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)

DBQ: 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.


Source: “This Negro,” by V.F. Calverton, book review of Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes, The Nation, August 6, 1930.

… “Not Without Laughter” continues the healthy note begun in Negro fiction by Claude McKay and Rudolph Fisher. Instead of picturing the Negro of the upper classes, the Negro who in too many instances has been converted to white norms, who even apes white manners and white morality and condemns the Negroes found in this novel…. McKay, Fisher, and Hughes have depicted the Negro in his more natural and more fascinating form. There can be no doubt that the Negro who has made great contributions to American culture is this type of Negro, the Negro who has brought us his blues, his labor songs, his spirituals, his folk-lore-and his jazz. And yet this very type of Negro is the one that has been the least exploited by contemporary Negro novelists and short-story writers. It has been white writers such as DuBose Heyward, Julia Peterkin, Howard W. Odum, and Paul Green who have turned to this Negro for the rich material of their novels, dramas, and stories. These writers, however, have known this Negro only as an exterior reality… they could never know him as an inner reality. Langston Hughes does. As a Negro he has grown up with these realities as part of himself, as part of the very air he has breathed. Few blurs are there in these pages, and no fumbling projections, and no anxious searching for what is not. Here is this Negro, or at least one vital aspect of him, as he really is, without ornament, without pretense….
“Not Without Laughter” is significant despite … weaknesses… Even where it fails, it fails beautifully, and where it succeeds—namely, in its intimate characterizations and in its local color and charm—it succeeds where almost all others have failed.


Source: “The South Speaks” [‘Scottsboro Boys’ trials] by John Henry Hammond Jr., The Nation, April 26, 1933

Again fear has driven an Alabama jury to condemn to death one of the Scottsboro boys. It matters little how flimsy the evidence was against Haywood Patterson; a white woman had accused a Negro of raping her, and in this matter a white woman’s word is law.

The Scottsboro case has slowly attained world-wide publicity, owing to the efforts of the International Labor Defense, which fought the case successfully before the United States Supreme Court and won a new trial in Alabama. The nine Negroes, accused of assaulting two white girl hobos on a freight train two years ago, were granted a change of venue from seething Scottsboro to the comparatively peaceful town of Decatur, seventy miles away. The defense made the best possible fight, but it was hopeless from the start. The boys could hardly have had an abler attorney than Samuel Leibowitz, with an almost perfect record of acquittals in criminal cases. Nor could they have been tried before a fairer man than Judge James E. Horton, who astounded skeptical Northerners by his tolerance and poise. But Southern prejudice was more than a match for a fair judge, lack of evidence against the Negroes, and a jury above the community’s average in intelligence.


Source: “The Thirteenth Juror,” illustration by Mary Rose, The Nation, April 26, 1933


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

Unemployment has hit the Negro harder than any other group, and the WPA [Works Progress Administration] has given him work. Moreover, it has given him work on terms of equality with the white man. The opportunities for racial discrimination which the FERA [Federal Emergency Relief Act] offered and local relief machinery still offers have been virtually erased by the WPA’s rules and regulations. Despite its flaws and low standards of relief, the FERA provided thousands of Negroes with more security and a better standard of living than they had ever known before. The fact that this was due chiefly to the abominably low level of their previous existence does not alter the psychological effect. … The WPA … has raised other thousands above the FERA level to a plane heretofore inaccessible to the colored masses. The FERA, it is generally conceded, was responsible for the Democratic gains among Negroes in the 1934 elections. Roosevelt and his aides count upon the WPA to double and treble those gains in 1936.


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

(Peonage, also called debt slavery or debt servitude, is a system in which employers compel workers to pay off a debt with work. Peonage was outlawed by Congress in 1867.

A negro stands before the county judge in a courthouse in western Florida….

“Judge, this nigger left our turpentine camp and tried to run away. We caught him down by the highway, turned him over to the sheriff, and want him taught a lesson.’’

“Guilty or not guilty?” the judge drones the question. The crestfallen colored man stands there shifting from one foot to the other. He crumples a battered felt hat in his hands. …

“Did you or did you not leave the employ of the Blank Turpentine Company?”

