Calvin Coolidge and Race: His Record in Dealing with the Racial Tensions of the 1920s
by Alvin S. Felzenberg ©1988
Alvin Felzenberg earned a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University. He is staff director of the Empowerment Subcommittee of the Small Business Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives and co-author of Evolution of the Modem Presidency: A Bibliographical Survey.
Which were the first presidents to propose a commission to engage in a national conversation on race? Not Bill Clinton. Nor Lyndon Johnson, who named the Kerner Commission to investigate the Newark and Detroit riots of 1967.
Presidents Harding and Coolidge proposed a commission to bridge the divide between the races more than a generation before Mr. Clinton was born. Harding told Congress in 1921 that such a body could formulate “if not a policy, at least a national attitude” that could bring the races closer together. Coolidge in 1923–and again in 1925 echoed this theme. He urged the creation of a “Negro Industrial Commission” to promote a better policy of mutual understanding.”
Both men were reacting to increased lynching in southern towns and violence against blacks in northern cities. Almost one half million African Americans moved from farm and factory and from south to north from 1915 to 1925. Historians call this demographic shift the “Great Migration”.
Neither president was able to get Congress to approve a commission. The House did pass a bill that would have made lynching a federal crime during Harding’s first year. It succumbed to a filibuster in the Senate. Coolidge continued to press for increased toleration and racial reconciliation. His efforts are a much understudied part of his career.
This morning, I will discuss Coolidge’s relations with African Americans, how he calmed racial tensions, what he did about complaints about discrimination, his hiring and patronage practices, his role in the efforts to outlaw lynching, how he handled the Ku Klux Klan, and his actions regarding restrictive immigration.
In assessing Coolidge’s performance one must be careful to view him within the context of his times. 1925 was not 1998. There was more to the “jazz age” than prohibition, bathtub gin, and Lindbergh’s flight. The second Ku Klux Klan was at its height–boasting 3 million members. It all but shut down the Democratic convention of 1924 and led a march 40,000 strong past the White House in 1925.
One must also consider the distinctive, if not peculiar, style through which Coolidge acted. It was in this latter area that Coolidge did himself the greatest disservice. Coolidge’s Yankee demeanor gave visitors distorted impressions of him. Historians have cited his contemporaries’ recollections as evidence that Coolidge was insensitive, disinterested, curt, or just plain stupid. He was none of these.
In his study of presidents and racial politics from Washington to Clinton, Kenneth O’Reilly recounts A. Philip Randolph’s recollection of a meeting black spokesmen had with Coolidge:
We went in and it was an interesting conference. Monroe Trotter (editor of the Boston Guardian) was known; he knew Coolidge and Coolidge knew him from Boston. And so, President Coolidge told Trotter, ‘All right, Mr. Trotter, you present your matter.’ He did and made a fiery talk, you know. And when he finished, President Coolidge said, ‘Have you finished, Mr. Trotter?’ So Trotter says, ‘Yes’. He says, ‘All right, thank you very much.’ and he sat down and Trotter turns right around with his group and we walked out.
James Weldon Johnson, the first black to head the NAACP, related a similar story. He described a meeting he had at the White House after Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who was known to be sympathetic to black concerns, made a telephone call on his behalf to the President’s Secretary.
When I got over, Mr. Slemp was prepared to meet me and gave me a hearty welcome. We talked over the matter in hand; then he said to me, ‘I’d like to have you meet the President.’ This looked as though the procedure of official form was being turned around. I don’t know how many American citizens have had an official say to them, ‘I’d like to have you meet the President.’ Mr. Slemp took me in and gave me a rather flattering introduction to President Coolidge and withdrew. The President was, I think, more embarrassed than I.
He, it appeared, did not want to say anything or did not know just what to say. I was expecting that he would make, at least, an inquiry or two about the state of mind and condition of the twelve million Negro citizens of the United States. I judged that curiosity, if not interest, would make for that much conversation. The pause was painful (for me at least) and I led off with some informational remarks; but it was clear that Mr. Coolidge knew absolutely nothing about colored people. I gathered that the only living Negro he had heard anything about was Major Moton (Booker T. Washington’s successor at Tuskegee). I was relieved when the brief audience was over, and I suppose Mr. Coolidge was, too.
Mr. Johnson, unlike Randolph, did not know of Coolidge’s ties to Trotter or of his associations with other African Americans. Neither civil rights leader knew that Coolidge behaved similarly when he met with whites.
Coolidge’s major benefactor, Boston department store magnate Frank Stearns did not like Coolidge when he first met him. Coolidge was then serving as President of the Massachusetts Senate. Stearns sought his help with a special bill. “Sorry, it’s too late,” Coolidge told him. To Stearns’s surprise, Coolidge quietly had the project inserted in the state budget three years later without even telling Stearns. Coolidge acted in an identical manner when the subject at hand was race.
