How far did race relations change in the 1920s?

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Key concepts, movements and colligations:

  • The Jim Crow Laws, segregation and discrimination.
  • The Ku Klux Klan.
  • The influence of Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois.
  • Sharecropping
  • The Birth of a Nation
  • Lynching
  • The Great Migration
  • UNIA
  • The Harlem Renaissance

Walsh, pp. 201-204;
SHP, pp. 50-55;
Edexcel pp. 188-193;

See BBC bitesize on racial intolerance, the KKK, W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.

Key themes:

  • The role of the KKK;
  • The position of black Americans at the start of the 1920s and the changes that had occurred by the end of the decade.
  • The way in which emancipation did not free southern blacks; the fact that northern blacks were freer, but still discriminated against
  • The way in which, mostly through jazz, black culture began to become mainstream.

Key question

  • How far did the experience of black Americans change during the 1920s?



On the one hand, it was a time of change [RHINO]

  • Role models: some Black Americans became famous – for example, the dancer Josephine Baker whose exotic beauty generated nicknames “Black Venus,” “Black Pearl” and “Creole Goddess.” Admirers bestowed a plethora of gifts, including diamonds and cars, and she received approximately 1,500 marriage proposals. Actors included Paul Robeson, and musicians like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington were an inspiration to other Black American.
  • Harlem Renaissance: a cultural flowering in the New York Black neighbourhood of Harlem, based on jazz, but also excellent Black architects, novelists, poets and painters. Many of these believed in ‘Artistic Action’ – winning equality by proving they were equal. They influenced white musicians and composers too. George Gershwin, for example, adopted the blues for his orchestral works – including Rhapsody in Blue.  Langston Hughes was one of the most famous black poets of the era.  A typical example of his poetry, is ‘Harlem’:What happens to a dream deferred? 
      Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? 

      Or fester like a sore- 

      And then run? 

      Does it stink like rotten meat? 

      Or crust and sugar over- 

      like a syrupy sweet? 

      Maybe it just sags 

      like a heavy load. 

      Or does it explode?

  • Identity: in 1925 Alain Locke wrote The New Negro, who had to smash the old image of ‘Uncle Tom’ and ‘Sambo’, and develop a new identity. It became the manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance. The watchwords were ‘uplift’ of the race and the fight for equality. There were Black newspapers and magazines. This was the time when the phrase was coined: ‘Black is Beautiful’. The 1920s therefore produced a new found political consciousness that would be harnessed by the NAACP and by Marcus Garvey’s UNIA.
  • NAACP: National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, founded by W.E.B. du Bois in 1909 asked Washington for new laws to help combat KKK violence but received very little, if any, help. It campaigned for legal and political civil rights and the full recognition of African-Americans as citizens. The organisation would later become instrumental in achieving legal reforms in the 1950s and 60s but in the 1920s its influence was easily equipped by the first mass movement in black America: Marcus Garvey’s ‘garveydemoBack to Africa’ movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association or UNIA, which argued that black people should look to Africa for a homeland, in much the same way as Italian-Americans looked to Italy but, controversially, abandoned the quest for citizenship in favour of black nationalism and segregation on black terms. Garvey’s para-militarism had great appeal among returning Africa-American soldiers who felt disillusioned when they returned to an America much like the one they left behind.garvey_parade
  • One-and-a-half million Black Americans migrated from to the north. Garvey’s audience came from the blacks who migrated north to find a new life and were disillusioned by what they found.  Many of them ended up in in ghettos in low-paid jobs, but not all. Some of them formed a new Black middle class, and were educated at university.



On the other hand – it was a time of continuity, when black’s continued to experience racism in all of its political, ideological, economic and social forms  [HACKLE]:

  • Hostility to immigrants: Hostility to immigrants ought to have helped black people – because they were at least English speaking and (at least as far as they were concerned, Americans). In fact, black people were treated just the same – if not worse – than white immigrants and were tarred with the same brush when it came to the the Red Scare. The most prominent example was the treatment of Marcus Garvey, himself an immigrant from Jamaica. He came under the immediate suspicion of J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation as a dangerous subversive and waschimage finally arrested for mail fraud and convicted in 1923.  After serving a short sentence he was deported back to Jamaica in 1927.  The UNIA withered under allegations of financial mismanagement and fraud.
  • American Government failed to help black people achieve the rights they had been promised in the 14th and 15th amendments. It failed to create Federal Laws to enforce the black right to vote in the South and failed to pass laws that could have reduced the practice of lynching.
  • Jim Crow Laws: the name for laws passed in the southern states which prevented Black Americans from mixing with whites (‘segregation’), denied them equality of education and civil rights, and prevented them from voting. In economic terms, African-Americans in the south also remained under the control of whites through sharecropping and the crop-lien system which involved paying rents and buying supplies using a percentage of their cotton crops. This tended to inhibit black social mobility.
  • Ku Klux Klan: an organisation to maintain WASPs supremacy, was reborn in 1915 and gained 5 million members by 1925. Many supporters were poor whites, who did not want Black Americans to be their equals. They feared that black people would take their jobs, although many wealthy white Americans also joined. They wore white sheets and hoods, and marched with burning crosses. They spoke with each other in a secret language which they called ‘Klonversations’. They attacked, tortured and killed Black Americans, but also Jews and Catholics and ‘immoral’ people such as alcoholics.The inspiration for the re-birth of the KKK came from the release of D. W. Griffiths’ ‘Birth of a Nation’ (1915), which was the first blockbuster and shaped the way in which movies were made in the future. Unfortunately, whilst it laid the foundation for many of the technical innovations in film it also inspired the re-foundation of the KKK:

    The Ku Klux Klan were the most radical expression of America’s culture war – of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) reaction to immigration, to foreign influence, to communism (although there were probably only about 150,000 communists in America in 1920) to catholicism, to alcohol, to the rising tide of feminism, to black influence on popular culture and to the flappers of the jazz age. Patriotic groups like the American Defense League (ADL) and the National Security League (ASL) as well as the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) began to work with the KKK to crack down on suspected radicals, anarchists and law breakers.Hiram Wesley Evans (an Imperial Wizard of the Klan), stated ‘we believe races of men are as distinct as breeds of animal; that any mixture between races of any great divergence is evil.’ Surprisingly, perhaps, Marcus Garvey agreed with Evans and even arranged to meet with him – a move which caused other black leaders to turn on Garvey and even help the FBI arrest and deport him.

    Despite their attacks on foreigners, the Klan’s ideologies flourished in areas with relatively low immigrant populations but in those areas that benefitted least from the economic prosperity of the period – the South and the Midwest. It is estimated that the KKK had 5 million members by the mid-1920s and were responsible for lynching roughly 300 hundred African-Americans during the period.

  • Lynchings: mobs of white people often hanged (‘lynched’) Blacks Americans whom they suspected of a crime (usually the police turned a blind eye).lynching1935

  • Even in the north: Black Americans who sought to escape Jim Crow by migrating north when northern industries expanded during WWI often found themselves exchanging one kind of segregation (the de jure or legal kind) for a social or de facto segregation. Whites tended to move from the areas black families moved into (a phenomenon known as ‘white flight’), creating ghettos like south-side Chicago and Harlem. A new kind of racism emerged in the North, where Black people found themselves in competition with white immigrant communities over jobs and control of the neighbourhoods. This was particularly evidence during the Chicago riot of 1919. Black Americans generally ended up with the lowest paid menial jobs, such as janitors, bootblacks, cooks, houseboys, baggage handlers, waiters, doormen, dishwashers and washroom attendants. Race tensions were particularly high in the years immediately following the war when pressure on jobs was greatest. For example, in 1919, white Americans in Chicago rampaged through Black neighbourhoods after a drowning black man clinging to a log had drifted into a whites-only swimming area.


    Race relations did change during this period – sometimes for the better but usually because black people exchanged one form of segregated existence for another. Some African-Americans who moved North during WWI became wealthy and laid the foundations for a black middle class, but most were not so lucky. Some of the foundations for later political and cultural emancipation were laid during this time, but it would be many decades before this really began to bear fruit. What would eventually become the leading black political and legal organisation – the NAACP – began in 1909 and grew moderately in the 1920s, whilst the doomed UNIA became a mass movement that is now largely forgotten. Culturally, all of the great trends in modern popular music – from rock n’roll to hip hop – stem, in part, from the jazz era. But even whilst dancing to the music of black musicians, the white patrons of Harlem’s Cotton Club in the 1920s retained their prejudices and black people were more likely to be performing, serving drinks or taking coats than being entertained themselves. White composers like Gershwin and other leading musicians recognised the genius of black music but for most it was just entertainment and made little difference to the way black people were viewed.

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