Module 4. Our Story: African Americans

1877 TO WWII

After the failures of Reconstruction, the southern leaders reasserted their White supremacy in politics and society. As the south began to industrialize, agriculture remained at the center of most state economies. Tenant farming or sharecropping was one of the ways to suppress the economic progress of southern Blacks. Banks, politicians, and others worked together to prevent Blacks from purchasing land for farming, whether it be with aggressive intimidation or simple denial of bank loans (Coates, 2017). Relegating Blacks to sharecropping kept them under the control of White landowners, while also preventing economic growth.

Other forms of oppression included voter suppression. Measures were adopted in many counties across the south to prevent African Americans from registering to vote. These measures included poll taxes and literacy tests. Most of these measures were directed solely to African American communities.

Post-Reconstruction, the so-called New South also adopted a concept called the Lost Cause.  This concept rewrote the events of the Civil War for southerners, elevating and romanticizing the war to make former Confederate soldiers’ heroes to their cause – defenders of the south and states’ rights. Monuments were built to glorify southern military leaders, Confederate flags were flown on state buildings, all meant as a reminder of the glorified Confederate past. Many regarded these actions as a reinforcement of White supremacist power in the south (Kytle & Roberts, 2018). This was a reinforcement of racial hierarchy and each symbol of the Confederacy signaled fear and intimidation in the hearts and minds of African Americans for several more generations.

Additionally, in 1890, a monumental case was tried in the supreme court that would impact the south for the next few decades. This case regarded a man who was descended from both White and Black ancestry named Homer Plessy. Plessy was arrested for sitting in a rail car designated for only Whites according to the Louisiana Separate Car Act. After the case was tried in the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices ruled that the segregation law was constitutional, and from then on, the “separate but equal” clause established racial segregation laws in many southern states. This clause meant that if separate facilities for Whites and Blacks were deemed “equal,” but only designated for use by skin color, racial segregation was Constitutional. Plessy v. Ferguson became the basis for racial segregation in state institution and public places like schools, restaurants, water fountains, and more.

The Plessy verdict marked the beginning of an era known as the Jim Crow South, an era that would not end until the 1960s. Any state that adopted racial segregation laws after the Plessy verdict was considered a Jim Crow state. Jim Crow refers to a character portrayal of a Black slave from the mid-19th century. This caricature was often found in minstrel shows, racist shows that contained skits and mini plays that portrayed the Black slave as unintelligent, subservient, lazy, and almost clown like. Usually, White performers would wear blackface – painting their faces black to play these roles.  These types of shows continued in popularity well into the 20th century.

Along with Jim Crow laws arose an unspoken code of racial norms that were adopted in much of the south. These racial norms stemmed from the slave to master relationship of the distant past. These societal rules dictated that African Americans should always show deference to Whites in society, regardless of age, sex, or any other differential factors. Examples of this deference would be offering a White person a seat on public transportation, moving aside to let a White person pass, or even avoiding eye contact with a White person.


Ida B. Wells-Barnett Photograph by Mary Garrity from c. 1893
“Ida B. Wells-Barnett Photograph by Mary Garrity from c. 1893” by Wikimedia is in the Public Domain, CC0

Another element of White supremacy and reinforcement of power in the Jim Crow South was racialized violence in the form of lynching. Lynching was the act of carrying out extralegal punishments on individuals without fair trial. These violent, racial attacks were mostly doled out to Black men under the suspicion of violating social norms.  Many of these public executions were provoked by the supposed attack or offense to a White woman. The range of violence in lynching was wide, some public hangings, others included harsh corporal punishments and torture, often committed by multiple individuals. Some lynching acts were carried out as spectacles, wherein the victim of the punishments was held until a crowd could build up in number to watch. This vigilante justice maintained the structure of White power especially in the deep south for much of the early 20th century.