When it came to act, Coolidge’s manner resembled those of a president of more modern times, Dwight D. Eisenhower. If Ike’s observers detected an “invisible hand” at work in his White House. those watching Coolidge’s behavior thought he operated with no hands at all. The evidence suggests otherwise.
Coolidge’s record on race, whatever its shortcomings, was an improvement over that of his five predecessors. William McKinley was the last president to have fought in the Civil War. He liked to hold reunions with veterans who had served in both armies in that conflict. He ignored the former slaves.
McKinley stood by as North Carolina amended its constitution to deny blacks the franchise, in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment, and when Louisiana imposed “grandfather clauses” in a feigned attempt to comply with it. He limited his interest in blacks to one area–their ability to assist his nomination at Republican conventions. His handler Mark Hanna stacked Southern delegations with blacks who could seldom vote in the fall elections. McKinley and Hanna rewarded African Americans who had been helpful to them. Thirty-three of their number were holding presidential appointments the day McKinley was assassinated.
Theodore Roosevelt believed in white supremacy, the need to pick up the “white man’s burden” to “civilize” and “colonize” non-white populations. Yet he enjoyed friendships with black Americans and had them to his home and at his table. One overnight guest at his Oyster bay home was black attorney William H. Lewis. Lewis was a friend of Coolidge’s too. As he named African Americans to federal posts, Roosevelt consulted Booker T. Washington, founding president of Tuskegee.
Although Washington enjoyed great popularity among both blacks and whites, he had his African American critics. William Monroe Trotter and W.E.B. Dubois thought Washington placed too much emphasis on black self-help and economic advancement and too little on social activism. They resented Roosevelt’s reliance upon the “boss of Tuskegee” in dispensing patronage to blacks. Southern segregationists disapproved of this presidential friendship also. After Roosevelt had Washington to the White House for dinner, the press (not all of it southern) castigated both men, The political cartoons were vicious.
TR did some bold things on behalf of African Americans. When a mob pressured a black postmistress he appointed into vacating her post and fleeing the state of Mississippi, Roosevelt refused to replace her. Her neighbors had to pick up their mail miles away. When Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina put a hold on the black physician TR wanted to name customs inspector in Charleston, Roosevelt appointed the man on an interim basis–several times. Roosevelt had the Justice Department investigate peonage in the former Confederacy and had it file “friend of the court” briefs against it before the Supreme Court.
Yet he would not wield his “big stick” when it came to enforcing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments or curbing lynching. His silence was part of a strategy he thought could make the GOP competitive in the South. Rather than increase its strength there by enfranchising southern blacks, Roosevelt tried to win over southern whites.
One blot on Roosevelt’s record is the so called “Brownsville affair.” After a few soldiers assigned to three all black companies apparently went on a shooting spree in Texas, Roosevelt dismissed all 167 black soldiers in the unit that included five Congressional medal of honor recipients. Booker T. Washington protested in private; Trotter, in public.
If Roosevelt’s actions on race were inconsistent and contradictory, his successor’s were not. William Howard Taft put aside his literal, “strict constructionist” interpretation of the constitution when it came to the Fifteenth Amendment. He proclaimed restrictions southern states had placed on voting constitutional and suggested that the Fifteenth Amendment had been a mistake. Taft did not name blacks to posts in places where there was local white opposition.
Neither Taft not Roosevelt were able to crack the Democrats’ southern stronghold–in spite of their willingness to disenfranchise their local black supporters, who composed the majority of the population in some states. The solid South had its own candidate, a southern born and southern thinking governor from a northern state.
Although Woodrow Wilson received only 5% to 7% of the black vote (in the states where they could vote) Trotter and W.E.B. Dubois had backed him, believing anything would be an improvement over the two previous Republican presidents. They were wrong, The new Democratic Congress immediately enacted laws barring racial intermarriage in Washington, DC. Wilson went along. Signs bearing the words “whites only” and “blacks only” began appearing above toilets and drinking fountains throughout the city. Jim Crow practices crept into federal agencies. The number of black presidential appointees dropped sharply-from 33 to 9. Blacks only divisions were created, beginning with the Departments of Treasury, Post Office, Navy, and later the Interior, all headed by Southerners.
Most who have studied government imposed segregation during the Wilson administration have focused on the District of Columbia and government agencies there. James Weldon Johnson described how this shift in federal policy effected African Americans who were already living under “Jim Crow” laws elsewhere:
… Going back to the days of Reconstruction, the Negro in the South had always felt, no matter what his local status might be, that he was a citizen of the United States. This feeling was manifest especially when such a Negro entered a federal building. There he felt that he was on some portion, at least, of the ground of common citizenship; that he left most of the galling limitations on the outside. This, in reality, was little more than a feeling; but, at least it was worth something. The only place in the South where a Negro could pretend to share in the common rights of citizenship was under the roof of a federal building … Efforts were made to take even that away from him … newly appointed postmasters cut “Jim Crow” windows at the side, through which Negroes were to get their mail, without coming into the post office. There they had to stand in sun or rain until the last white person on the inside had been served. (Page 301).
