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African Americans and their impact on American Society in the 1920s

African Americans and their impact on American Society in the 1920s

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Published by: clapyourcarpals on Dec 06, 2010
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African Americans in the 1920s
“Cast down your bucket where you are. Cast it down among the eight millions of  Negroes…”
 – Booker T. Washington, 1895 Atlanta Compromise
Throughout US history, there is an abundance of racism, segregation anddiscrimination towards the African American people. In 1619, the first African slaveswere brought to Jamestown to produce tobacco, tea, cotton, coffee and other preciouscommodities. In this time period, 12 million Africans were forcibly transported to theAmericas, where they worked as slaves until 1865, where the 13
Amendmentabolished slavery. Although suppressed by whites and organisations such as the KuKlux Klan, African Americans in the 1920s began to work towards social, economicand political independence as well as freedom from segregation and discrimination.From this decade, groups in favour of ending prejudice towards African Americanswere formed, such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) led by W.E.B. DuBois and the UNIA (Universal Negro ImprovementAssociation) 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 positionsof 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 provethemselves 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 thatthey 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 thatracial tensions only grew during the 1920s. Starting from the 1910s, a phenomenonhad been occurring known as the Great Migration – the movement of AfricanAmericans from Southern cities to Northern ones as a result of extreme racism, thethreat 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 evenwon 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 theunavailability of housing to them. Despite this, migration to the North meant thatAfrican Americans had become a powerful voting group, one that many white politicians took interest in (such as the Communist Party of America) and also pushedfor civil rights of African Americans as they realised that racism was not just aSouthern 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 wascharacterised by the idea of the ‘New Negro’ whose intellect through music, art andliterature would challenge racism and stereotypes to promote progressive politics andsocial integration. One such example of the New Negro is Marcus Garvey, theJamaican-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 allAfrican Americans back to Africa. The Harlem Renaissance saw a new culturedevelop in Harlem, the ghetto backstreets of New York City, where AfricanAmericans would reach back to their rich cultural heritage and produce creative worksto express their feelings in the 1920s, such as Jazz music, which employed the mindsof 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, AfricanAmericans through taking pride in their heritage found empowerment, which lead tothe beginnings of groups such as the Civil Rights Movement, and also, due to thesignificant effect they had on white culture (such as the development of modernmusic) it was impossible for white Americans to ignore the achievements occurring inHarlem and other black communities, and allow segregation to continue at such alarge scale.Despite the cultural developments in Harlem and the formation of the AfricanAmerican identity, white culture found it extremely difficult to accept their black neighbours, leading to racial tensions, and often as a result, lynchings. One suchexample of racial tension leading to horrific consequences was the Tulsa Race Riots.In 1921, Tulsa Oklahoma was experiencing an economic boom thanks to thediscovery of oil. Due to this African Americans also prospered, although confined tothe Greenwood section of the city, also referred to as the Black Wall Street, due to anumber of wealthy black entrepreneurs residing there. At this time, membership in theKu 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, femaleelevator 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 theyouths, then a group of armed African Americans bolted to the local police station inorder to stop the lynching mob, that did not exist. A confrontation followed whereshots were fired and several whites killed. As news of the events spread throughTulsa, thousands of whites caused uproar through Greenwood as they ran through theBlack Wall Street, killing African Americans and vandalising, burning and lootinghomes and businesses. However, when the National Guard was called in, only blackswere 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 damagecaused, 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 thelynching of African Americans throughout the US, and with the help of the TuskegeeInstitute compiled information that revealed that from 1890 to 1921, there had beenmore 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 influenceof the Southern Democrats. However, due to the research undertaken by the NAACPand 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 aresult of this, over 700 African Americans were arrested, 67 sent to prison and 12sentenced 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 anewspaper reporter, and into Phillips County where the ‘massacre’ took place, he published what he had found. The NAACP then hired black and white lawyers, whoargued that due to the mob that had circled the courthouse on the day of the trial, the12 men had not received a fair trial. On the 19
of February 1923, the Supreme Courtdecided in the favour of the NAACP, the case was handed down to the lower courtsand 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 toestablish African Americans as an independent group was through capitalism. OnJanuary 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 sameyear, the corporation had taken over the management of the steam laundry in Harlem,and was also opening millinery. Soon afterwards in June, the organisation hadcommenced the production of UNIA uniforms and insignia at the Universal Tailoringand Dress Making Department. Throughout America, UNIA branches wereencouraged to buy into their own buildings and open their own businesses, such as thePanama branch, which ran a bakery. The shares however, of these establishmentswere open to only to members of the UNIA. In 1921, the Negro Factories Corporationfell victim to organisational mismanagement, and ceased operations. Although thecompany never reached the height of Garvey’s vision, it gave hundreds of AfricanAmericans hope by providing people with employment in Harlem, as well asassistance through aid societies, small loans and death benefits.Another organisation set up to help stimulate the African American economywas the National Urban League, although established in 1910, helped AfricanAmericans 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 theindustrial, economic, social and spiritual conditions among Negroes”. In 1921, theDepartment of Research was created by the League for the purpose of surveyingBlack populations in northern cities, resulting in the discovery African Americansfaced regarding employment, sanitation and hygiene, and education. By addressingthese problems, the League quickly grew, and is still in action today.

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