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Schools in US Cities  

Ansley T. Erickson

“Urban infrastructure” calls to mind railways, highways, and sewer systems. Yet the school buildings—red brick, limestone, or concrete, low-slung, turreted, or glass-fronted—that hold and seek to shape the city’s children are ubiquitous forms of infrastructure as well. Schools occupy one of the largest line items in a municipal budget, and as many as a fifth of a city’s residents spend the majority of their waking hours in school classrooms, hallways, and gymnasiums. In the 19th and 20th centuries urban educational infrastructure grew, supported by developing consensus for publicly funded and publicly governed schools (if rarely fully accessible to all members of the public). Even before state commitment to other forms of social welfare, from pensions to public health, and infrastructure, from transit to fire, schooling was a government function. This commitment to public education ultimately was national, but schools in cities had their own story. Schooling in the United States is chiefly a local affair: Constitutional responsibility for education lies with the states; power is then further decentralized as states entrust decisions about school function and funding to school districts. School districts can be as small as a single town or a part of a city. Such localism is one reason that it is possible to speak about schools in U.S. cities as having a particular history, determined as much by the specificities of urban life as by national questions of citizenship, economy, religion, and culture. While city schools have been distinct, they have also been nationally influential. Urban scale both allowed for and demanded the most extensive educational system-building. Urban growth and diversity galvanized innovation, via exploration in teaching methods, curriculum, and understanding of children and communities. And it generated intense conflict. Throughout U.S. history, urban residents from myriad social, political, religious, and economic positions have struggled to define how schools would operate, for whom, and who would decide. During the 19th and 20th centuries, U.S. residents struggled over the purposes, funding, and governance of schools in cities shaped by capitalism, nativism, and white supremacy. They built a commitment to schooling as a public function of their cities, with many compromises and exclusions. In the 21st century, old struggles re-emerged in new form, perhaps raising the question of whether schools will continue as public, urban infrastructure.

Article

Daily Life in the Jim Crow South, 1900–1945  

Jennifer Ritterhouse

Distinctive patterns of daily life defined the Jim Crow South. Contrary to many observers’ emphasis on de jure segregation—meaning racial separation demanded by law—neither law nor the physical separation of blacks and whites was at the center of the early 20th-century South’s social system. Instead, separation, whether by law or custom, was one of multiple tools whites used to subordinate and exclude blacks and to maintain notions of white racial purity. In turn, these notions themselves varied over time and across jurisdictions, at least in their details, as elites tried repeatedly to establish who was “white,” who was “black,” and how the legal fictions they created would apply to Native Americans and others who fit neither category. Within this complex multiracial world of the South, whites’ fundamental commitment to keeping blacks “in their place” manifested most routinely in day-to-day social dramas, often described in terms of racial “etiquette.” The black “place” in question was socially but not always physically distant from whites, and the increasing number of separate, racially marked spaces and actual Jim Crow laws was a development over time that became most pronounced in urban areas. It was a development that reveals blacks’ determination to resist racial oppression and whites’ perceived need to shore up a supposedly natural order that had, in fact, always been enforced by violence as well as political and economic power. Black resistance took many forms, from individual, covert acts of defiance to organized political movements. Whether in response to African Americans’ continued efforts to vote or their early 20th-century boycotts of segregated streetcars or World War I-era patterns of migration that threatened to deplete the agricultural labor force, whites found ways to counter blacks’ demands for equal citizenship and economic opportunity whenever and wherever they appeared. In the rural South, where the majority of black Southerners remained economically dependent on white landowners, a “culture of personalism” characterized daily life within a paternalistic model of white supremacy that was markedly different from urban—and largely national, not merely southern—racial patterns. Thus, distinctions between rural and urban areas and issues of age and gender are critical to understanding the Jim Crow South. Although schools were rigorously segregated, preadolescent children could be allowed greater interracial intimacy in less official settings. Puberty became a break point after which close contact, especially between black males and white females, was prohibited. All told, Jim Crow was an inconsistent and uneven system of racial distinction and separation whose great reach shaped the South’s landscape and the lives of all Southerners, including those who were neither black nor white.

Article

Race Films  

Alyssa Lopez

In the early 1910s, Black Americans turned to motion pictures in order to resist the incessant racism they experienced through popular culture and in their everyday lives. Entrepreneurs, educators, and uplift-minded individuals believed that this modern medium could be used as a significant means to demonstrate Black humanity and dignity while, perhaps, making money in the burgeoning industry. The resultant race films ranged in content from fictionalized comedies and dramas to local exhibitions of business meetings and Black institutions. Racial uplift was a central tenet of the race film industry and was reflected most clearly in the intra-racial debate over positive versus negative images of Black life. Inside theaters, Black spectators also developed ways to mitigate racism on screen when race films were not the evening’s entertainment. The race film industry encouraged Black institution-building in the form of a critical Black film criticism tradition, Black-owned theaters, and the hiring of Black employees. Race films and the industry that made their success possible constituted a community affair that involved filmmakers, businessmen, leaders, journalists, and the moviegoing public.

