African American Affairs Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By the start of the 1920s, the ideals of the Reconstruction Era were long dead and the promise of freedom for African Americans in the modern era was fast fading, if not altogether extinguished. Black leaders such as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey held radically different views regarding what should be done. Washington was generally known as an accommodationist, a man of compromise (though he could be an advocate, as well), whereas Du Bois harbored more militant longings and worked to give blacks a political voice of their own. Garvey, meanwhile, proposed mobilizing the black masses toward the end of seeing them safely returned to their ancestral lands in Africa; he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association to cultivate a sense of black nationalism and launched the Black Star Line of seagoing vessels to realize his “Back to Africa” plans. In the end, neither compromise nor emigration seems to have won the day; rather, it was Du Bois and later generations of leaders who continued to effectively sound the trumpet for black civil rights.

By the start of the 1920s, the ideals of the Reconstruction Era were long dead and the promise of freedom for African Americans in the modern era was fast fading, if not altogether extinguished. Black leaders such as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey held radically different views regarding what should be done. Washington was generally known as an accommodationist, a man of compromise (though he could be an advocate, as well), whereas Du Bois harbored more militant longings and worked to give blacks a political voice of their own. Garvey, meanwhile, proposed mobilizing the black masses toward the end of seeing them safely returned to their ancestral lands in Africa; he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association to cultivate a sense of black nationalism and launched the Black Star Line of seagoing vessels to realize his “Back to Africa” plans. In the end, neither compromise nor emigration seems to have won the day; rather, it was Du Bois and later generations of leaders who continued to effectively sound the trumpet for black civil rights.

Ordinary African Americans followed these debates and at the same time exercised their right to relocate from the South to the Northeast and the Midwest in order to take advantage of work opportunities and social freedoms outside the reach of Jim Crow. The Great Migration, as it is known, took off after World War I and lasted through the 1920s, greatly increasing the presence of African Americans in cities like Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City, Cleveland, and New York. Most of the jobs were at the bottom of the wage ladder, but the migrants worked to build families and communities of their own. They established churches, voluntary associations, and, in some case, budding civil rights organizations to advance their interests. A cultural flowering took place, too, as blues, jazz, and gospel music grew in importance and influence. In New York City, the Harlem Renaissance ushered in new forms of literary and artistic activity.

Needless to say, not all of these developments unfolded unhindered by the old biases or prejudices. Indeed, the Great Migration is known as a time of heightened racial tensions in some of the communities affected, and a period of increased lynchings throughout the South. In some respects, Jim Crow followed in the migrants’ footsteps, as white-controlled centers of power at the state and local level instituted restrictions on housing, schooling, and access to social services and public accommodations. With conservative administrations in place in Washington, DC, throughout the 1020s, it was not until the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the launching of the New Deal in the 1930s that some of these race-based limitations were addressed.

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