Cover Image: The Black Cabinet

The Black Cabinet

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

3.5 stars, rounded upward. 

The premise sounds exciting: a cabinet consisting of African-American luminaries that advised Franklin D. Roosevelt, widely regarded as the best president the U.S. has ever had; well, as far as white folks went, anyway. Wouldn’t it be cool if he had Black advisors, even if it was kept away from the public eye? 

It would have been cool, except mostly, he didn’t. Not really. 

My thanks go to Net Galley and Grove Atlantic for the review copy. This book is for sale now; in fact, it’s been for sale for a long time. I’m very late with this review, because I was very late finishing the book, because it depressed me so deeply that I couldn’t face it. 

Watts is a fine writer and has done the research. The issue for me is that this cabinet, which consisted of outstanding academics and other highly respected Black professionals, had incredibly little clout. They were kept secret. They were unofficial. And it sounds as though FDR tolerated them more than he appreciated them. Despite all of their labor and their eloquence, the New Deal left people of color standing in the rain without an umbrella. 

The 1930s were a dreadful time for African-Americans, to be sure. The Jim Crow stranglehold on the South, along with less formal, mostly uncodified discrimination in the North, made it more or less impossible for most bright young Black men to make any headway in their chosen professions, apart from within the Black community (and for Black women? Fuhgeddaboudit.) So, it made my heart sing to learn that there was this exceptional group that advised FDR; but actually, they got crumbs off the president’s table. It makes me a little bit ill to see that this huge study turned up so very little. 

For those still interested: there it is.
Was this review helpful?
Thank you to NetGalley for the advanced readers copy!

Just Wow! This book was HIGHLY educational for me! This was a topic I was not really aware of. I will not spoil the book, but I only make one demand---PLEASE READ!!! I promise is will be worth the read!
Was this review helpful?
History you didn't read in school about African Americans during FDR , wow, this book was so well researched and I learned so much. The black cabinet members were amazing people and I’m happy to have read this book. Thank you, Grove Press for this gifted copy.
Was this review helpful?
A Timely and Important Book! The Black Cabinet is a fantastic book! It is a must read I if you are at all interested in deeper American history. It is well written and full of heavily researched facts, the narrative takes you along as you watch history unfold and you learn about all these amazing people.
Was this review helpful?
Historical Fiction/Non-Fiction captivates me because I can see how our future was shaped from our past. While hard to read because of the emotional intensity of the subject matter, I learned so much. Highly recommend.
Was this review helpful?
An important topic that isn't covered enough in history courses but for me the writing style was so dry that it felt like a bit of an uphill climb. Though I pushed through and learned plenty along the way, I think this research could've been more narrative in style to make it more engaging. With so many figures mentioned, there were opportunities to up the story factor a bit. 

I'd recommend it if you're doing research on the topic but not as much if you're just looking for a compelling non-fiction read. I seem to be in the minority with this opinion though so it's worth checking out if the topic sounds interesting to you.

Note: I received a free electronic edition of this book via NetGalley in exchange for the honest review above. I would like to thank them, the publisher, and the author for the opportunity to do so.
Was this review helpful?
I have purchased this book for my antiracism and equity library at my organization. This book has been shared with over 350 staff and corps members and we are using it for our discussions this year about the history of Black americans.
Was this review helpful?
An incredible and necessary history with lots of rich detail about the role of black political life that has previously been unreported or undocumented, particularly the actions of Mary McLeod Bethune.
Was this review helpful?
"The Black Cabinet" is the unofficial name for a group of African Americans who were community leaders, scholars, and activists, with strong ties to the African American community. 
The Cabinet member who stood out as a trailblazer was its informal leader and organizer, Mary McLeod Bethune. Interestingly, during the Great Depression, Bethune and other Cabinet members were influential in getting Blacks to move their allegiance from the Republican party to Democratic party. 

One reason for Bethune’s success was her direct access to Eleanor Roosevelt. Thus, Bethune also had the ear of President Roosevelt. From the 1930s to 1940s, the mission of the Black Cabinet was to support policy change and civil rights under the Roosevelt administration. By mid-1935, there were 45 Blacks working in federal executive departments and New Deal agencies.

