Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

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

5. FDR Talks With Secretary of the Navy Knox. Side 1. 1972-2275. October 10, 1940.

Aide: There isn't a single Negro in the Navy, an officer. Four thousand seven Negroes out of a total force, at the beginning of 1940, of one hundred thirty nine thousand, all blacks are enlisted men.

FDR: Another thing, another thing Frank, that ah I forgot to mention, I told you about a few months ago, and that is this. We are taking a certain number of musicians on board ship, ah the ship's band. There's no reason why we shouldn't have a colored band on some of these ships, because they're darned good at it. And that's something we should - (interrupted, chatter, then various:)

...make a colored for leader in the band...


...Ah, the General is looking at me...

Knox: I'm on the defense, ah but a few points we talked of Monday. One is that if we try to...the men are going to think it's becoming a Negro boat, there is discrimination way down in the Navy. And the evidence in the matter is final...We've had contracts of forty-nine percent total...At seventy posts. At Pensacola, for example, there is ah improvement, it's difficult, very fine, four year course...The Navy feels they have a great interest (Right), an apprenticeship to the members of the board.

Aide: But Brown, Brown worked for the Army. (chatter)

FDR: I think we can work on that, get something done on it. (chatter)

Aide: ...Right now, the problem sticks like glue. In Charleston, South Carolina, they're practically all against - ( FDR: In Charleston?) In Charleston, yes.

FDR: Now sit down, let's think...Now, of course in the development of this work, you got to have somebody, I think we should put somebody in the Navy; you ought to have somebody in the office who will look after - (Aide speaks then). In the Navy Department in the old days I had a boy who volunteered by the name of Pryor. You've met Pryor? He used to be my colored messenger in the Navy Department. A young kid, and Louis Howe was terribly fond of him. And when we came back here in thirty-three, Louis Howe said to me, "the one man I want for my office is Pryor." Well, Pryor, is now one of the best fellows we've got in the office and he handles all of my cases from the Department of Justice. He summarizes the whole thing. Haven't you met Pryor? A great boy. I'm talking about the old days. He was just a clerk in the Navy Department, and I used him. People come to him with any kind of question. Can we do this? Can we do that? Can we get another opening there? And he was of very, very great service. I think you can do that in the Army and Navy, get somebody colored who will act as a, well as a clearinghouse...(chatter and joking)...

Knox: If we try to give you the benefit of the, or the proof of the damage (Yeah).. and these are the positions, about eighty five American Legion...posts...(chatter)...and I feel we can lower this...and in the last war they were worried about Texans, and noe Negroes sit in the White House.

FDR: I know, I know...Well, of course my letters have increased a bit from seven threatening letters a day to nearly forty. I feel alright. (laughter).

Knox: And I'm proud to say that people don't like me too - (laughter) Even in Congress!

FDR: Whose benefit?

Visitor: Those on the committee.

FDR: Whose introducing them?...No, but I mean the fact is...I see...Alright...and then we'll make the speech and then end up the speech by saying: "and now may I present these people," and have them walk on.