“The servant campaigns”: African American women and the politics of economic justice in Washington, D.C., in the 1930s

Document Type


Publication Date



History and Philosophy

Publication Title

Journal of Urban History


When Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, was elected president in 1932, most African Americans did not support him since they were still loyal to the Republican Party. Moreover, New Deal policies, especially the Social Security Act in 1935, excluded farmers and domestics, and thus, most African Americans. One of the people who encouraged black voters to switch to the Democratic Party was Elizabeth McDuffie, a black servant in the Roosevelt White House. In the 1936 election, McDuffie went on the campaign trail and toured Chicago, Cleveland, Springfield, and St. Louis. As a domestic servant, McDuffie was a familiar face to southern migrants, and she convinced many black voters to switch to the Democratic Party. After her campaign tour concluded, McDuffie became acquainted with the large black population in Washington, D.C. McDuffie worked alongside middle-class activists to increase economic opportunities for women workers by sponsoring training programs for servants. But, as this article demonstrates, most black servants did not want training programs; they desired higher wages, better jobs, and inclusion in the Social Security Act. Working-class women in Washington wrote letters to the newspaper and in 1938, 10,000 rioted for jobs as federal charwomen, jobs that paid higher wages and offered savings for retirement. After McDuffie witnessed these events, she became a vocal critic of the limitations of New Deal programs while continuing to praise Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. This article argues that Elizabeth McDuffie’s career in Washington illuminates the contradictions of New Deal politics for black women workers.

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