Wilson was no passive bystander in all of this. He had grown up in Georgia during the Reconstruction and took the conventional southern view of the era in his academic writings.
When black leaders voiced concern, Wilson told them segregation was necessary because of the friction between clerks of both races. When Trotter reminded the president that for fifty years, clerks had worked together harmoniously–even during the previous Democratic administrations of Grover Cleveland–Wilson, by his own admission, lost both his temper and his judgment.
Let it be said that Wilson was not alone in finding Trotter difficult. James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP thought his compatriot “an able man, but zealous to the point of fanaticism” who worked best, not in concert with other like minded individuals, but alone. Of Wilson, Johnson said, “My distrust and dislike… came nearer to constituting keen hatred for an individual than anything I have ever felt.” As Senator Lodge later discovered, Wilson had an uncanny ability to unite his enemies.
Although Johnson later softened his view of Wilson, at bottom, he always felt there was “something hypocritical about the man” who wanted to make the world safe for democracy. Coolidge’s detractors called him many things. None thought him a hypocrite.
The contrast between the meetings Wilson and Coolidge had with Trotter a decade apart gives further proof to the adage often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, that it is “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” A year later, Wilson was at it again.
The occasion was the opening of D.W. Griffith’s film, “The Birth of a Nation”. The movie had been based on a novel, The Klansman, by Thomas Dixon, a friend of Wilson’s. The President said the production was “like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it’s true.” Others called it “history upside down, complete inversion of historical truth.”
Wilson’s Secretary, Joseph Tumulty–a good Catholic boy from Jersey City covered for his boss. He reassured Massachusetts Congressman Thomas C. Thacher that “The President was entirely unaware of the character of the play before it was presented…” There may have been some truth in this. “I didn’t dare allow the President to know the real big purpose back of my film which was to revolutionize Northern sentiments by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience to a good Democrat,” he confided to an anxious Tumulty.
Tumulty could not have picked a better city in which to extinguish a fire than Boston. Eruptions broke out in the Tremont Theatre, where it opened Saturday evening April 10, 1915. Fights broke out on the streets. Trotter attacked Mayor Curley at a gathering at Faneuil Hall for not shutting down the film which he called an “incentive to great racial hatred”. Others denounced Wilson. A representative of the Irish American League proclaimed the production a “disgusting, brutal, libel on the colored people of the country.”
African American J.C. Manning, a former member of the Alabama Reconstruction Legislature tried to correct the record of his former service. Rolfe Cobleigh, Associate Editor of the Congregationalist, proclaimed that “Dixon and Griffith plead for free speech for themselves, but forget that there is a point where the weak become victims of the strong, where liberty becomes anarchy.” Harvard’s President Emeritus Charles Eliot denounced the movie as “false history.”
Trotter, Lewis–TR’s house guest from years back–and others led a march of between 1500 and 2000 up Beacon Hill to the State House the next day. Governor David I. Walsh met with a delegation inside. A Democrat and Massachusetts’s first Catholic governor, Walsh promised either to ban the production under existing laws against lewdness or to seek special legislation.
“I don’t suppose there ever was a day before like this… in the State House……. Walsh remarked, “Men and women coming here with tears in their eyes asking the Governor to protect them from race hatred. I hope to God it will never happen again.” True to his word, Walsh pursued the legislation. Its backers favored a censorship board of three that could close down a film by majority vote deemed offensive, lewd, or intended to incite. The lower chamber amended it to require unanimity. After the Senate changed it back to its original form opponents sought to block the measure by moving to recommit it (or send it back to committee). Senate President Calvin Coolidge intervened. He did not normally vote on legislation as presiding officer. This time he did, producing a tie that stopped efforts to recommit the bill.
Coolidge’s action did not go unnoticed. “Censors Bill Near Bad Snag”, said a headline in the Boston Globe. “Coolidge’s Vote Stops Reconsideration by Senate.” It went on to say: “The Boston triple censor bill advocated by opponents of the ‘Birth of a Nation’ came within an ace of striking a bad snag in the Senate yesterday. Only the action of President Coolidge in ordering his name called during a roll call prevented a reconsideration of the vote on Monday…” The Boston Post’s headline was more dramatic. “Opponents of ‘Birth of Nation’ Win.”
Coolidge had acted in the fashion Frank Stearns had found to be the Senate President’s way. He gave no speeches or interviews. What had prompted Coolidge to act as he had? We can only surmise. Coolidge’s Yankee decency and sense of fair play may have convinced him of the justness of Trotter’s cause. In the years between 1885 and 1894, when he was coming of age, an estimated 1700 lynchings of Negroes had taken place in the United States.