In this book, Author Jill Watts shares the history of the Black Cabinet’s membership and their good works. We get to meet nearly all of the movers and shakers, and see their rise through the group, and how they impacted Black communities. Watts is an excellent writer and storyteller and the content is well-researched. She pulls from official government documents, interviews and diaries. Due to the “informal” nature of the Cabinets, their meetings and documents were never recorded and/or distributed. It was a secret society of sorts.

"The Black Cabinet was a forum where problems could be discussed, and potential solutions developed. Members often made concrete decisions and carried out assignments . . . such as preparing memorandums for future meetings, presenting ideas to government officials or black leaders, and assembling information for release to the press. It became, as Al Smith described it, ‘a counsel of strategy’ that shared 'confidential inside information; as 'necessary ammunition for fighting the Negroes' cause.'”

I highly recommend this book as it documents a wealth of history and helps us view the country from the lens of Black community leaders and activists. Not unlike today, nine decades later, they pushed forward despite facing discrimination, segregation and systematic oppression.
Was this review helpful?
I had no idea that there were such powerhouses back in the background that tried to help move Blacks from Slavery to equality sooner than what I was taught in school — that of the 1960s.

I could tell that this book was well researched, it was presented not as a dry history book, but as a well conversational topic that fits the situation of the last few months. It helped me see that we have hidden too much history from our students, we have hushed discussions but don't really still talk about what is important and what is the problem. I hope that this book opens more people's eyes to how hard the Black leaders have worked to reach a day where equality isn't about lighter skin color, but a place we can all reside as the people that we are whether we are black, white, brown, or tan, Everyone wants the American dream, some people have just had to work harder to get even close to reaching it. 

4 stars!

Thank you Netgalley, Grove Atlantic, and Jill Watts for allowing me the opportunity to read this book in lieu of my honest review.
Was this review helpful?
Thorough historical account but lacking social context
Reviewed in the United States on July 26, 2020
We joined Mocha Girls Read in discussing The Black Cabinet. The group chat followed by the author chat gave value to this gem. Well written and thoroughly researched, this book gives depth to the phenomenal role of Mary McLeod Bethune, Robert C. Weaver,Walter White, and William Henry Hastie in Roosevelt's administration.

 The Black Cabinet should be added to the reading lists of political science classes and woven into reading groups hosted by civil rights advocates.  

Jill Watts presents the nuiances and strategic leadership this cabinet had to maneuver in order to move impactful policy that helped rebuild communities post the Great Depression.There is exception to the importance of this work when we look to find this historical account within the social context of Black life during the New Deal and after. We celebrate the instances where Watts presents the role and work ot the Black Press in this era. 

The Black Cabinet is not historical fiction nor biographical therefore the time commitment to complete the book may extend beyond expectation. But it's worth completing. 


Was this review helpful?
The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt is an interesting read. I am giving it four stars.
Was this review helpful?
Well researched and well-presented work on a piece of history that's under taught in both high schools and university history curriculum. As someone with a BA in History that focused on American history, much of this was new to me.

*ARC provided by Netgalley for an honest review.*
Was this review helpful?
You don't know what you don't know.

This book illuminated a part of American history that I just didn't know. I didn't know about this group of African American men and women who worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of black people in America. Mary McLeod Bethune's story should be taught in history classes in school. I learned so much about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and how his "black cabinet" influenced racial justice issues.

This is a powerful read for the America we have today. Jill Watts wrote a book about our history that we all should have known already. She points us back to our history so that we just might be able to move forward a little better than we currently are. 

The publisher made this book available via netgalley. This is my honest review.
Was this review helpful?
While normally not a huge fan of political history, it took me longer than usual to finish this book, it was a fascinating and illuminating read.
Was this review helpful?
This book pulls a great thread leading the reader from the formation of the first (short lived) Black Cabinet under Teddy Roosevelt through the second Black Cabinet under FDR. It gives full accounting to their successes, their failures, and their compromises. What it does best is gives agency to the members of the Black Cabinet instead of to FDR (who was largely non-responsive to them). This makes the old, basically taken for granted idea that FDR was able to shift the African American vote from Republican to Democrat on his own and created a Black Cabinet to help him with his ideas and turns it on its head. In reading this book, you understand that African Americans, frustrated with the Republicans decided to take their chances with Democrats and approached them about community outreach to switch the vote. Then, lobbied for government jobs so they could better the lives of African Americans and keep their vote on the Democratic side. To be honest, this story makes a whole lot more sense.

