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African Americans as Political Pariahs: Hoover and the Campaign of 1928

It does not matter a tinker’s damn which of these gentlemen succeed. —W. E. B. Du Bois

No one in our day has helped disenfranchisement and race hatred more than Herbert Hoover by his ‘lily-white’ policy. --W. E. B. Du Bois

In 1928 African Americans again faced the prospect of a presidential election in which both contenders were hostile in both word and deed toward them. Although both Democratic and Republican parties, pillars of the American two-party system, vied for the allegiances of Southern whites, the latter population were wary of both parties. Feeling that white supremacy was threatened by both Hoover, who had desegregated his Commerce Department, and by Smith who had supported some racially liberal measures in New York, foes of black progress were wary of the candidates’ policies. Both Democratic and Republican parties sought the black vote to varying degrees while attempting to distance themselves from blacks. Democratic presidential nominee Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York had the reputation of a liberal but personally remained mute with respect black interests although as governor he had outlawed the Ku Klux Klan. W. E. B. Du Bois noted that this was not because Smith did not need the black vote. Indeed, with the black migration northward into urban areas the significance of the black votes in presidential elections had grown dramatically. In the key states of New York, Illinois, and Ohio, for instance, 150,000, 175,000, and 125,000 African American voters, respectively, were capable of swaying a presidential election.

The 1928 presidential campaign was a memorable one that began to heat up in Houston, Texas where the 1928 Democratic Convention was held. With the tone of the convention set by a nearby lynching shortly before it began, inside the convention African American alternates and attendees were encaged within wire fencing in order to segregate them from the white Democrats. There were no black delegates and black participation in the convention was limited to a one hundred person choir that entertained the delegates for almost an hour. Segregationist Senator Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas was selected as Smith’s vice-presidential running mate reinforcing the image of hostility of the campaign to blacks.

Black frustration with the Republican Party and with their presidential candidate Herbert Hoover was at an all-time high. This gave the Democrat Smith an ideal opportunity to wrest the black vote from the Republican Party. At one point, the campaign of Smith launched in an effort to win black support enlisting an enthusiastic Walter White of the NAACP to lead the effort. Al Smith in seeking the support of Walter White said, “I know Negroes distrust the Democratic Party, and I can't blame them” but “I want to show them that the old Democratic Party, ruled entirely by the South is out, and that we northern Democrats have a totally different approach to the Negro” White said that Smith was “the best man for the Presidency” and that “his enemies. . . are the Negroes’ enemies.” As a result of this move, the enthusiastic White believed that the Republican stranglehold on African American national electoral politics would be loosened if not broken.

The NAACP leadership became embroiled in an intense internal debate on whether and how to support Smith. Their deliberations were interrupted by the shock of a lynching just before the convention was to begin. As this began to sink in they must have learned of the cages designed for their seating arrangements. The selection of Robinson as the vice presidential candidate settled the NAACP ‘s leadership debate. White’s optimism persisted for a brief period as he wrote to friends describing his dismay at the Democrats behavior that included “the putting of Negro spectators at Houston in a caged enclosure.” Nevertheless, White believed that if Smith was elected president “the NAACP will be the power behind the throne.” In addition, he felt black support of a victorious Smith would serve to foster the political independence of African Americans. Eventually, White grew disillusioned with the Democratic campaign's determined anti-black edge and abandoned it.

The Democrat Smith placed his priority on winning and maintaining the allegiance of the white voters of the South, who eyed him suspiciously as a Northern liberal and a Catholic. African Americans asked Smith to make a strong statement in support of the principles of democracy, protection for the right to vote, against the practice of lynching, and for equal educational opportunity. James Weldon Johnson and Walter White drafted a mild statement for Smith to endorse that included condemnations of discrimination, disfranchisement, and lynching but Smith refused to approve it. Smith not only refused to sign any such statement, he failed to make any positive statement that could be construed as friendly to African Americans and the causes they held dear.

Smith received substantial black voter support in some cities such as Philadelphia where he received 17 percent of the vote in predominantly black wards. In Harlem, the share garnered by the Democratic presidential candidate increased from 3 percent in 1920, and 28 percent in 1924 to 28 percent in 1928. In the South, Smith carried 184 of the 191 counties with majority black populations while Hoover polled high numbers among southern whites. Yet, Democrats hardly broke stride from their traditional reliance of anti-black appeals and their reliable anti-black constituency. Black enthusiasm for the Democrats in 1928 was sapped by discouraging appeals to white supremacy such as that made by Eleanor Roosevelt when she pleaded that Smith didn’t believe in black-white marital union. Worse, Smith responded to the KKK’s accusation that he had employed a “negro wench” as a stenographers by promptly releasing a press release denying it. The only employment his New York gubernatorial administration given to blacks, he explained “has been done only to fill such jobs as they are given in the South, to wit: porters, janitors, charwomen, etc.”

