American History as It Happened

MODULE FIVE: 1930-1945


1. Documents Two and Four both focus on an African-American man appearing before a judge in court. What are the similarities in both cases? What are some differences?

Similarities: The Scottsboro case (Doc. 2) and the peonage case (Doc. 4) are both taking place in the Deep South (in Alabama and Florida). Both men appear before a white judge. Both are found guilty, and both are the victims of virulent Southern racial injustice.

Differences: In the Scottsboro case, the judge is said to be fair-minded, and the defendant has a very competent lawyer. The defendant is on trial for his life, for the alleged crime of raping a white woman. His conviction will lead to the death sentence (though none of the men accused in the case were ever executed).

In the Florida peonage case, the defendant appears to have no lawyer at all, and doesn’t seem to understand the charge. The judge, showing no interest, cannot be called fair-minded. The defendant is charged with leaving the camp of his employer, the turpentine producer, because of not being paid, which is hardly a crime. He is charged under a state law that clearly violates the anti-peonage law passed by Congress in 1867, and appears intended to serve as a vehicle for providing the state with free (AKA slave) labor. The man’s conviction leads to six months on a chain gang.

2. Both Documents Six and Seven were written in the same year, 1943, and concern the effects of WWII on African-American communities. Compare and contrast the excerpts.

Both Charles Williams (Doc. Six) and Horace B. Cayton (Doc. Seven) regard WWII as an opportunity for African Americans to effect social change in the United States. This has come about, they both suggest, because of the jarring contrast between US war propaganda heralding freedom, democracy, and equality, and the reality of the country’s “semi-caste system.” And the world noticed. Williams reports that folks in Harlem believe the window of opportunity for accomplishing that change is rapidly closing. He reports Harlem’s leaders as saying,“If we don’t fight for our rights during this war, while the government needs us, it will be too late after the war.”

On the other hand, Cayton seems to believe that “the mentality of the American Negro” has been uplifted and enlightened in a more permanent way. This “new sense of his own dignity” underscores his “determination to become a full citizen, to plan and think for himself.”

3. In Document Eight, how might the legal decisions be seen—at least partly—as an outgrowth or consequence of the Harlem Renaissance and the New Deal programs?

The Supreme Court decisions of 1938 and 1940 required Southern universities to accept black applicants because those states failed to provide “educational facilities equal in every respect to those available at the state university.”

The Harlem Renaissance’s artistic outpouring spurred an African-American quest for higher education. This Renaissance was not only a movement of black expression in the arts, but also one of intellectual pursuit. Its literary, visual and performing artists were noticed and acclaimed within both the black and the white communities.

The New Deal programs provided black workers and artists with new opportunities, and in so doing, planted the dream and the determination for self improvement in black communities.

These events helped propel African-Americans into higher education and the professions in higher numbers than ever. The result was the need to open doors that had been closed to them, which is just what these court cases did. The article also implies that many other doors would soon be forced to open, as the cultural shift could not be avoided—“Time has moved under our feet.”