Unit 10 Decade of the Twenties: From Great Migration to Great Depression


The passage of the immigration laws of 1921 and 1924 restricted the volume of southern and eastern European immigrants entering the United States. The demand for African American labor in the North thus persisted during the 1920s and the large-scale movement of southern blacks to northern industrial centers continued. This movement, peaking between 1923 and 1925, was also prompted by the serious decline in cotton production that began around 1923 with the advent of synthetic fabrics. With the Great Depression, which was rooted in the stock market crash in October of 1929, the northern movement of African Americans declined considerably.

As part of the Great Migration, a steady stream of southern blacks continued to pour into New Jersey in the 1920s; the state’s African American population increased by roughly 78 percent (from 117,132 to 208,828). Of the state’s major cities, Newark again registered the highest percentage increase in black population; its 38,880 blacks in 1930 were more than double its 16,977 blacks in 1920.

The arrival of black southerners to northern urban centers in the twenties facilitated the continued development of black ghettos. The first and largest of these, which also resulted from a large influx of black Caribbean immigrants, was New York’s Harlem. Heightened demand for black housing and various discriminatory housing practices, notably restrictive covenants, and block-busting, were the principal features of the ghetto-formation process, itself essentially a function of the exclusion of blacks from white residential areas.

With the rise of the ghettos came a host of major social ills, such as overcrowded and deteriorated housing, inadequate sanitation, a high incidence of communicable diseases, and crime. These features of ghetto life soon led to an equation of ghettos with slums.

Life in the “promised land” witnessed other developments as well. On the political front the expansion of a black electorate enabled African Americans to gain public office in the North for the first time. For example, Oscar DePriest, a Chicago Republican, was elected in 1928 to the House of Representatives, becoming the first black congressman since Reconstruction and the first of his race from the North. It was also during this decade that the first black New Jerseyan was elected to the state legislature. This was Walter G. Alexander, a Republican from Orange, who entered the state assembly in 1921.

The growing ghetto population also facilitated the expansion of the black community’s institutional structure, as blacks sought refuge among themselves. Black churches, the community’s traditional social centers, multiplied in number and enlarged their congregations; some even held double services in order to accommodate the spiritual and social needs of ghetto dwellers. Storefront churches, appealing to those African Americans who desired a more intimate and emotional form of religious worship, appeared for the first time and proliferated. The concentration of blacks in specific areas of a city also encouraged the growth of social clubs and fraternal orders and benefited black professionals and businessmen who relied on the patronage of the African American masses.

Coinciding, with the growth of black ghettos was greater interracial tension and strife in northern cities. Competition for jobs, which were not as plentiful as they had been during wartime, in particular contributed to much of the hostility northern black urbanites experienced. Many hotels and restaurants that had previously served African Americans now barred them. Jim Crow schools surfaced in many northern communities, usually the result of school boundaries drawn by school boards and the transfer policies of such bodies. And northern blacks were also affected by the rapid growth of a Ku Klux Klan that was national in scope. By the middle of the decade this organization had over two million members, many of whom could be found in New Jersey, which ranked tenth among states in Klan membership. With the addition of its southern blacks to its many “new immigrants,” many of whom were Catholics and Jews, the state was indeed home to most of the targets of the new Klan’s bigoted propaganda. Opposition to the Klan in New Jersey peaked in 1923 with two anti-Klan riots in Perth Amboy.

The first anti-Klan riot took place on June 5, when a mob composed of Poles, Russians, Hungarians, Czechs, Irish, Danes, Jews, Italians, Germans, and African Americans, many from surrounding communities, gathered outside of a Klan meeting and stormed the hall. They attempted to attack the Klan spokesman, but the police engineered his escape. The protesters were dispersed an hour later, after overturning trash cans and damaging several automobiles. The second riot, much larger, occurred on August 30. Between 6:00 and 8:00 p.m. more than six thousand people from the same ethnic groups that had disrupted the June 5 meeting assembled outside a hall where the Klan was to meet. At around 8:30 they tried to enter. Several Klansmen were severely beaten as they fled, and the police attempted to rescue the rest by escorting them through the back doors and windows into waiting paddy wagons. But the mob discovered these efforts, brushed aside the police, and beat the Klansmen it captured. There-upon, for the first in New Jersey history, a riot alarm was sounded for the state police. Even after the troopers arrived, however, the crowd continued to throw rocks and bottles at the meeting hall and to overturn and burn automobiles thought to belong to Klansmen. Indeed, the disturbance spread into the downtown area of the city. Around 5:00 a.m. the besieged Klansmen were finally evacuated and normalcy was restored.

