Early 20th century American labor and working-class history is a subfield of American social history that focuses attention on the complex lives of working people in a rapidly changing global political and economic system. Once focused closely on institutional dynamics in the workplace and electoral politics, labor history has expanded and refined its approach to include questions about the families, communities, identities, and cultures workers have developed over time. With a critical eye on the limits of liberal capitalism and democracy for workers’ welfare, labor historians explore individual and collective struggles against exclusion from opportunity, as well as accommodation to political and economic contexts defined by rapid and volatile growth and deep inequality.
Particularly important are the ways that workers both defined and were defined by differences of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and place. Individual workers and organized groups of working Americans both transformed and were transformed by the main struggles of the industrial era, including conflicts over the place of former slaves and their descendants in the United States, mass immigration and migrations, technological change, new management and business models, the development of a consumer economy, the rise of a more active federal government, and the evolution of popular culture.
The period between 1896 and 1945 saw a crucial transition in the labor and working-class history of the United States. At its outset, Americans were working many more hours a day than the eight for which they had fought hard in the late 19th century. On average, Americans labored fifty-four to sixty-three hours per week in dangerous working conditions (approximately 35,000 workers died in accidents annually at the turn of the century). By 1920, half of all Americans lived in growing urban neighborhoods, and for many of them chronic unemployment, poverty, and deep social divides had become a regular part of life. Workers had little power in either the Democratic or Republican party. They faced a legal system that gave them no rights at work but the right to quit, judges who took the side of employers in the labor market by issuing thousands of injunctions against even nonviolent workers’ organizing, and vigilantes and police forces that did not hesitate to repress dissent violently. The ranks of organized labor were shrinking in the years before the economy began to recover in 1897. Dreams of a more democratic alternative to wage labor and corporate-dominated capitalism had been all but destroyed. Workers struggled to find their place in an emerging consumer-oriented culture that assumed everyone ought to strive for the often unattainable, and not necessarily desirable, marks of middle-class respectability.
Yet American labor emerged from World War II with the main sectors of the industrial economy organized, with greater earning potential than any previous generation of American workers, and with unprecedented power as an organized interest group that could appeal to the federal government to promote its welfare. Though American workers as a whole had made no grand challenge to the nation’s basic corporate-centered political economy in the preceding four and one-half decades, they entered the postwar world with a greater level of power, and a bigger share in the proceeds of a booming economy, than anyone could have imagined in 1896. The labor and working-class history of the United States between 1900 and 1945, then, is the story of how working-class individuals, families, and communities—members of an extremely diverse American working class—managed to carve out positions of political, economic, and cultural influence, even as they remained divided among themselves, dependent upon corporate power, and increasingly invested in a individualistic, competitive, acquisitive culture.
As places of dense habitation, cities have always required coordination and planning. City planning has involved the design and construction of large-scale infrastructure projects to provide basic necessities such as a water supply and drainage. By the 1850s, immigration and industrialization were fueling the rise of big cities, creating immense, collective problems of epidemics, slums, pollution, gridlock, and crime. From the 1850s to the 1900s, both local governments and utility companies responded to this explosive physical and demographic growth by constructing a “networked city” of modern technologies such as gaslight, telephones, and electricity. Building the urban environment also became a wellspring of innovation in science, medicine, and administration. In 1909–1910, a revolutionary idea—comprehensive city planning—opened a new era of professionalization and institutionalization in the planning departments of city halls and universities. Over the next thirty-five years, however, wars and depression limited their influence.
From 1945 to 1965, in contrast, represents the golden age of formal planning. During this unprecedented period of peace and prosperity, academically trained experts played central roles in the modernization of the inner cities and the sprawl of the suburbs. But the planners’ clean-sweep approach to urban renewal and the massive destruction caused by highway construction provoked a revolt of the grassroots. Beginning in the Watts district of Los Angeles in 1965, mass uprisings escalated over the next three years into a national crisis of social disorder, racial and ethnic inequality, and environmental injustice. The postwar consensus of theory and practice was shattered, replaced by a fragmented profession ranging from defenders of top-down systems of computer-generated simulations to proponents of advocacy planning from the bottom up. Since the late 1980s, the ascendency of public-private partnerships in building the urban environment has favored the planners promoting systems approaches, who promise a future of high-tech “smart cities” under their complete control.