Ever the politician, Coolidge was sensitive to the increasing importance of the African American vote to his party in Massachusetts. As a result of the “Great Migration,” black voters held the balance of power between the parties in many states. Then, there was Coolidge’s connection to William Henry Lewis. Lewis had served as Assistant U.S. Attorney General under Taft. Lewis had held several posts in Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. He had served on the Cambridge City Council and had been elected to the Legislature four years before Coolidge. Lewis had also preceded Coolidge someplace else. The son of former slaves, he had been graduated from Amherst College three classes ahead of Coolidge. Lewis had been captain of its football team and delivered the class oration in 1892. In a letter to his father, Coolidge made note of Lewis’s athletic achievements in a reference to Harvard’s improved football team, “Our best man of last year plays center rush on the Harvard eleven this year. He is a Negro named Lewis.” In those days, graduate and law students could participate in collegiate sports.
A networker of the first order, Lewis could certainly have made his way to the Amherst graduate who occupied the Senate President’s chair. When Coolidge was President, Lewis wrote to him on matters pertaining to politics and patronage. He cited Amherst Professor Morse’s assertion that the duty of a political party was to attempt to stay in power to support his argument that it was in Coolidge’s interest to name more blacks to prominent posts.
Historians sympathetic to Warren G. Harding cite the speech he delivered in Birmingham, Alabama in 1921 as evidence of an enlightened racial attitude. There, he condemned lynching, asked for tolerance, and suggested that the South’s preoccupation with racial divisions had prevented the region from contributing to the health of the nation.
Yet Harding’s comment about letting the “black man vote when he is fit to vote” echoed what his fellow Ohioan Howard Taft had said a dozen years earlier. Who would decide which blacks were “fit” to vote or what constituted their fitness? Local segregationists. African American newspapers noted the President’s admonition to blacks not to aspire to equality.
In denouncing lynching and proposing a commission to improve race relations, Harding and Coolidge were responding to increases in racial violence that erupted after the Great War–especially during the economic downturn of 1919 and 1920. Not all of it took place in the South. Race riots broke out in the North, where whites were resentful that some companies were hiring black workers at lower wages and using them to replace striking whites. President Wilson inflamed the situation when he accused the GOP of colonizing black voters in East St. Louis, Illinois. Riots broke out twice in the city in 1917. Over the next two years, others ensued in Waco, Memphis, in Chester and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Omaha, Chicago, Washington, DC, and Elaine, Arkansas.
The riots in East St. Louis had a deep effect on Rep. Leonidis Dyer, who spearheaded efforts to make lynching a federal crime. Dyer represented St. Louis, Missouri, just across the river from East St. Louis, Illinois. St. Louis’ black population had increased by 33% from 1910 to 1920. Most of the newcomers settled in Dyer’s district. Dyer told a Congressional Committee what he had learned from a U.S. Army Reserve Corps Lieutenant about the riots in East St. Louis:
… he saw them burning railway cars in yards, which were waiting for transport, filled with interstate commerce. He saw members of the militia of Illinois shoot Negroes. He saw policemen … shoot Negroes. He saw this mob go to the homes of these Negroes and nail boards up over the doors and windows and then set fire and burn them up. He saw them take little children out of the arms of their mothers and throw them into the fires and burn them up. He saw the most dastardly and most criminal outrages ever perpetrated in this country…
His colleague, Rep. William A. Rodenberg from East St. Louis, confirmed these accounts. Dyer first introduced his bill in 1918, the year the GOP regained control of Congress–thanks in part to Woodrow Wilson’s attack on Republicans who had been “pro-war, but anti-administration.” Wilson might have had an easier time of it if he had practiced Coolidge’s penchant for silence. With Harding safely in office, Dyer reintroduced his bill to make lynching a federal crime, punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $5000. It passed the House 230 to 119. The bill stalled in the Senate, where Democrats threatened to stop all other business from coming before the Congress unless the matter was dropped.
Johnson was not dismayed. He attributed the drop in lynchings that occurred in the next decade (down by one third) to the publicity the debate over the Dyer bill generated. Robert Ferrell cites improved economic conditions between 1925 and 1929 as the cause. Some of us call that the “Coolidge prosperity.” While designed to achieve other purposes, the Coolidge tax cuts and the economic growth they fostered did help relieve racial tensions.
Harding, his rhetoric notwithstanding, had been a reluctant warrior in the fight against lynching. His priorities were elsewhere: the merchant marine, the veterans’ bonus bill, shipbuilding subsidies, and appropriations. Had he tried, Harding might have gotten the measure through. A former Senator, Harding was a natural as a politician. He remained on good terms with the Senate’s inner sanctum which had facilitated his nomination. Harding knew how to horse trade. He had also come in with much goodwill and large coattails. He might have brought the matter up at one of his poker sessions, with all that illegal liquor flowing.
