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African Americans in American Society 1920s Essay

Throughout US history, there is an abundance of racism, segregation and discrimination towards the African American people. In 1619, the first African slaves were brought to Jamestown to produce tobacco, tea, cotton, coffee and other precious commodities. In this time period, 12 million Africans were forcibly transported to the Americas, where they worked as slaves until 1865, where the 13th Amendment abolished slavery.

Although suppressed by whites and organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan, African Americans in the 1920s began to work towards social, economic and political independence as well as freedom from segregation and discrimination. From this decade, groups in favour of ending prejudice towards African Americans were formed, such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) led by W. E. B. DuBois and the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) led by Marcus Garvey, who, in their own rights, continued the legacy of Booker T.

Washington who had worked towards Black rights in the 1890s. * “We must canonize our own saints, create our own martyrs, and elevate to positions of fame and honor black men and women who have made distinct contributions to our racial history” – Marcus Garvey World War I was a perfect opportunity for African Americans to prove themselves to their white neighbours, and fulfil the policies of Booker T. Washington, that in order to achieve acceptance, equality and freedom, they must first prove that they are worthy of their rights, which was done through service in the armed forces.

However, instead of being accepted by white society, African Americans found that racial tensions only grew during the 1920s. Starting from the 1910s, a phenomenon had been occurring known as the Great Migration – the movement of African Americans from Southern cities to Northern ones as a result of extreme racism, the threat of lynching and the general aggression from whites. The African American population grew from 44 000 in 1920 to 234 000 in 1930 in Chicago, and Black Chicagoans gained access to city jobs, expanded their professional class and even won elective office in local and state government.

However, in places such as Harlem, New York City, many African Americans were forced into small ghettos due to the unavailability of housing to them. Despite this, migration to the North meant that African Americans had become a powerful voting group, one that many white politicians took interest in (such as the Communist Party of America) and also pushed for civil rights of African Americans as they realised that racism was not just a Southern problem. Another side effect of the Great Migration, and ghettos was the flourishing of African American culture in the Black, or Harlem Renaissance.

This movement was characterised by the idea of the ‘New Negro’ whose intellect through music, art and literature would challenge racism and stereotypes to promote progressive politics and social integration. One such example of the New Negro is Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born founder of the UNIA, who acted the part of a Negro king, established the African Orthodox Church and promoted a policy of separatism and a move of all African Americans back to Africa.

The Harlem Renaissance saw a new culture develop in Harlem, the ghetto backstreets of New York City, where African Americans would reach back to their rich cultural heritage and produce creative works to express their feelings in the 1920s, such as Jazz music, which employed the minds of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and many more. Other famous figures include Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen, who inspired African Americans to remain strong despite the threat of racial violence.

As a result of the Harlem Renaissance and the culture produced there, African Americans through taking pride in their heritage found empowerment, which lead to the beginnings of groups such as the Civil Rights Movement, and also, due to the significant effect they had on white culture (such as the development of modern music) it was impossible for white Americans to ignore the achievements occurring in Harlem and other black communities, and allow segregation to continue at such a large scale.

Despite the cultural developments in Harlem and the formation of the African American identity, white culture found it extremely difficult to accept their black neighbours, leading to racial tensions, and often as a result, lynchings. One such example of racial tension leading to horrific consequences was the Tulsa Race Riots. In 1921, Tulsa Oklahoma was experiencing an economic boom thanks to the discovery of oil. Due to this African Americans also prospered, although confined to the Greenwood section of the city, also referred to as the Black Wall Street, due to a number of wealthy black entrepreneurs residing there.

At this time, membership in the Ku Klux Klan was rising and there was an active chapter in Tulsa. On Memorial Day, a riot was triggered by a report in several white newspapers that a white, female elevator operator had been allegedly raped by black youths. In response to this, rumours circulated around the city that a mob was going to attempt to lynch the youths, then a group of armed African Americans bolted to the local police station in order to stop the lynching mob, that did not exist.