On January 5, 2014—the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty—the New York Times asked a panel of opinion leaders a simple question: “Does the U.S. Need Another War on Poverty?” While the answers varied, all the invited debaters accepted the martial premise of the question—that a war on poverty had been fought and that eliminating poverty was, without a doubt, a “fight,” or a “battle.”
Yet the debate over the manner—martial or not—by which the federal government and public policy has dealt with the issue of poverty in the United States is still very much an open-ended one.
The evolution and development of the postwar American welfare state is a story not only of a number of “wars,” or individual political initiatives, against poverty, but also about the growth of institutions within and outside government that seek to address, alleviate, and eliminate poverty and its concomitant social ills. It is a complex and at times messy story, interwoven with the wider historical trajectory of this period: civil rights, the rise and fall of a “Cold War consensus,” the emergence of a counterculture, the Vietnam War, the credibility gap, the rise of conservatism, the end of “welfare,” and the emergence of compassionate conservatism. Mirroring the broader organization of the American political system, with a relatively weak center of power and delegated authority and decision-making in fifty states, the welfare model has developed and grown over decades. Policies viewed in one era as unmitigated failures have instead over time evolved and become part of the fabric of the welfare state.
Judy Yung and Erika Lee
The Angel Island Immigration Station (1910–1940), located in San Francisco Bay, was one of twenty-four ports of entry established by the U.S. government to process and detain immigrants entering and leaving the country. Although popularly called the “Ellis Island of the West,” the Angel Island station was in fact quite different from its counterpart in New York. Ellis Island was built in 1892 to welcome European immigrants and to enforce immigration laws that restricted but did not exclude European immigrants. In contrast, as the primary gateway for Chinese and other Asian immigrants, the Angel Island station was built in 1910 to better enforce discriminatory immigration policies that targeted Asians for exclusion. Chinese immigrants, in particular, were subjected to longer physical exams, interrogations, and detentions than any other immigrant group. Out of frustration, anger, and despair, many of them wrote and carved Chinese poems into the barrack walls. In 1940, a fire destroyed the administration building, and the immigration station was moved back to San Francisco. In 1963, the abandoned site became part of the state park system, and the remaining buildings were slated for demolition. Thanks to the collective efforts of Asian American activists and descendents of former detainees, the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997, and the immigration site, including the Chinese poetry on the barrack walls, was preserved and transformed into a museum of Pacific immigration for visitors.
Long regarded as a violent outburst significant mainly for California history, the 1871 Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre raises themes central to America’s Civil War Reconstruction era between 1865 and 1877, namely, the resort to threats and violence to preserve traditionally conceived social and political authority and power. Although the Los Angeles events occurred far from the American South, the Los Angeles anti-Chinese massacre paralleled the anti-black violence that rose in the South during Reconstruction. Although the immediate causes of the violence in the post–Civil War South and California were far different, they shared one key characteristic: they employed racial disciplining to preserve traditional social orders that old elites saw as threatened by changing times and circumstances.
Daryl Joji Maeda
The Asian American Movement was a social movement for racial justice, most active during the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, which brought together people of various Asian ancestries in the United States who protested against racism and U.S. neo-imperialism, demanded changes in institutions such as colleges and universities, organized workers, and sought to provide social services such as housing, food, and healthcare to poor people. As one of its signal achievements, the Movement created the category “Asian American,” (coined by historian and activist Yuji Ichioka), which encompasses the multiple Asian ethnic groups who have migrated to the United States. Its founding principle of coalitional politics emphasizes solidarity among Asians of all ethnicities, multiracial solidarity among Asian Americans as well as with African, Latino, and Native Americans in the United States, and transnational solidarity with peoples around the globe impacted by U.S. militarism.
The movement participated in solidarity work with other Third World peoples in the United States, including the Third World Liberation Front strikes at San Francisco State College and University of California, Berkeley. The Movement fought for housing rights for poor people in the urban cores of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, and Philadelphia; it created arts collectives, published newspapers and magazines, and protested vigorously against the Vietnam War. It also extended to Honolulu, where activists sought to preserve land rights in rural Hawai’i. It contributed to the larger radical movement for power and justice that critiqued capitalism and neo-imperialism, which flourished during the 1960s and 1970s.
