Equality and Civil Rights: a Chronology of Black History di Giulia Tomasi Cont, Davide Pignata

Jazz Age and the Thirties


Looking ahead

At the end od this section, you will be able to:

- have an overview over blacks' conditions in the first half of the XX century

- become aware of the cultural and artistic contributions of black people in many fields of American life

- be aware of black people's role within the Second World War

The Roaring Twenties were a time of Rapid growth in both technology and the arts. Though some areas of the economy, such as farming and mining, were depressed, many people had money to spend. Technological developments and increased production made it possible to own automobiles and radios and a wide variety of new goods.


In the 1920s Americans’ fear of outsiders was not limited to Communists and immigrants. Anyone who was different became an object of fear to some people. The Ku Klux Klan [ES1] [E1] [E1]">[I1] was especially active. The original KKK had been formed to deny black their rights. The society eventually died out, but a new KKK was formed in 1915. Besides blacks, the KKK turned its violence on Jews and Catholics.

Some blacks believed that they would never have a chance for equality in the U.S. One such black, Marcus Garvey, preached a message of black pride and separation from whites. Garvey started a “back to Africa” movement to build a homeland for blacks in Africa. At the height of his power in the early 1920s, he had over half a million followers.


By 1920, Harlem, a part of New York City, was the black cultural centre of the U.S. Many gifted writers and entertainers made it their home. Wealthy and middle-class blacks lived there. It was also the home of two important journals. One was the Crisis, the publication of the NAACP. The other was Opportunity, the bulletin of the National Urban League. Both printed poems, stories, and non-fiction works by black writers.
The artistic output of black writers and artists during this time is known as the Harlem Renaissance. It marks a turning point in black creativity because of a change in the attitudes of the artists themselves. Their works began to reflect the vital part that black culture plays in America’s heritage. Some black writers and artists also wanted to show black middle class life in their works. Others began to use their works to point out the discrimination and abuse that blacks were receiving.


During the 1920s, American music, theatre, and literature blossomed. The ragtime tunes of the late 1800s and early 1900s blended with black spirituals and blues to form jazz. Louis Armstrong [E1] [ES1], Fats Waller, Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington [E1] [F1] [ES1] became well known performers. Jazz became so popular that the 1920s are often called Jazz Age [E1] [I1] [F1] [ES1] [ES2].

Other forms of entertainment were also popular. In 1927 alone, 250 shows were playing in New York City theatres. These included musicals such as Showboat and the dramas of Eugene O’Neill, Robert Sherwood And George S. Kaufman. The large musical revues of Florenz Ziegfeld starred such performers as Fannie Brice, Al Jolson and Will Rogers. These shows were usually a series of musical acts featuring dancing, singing and comedy.
Many authors of the period were part of a group of Americans called the “lost generation”. They lived abroad and wrote about characters who lived meaningless lives or whose lives were taken up with the search for pleasure. Other writers stayed in America and wrote about the hypocrisy and materialism of small town life. Materialism is the belief that the greatest happiness can be found in getting material things. Poets used similar themes.


By 1945, about 12.5 million people had served in uniform. Over one million of these were black. All branches of the armed forces enlisted blacks. However, as in earlier wars, blacks served in segregated units. Some black unit had black officers, and the number of black officers increased during the war. Black leaders and the black press called for equal treatment of blacks by integrating units. Integration [I1] [ES1] means to unify different groups into one group. However, it was not until 1945 that any government action was taken. In that year, some units in Germany were integrated. But it was not until Truman issued an executive order in 1948 forbidding discrimination that any real progress was made.
Abuses of civil rights occurred against various minority groups during the war. A minority group [E1] [F1] is a group that differs from the general population in some way. As you have just read, many people migrated to cities in search of jobs in war-related industries. The cities were not prepared for such large numbers of new residents – white and minorities. All groups faced difficulties in locating housing and jobs and, generally, adjusting to lives in a new environment. Minorities, however, had the worst problems and met the most discrimination, especially in being hired. Sometimes blacks applying for jobs were ignored or, once hired, were not considered for promotions. In 1941, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, planned a peaceful march on Washington D.C., to protest unfair hiring practices. The march was called off when the President Roosevelt issued an executive order forbidding any racial discrimination in defence industries. This order resulted in the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission.

Looking ahead

- Why are the Roaring Twenties called that way?

- What is Harlem Renaissance?

- What is the most important kind of music which spread out in the U.S.A. in the '20s and in the '30s?

- What is a minority group?



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