A confrontation followed where shots were fired and several whites killed. As news of the events spread through Tulsa, thousands of whites caused uproar through Greenwood as they ran through the Black Wall Street, killing African Americans and vandalising, burning and looting homes and businesses. However, when the National Guard was called in, only blacks were arrested (around four or five thousand), and as a result of the day’s violence, around 35 blocks of Greenwood were destroyed, $1.

5 million worth of damage caused, and reports of up to 300 African Americans killed, and only 20 whites. Today, white citizens of Oklahoma have only recently accepted the blame for the hundreds of deaths as a result of the Tulsa Race Riots. * “I was frequently whipped and also put into an electric chair and shocked and strangling drugs would be put in my nose to make me tell that others had killed or shot at white people and force me to testify against them” – Alf Banks.

One of the many goals of the NAACP was to make Black Americans aware of their political rights, including their right to vote. They also wished to see an end to the lynching of African Americans throughout the US, and with the help of the Tuskegee Institute compiled information that revealed that from 1890 to 1921, there had been more lynchings than executions, and that of the 4096 known lynchings, 810 of those had been for rape or attempted rape.

In 1922, the law known as the Dyer Anti-Lynching Law was passed through the House of Representatives with more than two-thirds in favour of the bill, but failed to make it through the Senate, due to the lack of political will in the 1920s to see an end to lynching, and also because of the influence of the Southern Democrats. However, due to the research undertaken by the NAACP and the Tuskegee Institute being released in the press, and thus, to the general public, the outcry leads to a decrease in lynchings. In 1923, the NAACP gained an impressive legal victory against the courts of Arkansas in what is known as the Moore versus Dempsey case.

In the Elaine, Arkansas riot of 1919, 5 whites were killed, allegedly by African Americans. As a result of this, over 700 African Americans were arrested, 67 sent to prison and 12 sentenced to death, after being tried by an all white jury. Walter White, a member of the NAACP, took interest in the case and after travelling to Arkansas posing as a newspaper reporter, and into Phillips County where the ‘massacre’ took place, he published what he had found. The NAACP then hired black and white lawyers, who argued that due to the mob that had circled the courthouse on the day of the trial, the 12 men had not received a fair trial.

On the 19th of February 1923, the Supreme Court decided in the favour of the NAACP, the case was handed down to the lower courts and all 12 men were freed. * “Until your produce what the white man has produced, you will not be his equal” – Marcus Garvey Marcus Garvey, the founder of the UNIA believed that the only way to establish African Americans as an independent group was through capitalism. On January 30 1920, the Negro Factories Corporation was created in Delaware, whose purpose was to help African Americans rely on their own efforts.

By May the same year, the corporation had taken over the management of the steam laundry in Harlem, and was also opening millinery. Soon afterwards in June, the organisation had commenced the production of UNIA uniforms and insignia at the Universal Tailoring and Dress Making Department. Throughout America, UNIA branches were encouraged to buy into their own buildings and open their own businesses, such as the Panama branch, which ran a bakery. The shares however, of these establishments were open to only to members of the UNIA. In 1921, the Negro Factories Corporation fell victim to organisational mismanagement, and ceased operations.

Although the company never reached the height of Garvey’s vision, it gave hundreds of African Americans hope by providing people with employment in Harlem, as well as assistance through aid societies, small loans and death benefits. Another organisation set up to help stimulate the African American economy was the National Urban League, although established in 1910, helped African Americans migrate from rural to urban areas during the 1920s, its purpose being “to promote, encourage, assist and engage in any and all kinds of work for improving the industrial, economic, social and spiritual conditions among Negroes”.

In 1921, the Department of Research was created by the League for the purpose of surveying Black populations in northern cities, resulting in the discovery African Americans faced regarding employment, sanitation and hygiene, and education. By addressing these problems, the League quickly grew, and is still in action today. One of the main problems facing African Americans when seeking employment was that union membership was discouraged throughout the 1920s, by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). This, along with the increased job competition brought about by migrants, lead to a weakened labour movement in the US.