Shelley Sang-Hee Lee
Although the 1992 Los Angeles riots have been described as a “race riot” sparked by the acquittals of a group of mostly white police officers charged with excessively beating black motorist Rodney King, the widespread targeting and destruction of Asian-owned (mainly Korean) property in and around South Central Los Angeles stands out as one of the most striking aspects of the uprising. For all the commentary generated about the state of black-white relations, African American youths, and the decline of America’s inner cities, the riots also gave many Americans their first awareness of the presence of a Korean immigrant population in Southern California, a large number of Korean shop owners, and the existence of what was commonly framed as the “black-Korean conflict.” For Korean Americans, and Asian Americans more generally, the Los Angeles riots represented a shattered “American dream” and brought focus to their tenuous hold on economic mobility and social inclusion in a society fraught by racial and ethnic tension. The riots furthermore marked a turning point that placed Asian immigrants and Asian Americans at the center of new conversations about social relations in a multiracial America, the place of new immigrants, and the responsibilities of relatively privileged minorities toward the less privileged.
The relationship between the car and the city remains complex and involves numerous private and public forces, innovations in technology, global economic fluctuations, and shifting cultural attitudes that only rarely consider the efficiency of the automobile as a long-term solution to urban transit. The advantages of privacy, speed, ease of access, and personal enjoyment that led many to first embrace the automobile were soon shared and accentuated by transit planners as the surest means to realize the long-held ideals of urban beautification, efficiency, and accessible suburbanization. The remarkable gains in productivity provided by industrial capitalism brought these dreams within reach and individual car ownership became the norm for most American families by the middle of the 20th century. Ironically, the success in creating such a “car country” produced the conditions that again congested traffic, raised questions about the quality of urban (and now suburban) living, and further distanced the nation from alternative transit options. The “hidden costs” of postwar automotive dependency in the United States became more apparent in the late 1960s, leading to federal legislation compelling manufacturers and transit professionals to address the long-standing inefficiencies of the car. This most recent phase coincides with a broader reappraisal of life in the city and a growing recognition of the material limits to mass automobility.
John D. Fairfield
The City Beautiful movement arose in the 1890s in response to the accumulating dirt and disorder in industrial cities, which threatened economic efficiency and social peace. City Beautiful advocates believed that better sanitation, improved circulation of traffic, monumental civic centers, parks, parkways, public spaces, civic art, and the reduction of outdoor advertising would make cities throughout the United States more profitable and harmonious. Engaging architects and planners, businessmen and professionals, and social reformers and journalists, the City Beautiful movement expressed a boosterish desire for landscape beauty and civic grandeur, but also raised aspirations for a more humane and functional city. “Mean streets make mean people,” wrote the movement’s publicist and leading theorist, Charles Mulford Robinson, encapsulating the belief in positive environmentalism that drove the movement. Combining the parks and boulevards of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted with the neoclassical architecture of Daniel H. Burnham’s White City at the Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893, the City Beautiful movement also encouraged a view of the metropolis as a delicate organism that could be improved by bold, comprehensive planning. Two organizations, the American Park and Outdoor Art Association (founded in 1897) and the American League for Civic Improvements (founded in 1900), provided the movement with a national presence. But the movement also depended on the work of civic-minded women and men in nearly 2,500 municipal improvement associations scattered across the nation. Reaching its zenith in Burnham’s remaking of Washington, D.C., and his coauthored Plan of Chicago (1909), the movement slowly declined in favor of the “City Efficient” and a more technocratic city-planning profession. Aside from a legacy of still-treasured urban spaces and structures, the City Beautiful movement contributed to a range of urban reforms, from civic education and municipal housekeeping to city planning and regionalism.
Company towns can be defined as communities dominated by a single company, typically focused on one industry. Beyond that very basic definition, company towns varied in their essentials. Some were purpose-built by companies, often in remote areas convenient to needed natural resources. There, workers were often required to live in company-owned housing as a condition of employment. Others began as small towns with privately owned housing, usually expanding alongside a growing hometown corporation. Residences were shoddy in some company towns. In others, company-built housing may have been excellent, with indoor plumbing and central heating, and located close to such amenities as schools, libraries, perhaps even theaters.
Company towns played a key role in US economic and social development. Such places can be found across the globe, but America’s vast expanse of undeveloped land, generous stock of natural resources, tradition of social experimentation, and laissez-faire attitude toward business provided singular opportunities for the emergence of such towns, large and small, in many regions of the United States. Historians have identified as many as 2,500 such places.