The campaign’s character sunk so low that contemporary African American leaders felt obliged to publicly condemn it. A month prior to the election, Walter White, James Weldon Johnson, and W. E. B. Du Bois denounced repeated associations of blacks with crime on the part of both the Democratic and Republican campaigns. W. E. B. Dubois summed up the sentiments of many black citizens when he declared that, “it does not matter a tinker’s damn which of these gentlemen succeed.”

Both candidates did their utmost to appeal to the anti-black sentiments of white voters. Hoover’s actions seemed the most reprehensible to many African Americans since they represented an attempt to eliminate blacks from the political life of the nation. Hoover’s “Lily White” strategy of restructuring the southern Republican Party on an exclusively white basis was an important component of Hoover’s campaign strategy. Hoover’s purge of African Americans from southern branches of his party would complete their banishment from the politics of the region. At the 1928 Republican National Convention, the Hoover-controlled credentials committee refused to seat Florida black delegates replacing them with “Lily White” candidates from that state. This scenario was repeated in state after state as black delegates from the south were replaced by white delegates. The Black and Tan delegates were replaced by members of the rival Lily White southern delegations. The increasing hostility of the Republican Party and continued hostility of the Democratic Party forced black political activists to consider alternatives. One activist, William “Gooseneck Bill” McDonald of Texas, disgusted by the racism of the 1928 Democratic convention, launched the National Negro Voters League, an organization to push for full black political rights and to take a critical look at the relationship of blacks within the Republican Party.

In crafting his southern strategy, Hoover was influenced by Virginian Col. Henry W. Anderson, a two-time unsuccessful candidate for governor. Anderson, who took advantage of the popular white perception of black politicians as corrupt, caught Hoover’s attention with his policy of benign neglect of African American interests. “Blacks and tans” should be replaced by a class of respectable white leadership, according to this view. Contending that the removal of black political leadership not only helped the Republican Party but blacks as well, Hoover was won over to this viewpoint. During the campaign Hoover’s handlers prepared him not to be drawn into unproductive discussions on the subject of African Americans since Democrats could then trap him into appearing to oppose segregation.

Local white Hoover supporters enjoyed the autonomy needed to challenge the Democratic Party’s leadership in championing white supremacy. Circulating a flyer portraying a black man looking lustfully at an attractive white female secretary in a New York City office, the Republicans implied Democrat Al Smith supported interracial sexual relations. On the other side, after Democratic Mississippi Gov. Theodore G. Bilbo spread the rumor that Hoover had danced with Mary Booze, an African American national Republican committeewoman from Mound Bayou, Mississippi, the ensuing Republican reaction was revealing. An aide to Hoover called this the “most indecent and unworthy statement in the whole of a bitter campaign.”

Taking advantage of his position as head of the Commerce Department, Hoover tried to give blacks a positive reason for voting for him. In a shrewd political move, Secretary Hoover desegregated the Department of Commerce just prior to the 1928 presidential election. This bold move immediately drew heavy criticism from the pro-segregationist faction in Congress. Senator Cole Blease mobilized opposition with the accusation that Hoover’s object was to “humiliate white girls from whatever part of this Nation they happen to come by placing some of them in the same category with negro employees. . . “ In the end, Hoover’s strategy paid off as he won seven southern states, and still managed to attract the majority of black northern votes. Nevertheless, in an ominous omen for the Republican Party, Northern Democrats received the strongest support from blacks in the party’s history in 1928.

Herbert C. Hoover: Prelude to the Presidency

Herbert Clark Hoover was born in August 1874 in West Branch, Iowa once a stop on the Underground Railroad. The son of Quakers, Hoover was raised in a racially liberal atmosphere influenced by the Quaker Friends—his father voted in favor of black voting rights prior to the Civil War in 1857 and following it in 1868. Hoover, however, was visited by tragedy early on with his father dying when his son was only six years old--a loss magnified by the loss of his mother four years later to pneumonia and typhoid fever. Herbert was placed under the care of Lawrie Tatum, an early Quaker settler who once operated the Underground Railroad outpost in the town. Despite his hardships early in life, Hoover went on to receive an excellent education enrolling in Stanford University to study geology. Following graduation, Hoover carried his engineering expertise to Australia to work on mining gold.

