1910s: An Era of Racial Tensions in America

From the Lecture Series: African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow

By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University

It was a turbulent decade for America. There was WWI related inflation and economic anxiety ran high. Politically, there was a rising communist threat. But, most importantly, this was a time of heighted racial tension in cities in the North and Midwest because of exploding Black populations.

Black union parade in Harlem
The new generation of African Americans were ready to fight back. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Mass Migrations

Starting in 1915 and lasting through the end of the Great War, nearly 500,000 African Americans migrated from the rural South to the urban North and Midwest. The possibility of factory work in Northeastern and Midwestern cities prompted Black people to head North.

In Dixie, most African Americans had no choice but to work in white men’s fields and white women’s kitchens. It wasn’t slavery, but it wasn’t that far from it either. In 1910, Black agricultural laborers made 75 cents a day. That’s the equivalent of less than $3 an hour today. And even these jobs were becoming hard to hold onto.

More and more, whites competed for jobs in sectors they had traditionally dismissed as “Negro work”. At the same time, Jim Crow restricted the kinds of work African Americans could do.

New laws prohibited Black men from working in skilled positions on railroads. Technological advances also made artisanal skills irrelevant.

Opportunities and Discrimination in North

But in the industrial North, there were plenty of jobs. World War I had created a severe shortage of factory workers. Northern factory jobs paid well. But in many areas, white workers received higher wages than their Black counterparts. There were also many jobs that African Americans simply could not get because companies refused to hire Black workers to fill them.

Also, as in the South, Jim Crow shaped the contours of Black life, dictating where African Americans could shop, eat, play, seek medical care, and attend school. The key to Northern Jim Crow was housing.

Municipal governments intentionally diverted public resources away from segregated Black neighborhoods. They allowed white landlords to carve single-family homes into multiple-family dwellings, forcing renters to use communal toilets and common kitchens. Tenements sprang up everywhere, contributing to overcrowded, unsafe living conditions. White landlords also charged African Americans exorbitant rents.

Whites Felt Threatened

The sharp rise in the Black population angered white workers, who feared that African Americans would take their jobs. The reentry of millions of white men into the labor market following the end of the war intensified job competition, fueling racist anger.

Factory owners made matters worse by pitting white workers against African Americans. When white workers went on strike, they brought in Black workers to replace them. When this happened in East St. Louis in 1917, violence ensued.

And, when the racist propaganda film The Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915, Northern whites flocked to theaters to see it. They cheered for robed Klansmen, who were portrayed as the heroes of the Southland, the champions of democracy, and the saviors of white women. The film became Hollywood’s first blockbuster, as white supremacy wasn’t just Southern, it was American.

This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

A Home for Ossian Sweet

But African Americans continued to push back.

In 1925, after much difficulty, Dr. Ossian Sweet and his wife found and purchased a brick bungalow at 2905 Garland Street in Detroit, Michigan. It was a white working-class neighborhood. They didn’t move immediately. The Sweets waited for summer to end and for whites who had been enraged by attempts by other Black families to move into white neighborhoods to calm down.

Still, when it came time to move in, he called on friends and fraternity brothers to help him guard his new house.

A Legal Victory

And it was a good thing that he did. A mob formed outside the house the night the Sweets unloaded their possessions, and the same thing happened the next night, too. When the second mob showed signs of storming the house, one of Ossian’s compatriots, all of whom were armed, opened fire, wounding one white man and killing another.

Everyone inside the house was arrested, and most were charged with murder. An initial trial resulted in a hung jury. But Ossian Sweet was acquitted. An all-white jury accepted his self-defense argument. The not-guilty verdict led prosecutors to drop the charges against the others. For once, Lady Justice kept her blindfold on. It was a rare but meaningful legal victory.

A Collective Effort

African Americans also rallied against Northern Jim Crow collectively. To contest job discrimination, they unionized. They also responded to discrimination by building up Black communities. Thriving Black business districts emerged in central cities from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. They were anchored by Black-owned banks and insurance companies and featured just about everything needed to sustain a vibrant community.

Three African American women standing on a street
Harlem became the Mecca of Black art and culture. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

And to keep abreast of matters of local and national import, there were Black newspapers. New York had the Amsterdam News, Pittsburgh had the Courier, and Chicago had the Defender. Newspapers played an especially important role in Black political responses to racial discrimination in the North.

Harlem: Mecca of Black Art and Culture

Harlem was where Langston Hughes penned poetry and James Weldon Johnson wrote prose. Where Zora Neale Hurston documented Black culture and W. E. B. Du Bois urged Black resistance. Where Louis Armstrong played jazz and Josephine Baker danced. Where Arturo Schomburg built a Black history research center and Paul Robeson built a career as a thespian. Where Augusta Savage sculpted and Aaron Douglas painted.

The concentration of Black brilliance in Harlem produced a Black cultural flourishing the likes of which hadn’t been seen before. Dubbed the Harlem Renaissance, the artistic expressions and intellectual musings of these “New Negroes” defined the Black aesthetic for generations.

When Harlem was in vogue, whites flocked uptown to sit in salons with Jessie Redmon Fauset and other Black literati, and to party at the Savoy Ballroom with King Oliver and other jazz band greats. And when they left, they took a small piece of Harlem with them—not enough to change race relations, but enough to profoundly influence the contours of popular American culture and high art.

Common Questions about Racial Tensions in America in 1910s

Q: Why did African Americans migrate from rural South to North?

Field work declined in the South and segregations and lynching continued. Black people, thus, headed to North due to the possibility of factory work.

Q: What were the living conditions in the North?

Life continued to be segregated for the Blacks. White landlords carved single-family homes into multiple-family dwellings, forcing renters to use communal toilets and common kitchens. Tenements sprang up everywhere, contributing to overcrowded, unsafe living conditions. White landlords also charged exorbitant rents.

Q: What were some Black newspapers in the North?

Some Black newspapers were Amsterdam News, the Courier, and the Defender.

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