The Blacks found the north no more tolerant than the south. White workers resented the spread of Black ghettos, job competition and furthermore Black soldiers returned from the war in a militant mood and were no longer willing to put up with old patterns of discrimination. They had fought and died for their country and deserved better treatment.
In the summer of 1919, riots erupted in 20 US cities, as far apart as Charleston in South Carolina, Washington DC and in Longview, Texas. However, the worst was in Chicago. Here the violence lasted 13 days, 23 Blacks and 15 Whites were killed, 537 were injured and 1,000 families, mostly Black, were left homeless. At this time 70 Black people were lynched. The Federal Government did very little.
The Poverty of City Life
The north was still a racially prejudiced society. Many Black people found they could only get the worst jobs for the lowest of wages. The situation got worse in times of recession when unemployment increased. Blacks and poor Whites competed for the same jobs and the same houses.
When Black migrants arrived in the north some of them thought they had found heaven, if some of their letters home are to be believed. But other migrants were not so sure.
My dear sisters,
I am well and thankful to be in a city with no lynchings and no Klansmen. I share a room with my brother and work in the same factory. We only get a dollar a day for our work but the hours are not too long and it’s nice to get home in safety. God had been good to me. Hurry up and come to Chicago.
I guess you’ll have heard about the good times up her in the north but think twice before you come here. Sure, there are no lynchings here but we still get called ‘nigger’ or ‘boy’ and my job in the car factory is hard, low paid and dirty. The room I live in is damp and overcrowded. We live in a ghetto – that means a real run down slum area. All us poor Black people live in this area. I’ll tell you this – it’s not the bright new life we hoped for.
The influx from the south, led to the development of urban ghettos. Harlem in New York was a white middle class residential area in 1910, yet housed 165,000 Blacks by 1930. The population growth caused a profound housing shortage. Rents in Harlem doubled in the period 1917-1927.
The average Black worker was unskilled and ill paid. Landlords converted houses into rooming houses (bedsits for rent) and properties soon fell into disrepair. The poor conditions led to the spread of disease and crime.
There was a major occupational shift. By 1930 more Black men held blue-collar jobs rather than working in agriculture. Racial discrimination in industrial life was still widespread. Most car plants were all White or hired Blacks in small numbers. Henry Ford believed that Whites, as a ‘superior’ race, were obliged to help Blacks establish decent lives. But his hiring practices were not strictly altruistic. He found that Black workers were usually more loyal. In 1926 Ford employed 10,000 Black employees.
Even in small northern cities, Blacks were badly treated, i.e. in the Lynd’s study of Middleton (Muncie, Indiana) it was shown that although Black and White children attended the same schools, churches and cinemas were segregated.
Black people had moved north in search of the American dream but many found that discrimination and poverty existed in the north as well as the south. In the north there were no Klan signs but for many Black people the dream was as far away as ever.
The 1920s were to become known as the Jazz Age. Jazz was the popular music of the time. This music was largely the creation of Black musicians from New Orleans. During the 1920s the craze swept the country. White musicians took it up, and for the first time it seemed as if Whites seemed to appreciate Black culture.
Furthermore, in the bristling spirit of protest, Black culture and creativity exploded. Poets, playwrights, authors and composers flourished in the environment of Black pride, so much so that the period became known as the Harlem Renaissance (1919-1930). The pride of the Black communities increased with the Black intellectuals like the poet Langston Hughs and jazz musicians like Duke Ellington flourished. For the first time Black culture was being experienced by large numbers of White intellectuals…it looked as if racial prejudice might disappear.
A flowering of Black culture tended to reject White values and stereotypes. Some middle class Whites were drawn to Black culture. Blacks were seen to some as symbols of freedom, passion and sensuality.
Segregation dramatically increased the Black sense of community and unity in the face of White supremacy, as in 1938 when the ‘Brown Bomber’ Joe Louis defeated a White heavyweight boxer and became a world champion.
As the Black working class grew, there emerged a new middle class that provided services to Blacks such as church ministers, newspapers, hotels and drug stores, real estate and insurance agents. The Black class structure was becoming more complex. Many improvements to many millions of Black Americans followed in health care, education, and economic and political life. However, there was still a very substantial gap between the social and economic status of Whites and Blacks. The move north by millions of Blacks was putting strains on the community.
Black newspapers like the Baltimore Afro-American and the Pittsburgh Courier increased the sense of community. Fraternal organisations, civil clubs and churches such as the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York provided the location, money and leadership for the civil clubs where politics were discussed. Not all churches were hotbeds of civil rights activity, but most at least helped promote a spirit of self-help and self-confidence among Blacks who easily identified with biblical stories of a chosen race who fled enslavement and went to the ‘Promised Land’.
The Black community was not always united:
Divisions of class, colour, creed and career opportunities developed
A handful of Black businessmen in northern cities did well out of segregation as it gave them a captive market
Differences between north and south hindered the development over how to improve the Black lot.