming Presidential election in which Hoover was the leading Republican candidate.
Hoover sought to downplay his order as a small matter of simple fairness. When confronted with the laudatory comments published in the African American press, Hoover demurred, “The articles which you mention are in large degree foolish untruths. If such action as was taken is against the interest of either the white or colored employees, they have a full right to protest the matter to me. I have received no complaint from either group.”
Senator H. D. Stephens of Mississippi replied, “”…You may have received ‘no complaint’, but your knowledge of human nature and your sense of decency and propriety must cause you to know that the breasts of many of the employees in the bureau are seething with unuttered protests against the condition that you have brought about… This criticism is not a political one. It is made in the interest of decency and of the welfare of the Government. History can not be trifled with. Whenever there has been a step toward social equality between the races, dire results have followed, and both races have suffered.”
In the end, Hoover’s action did nothing to change the culture of segregation in Washington, and any good will he gained in the African American community soon evaporated. In the ensuing Presidential campaign, Hoover’s clumsy efforts to attract Southern whites to the Republican Party were widely interpreted as an attempt to sideline blacks. Even Neval Thomas became disillusioned with Hoover, and suggested that African American voters might be better off in the Democratic Party. Hoover’s honest desire for a color-blind political system was no match for the realities of Jim Crow.