That being said, the book sometimes rolls into too detailed stories that tend to repeat themselves, making it a bit of a slog to get through at times. This would be my only criticism. Other than that, it is, on the whole, a great way to illuminate an important segment of history which has been pretty much overlooked in the mainstream.
Was this review helpful?
This book tells the story of the African Americans who were part of FDR's administration. I learned so much from reading this book, especially about Mary McLeod Bethune, who was so important and inspirational. Despite all of the facts, dates, and names, the book is very entertaining and easy to read. 

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC.
Was this review helpful?
This is an excellent resource on a time in history with an impressive and courageous group of individuals who sought to even the odds in Washington D.C. by representing African Americans on a national level. The tragedy that such a group ever ended proves that we still have a long way to go.
Was this review helpful?
In 1944 when it had reached its end, one member of the Black Cabinet wrote: “The black cabinet was a spite of what you’ve heard and read, there were a dozen Negro advisers in government who could mold governmental policy in housing, employment, legal, justice, education, health and relief.”

This book was really comprehensive, beginning with an earlier group of advisers in the early 1900s.  It’s primary focus, however, was on an informal group of African Americans hired by New Deal agencies and cabinet departments, including: Robert Vann, Henry Hunt, Eugene Kinckle Jones, Forrester Washington, Lawrence Oxley, William Thompkins, Bill Hastie and Robert Weaver. Mary McLeod Bethune, educator, feminist and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, was given extensive coverage. FDR wasn’t really interested in hearing the advice of the Black Cabinet members, but they persisted in trying every possible leverage they could summon. I’ve read several American history books in the last year and I’m a little tired of reading that the roadblock to doing what was right was always the desire to appease Southern voters. ‘Oh no, we can’t [abolish slavery, pass an anti-lynching law, desegregate the Navy, etc.], the South would never allow it.’  “....FDR and the Democrats had dispensed choice White House patronage positions to many white loyalists from below the Mason-Dixon line. This placed Roosevelt behind a solid barrier of white southerners who controlled the Oval Office.”

I found the book interesting and educational, but there was a little too much detail for me. There were so many attempts ( and failures) to make progress, and so much infighting. Nevertheless, I have nothing but respect and gratitude for those men and women who worked so hard for what they believed in. “While these members of the Black Cabinet diverged in backgrounds and approach, all agreed on two key points: they shared a common goal in securing human rights and social justice for African Americans; and they all maintained faith that American democracy and its system of government provided the framework through which that goal could be achieved.”

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
Was this review helpful?
4.5/5 stars

I approached Jill Watt’s book with a little trepidation. I was intrigued by the concept and the topic because it’s not something I’ve ever heard of. History is not my profession, and I know there’s always more for me to learn. As the publication data approached I grew wary of reading it. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in learning about what was in it; I was just worried about my ability to comprehend what I read. Some of these more academic books can be really difficult to get into and read through. It doesn’t help that I’m a better reader when listening to audiobooks. Lucky for me, May was a tough month, and I was late to reading this. By the time I got to it the book was published. The audiobook was out. So I chose to listen to it. And I’m glad I did because I ended loving the audiobook. What’s more, I also think this would probably make a fantastic book to read physically as well.

The black cabinet first informally started in the age of Theodore Roosevelt, not long after the reconstruction when we begin to see a few black figures begin to get a voice in the federal government. Unfortunately this is also the time of the reconstruction when the federal government was supposed to be keeping the South from implementing things like Jim Crow, basically forcing them to follow the law rather than be resistant as they were prone to do.

