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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Clark Foreman, November 16, 1974. Interview B-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The Interior Department integrates in the 1930s

In the early 1930s, the Department of the Interior was the only federal government office with integrated cafeterias. Foreman hired a black assistant and secretary, and his supervisor ignored all protests against those changes. Foreman even tried to convince his supervisor to hire a black man to oversee Negro economic affairs instead of him.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Clark Foreman, November 16, 1974. Interview B-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Wasn't there some protest on the part of the blacks about the appointment of a white man?
Not at first. When I took the job . . . . When I went in to see Ickes and he offered me the job, I said to him "Now Mr Secretary, as I understand this job, the main thing that I would be supposed to do is get jobs for Negroes." He said yes. I said "Well, one job that a Negro could certainly handle would be the one that I am taking, so it would seem to me that it would be much better for you to appoint a Negro than to appoint me." He said "Well, that may be true, but I don't know any Negro that I would give the job to, and if you don't take it I'll give it to another white man." So I said "Well, on that basis, I will accept provided that when the time comes that you will appoint a Negro to the job and I will resign." He said okay. And I said "Well, now I would like to have a Negro assistant and a Negro secretary." He said okay. So I found Robert Weaver, who was teaching down in some little college in North Carolina. I don't remember what it was. I brought him to Washington. And Lucia Pitts, Ickes recommended her because she had worked in Illinois and been a secretary for his wife who was in the legislature in Illinois. She found her very good. I wrote Lucia Pitts and asked her to come down to be my secretary and she did. And I brought Robert Weaver in to be my assistant. Now there was some feeling that-later on-that a black man should be doing this job, my job. But that was a lot of different-John Davis, who was, at that time, radical but now very conservative man. I would say that by and large I had the support of the black community. People like Mary McLoud Bethune. Editors of the newspapers and so forth. People like that were very supportive.
Were there any other black secretaries in the Washington bureaucracy at that time?
At the time I gave the job to Lucia Pitts she was the first black secretary in government. Gene Talmadge, who was then the governor of Georgia, went on the radio twice a day and denounced me for doing such an outrageous thing as appointing a Negro secretary. Now, of course, it's the most common thing in the world. And when Weaver came up . . . he came up to talk to me about taking the job. We were talking in the morning and we hadn't finished our conversation when it came time to have lunch, so I said "Why don't we go up to the government cafeteria and have lunch." So we went up there and when we sat down the hostess came over and said to him "Do you work in the department?" He looked completely dismayed, you know. I said yes and she said "Where?" and I said . . . told her the room number. So she wrote it all down. I said "Well look, if we can't meet here in our own cafeteria to talk we can't do the job at all, so let's go ahead with it." The reason they did this . . . they had a sign outside "For Employees Only" and there was a separate dining room for the Negro employees. So Negroes were not, at that time, eating in any of the government cafeterias in Washington. I wondered what happened to this protest, this woman writing all this down, what was going to happen. I found out much later . . . . One time Secretary Ickes had an office, a big long hall. He sat down there and people came in and sat around waiting for their appointment in line and move up. So when I got nearly there-it was something else that came up, I don't remember what it was-and he said "Well, it's just a matter of fundamental justice. It's just like that question about Negroes eating in the dining room. When that was brought up to me I said of course they should eat in the dining room. I don't want to hear anything more about it. And that was the end of that." So that was the protest.
That's amazing, because the other government dining rooms stayed segregated, didn't they. The department of Interior cafeterias were the only, still were the only integrated cafeterias in Washington.