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American Dream Deferred: Untold Stories Of African-American Federal Workers Post-WWII

A new book out this month sheds light on the mostly untold story of black federal workers in post-WWII years. American Dream Deferred, by Dr. Frederick Gooding, Jr. – formerly a professor at Northern Arizona University, now at Texas Christian University – interrogates the idea of a “good government job”.  It challenges post-war narratives of government charity for African-Americans by telling the neglected stories of their service to the U.S. Dr. Gooding is currently on a book tour, with an event in Flagstaff tomorrow. He spoke with KNAU’s Gillian Ferris about his research.

GF: Thanks for being available today, Dr. G. Nice to talk with you again.

FG: Thank you for having me.

GF: Can you talk about what the political, social, racial climate was in this country during the period your book is set in, beginning around 1941?

FG: Sure. My book picks up, essentially, at the time when the doors were opened en masse to African-American workers right when WWII had begun. African-American workers were part of the American workforce before, however, we may forget that as far back as 1913 Woodrow Wilson actually segregated our federal workforce. Ironically, individuals working together for the same country could not work in the same space. But supply and demand issues and WWII changed that and, obviously, Rosie the Riveter-We Can Do It opened up the door for many women, white women, and, obviously, African-American men and women. And “good government jobs” were seen as a refreshing alternative to largely agricultural jobs in the South, or domestic labor of which most black women were restricted to in the South. So, what we see is a major migration of people moving up North from southern environments to urban environments and, of course, Washington, D.C. in order to work for the nation’s federal service. 

GF: Was the idea of a “good government job” the same at this time in history for black Americans as it was for white Americans?

FG: No. I mean, “good government jobs” were almost like a Holy Grail back then for African-American workers because up until that time there was no black middle class en masse. There were samplings, or sparklings of individual black success, but not across the board. Many whites did not experience the racial restrictions to the economic bounty to be found in the work place. The transparency of a government job, the idea that if you type 62 words a minute and I type 62, you get the job because you’re – quote/unquote – “more efficient”, that transparency opened up the door a lot wider to many African-Americans who found it more difficult to find jobs from the private sector. And so, this job, this “good government job”, was seen as – at least initially – this opportunity to finally even the score where individuals could have stable, secure jobs over the long-term.

Credit TCU
Former NAU professor, Dr. Frederick Gooding, Jr.

GF: Did it even the score? Or were these jobs just as segregated as the rest of the country at the time?

FG: We must observe how the federal government, in many ways, led the private sector in taking a look at racial dynamics in the work place. It was President Harry Truman in 1947 who commissioned the committee that produced the report to secure these rights. It was very influential in helping to desegregate the military, by the way, in 1948, and also to open up the doorways to equitable practices at the job that all Americans benefit from. That being said, what is consistent over time was that despite there being more opportunities, more opening of doors, more agency, you still have lower wages and slower raises over time. That is what is, unfortunately, consistent.

GF: Why do you think this largely untold history is important for us to remember at this particular time?

FG: This history is so vitally important because, not only does it help us appreciate what African-Americans mean to our national economy, but this idea of what it means to our nation’s capital. What does the Capital represent? And so I think to see how blacks literally became the face of U.S. government is absolutely fascinating. And the fact that African-Americans were so integral to many Americans enjoying all the rights and freedoms and services that they endure now, well, if they still endure and suffer from lower wages over time, then what does this suggest about the private sector? And so I think when we put the two together, it’s really a referendum on how difficult it is for some of us Americans to still achieve this “American Dream”, therefore, “American Dream Deferred”.

GF: Dr. G, always a pleasure talking with you.

FG: Thank you, Gillian. I’ll be sure to stay in touch.

That was Dr. Frederick Gooding Junior, author of the book American Dream Deferred: Black Federal Workers in Washington, D.C. 1941 to 1981. He will give a lecture on the book tomorrow evening from 4 to 6 at the Murdoch Center in Flagstaff.

Gillian Ferris was the News Director and Managing Editor for KNAU.