Blacks Set Out in Search of a Better Life in 1920s American Society
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THE MAKING OF A NATION – a program in Special English by the Voice of America.
The early years of the twentieth century were a time of movement for many black Americans. Traditionally, most blacks lived in the Southeastern states. But in the 1920s, many blacks moved to cities in the North.
Black Americans moved because living conditions were so poor in the rural areas of the Southeast. But many of them discovered that life was also hard in the colder Northern cities. Jobs often were hard to find. Housing was poor. And whites sometimes acted brutally against them.
The life of black Americans forms a special piece of the history of the 1920s. That will be our story today.
The years just before and after 1920 were difficult for blacks. It was a time of racial hatred. Many whites joined the Ku Klux Klan organization. The Klan often terrorized blacks. Klan members sometimes burned fiery crosses in front of the houses of black families. And they sometimes beat and murdered blacks.
The Ku Klux Klan also acted against Roman Catholics, Jews, and foreigners. But it hated blacks most of all.
The United States also suffered a series of race riots in a number of cities during this period. White and black Americans fought each other in Omaha, Philadelphia, and other cities. The worst riot was in Chicago. A swimming incident started the violence. A black boy sailing a small boat entered a part of the beach used by white swimmers. Some white persons threw stones at the boy. He fell into the water and drowned.
Black citizens heard about the incident and became extremely angry. Soon, black and white mobs were fighting each other in the streets.
The violence lasted for two weeks. Thirty-eight persons died. More than five-hundred were wounded. The homes of hundreds of families were burned.
The violence in Chicago and other cities did not stop black Americans from moving north or west. They felt that life had to be better than in the South.
Black Americans left the South because life was hard, economic chances few, and white hatred common. But many blacks arrived in other parts of the country only to learn that life was no easier. Some blacks wrote later that they had only traded the open racism of the rural Southeast for the more secret racism of Northern cities.
Blacks responded to these conditions in different ways. Some blacks followed the ideas of Booker T. Washington, the popular black leader of the early 1900s.
Washington believed that blacks had to educate and prepare themselves to survive in American society. He helped form a number of training schools where blacks could learn skills for better jobs. And he urged blacks to establish businesses and improve themselves without causing trouble with whites.
Other blacks liked the stronger ideas of William Du Bois.
Du Bois felt that blacks had to take firm actions to protest murders and other illegal actions. He published a magazine and spoke actively for new laws and policies to protect black rights. Du Bois also helped form a group that later became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The N.A.A.C.P. became one of the nation's leading black rights organizations in the twentieth century.
Probably the most important leader for black Americans in the 1920s did not come from the United States. He was Marcus Garvey from the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Garvey moved to New York City in 1916. He quickly began organizing groups in black areas.
His message was simple. He said blacks should not trust whites. Instead, they should be proud of being black and should help each other. Garvey urged blacks to leave the United States, move to Africa, and start their own nation.
Marcus Garvey organized several plans to help blacks become economically independent of whites. His biggest effort was a shipping company to trade goods among black people all over the world.
Many American blacks gave small amounts of money each week to help Garvey start the shipping company. However, the idea failed. Government officials arrested Garvey for collecting the money unlawfully. They sent him to prison in 1925. And two years later, President Coolidge ordered Garvey out of the country.
Marcus Garvey's group was the first major black organization in the United States to gain active support from a large number of people. The organization failed. But it did show the anger and lack of hope that many blacks felt about their place in American society.
Blacks also showed their feelings through writing, art, and music. The 1920s were one of the most imaginative periods in the history of American black art.
Claude Mckay, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen were three of the leading black poets during this time. Mckay was best known for his poems of social protest. Hughes produced poems about black life that experts now say are among the greatest American poems ever written.
Black writers also produced longer works. Among the leading black novelists were Jessie Faucet, Jean Toomer, and Rudolph Fisher.
The 1920s also were an exciting time for black music. Black musicians playing the piano developed the ragtime style of music. Singers and musicians produced a sad, emotional style of playing that became known as the blues. And most important, music lovers began to play and enjoy a new style that was becoming known as jazz.
Jazz advanced greatly as a true American kind of music in the 1920s. Musicians Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Eubie Blake played in gathering places and small theaters. White musicians and music experts from universities came to listen. Soon the music became popular among Americans of all kinds and around the world.
Blacks began to recognize in the 1920s their own deep roots in the United States. They began to see just how much black men and women already had done to help form American history and traditions.
The person who did the most to help blacks understand this was black historian Carter G. Woodson. Woodson received his training at two leading universities: Harvard in Massachusetts and the Sorbonne in France. He launched a new publication, The Journal of Negro History, in which he and other experts wrote about black life and history. Historians today call Woodson the father of the scientific study of black history.
The 1920s also were a period in which a number of blacks experimented with new political ideas and parties. The difficult social conditions of the period led many blacks to search for new political solutions.
Two leftist parties -- the Socialists and the Communists -- urged blacks to leave the traditional political system and work for more extreme change. Two leading black Socialists, Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph, urged blacks to support Socialist candidates. However, they gained little popular support from blacks.
Communists also tried to organize black workers. But generally, black voters showed little interest in communist ideas.
The most important change in black political thinking during the 1920s came within the traditional two-party system itself. Blacks usually had voted for Republicans since the days of Abraham Lincoln. But the conservative Republican policies of the 1920s caused many blacks to become Democrats.
By 1932, blacks would vote by a large majority for the Democratic presidential candidate, Franklin Roosevelt. And blacks continue to be a major force in the Democratic Party.
You have been listening to THE MAKING OF A NATION, a program in Special English on the Voice of America. Your speakers have been Harry Monroe and Kay Gallant. Our program was written by David Jarmul. The Voice of America invites you to listen again next week to THE MAKING OF A NATION.