Coolidge had none of these advantages. He enjoyed few close friendships with Senators, and never found a mentor to guide him in Washington as he had in Massachusetts. His party retained only nominal control of the Senate during his presidency, with western Progressives often voting with southern agrarians. Neither group was particularly interested in the welfare of African Americans.
Nor did Coolidge feel it his “duty to attempt to coerce” legislators… “or take reprisals”. The House never passed the Dyer bill again. Nor would it consider the Negro Industrial Board of three blacks and two whites which Coolidge said he wanted.
After a particular egregious lynching occurred in Aiken, South Carolina, Coolidge said the government had an “obligation” to protect its citizens from such acts. Dyer tried to move his bill again to no avail. Coolidge told Trotter, Johnson, and others that he could do nothing to move it in face of continued opposition.
Evidence suggests he had contemplated acting on his own. Before he met with Trotter, Coolidge talked with Ruth Whitehead Whaley, a New York attorney. She suggested Coolidge have the Attorney General declare martial law where lynchings had occurred. In the margins on the letter she sent him afterwards, Coolidge wrote of her idea “intricate question. It is being considered, but so far, legislation seems only remedy.” Whaley wrote the President: “Your attitude in this matter has heartened the Negroes in America and led them to hope that the flag they have always loyally followed in time of national peril may as loyally protect them in this very real and peculiar peril.”
In his autobiography, Coolidge remembered spending much time on appointments. Racial overtones were evident in many he made. C. Bascom Slemp had been a Republican Congressman from Virginia when Coolidge tapped him to be his secretary. Slemp had opposed the Dyer bill and had been involved in attempts to reduce the number of black delegates at GOP conventions. His appointment drew protests from many of the President’s supporters.
As he did his boss’s bidding, Slemp proved his critics’ fears unfounded. We have already seen the grace with which he received James Weldon Johnson at the White House. Early in Coolidge’s presidency, Lewis wrote Slemp urging the appointment of blacks to prominent positions. He brought up the Dyer bill. Slemp assured Lewis that the administration had addressed his concerns. He said he looked forward to explaining his Congressional votes the next time Lewis dropped by.
When African American National Committeeman and political appointee at Justice, Perry Howard suggested a certain black journalist be admitted to White House briefings, Slemp issued the reporter a pass in two days. He was less helpful to a clergyman named Woolever, who expressed envy at other courtesies the President extended to African Americans.
Slemp stayed in contact with Giles B. Jackson, the Richmond black attorney who had first suggested a Negro Industrial Commission and involved Jackson and his supporters in other administration projects. Slemp brought to the president’s attention efforts citizens were undertaking to improve race relations in their communities. Coolidge wrote congratulatory letters to some of them.
Coolidge and Slemp resolved an ugly situation at a veterans’ hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. One paradox of their era was that the nation had fought a war to make the world safe for democracy with segregated armed forces. Blacks served under white commands, a practice carried over into veterans’ hospitals. Weeks into his presidency, Coolidge received complaints about Tuskegee. “We have reason to believe”, wrote NAACP Assistant Secretary Walter H. White, “that the present head of the Hospital is a Southerner of the Negro-hating type, who has openly encouraged the Ku Klux Klan. Our women are insulted and our sick neglected.”
This was one time when the NAACP sought a segregated solution to a racial problem. With integration not an immediate prospect, they regarded an all black staff as the lesser evil and pushed for one. Less than three months later, Slemp was informing Lewis of what the administration was doing to straighten things out. He enclosed the names of 248 black and 12 white personnel and said it was the administration’s policy to replace the latter 12 with African American officials as soon as it could be possibly done.
President Coolidge knew a lot about this hospital. He had dedicated it when he was Vice President months earlier. He had commended the contributions black soldiers, officers, and civilian had made to the war effort. Coolidge challenged those who heard him to use lessons learned in the war to establish interracial harmony at home. It was one of the most eloquent speeches he ever gave. I cite a key passage:
We have come out of the war with a desire and a determination to live at peace with all the world. Out of a common suffering and a common sacrifice there came a new meaning to our common citizenship. Our greatest need is to live in harmony, in friendship, and in good-will, not seeking an advantage over each other, but all trying to serve each other.
Coolidge’s papers contain ample examples of his administration investigating complaints and rectifying racial injustices. On October 7, 1924, Slemp wrote to the Secretary of the Interior the following note: “My attention has been called to the fact that a Jim Crow car station is being maintained on government land opposite Key Bridge. Will you please let me know what conditions are over there.”
Three years later, Trotter wired the vacationing President that “four colored examiners” in the pension bureau at Interior had been “segregated” in violation of pledges Coolidge had made against the practice. That same day, Sanders (Slemp’s successor and another ex-Congressman) wired the Commissioner of Pensions: “Being advised that your Bureau has recently segregated four colored Examiners, the President directs you to revoke such segregation at once.”