Article

Black Girlhood in 20th-Century America  

Miya Carey

Examining American history through the lens of black girlhood underscores just how thoroughly childhood everywhere is not “natural” but depends heavily on its social construction. Furthermore, ideas about childhood innocence are deeply racialized and gendered. At the end of Reconstruction, African Americans lost many of the social and political gains achieved after the Civil War. This signaled the emergence of Jim Crow, placing many blacks in the same social, political, and economic position that they occupied before freedom. Black girls who came of age in the 20th century lived through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, Black Power, and the rise of the New Right. Moreover, black girls in the 20th century inherited many of the same burdens that their female ancestors carried—especially labor exploitation, criminalization, and racist notions of black sexuality—which left them vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual violence. In short, black girls were denied the childhood protections that their white counterparts possessed. If fights for cultural representation, economic justice, equal access to education, and a more just legal system are familiar sites of black struggle, then examining black girlhood reveals much about the black freedom movement. Activists, parents, and community advocates centered black girls’ struggles within their activism. Black girls were also leaders within their own right, lending their voices, bodies, and intellect to the movement. Their self-advocacy illustrates their resistance to systemic oppression. However, resistance in the more obvious sense—letter writing, marching, and political organizing—are not the only spaces to locate black girls’ resistance. In a nation that did not consider black children as children, their pursuit of joy and pleasure can also be read as radical acts. The history of 20th-century black girlhood is simultaneously a history of exclusion, trauma, resilience, and joy.

Article

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study  

Susan M. Reverby

Between 1932 and 1972, the US Public Health Service (PHS) ran the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Male Negro in Macon County, Alabama, to learn more about the effects of untreated syphilis on African Americans, and to see if the standard heavy metal treatments advocated at the time were efficacious in the disease’s late latent stage. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection and can be passed by a mother to her fetus at birth. It is contagious in its first two stages, but usually not in its third late latent stage. Syphilis can be, although is not always, fatal, and usually causes serious cardiovascular or neurological damage. To study the disease, the PHS recruited 624 African American men, 439 who were diagnosed with the latent stage of the disease and 185 without the disease who were to act as the controls in the experiment. However, the men were not told they were to participate in a medical experiment nor were they asked to give their consent to be used as subjects for medical research. Instead, the PHS led the men to believe that they were being treated for their syphilis by the provision of aspirins, iron tonics, vitamins, and diagnosis spinal taps, labeled a “special treatment” for the colloquial term “bad blood.” Indeed, even when penicillin became widely available by the early 1950s as a cure for syphilis, the researchers continued the study and tried to keep the men from treatment, however not always successfully. Although a number of health professionals raised objections to the study over the years, while—thirteen articles were published in various medical journals, it continued unobstructed until 1972, when a journalist exposed the full implications of the study and a national uproar ensued. The widespread media coverage resulted in a successful lawsuit, federal paid health care to the remaining men and their syphilis-positive wives and children, Congressional hearings, a federal report, and changes to the legislation concerning informed consent for medical research. The government officially closed the study in 1972. In 1996, a Legacy Committee requested a formal apology from the federal government, which took place at the White House on May 16, 1997. Rumors have surrounded the study since its public exposure, especially the beliefs that the government gave healthy men syphilis, rather than recruiting men that had the disease already, in order to conduct the research, and that all men in the study were left untreated decade after decade. In its public life, the study often serves a metaphor for mistrust of medical care and government research, memorialized in popular culture through music, plays, poems, and films.

Article

African American Soldiers in World War I  

Amanda M. Nagel

In the midst of the long black freedom struggle, African American military participation in the First World War remains central to civil rights activism and challenges to systems of oppression in the United States. As part of a long and storied tradition of military service for a nation that marginalized and attempted to subjugate a significant portion of US citizens, African American soldiers faced challenges, racism, and segregation during the First World War simultaneously on the home front and the battlefields of France. The generations born since the end of the Civil War continually became more and more militant when resisting Jim Crow and insisting on full, not partial, citizenship in the United States, evidenced by the events in Houston in 1917. Support of the war effort within black communities in the United States was not universal, however, and some opposed participation in a war effort to “make the world safe for democracy” when that same democracy was denied to people of color. Activism by organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged the War Department’s official and unofficial policy, creating avenues for a larger number of black officers in the US Army through the officers’ training camp created in Des Moines, Iowa. For African American soldiers sent to France with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), the potential for combat experience led to both failures and successes, leading to race pride as in the case of the 93rd Division’s successes, and skewed evidence for the War Department to reject increasing the number of black officers and enlisted in the case of the 92nd Division. All-black Regular Army regiments, meanwhile, either remained in the United States or were sent to the Philippines rather than the battlefields of Europe. However, soldiers’ return home was mixed, as they were both celebrated and rejected for their service, reflected in both parades welcoming them home and racial violence in the form of lynchings between December 1918 and January 1920. As a result, the interwar years and the start of World War II roughly two decades later renewed the desire to utilize military service as a way to influence US legal, social, cultural, and economic structures that limited African American citizenship.

