Racism in 1920

Racism’s existence is tied not to one’s physical features but the social interpretations of those biological variations between individuals.

Since the age of colonization and slavery, racism in the US has been in many respects, been an ugly foundation of America. Legal racism has brought heavy burdens upon Native Americans, Americans in the less developed region of Europe, African Americans, and Latin Americans. European Americans were privileged by statute over time ranging from the 17th century to the 1960s in matters of schooling, taxation, civil rights, residency, possession of the property, and criminal prosecutions.

However, many European ethnic groups, including Jews, Irish, Southern, and eastern European Americans and refugees from overseas, suffered xenophobic segregation and other forms of prejudice in American society.

The Constitution of the United States claims that all are equal, but certain people such as Black Americans have not been viewed equally.

Everyone is entitled to the US constitution, but certain classes in America were not viewed equally in the 1920s. Many that were not perceived to be ‘real’ Americans were very much prejudicial.

Problems faced by Black Americans

In 1920, the United States had 12 million Black Americans, 75% of whom lived in the south. Racial intolerance has influenced all aspects of life.

Black Americans’ experiences in the South

While slavery ended in 1865, in the southern states, Black Americans were discriminated against even more than in the north. The Jim Crow laws in the south are responsible for this.

Jim Crow legislation legalized segregation and helped hold Black Americans in lower civil, political, and economic roles.

Jim Crow Laws

In the late 19th and early 20th century, those laws were passed by white South Democratic state parliamentarians to deceive the political and economic advances achieved by Black people during the time of reconstruction. Jim Crow laws have become state and national laws that impose racial segregation in the southern United States. African Americans were excluded by the all-white Republican Party lily-white. Before 1965, the Jim Crow legislation was applied.

Law meant that white and Black Americans had to live separately. Churches, hospitals, theatres, schools, bathrooms, cemeteries, parks, and other public places were included in the areas affected by segregation.

Black Americans were not allowed to serve on juries.

African American schools were offered sub-standard educational resources. New textbooks were nonexistent.

The opportunity for Blacks to vote was nearly impossible.  African Americans  were often forced to pay a poll tax, which many couldn’t afford, and were forced to take literacy tests that were extremely difficult to pass.

Pass a literacy test

The literacy tests were not just about being able to read.  The questions were often adjusted for white residents versus Black ones.  White residents often simply had to answer what street they lived on.  For African Americans, the questions often relied on esoteric knowledge of the Constitution – questions that most people didn’t know how to answer, especially if they didn’t have the information in front of them. 

In the case where an African American did pass the test, they were often harassed (at best) or attacked (at worst) for going to the polls.  

The ‘Grandfather Clause’ prohibited  voting among anyone whose grandfather was a slave.

With so little political power, African Americans had to work at low-paid jobs.

Most did not benefit from the prosperous economy of the 1920s. The majority of Black Americans in the South struggled as farm prices declined during the 1920s and 1930s.

The unequal treatment of Black America in society was emphasized by social customs.

The experiences of Black Americans in the northern states

In the 1920s, the rise of major manufacturing towns in the north caused 1 million southern Blacks to move to live in those regions. Many relocated to New York, Chicago, and Detroit towns and suburbs.

Life was difficult to survive for the north’s Black Americans, but there Jim Crow laws were not as overt.

Owing to a mixture of bias and inadequate schooling, they were assigned the most difficult tasks.

In Milwaukee, 60% of Black American women served as housekeepers.

The salaries of white workers did not match those of the same workers, and employment opportunities, like car manufacturing plants only hired small numbers of Black Americans.

They were first to be fired when unemployment increased.  The lack of economic opportunities often forced many to live in ghettos.

However, despite these disparities,  the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) continued to target Blacks because they felt that African Americans stole their work. They were still afraid of ghetto crime and violence. The anxieties of whites were confirmed by race riots like those in Chicago in 1919 and expanded KKK membership.

Black Americans’ reaction to their difficulties


However, African Americans found pride, refuge and a creative outlet through music and other artforms,

In the 1920s, particularly in the city center, their culture was thriving, as in Harlem in New York. Music has been popular like jazz, soul, and blues.

In many towns, when jazz was outlawed, musicians moved to speakeasies.

Comedians, singers, and dancers had very popular entertainers, such as Josephine Baker. Several singers, including Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, became stars.


Many joined political organizations in Black America. Two major organizations were founded in the 1920s.

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

William du Bois helped NAACP to expand quickly. It had 90,000 members in three hundred branches in 1919.

It was meant to raise awareness and campaign for the elimination of segregation, voting rights, and inclusion in education among Black Americans. It used law enforcement and non-violent activities to improve Black people’s lives.

When the results from the NAACP inquiry into this illegal behavior contributed to widespread outrage, the number of lynchings declined.

Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)

It was led and had more than a million members in 1921 by Marcus Garvey. It sought to increase the hue, tradition, and background of Black Americans. His most popular slogan was “Black is gorgeous.”

The founders of UNIA were more involved than the NAACP. UNIA inspired Black Americans to create their firms and to boycott big shops not hiring Black Americans.

It founded the Black Star steamship to carry Black Americans to Africa,  but Garvey was deported for fraud in 1923.

Both Marcus Garvey and William du Bois attempted, however, to change the situation for the Black.

Today, African Americans and other people of color, continue to fight against the stain of racism that has plagued the United States for more than 400 years.  There is hope, that one day, racism will be an ugly problem of the past. 


  1. https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/jim-crow-laws
  2. https://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/what.htm
  3. https://www.britannica.com/event/Jim-Crow-law
  4. https://ezinearticles.com/?The-Ku-Klux-Klan—Ends-in-20–?&id=2659509
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism_in_the_United_States
  6. https://www.urban.org/features/structural-racism-america
  7. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/06/08/understanding-racism-inequality-america/
  8. https://www.gazetadopovo.com.br/wiseup-news/what-is-the-ku-klux-klan-racist-organization-whose-support-bolsonaro-rejected/
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