Finally, the 1920s also witnessed the emergence of what was called the New Negro. This term referred in one sense to a more militant, defiant, and assertive mood by black Americans in responding to racial injustice in the postwar period. Returning black veterans, many of whom had been trained to be violent and combat-ready and had received civil treatment from the French, in particular contributed to this mood. Evidence of it was seen when African Americans took up arms to defend themselves from attacking whites as, for example, in the race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, in which nine whites arid twenty-one blacks were killed. In the Sweet Incident in Detroit in 1925, a white mob attacked a home purchased in a white neighborhood by a black physician, Dr. O.H. Sweet, and a member of the mob was killed by gunfire from the house, With the help of the NAACP, Dr. Sweet and several others who were in the house during the attack were acquitted of the charges brought against them.

The term the New Negro was also associated with the Harlem Renaissance. This cultural movement composed mainly of Harlem-based artists and intellectuals, flowered during the 1920s and helped make Harlem the center of African American intellectual and cultural life. It is perhaps best remembered as a literary expression; Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Wallace Thurman, and Jessie Redmon Fauset (a New Jersey native) were among its more celebrated figures. Such artists, aware that a few white writers (for example, Eugene O’Neill and Carl Van Vechten) were beginning to treat the Negro in their works, also began to draw on themes from black life and history. They used their prose and poetry to assail social and economic wrongs, to proclaim pride in the black race and its cultural heritage, to perpetuate a group identity, and to assert the value of a black subculture.

Others identified with the Harlem Renaissance were performing artists such as the actor/singer Paul Robeson (a New Jersey native), singer Roland Hayes, composer J. Rosamond Johnson, and the jazz musicians Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Fletcher Henderson, and Louis Armstrong. They were joined by visual artists such as the painters Aaron Douglas, William H. Johnson, Hate Woodruff, Palmer Hayden, and Malvin Gray Johnson and the sculptors Augusta Savage, Richmond Barthe, and Sargent Johnson, as well as such intellectuals as the bibliophile Arthur Schomburg, Charles S. Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, A. Philip Randolph, Cyril V Briggs, Hubert Harrison, W.A. Domingo, and Walter White. Alain Locke, a Howard University philosophy professor and the first black Rhodes Scholar, was the foremost advocate and interpreter of the Harlem Renaissance. His anthology, The New Negro, published in 1925, was instrumental in conveying the artistic and social goals of the movement. And another Washington, D.C. resident also exemplified the extraordinary scope and character of black intellectual and scholarly life in the 1920s. This was Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of African American History.” Founder in 1915 of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and the Journal of Negro History the following year, in 1926 Woodson inaugurated the celebration of Negro History Week, which in 1976 was transformed into Black History Month.

America’s failure to practice democracy on the homefront after World War I also stimulated a defiant mood that enabled the black nationalist UNIA to continue to attract support during the 1920s and to become the largest black American protest movement ever. With its emphasis on African Redemption, race pride, self-help, and black business development, the UNIA replaced “accommodationism” as the major ideology in opposition to the militant integrationism identified with W.E.B. DuBois and the NAACP.

Marcus Garvey was imprisoned in 1925 for using the mails for fraudulent purposes; he was released and repatriated to Jamaica in 1927. His confinement and departure, which separated him from his followers and exacerbated factional disputes and rivalries within the UNIA, hastened the UNIA’s decline. The hardships of the Great Depression, which eroded the financial resources of many Garveyites, also contributed to the UNIA’s difficulties. Meanwhile, the NAACP came to play an even greater role in fighting racial injustice, focusing on the passage of a federal antilynching bill and the use of litigation to secure enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Although federal antilynching legislation was never enacted, the NAACP did rally considerable public support for this cause, and the number of lynchings decreased during the 1920s.