All African American unionists were banned from condemning the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, and the anti-labour behaviour of capitalists (who believed African Americans were associated with the increased industrialist power) lead not only to increased racial tension, but also further economic competition between lower classes. The Communist Party of America had hoped through their own establishment, the American Negro Labor Congress that all African American unionists would be brought together, in order to assist their own political fortunes.

This movement however had little support, with less than 200 African American members in 1928. Due to the difficulties African Americans had with finding work should they be part of a union, as well as the increased racial tensions brought about with taking up their rights to be part of a union, memberships declined from 5 million to 3. 5 million by the end of the 1920s. Despite the difficulties African Americans had finding work, when actually in employment, the pay differences between white and black workers, especially in factories, were small.

Unfortunately, the jobs open to African Americans were generally limited and concentrated around unskilled labour, which was often unpleasant, and dangerous, such as working in blast furnaces in steel plants, or in the killing and cutting departments of meat packing plants. Also, because of the reluctance of blacks to join unions (many employers banned union membership) they were more likely to be hired at times of strikes. The Ford Motor Company hired large amounts of African American factory workers, starting with only 50 in 1916, and increasing to over 10 000 in 1926.

Unlike motor companies in Detroit who refused to hire African American workers, Ford treated their black employees with the same policy as their white employees, including the amount of working hours paid, with only a 40 hour, 5 day week for workers, unlike companies in the steel industry which supported a 12 hour day. The lack of education in African Americans, with the average standard of highest education being the 5th grade (the average for whites being 8th grade), lead many to seek work at the Ford Motor Company, and by the end of the 1920s, accounting for 7% of the total workforce.

* As a result of all that occurred in the 1920s African American USA, many examples of what were achieved, and what happened can be seen today, in modern America. For example, the Harlem Renaissance which saw the flourishing of Jazz Music in New York, helped lead to the music we hear today. The NAACP which gained legal victories, such as the Moore versus Dempsey case, and helped win Blacks civil rights, is still operating today, as America’s oldest and largest civil rights group for ethnic minorities.

The Great Migration, and willingness for black workers to prove themselves, established African American populations in all major cities in America, making them a huge driving force in politics, and incorporated them into what we now see a slightly less racist, more accepting society. America, as we know it, would never have occurred unless African Americans had been there to influence the growth of one of the largest capitalist societies in the world. Bibliography • Harlan, L. R. (1974 – source). History Matters.

[on-line]. Available from: http://historymatters. gmu. edu/d/39 [accessed 16 Aug. 2010] • South Dakota Alliance for Distance Education. (2002). The 1920s. [on-line]. Available from: http://doe. sd. gov/octa/ddn4learning/themeunits/1920s/americans. htm [accessed 18 Aug. 1010] • Manning, C. (2005). African Americans. [on-line]. Available from: http://encyclopedia. chicagohistory. org/pages/27. html [accessed 18 Aug. 2010] • Educational Broadcasting Corporation. (2002). [on-line].

Available from: http://www. pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/ [accessed 18 Aug. 2010] • Ogunyemi, B. (2009). Tulsa Oklahoma’s Greenwood District. [on-line]. Available from: http://traditionofexcellence. wordpress. com/2008/02/08/tulsa-oklahomas-greenwood-district-black-wall-street/ [Accessed 24 August 2010] • Schultz, S. (1999). Civil Rights in an Uncivil Society. [on-line] Available from: http://us. history. wisc. edu/hist102/lectures/lecture26. html [accessed 24 August 2010] • Ellsworth, S. (2010). The Tulsa Race Riot. [on-line].

Available from: http://www.tulsareparations. org/TulsaRiot. htm [accessed 24 August 2010] • Van Leeuwen, D. (2000). Marcus Garvey and the UNIA. [on-line]. Available from: http://nationalhumanitiescenter. org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/garvey. htm [accessed 19 August 2010] • Maloney T. M. (2010). African Americans in the 20th Century. [on-line]. Available from: http://en. net/encyclopedia/article/maloney. african. american [accessed 19 August 2010] • Library of Congress. (2009). African Americans and Consumerism. [on-line]. Available from:


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