Letters asserting continued segregation in government and discriminatory demotions, layoffs, and firings of blacks poured in throughout Coolidge’s presidency. Although sincere in intentions, the Coolidge, administration found it hard to eradicate the vestiges of Wilsonian segregation. Political appointees who had come to town with Woodrow Wilson proved apt at burrowing their way into classified positions. Many wound up supervising blacks, who had either been hired by Republican administrations or through competitive examinations.
Veterans preference further limited the administration’s ability to maneuver. While blacks could make use of it as well as whites, the 400,000 of them who had served in uniform had been part of an armed force of nearly five million.
Cuts Coolidge was making in the federal budget had some unintended consequences. As any bureaucrat knows, most cuts take place at the bottom, as civil servants are “bumped” down through various categories of protection. This led to a disproportionate dismissals of blacks.
The administration tracked how many blacks were in government service and at which agencies and discouraged segregation. Cabinet officers took steps to present their departments in the best light. Often, this produced changes in policies and personnel practices.
When a group of Negro Republican women wrote Coolidge requesting vigorous enforcement of the 15th Amendment and the appointment of qualified Negro females in the Labor Department, Child Welfare, Education, and Woman’s Bureau of the U.S. Employees Compensation Commission, and Negroes of both sexes to agricultural experimental stations across the country, Coolidge asked his cabinet’s thoughts. Labor Secretary Davis replied, that much as he opposed hiring based on race, he believed that in “cases where department heads have been confronted with special problems growing out of interracial relationships, a solution could be expedited by the employment of Negro experts of broad vision, understanding, and training.” He noted that in the Department of Agriculture, “Negro farm and home economics demonstrators are successfully carrying … programs into territories heretofore difficult to approach.” Davis retained on his own staff a “Negro commissioner of conciliation” to advise him on “interracial issues and industrial problems that had arisen through (racial) misunderstandings.” He recommended his colleagues do likewise.
In language that could have been written yesterday, Davis told the President that although it was “un-American” to create or recognize classes, “it is recognized that there is a race distinction and that, sometimes, it is very convenient to have the assistance of a representative of a race in dealing with the members of that race.” He thought it sensible to have a “colored woman … assigned to special investigations” where race had become an issue in collective bargaining or in employer/employee unrest.
With regard to patronage, Coolidge named blacks to judgeships and other prominent posts. His record here was better than Wilson’s and probably better than Taft’s. He resisted William Lewis’s suggestion that he name blacks to posts that had customarily been held by members of their race. Coolidge did not like the idea of “Negro,” “Jewish,” or other “seats” on boards, courts, and agencies.
Any discussion of presidential actions on racial matters in Coolidge’s day must include the Ku Klux Klan. It is hard to describe the power that organization wielded back then. One difference between the Klan of then and of now is how people regarded it. We think of it as a part of a fringe, operating at the margins of society. In the 1920’s much of the population and even many in the media thought it part of the mainstream.
Whereas the Klan that Dixon and Griffith romanticized in the “Birth of a Nation” persecuted blacks, its successor in the teens and the ’20s also made Catholics, Jews, and immigrants its targets. Robert Ferrell calls this change “the great bigotry merger.” Contrary to popular belief the Klan was not exclusively a southern phenomenon. It was a dominant political force in Oregon, California, Oklahoma, Kansas, Indiana, and parts of Maine. It conducted rallies and cross burnings in Massachusetts. In the South, its members were Democrats. They were primarily Republican everywhere else. Professor Ferrell records that at least 75 members of the House owed their seats to the Klan.
Nancy Maclean in Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan, tells how the KKK functioned as fraternal lodge, credit union, enforcer of standards. charitable organization, and terrorist organization all at once. The Klan took a particular interest in public education. It wanted to expand state and federal spending on it as a means of teaching native Americanism and making it economically prohibitive for immigrants to patronize parochial schools.
The Klan nearly shut down the Democratic convention in 1924. Delegates settled on John W. Davis on the 103d ballot, breaking a deadlock between Klan backed William McAdoo (Wilson’s son in law) and New York’s Catholic Governor Al Smith. There were enough Klan delegates and sympathizers in the hall to block a platform plank condemning the organization.
The Klan forced itself onto Coolidge’s attention in the fall of 1923 when it instigated violence in Omaha and Pittsburgh. The Nebraska governor declared martial law, complaining that “unmentionable mutilations have been conducted upon numerous citizens … scores of others have been taken from their homes at night and beaten and flogged in a most unmerciful way. The majority of the lower house are Klansmen.”
A group of pro-KKK state legislators forced Coolidge’s hand when they tried to hold a session in a federal building to impeach the Governor. Calling the Governor a Bolshevik, some Republican activists urged Coolidge to stay out of the matter. After Slemp denied the Klansmen permission to use the site, one newspaper ran a picture of the President beneath the words “He Intervenes.”
