American History as It Happened

MODULE FOUR: 1919-1929

This module looks at the racial politics of the “roaring twenties,” a time of economic prosperity and modernism in the aftermath of World War I. Also called the Jazz Age, the era brought dramatic social, cultural, and political change—including women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and the great blossoming of African-American artistic expression known as the Harlem Renaissance. For black Americans, however, the 1920s were a time of codified discrimination (Jim Crow laws) and brutal racism—including lynchings, riots, and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

Students will review excerpts from The Nation’s coverage of these trends in the context of African-American experiences. They will evaluate the events of that decade, identify the relationships between them, and explain their historical significance—the role these events played in the civil-rights struggle. Students and teachers have links to PDFs of every article cited in the document section.

Students work with this content to practice skills for the DBQ (document-based question) portion of the AP US History exam. The DBQ to be answered in this module is:

In the 1920s, Americans had widely differing opinions about the proper status of African-Americans in US society. Discuss those contrasting ideas, and demonstrate ways in which they were expressed during the decade.

PERIOD SUMMARY: As some 350,000 African-American US soldiers returned from service in World War I (1914–1918), they found the injustices of their home nation unchanged. Racist Jim Crow laws enforced segregation and unequal citizenship in the South. Determined to find a better life, some half a million black southerners moved to the industrial cities of the North. There, they competed with white immigrants for jobs and housing, which increased tensions between the races.

Before World War I, the NAACP had just 9000 members nationwide and only 300 in the South, but by the early 1920s, national membership had risen to 100,000, with Southern chapters constituting a slight majority. African-Americans had returned home from the war with new and contagious confidence and assertiveness.

In the “Red Summer” of 1919, a widespread series of urban race riots broke out, initiated by whites, in which scores of black people were lynched and thousands were terrorized—while law-enforcement and government representatives generally did nothing. Many African-American veterans played an active role in defending their communities during Red Summer. In 1921, mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses in the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma in what has been called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.” The attack destroyed the thriving business district known as the “Black Wall Street,” then the most affluent black community in the United States, along with surrounding residential area and resulted in as many 300 deaths.

Despite this atmosphere of noxious racism, African-Americans achieved extraordinary things in the arts, education, sports, and other fields during these years. In particular, black artists created enduring literary, musical, and visual-arts works in a movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, a turning point in black cultural history which helped African-American writers and artists gain control over the representation of black culture and experience in Western high culture.



OBJECTIVE: Explore the opposing forces that defined African-American experience and identity in the period from 1919 to 1929, and have students construct an argument explaining the effect of that era on the advancement of civil rights.

STANDARDS: Related Thematic Learning Objectives (Focus of AP Exam Questions)
— NAT-4.0: Analyze relationships among different regional, social, ethnic, and racial groups, and explain how these groups’ experiences have related to US national identity.
— POL-3.0: Explain how different beliefs about the federal government’s role in US social and economic life have affected political debates and policies.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

MATERIALS: Seven Document Excerpts
Document ONE: “Wanted, A More Excellent Way,” letter to the editor by Claude McKay, The Nation, August 16, 1919

Document TWO: “A Question of Democracy” by Faith Adams, The Nation, November 10, 1920

Document THREE: “The Eruption of Tulsa” by Walter F. White, The Nation, June 29, 1921

Document FOUR: “The Ku Klux Klan: ‘Soul of Chivalry’” by Albert De Silver, The Nation, September 14, 1921

Document FIVE and FIVE A: “Jim Crow in Texas” by William Pickens, The Nation, August 15, 1923; letter to the editor by L. Stone, The Nation, September 19, 1923
Document SIX: “Negroes in College” by W.E.B. Du Bois, The Nation, March 3, 1926

Document SEVEN: “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes, The Nation, June 23, 1926

Before reading, ask:

  • What role did African-Americans play during World War I?
  • What were some of the characteristics of the 1920s in the United States? In particular, what was life like for African-Americans? What were Jim Crow laws?
  • What is the Ku Klux Klan?
  • What was the Harlem Renaissance, or “New Negro Movement”? Who were some of the influential black writers, poets, entertainers, and artists associated with the era?

Have the class read the student-page content (including introduction and the documents). Encourage students to read and resolve the scaffolding questions (“As You Read: Things to Look For”).

After reading, ask:

  • Were you surprised by any information or opinions expressed in the documents?
  • Why did so many white people engage in threatening and violent actions against African Americans?
  • Why didn’t the state or federal government step in and stop this violence?
  • How might The Nation have answered the question posed by Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay in Document One? (In fact, The Nation did publish a response, which you may wish to share with the class. It read: “Thou shalt not kill” remains the only sound precept for races, nations, and individuals. It is the meek alone who shall inherit the earth. The Negro has, of course, the right to defend his home.—Editor of The Nation.)

AS YOU READ: Things to Look For (These scaffolding questions are provided to students on their Web page)

  • Recall. Which documents point to African-American achievements? Which ones point to hindrances to opportunity?
  • Analyze content. Most of the authors below played significant roles in the events of that decade. Try to identify the writer’s race based on the document’s content. How do you know? Which selections are more ambiguous as to the writer’s race? Why?
  • Identify context clues. The word chivalry is used in two separate excerpts (once in its adjective form, chivalrous). What does the word mean, and how does its usage alert you that it might have particular significance? How might the concept of chivalry fit into the historical theme being discussed here?
  • Create meaning. From the examples given here, as well as your previous knowledge of the era, determine two main opposing forces that drove the events of the decade, particularly as they relate to civil rights.

Students are given a list of these words; only the teacher site includes the definitions.

Armistice: The agreement of November 11, 1918, that ended World War I
chivalry/chivalrous: Gentlemanly behavior; an honor code upholding courage, righteousness, and the defense of women
gold star (family): In a practice that began during World War I, Americans displayed a US flag with a blue star for each family member in the military. If someone in the family died while serving, the star was changed to gold.
lynching: The extrajudicial or unlawful public killing of someone—usually by hanging—by mob action
white supremacy: The belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society