Still another important area of organizational activity among African Americans during the twenties was the labor movement. In 1925 A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids (Pullman Porters). Through serving as the president of this union, the largest black labor body in the nation’s history, Randolph emerged as the black community’s foremost labor spokesman of all time and one of its most prominent civil rights leaders. A division of the Pullman Porters was organized in 1936 in Jersey City, a key railroad terminal until the 1950s, and Nora Fant, president of this division’s ladies auxiliary, was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary International Executive Board.

As the decade began to wind down, the economic prospects of many in the black community began to dim. Indeed, as early as 1927 the demand for black unskilled and semiskilled labor in northern industry had slackened considerably, and it was estimated that a third of the black northern industrial work force was unemployed. With the market crash in October 1929, the economic difficulties of black Americans only worsened.



During the 1920s southern blacks continued to move to northern industrial centers in massive numbers, in the process forming the early black ghettos. By 1990 over 90 percent of the African American population could be found in urban areas, so the rise of these kinds of communities essentially defined the nature of black life for the remainder of the twentieth century.

Materials and Preparation

Students should read either chapters 25 and 26 in The African American Experience: A History (“Black Nationalism, 1916-1929” and the “Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1930”) or chapters 31 and 32 in African American History (“Nationalism in the Black Community” and “A Brilliant Season in the Arts and Sciences”).

Students should read the excerpt from Marcus Garvey’s “An Appeal To The Soul of White America” .

Students and the teacher should read pages 54-68 in Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History.

The teacher should read chapters 17, 18, and 20 in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (“Democracy Escapes,” “The Harlem Renaissance and the Politics of African-American Culture,” and “The American Dilemma”)

Time Period

Each of the activities that follow will take one class period.



  1. Assess the Harlem Renaissance and identify its major figures in the areas of literature, music, and art. Have students read selections of poems by Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and other writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance and then lead them in discussing the themes and images employed by these writers. Or have students bring in pictures of the works of the visual artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance for a discussion of the themes and images shown in these works. You might also play for the students some recordings of musicians associated with the Harlem Renaissance and then discuss the contributions of these artists.
  2. Evaluation: Have students write a 500-word essay on one of the major poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Students should provide biographical information on the subject and indicate the way in the subject’s poetry conveys the thoughts and feelings of the New Negro, that is, a black more assertive in seeking to end racial injustice in America and more conscious and proud of the African ancestral heritage.


  1. Explain the rise of the black ghettos as a consequence of the Great Migration, including the ghetto- formation process, and its social, economic, and political consequences.
  2. After leading the students in compiling a list of the ways in which African American life in the North was altered with the formation of ghettos (such as the election of black public officials, growth of black businesses, creation of storefront churches, and proliferation of black social organizations), point out to the students that long-time black residents of the cities to which southern migrants flocked often resented the arrival of these newcomers. Ask the students to imagine they were a long-time resident. How would they have reacted to the influx of black southerners? What advantages would they see in having them in their community? What disadvantages?Evaluation: Have the students write a 500-word essay indicating how they, as a long-time black resident of Camden, would have responded to the arrival in Camden of large numbers of black migrants from the South. Would they have welcomed their arrival? Why? Or would they have expressed dissatisfaction with the arrival of the migrants? Why?


  1. Assess the philosophy and activities of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, the largest black mass protest movement ever in the United States. Have students read the excerpt from Marcus Garvey’s article. Then divide the class into two groups. Have one group support the black nationalism advanced by Garvey, which was based on his belief that the black race would be best served by the creation of a strong and unified African continent, and that black Americans were key to the realization of this goal. Such a strong pan-African entity would protect the interests of black people irrespective of the country of which they were citizens. Have the other group oppose Garvey’s black nationalist thinking, pointing out the need for black Americans to devote all their energies to gaining all of their rights and privileges as American citizens.
  2. Evaluation: Have the students write a 500-word essay in which they discuss the pros and cons of Garvey’s militant self-help program.

Supplemental Activities

  1. Show students the film From These Roots (28 minutes). The Harlem Renaissance, its meaning and significance, is the focus of this documentary. It can be obtained from The Black Filmmaker Foundation, 375 Greenwich Street, New York, New York 10013 (212-941-3944).
  2. Show students the film Marcus Garvey: Towards Black Nationhood (42 minutes). This documentary examines the career of the pioneer black nationalist from his birth in Jamaica to his death in London. Garvey (1887-1940) captured the imagination of black Americans during the 1920s with his impassioned call for an independent and unified Africa. This film shows how Garvey’s legacy inspired the civil rights movement in the United States and black liberation movements throughout the world. It can be obtained from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Media Resource Center, 28 West State Street, Sixth Floor, Trenton, New Jersey 08608 (609-695-4838).

