Part 14: The Roaring Twenties

Part Fourteen: The Roaring Twenties

As the war ended, homecoming troops flooded the job market, while simultaneously the orders for war supplies fell off and came to an end. This situation produced a post war recession. As usual the Black laborers, both those already at home and the homecoming, were relegated to the ranks of the "last hired, first fired." "Only in the heaviest work, such as road building and longshore work could Negroes hope to hold jobs. The market for domestic servants was shrunken by post-war introduction of domestic labor saving devices such as washing machines. And, as always in a tight labor market, the Negro found himself dispossessed from those few jobs which had been traditionally available to him."

As early as 1919 the returning Black soldiers were confronted, with the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, a series of brutal race riot as well as the scarcity of jobs. "The possibility of intervention on the economic front by the Federal government was nil—the American people had overwhelmingly voted for a return to 'normalcy' under the Republicans and their genial if corrupt presidential candidate, Warren G. Harding. Conservative policies in government had returned with a vengeance. Business influence in government was supreme. As Harding's successor, Calvin Coolidge, put it, 'the business of the nation is business'."

"The quest for the dollar became a national crusade, prosperity was for those who could seize it, and the devil was welcome to the hindmost. The level of the national morality was well illustrated in 1925, when, with the government's permission, the Ku Klux Klan (which now boasted four million members) was allowed to parade in full white-sheeted regalia down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington."

The Blacks, especially those who had flocked to the northern industrial cities in response to the manufacturers, etc., call for laborers, were in disillusionment and despair with no where to turn; pessimism and cynicism abounded.

When the hapless Blacks heard the doctrines of Marcus Moziah Garvey (a full-blooded Black from Jamaica), espousing Black pride and self-help, masses of ordinary Black folks rallied to his ideology and to the support of his projects; the most ambitious of which "was the Black Star Steamship Line, Inc., to transport Blacks to their homeland in Africa, and to open up commercial relations with the African continent." For "he told his followers that the Black man's only hope was to build an independent nation in Africa where they could choose their own leaders."

Thundering slogans like, "Up you mighty nation, you can accomplish what you will" and "Africa for the Africans at home or abroad," he became an exponent of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism. Exclaiming that God, Jesus, and the angels were Black and that Satan and imps were white, he amassed more than one million followers by the mid-twenties. "He gave his followers parades, uniforms and pageantry" as well as a flag, red (blood of our fathers), black (for our skin), and green (for the earth). He had raised an estimated ten million dollars in one two-year period.

"These grandiose schemes collapsed when, in 1923, Garvey was indicted on a charge of using the mails to defraud in connection with the sale of stock in his steamship line." Garvey in all his organizational and rhetorical ability was not a businessman and had to rely on the help of others, some of whose lack of dedication and honesty contributed to Garvey's demise. "After two years of appeals, Garvey was sentenced to five years in prison." Two years later his sentence was commuted but he was immediately deported to Jamaica. Garvey had his critics among Blacks; one of whom was DuBois who viewed him as "visionary" but acknowledged his sincerity and appeal to the Black masses.

There was another phenomenon taking place in the twenties spawning from the northern Black population areas. For the developing life styles and patterns evolving from their folkways began to find expression through Black artists, writers, musicians, intellectuals, etc. The era was known as the Harlem (or Negro) Renaissance. It produced the likes of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and James Weldon Johnson (who wrote "Lift Every Voice and Sing,", which became accepted as the "Black National Anthem"). At first Black people entertained themselves at house parties (and some rent parties) and community gatherings; from whence musicians were transformed into playing for dances and parties, producing the dance bands, from whence evolved the jazz bands let by such geniuses as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong. "Country and folk blues" changed to "big city blues," to "rhythm & blues."

According to Langston Hughes, "It was a period when local and visiting royalty were not at all uncommon in Harlem." However, neither the Garvey movement nor the steady work of the NAACP and the National Urban League could bring much relief to Black people—"of the several million unemployed each year during America's biggest 'boom', a large percentage was Negro."

With the repercussions following in the wake of the crash of the stock market, in October 1929, leading to the Great Depression, dissipating much of the optimism of the Harlem Renaissance, the Blacks found themselves once again in the position of extreme vulnerability.

References:

Bennett, Lerone, Jr.— Before the Mayflower
Chambers, Bradford —Chronicles of Black Protest
Cronon, E. David — Marcus Garvey
Goldston, Robert — The Negro Revolution
Jones, LeRoi — Blues People
Resh, Richard — Black America
All quotations are from the above references.