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Article

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

Black Soldiers in World War II America  

Robert F. Jefferson

The history of the African American military experience in World War II tends to revolve around two central questions: How did World War II and American racism shape the black experience in the American military? And how did black GIs reshape the parameters of their wartime experiences? From the mid-1920s through the Great Depression years of the 1930s, military planners evaluated the performance of black soldiers in World War I while trying to ascertain their presence in future wars. However, quite often their discussions about African American servicemen in the military establishment were deeply moored in the traditions, customs, and practices of American racism, racist stereotypes, and innuendo. Simultaneously, African American leaders and their allies waged a relentless battle to secure the future presence of the uniformed men and women who would serve in the nation’s military. Through their exercise of voting rights, threats of protest demonstration, litigation, and White House lobbying from 1939 through 1942, civil rights advocates and their affiliates managed to obtain some minor concessions from the military establishment. But the military’s stubborn adherence to a policy barring black and white soldiers from serving in the same units continued through the rest of the war. Between 1943 and 1945, black GIs faced white officer hostility, civilian antagonism, and military police brutality while undergoing military training throughout the country. Similarly, African American servicewomen faced systemic racism and sexism in the military during the period. Throughout various stages of the American war effort, black civil rights groups, the press, and their allies mounted the opening salvoes in the battle to protect and defend the wellbeing of black soldiers in uniform. While serving on the battlefields of World War II, fighting African American GIs became foot soldiers in the wider struggles against tyranny abroad. After returning home in 1945, black World War II-era activists such as Daisy Lampkin and Ruby Hurley, and ex-servicemen and women, laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement.

Article

Suburbanization in the United States after 1945  

Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Wiese

Mass migration to suburban areas was a defining feature of American life after 1945. Before World War II, just 13% of Americans lived in suburbs. By 2010, however, suburbia was home to more than half of the U.S. population. The nation’s economy, politics, and society suburbanized in important ways. Suburbia shaped habits of car dependency and commuting, patterns of spending and saving, and experiences with issues as diverse as race and taxes, energy and nature, privacy and community. The owner occupied, single-family home, surrounded by a yard, and set in a neighborhood outside the urban core came to define everyday experience for most American households, and in the world of popular culture and the imagination, suburbia was the setting for the American dream. The nation’s suburbs were an equally critical economic landscape, home to vital high-tech industries, retailing, “logistics,” and office employment. In addition, American politics rested on a suburban majority, and over several decades, suburbia incubated political movements across the partisan spectrum, from grass-roots conservativism, to centrist meritocratic individualism, environmentalism, feminism, and social justice. In short, suburbia was a key setting for postwar American life. Even as suburbia grew in magnitude and influence, it also grew more diverse, coming to reflect a much broader cross-section of America itself. This encompassing shift marked two key chronological stages in suburban history since 1945: the expansive, racialized, mass suburbanization of the postwar years (1945–1970) and an era of intensive social diversification and metropolitan complexity (since 1970). In the first period, suburbia witnessed the expansion of segregated white privilege, bolstered by government policies, exclusionary practices, and reinforced by grassroots political movements. By the second period, suburbia came to house a broader cross section of Americans, who brought with them a wide range of outlooks, lifeways, values, and politics. Suburbia became home to large numbers of immigrants, ethnic groups, African Americans, the poor, the elderly and diverse family types. In the face of stubborn exclusionism by affluent suburbs, inequality persisted across metropolitan areas and manifested anew in proliferating poorer, distressed suburbs. Reform efforts sought to alleviate metro-wide inequality and promote sustainable development, using coordinated regional approaches. In recent years, the twin discourses of suburban crisis and suburban rejuvenation captured the continued complexity of America’s suburbs.

Article

The 1950s  

Jennifer Delton

The 1950s have typically been seen as a complacent, conservative time between the end of World War II and the radical 1960s, when anticommunism and the Cold War subverted reform and undermined civil liberties. But the era can also be seen as a very liberal time in which meeting the Communist threat led to Keynesian economic policies, the expansion of New Deal programs, and advances in civil rights. Politically, it was “the Eisenhower Era,” dominated by a moderate Republican president, a high level of bipartisan cooperation, and a foreign policy committed to containing communism. Culturally, it was an era of middle-class conformity, which also gave us abstract expressionism, rock and roll, Beat poetry, and a grassroots challenge to Jim Crow.

