Lasting from 1929 to 1939, the Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in the industrialized world. While no group escaped the economic devastation of the Great Depression, few suffered more than African Americans. Said to be “last hired, first fired,” African Americans were the first to see hours and jobs cut, and they experienced the highest unemployment rate during the 1930s. Since they were already relegated to lower-paying professions, African Americans had less of a financial cushion to fall back on when the economy collapsed.

The Great Depression impacted African Americans for decades to come. It spurred the rise of African American activism, which laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The popularity of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal program also saw African Americans switch their political allegiances to become a core part of the Democratic Party’s voting bloc.

African American unemployment rates doubled or tripled those of whites.

Prior to the Great Depression, African Americans worked primarily in unskilled jobs. After the stock market crash of 1929, those entry-level, low-paying jobs either disappeared or were filled by whites in need of employment. According to the Library of Congress, the African-American unemployment rate in 1932 climbed to approximately 50 percent.

As historian Cheryl Lynn Greenberg writes in To Ask for an Equal Chance: African Americans in the Great Depression, black unemployment rates in the South were double or even triple that of the white population. In Atlanta, nearly 70 percent of black workers were jobless in 1934. In cities across the North, approximately 25 percent of white workers were unemployed in 1932, while the jobless rates among African Americans topped 50 percent in Chicago and Pittsburgh and 60 percent in Philadelphia and Detroit.

During the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of African-American sharecroppers who fell into debt joined the Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North. According to Greenberg, by 1940 1.75 million African Americans had moved from the South to cities in the North and West.

African Americans formed grassroots organizations, uniting for economic and political progress.

From the Great Depression’s earliest days, African Americans mobilized to protest for greater economic, social and political rights. In 1929, Chicago Whip editor Joseph Bibb organized boycotts of city department stores that refused to hire African Americans. The grassroots protests against racially discriminatory hiring practices worked, resulting in the employment of 2,000 African Americans. The “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” boycotts and pickets soon spread to other cities across the North.

The decade of the 1930s saw the growth of African American activism that presaged the Civil Rights Movement. In 1935, Mary McLeod Bethune organized the National Council of Negro Women, and the following year saw the first meeting of the National Negro Congress, an umbrella movement of diverse African-American organizations that fought for anti-lynching legislation, the elimination of the poll tax and the eligibility of agricultural and domestic workers for Social Security. Young African Americans in 1937 formed the Southern Negro Youth Congress registered voters and organized boycotts.

Mary McLeod Bethune , NYA Director of Negro Activities, speaking with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with Aubrey Williams, Executive Director of the National Youth Administration, at the opening session of the National Conference on Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth, 1937. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Mary McLeod Bethune, NYA Director of Negro Activities, speaking with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with Aubrey Williams, Executive Director of the National Youth Administration, at the opening session of the National Conference on Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth, 1937.

The African-American vote helped elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, for the first time switching to the Democratic Party.

For decades prior to the Great Depression, African Americans had traditionally voted for the Republican Party, which was still seen as the party of emancipation from the days of Abraham Lincoln. The presidential election of 1932, however, saw a sea-change as African Americans began to switch their political allegiance to the Democratic Party. “My friends, go turn Lincoln’s picture to the wall,” Pittsburgh Courier editor Robert Vann implored African Americans in 1932. “The debt has been paid in full.”

In an oral interview, historian John Hope Franklin said African Americans were drawn to Franklin D. Roosevelt after years of inactivity under Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. “He had a purpose, had a message, had a program. And it seemed that was better than the inertia that preceded things,” he said.

Franklin also said African Americans could identify with Roosevelt’s personal struggles. “Roosevelt inspired large numbers of blacks, I think in part because he was handicapped himself. And although was not publicized as much as it might have been, blacks knew that he was a victim of polio, that he couldn’t walk, and that he had overcome these handicaps.”

Since Roosevelt needed the support of Southern Democrats to pass his New Deal agenda, he did not advocate for the passage of federal anti-lynching law or embrace efforts to ban the poll tax that prevented many African Americans from voting. Yet, the economic support received by African Americans under the New Deal solidified their newfound loyalty to the Democratic Party. By 1936, more than 70 percent of African Americans voted for Roosevelt, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

What was the 'Black Cabinet' during Roosevelt’s presidency?

Roosevelt appointed far more African Americans to positions within his administration than his predecessors, and he was the first president to appoint an African American as a federal judge. According to the Roosevelt Institute, FDR tripled the number of African Americans working in the federal government.

New Deal officials appointed African Americans as special advisors. Although none actually filled cabinet-level positions, these public policy advisors were referred to as the “Black Cabinet” and the “Black Brain Trust.” Perhaps the best-known member of the Black Cabinet was its only woman, Bethune, a close friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and founder of Bethune-Cookman University.

New Deal programs, however, still discriminated against African Americans.

Although New Deal programs provided African Americans with badly needed economic assistance, they were administered at a state level where racial segregation was still widespread, and systemically, enforced. The New Deal did little to challenge existing racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws prevalent during the 1930s.

The Civilian Conservation Corps established racially segregated camps, while the Federal Housing Administration refused to insure mortgages in African American neighborhoods. The Agricultural Adjustment Association gave white landowners money for keeping their fields fallow, but they were not required to pass any money to African American sharecroppers and tenant farmers who farmed the land and were not eligible for Social Security benefits.