The Beautiful Minds: The secret history of the Black Brain Trust

During Black History Month, theGrio’s weekly series, “The Secret History of…” will dive into lesser-known details of some of the most popular stories from Black history.

(lllustrator: Maurice James, @art4theblackmarket_)

This story is about how America defeated the Nazis. This is the origin story of critical race theory, the great migration and the civil rights movement. It’s also the tale of the first Black member of a presidential cabinet, peace in the Middle East and how a Black woman took the infamous Caucasian phrase “one of my best friends is Black” and used it to recruit, organize and form a coalition of brilliant Black minds that would change Black America forever.

It’s no secret that President Franklin Roosevelt was racist. To be fair, when he was elected in 1936, racism was almost a prerequisite for being CEO of America, Inc. Roosevelt’s predecessor was so racist that Black voters said: “To hell with this party,” making Herbert Hoover the last Republican presidential candidate to win the Black vote. Roosevelt was still a bigot, though. He put Hugo Black, an inexperienced Klansman, on the Supreme Court. He invited the white Olympic champions to the White House but snubbed Jesse Owens after what still stands as one of the Olympic performances of all time. He refused to support anti-lynching legislation, signed an executive order interning Japanese Americans and wasn’t very concerned with the Holocaust. Perhaps Mary McLeod Bethune was the only one who could speak to FDR in the African-American dialect known as “keeping it real,” for one reason: 

Eleanor Roosevelt loved her some Mary McLeod Bethune.

A half-length portrait of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt with Mary McLeod Bethune and Nell Hunter (face masked off), 1940. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

Eleanor and Bethune’s friendship predated Roosevelt’s presidency and Bethune even chilled at FDR’s mama’s house, so he had no choice but to respect the relationship between his cousin/wife and Bethune. Plus, he rarely came in contact with people of the negro persuasion, so when the president tapped Bethune as the director in the National Youth Administration’s Division of Negro Affairs, he believed her when she told him that the Black scholars she knew were actually more intelligent than the white boys in his administration. Bethune convinced Roosevelt that, if he tapped into this genius for an actual Black agenda, Black voters who traditionally voted for Republicans might be willing to switch their support to the Democratic Party. As racist as he was, Roosevelt was also a politician. 

He took up Bethune’s offer and had her organize a group of the most innovative Black thinkers in the country, who eventually became known as the Black Cabinet, the Black Brain Trust or the Federal Council of Negro Affairs. Although the group was not an official government entity (they took no notes and usually gathered in Bethune’s apartment or her office as a backchannel on policy for Black America), these brilliant men and women collaborated on legislation, economic development and, in many cases, penned the laws that would affect Black Americans throughout the country.

In the mid-1930s, when Roosevelt became president, white folks were doing badly. To lift America out of this Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal created massive economic programs sponsored by the federal government. Programs like the new Social Security Administration gave people financial security, the Works Progress Administration gave people jobs, and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) refinanced mortgages at low-interest rates to prevent foreclosures. Although Roosevelt’s New Deal built what we now call “the middle class,” the most significant government program in the history of this country largely excluded Black people. 

Lawrence Oxley, a professor at historically Black St. Augustine College, appointee to the Department of Labor and one of the Black Brain Trustees, wanted in on the deal. He gained control of North Carolina’s Division of Negro Relief and created a program for unemployment relief and this crazy idea called the “Black minimum wage,” which was eventually adopted by the Roosevelt administration. Outside of his job in the Labor Department, he began writing articles explaining how Black people could take advantage of these new programs. He and Bethune convinced the president to set aside 300,000 public works jobs for African Americans and devote 10 percent of the WPA’s spending to African Americans. 

When the Black Cabinet somehow convinced Franklin Roosevelt to include funds for interviewing former slaves for the Federal Writers Project, Hampton University professor Roscoe E. Lewis ensured that “the Negro [was] not neglected in any of the publications written by or sponsored by the Writers’ Project.” The Negro in Virginia interviewed ex-slaves and traced the history of enslaved Africans in America from 1619 through the Reconstruction from a Black point of view.  

Before Crystal Bird joined the Black Cabinet as race relations adviser to the Office of Civilian Defense, she had already met activist and civil rights activist Arthur Faucet. After the two married and she became the first Black woman elected to the Pennsylvania legislature, Roosevelt needed Faucet and Bethune to talk to one of the most revolutionary rabble-rousers in America, Asa Philip Randolph.

A. Philip Randolph was always up to something. 

8/28/1963-Washington, D.C.: The statue of Abraham Lincoln, the President who freed the slaves, serves as a symbolic backdrop for civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph at the Lincoln Memorial. Randolph, March on Washington director, and other civil rights leaders addressed the demonstrators.

