History Timeline 1930's

Photo above: A workman on the construction crew of the Empire State Building. Courtesy Federal Works Agency, WPA/National Archives. Right: Unemployed workers in Chicago in line at food kitchen run by Al Capone. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons via National Archives, U.S. Information Agency.

Great Depression

U.S. Timeline - The 1930s

The Great Depression



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  • Timeline

  • 1937 - Detail

    March 26, 1937 - William Henry Hastie is appointed to the federal bench, becoming the first African-American to become a federal judge.

    William Henry Hastie

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President, dealing with issues stemming from the Great Depression since 1929, and not yet encumbered with the vagaries of Nazi Germany and World War II. William Henry Hastie, Jr. was an Assistant Solicitor within the Department of the Interior. Judge George Jones was serving in the capacity of Federal Judge in the U.S. Virgin Islands District Court. When Judge Jones resigned in 1937, Roosevelt considered his options. William Henry Hastie, Jr., only thirty-two years old at the time, would be chosen and become the first African American to serve on the federal bench.

    It was a controversial appointment with some Senators in stark opposition, despite the fact that Hastie had considerable experience in dealing with problems of the Virgin Islands during his days at the Department of the Interior. He had worked in establishment of a corporate structure in the rehabilitation of the sugar and rum industry, working with Governor Paul Martin Pearson and his successor, Lawrence Cramer. Hastie had also written the the constitution for the territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands while working for the Department of the Interior. Cramer suggested that Hastie would be a good choice, agreed to by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes.

    At the time of his appointment, the term of a judgeship in that jurisdiction was four years at a salary of $7,500. Today, the Federal Court in the Virgin Islands is an Article IV Court without life tenure and terms of ten years. Hastie would serve two years in his capacity, resigning on July 1, 1939, to become dean of the Howard University Law School.



    Hastie Prior to the Appointment


    Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1904, Hastie became a superior student, and graduated Magna Cum Laude from Amherst College in 1925. He taught at the Bordentown Manual Training School in New Jersey until 1927 before attending Harvard University for his law and doctorate degrees. Hastie graduated Law School in 1930 and received in Doctorate in 1933. Engaged in private law practice after graduation until 1933 in Washington, D.C., Hastie was hired as an Assistant Solicitor for the Department of the Interior in 1934. He had served as an advisor on race relations to the Roosevelt Administration prior to that appointment.


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    Career Timeline, Judge Hastie


    Federal Judge on the U.S. District Court of the Virgin Islands - 1937-1939.

    Dean of the Howard University School of Law, with students such as future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. 1939.

    Assistant to Department of War Secretary Howard Stimson, taking leave from his position as Dean. Advocated for equal treatment of African American soldiers in World War II. Resigned his position in 1943, protesting unequal training facilities and segregation in the U.S. Air Force. 1940-1943.

    Quote from Judge Hastie - "This was at a time when there was tremendous bitterness and vocal expression of dissatisfaction in the black community as to the result of the exclusion of blacks both from rapidly developing defense industrial mobilization, and from the rapidly expanding Army. Secretary Stimson wanted to bring someone onto his staff with a general responsibility to assist in and recommend and criticize action or non-action by the War Department in this field. So with some reluctance I agreed to take that rather general responsibility. I was reluctant not because of any lack of interest or because it was not an important area, but I was rather skeptical as to what a person with no authority of his own whom I was sure the military did not want serving in the Secretary's office. But I did agree to come in and worked for about two years with Secretary Stimson, and more directly with Under Secretary [Robert] Patterson, who was my immediate and day-to-day contact, though from time to time there were occasions, of course, when I was dealing directly with Secretary Stimson.

    As I had anticipated, I was not really welcomed by the military. It was first informally understood, later it appeared in a directive, that all policy decisions or projects undertaken that had a racial significance were to be routed through my office for comment and criticism or approval before they became effective.

    Actually that was as much honored in the breach as it was in performance. The immediate cause of my resignation in 1942 was a decision of the Army Air Force to set up a separate training base for black Air Force ground personnel, a project of which I was never informed. I learned about it from the St. Louis papers where the project was about to be initiated. I had the feeling that the time had come by, I guess it was February 1942, when I had accomplished as much as I could from inside the Department."

    "... I had bitterly opposed the beginning of the training of black Army pilots in this new segregated installation that was set up at Tuskegee, and I had denounced Tuskegee itself, and its leadership, for putting its selfish interests in getting a remunerative Army contract of what I considered to be the national interest in setting up a quite different pattern, an integrated pattern of training in the Air Force. So by 1942, when this climactic thing arose of planning Tuskegee, up until then it had been the one segregated training installation for the Air Force. Then at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, plans had been completed and all approved for a training center for black groundpersonnel. I resigned and publicly criticized what had been done, and returned to my fulltime activities in teaching."

    On May 17, 1946, Hastie was appointed the territorial governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands by President Harry Truman. Hastie would serve until October 21, 1949 as the first African American Governor of a United States Territory.

    On October 21, 1949, President Truman appointed Judge Hastie as the first African American to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit in a recess appointment. He was approved by the U.S. Senate on July 19, 1950. Hastie would serve in that capacity until May 31, 1971, becoming senior status on that date. While on the bench, Hastie developed strategies in several cases with Thurgood Marshall that would lead to the 1954 decision in Brown versus Board of Education. Judge Hastie would serve as Chief Judge of the Third Circuit from 1968 to 1971.

    For four years from 1972 to 1976, Hastie would serve as a judge in the Temporary Emergency Court of Appeals, which was established to hear cases surrounding the Economic Stabilization Act of 1970 on the subject of wage and price controls.

    Photo above: William Henry Hastie in a meeting with undersecretary of War Robert Patterson, 1942, Marjory Collins, Office of War Information. Courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Judge Hastie, 1941, Office of War Information. Courtesy National Archives via Wikipedia Commons. Info Source: Howard University School of Law; Truman Library Oral History, January 5, 1972; blackpast.org, Samantha Kealoha; Wikipedia Commons.

    Judge William Hastie




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