Key Persons

Walter G. Alexander. This Orange, New Jersey, resident became in 1921 the first African American elected to the New Jersey State Assembly.

Louis Armstrong. Outstanding jazz trumpeter and one of the few truly innovative figures in jazz music.

Countee Cullen. One of the finest poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Cullen is perhaps best known for his “Heritage,” which focuses on his African roots.

Oscar DePriest. Chicago Republican who in 1928 became the first African American elected to the House of Representatives after the post-Reconstruction period.

Duke Ellington. Composer and pianist whose orchestra, which came to fame through its 1927 engagement at Harlem’s Cotton Club, was one of the most outstanding in the jazz idiom.

Jessie Redmon Fauset. A native of Fredericksville, New Jersey, Fauset was a novelist, editor, teacher, and poet whose writings provided the first real and compassionate portrait of black middle-class life.

Langston Hughes. The most famous Figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes was a prolific writer of poems, novels, short stories, plays, essays, and librettos.

Zora Neale Hurston. The most prolific woman writer identified with the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston, as an anthropologist, was also a pioneer in the study of black American folktales.

James Weldon Johnson. A lawyer, diplomat, and civil rights activist (he was the first black NAACP executive director) who began to write poetry late in his life, Johnson wrote the lyrics to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” and edited several major volumes of poetry during the Harlem Renaissance.

Alain Locke. Rhodes Scholar, a professor of philosophy at Howard University, and the foremost interpreter of the Harlem Renaissance as reflected in his The New Negro (1925).

Claude McKay. A Jamaican, McKay is perhaps best known for his protest poem “If We Must Die” (1923) and his novel Home to Harlem (1928).

Paul Robeson. A native of Princeton, and an outstanding athlete, scholar, lawyer, stage and screen actor and singer, Robeson’s artistic career began in the 1920s when lie starred in The Emperor Jones (1924) and All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924).

Augusta Savage. Outstanding sculptor who worked primarily in marble, plaster, and wood and used her art to express her opposition to racial injustice.

Arthur Schomburg. A Puerto Rican of African descent, Schomburg was a writer, curator, and bibliophile whose massive collection formed the basis for the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Jean Toomer. On the strength of Cane (1923), he is considered one of the most original American writers of his time.

Carter G. Woodson. Considered the “Father of African American History” because he authored twenty books dealing with black American history, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (1915), founded the Journal of Negro History (1916), and inaugurated the celebration of Negro History Week (1926).

Annotated Bibliography and Suggested Reading


Anderson, Jervis. 1982. This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950.
A fascinating panoramic survey of a half-century in the life of what is probably black America’s most famous community. It covers the social and cultural life of Harlem from the beginning of its small black population at the turn of the century.
Cooper, Wayne. 1987. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance.
McKay was one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, The Jamaican born poet was the most militant on the Harlem literary scene in the 1920s. Cooper quite adroitly traces his career from Jamaica to the United States to Europe and his return to America.
Douglas, Ann. 1995. Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s.
A penetrating and comprehensive study of American intellectual culture in the 1920s and the ways in which black and white intellectuals and culture influenced each other and consequently affected America.
Duberman, Martin. 1988. Paul Robeson.
An exhaustive, definitive biography that offers a broad picture of national and global developments, including the post-World War II years, that served as the backdrop to Robeson’s life.
Garvey, Amy Jacques ed. 1925. Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey.
Marcus Garvey built the Universal Negro Improvement Association into the largest mass movement of black people in America or the world. His wife edited this volume of his speeches and writings.
Hemenway, Robert E. 1978. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography.
The most comprehensive biography of one of the great literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance.
Huggins, Nathan ed. 1976. Voices from The Harlem Renaissance.
An excellent collection of essays, poems, short stories, and excerpts from novels from the Renaissance years. Some of the shorter works would provide a class with an introduction to the themes and ideas current among black intellectuals during this period.
Martin, Tony. 1976. Race First.
A positive assessment of Marcus Garvey and the movement he led. It explores the significance of Africa to African Americans in explaining the appeal of Garvey.