A socialist union leader and an unapologetic radical, Randolph wasn’t a member of the Black Cabinet. Still, the Brain Trust knew the power and influence he wielded among the Black working class. Roosevelt was kinda preoccupied with this little thing called World War II, so he dismissed Randolph’s threats of a large-scale protest in Washington until the Black Cabinet told the president: “Trust me, you wanna listen to ol’ boy. He don’t play.”

One day before Randolph’s big protest in the nation’s capital, Roosevelt met with Randolph and put the Black Cabinet in charge of addressing the issue of discrimination in the workplaces of defense contracts preparing for World War II. Howard University professor Rayford Logan, another member of the Brain Trust, drafted Executive Order 8802, declaring that “there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in the defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” The order didn’t just enforce equality in the defense industry; it would eventually lead to the wholesale desegregation of the American military and shift the demographics of the American map.

The Smithsonian’s American Experience notes

“The mobilization of the American wartime economy in 1942 produced more than $100 billion in government contracts in just six months, creating a plethora of new job opportunities in the North, the predominant area of manufacturing. Industrial hubs such as New York City, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Detroit were attractive due to the number of jobs available to blacks. Over 1 million African Americans would join the workforce during World War II. Industrial jobs were particularly appealing to younger African Americans because of the assistance they could receive through free government training programs sponsored by the National Youth Administration. The agency, part of the Works Progress Administration, aimed to train and educate American youth, ages 16-25. 

Historians now call it “The Second Great Migration.”

With such a momentous victory under their belt, one would assume the Black Cabinet would leave well enough alone. “But more can be done,” Bethune wrote in a letter to Roosevelt on November 27, 1939. “One of the sorest points among Negroes which I have encountered is the flagrant discrimination against Negroes in all the armed forces of the United States. Forthright action on your part to lessen discrimination and segregation and particularly in affording opportunities for the training of Negro pilots for the air corps would gain tremendous goodwill, perhaps even out of proportion to the significance of such action.” The Black Cabinet didn’t just make the suggestion that Roosevelt introduce Black pilots to the Army’s newly created “Air Force,” they went ahead and did it themselves.

Among the Army’s top brass, Black pilots flying airplanes was an insane idea. There hadn’t been an African-American pilot in the history of the U.S. Armed forces. And if you thought white people hated seeing uniformed Black soldiers being treated as heroes after World War I, can you imagine how furious they were about Black pilots flying the most sophisticated aircraft in the world? Commanding officer Henry “Hap” Arnold was in dire need of pilots but admitted that a crew of African-American airmen “would result in Negro officers serving over white enlisted men, creating an impossible social situation.” Arnold added that, since the Armed Forces were segregated, there was no place to train them and no funds to build an entirely new training facility. 

The July 1940 cover of the NAACP’s publication The Crisis illustrated the betrayal Black American’s felt: “Warplanes: Negro Americans may not build them, repair them, or fly them, but they must help pay for them.” However, the Black Cabinet was fine about the Army’s decision…because they had already found a solution. Unbeknownst to most of America, the Black Cabinet had privately convinced the White House to tack a benign provision—Public Law 18—onto a military appropriations bill intended to prepare the nation’s armed forces for war. The addendum included funds for historically Black colleges, designating one as a site for the Civilian Pilot Training Program, a non-military aviation program that found qualified civilian pilots and trained them as pilots. Because the Civilian Pilot Training Program wasn’t technically part of the military, the historically Black colleges had been sending prospective pilots to train at a school in Alabama, which used funds from Public Law 18 to recruit, test and train Black pilots using the exact same methods employed at nearby Maxwell Air Base in Montgomery. Still, they needed a platform to prove they were as good as the white boys. Naturally, the Black Cabinet had a literal ace up their sleeve.

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt with Aubrey Williams, right, executive director of the National Youth Administration, and Mary McCleod Bethune, NYA director of Negro Activities, at the opening session of the National Conference on Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth, being held under the auspices of NYA in Washington.

On March 29, 1941, Eleanor arrived in Alabama to attend a trustee meeting for the Rosenwald Fund. This charity donated millions to Black educational institutions, including Bethune-Cookman College, founded by Eleanor’s old friend, Mary McCleod Bethune. After her morning meetings, the first lady took a day trip to Tuskegee’s flight training site, where she met C. Alfred Anderson, a Black pilot. Ignoring the protests of her Secret Service officers, Eleanor asked Anderson to take her on a short flight. Forty minutes later, the first lady told Anderson: “Well, you can fly alright.” 

Four months later, on July 19, 1941, the Army welcomed Class 42-C, the U.S. military’s first all-Black class to train as combat pilots. Even though Tuskegee had identified, trained and qualified the Black civilian pilots for flight school, the Army still resisted. Citing the military’s segregation policy, the top brass still insisted there was no place to complete their military training. But this is where Bethune’s seemingly innocuous plan came together. 