Article

Black Nationalism  

Mark Newman

The popular media often illustrate black nationalism with images of Malcolm X and black leather-jacketed, Afro-wearing, armed Black Panthers in the 1960s, and, in later decades, Louis Farrakhan and hip-hop artists such as Public Enemy. Although historians disagree about black nationalism’s composition and origins, they argue that it has a long pedigree in American history, traceable at least to the first half of the 19th century, if not earlier. While men were most often black nationalism’s public exponents, and some emphasized manhood and female subordination, black nationalism also appealed to many black women, some of whom also exercised leadership and organizational skills in its service. Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican, led the first mass black nationalist organization in the United States, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), during the 1920s. Like 19th-century black nationalists, Garvey advocated an independent state for people of African descent, black uplift, and the “civilizing” of Africa. Although not original to him, his emphasis on the right to self-defense, independent black economic development, and pride in African history boosted the UNIA’s popularity. Garvey fell victim to state oppression in the United States, but some former Garveyites joined the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) and probably also the Nation of Islam (NOI), both of which rejected Christianity, identified blacks as Asiatics, and adopted particularist interpretations of Islam. In the 1950s and 1960s, Malcolm X, the charismatic son of Garveyite parents, became the Nation’s chief recruiter. Personal differences with Elijah Muhammad, the Nation’s leader since the 1930s, eventually led to Malcolm X’s departure in 1964. Although he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X’s calls for armed self-defense, self-determination and black pride, and identification with anticolonial struggles heavily influenced Black Power advocates. Some civil rights organizations and workers, who were disillusioned by intransigent white racism and distrustful of white liberals, championed Black Power, which was multifaceted and sometimes more reformist than nationalist. In the early 1990s, polls suggested that black nationalist ideas were more popular than during their supposed heyday in the late 1960s, before internal dissension and state repression undermined many Black Power groups.

Article

Jazz in America after 1945  

John Gennari

In the post-1945 period, jazz moved rapidly from one major avant-garde revolution (the birth of bebop) to another (the emergence of free jazz) while developing a profusion of subgenres (hard bop, progressive, modal, Third Stream, soul jazz) and a new idiomatic persona (cool or hip) that originated as a form of African American resistance but soon became a signature of transgression and authenticity across the modern arts and culture. Jazz’s long-standing affiliation with African American urban life and culture intensified through its central role in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. By the 1970s, jazz, now fully eclipsed in popular culture by rock n’ roll, turned to electric instruments and fractured into a multitude of hyphenated styles (jazz-funk, jazz-rock, fusion, Latin jazz). The move away from acoustic performance and traditional codes of blues and swing musicianship generated a neoclassical reaction in the 1980s that coincided with a mission to establish an orthodox jazz canon and honor the music’s history in elite cultural institutions. Post-1980s jazz has been characterized by tension between tradition and innovation, earnest preservation and intrepid exploration, Americanism and internationalism.

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

The Great Migrations and Black Urban Life in the United States, 1914–1970  

Tyina Steptoe

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.

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.

Article

American Opposition to South African Apartheid  

David L. Hostetter

American activists who challenged South African apartheid during the Cold War era extended their opposition to racial discrimination in the United States into world politics. US antiapartheid organizations worked in solidarity with forces struggling against the racist regime in South Africa and played a significant role in the global antiapartheid movement. More than four decades of organizing preceded the legislative showdown of 1986, when a bipartisan coalition in Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto, to enact economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Adoption of sanctions by the United States, along with transnational solidarity with the resistance to apartheid by South Africans, helped prompt the apartheid regime to relinquish power and allow the democratic elections that brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power in 1994. Drawing on the tactics, strategies and moral authority of the civil rights movement, antiapartheid campaigners mobilized public opinion while increasing African American influence in the formulation of US foreign policy. Long-lasting organizations such as the American Committee on Africa and TransAfrica called for boycotts and divestment while lobbying for economic sanctions. Utilizing tactics such as rallies, demonstrations, and nonviolent civil disobedience actions, antiapartheid activists made their voices heard on college campuses, corporate boardrooms, municipal and state governments, as well as the halls of Congress. Cultural expressions of criticism and resistance served to reinforce public sentiment against apartheid. Novels, plays, movies, and music provided a way for Americans to connect to the struggles of those suffering under apartheid. By extending the moral logic of the movement for African American civil rights, American anti-apartheid activists created a multicultural coalition that brought about institutional and governmental divestment from apartheid, prompted Congress to impose economic sanctions on South Africa, and increased the influence of African Americans regarding issues of race and American foreign policy.