The Klan issue began to dominate much of Coolidge’s mail. A man from Brooklyn wrote Coolidge: “We Catholics believe you are a man of character with backbone enough to put these people in their place.” He hoped the government would not encourage them by granting parade permits. “…No slurs were cast when Catholics comprised nearly 50% of our army while the make of men like the KKK were probably hiding in the woods.”
The Indianapolis State Order of Hibernians urged Coolidge to follow President Grant’s example and “suppress with the arm of the federal government the invisible empire of the KKK–an organization of masked conspirators.” Sure of the Southern vote and sensing an opportunity to drive a wedge among Republicans elsewhere, Davis challenged the president to join him in denouncing the Klan. With Robert LaFollette mounting a healthy third party candidacy, Davis hoped that he might slip past Coolidge in the electoral college if he could drive enough Midwestern Republicans away from the president.
A wire story with a dateline “Plymouth Notch, Vt.” by William Lost suggested that the President’s advisers took this threat seriously: “Davis’s challenge dropped into the quiet village here with something akin to a bombshell last night. Secretary Slemp together with newsmen motored from Woodstock to Calvin Coolidge’s home and caught the President just as he was retiring…Because the Klan issue wrecked the Democratic convention in New York, Republican leaders had not thought Davis would revive it and they, in turn, were not anxious to raise the issue within their own ranks.”
While he never did take Davis’s bait, Coolidge made public displays of giving comfort to the Klan’s would be victims. He sought out and accepted speaking appearances at Howard University and the Holy Name Society during the year of the election and the Washington Jewish Community Center afterwards. These groups were not considered “respectable” in some quarters. His theme was the same when he spoke to the Norwegian Centennial Celebration and the newly formed American Legion–that tolerance was more deeply rooted in the American tradition than bigotry. At Howard, he praised “the progress of the colored people on this continent” as “one of the marvels of modem history.” “Racial hostility, ancient tradition, and social prejudice are not to be eliminated immediately or easily, ” he said, “But they will be lessened…”
He began his remarks before the Holy Name Society gathering in Washington with a strong and optimistic opening:
Something in all human beings makes them want to do the right thing. Not that this desire always prevails; oftentimes it is overcome and they turn towards evil. But some power is always calling them back. Ever there comes a resistance to wrongdoing. When bad conditions begin to accumulate, when forces of darkness become prevalent, always they are ultimately doomed to fail as the better angels of our nature are roused to resistance.
Were his references to “ordered liberty under law” before the Holy Name and his declaration of the “right of every mother to rest in the assurance that her children will find here a land of devotion, prosperity, and peace.” aimed at the Klan? Emmet Scott, Secretary-Treasurer at Howard University thought so.
This address brought great encouragement to thoughtful representatives of the twelve million colored people of the United States. The principles above stated by you include most or all of what they hold near and dear in connection with their citizenship. The one thing for which they have struggled since the Republican Party conferred upon them … freedom and enfranchisement has been this American ideal of “ordered liberty.”
The colored people suffer many disabilities among them persecution by a hooded order which seeks to exclude them from the privileges of American citizenship. They also suffer from discrimination in the Federal service and from segregation in many Departments of our government. This discrimination is a legacy which has come to your administration.
They know Calvin Coolidge. They know his traditional friendship and they know of his distinguished services in behalf of their race.
Scott’s letter praising Coolidge and the President’s release of it were part of a strategy Coolidge and his advisers devised to portray the President as an enemy of racial and religious bigotry. When a constituent wrote complaining about a black man seeking the GOP nomination to Congress, Coolidge made the following reply public. “I was amazed to receive such a letter. During the war, 500,000 colored men and boys were called up under the draft, not one of whom sought to evade it. … A colored man is precisely as much entitled to submit his candidacy … as is any other citizen.”
Before the American Legion, Coolidge took on the Klan’s creed head on. He asked his listeners to cast away the stereotyping of foreign peoples that resulted from war propaganda and called for greater toleration of differences at home. “No man’s patriotism was impugned or service questioned because of his racial origin, his political opinion, or his religious convictions.” Coolidge had been reading his mail. The president for whom this library is named uttered similar remarks before an assembly of Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960.
Coolidge noted that “immigrants and sons of immigrants from central European countries fought side by side with those who descended from the countries which were our allies; with the sons of equatorial Africa; and with the Red men of our own aboriginal population, all of them equally proud of the name Americans. … Divine Providence has not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character…”
He told Washington’s Jewish community that they and their ancestors were a part of the American fabric. Quoting a favored historian, Coolidge said “Hebraic mortar cemented the foundations of American democracy.” “From earliest colonial times, America has been a new land of promise to this long persecuted race,” he proclaimed:
Factional, sectional, social and political lines of conflict yet persist. Despite all experience, society continues to engender the hatreds and jealousies whereof are born domestic strife and international conflicts. But education and enlightenment are breaking their force. Reason is emerging.