After Eleanor’s flight, someone arranged a loan from the Rosenwald Fund to build Moten Airfield, where the soldiers could complete their first phase of training. And because Executive Order 8802 forbade discrimination in awarding defense contracts, Black-owned contracting firm McKissack & McKissack, Inc. won the $1,663,057 bid to build a state-of-the-art training facility. Using the fund from Public Law 18, a design by African-American architect Hilyard Robinson and labor from 2,000 of those Black public works employees the Black Cabinet had lobbied for, in six months McKissack & McKissack completed Tuskegee Army Air Field—the only Army site that hosted three phases of pilot training (basic, advanced, and transition) at a single location. 

On June 11, 1943, 78 Germans and 11,121 Italians surrendered on the Mediterranean island of Pantelleria. In the entire military history of the world, a land force had never been defeated by an air-only assault until the very first mission of the 99th Pursuit Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Force or, as we call them…

The Tuskegee Airmen. 

Tuskegee Airmen stand with an airplane and prepare to receive commissions and wings from Colonel Kimble, Commanding Officer of the Tuskegee Army Flying School, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1942. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

For years, this league of extraordinary gentlemen and women would quietly advocate for political, educational and economic inclusion for Black America. Ralph Bunche, a leader in the decolonization movement, founder of the United Nations and—for negotiating a cease-fire between Palestine and Israel—was the first person of African descent to win a Nobel Peace Prize. He was in the Black Cabinet. So was Henry Hunt, an advocate for Black farmers credited for creating Flint River Farms, a settlement in Macon County, Ga. that gave 11,000 acres of land from former plantations to Black farmers. 

The first Black federal judge, governor of the Virgin Islands and Howard Law professor William H. Hastie was also part of the Black Brain Trust. It was rumored that John F. Kennedy wanted to appoint Hastie to the Supreme Court, but his comments on race may have sunk his chances. Another member, Charles Hamilton Houston, was involved with every significant civil rights case between 1930 and Brown vs. Board of Education. His Houston & Gardner law firm became the training ground for 10 Black federal judges and his legal strategy of showing that separate could not be equal earned him the nickname: “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.”

Robert C. Weaver, a former housing authority administrator, pushed for government programs to help Black homeowners. During the Kennedy administration, Weaver proposed a position to combat housing discrimination but was passed over for the leadership because he wasn’t a politician. In 1966, Weaver became the first Black cabinet member in U.S. history when Lydon B. Johnson appointed him secretary of the executive level department Weaver created—Housing and Urban Development. Two years later, Congress passed two laws Weaver had pushed for more than a quarter-century: The 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Weaver’s dreams were never realized. Johnson’s paternalistic policy that resulted from his plan herded poor Black workers into “housing projects” instead of what Weaver imagined–a program similar to what the New Deal had done for whites. Weaver retired from civil service.

Dr. Ralph Bunche, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1950, attends the October 25th Security Council Meeting as seen here in Lake Success.

One week after the Fair Housing Act passed, a young civil rights leader named Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. While he was too young to be a member of the Black Brain Trust, he had a connection. In 1963, King was trying to develop an idea on how his Southern Christian Leadership Conference could push President Kennedy to pass civil rights legislation. King’s adviser, Bayard Rustin, informed King that dreaming up a new idea wasn’t necessary; there was an app for that. When Rustin and A. Philip Randolph pulled out the plan for the protest, King realized that he didn’t even need to name the event. When the Black Brain Trust’s executive averted the planned protest, they had already named it:  

The March on Washington Movement.

The Black Cabinet is why every Black movement has been accused of “Communism” and “socialism.” This is why there are large Black populations in cities like Detroit, Chicago and Washington, D.C. This is how the GOP became the party of small government. This explains how the white middle class was built on government handouts while the Balck middle class was built from the fruit of their own labors. It shows how policy must back protest. This is why a majority of Black voters haven’t voted for a Republican president since 1936. It wasn’t because of Franklin Roosevelt or white liberals or the “gubbment” giving anything to African America. 

One last thing:

In 1924, historian Carter G. Woodson created “Negro History and Literature Week,” an initiative for his Omega Psi Phi fraternity that focused on learning about African-American achievement. The idea took off and his frat brothers thought it could be bigger. Fortunately, Woodson had a few connections, because at least 10 members of his fraternity—Robert C. Weaver, Lawrence Oxley, Roscoe Brown, Frank Horne, William Hastie, J. Arthur Weiseger, Ted Poston, Campbell C. Johnson and William Trent—were members of the Federal Council of Negro Affairs. With their help and the urging of Mary McLeod Bethune, Omega Psi Phi’s Achievement Week eventually became known as Black History Month.

As Mary Mcleod Bethune said:

Not only the Negro child but children of all races should read and know of the achievements, accomplishments, and deeds of the Negro. World peace and brotherhood are based on a common understanding of the contributions and cultures of all races and creeds.

If they only knew.

Michael Harriot

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.

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