USA of the 1920s-1930s: Life of Black Americans (2/?)

In the previous post, we began discussing the life of Black Americans in 1920-30 and we tried to contextualise the discussion on the start of the segregation movement. In this post we decided to discuss the regional differences of how Black people were treated in this period.

To what extent were the experiences of Black people different in the South and in the North?

At the turn of the century, the majority (around 90%) of the Black American population lived in the South, working predominantly in agriculture as sharecroppers. However, by the 1970s, less than half were living in the South, due to successive waves of South-to-North migration. These were fuelled both by the push factors of acute discrimination, segregation and poor work prospects in the South, and the pull factors of better economic and social opportunities in Northern and Western cities.

Think like a Historian:

What factors can cause a person to move to a city apart from finding better work prospects?

The first movement started in the mid-1910s, when industries in the North faced labour shortage during WWI. Between 1910 and 1920, 500,000 Black Americans migrated northwards to cities like Chicago and New York, or westwards to California. In addition to finding work, many people were drawn to the fact that the North seemingly presented fewer barriers to Black Americans.

This was true to some extent; segregation was less overt than in the South, with some greater opportunities for educational (e.g. integrated schools) and employment advances, and Black Americans had greater freedoms than they did in the sharecropping system of the South. The communities these migrations created in cities also fostered a strong, Black American urban culture, where people could aid and empower each other to fight against discrimination in the North. This led to the first mass social associations of Black Americans, such as the National Urban League or the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which gave the Black community a voice that they could never have had in the South. It was mainly in the North where African American talent could succeed, something which was epitomised by the Harlem Renaissance (a literary and musical movement) in the 1920s.

Here is a short introductory video to the Harlem Renaissance.
Here is a short video about Langston Hughes, one of the famous writers who was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance.

Think like a Historian:

How and why, do you think, discrimination occurs?

However, although Jim Crow Laws only existed in the South, Black Americans in the North faced discrimination and hardship in their daily lives. Often the jobs they found were manual and badly paid, especially once white soldiers returned from WWI, many of them resentful at the appearance that their jobs had been ‘stolen’. Systemic racism meant that de facto segregation was the reality in Northern cities. For example, various clauses were written into leases that prevented Black Americans from buying or renting specific houses, or the redlining policy of refusing to guarantee mortgages in Black neighbourhoods. When Black families moved into white neighbourhoods or attended schools, they were often the targets of similar abuse that they faced in the South. Many Black activists such as Huey Newton and Ella Baker turned to campaigning once they recognised that even the Northern cities they had sought refuge in were heavily discriminatory in their own way.

Here is a video that discusses the impact the Black Panthers had on the segregation movement and compares it with today’s protests.

The Black community was the hardest hit by the Wall Street Crash (1929) and the Depression that followed as they were the first employees to be sacked when the wave of unemployment hit the USA. They received much less aid, and segregation excluded them even from food banks and soup kitchens.

Examples of Violence towards Black Americans:

Race Riots – eg. Tulsa 1921 Massacre. Roughly 150 Black Americans were killed and hundreds injured, as well as thousands of Black businesses and homes destroyed by armed groups of White Americans. The riots were triggered by the fabricated sexual assault of White, 17 year old Sarah Page by Black 19 year old Dick Rowland.

Lynchings – a type of violence carried out by a group of people in the ‘name of the law’ i.e. their perceived idea of law and morality, through which the victim is tortured and murdered, most typically by hanging. Lynching was a tool used by many White Americans to terrorise the Black community and became a symbol of White supremacy and Black oppression throughout the fight for civil rights and equality in America. Typical accusations which triggered and were used as “justifications” for lynchings included murder, sexual assault and any other forms of supposed Black violence towards Whites. e.g. Death of Raymond Gunn – lynched in Maryville, Missouri in 1931 before his trial surrounding the murder of a White school teacher.

Important vocabulary
  • Sharecropper: is a person who relies on usage of someone else’s land, whereby the owner of the land allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop.
  • Segregation: physical separation of one group from the other
  • Harlem Renaissance: a blossoming (c. 1918–37) of African American culture, particularly in the creative arts, and the most influential movement in African American literary history. (cc: Britannica)
  • Black Panthers: African American revolutionary party, founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The party’s original purpose was to patrol African American neighbourhoods to protect residents from acts of police brutality. (cc: Britannica)
  • the Wall Street Crash: the collapse of the American stock market and consequently the entire American economy on  29 October 1930.
  • Lynchings: a type of violence carried out by a group of people in the ‘name of the law’ i.e. their perceived idea of law and morality, through which the victim is tortured and murdered, most typically by hanging.
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’re interested in the Blank Panthers, or people who’d led the movement, Assata: An Autobiography, by Assata Shakur is a compelling autobiography of Assata Shakur, who was an activist in 1960s-70s and joined various organisations.
  • If you’d like to find out about the ‘feel’ of the life in the 1920s-70s, a good place to start would be by reading Langston Hughes’ poetry (The Negro Speaks of Rivers and I, Too, Am America are a must read) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The authors of this series of posts: Clara and Katie