Despite all the elements of subjugation that the African American communities throughout the nation endured, many notable figures prevailed in uplifting and advocating for Black civil rights.  For instance, Booker T. Washington was born from slavery but still advocated for Black rights.  Washington believed that African Americans should support each other in building businesses and wealth within their own communities. This would be accomplished by becoming educated, especially in a trade skill. Washington sought to work within White systems and institutions to accomplish his goals.

W.E.B. DuBois was another man who pushed the envelope further. DuBois believed in pushing against the status quo by challenging racial inequalities in America. It was DuBois that helped established the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.




To recognize Dubois’s opinion of race and race relations during his lifetime.


Read The Conservation of Races. Answer the following questions:

  1. How does Dubois define race?
  2. What is the significance of race according to Dubois?


Because of the increased racial violence and discrimination in the Jim Crow South, many African Americans fled from the deep south for larger more metropolitan cities like New York City, Detroit, and Chicago. Beginning in about 1916, this movement of African Americans was called the Great Migration. Moving out of the rural deep south not only meant distance from racial segregation laws but more job opportunities.

In New York during the 1920s, African Americans thrived during a period dubbed the Harlem Renaissance. The arts, in different forms, music, literature, poetry, and more were cultivated and explored by Black artists during this time period of explosive creativity. Jazz music as well as blue is attributed to Black communities. Notable authors like Langston Hughes and Alain Locke inspired one another as well as other writers in the community.

And although the 1920s was a thriving post-war period of culture and wealth, Black communities were never far from racial violence and oppression. In 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma saw one of the most violent attacks motivated by race in the country. The Black community of Greenwood was a thriving, economically successful community. This area was known as the “Black Wall Street” due to its economic success. The Tulsa Massacre of 1921 was inspired by an alleged attack upon a White woman named Sarah Page by Dick Rowland. Rowland was taken into custody and a lynching was said to have been planned. Members of the Black community attempted to stop this lynching, and a violent altercation erupted into a riot. This riot devolved into a full-fledged massacre and destruction of Greenwood.


Aftermath of the Tulsa Massacre
“Tulsa Aftermath” by Wikimedia is in the Public Domain, CC0

Bands of White attackers descended into Greenwood to attack and kill Black men of the community, as well as loot and burn businesses. This attack only ended when state authorities instituted martial law. The details of this attack had been obscured over the years, mostly downplayed by White authorities. There was little to no justice served for any of the crimes committed. The number of deaths is still unknown and property damage was extensive.

Wartime, for African Americans, provided opportunities for people of color who would not normally have opportunities. Depending on the period of history, war provided Blacks the opportunity to express patriotism, earn a fair wage, or participate as an American, even when they were not granted the rights and privileges of other Americans. African Americans fought in every armed conflict in this nation’s history, beginning with the American Revolution. By WWI, Blacks continued to serve in the military, despite being paid less, being segregated from Whites, and disrespected as returning veterans.

World War II signaled a different opportunity for African Americans. As the working class was drafted into war, factories were left to hire amongst the pool of Americans that were left. This meant employment opportunities for those who did not have prior access to well-paying industrial jobs – people like women and African Americans. However, racial discrimination still provoked companies from allowing Blacks access to these jobs. Only after A. Phillip Randolph threatened a large-scale protest in Washington D.C. did President Roosevelt issue Executive order 8802. This order prohibited employers from racial discrimination when hiring employees in defense industry jobs. Although this was a wartime provision, this order opened the door for African Americans to continue their push for racial equality in the near future.

Gainful employment and better wages during and just after the war only meant incremental changes for African Americans. To uphold the status quo of White superiority, the practice of redlining became common in the U.S. Redlining is the discriminatory practice of denial of services, usually bank loans, to individuals that lived in areas deemed “hazardous” or poor.  These redlined areas were usually populated with people of color. In practice, this was the prevention of allowing African Americans and other racial minorities from leaving these redlined areas, despite their financial status. This denial of opportunity was often extended to other areas such as better education and health care.


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Our Lives: An Ethnic Studies Primer Copyright © 2022 by Vera Guerrero Kennedy and Rowena Bermio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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