For over 200 years of America’s history, African Americans had been slaves, mostly in the southern states. In the 1860s, slavery ended with the Civil War, but the position of African Americans at the bottom of the social order did not change much. However, in the 1920s a group of African Americans in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City started the idea of the New Negro. For them, things were changing.
What was it that they saw as new? If the former slaves and their children who had been the Negro of the later 1800s, what was new about the African Americans in the 1920s?
What did it mean to be a New Negro that was different from the African Americans of the period between the end of slavery and WWI?
AFRICAN AMERICAN LIFE AFTER RECONSTRUCTION
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the North spent eleven years trying to remake the South. Three constitutional amendments were passed ending slavery, giving citizenship to former slaves, and giving voting rights to all men. But the era of Reconstruction is often seen as a failure to change the culture of the South. As many people have said, the North won the war but lost the peace.
After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Southern states passed laws that stopped Black people from being able to vote. These Jim Crow laws put Whites back in charge, separated White and Black people, and made Blacks live like they were not welcome in their own country. The important court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 said that “separate but equal” facilities, as on trains and in schools were constitutional.
For the Democratic Party, the changes after Reconstruction gave them a lot of power. Virginian Woodrow Wilson, one of the two Democratic presidents between Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the first Southerner elected after 1856. He won because Blacks were not allowed to vote in the South.
THE NIAGARA MOVEMENT
Born into slavery in Virginia in 1856, Booker T. Washington became an important African American leader after Reconstruction. In 1881, he became the first principal for the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a job he held until he died in 1915. Tuskegee was an all-black teachers’ college. They taught African Americans practical skills such as cooking, farming, and housekeeping. Students would then travel through the South, teaching new farming ideas to African Americans. Washington wanted the school’s graduates to focus on making life for African Americans better and prove that they were productive members of society, something Whites had often said was impossible.
In a speech in Atlanta in 1895, Washington said what is called the Atlanta Compromise. Washington called on African Americans to work hard to improve their lives rather than worry about political and civil rights. Their success and hard work, he said, would show southern Whites that African Americans should have equal rights. Not surprisingly, most Whites liked Washington’s ideas, since it meant that Blacks had to change. Rich men such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller gave money to Washington and he was the first African American invited to the White House by President Roosevelt in 1901. At the same time, many African Americans also liked his ideas and thought fighting for equal rights was not a good use of time.
Primary Source: Photograph
A history class at the Tuskegee Institute in 1902. Booker T. Washington wanted education to help African Americans be productive, not to fight change to the Jim Crow system of the South.
Yet, many African Americans did not like Washington’s idea. Much in the same way that Alice Paul felt the speed of the fight for women’s rights was moving too slowly under the NAWSA, some African Americans felt that fighting for equality right away was important. In 1905, a group of leaders, led by W. E. B. Du Bois, met in a small hotel on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, where laws did not stop them from staying in a hotel, to talk about what they should do to fight for equal rights. Du Bois, a professor at the and the first African American with a doctorate from Harvard, became the person who led the Niagara Movement. By 1905, he did not like Booker T. Washington’s ideas. Du Bois, and others wanted equality right away. They thought that there were educated African Americans who could lead this fight. Du Bois called these leaders the talented tenth.
At the meeting, Du Bois led the others in writing the Declaration of Principles, which called for political, economic, and social equality for African Americans. They wanted the right to vote, education, and the end of a system in which Black prisoners were used as workers to build roads and do other jobs like slaves. Within a year, Niagara chapters were created in 21 states across the country. By 1908, the Niagara Movement was getting weaker because its members did not agree on the role of women in their groups. However, the Niagara Movement’s leaders created the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909 to fight for African American rights in the courts. Du Bois served as the important first leader of the magazine for the NAACP from its start until 1933. As the editor of the magazine The Crisis, Du Bois had a way to share his ideas on many problems for African Americans in the later Progressive Era, as well as during World War I and the 1920s.
In both Washington and Du Bois, African Americans found leaders to push forward the fight for their place in the new century, each with a very different strategy. Both men lead the way for the modern civil rights movement after World War II.
THE GREAT MIGRATION
Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, nearly two million African Americans left the rural South. Most of them moved to the cities of the North during World War I. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indianapolis were the new homes for over two-thirds of all the African Americans who traveled during this Great Migration.
Both push and pull factors played a role in this movement. For African Americans, one reason to leave was the violence, poverty and Jim Crow laws of the South. African Americans were also drawn to the cities of the North by jobs which had opened up when White men left for the army during World War I. Many African Americans were too poor to pay to move, but factory owners who needed workers helped the migration. Often, the men moved first then sent for their families once they had found a home. Because these African American workers did not have a good education, they usually took low-paying jobs. More than 80% of African American men worked jobs in steel mills, mines, construction, and meatpacking. In the railroad industry, they were usually porters or servants. In other places, they worked as cleaners, waiters, or cooks. African American women, who faced discrimination because of both their race and gender, found a few jobs making clothing or cleaning. For both men and women, African Americans earned more money in the North than they did for the same jobs in the South and usually had an easier time finding jobs.
