Digital History

The Jazz Age: The American 1920s

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Digital History ID 3385



The racial composition of the nation's cities underwent a decisive change during and after World War I. In 1910, three out of every four black Americans lived on farms, and nine out of ten lived in the South. World War I changed that profile. Hoping to escape tenant farming, sharecropping, and peonage, 1.5 million Southern blacks moved to cities. During the 1910s and 1920s, Chicago's black population grew by 148 percent; Cleveland's by 307 percent; Detroit's by 611 percent.

Access to housing became a major source of friction between blacks and whites during this massive movement of people. Many cities adopted residential segregation ordinances to keep blacks out of predominantly white neighborhoods. In 1917, the Supreme Court declared municipal resident segregation ordinances unconstitutional. In response, whites resorted to the restrictive covenant, a formal deed restriction binding white property owners in a given neighborhood not to sell to blacks. Whites who broke these agreements could be sued by "damaged" neighbors. Not until 1948 did the Supreme Court strike down restrictive covenants.

Confined to all-black neighborhoods, African Americans created cities-within-cities during the 1920s. The largest was Harlem, in upper Manhattan, where 200,000 African Americans lived in a neighborhood that had been virtually all-white 15 years before.

African American Protests

In World War I, a higher proportion of black soldiers than white soldiers had lost their lives: 14.4 percent black compared to 6.3 percent white. Many African Americans believed that this sacrifice would be repaid when the war was over. In the words of one Texan, "Our second emancipation will be the outcome of this war." It was not to be. The federal government denied black soldiers the right to participate in the victory march down Paris's Champs-Elysees boulevard, even though black troops from European colonies marched. Ten African American soldiers were among the 70 blacks lynched in 1919. Twenty-five anti-black riots took place that year.

African Americans did not respond passively to these outrages. Even before the war, African Americans had stepped up protests against discrimination. The National Urban League, organized in 1911 by social workers, white philanthropists, and black leaders, concentrated on finding jobs for urban African Americans. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) won important Supreme Court decisions against the grandfather clause (1915) and restrictive covenants (1917). The NAACP also fought school segregation in northern cities during the 1920s and lobbied hard, though unsuccessfully, for a federal anti-lynching bill.

No black leader was more successful in touching the aspirations and needs of the mass of African Americans than Marcus Garvey. A flamboyant and charismatic figure from Jamaica, Garvey rejected integration and preached racial pride and black self-help. He declared that Jesus Christ and Mary were black; he exhorted his followers to glorify their African heritage and revel in the beauty of their black skin. "We have a beautiful history," he told his followers, "and we shall create another one in the future."

In 1917, Garvey moved to New York and organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the first mass movement in African American history. By the mid-1920s, Garvey's organization had 700 branches in 38 states and the West Indies. The organization also published a newspaper with as many as 200,000 subscribers. The UNIA operated grocery stores, laundries, restaurants, printing plants, clothing factories, and a steamship line.

In the mid-1920s, Garvey was charged with mail fraud, jailed, and finally deported. Still, the "Black Moses" left behind a rich legacy. At a time when magazines and newspapers overflowed with advertisements for hair straighteners and skin lightening cosmetics, Garvey's message of racial pride struck a responsive chord in many African Americans.

The Harlem Renaissance

The movement for black pride found its cultural expression in the Harlem Renaissance, the first self-conscious literary and artistic movement in African American history.

For over three decades, African Americans had shown increasing interest in black history and African American folk culture. As early as the 1890s, W.E.B. Du Bois, Harvard's first African American Ph.D., began to trace black culture in the United States to its African roots; Fisk University's Jubilee Singers introduced Negro spirituals to the general public; and the American Negro Academy, organized in 1897, promoted African American literature, arts, music, and history. A growing spirit of racial pride was evident. A group of talented writers, including Charles Chestnut, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and James Weldon Johnson, explored life in black communities; the first Negro dolls appeared; and all-Negro towns were founded in Whitesboro, N.J., and Allensworth, Calif.

Signs of growing racial consciousness proliferated during the 1910s. Fifty new black newspapers and magazines appeared in that decade, bringing the total to 500. The Associated Negro Press, the first national black press agency, was founded in 1919. In 1915, Carter Woodson, a Harvard Ph.D., founded the first permanent Negro historical association, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, and began publication of the Journal of Negro History.

During the 1920s, Harlem became the capital of black America, attracting black intellectuals and artists from across the country and the Caribbean. Soon, the Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom. The poet Countee Cullen eloquently expressed black artists' long-suppressed desire to have their voices heard: "Yet do I marvel at a curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him sing!"

Many of the greatest works of the Harlem Renaissance sought to recover links with African and folk traditions. In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," the poet Langston Hughes reaffirmed his ties to an African past: "I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it." In his book Cane (1923), Jean Toomer, the grandson of P.B.S. Pinchback, who served briefly as governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction, blended realism and mysticism, and poetry and prose to describe the world of the black peasantry in Georgia. In the ghetto of Washington, D.C., Zora Neale Hurston, a Columbia University trained anthropologist, incorporated rural black folklore and religious beliefs into her stories.

A fierce racial conscious and a powerful sense of racial pride animated the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. The West Indian-born poet Claude McKay expressed the new spirit of defiance and protest with militant words: "If we must die - oh let us nobly die...dying, but fighting back!"

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