A tour of company towns can serve as a survey of the country’s industrial development, from the first large-scale planned industrial community—the textile town of Lowell, Massachusetts—to Appalachian mining villages, Western lumber towns, and steelmaking principalities such as the mammoth development at Gary, Indiana. More recent office-park and high-tech industrial-park complexes probably do not qualify as company towns, although they have some similar attributes. Nor do such planned towns as Disney Corporation’s Celebration, Florida, qualify, despite close ties to a single corporation, because its residents do not necessarily work for Disney.
Company towns have generally tended toward one of two models. First, and perhaps most familiar, are total institutions—communities where one business exerts a Big Brother–ish grip over the population, controlling or even taking the place of government, collecting rent on company-owned housing, dictating buying habits (possibly at the company store), and even directing where people worship and how they may spend their leisure time. A second form consists of model towns—planned, ideal communities backed by companies that promised to share their bounty with workers and families. Several such places were carefully put together by experienced architects and urban planners. Such model company towns were marked by a paternalistic, watchful attitude toward the citizenry on the part of the company overlords.
Chloe E. Taft
The process of urban deindustrialization has been long and uneven. Even the terms “deindustrial” and “postindustrial” are contested; most cities continue to host manufacturing on some scale. After World War II, however, cities that depended on manufacturing for their lifeblood increasingly diversified their economies in the face of larger global, political, and demographic transformations. Manufacturing centers in New England, the Mid Atlantic, and the Midwest United States were soon identified as belonging to “the American Rust Belt.” Steel manufacturers, automakers, and other industrial behemoths that were once mainstays of city life closed their doors as factories and workers followed economic and social incentives to leave urban cores for the suburbs, the South, or foreign countries. Remaining industrial production became increasingly automated, resulting in significant declines in the number of factory jobs. Metropolitan officials faced with declining populations and tax bases responded by adapting their assets—in terms of workforce, location, or culture—to new economies, including warehousing and distribution, finance, health care, tourism, leisure industries like casinos, and privatized enterprises such as prisons. Faced with declining federal funding for renewal, they focused on leveraging private investment for redevelopment. Deindustrializing cities marketed themselves as destinations with convention centers, stadiums, and festival marketplaces, seeking to lure visitors and a “creative class” of new residents. While some postindustrial cities became success stories of reinvention, others struggled. They entertained options to “rightsize” by shrinking their municipal footprints, adapted vacant lots for urban agriculture, or attracted voyeurs to gaze at their industrial ruins. Whether industrial cities faced a slow transformation or the shock of multiple factory closures within a few years, the impact of these economic shifts and urban planning interventions both amplified old inequalities and created new ones.
Robert R. Gioielli
By the late 19th century, American cities like Chicago and New York were marvels of the industrializing world. The shock urbanization of the previous quarter century, however, brought on a host of environmental problems. Skies were acrid with coal smoke, and streams ran fetid with raw sewage. Disease outbreaks were as common as parks and green space was rare. In response to these hazards, particular groups of urban residents responded to them with a series of activist movements to reform public and private policies and practices, from the 1890s until the end of the 20th century. Those environmental burdens were never felt equally, with the working class, poor, immigrants, and minorities bearing an overwhelming share of the city’s toxic load. By the 1930s, many of the Progressive era reform efforts were finally bearing fruit. Air pollution was regulated, access to clean water improved, and even America’s smallest cities built robust networks of urban parks. But despite this invigoration of the public sphere, after World War II, for many the solution to the challenges of a dense modern city was a private choice: suburbanization. Rather than continue to work to reform and reimagine the city, they chose to leave it, retreating to the verdant (and pollution free) greenfields at the city’s edge. These moves, encouraged and subsidized by local and federal policies, provided healthier environments for the mostly white, middle-class suburbanites, but created a new set of environmental problems for the poor, working-class, and minority residents they left behind. Drained of resources and capital, cities struggled to maintain aging infrastructure and regulate remaining industry and then exacerbated problems with destructive urban renewal and highway construction projects. These remaining urban residents responded with a dynamic series of activist movements that emerged out of the social and community activism of the 1960s and presaged the contemporary environmental justice movement.
Cindy R. Lobel
Over the course of the 19th century, American cities developed from small seaports and trading posts to large metropolises. Not surprisingly, foodways and other areas of daily life changed accordingly. In 1800, the dietary habits of urban Americans were similar to those of the colonial period. Food provisioning was very local. Farmers, hunters, fishermen, and dairymen from a few miles away brought food by rowboats and ferryboats and by horse carts to centralized public markets within established cities. Dietary options were seasonal as well as regional. Few public dining options existed outside of taverns, which offered lodging as well as food. Most Americans, even in urban areas, ate their meals at home, which in many cases were attached to their workshops, countinghouses, and offices.