Secondary Source: Map
This map shows the concentration of African Americans in the United States in 1900 before the Great Migration. The darker colors show counties in which a higher percentage of residents were African American.
However, life in the North cost more than life in the South. Rent, food, and other essentials all cost more. So, African Americans usually lived in crowded, dirty place, like the tenements in which European immigrants lived in the cities. For newly arrived African Americans, even those who went to the cities for opportunities, life in these cities was very hard. They quickly learned that racial discrimination was in the North as well as the South. European immigrants, also seeking a better life in the cities of the United States, did not like the African Americans, who they thought would compete for the same jobs or offer to work at lower wages. Landlords often discriminated against them. There were not enough places to live for so many people coming all at one time. People in White neighborhoods later agreed not to sell to African Americans. Some bankers did not give home loans to African Americans who wanted to buy houses in White neighborhoods. This was called redlining because neighborhoods were marked with a red line on maps. This sort of discrimination meant that African Americans had to live in the worst areas of most major cities, a problem that is still true today.
THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE
Beginning in the early 1900s, the neighborhood of Harlem on the island of Manhattan in New York City became home to a growing African American middle class. In 1910, a large block along 135th Street and Fifth Avenue was purchased by African-American realtors and a church group. Many more African Americans arrived during World War I. Due to the war, the arrival of workers from Europe stopped, while the war meant that factories needed workers. The Great Migration brought hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the South. Among them were a great number of artists, writers, musicians and thinkers who would live and work together in Harlem. Their ideas and creative talents led to a burst of cultural creation and pride called the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance was a show of pride by African Americans in their culture. They wrote, created art, and music and challenged racism. The Harlem Renaissance used the ideas of W. E. B. Du Bois and rejected the Atlanta Compromise of Booker T. Washington. African Americans who liked this new way of thinking were called the New Negro.
The art of the Harlem Renaissance was not all the same. Rather, there were many different styles, including traditional musical as well as blues and jazz, traditional and new types in literature such as modernism and the new form of jazz poetry. Not all African Americans agreed on the type of art, writing or music that was best. In this way, the Harlem Renaissance was a chance for African Americans to develop and explore the many sides of their identity.
Although there were many types of art, some ideas were common. Some ideas were: Black identity, the importance of slavery, new African-American folk traditions, racism, the difficulty of performing and writing for rich White audiences, and the question of how to share the experience of modern Black life in the cities of the North.
Primary Source: Photograph
Three young women on the sidewalk in Harlem during the 1920s. For African Americans, Harlem was the center of culture – fashion, music, art, literature and politics – during the 1920s.
African American artists used their creativity to show they were equal to Whites. The Harlem Renaissance led to more chances for Blacks to be published by major publishing houses. Many authors began to write novels, magazines and newspapers during this time. The new fiction attracted a lot of attention from all over. Among authors who became well known were Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, and Langston Hughes.
The Harlem Renaissance also led to more ethnic pride, as seen in the Back to Africa movement led by Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born political leader, publisher, journalist, business man, and speaker. Garvey was President-General of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and also President and one of the directors of the Black Star Line, a shipping and passenger line. Garvey wanted to lead people from around the world to improve their lives by thinking about their common past in Africa. This was called Garveyism. Garveyism did inspire others, ranging from the Nation of Islam and the Rastafari movement, which proclaim Garvey as a prophet, and the Black Power Movement of the 1960s.
At the same time, a different way of showing ethnic pride was led by W. E. B. Du Bois. He introduced the idea of the “talented tenth,” the African Americans who had money, land or a good education. Du Bois said these talented tenth were best examples of Black Americans. Du Bois did not say the talented tenth had to do anything special, but in his writing he held them up as people to be copied.
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Madam C. J. Walker in her car. She served as an example of the possibilities for African Americans, both men and women.
The artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance needed the support system of Black patrons, Black-owned businesses and publications. They did not use the support of rich Whites. Among the most important of these was Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam C. J. Walker. Walker was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist. The first female self-made millionaire in the United States, she became one of the richest self-made women in America and the richest African-American woman in the country. Walker made her money by making and selling a line of beauty and hair products for Black women. She was also a patron of the arts. Walker’s home served as a social gathering place for African-Americans.
Although the Harlem Renaissance faded in the 1930s with the start of the Great Depression, the movement changed the African American community in both New York City and the nation. The Harlem Renaissance was many things.
It was about art and writing. It was about pride. It was also about equal rights. It helped lead to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
W. E. B. Du Bois is correctly remembered as a man who disagreed with Booker T. Washington’s ideas toward White power. He is important because he is someone who started the ideas that became the Civil Rights Movement.
