Ella Baker and Black America During the Great Depression


By Hasan Kwame JeffriesThe Ohio State University

Before the Depression hit, Black America was on the move, again. As many as 1 million African Americans left the rural South for the urban North in the 1920s, continuing a pattern of migration that had started just before the war. In New York City, the Black population doubled between 1920 and 1930, jumping from 152,000 at the start of the decade to 327,000 at the end.

African Americans talking on the porch of a small store during the Great Depression in the 1930s
Prior to the Great Recession, a million black Americans left the South for the North. (Image: Russell Lee/Public domain)

A Typical Black Experience

Twenty-three-year-old Ella Baker’s migration experience was not atypical, although she certainly was. In 1927, Baker graduated at the top of her class at Shaw University, a historically Black college in Raleigh, North Carolina. But she didn’t return home to Littleton, North Carolina, to be an elementary school teacher. 

She wanted more out of life than what rural North Carolina had to offer a Black woman with a college degree. So she headed to Harlem, joining the tidal wave of humanity flooding Northern cities. There she found a vibrant Black community and discovered new possibilities for creating change in the world.

Image of Ella Baker
After her graduation, instead of heading home to North Carolina, Ella Baker moved to Harlem. (Image: Ella Baker/Public domain)

Harlem in the late 1920s was alive with ideas. Although Marcus Garvey had been deported to Jamaica, Garveyites continued to proselytize. They competed for the ears of Harlemites with an assortment of Pan-Africanists, Black Nationalists, integrationists, socialists, and communists.

Baker took it all in. She listened to street corner orators, crashed literary salons in chic brownstone apartments, attended lectures at the YWCA, and sat in on readings at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library.

James Weldon Johnson’s View

Then the Depression hit. NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson, a keen observer of the Black experience and the white world, explained in his 1930 book Black Manhattan that African Americans had been suffering economically long before the stock market crashed. He noted that the Roaring Twenties roared right past most Black people. 

Johnson identified job discrimination as the primary cause of Black economic insecurity. He wrote: “Fewer jobs are open to them than to any other group, and in such jobs as they get, they are subject to the old rule which still obtains, ‘the last to be hired and the first to be fired’.”

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

Not-so-good Working Conditions

Adding to the precarious economic position of Black urban workers was the fact that they were overwhelmingly concentrated in unskilled and semiskilled jobs. This meant they were paid the least and had the least job security. Black rural workers were in the same bind. Both groups had to contend with mechanization, which was forcing them off the factory floor and out of the fields.

African Americans who worked their own land were in a tough spot, too. They had to contend with lower crop yields because of the boll weevil infestation and declining demand for US cotton.

Long-standing economic insecurity, combined with the inadequacy of the Hoover administration’s response to the Depression, compelled African Americans to find solutions to the downturn themselves. Ella Baker wanted to rid people of the debilitating weight of capitalism. This led her to join the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League.

The Young Negroes’ Cooperative League

In 1930, African American publisher George Schuyler founded the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League. A radical leftist, he envisioned using the league to empower African Americans through consumer cooperation. Baker shared Schuyler’s enthusiasm for African American buying power, a passion that prompted her to become a charter member of the league.

Within a few years’ time, the league grew to 24 autonomous cooperatives and buying clubs loosely coordinated by regional councils and a national office in Harlem. Baker chaired the league’s New York City Council and served as the secretary-treasurer of the national organization. 

But her titles minimized what she did—a pattern that would repeat itself throughout her activist career. She was one of the league’s primary organizers, responsible for drumming up support for the group. 

She traveled up and down the East Coast, meeting with local people affiliated with the league, cataloging their grievances, and helping them formulate solutions. But pooling Black people’s meager wages and savings failed to give them the upper hand in a ruthless capitalist system. In the end, the effort did not catch on the way Baker had hoped.

Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work

Other activists focused their energy on helping African Americans find work. In 1929, the St. Louis, Missouri, chapter of the National Urban League organized a boycott of a white chain store that sold goods to Black customers but refused to employ Black people. In Chicago, Joseph Bibb, the African American publisher of the Chicago Whip, picked up on the idea and organized a boycott of downtown stores that did the same thing. The effort produced 2,000 jobs for African Americans.

Activists in other cities soon launched their own “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaigns. In Harlem, the Citizens League for Fair Play initiated one such action in 1933. And a few years later, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., senior minister of Harlem’s 10,000-member Abyssinia Baptist Church, spearheaded an effort that opened jobs for African Americans in New York City stores, utility companies, and public transportation. 

And in 1939, when New York hosted the World’s Fair, Powell set up a picket line on 125th Street, protesting the dearth of Black hires. The demonstration led to 500 new jobs for African Americans.

The “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaigns helped African Americans find jobs, but the scale and scope of Black unemployment was so massive that it barely moved the needle on the unemployment rate. To turn the tide of the crisis, federal intervention in the form of public works programs was needed. But this wouldn’t happen under Hoover. The president was stubborn, an idealogue committed to laissez-faire government, and African Americans suffered as a result.

Common Questions about Ella Baker and Black America During the Great Depression

Q: Who was Ella Baker?

Ella Baker was a young graduate from Shaw University, who, inspired by the vibrant Black community in Harlem, joined the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League.

Q: Who was George Schuyler?

George Schuyler was a radical leftist African American publisher who founded the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League, which would focus on empowering African Americans through consumer cooperation.

Q: What was the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign?

Originally started in 1929 in St. Louis, Missouri, it was an organized boycott of a white chain store that sold goods to Black customers but refused to employ Black people. 

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The 1920 UNIA Parade in Harlem
The UNIA’s Declaration of Rights
Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association