Despite of the racially liberal ideological setting that marked Hoover's upbringing, his description of some of the people he encountered in Coolgardie, Australia suggests otherwise:

The tribes are always small, seldom over 200 and can never. . . associate with another tribe, except in war or to steal a wife. If a member of one tribe be caught by members of another, even when peacefully hunting, he is killed instantly. Infanticide is universal. . .when a man dies, his father falls on his body and is beaten by other niggers. . . .Curiously, they have no religion. They have a devil-devil, who is not a spirit but a real live nigger, who acts as executioner for the tribe and is therefore the medicine man’s partner. . .

Hoover helped discover and exploit the lucrative Sons of Gwalia mine, one that remained so until the 1960s. With this success Hoover’s salary increased and he became the chief engineer over several mines. Later, he accepted an offer to work in China at an even higher salary. Hoover’s Quaker-borne liberalism seemed largely forgotten as the young engineer seemed to quickly accept the racial prejudices of the white settlers and expatriates in whatever corner of the globe he found himself. In China, Hoover wrote that the “simply appalling and universal dishonesty of the [Chinese] working classes, the racial slowness, and the low average of intelligence, gives them an efficiency far below the workmen of England and America. . . . “


President Herbert Hoover

Herbert Clark Hoover, 31st President

1929 to 1933

Birth: August 10, 1874, West Branch, Iowa

Death: October 20, 1964

Education: George Fox University, Stanford University

Religion: Quaker

Profession: Mining Engineer, Businessman, Politician

Political Party: Republican

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Life Portrait of Herbert Hoover Oct 4, 1999, CSPAN



By 1909, Hoover’s racial views had matured into fixed notions of the inferiority of Asians, Africans, and other non-white peoples. Hoover’s book, Principles of Mining indicated his belief that blacks were less intelligent and ambitious than whites. Furthermore, consistent with the era in which he lived, Hoover made clear his opposition to interracial marriages of whites to blacks or Asians. Later, Herbert Hoover gained an international reputation as an adventurous humanitarian who had led efforts to feed millions in Europe and after World War I. Known as a skilled organizer, an innovative problem solver, and technological wizard, Hoover was tapped by President Woodrow Wilson to organize American food production and distribution during the Great War. So renown he became for his efficiency and innovative skills the word “Hooverize” became a household term to signify the conservation of food. Initially, Hoover was a venerated national figure who stood above politics and partisanship. After a long period of uncertainty, he joined the Republican Party and was appointed as Secretary of Commerce under President Calvin Coolidge.

Secretary Hoover and the Mississippi Flood

Following a long period of heavy rains, dykes along the Mississippi River south of Cairo, Illinois succumbed inundating hundred of thousands of square miles along both sides of the great river. A catastrophe disrupting and changing forever the lives of millions, the Great Mississippi flood also involved the relationship African Americans to a man who rose to the presidency in 1928. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover traveled by train to the Mississippi River basin areas stricken by heavy floods in April 1927. Hoover’s operation set up one hundred and fifty tent cities that utilized as many as 33,000 volunteers to organize relief in the disaster area.

In early May, Claude S. Barnett, owner of the Associated Negro Press, personally discovered that the Red Cross was helping rivet the chains of peonage on African Americans by distributing the relief supplies designated for black tenants to the plantation owners. In order to obtain the vital supplies, the starving black tenants had to confront the plantation owner. To obtain the relief, tenants often had to pay for the supplies. The large landowners of the Delta sought to maintain their slavery-like control over their plantation workers. So horrible were conditions for the workers, the landowners feared that any independent means of income or authority would mean the loss of their laborers. They therefore decided it would be best for the black refugees from the flood to be kept under guard in the town of Greenville. The National Guard would ensure that none would escape the camp. One camp held some 26,000 people at the Vicksburg National Cemetery. Many, if not most, of the black people at the camps desperately wanted not to be returned to these plantations and vowed to use the catastrophe as a means of escape.

