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Cincinnati Museum Center - Publicly Exposing ... Cincinnati, Ohio Publicly Exposing Discrimination Andrew E. Kersten During World War II, in cities across the nation, racial conflicts

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  • Fall 1994

    Publicly Exposing Discrimination: The 1945 FEPC Hearings in Cincinnati, Ohio

    Publicly Exposing Discrimination

    Andrew E. Kersten

    During World War II, in cities across the nation, racial conflicts broke out because of job dis- crimination and changing patterns of employment. These changes stemmed from several factors. One was President Franklin D. Roosevelt 's Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) which broke down some traditional barriers to equality, the very breaking of which led to racial conflicts. In addition, massive migrations of black and white workers to many northern cities not only strained housing, tran- sit, and recreational facilities, but also intensified competition for jobs and employment advancement. In some places such as Detroit, these tensions led to race riots. In others such as Cincinnati, they produced strikes by white workers incensed by the prospect of having to work side by side with blacks.1

    Nonetheless, the Roosevelt administra- tion maintained its commitment to fair employment practices, a commitment that led the FEPC to hold hearings in Cincinnati in 1945 which intended to expose and break down the racial barriers to employ- ment at Cincinnati war production plants. The hear- ings failed to break down these barriers. But in expos- ing widespread unfair employment practices, the hear- ings lent impetus to the broader and more effective fair employment movement that took shape in the post-war period.2

    Unfair employment practices against blacks in Cincinnati first became a municipal issue in 1925. In that year, the Cinc innat i Chamber of Commerce made an industrial survey of the city which stated that the demand for workers was out- stripping the labor supply that local employers were willing to use. The authors of the survey suggested

    that Cincinnati industrialists utilize the largely untapped supply of black labor. However, this meant that the unfair employment practices that kept blacks from jobs at "an unfortunately large number of local industries" had to change. The city government took no action on this recommendation, but in 1930 the Chamber of Commerce and the Department of Public Welfare commissioned Theodore M. Berry3 to do a special survey concerning the economic status and occupational opportunities of blacks in Cincinnati. The guiding assumption in Berry's survey which dealt almost exclusively with industry was that as the black population in Cincinnati increased, the num- bers of blacks working in Cincinnati factories should also increase. Berry reported that this had not hap- pened. The number of blacks living in Cincinnati had gone up, but increasingly they were underrepresented in the industrial work force.4

    Andrew E. Kersten, a doctoral student in history at the University of Cincinnati, received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin.

    The return of prosperity in the early 1940s benefited mainly white workers and black civil rights leaders began to demand their fair share of the war jobs. (CHS Felix Koch Photograph Collection)

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    Berry based his findings on the 1910 and 1920 censuses which showed a marked rise in the black population of Cincinnati. In 1910, 19,639 blacks lived in the city. By 1920 that number had grown to 30,079, a fifty-three percent increase. Berry estimated that in 1930, 48,000 lived in Cincinnati, a fifty-nine percent increase. This meant that by 1930 blacks accounted for roughly ten percent of the entire population of Cincinnati.5

    The percentage of blacks working in industry, especially in skilled occupations, had failed to rise accordingly. Berry drew this conclusion from the results of 475 questionnaires that he sent to Cincinnati employers "concerning the occupations engaged in by Negroes, their work performance, the opportunities available, the attitudes of employers and white employees, [and] the factors inhibiting the advance of Negro workers."6 Berry received answers from 234 establishments. One hundred and seven businesses (46%) openly refused to hire black work- ers. Some of these employers explained in their ques- tionnaires that they had no desire to mix black and white workers. Others claimed that union restric- tions or lack of separate facilities kept blacks from their employ. Berry also found that the fear of vio- lence and of bad public relations were frequent ratio- nales for not hiring.7

