African Americans have had a different history than those of any other. We will be looking at the lives and roles of African Americans during different times of key marks in American history.
The first key point in history in which we will be observing the roles of African Americans is the Harlem Renaissance. Originally called the New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance fostered a new black cultural identity. The Harlem Renaissance was the development of the Harlem neighborhood in New York City as a black cultural mecca in the early 20th Century and the subsequent social and artistic explosion that resulted.
Zora Neal Hurston was a popular female writer, folklorist, and anthropologist. James Weldon Johnson was a popular male writer, poet, and statesman. At the beginning of the period, particularly in the South, racism was rampant, and economic opportunities were scarce. At this time in the South, African Americans were restricted to ‘colored’ facilities clearly inferior to those reserved for white citizens. Lynching was used to instill fear in entire African American communities in the South.
A few of the causes of the Great Migration were new farm machinery that drove thousands of tenant farmers off the land, severe boll weevil infestation, southern states had fewer schools and higher rates of illiteracy than Northern states, and northern states also had more cultural attractions and booming industries. Between 1920 and 1930, almost 750,000 African Americans left the South for political, social, and economic reasons. The white southerners didn’t react well to the African Americans moving north.
Some whites even boarded northbound trains to attack African American men and women in an attempt to return them forcibly to their homes. Of the almost 750,000 African Americans who moved North, nearly 175,000 moved to Harlem. Harlem is a section of Manhattan, which covers three square miles; therefore, Harlem became the largest concentration of black people in the world. A few more famous faces of the Renaissance were Claude McKay, who wrote “If We Must Die” and “America”. Langston Hughes wrote “Dreams” “Harlem” and “The Weary Blues.” The move to the north was a much better fit for the African Americans.
With the great stock market crash of 1929, the nation’s economic crisis quickly began to turn towards depression. The stock market crash was the final straw that caused the Great Depression, but many factors had been leading up to it for years: unchecked financial speculation, severe contraction of cash and credit, declining demand, weakness in the agricultural sector, corporate debt, widespread greed, and gross economic inequality. Whether African Americans were sharecroppers or were wage earners, the downturn hit them hard.
Although many Americans had enjoyed great success in the 1920s, African Americans had not. The Great Depression made their lives much worse. From 1935-1938, Franklin Roosevelt, having kicked out President Grover because he couldn’t handle the reality of the U.S. situation, FDR rolled out the 2nd phase of the New Deal which focused around alleviating poverty, expanding jobs over relief programs, and creating a safety net for the country.
Because African Americans in the South had been very mistreated in the past, President Roosevelt made sure that wouldn’t happen while he was in office. FDR’s fireside chats connected with all types of Americans, including African Americans. For the first time since Reconstruction, African Americans got support from the federal government and were drawn into the Democratic party.
African Americans played an important role in the military during World War 2. The events of World War 2 helped to force social changes which included the desegregation of the U.S. military forces. This was a major event in the history of Civil Rights in the United States. (Ducksters) Although the U.S. was still segregated, that didn’t stop African Americans from fighting for their freedom. Before and during the war, federal law stated that black troops could not fight alongside white troops.
However, Dwight D. Eisenhower did allow African-American soldiers to fight in previously all white units during the Battle of the Bulge. The official segregation of the U.S. military ended a few years after the war when President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order desegregating the armed forces in 1948. (Ducksters) What the African Americans did during World War II can be seen as fighting for a double victory. Because their was still segregation, African Americans had more to fight for than it just being their country, they were trying to prove their worthiness as a human which shouldn’t have been debatable from the start.
The segregation and disenfranchisement laws known as ‘Jim Crow’ represented a formal, codified system of racial apartheid that dominated the American South for three quarters of a century beginning in the 1890s. The laws affected almost every aspect of daily life, mandating segregation of schools, parks, libraries, drinking fountains, restrooms, buses, trains, and restaurants.
‘Whites Only’ and ‘Colored’ signs were constant reminders of the enforced racial order. (PBS) One thing that helped trigger the move out of the South was what a lady described in an interview. ‘Travel in the segregated South for black people was humiliating,’ recalled Diane Nash in her interview for Freedom Riders. ‘The very fact that there were separate facilities was to say to black people and white people that blacks were so subhuman and so inferior that we could not even use the public facilities that white people used.’ (PBS)
Because of all the poor treatment, African Americans headed north for hopefully better treatment. When they got to the north, there was still segregation, but they were treated better than the south treated black men and women. It took a long time before correct treatment was being used on African Americans.
All in all, when we look at the history of African Americans, we can see they were all treated poorly and inhumanely. Their dedication and fight in life is something everyone can learn from. Many great leaders came from those times in history. Thankfully, the segregation and racism between black and whites has withered and is nowhere near as bad as it was in the past.