NAACP Leader Walter White

The NAACP’s Walter White made the findings of his own investigation available to Hoover. Secretary Hoover, also informed by others of the problem of black peonage in the Delta and relief, found it difficult to believe that white plantation owners would engage in such corruption that victimized their tenants. Without investigating the charges, Hoover reflexively defended the Red Cross, denying the charges, and maintained that African Americans not only were not complaining, but were actually grateful for the assistance they received. Secretary Hoover also defended the “tagging” of black tenants and workers to facilitate their recapture. He viewed these practices as necessary measures for immunization and food rationing. Pressured by African American leadership, Hoover finally launched an investigation of these charges appointing Tuskegee’s Robert R. Moton to head the commission. Hoover later received the commission’s recommendations–including two calling for the reorganization of the method of distribution in order to bypass plantation owners and the elevation of black supervisors–and promised to implement all of them. His consideration of the recommendations and willingness to change direction won back some of the respect that his earlier actions had cost him. More generally, Hoover Hoover chose to defend himself, however, by asserting “no responsibility for the economic system which exists in the south or for matters which have taken place in previous years.” Hoover proceeded to ignore the NAACP which moved Walter White to support Al Smith’s Democratic candidacy for the presidency.

President Hoover’s Nomination of Parker for the Supreme Court

No one in our day has helped disenfranchisement and race hatred more than Herbert Hoover by his ‘lily-white’ policy.--W. E. B. Du Bois

In his 1930 nomination of Judge John Parker of North Carolina to the U. S. Supreme Court, Hoover repaid a campaign debt to a North Carolina congressman who played a key role in delivering the state’s convention votes to Hoover. Parkers nomination, strenuously opposed by blacks and labor, was another piece of Hoover’s southern strategy of conciliating whites and ousting blacks from the southern Republican Party organization. Walter White, the president of the NAACP, researched Parker’s background and found that the judge had made strident anti-black remarks during a 1920 election campaign. White, as well as many other black leaders, harbored a deep suspicion of Hoover’s motives toward African Americans. Hoover’s nominee, Parker, believed that African Americans should be permanently excluded from American political life. Accordingly, they contended that the level of black culture, character, and intelligence was beneath that required for political participation. Parker called black political involvement “a source of evil and [a] danger to both races and is not desired by the wise men of either race or by the Republican Party of North Carolina.” Despite Parker’s refusal to take advantage of numerous opportunities to disavow these sentiments, Hoover, personally offended that anyone would suggest that he would nominate someone who would violate black citizens’ rights, maintained his support for his nominee.

As opposition mounted to the Parker nomination, the judge tried to solicit the support of the influential Robert R. Moton, Jr. Moton, a Hoover supporter, had earlier attempted to calm black anger over the “reform” of the southern Republican Party that resulted in their wholesale exclusion. Moton refused to support Parker citing the nomineee’s anti-black statements. Moton told Hoover, “when a man sets himself up to publicly attack, revile or express his contempt for my people for no other reason than that they belong to another race” he had no choice but to oppose him. Moton went on to warn Hoover of the political consequences in supporting this opponent of black rights. Hoover, however, shrugged off Moton and other black voices as those of “special interests.”

Ultimately, President Hoover’s nomination of Judge Parker to the Supreme Court was defeated. Hoover’s two subsequent nominations to the Supreme Court did nothing to narrow the gulf between his administration and African Americans. The anti-Parker campaign was a key event marking the growing maturity of an urban, labor, liberal, and African American coalition that would grow in strength throughout the Roosevelt era and well into the post-war period. Several of the chief congressional supporters of Parker’s nomination were subsequently defeated in elections in which the NAACP intervened in to support their opponents. President Hoover attributed his embarrassing defeat largely to the efforts of the NAACP and ordered his Justice Department to investigate the organization for left-wing or criminal ties. Tellingly, in his memoirs, Hoover continued to defend Parker claiming that his remarks had been concocted by foes of the nomination but conceded that the debacle had damaged his administration’s credibility.

Another incident incensed the national black community against the Hoover administration. A widely-acclaimed trip of mothers to Europe of soliders killed in the first World War was marred by the revelations of a humiliating segregation of black mothers from white mothers. The white mothers sailed on well-equipped United States navy ships, while the black mothers were placed on rough “cattle boats.” President Hoover had the option of intervening in order to ensure that the mother would be provided, at a minimum, “separate but equal” facilities, but chose not to.

The Hoover administration’s neglect and abuse of its African American constituency followed a trend that was over a half century old despite the fact that since 1916 the number of black delegations to the party’s national convention had steadily increased. Betrayal and the perception of betrayal fueled outrage against Hoover that would play a part in the coming black exodus from the Republican Party. Soon, in the 1930s, millions of blacks would benefit from social programs, although they remained unequal in practice, and have a greater incentive to cast the Democratic vote.

©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.