“Yes, suh, Jedge. I quit ‘em. But I ain’t drawed no money sence—”

“Six months on the chain-gang!’’ the judge orders. …

A turpentine man, boss of a large still, explained the system of “holding” Negroes to employment and sentencing them to prison labor if they run away. To the suggestion that this was peonage, and that peonage is illegal, he replied: “Well, wise boy, it’s being done every day in Florida. And it’s legal. It’s on the books. If a nigger hires out to a lumber or turpentine camp, starts work, and then runs away, they put him on the chain gang. That’s the way many of our highways are being built.”…


Source: “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

Miss Hurston’s forte is the recording and the creation of folk-speech. Her devotion to these people has rewarded her; “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is chock-full of earthy and touching poetry.

Ah don’t want yo’ feathers always crumpled by folks throwin’ up things in yo’ face. And ah can’t die easy thinkin maybe de menfolks white or black is makin’ a spit cup outa you. Have some sympathy fuh me. Put me down easy, Janie. Ah m a cracked plate.

Though inclined to violence and not strictly conventional, her people are not naïve primitives. About human needs and frailties they have the unabashed shrewdness of the Blues. …

But this is not the story of Miss Hurston’s own people, as the foreword states, for the Negro novel is as unachievable as the Great American Novel. Living in an all-colored town, these people escape the worst pressures of class and caste. There is little harshness, there is enough money and work to go around. The author does not dwell upon the “people ugly from ignorance and broken from being poor” who swarm upon the “muck’ for part-time jobs. But there is bitterness, sometimes oblique, in the enforced manner, and sometimes forthright.


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

Harlem’s people hoped for a while that the inequalities which “stung and dishonored” them would be swept away in [World War II]. It was, after all, a war for the Four Freedoms. At the very least, they thought, race barriers in industry would go down under the pressure of war needs. They know better now. “It is true that some jobs have been opened to us,” they say, “that economically we are better off. But most Harlem people can still find work only as domestics, chauffeurs, or common laborers. In other ways discrimination has not lessened; it has become more blatant and more cruel. At a time when its soldier sons are dying, Harlem is conscious of this with an intensity that few white people realize. As a community, it feels oppressed and cheated.

The war is still regarded as a great, though swiftly fading, opportunity to accomplish something big. There is a feeling that should this wartime opportunity pass, the Negro will face a bleak eternity of fighting for piecemeal concessions which somehow will never add up to the one thing he really wants—equality. Harlem’s leaders are 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.”


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

The United States stands frozen and paralyzed before its Negro problem. … [It] 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. …

The Negro problem is not new in this country. But since the war, as a result of the conflict of ideologies… the United States must now do something about it. …

A change so profound that few persons realize its fateful meaning is taking place in the mentality of the American Negro. He has experienced of late an upsurge of feeling which has given him a new sense of his own dignity and of his relationship to world events. …

It is expressed in his refusal to accept segregation without complaint even in the armed forces—numbers of Negroes have gone to prison rather than fight in a Jim Crow army—in impetuous individual defiance of cultural patterns of racial subordination, in the hysterical oratory of excited speakers for Negro rights. But underneath all this is a determination to become a full citizen, to plan and think for himself regardless of past friends and old leaders.


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


In December, 1938, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Missouri must either admit Lloyd Gaines, a Negro, to the law school of the University of Missouri or provide, within the state, educational facilities equal in every respect to those available at the state university. The state court made a similar ruling in 1940 on the application of Lucille Bluford to attend the school of Journalism at the University of Missouri. The implications of the two decisions not only for the border state of Missouri but for the entire South were immediately recognized. The leading Southern newspapers expressed the view that there was no point in trying to evade them and that “skeleton graduate courses” for Negroes would eventually have to be established in all state universities. “Time,” said the Raleigh, Missouri, News-Observer, “has moved under our feet.”

… Characterized by one Southern newspaper as “a pebble dropped into a calm pool,” the Gaines decision has set in action a series of events which must ultimately culminate in the abolition of segregation in state-supported professional schools throughout the South.