These patterns changed significantly over the course of the19th century, thanks largely to demographic changes and technological developments. By the turn of the 20th century, urban Americans relied on a food-supply system that was highly centralized and in the throes of industrialization. Cities developed complex restaurant sectors, and majority immigrant populations dramatically shaped and reshaped cosmopolitan food cultures. Furthermore, with growing populations, lax regulation, and corrupt political practices in many cities, issues arose periodically concerning the safety of the food supply. In sum, the roots of today’s urban food systems were laid down over the course of the 19th century.
Changing foodways, the consumption and production of food, access to food, and debates over food shaped the nature of American cities in the 20th century. As American cities transformed from centers of industrialization at the start of the century to post-industrial societies at the end of the 20th century, food cultures in urban America shifted in response to the ever-changing urban environment. Cities remained centers of food culture, diversity, and food reform despite these shifts.
Growing populations and waves of immigration changed the nature of food cultures throughout the United States in the 20th century. These changes were significant, all contributing to an evolving sense of American food culture. For urban denizens, however, food choice and availability were dictated and shaped by a variety of powerful social factors, including class, race, ethnicity, gender, and laboring status. While cities possessed an abundance of food in a variety of locations to consume food, fresh food often remained difficult for the urban poor to obtain as the 20th century ended.
As markets expanded from 1900 to 1950, regional geography became a less important factor in determining what types of foods were available. In the second half of the 20th century, even global geography became less important to food choices. Citrus fruit from the West Coast was readily available in northeastern markets near the start of the century, and off-season fruits and vegetables from South America filled shelves in grocery stores by the end of the 20th century. Urban Americans became further disconnected from their food sources, but this dislocation spurred counter-movements that embraced ideas of local, seasonal foods and a rethinking of the city’s relationship with its food sources.
While American gambling has a historical association with the lawlessness of the frontier and with the wasteful leisure practices of Southern planters, it was in large cities where American gambling first flourished as a form of mass leisure, and as a commercial enterprise of significant scale. In the urban areas of the Mid-Atlantic, the Northeast, and the upper Mid-West, for the better part of two centuries the gambling economy was deeply intertwined with municipal politics and governance, the practices of betting were a prominent feature of social life, and controversies over the presence of gambling both legal and illegal, were at the center of public debate. In New York and Chicago in particular, but also in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, gambling channeled money to municipal police forces and sustained machine politics. In the eyes of reformers, gambling corrupted governance and corroded social and economic interactions. Big city gambling has changed over time, often in a manner reflecting important historical processes and transformations in economics, politics, and demographics. Yet irrespective of such change, from the onset of Northern urbanization during the 19th century, through much of the 20th century, gambling held steady as a central feature of city life and politics. From the poolrooms where recently arrived Irish New Yorkers bet on horseracing after the Civil War, to the corner stores where black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers bet on the numbers game in the 1960s, the gambling activity that covered the urban landscape produced argument and controversy, particularly with respect to drawing the line between crime and leisure, and over the question of where and to what ends the money of the gambling public should be directed.
Gentrification is one of the most controversial issues in American cities today. But it also remains one of the least understood. Few agree on how to define it or whether it is boon or curse for cities. Gentrification has changed over time and has a history dating back to the early 20th century. Historically, gentrification has had a smaller demographic impact on American cities than suburbanization or immigration. But since the late 1970s, gentrification has dramatically reshaped cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston. Furthermore, districts such as the French Quarter in New Orleans, New York City’s Greenwich Village, and Georgetown in Washington DC have had an outsized influence on the political, cultural, and architectural history of cities. Gentrification thus must be examined alongside suburbanization as one of the major historical trends shaping the 20th-century American metropolis.
