USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

African American Life and Resistance through the 1920s

The history of Black people in the United States was complex and dynamic from the late nineteenth century until the Great Depression. Most Black people continued to live in the U.S. South after the Civil War, most still engaged in agricultural labor. Sherman's declaration or proposition that freed slaves should receive "forty acres and a mule" had not been embraced by reconstruction authorities, leaving former slaves to work within what amounted to the redevelopment of hierarchical agriculture. Black workers, even if they managed to acquire some land, were often saddled with debt and subject to harassment or terror by neighbors. Black former slaves became postwar sharecroppers, renting plots of land that could never produce enough to break the cycle of debt and dependent. It is critical to emphasize and to understand that the reproduction of deeply racist and hierarchical economic conditions during and after Reconstruction created the material context for White supremacist "redemption." In this, Booker T. Washington was right when he criticized Reconstruction for focusing on the "political" over the "economic." The legacy of the failure of economic justice for Black southern former slaves in massive, impacting all subsequent generations of Black Americans and creating the foundation (now compounded many times) for systematic, structural, and gargantuan economic inequality today.

In addition to the return of exploitative land and labor conditions, Black southerns faced increasingly dire social conditions in the former Confederacy. The gush of Black political leadership during radical reconstruction vanished with Southern restriction of the franchise and race-based gerrymandering. Restrictions on voting rights (taxes, land ownership, literary tests, grandfather clauses, etc.) decimated the Black vote. In some states, voting numbers among Black citizens fall by 99%. White supremacist power structures operated institutionally in myriad ways, perhaps most importantly through the police, local sheriff, and the criminal justice systems: the courts and the burgeoning prison-complex. Jim Crow laws cropped up that succeeded in splitting Southern society by race, especially on the issue of racial "mixing" or sexual relations between white people and Black people.

While institutional and legal racial division and hierarchy created the governing context for life in the American South for Black people, white supremacist vigilantism is perhaps the clearest expression of white Southerners' lust for racial domination, control, and fear. Extra-legal killings of Black southerns by white groups swept through the south, resulting in thousands, if not tens of thousands, of lynchings. These lynchings were not only aimed at the specific victims, though of course the victim was severely tortured and killed in the most gruesome ways, but they were also meant to create an atmosphere of terror and helplessness among the Black population in general. The combination of economic exploitation, institutional oppression, and racial terrorism made life in the American south for Blacks a daily battle for survival.

It is no surprise that many Black people in the U.S. South would take the opportunity to relocate to a northern city if given the chance. Shifts in immigration caused by WWI and the recruitment of mostly white men (but also many black men) to fight in the European conflict created job openings in northern factories. Northern managers and owners were eager to continue the flow of new labor to American cities to keep their factories going and in order to continue to put pressure on organized labor unions. Northern cities, however, were not welcoming utopias for Black Americans. Organized labor resisted racial integration, thereby both weakening its bargaining position and stoking the flames of racial animosity among its white members. White workers reacted with intolerance and often violence to the newly arriving black families, creating both divisions in the workplace and, just as importantly (if not more) racial divisions within the city neighborhoods. Black people came to occupy specific parts of northern cities, which were then subject to various methods of oppression and control. Urban tensions reached a high point in 1919 with the so-called Red Summer of race riots throughout the north.

Migration from the south to the north of massive numbers, a legacy of military service among black men in WWI, movements for Black education and reform led by figures like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, and the broader progressive atmosphere of the 1920s came together to create the context for the New Negro (or Harlem) Renaissance. The New Negro Renaissance might be the most significant American artistic movement in the nation's history, providing the creative context for the emergence of writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and for innovative theater, jazz music, and visual art. Indeed, Jazz, a movement that draw its sources of inspiration from Black folk music traditions combined with the fiery spirit the Renaissance, was a musical revolution and one of the most important and quintessentially American art forms of the 20th century. While the New Negro Renaissance didn't shift the material conditions of Black life in the north or the south, it shaped American culture in vital and enduring ways, and opened up modes of expression that went beyond either the political or the economic, adding new methods of social analysis and critique in the struggle for racial justice and human rights.

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