Unfortunately, black Americans proved to be more trouble than it was worth, so the Republican party decided to let it go. Any issues to do with black Americans was put to the sideline. Voices were ignored and after Theodore Roosevelt left the office the few people in the black cabinet were removed from the federal government and lost any sway they might have had. A few presidencies passed and we begin to see a few voices pushing back on this idea that the Republican party as the party of African Americans.

African-Americans may have played a part in the election of Woodrow Wilson, but that democratic win was also in part due to a third party candidate. Around the time of FDR we begin to see black Americans really pushing for his election. We see people thinking that this might be the candidate who can represent them and can make things happen.

When he finally is elected, we begin to see a few African Americans again in positions of power. They weren’t a cohesive group of people, nor was it anything formal orchestrated by FDR. These were just a few individuals placed throughout the federal government or in organizations tied to the government. In fact fractions begin to form as certain African Americans push back against each other in the fight for civil rights and equality.

Income Mary Bethune and things change. Where there was a fraction there was now a group of people held together by this amazing woman who was capable of inspiring and leading them into standing together. Across FDR’s several administrations, they would go on to decrease black unemployment and increase funding in black American education. They fought for in the military, but this battle was not completed before FDR’s death in his fourth term.

While by the end of the book we may begin to feel a bit disenfranchised by all the ways in which they failed to get everything they had strove for, Watts still helps us recognize that despite their shortcomings they played an immeasurable part in the move towards civil rights. They set the stage for Kennedy who introduced the civil Rights act. Even before him, FDR’s successor would go on to desegregate the military, something FDR fought against out of fear or apathy. Of course, eventually Johnson would sign into law the civil rights act. Johnson had a had a relationship with Bethune before he took office, and it is impossible to measure the effect that kind of connection may have had on him. Many of the civil rights figures, who you may be more familiar with, were inspired by people like Mary Bethune.

In all of this, FDR is often remembered as being responsible for putting together this group of people to help advise him. However, that is not the case. The reason in which they could not get everything they wanted was because of FDR and his cabinet. FDR may not have played an active role in fighting them, but he stood by and let the rest of his administration do that for him. Either out of a desire to prevent it or a apathy toward African American, he would consistently fail to act. Any of the few actions that may have happened under his presidency were done very much against his will. To him the problems about the Americans were too much of a risk.

In his death he may have been memorialized as this civil rights figure, but it is important to recognize that the progress of his time was not due to him. It was due to this group of people who fought him every step of the way. While his untimely death (well he did get elected four times) may have caused a slight rewriting of history, it’s important to remember that this was because of a group of African Americans who put themselves at risk to fight for equality and they deserve to be remembered. What’s more, I think this book is very relevant today when we think about the existing inequalities whose existence is similarly denied or marked as unavoidable. What’s more, it speaks to the need for representation. When people say why do we need a women of color VP, this is why. They aren’t just overlooked when qualified, their viewpoints are necessary to truly overcome our inequalities.

Now the book itself was fantastic. There were times where I got a bit lost. A part of that is just because it is very detailed, and there are a lot of names we need to remember. Mary Bethune is just a leader here, and there are four or five other important figures who you might want to take note of. I mentioned them in my video review and vlog. Watts begins the book with an introduction where she talks about this basic setup of Bethune guiding the black cabinet and her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt and how FDR really played no part in the black cabinet. However, I would have liked if she had mentioned the other key figures there too just so that I would have known to keep an eye out for those figures. When we’re talking about so many different individuals in history, it’s easy for these more significant individuals to get lost in the details. Once I identified them I did a better job keeping up, but that was really my only complaint in this book.

However, even with that one complaint I never stopped being thoroughly engaged. I enjoyed reading this. I did not want to stop; I wanted to find out what happened next even if have a general idea of what was to come. I was also just very excited to learn about history and politics. I’m excited to continue learning and to find other resources about the past. I’m interested in learning more about the civil rights movement and the different people who played a role in the past and the intricacies that are often lost in the history books. For that, I applaud Watts.

I adore this book, and I’m so happy that I read it. Any hesitation I had about it being too academic or too difficult to read was wrong. I highly recommend this book if you have any interest in the history of civil rights movement or politics because it is fascinating for all of those reasons.
Was this review helpful?