USA of the 1920s-1930s: Life of Black Americans (1/?)

Racism, police brutality, imperialism, protests, the Black Lives Matter, the Segregation movement- we hear these words on the news every day. The variety of discussions these words create are undoubtedly immense and yet, few people understand the historical processes behind the events of today. As thus, this series of posts will aim to contextualise the historical events that are linked with race and empires with a focus on the USA; the effects of which we are witnessing today.

In the near future, we are hoping to also focus on the British and the Russian Empires and you would be able to find the posts about them in their respective sections on our website.

Background

In April 1865, the American Civil War ended bringing a formal end to slavery in the United States.

Here is a short video about the American Civil War to contextualise the events that followed it.

Three amendments (“The Reconstruction Amendments”) were consequently made to the US constitution to signify this seismic shift in American society: the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) abolishing slavery (except for those convicted of committing a crime); the Fourteenth Amendment (1870) affirming Blacks were US citizens and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) which granted voting rights to every US citizen regardless of “race, colour or previous condition of servitude” which meant Black American men could now vote, provided they fulfilled certain criteria (such as property ownership). On paper these political changes seemed to indicate a move towards a more equal society. In reality, the monumental struggle for Black Americans to have an active role in a politically and socially equal society was only just beginning.

The Reconstructions Amendments were vague and contained loopholes which were exploited by those states that opposed them. Moreover, freed Black slaves remained trapped in a cycle of poverty as they lacked education, wealth, economic power. This also meant they were unable to dominate politically as they lacked the education, experience and means to engage in the political system. The Reconstruction process ended in 1877 and from then on Black Americans, predominantly in the South, faced a full-scale attack on their civil rights.

Think like a Historian:

Can a society be changed? If yes, how can it happen?

Jim Crow Laws and Segregation

Jim Crow refers to the segregation laws, rules and customs that came about after the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and lasted until the 1960s, institutionalising white supremacy and systematic racism across the American South. The name comes from the stock ‘comedy’ character “Jim Crow” which was an exaggerated, stereotypical image of the ‘Black man’ of the early 19​ century, played by black faced actors.

This is a very interesting video made by the Jim Crow museum which discusses the depiction and usage of Jim Crow character in more depth.

Think like a Historian:

Can caricatures be used as historical sources to understand a certain period in history? Why do you think so?

Racial segregation in the South affected all aspects of everyday life for Black Americans: education, public transport, work, healthcare, leisure as well as voting rights and freedom from violence.

Theoretically, Black Americans should have been able to vote throughout this period. However, multiple barriers stopped many from casting their ballot or gaining a foothold in the political system. Black Americans had to pay a poll tax, which many could not afford due to their low wages, as well as pass a literacy test, which was impossible for most due to low literacy levels amongst the Black community. Even those who made it past these obstacles faced suppression in the form of violence and threats. Representation for Black Americans during this period was incredibly low and Black voices were ignored and shunned from the political sphere.

A short video that discusses the effects of Jim Crow laws
Important vocabulary
  • The Reconstructions Amendments: a set of laws that formally ended slavery at the end of the American Civil war
  • Jim Crow: a caricature character which depicted an exaggerated, stereotypical image of the ‘Black man’
  • Jim Crow laws: a set of laws that came about after the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and lasted until the 1960s, institutionalising white supremacy and systematic racism across the American South
  • Segregation: physical separation of one group from the other
To explore the topic further…
  • If you’re interested in the people who’d led the Segregation movement, King: A Critical Biography by David L Lewis is a good place to start. It discusses the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Segregation movement.
  • If you’re interested in the actions of the Segregation movement, Freedom Rights: New Perspectives on the Civil Rights Movement by Danielle L. McGuire and John Dittmer provides an updated perspective on the Segregation movement as it discusses it together with the current BLM protests.
  • If you’d like to find out about the ‘feel’ of the life during the times of the Jim Craw laws, a good place to start would be To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

The authors of this series of posts: Clara and Katie

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