African Americans in American Society 1920s

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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 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...
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