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Judge William H. Hastie Oral History Interview


Oral History Interview with
Judge William H. Hastie

Assistant Solicitor, Department of the Interior, 1933-37; Judge of the District Court of the Virgin Islands, 1937-39; Dean, Howard University School of Law, 1939-46; Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War, 1940-42; Governor of the Virgin Islands, 1946-49; Judge, 3rd United States Circuit Court of Appeals, 1949-71; and Senior status, 1971-76.
January 5, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

As an electronic publication of the Truman Library, users should note that features of the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview, such as pagination and indexing, could not be replicated for this online version of the Hastie transcript.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened March, 1977
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
William H. Hastie


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
January 5, 1972
Jerry N. Hess

HESS: All right, Judge, to begin this morning, for the record, would you give me a little of your background: Where were you born, where were you raised, and what are a few of the positions that you held?

HASTIE: I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on November 17, 1904, spent my early boyhood in Knoxville. My family moved to Washington, D.C. when I was about ten, and that actually continued to be the family home until I went to



the Virgin Islands. I started the practice of law in the early 1930s in the District of Columbia. In 1934 I was appointed an Assistant Solicitor in the Department of the Interior. Secretary [Harold I.] Ickes had appointed Nathan Margold, an extremely outstanding New York lawyer, to be his Solicitor, and had given Margold full discretion to appoint his own staff.

In those early days of the New Deal there were enough new jobs--the Government was expanding very fast, of course--there were enough new jobs so that patronage could be provided and at the same time a considerable number of jobs could be taken out of the patronage routine and appointments made by the Secretary, in this case, on the basis solely of what his Solicitor thought were the needs



of legal office.

So I served from 1934 until 1937 as Assistant Solicitor in the Interior Department, and it was during that period that I first became acquainted with the Virgin Islands. I didn't visit the Islands, but in the course of assignments of legal problems, from time to time, I was assigned problems of the Virgin Islands, one of them being to work with some other lawyers on the matter of setting up a corporate structure for the purpose of rehabilitating the sugar and rum industry in the Islands. During the course of that, I got to know the then Governor, Governor [Paul Martin] Pearson, fairly well, and also the Lieutenant Governor, Lawrence Cramer, who succeeded Governor Pearson.

While I was in the Department there was a resignation of the then Judge of the District



Court of the Virgin Islands. At that time the judgeship was a four-year term, as I remember, at a salary of $7500 a year. I am told that President Roosevelt had been impressed in some contacts he had had with the West Indies in some of the British colonial areas. He had been impressed by the growing extent to which the British were appointing native lawyers in those colonies which were inhabited primarily by blacks, black lawyers to judicial office. He, I am told, inquired of the then Governor Cramer, what he thought about such a possibility in the Virgin Islands. Cramer and his wife, who were both present on something of a social occasion, were good enough to enthusiastically espouse the idea and also to suggest that they thought I would be a good person for the position. Secretary Ickes, who had gotten to know me somewhat during



my work on the legal staff of the Interior Department, took the same position, and the result was that I was appointed Judge of the District Court where I remained from--I did not serve out the entire four-year term--I remained from '37 until late '39.

I was then only in my early thirties and I, from the beginning, never thought in terms of making a career in the Virgin Islands as a place off from the mainstream, and my interests were basically on the mainland. However, I would have remained my four-year term except for the fact that in '39 I was offered the post of Dean of the Law School at Howard University. I had always been interested in teaching. I had done some teaching at the Howard Law School during my earlier career in Washington, so I accepted that post and came back to Washington, where I remained from late



1939 until 1946.

It was during that period that my relationship with Harry Truman started. I did not know Senator Truman personally. Obviously anyone who was interested in public affairs living in Washington knew a good bit of him. I am afraid I was one of those who, at that time, regarded him as just another midwestern Senator. But shortly before President Roosevelt's death, Secretary Ickes, who had supervisory responsibility for the Federal activities in the Virgin Islands, became very dissatisfied with, really very antagonistic towards, the then Governor of the Virgin Islands.

HESS: What was the basis for the disagreement?

