U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bleg: New Deal and Communists

I have a question and I am having trouble finding the answer:

I am writing about a black woman who was hired to work for the NRA in August 1933. A year prior, she had written in glowing terms about the Communist Party in the NAACP’s organ, The Crisis. Were the people who hired her ignorant of this connection, or did they not care that they were hiring a Communist fellow-traveler, if not a fully fledged member of the CP? Since I can’t find this answer in the primary sources (and believe me, I’ve looked), I’m looking for a more general answer to the question, In the early days of the New Deal (i.e. the first year), what was the administration’s attitude toward hiring communists, particularly in the non-artistic sections of the government? Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Favorable? Didn’t care one way or the other? Tried not to?

Some books I’ve tried to find the answer in:
Jerre Mangione, The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers’ Project, 1935-1943 [talks about Communists working for the New Deal, but not in the early days and not outside of the Writers’ Project].
Mark Solomon, The Cry was Unity: Communists and African Americans [perspective of Communists outside of the government]
Adam Cohen, Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America [About the administration’s attitudes and concerns, but doesn’t really mention Communists. Mentions Frances Perkins driving out the Garsson brothers, who made the Secretary of Labor’s office all about finding “illegal immigrants, particularly alleged Communists.”]

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. One thing to remember is that 1933 was not 1935. The Popular Front had yet to be declared and the CP was in no way allied with Roosevelt or the New Deal. And there were considerable tensions between the CP and NAACP over, e.g., the “Scottsboro Boys” case (I haven’t looked at it in a long time, but Jim Goodman’s book, Stories of Scottsboro might have some interesting material in this regard).

    Fraser Otanelli’s The Communist Party of the United States from the Depression to World War II provides a solid overview of this period in the CP’s history.

    Mark Naisson’s book on Communists in Harlem during the Depression and perhaps Robin Kelley’s excellent Hammer and Hoe (which deals with this period, but focuses on Alabama, so is probably less immediately relevant for your question) are also worth looking at.

  2. Hmmm, good suggestions. It does seem odd to me that they would hire a communist. I’m thinking more and more that they simply didn’t know. That the Crisis was big in black circles, but not in white and there was no need to inform the hiring group.

    It’s been awhile since I’ve read Naisson and Kelley, so I’ll go back and check those. I haven’t read Otanelli before, so I’ll look at that as well. Thanks!

  3. I suggest you also look at Chapters 9 and 10 in Pauli Murray’s Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989). She was an African-American woman working in government funded programs between 1933 and 1936 in New York City and has some interesting things to say about attitudes towards communists.

  4. USDA had several lawyers on the left in the AAA general counsel’s office in the 1933-5 period (before being ousted over treatment of sharecroppers). Jerome Frank, Lee Pressman, Alger Hiss, Adlai Stevenson! Because Pressman and Hiss were both undercover, that says to me the attitude was not welcoming.

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