African American Studies Segregation in Federal Government
Eric S. Yellin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0022


The history of African American employment in the federal government is not characterized by a singular, static racial segregation. Rather, it is a history with three basic turning points: the arrival of hundreds (and eventually thousands) of free black workers in Washington, D.C., after emancipation; extreme racial discrimination imposed by the Woodrow Wilson administration and largely maintained until the 1960s; and the rise of effective equal employment initiatives during the Lyndon Johnson administration. In between, federal segregation was rarely stable, however. All segregationist regimes are marked by inconsistencies and constant vigilance by both white supremacists and civil rights activists. Before the Civil War, African Americans in Washington were subject to an ever-changing set of racial practices and segregation laws. Free and enslaved black laborers maintained public grounds and constructed federal buildings. Emancipation came to the District with a federal payment to slave owners in 1862, and soon after, African Americans began to find decent work and pay in federal offices. Federal employment fed black mobility, especially for black men. Even with the rise of Jim Crow in the 1890s, federal offices were relatively unsegregated and employed black men and women at all levels of the federal bureaucracy, including high-ranking, white-collar positions. Racism could be found in federal offices in any decade, but rising racial discrimination in the 1910s, most significantly under the Wilson administration, was marked by a decline of economic fortunes of middle-class African Americans around the country and in Washington. National politics have always been integral to the history of black public employment. Early black federal employment was fostered by a Republican Party committed to inserting African Americans into the democracy and taking advantage of their votes in the South. The Wilson administration’s discriminatory actions were driven by racism and political ideologies, but the disenfranchisement of virtually all black voters in the solidly Democratic South also meant that Wilson’s party had nothing to gain from black patronage. Conversely, by the end of World War II, black voters increasingly identified as Democrats and were a growing part of the electorate, thanks to massive migration to northern cities. Civil rights achievements during the Johnson administration ensured that black voters saw their best political hopes—and federal jobs—in Democratic politics. By the mid-1960s, effective equal employment practices and policies began to reshape opportunities for African Americans in federal office. The economic benefits of more jobs spurred dramatic growth of black middle-class communities in Washington and southern Maryland through the 1970s. Recent studies suggest that the best days of black federal employment may be behind us, as declining support for affirmative action programs and a new emphasis on government austerity have undermined equal employment opportunities in the last three decades.

General Overviews

These texts trace the rise and fall and rise again of black federal employment, revealing both segregation and job discrimination. Borchert 1980 and Brown 1972 establish the general occupational data of African Americans before emancipation, including some information on the earliest black government workers. King 1995 is the most authoritative study of black federal employment, though its broad coverage and emphasis on institutional development deny readers a feel for the lived experiences of black federal workers. King 1999 provides readers with a brilliant way of inserting federal segregation into an understanding of American political development, though again little about the lives of African Americans comes through. Drawing together her groundbreaking research on African Americans from her Pulitzer-Prize-winning, Constance Green’s two-volume study of Washington, D.C., Green 1967, provides readers a strong narrative about the lives of black federal workers into the late 20th century. Her data is less reliable and well-sourced than King’s, but Green does provide readers a strong sense of life in the capital. O’Reilly 1995 tracks the racial views and policies of each US president, with an emphasis on broad, national policies. Federal segregation is mentioned when relevant, though without much original research to support his claims. Van Riper 1958 is still the most comprehensive study of the US Civil Service, reliably laying out the development of the system and its evolving practices and regulations through World War II. Remarkable for its time, Van Riper even notes the rise and fall of black federal employment at the turn of the 20th century.

  • Borchert, James. Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850–1970. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980.

    An indespensible study of Washington generally that touches upon the lives of black federal employees.

  • Brown, Letitia Woods. Free Negroes in the District of Columbia 1870–1846. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

    Groundbreaking study of African Americans in antebellum Washington, including an extraordinary index listing the occupations and property of the District’s free blacks. Offers a few details on black government workers.

  • Green, Constance McLaughlin. The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.

    Collection of the portions of Green’s award-winning history of Washington, DC, that deal with African Americans. Provides some of the only available details about free blacks working in the federal government before emancipation. Dated but still deeply insightful look at race in the nation’s capital.

  • King, Desmond S. Separate and Unequal: Black Americans and the U.S. Federal Government. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    A broad institutional study of black employment in federal offices in Washington and around the country, focused on the 20th century.

  • King, Desmond S. “The Racial Bureaucracy: African Americans and the Federal Government in the Era of Segregated Race Relations.” Governance: An International Journal of Policy and Administration 12.4 (October 1999): 345–377.

    DOI: 10.1111/0952-1895.00109

    Theoretical interpretation of the relationship between American political development and institutionalized discrimination at the national level. Argues that even in liberal moments of government growth, the national state can be used for illiberal ends.

  • O’Reilly, Kenneth. Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton. New York: Free Press, 1995.

    Largely synthetic study of racial policies and ideas of US presidents. Most useful for tracking changes over the long term. Little depth of new research on specific administrations.

  • Van Riper, Paul P. History of the United States Civil Service. Evanston, IL: Row Peterson, 1958.

    Comprehensive history of federal employment. Explores the development of civil service system and its institutional changes over its first seventy-five years. Includes some discussion of employment of and discrimination against black civil servants.

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