A Special Memorandum from 1933: “Social Adjustment of Negroes in the United States”

Today’s blog was written by Blossom Ojukwu, undergraduate education major at the University of Maryland, College Park

In the series Historical Files (National Archives Identifier 566333) in RG 12 Records of the Office of Education is a special memorandum titled “The Social Adjustment of Negroes in the United States.” The document was submitted to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt by the National Urban League (NUL) for Social Service among African Americans. The primary author, Eugene Kinckle Jones, Executive Secretary of the NUL, stated that the contents within the memorandum were objectively written summaries of important facts pertaining to the conditions and welfare of African Americans across the country. Jones respectfully adds “Too often when steps are taken to ameliorate social conditions Negroes are not given equitable consideration,” in order to encourage President Roosevelt to vigorously take into account the matters disclosed in this memorandum because it will assuredly further the welfare of the American people as a whole under his administration.

This memorandum was written by the National Urban League for Social Service among Negroes (headquartered in New York City) and presented to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 15, 1933. (NAID 566333)
This memorandum was written by the National Urban League for Social Service among Negroes (headquartered in New York City) and presented to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 15, 1933. (NAID 566333)

The memorandum contains twelve sections regarding the economic, social, educational, and health status of African Americans from 1900 to 1930. This blog will summarize the sections entitled: “The Population”, “Occupational Status”, “Education”, and “Recreation and Leisure.”

The Population

The African-American population in the North and Mid-West increased more than any other time in prerecorded history between the years 1920 and 1930 according to the NUL’s memorandum. This rapid increase was the result of the migration of African Americans from the South to the North. The main reason African Americans began to migrate to the North was due to urbanization. There was a growing need for workers in the industrial labor market because of a decrease in immigration due to World War I. In addition, many African Americans wanted to flee the Jim Crow South and racial violence associated with the region. Hence, the growth of the African-American population in cities such as New York, NY; Chicago, IL; Philadelphia, PA; Baltimore, MD; Washington D. C.; Detroit, MI; and St. Louis, MO increased by 13.6 percent.

Occupational Status

The memorandum also stated that African Americans have contributed more labor per capita to the development of the United States. In 1930, African Americans made up 11.3 percent of the countries workforce, in spite of the fact that African Americans only made up 9.2 percent of the total population. In terms of women workers approximately one-fourth of all women fifteen years or older where employed, of that proportion 50 percent of them where African-American women. The ratio of employed married African-American women was three times greater than that of all women. In terms of child labor 240,000 of 667,000 employed children were African American. Child labor amongst African Americans was five times higher than that of any other racial group. In terms of agriculture this memorandum described African-American farmers as America’s principal peasant. African-American farmers owned and operated 30 percent of southern farms yet had to perform a great part of the hired labor and made very little profit.

After World War I, African Americans replaced immigrant labor in industrial jobs. Subsequently, allowing African Americans to rise to skilled and semi-skilled jobs. Unfortunately, this transition propelled numerous unfavorable obstacles for African Americans whom aspired to climb the industrial ladder. This memorandum summarizes these obstacles as:

  1. Living in the tradition of slavery
  2. Frequently, regardless of skill, African Americans were forced to begin at the bottom and seldom did their promotions follow the usual procedure.
  3. When there was prosperity and plenty of work, the opportunities were always at the bottom. In times of unemployment, the pressures on the “bottom” positions drove African Americans out of the industry.
  4. There were traditions of employment-“deadlines”- that limited the employment of African Americans.
  5. Labor unions limited their membership strictly to white citizens.
Cover page of
Cover page of “Fundamentals in the Education of Negroes” compiled and edited by Ambrose Caliver, Senior Specialist in the Education of Negroes in 1935.


The NUL’s memorandum stated that public school education for African-American children in the 1930s was a whole generation behind the public school education of white children. The expenditure per African-American child in 1928 was $8.86, which was a fourth of the expenditure made for white children. In some districts in the South, public schools for African Americans did not receive the amount paid in school taxes. Additionally, African-American schools were thirty days shorter than white schools, and African-American school teachers were paid three times less than white teachers. Transportation for African-American children to and from school was extremely negligible to say the least. Over 350,000 while students and less than 2,000 African-American students were transported to and from school. As a result these factors, statistics showed that 20 percent of African-Americans pupils were overaged by three or more years.

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Higher education among African Americans was conducted chiefly by private institutions. In 1913, there were only 3 accredited African-American collegiate institutions. In 1930, there were more than 100 African American secondary institutions, and in 1932, there were nearly 20,000 African Americans in college but only about 1,500 degrees were granted.

Recreation and Leisure

The desire for recreational facilities was much larger than ending the exclusion of African Americans to public play grounds, parks, and theaters; rather it involved the attitude of the community toward African Americans. This memorandum cites a study in 1928 of African-American recreational facilities in 57 cities (40 northern and 17 southern). The study revealed that the inadequacy of recreational facilities for African Americans was one of the primary reasons African Americans had a reputation for committing crimes. The study explained that because African Americans had no other place to go, they would idle about the street and wander into vicious places because they could not find relaxation anywhere else.

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