Bontemps, Arna. 1972. The Harlem Renaissance Remembered.
A collection of profiles of the gifted literary figures and artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance.
Ehrlich, Scott. 1988. Paul Robeson: Singer and Actor.
Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
Frankel, Ronald. 1988. Duke Ellington: Bandleader and Composer.
Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
Hughes, Langston. 1940. The Big Sea.
An autobiography by the most famous of the Harlem Renaissance writers whose literary career transcended far beyond the period. Although somewhat long for the average high school student, it is very readable and a fascinating survey of the personalities of the Harlem Renaissance.
__. 1958. Tambourines To Glory.
This comedic novel, set in the 1920s, describes two radically different Harlem women who decide to start a church of their own. One, Essie, is a good, honest woman; the other, Laura, is motivated simply by the desire to make money and live it up. When they make money, they set in motion a number of hilarious incidents.
__. 1958. The Langston Hughes Reader: The Selected Writings Of Langston Hughes.
This comprehensive anthology combines highlights from Hughes’s novels, short stories, plays, poems, songs, and essays that made him famous with many previously unpublished writings.
Johnson, James Weldon. 1927. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.
A classic, this work of fiction centers on the life and innermost thoughts of a black man passing for a white man.
Killens, John O. 1954. Youngblood.
This novel tells the moving story of a black family, the Youngbloods, living in the 1920s in a Georgia factory town.
Lyons, Mary E. 1990. Sorrow’s Kitchen: The life and folklore of Zora Neale Hurston.
Zora Neale Hurston struggled from her childhood in a small Florida town to her later life in New York City to be herself, to get an education, and make her mark. That she succeeded is remarkable considering the time and the roles then prescribed for black women. Her accomplishments were for a time eclipsed, but they have recently been restored to their true importance through the efforts of black writers such as Alice Walker. The text contains eleven excerpts from Hurston’s writings and is liberally sprinkled with photographs.
McKay, Claude. 1937. A Long Way from Home.
This autobiography is as enlightening as Hughes’s. In addition, it contains interesting portraits of white literary bohemia in the 1920s and penetrating insights into a young Soviet nation based upon McKay’s visit.
McKissack, Frederick, and Patricia McKissack. 1989. A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter.
This is a history of the Pullman porters and their union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, founded by A. Phillip Randolph in 1925. Covering a fifty-year period, this account focuses on the porters’ lives and working conditions, the development of the union and its struggles for recognition, and the role played by the Brotherhood in the civil rights movement.
Robeson, Paul. 1958. Here I Stand.
This autobiography of an extremely talented and gifted black American also serves as a platform for him to answer the criticisms that led to his blacklisting during the McCarthy era.
Robeson, Susan. 1981. The Whole World in His Hands: A Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson.
This book, by Robeson’s granddaughter, can serve as a fine introduction to young readers who are not familiar with Paul Robeson. Numerous photographs and a well-written narrative provide insight into the life and times of her grandfather, perhaps New Jersey’s most illustrious native son.
Rummel, Jack. 1988. Langston Hughes: Poet.
Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
Tanenhaus, Sam. 1989. Louis Armstrong: Musician.
Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
Tolbert, Jane. 1988. James Weldon Johnson: Author.
Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
Toomer, Jean. 1923. Cane.
This classic literary work, consisting of sketches, poems, and a play, is set in rural Georgia in the 1920s and suggests the cultural and spiritual dislocation of black people in America.
Walker, Alice. 1979. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive.
This anthology contains selections from Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiographical works, collections of black American and West Indian folklore, essays, and fiction. Hurston examines the problems of love more than the problems of race and centers her works around the people of the all-black town Eatonville, Florida, and the tales they told on the porch of the town store.
Witcover, Paul. 1991. Zora Neale Hurston: Author.
Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.


Marcus Garvey–“An Appeal to the Soul of White America” (1923)

Digitized by Deborah Mercer and Edith Beckett of the New Jersey State Library.
Copyright 2003 by the New Jersey Historical Commission,
New Jersey Department of State.
All rights reserved.
Please direct questions and comments to Deborah Mercer.
Updated:Wednesday, April 23, 2003