Du Bois’ New Negro was a different kind of person than Washington’s ideal African American citizen. But how so? What did it mean to be a New Negro in the 1920s? What was new or reborn?
BIG IDEA: The 1920s marked a time when African-Americans were moving and changing their ideas about themselves and their place in American society.
After the end of Reconstruction, White leaders in the South established the Jim Crow system of segregation, which recreated the social order of the pre-Civil War Era with African Americans stuck firmly at the bottom.
The most prominent African American leader in the late 1800s was Booker T. Washington. He ran the Tuskegee Institute and argued that African Americans should find ways to become educated so that they could be productive members of society. He did not emphasize fighting for equality or equal rights.
In 1905, a group of African Americans formed the Niagara Movement. They wanted equal rights and founded the NAACP to fight for equality in the courts. Their leader was W. E. B. Du Bois, who offered a contrast to Booker T. Washington.
During WWI, thousands of African Americans moved out of the South to find jobs in factories in the North. This movement of people is called the Great Migration. They mostly settled in urban centers such as New York City, Chicago or Detroit. Although they did find higher paying jobs, they also found that segregation still existed in the North in the form of limits on where they could live and what jobs they could have.
A large number of the most creative and important leaders of the African American community settled in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City during the 1920s. They made music, wrote poetry and novels, danced, created artwork, and advocated for new political rights. This period of intense racial pride and activism was the Harlem Renaissance.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Booker T. Washington: African American educator in the late 1800s and early 1900s who led the Tuskegee Institute and argued that the best way for African Americans to advance their position in society was to learn useful skills rather than agitate for equality and justice. This was the Atlanta Compromise.
W. E. B. Du Bois: African American author, political leader and intellectual who led the Niagara Movement and published The Crisis. He believed that African Americans should reject the Atlanta Compromise and fight for equality and justice.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP): Organization dedicated to promoting African American rights through the justice system. It was established in 1909 as part of the Niagara Movement.
Claude McKay: Poet of the Harlem Renaissance. His most famous poem is “If We Must Die.”
Zora Neale Hurston: Author of the Harlem Renaissance. Her novels celebrated the life of everyday African Americans.
James Weldon Johnson: Poet of the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote “Life Every Voice and Sing.”
Alain Locke: Author, philosopher, teacher and patron of the arts during of the Harlem Renaissance.
Langston Hughes: Most famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance.
Marcus Garvey: Jamaican-born entrepreneur and leader during the 1920s who led the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA): Organization founded by Marcus Garvey that encourage cooperation among all African people and people of African descent in the world. They also supported the independence movement in Jamaica.
Madam C. J. Walker: Female African American entrepreneur who was an important patron of the arts and leader during the Harlem Renaissance. She rose from poverty and made her fortune selling cosmetic products designed for African American women.
Jim Crow: The nickname for a system of laws that enforced segregation. For example, African Americans had separate schools, rode in the backs of busses, could not drink from White drinking fountains, and could not eat in restaurants or stay in hotels, etc.
Atlanta Compromise: Belief that the best way for African Americans to advance their position in society was to learn useful skills rather than agitate for equality and justice. It was promoted by Booker T. Washington in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The name derives from a speech.
Talented Tenth: W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea that 10% of African Americans had the skills, education, and motivation to be the leaders of the community.
Redlining: Unofficial segregation in northern cities that occurred after the Great Migration in which realtors and banks refused to sell homes in certain neighborhoods to African American buyers.
New Negro: Idea that African Americans should assert themselves as members of American society, with literature, art, music and civil rights equal to all other people. It was popularized in the 1920s as part of the Harlem Renaissance and Niagara Movement. It was championed by W. E. B. Du Bois and contradicted Booker T. Washington’s Albany Compromise.
Declaration of Principles: Statement published at the meeting of African American leaders in Niagara in 1905 calling for political, economic and social equality.
The Crisis: Journal published by W. E. B. Du Bois to promote the causes of African Americans.
Tuskegee Institute: Famous collage for African Americans led by Booker T. Washington.
Harlem: Neighborhood in Manhattan in New York City that became the home of African American politics and culture in the 1920s.
Niagara Movement: Movement in the African American community led by W. E. B. Du Bois to advocate for equality and racial justice. The NAACP was founded as part of this movement.
Great Migration: Movement of nearly two million African Americans out of the South to cities of the North in the 19-teens, largely to escape segregation and take advantage of job opportunities during World War I.
Back to Africa Movement: Movement championed by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s that argued for African Americans to assert ethnic pride and move to Africa.
Plessy v. Ferguson: 1896 Supreme Court case in which the court declared that racially segregated schools and other public facilities were constitutional establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine. It was overturned in the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954.