    Queen City Heritage

    The other 127 Cincinnati businesses uti- lized some black labor. The statistics compiled from the questionnaires "seemed to provide evidence of a low occupational status for Negro workers."8 Over eighty percent of black women were engaged in domestic service and had "very little opportunity" to work in industry. Roughly seventy percent of black men worked as unskilled laborers, many of them as porters or janitors. A few found a place in some branch of industrial production, but these jobs were rarely skilled in nature.9

    A majority of those employers who hired blacks indicated that they were good workers although some employers felt that the work perfor- mance of blacks was poor.10 In either case, Berry learned that almost all employers refused to upgrade blacks to skilled positions, because they believed that blacks lacked the proper training. Moreover, employ- ers confined blacks to certain types of servile work, because they believed that this ensured a cooperative and congenial working relationship between whites and blacks. From this Berry concluded that the "evi- dence of a Negro achieving equality as worker and wage-earner, and not his presence alone seemed to be the cause for objections and animosity."11

    Aside from detailing the low economic status of black Cincinnatians, Berry's survey allowed

    The great majority of black men worked as unskilled laborers. (CHS Felix Koch Photograph Collection)

    The 1930 study by Berry revealed that over eighty percent of black women were engaged in domestic service and had very little opportuni- ty to work in industry. (CHS Felix Koch Photograph Collection)

  • Fall 1944 Publicly Exposing Discrimination 1 1


    These workers must be intelligent and able to pass a common test. 75 of every 100 Negroes who have recently applied for defense jobs were not hired because:

    They could not read or write, or They had less than a common school education.

    Ballots of more than 4,000 Negro voters were thrown out in the Election be- cause they were spoiled.


    Corner of Seventh and Cutter Sts. ALL CLASSES FREE

    New Enrollment Begins January 5, 1942 Classes Offered

    Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, History, Geography, Science, Hygiene, Civics, Sewing, Cooking and Power Machine Sewing.

    For Further Information Call CHerry 6021

    him to make a "discouraging" — and accurate — fore- cast about the future occupational opportunities for black workers in the city. Eight-five percent of the surveyed Cincinnati employers responded negatively when asked if they would hire more blacks in the future. Furthermore only ten percent of the employers could suggest jobs for blacks. These businessmen indi- cated that blacks could find work as common labor- ers, janitors, and farm hands. Berry concluded that Cincinnati employers were "first, not interested in employment problems of the Negro; and second, that there was not much desire to have Negro workers advance above a certain low level of occupations."12

    Still Berry hoped that Cincinnati employers would offer more jobs, especially skilled ones, to blacks, and he called on the government, employers, and social organizations to band together and eradicate the unfair practices.

    The end of employment discrimination did not happen during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Moreover, the return of prosperity in the early

    1940s benefited mainly white workers. As a result, black civil rights leaders such as A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP),13 began to organize blacks to demand their fair share of the war jobs. In January 1941, Randolph formed a new organization, the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) which called for 10,000 blacks to march on Washington, D.C. to protest discrimina- tion in the defense industries and the military. Randolph set the march for July 1, 1941, which allowed time for negotiation with the Roosevelt administration. Although FDR sympathized with the MOWM's goals, President Roosevelt sought to avoid the demonstration because he was not willing to take the political risks. In addition, he feared that the protest could spark violence in the capital which could be used, like the march itself, as Axis propagan- da. Meetings between federal officials and other MOWM leaders ended without a compromise. Finally on June 24, 1941, FDR informed Randolph that he would issue an executive order banning discrimina-

    Although black workers were urged to get training to prepare for better jobs, Cincinnati manufacturers refused to hire blacks. (CHS Manuscript Collection)

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    tion in the defense industries but not in the military if Randolph would call off the march.14

    Randolph agreed to this, and on June 25, 1941, FDR issued Executive Order 8802 which declared "that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or Government because of race, creed, color or national origin." Executive Order 8802 also established the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) in the Office of Production Management to "receive and investigate complaints of discrimination in violation of the provision of [the] order and . .