Betsy A. Beasley
American cities have been transnational in nature since the first urban spaces emerged during the colonial period. Yet the specific shape of the relationship between American cities and the rest of the world has changed dramatically in the intervening years. In the mid-20th century, the increasing integration of the global economy within the American economy began to reshape US cities. In the Northeast and Midwest, the once robust manufacturing centers and factories that had sustained their residents—and their tax bases—left, first for the South and West, and then for cities and towns outside the United States, as capital grew more mobile and businesses sought lower wages and tax incentives elsewhere. That same global capital, combined with federal subsidies, created boomtowns in the once-rural South and West. Nationwide, city boosters began to pursue alternatives to heavy industry, once understood to be the undisputed guarantor of a healthy urban economy. Increasingly, US cities organized themselves around the service economy, both in high-end, white-collar sectors like finance, consulting, and education, and in low-end pink-collar and no-collar sectors like food service, hospitality, and health care. A new legal infrastructure related to immigration made US cities more racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse than ever before.
At the same time, some US cities were agents of economic globalization themselves. Dubbed “global cities” by celebrants and critics of the new economy alike, these cities achieved power and prestige in the late 20th century not only because they had survived the ruptures of globalization but because they helped to determine its shape. By the end of the 20th century, cities that are not routinely listed among the “global city” elite jockeyed to claim “world-class” status, investing in high-end art, entertainment, technology, education, and health care amenities to attract and retain the high-income white-collar workers understood to be the last hope for cities hollowed out by deindustrialization and global competition. Today, the extreme differences between “global cities” and the rest of US cities, and the extreme socioeconomic stratification seen in cities of all stripes, is a key concern of urbanists.
Erik Gellman and Margaret Rung
From the late 1920s through the 1930s, countries on every inhabited continent suffered through a dramatic and wrenching economic contraction termed the Great Depression, an economic collapse that has come to represent the nadir of modern economic history. With national unemployment reaching well into double digits for over a decade, productivity levels falling by half, prices severely depressed, and millions of Americans without adequate food, shelter or clothing, the United States experienced some of the Great Depression’s severest consequences. The crisis left deep physical, psychological, political, social, and cultural impressions on the national landscape. It encouraged political reform and reaction, renewed labor activism, spurred migration, unleashed grass-roots movements, inspired cultural experimentation, and challenged family structures and gender roles.
Christopher R. Reed
The unanticipated and massive migration of half a million African Americans between 1916 and 1918 from the racially oppressive South to the welcoming North surprised the nation. Directly resulting from the advent of the First World War, the movement of these able-bodied workers provided essential labor to maintain wartime production that sustained the Allied war effort. One-tenth of the people who surged north headed to and remained in Chicago, where their presence challenged the status quo in the areas of employment, external race relations, internal race arrangements, politics, housing, and recreation. Once in the Windy City, this migrant-influenced labor pool expanded with the addition of resident blacks to form the city’s first African American industrial proletariat. Wages for both men and women increased compared to what they had been earning in the South, and local businesses were ready and willing to accommodate these new consumers. A small black business sector became viable and was able to support two banks, and by the mid-1920s, there were multiple stores along Chicago’s State Street forming a virtual “Black Wall Street.” An extant political submachine within Republic Party ranks also increased its power and influence in repeated electoral contests. Importantly, upon scrutiny, the purported social conflict between the Old Settler element and the newcomers was shown to be overblown and inconsequential to black progress.
Recent revisionist scholarship over the past two decades has served to minimize the first phase of northward movement and has positioned it within the context of a half-century phenomenon under the labels of the “Second Great Migration” and the “Great Black Migration.” No matter what the designation, the voluntary movement of five to six million blacks from what had been their traditional home to the uncertainty of the North and West between the First World War and the Vietnam conflict stands as both a condemnation of regional oppression of the human spirit and aspirations of millions, and a demonstration of group courage in taking on new challenges in new settings. Although Chicago would prove to be “no crystal stair,” it was on many occasions a land of hope and promise for migrants throughout the past century.
During the 20th century, the black population of the United States transitioned from largely rural to mostly urban. In the early 1900s the majority of African Americans lived in rural, agricultural areas. Depictions of black people in popular culture often focused on pastoral settings, like the cotton fields of the rural South. But a dramatic shift occurred during the Great Migrations (1914–1930 and 1941–1970) when millions of rural black southerners relocated to US cities.
Motivated by economic opportunities in urban industrial areas during World Wars I and II, African Americans opted to move to southern cities as well as to urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. New communities emerged that contained black social and cultural institutions, and musical and literary expressions flourished. Black migrants who left the South exercised voting rights, sending the first black representatives to Congress in the 20th century. Migrants often referred to themselves as “New Negroes,” pointing to their social, political, and cultural achievements, as well as their use of armed self-defense during violent racial confrontations, as evidence of their new stance on race.