In an exchange Coolidge had with a secret service agent, the president, showing his lighter side, revealed his private opinion of this band of hooded knights. Agent Starling recalled his discussion with the President about what was playing at various Washington theaters.
What’s at the National?, Coolidge asked…
I don’t think the National would interest you, I said.
I took Mr. Sargent (the Atty General) there last night.
It’s just an ordinary leg show.
I’d better not take my wife there, he said, and you’d better not let the folks in Vermont know John Sargent is going to leg shows…
What about the Belasco?
It is rented this week to the Ku Klux Klan.
Well, we won’t go there. That’ s worse than a leg show.
John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, cites a Coolidge quotation “Biological laws shows us that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.” He certainly did not take this racist tone when he addressed the Norwegian Centennial Celebration in Minnesota in 1925: “if one were seeking proof of a basic brotherhood among all races of men … no better testimony could be taken than the experience of this country.” Or at the dedication of a statue to Swedish immigrant John Ericsson, designer of the Monitor, before a gathering that included the Crown Prince of Sweden: “As we do not recognize any inferior races, so we do not recognize any superior races. We all stand on an equality of rights and of opportunity, each deriving just honor from his own worth and accomplishments.”
During the immigration restriction debate, Coolidge voiced concern about Japanese exclusion and how this might harm American relations with Japan. He worked to increase the number admitted, but threatened no veto. He said nothing whatsoever when Congress set severe restrictions on future immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. Much as he praised the work earlier generations had done to build a strong and united America, he was prepared to accept fewer newcomers of non-Anglo-Saxon origins.
However, had he resisted these changes, he would have found few allies. So called “Progressives”–LaFollette, Norris, Borah, Wheeler, Walsh, Johnson–all favored greater restrictions. One of the few who did not was New York Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia. LaGuardia doubted that restrictions would produce a better America. He reminded those who disagreed that his dog came from a “distinguished family tree, but was still a son of a bitch.”
I will end with two revealing anecdotes about Calvin Coolidge. In a conversation with the president, secret service agent Edmund Starling referred to White House butler Arthur Brooks as a fine, colored gentleman.” Coolidge replied sharply, “Brooks is not a colored gentleman. He is a gentleman.”
In the Coolidge papers is a gem of a letter written August 14, 1924 to presidential aide Edward T. Clark by E.V. Nelson of Washington, DC.
Recently while down to the Monument grounds viewing a baseball game between two colored teams, I saw the president and Mrs. Coolidge drive up and watch the game. While there they had their picture taken with the members of both teams. I am writing this letter to ask you if it is possible for me to get any of those pictures? I am a member of the Phipps Colored Republican Club of Pueblo Colorado, and I wanted to send the Club one of those pictures if there is any way for me to get one. If you will be so kind as to inform me if I could get one or buy one, I will certainly appreciate it.
Given Mrs. Coolidge’s love of baseball and her husband’s propensity to see beyond race, neither probably thought their stopping to watch the game was anything but a normal occurrence.
Finally there was the way Coolidge and Slemp removed Colonel C.O. Sherrill, who Coolidge had re-appointed Director of Public Buildings, Grounds, and Parks. African Americans in the city had objected to Sherrill’s appointment. They alleged that this Wilson holdover had tried to segregate Washington, DC parks. He had caused a stir during the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial when he steered black dignitaries, including Howard University’s Emmet Scott, GOP official Perry Howard, and Tuskegee President Robert Moton, one of the speakers, to a segregated section.
A year into Coolidge’s presidency, Slemp wrote Sherrill, “Sometime when you are in, I wish you would let me know just what your policy is in regard to recreation grounds for colored people.” Six months later he wrote him again asking how he might answer complaints that were still being raised.
Matters came to a head when Sherrill tried to construct an all black beach near the Tidal Basin. Congress had authorized a bathing facility in 1917 for whites and had just gotten around to providing one for blacks. Black leaders beseeched the president either to veto the appropriation or at least not put his signature on a measure that could set a precedent for segregated street cars and public accommodations.
The White House, already annoyed at Sherrill for failing to appear at a ceremony for prominent aviators, had begun documenting his missteps. That November, the press reported that Sherrill had complained before the Garden Club in Philadelphia about the Budget Bureau’s stinginess in funding his operations. Sanders wrote him the following letter: “The President directs me to send you the enclosed clipping … and to ask if you will let him know if you are accurately quoted therein. He would be glad to have you send him a copy of the manuscript of your address if you have it…” The White House forwarded Sherrill’s reply to his commanding officer.
Two weeks later, Sherrill resigned. Coolidge named Major U.S. Grant III Sherrill’s successor. The grandson of the last President to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment and who was responsible for its passage, Grant proved a popular choice. Under his administration the blacks only beach was never built and the whites only facility was removed.