HASTIE: Well, the Governor didn't spend enough time running the government of the Virgin Islands. The fact is Governor [Charles]



Harwood, the Governor in question, was appointed Governor of the Virgin Islands, though he wanted to become a Federal judge. He was a New Yorker, a man of some means, who allegedly had provided some badly-needed financial support at a stage in the 1944 Presidential campaign. Supposedly--of course, this is secondhand--supposedly, he was appointed Governor of the Virgin Islands with the hope, if not the understanding, that there would be an opportunity when he could be appointed to a Federal judgeship. Well, under those circumstances, his interest in the small local problems of the Virgin Islands' government were not very great. What he did was to spend a very large part of his time in Washington lobbying for legislation of interest or value to the Virgin Islands. This, incidentally, was a very important service, and one that I think Governor Harwood performed very



efficiently. He was responsible for a very major program of Federal subsidy of highways and similar public works in the Virgin Islands. But preoccupied with this, and enjoying the course of life in Washington more than in the Virgin Islands, he really spent relatively little time in the Virgin Islands working on what are primarily the responsibilities of the Governor; and Ickes was very unhappy and very dissatisfied.

So not too long before President Roosevelt's death, Secretary Ickes asked me to come down and talk to him. I did, and he was always, of course, a very blunt person. He knew me. He said he was determined to get rid of the then Governor of the Islands, and that while the President had listened to him, the President had raised the question, "Well, if we got rid of this man, who would be a satisfactory person to take his place?"



And Ickes explained that he could only get rid of the Governor if he could present a package that included an agreed upon person to succeed the Governor. And he asked me if he might present my name to the President as a person whom he thought would do a good job and would be acceptable to the local community, and the President might appropriately appoint. Of course, by that time, I was rather familiar with the Islands, both from the legal work I had done in the thirties and from my two and a half years as judge.

I said to Secretary Ickes, "I hadn't thought in terms of going back to the Virgin Islands. I'm interested in my work as Dean of the Law School; I like legal education, but I would make no effort to seek the governorship, but I do give you permission to use my



name as an available person if the President wants to appoint me."

So, six months or more elapsed and I heard not a word from Ickes or anyone else about that conversation. Then one Saturday morning, I was in a meeting of the deans and administrative officers of Howard University. The president of the university had a policy that at those Saturday meetings we weren't to be interrupted by telephone calls or anything except of an emergency nature, and we were incommunicado for the entire morning. When we broke at lunch hour, the president's secretary was waiting and said newspapermen had been trying to get me all morning. She was under orders not to interrupt so they hadn't been able to get me. I called to find out what it was. and I was told. "We'd like to have your



comment on your appointment as Governor of the Virgin Islands."

This was at a time when there were changes at the top of the administration, both Secretary [Julius A.] Krug succeeding Secretary Ickes as Secretary of the Interior...

HESS: What do you recall about Secretary Ickes' resignation?

HASTIE: I really knew nothing about that, except what appeared in the press. My contacts with Ickes, after I went to the law school, were minimal. I might once in a while see him at some social occasion or some public meeting, and I did not maintain the sort of contact with ranking people in the Interior Department who might talk about things that were going on in the Department. So, I just have nothing



of my own knowledge that's not already public knowledge with reference to this replacement. I do have very distinct personal recollections of Ickes as a person. He, of course, was a tremendous driver...

HESS: The old curmudgeon, as he liked to call himself.

HASTIE: He was really the old curmudgeon. He was, of course, well-known. He maintained his own bureau of investigation which was apparently a pretty efficient thing. He himself was unquestionably a scrupuously honest person who was managing in the public works agency and other expanding Interior Department, the other activities, an empire, such as no one has ever managed before in the Federal Government, with a perfectly amazing record



of not a word of scandal in the administration of then unheard of sums of money by a Federal agency. But in the course of that, he was rough to the point of being brutal at times in dealing with people who might not be wrongdoers. He also, personally, I will say, he was a snooper. He would walk down the corridors of the Interior Department and open doors and look in offices to see if people were busy and what they were doing.

HESS: Judge, to keep things in chronological order, before moving on, and getting back into the Virgin Islands, what were your duties as Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War? You held that position from '40 to '42. This was in conjunction and along with your job as Dean of the Howard University Law School.



HASTIE: That is correct. I took leave from my job as Dean though I continued to teach one course in the evening division while I was in the War Department. I took leave in November of 1940 to undertake civilian work in the Secretary's office.

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. Loui