American History as It Happened

MODULE FIVE: 1930–1945

Tuskegee Airmen, with fighter airplane, at Tuskegee Army Flying School during World War 2, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1944. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

Coming out of the “Roaring Twenties,” the United States plunged into the Great Depression. As the country struggled through the 1930s to climb out of that chasm, the next decade brought a whole new challenge.

This module offers firsthand accounts of the conflicting forces that characterized African-American life in the United States during the Great Depression and World War II. These articles reveal the country’s brutal and deeply embedded racism, which passed for normalcy, while also giving voice to the clear-eyed observations of those who questioned the system.

Your students will review excerpts from The Nation’s coverage of the situation in the South during these years, exploring and explaining what needed to be done to reunite the nation and what made the task so difficult. Students and teachers have links to PDFs of every article cited in the document section.

Students work with this content to hone the skills necessary for the DBQ portion of the AP US History exam. The practice DBQ to be answered in this module is: Amid the catastrophic Great Depression and World War II, African-American life went through important changes between 1930 and 1945. Using the documents below and your outside knowledge, identify at least four significant developments that affected the African-American community—negative and/or positive—and explore what they said about the possibility of progress in the future for America’s blacks.

PERIOD SUMMARY: The United States grappled with enormous crises between 1930 and 1945, and no group was hit harder than the African-American community. In late 1929, the Great Depression began, causing widespread unemployment around the world. For black Americans, the unemployment rate topped 50 percent (nearly double the rate for white Americans).

The great migration of millions of African-Americans from the rural South to the cities of the industrial North, which began in the ’teens, continued. It led to tighter housing markets and increased competition for already-scarce jobs, which naturally heightened racial tensions. Perhaps the most notorious case of racial injustice during this period concerned the “Scottsboro Boys”—nine young black men from Alabama who were falsely accused of rape, found guilty by an all-white jury, and sentenced to death in 1931.

Protests, legal appeals, and retrials eventually saved their lives, but all nine spent years in prison for crimes they had not committed.

There were, however, bright spots for African-Americans. Sprinter Jesse Owens won four gold medals in front of Adolf Hitler at the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, and boxer Joe Louis became the heavyweight world champion in 1937. The Harlem Renaissance continued to flourish, producing a wealth of black arts, culture, and scholarly achievements. In 1937, African American writer Zora Neale Hurston published her masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

In 1939, World War II broke out in Europe. After the US joined the fight in December 1941, more than three million African-Americans registered for military service, and half a million served in the armed forces. All branches of the military were segregated, and blacks’ service experience was often marred by racist treatment and blatant discrimination. Despite that, a number of African-American units distinguished themselves. Among many examples, Benjamin O. Davis became the US Army’s first black Brigadier General, and the all-black squadron of Tuskegee Airmen was acclaimed for its effectiveness and bravery.

Notwithstanding the grim environment of war, economic distress, and widespread discrimination, these years also saw numerous positive political developments for America’s black population. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal offered crucial support to African-Americans; important government agencies were created, and laws passed, that helped protect the black community from overt racism. Labor unrest led to improved hiring practices, and when black soldiers returned to the US, they expected greater freedom and more civil rights.



OBJECTIVE: Explore how world and national events of 1930–1945 affected African-American lives, and how those developments spurred social change in the United States. Have students identify some of those trends and events and then construct an argument for how they propelled or obstructed the ongoing struggle for racial equality.



  • CUL-4.0:Explain how different group identities, including racial, ethnic, class, and regional identities, have emerged and changed over time.

CCSS English Language Arts: Literacy

  • 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.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.6: Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.9: Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

MATERIALS: Document Excerpts

Document One: “This Negro,” Review by V.F. Calverton of Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes The Nation,August 6, 1930

Documents Two and Two(A):The South Speaks” by John Henry Hammond Jr.; “The Thirteenth Juror,” illustration [which accompanied the preceding story] by Mary Rose, The Nation, April 26, 1933

Document Three: “Wooing the Negro Vote” by Paul W. Ward, The Nation, August 1, 1936

Document Four: “Legal Peonage in Florida,” by O.K. Armstrong, The Nation, August 21, 1937

Document Five: “Luck Is a Fortune,” by Sterling A. Brown, a review of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Huston, The Nation October 16, 1937

Document Six: “Harlem at War” by Charles Williams, The Nation, January 16, 1943

Document Seven: “The Negro’s Challenge” by Horace B. Cayton, The Nation, July 3, 1943

Document Eight: “Racial Dialectic, Missouri Style” by Carey McWilliams, The Nation, February 24, 1945

BEFORE reading, ask:

  • What historical event most influenced the decade of the 1930s? What effect would you expect the economic collapse to have on race relations in the United States at that time? Why?
  • What was the New Deal? What were some of the programs established by President Franklin Roosevelt as part of the New Deal umbrella, and what was their overarching goal?
  • Why did the United States enter World War II in 1941? What political and ideological values were US troops fighting for? How did the US armed forces reflect American values regarding race?
  • In his 1941 State of the Union speech, President Roosevelt listed four fundamental freedoms that people “everywhere in the world” deserved. What are those Four Freedoms? Did African-Americans in 1941 enjoy those freedoms?

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

AFTER reading, ask:

  • Were you surprised by any of the information or opinions expressed in the documents?
  • Do you see any remnants or reflections of the Depression–WWII era in today’s world?
  • How do you respond to this statement by Horace B. Cayton: “The United States … thinks of itself as a political democracy but knows that it maintains a semi-caste system within its social order. It believes itself to be a good nation, dedicated to the brotherhood of man, but it has never fully included the Negro in its political, economic, and social system.”

AS YOU READ: Things to Look For (Scaffolding questions also provided to students on their web pages)

  • Recall. Identify some of the hardships African-Americans faced in the years 1930–1945. Which ones were particular to that time period?
  • Demonstrate understanding. Determine how the excerpts relate to each other. Which ones illuminate or refute others?
  • Analyze content. Categorize the excerpts according to how they reflect economic, cultural, political, social, or human rights concerns.
  • Create meaning. Evaluate how the United States changed over the fifteen years from 1930 to 1945, particularly as seen through the lens of African-American experience.

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

Chain gang: a group of incarcerated people who are chained together and compelled to work outdoors performing grueling manual labor such as road construction and ditch digging.

Change of venue: the legal term for moving a trial to a new location, typically for reasons of fairness, when the original jurisdiction is judged to be inappropriate or biased.

Conflict of ideologies: the usage mentioned below (Doc. Six) refers to the clash of political and social ideals professed by the United States in World War II—such as democracy, freedom, and equality—and the contrary realities of African-American experience.

Dialectic: a discourse aimed at finding the truth in opposing opinions.

Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA): an early New Deal program, instituted in 1933, through which the federal government provided states with monies for local assistance and employment programs. It was replaced by the WPA (see below) in 1935.

Four Freedoms: President Franklin Roosevelt’s phrase in a 1941 speech. Roosevelt named these four—Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear.

Hobo: a homeless person or itinerant worker who travels the country in search of work. During the Depression, the term came into wide use, and usually described a tramp who jumped freight trains for a free ride.

Peonage: also called debt slavery or debt servitude, a system in which an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt (real or fabricated) with labor. Peonage was outlawed by Congress in 1867, but it continued as a practice in some southern states until the 1940s.

Works Progress Administration (WPA): the largest New Deal agency, an ambitious employment program created by President Roosevelt in 1935 to address some of the masses struggling with unemployment during the Great Depression. The WPA put some 8.5 million Americans to work building infrastructure and arts projects.