Article

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)  

Lee Sartain

The NAACP, established in 1909, was formed as an integrated organization to confront racism in the United States rather than seeing the issue as simply a southern problem. It is the longest running civil rights organization and continues to operate today. The original name of the organization was The National Negro League, but this was changed to the NAACP on May 30, 1910. Organized to promote racial equality and integration, the NAACP pursued this goal via legal cases, political lobbying, and public campaigns. Early campaigns involved lobbying for national anti-lynching legislation, pursuing through the US Supreme Court desegregation in areas such as housing and higher education, and the pursuit of voting rights. The NAACP is renowned for the US Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that desegregated primary and secondary schools and is seen as a catalyst for the civil rights movement (1955–1968). It also advocated public education by promoting African American achievements in education and the arts to counteract racial stereotypes. The organization published a monthly journal, The Crisis, and promoted African American art forms and culture as another means to advance equality. NAACP branches were established all across the United States and became a network of information, campaigning, and finance that underpinned activism. Youth groups and university branches mobilized younger members of the community. Women were also invaluable to the NAACP in local, regional, and national decision-making processes and campaigning. The organization sought to integrate African Americans and other minorities into the American social, political, and economic model as codified by the US Constitution.

Article

Juneteenth and Emancipation Celebrations  

Emily Blanck

Emancipation celebrations in the United States have been important and complicated moments of celebration and commemoration. Since the end of the slave trade in 1808 and the enactment of the British Emancipation Act in 1834 people of African descent throughout the Atlantic world have gathered, often in festival form, to remember and use that memory for more promising futures. In the United States, emancipation celebrations exploded after the Civil War, when each local community celebrated their own experience of emancipation. For many, the commemoration took the form of a somber church service, Watch Night, which recognized the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Juneteenth, which recognized the end of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865, became one of the most vibrant and longstanding celebrations. Although many emancipation celebrations disappeared after World War I, Juneteenth remained a celebration in most of Texas through the late 1960s when it disappeared from all cities in the state. However, because of the Second Great Migration, Texans transplanted in Western cities continued the celebration in their new communities far from Texas. In Texas, Juneteenth was resurrected in 1979 when state representative, later Congressman, Al Edwards successfully sponsored a bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday and campaigned to spread Juneteenth throughout the country. This grassroots movement brought Juneteenth resolutions to forty-six states and street festivals in hundreds of neighborhoods. Juneteenth’s remarkable post-1980 spread has given it great resonance in popular culture as well, even becoming a focus of two major television episodes in 2016 and 2017.

Article

The Department Store  

Traci Parker

Department stores were the epicenter of American consumption and modernity in the late 19th and through the 20th century. Between 1846 and 1860 store merchants and commercial impresarios remade dry goods stores and small apparel shops into department stores—downtown emporiums that departmentalized its vast inventory and offered copious services and amenities. Their ascendance corresponded with increased urbanization, immigration, industrialization, and the mass production of machine-made wares. Urbanization and industrialization also helped to birth a new White middle class who were eager to spend their money on material comforts and leisure activities. And department stores provided them with a place where they could do so. Stores sold shoppers an astounding array of high-quality, stylish merchandise including clothing, furniture, radios, sporting equipment, musical instruments, luggage, silverware, china, and books. They also provided an array of services and amenities, including public telephones, postal services, shopping assistance, free delivery, telephone-order and mail-order departments, barber shops, hair salons, hospitals and dental offices, radio departments, shoe-shining stands, wedding gift registries and wedding secretary services, tearooms, and restaurants. Stores enthroned consumption as the route to democracy and citizenship, inviting everybody—regardless of race, gender, age, and class—to enter, browse, and purchase material goods. They were major employers of white-collar workers and functioned as a new public space for women as workers and consumers. The 20th century brought rapid and significant changes and challenges. Department stores weathered economic crises; two world wars; new and intense competition from neighborhood, chain, and discount stores; and labor and civil rights protests that threatened to damage their image and displace them as the nation’s top retailers. They experienced cutbacks, consolidated services, and declining sales during the Great Depression, played an essential role in the war effort, and contended with the Office of Price Administration’s Emergency Price Control Act during the Second World War. In the postwar era, they opened branch locations in suburban neighborhoods where their preferred clientele—the White middle class—now resided and shaped the development and proliferation of shopping centers. They hastened the decline of downtown shopping as a result. The last three decades of the 20th century witnessed a wave of department store closures, mergers, and acquisitions because of changing consumer behaviors, shifts in the retail landscape, and evolving market dynamics. Department stores would continue to suffer into the 21st century as online retailing exploded.