The history of the struggle of blacks to gain equality and freedom in America is a disturbing, grievous story, that reveals the courage and determination of the black community. In the period, 1917-1945, African Americans were concerned with achieving equality under the law. They however, fell victim to harsh discrimination from the whites. Many events such as the great migration, the Black Renaissance, black political movements, and the Great Depression, effected the outcome of this period but the struggle for racial equality still continued long after.
During the early 1900s, the majority of African Americans lived and worked in the South where they endured harsh discrimination and brutality. However, during World War I (19141918), hundreds of thousands of Southern blacks, migrated to the North and this was known as the Great Migration. African Americans were looking to escape the problems of racism in the South, seek out better jobs and an overall better life in the North. World War I set this movement in motion. The war had created a huge demand for labour in the North, as millions of men had left their jobs to serve in the armed forces.
However, many African Americans found that the North did not offer solutions to all their problems. The African Americans lacked the skills and education for many jobs available in the North, thus, many became labourers or servants, the same work they had done in the South. Blacks were forced to live in crowded, cheap and run-down housing, in segregated areas where poverty and despair was rampant. Racial prejudice also existed in the North, and friction between newly arrived blacks and the working class whites over competition for jobs produced race riots.
African Americans soon overflowed the racially segregated areas in the North, but the great migration continued for many decades after and the population of blacks in the North increased rapidly. Discrimination and limited opportunities had always been apart of the lives of African Americans. During the early 1900s however, discrimination against blacks became even more wide spread and by the 1920s many states had passed laws which required the segregation of blacks in schools, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, swimming pools, parks, trains and other public facilities.
African Americans found it very hard to get fair treatment and had little opportunity to better themselves economically. Numerous blacks had to take low-paying jobs as farm hands or servants for white employers and they struggled to survive on their mere wages. Their condition reflected the beliefs held by most whites that, whites where born superior to blacks(1) and that the Negro must be kept in his place(2). Blacks were also intimidated by whites, such as the Ku Klux Klan, who tried to control them through fear, terror and the increased use of threats, beatings and death by lynching.
On this spot a few years ago a white man was found who had been tarred and feathered because he had preached social equality to Negroes. On the other side were the words: if you are a reckless Negro or a white man who believes in social equality, be advised Dade country dont need you. (3) This treatment of blacks was ongoing throughout the period and continued on for many years afterwards, with the same brutality and ill treatment as always. African Americans however, did not suffer poverty and discrimination throughout the whole period.
During the 1920s, black culture and pride flourished and became known as the Black Renaissance. The movement centred around Harlem, New York City, where aspiring black writers, musicians and artists, gathered to share their experiences and provide encouragement. In literature, its writers gave detailed and spiritual explorations of black life and culture, which stimulated a new confidence and racial pride within blacks. This outpouring of literacy work, showed the ongoing African American struggle to find a way, as W. E. B. DuBois put it, to be both a Negro and an American(4).
Black music, whether it be jazz, blues or soul, dominated all other music in the period, and became one of the most influential art forms of the twentieth century. It arrived with the great migration to the northern cities and demonstrates that some blacks had acquired talents which both . . . whites as well as blacks could appreciate(5). The Black Renaissance had a powerful impact on African American life and Alain Locke, editor of The New Negro (1926), summed up the movement when he stated that through art, Negro life is seizing its first chances for group expression and self-determination(6).
During the 1920s, black political movements, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association (UNIA), also gained momentum. These movements, especially the UNIA, encouraged blacks to set up their own businesses, and through this, a black middle class, business and professional, began to emerge. The NAACP, which was founded by W. E. B. DuBois and a group of concerned whites, focused on providing equal rights and opportunities for all(7).
Its determination to challenge white authority, abolish segregation laws and make blacks aware of their civil rights, resulted in the rapid growth of support for their movement. The NAACP also fought against the practice of lynching. The UNIA, founded by Marcus Garvey, chose to focus on advocating black power. The organisation was dedicated to racial pride, economic self-sufficiency and the formation of an independent black nation in Africa.
Although both organisations broke down in 1923, they established the principle of black protest, which would be used in the years to follow to change laws against African Americans. The Great Depression brought hard times for most Americans, but for those already near the bottom, such as the blacks, the depression had a less devastating effect. As the poet Langston Hughes said, The depression brought everybody down a peg or too. And the negroes had but a few pegs to fall(8). The Great Depression however, did affect the blacks somewhat.
They became victims of job discrimination, as the whites demanded the jobs, such as domestic servants and garbage collectors, traditionally held for blacks. To express their situation, the blacks adopted the slogan Last Hired and First Fired. The Great Depression also caused the Harlem artists to disperse, and as a result, many left New York or took other jobs to help them through the hard times. However, everything was not over for the blacks. Many African Americans who were traditionally loyal to the Republican Party, supported Franklin D. Roosevelt, of the Democratic Party, in the 1932 election and helped him become President.
This new change in government benefited the blacks, as Roosevelts program, the New Deal, included measures of reform, relief and recovery for blacks. Overall, although the blacks did face hardship during the Great Depression, they pulled out of it positively and reaped the benefits of Roosevelts New Deal. During the period, 1917-1945, American life underwent vast and drastic changes which affected both the social and economic life for the African Americans.
The Black Renaissance saw a social change for the better and various black political movements were founded, dedicated to equal rights and opportunities for blacks. The Great Depression however, hit the African Americans hard and their situation did not improve until Roosevelt came into power and put the New Deal into action. Throughout this period of African American history, the disturbing yet moving reminder of the uselessness of hatred and the senselessness of racism was ever prevailing.