Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

Transcripts of White House Office Conversations, 08/22/1940 - 10/10/1940

4. FDR Meets With Black Leaders. Side 1, 1637-1972. September 27, 1940.

Randolph: Certainly it would mean a great deal to the morale of the Negro people if ah you could make something up and allow Negros to stay in the armed forces of the nation... it would have a tremendous -

FDR: (before Randolph is finished) I'm making a, I'm making a national defense speech around the middle of hte month, about the draft as a whole, and what it'll be, and so forth, that thing got in.

Randolph: I thought I might say on the part of the Negro people, they feel they are not wanted in the armed forces of the country, and they feel they have earned the right to participate in every phse of the government by virtue of their record in past wars since the time of the Revolution. And consequently, we are without regards to political contexture, without regards to any type of ideal, Negroes were moved and they feel that they are being shunted about, and that they are not wanted now. (chatter)

FDR: The main point to get across is, in ah building up, as Jack Garner put it, the "draft," that we are not, as you saw so much in the World War, confing the Negro into the noncombat services. We're putting 'em right in, proportionately, into the combat services.

Randolph: We feel that's fine.

FDR: Which is something.

(A black leader other than Randolph says words to the effect that blacks ought to be given their own divisions or regiments, and the opportunity to prove their value on their own. He claims this would be the surest proof that could be found of the Negro's ability, and that it would create the least amount of friction between the races.)

FDR: Now, the thing is, we've got to work within this. Now, take the, the divisional organization, what are you going to do with the division, about twelve thousand men? Yes, and ah, twelve, fourteen thousand men. Now suppose you have, ah, one, ah, what do they call those, what do they call those gun units? What? One battery, would make you proof, and well, in there in that battery, like their from New York and another regiment, or battalion, that's half of a regiment, of Negro troops. They go into a division, a whole division of twelve thousand, you may have a Negro regiment in the woods here, and right over here on my right in line would be a white regiment. In the same division. Maintain the divisional organization. Now what happens? After a while, in case of wr, those people get shifted from one to the other. The thing gets sort of backed into. You have one one battery out of a regiment of artillery, ah, that would be a Negro battery, with a white battery at the end, maybe a nearby battery, and, and, gradually working in the field together, you may back into it. (chatter).

Randolph: It seems that idea is working in the field of organized labor. Now, for instance, there are unions where you have equal participation. ( FDR: Yes) Where you even have Negroes who are ( FDR: Yes) part of...and that's the same as the whites. And if it can work, if it can work out, on the basis of democracy in the trade unions, it can in the army, and -

FDR: Up on the Hudson River where Judege Parchman and I come from, we have a lot of brickworks, ( Randolph: Oh, yes) up around Fishkill, the old brickworks, and heavens, they have the same union where the white workers and the Negro workers do most of the brickwork, and they get along, no trouble at all.

White: That's true, and when they come out of the union and into the army, there will be no justification for separating them.

Randolph: Secretary Knox, of the Navy, what's the position of the Navy on the integration of the Negro into the Navy in com -

Knox: We have a factor in the Navy that is not so in the Army, and that is that these men live aboard ship. And in our history, we don't take Negroes into a ship's company, we don't sign Negroes to the list. And you can't have separate ships with a Negro crew...

FDR: If you could have a Northern ship and a Southern ship, it would be different. But you can't do that. (he laughs, then chatter)...

Knox: I'm thinking through the President...the news conference -

FDR: Now, I think that the proportion is going up, from what has reached me, but in the old days, um up to a few years ago, up to the time of the Phillippine independent department, there was something like seventy-five or eighty percent of ah the mass of people on board ship, ah, were Filipino, and of course we've taken in no Filipinos now...taken in no Filipinos whatsoever. And what were doing, where we put them, with their color code, they are brown, next step, and so on and so forth, and in that field they can get up to, the hallowed ranking of a chief petty officer. The head mess attendant on a cruiser or a battleship is a chief petty officer.

Randolph: Is there at this time a single Negro in the navy of officer status?

Knox: There are 4.007 Negroes out of a total force at the beginning of 1940 of 139,000. They are all messmen's rank. (chatter)

FDR: I think, another thing, Frank [Knox], that I forgot to mention, I though of it about a month ago, and that is this.

We are training a certain number of musicians on board ship. The ship's band. There's no reason why we shouldn't have a colored band on some of these ships, because they're darn good at it. That's something we should look into. You know, if it'll increase the opportunity, that's what we're after. They may develop a leader of the band...

White: There is discrimination in the army and in the navy, and in the Air Corps, in labor in the navy yards, and particularly in industry which has contracts for the naitonal defense program. I've just completed an article, I hope it's the last draft, for the Saturday Evening Post , which I gather you know about.

FDR: Yeah, yeah.

White: But in Pensacola, for example, there is an apprentice school, which gives a very fine course, a four-year course, for free. But there are no Negroes allowed to go into it. And apprenticeship is tremendously important.

FDR: For flying? Ground work?

Patterson: Ground crews.

FDR: I think we can work on that. Get something done on that. (chatter)

White: In Charleston, South Carolina, they practically ousted all skilled and semi-skilled Negroes.

FDR: In Charleston?

White: In Charleston, yes.

FDR: Of course, on the development of this work, you've got to have somebody, for instance in the navy, you've got to have somebody [black] in the office who will look after it.

In the last Navy Department, in the old days, I had a boy who was out here by the name of Pryor. Do you know Pryor? He used to be my colored messenger in the Navy Department. He was only a kid. I gave him to Louis Howe, who was terribly fond of him. Then when he came back here in 1933, Louis Howe said to me, "The one man I want in the office is Pryor."

Well, Pryor now is one of the best fellas we've got in the office...

I think you can do that in the army and the navy. Get somebody, a boy who will act as the clearinghouse.

White: An assistant, responsible to the Secretary. I want to see you about that.

FDR: He's giving you what you call the silent treatment! Ha, ha, ha!

White: We took the liberty of putting this out. We finished that just in time to get one set, in which we tried to give you the benefit of the comments which are most important you should be most aware about. These are - I'm not going to leave them there, you've got enough reading matter - petitions from eighty-five American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts from California to Maine protesting against discrimination.

FDR: Yup, yup, yup, yup, yup.

Of course, what we're all after is to give some more opportunity. I used that boy as an example, Walter. I had entirely forgotten about the possibility of a Negro band, to increase the opportunity. The more of those we can get, a little opportunity here, a little opportunity there.

White: Here we've been loyal in the last war - remember when they were worried about protecting Woodrow Wilson? They ordered Negroes to protect the White House. I've been trying to get - (FDR cuts him off)

FDR: I know it, I know it. Yeah. Well, of course, my letters are increased a bit from twenty threatening letters a day to nearly forty. But I feel all right! Ha! Ha! Goodbye!

Randolph: You're looking fine, Mr. President, and I'm happy to see you again. Well, I'm proud to say that people don't like me, too. Even in Congress!

FDR: Bye!

Voices: Goodbye, Mr. President.