The nation’s most devastating economic downturn, the Great Depression, affected blacks more adversely than any other group of Americans. Throughout this economic crisis unemployment rates were considerably higher for blacks than for whites. For example, among male workers in thirteen large cities in 1931 the rate was 31.7 percent for whites and 52 percent for blacks. And in spring 1933 while the general unemployment rate was 25 percent, for blacks it was 50 percent. Also, the percentage of African Americans receiving welfare was higher than that of whites. In 1935, 25 percent of the black population was receiving welfare as opposed to 15 percent of whites.
The reasons for greater black suffering during the Great Depression are linked to racial discrimination. For example, because African Americans were concentrated in those jobs and industries most sensitive to economic cycles and were the “last hired and first fired,” they became jobless in disproportionate numbers. Black unemployment was also aided by the racist attitude that whites should not be without work while blacks were employed; this resulted in whites moving blacks out ofjobs they had traditionally occupied (such as porters, elevator operators, trash collectors). Further, racial wage differentials (wages for blacks averaged 30 percent less than for whites) caused African Americans to experience the Great Depression in harsher terms than whites. Finally, some New Deal policies had disastrous consequences for blacks. The Agricultural Assistance Agency’s crop subsidy program, for example, actually led to the displacement of about 192,000 black sharecroppers because, contrary to the program’s rules, they failed to receive any portion of the federal funds given white planters for reducing cotton production.
Because the Great Depression appreciably reduced employment opportunities in the North for blacks, the pace of southern black emigration slowed considerably during the thirties (an estimated three hundred thousand blacks left the South during this period) . The Great Depression did, however, increase the number of African American migrant workers. Many were part of a major migratory cycle in which workers started in Florida in the spring, worked their way northward and completed the fall harvest in the North, then returned to Florida to begin the cycle anew. New Jersey was part of this cycle; workers came to the state to work primarily on produce farms in South and Central Jersey.
While the Great Depression generally caused black people to uproot themselves less than in the 1920s, organizational activity among them increased, prompted no doubt by conditions associated with the Great Depression. Some of these efforts were directed toward ameliorating the misery derived from the economic crisis. For example, black churches were spurred to widen their services to the community considerably. These services included providing food, clothing, and housing for the needy. Also, perhaps as a reaction to the despair and pervasive gloom that beset many African Americans, several black religious sects, radically different from traditional black Baptist and Methodist churches, gained significant followings. Among these urban phenomena, all of which claimed black New Jerseyans as members, were the Nation of Islam and the United House of Prayer of All People of Daddy Grace. The Kingdom of Peace Movement of Father Divine, which offered free and inexpensive meals and lodgings, was perhaps the most popular of these religious groups. Among its properties were the 250-bed Divine Riviera Hotel in Newark and the Fairmont Hotel in Jersey City.
Perhaps as a response to the poor economic conditions of the Great Depression, black back-to- Africa sentiments found greater expression. These appeared mainly under the aegis of the Peace Movement of Ethiopia (PME), organized in 1932 by Mittie Lena Gordon of Chicago, a former UNIA member, and of the UNIA itself. By 1939 their collective efforts were responsible for two and a half million signatures on a petition calling for the repatriation of American blacks to West Africa. This petition was presented to Congress in support of a bill, sponsored by the arch-segregationist Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, that provided for the voluntary emigration of blacks to Liberia and nearby areas of West Africa.
Black protest took other forms during the 1930s. For example, blacks mounted successful campaigns to boycott white businesses that did not employ blacks. Such campaigns were conducted mainly in the ghettos of cities such as Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and especially Harlem, where blacks picketed before stores carrying signs with the motto “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work.” It was in Harlem, in 1935, that intense feelings against white merchants and landlords helped produce another form of protest, the black ghetto riot; this one was the first to have characteristics similar to the civil disorders of the 1960s. During this disturbance one black was killed, two hundred stores smashed, and more than two million dollars worth of damage done.
Electoral politics occupied the attention of black Americans during the Great Depression. In fact, as seen in the 1936 presidential election in which blacks voted overwherningly for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, blacks switched their political allegiance from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party during the 1930s. A factor in this development was the feeling among African Americans that many of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs of relief and recovery were especially beneficial to them (for example, social security, unemployment insurance, and the minimum wage). Eleanor Roosevelt’s liberal support for civil rights also enhanced the president’s image among African American voters. An additional factor was Roosevelt’s appointment of a number of black advisers to government agencies. These advisers, known unofficially as Roosevelt’s black cabinet, included Robert C. Weaver (Interior), Mary McCleod Bethune (National Youth Administration), William H. Hastie (Interior), Robert L. Vann (Justice), and Eugene K. Jones (Commerce). This change in party support by African Americans was discernible in 1934, when Arthur W. Mitchell of Chicago, who had been a Republican, became the first black Democrat elected to Congress. It was also reflected in 1938 in New Jersey, when Guy Moorhead of Newark became the first black Democrat elected to the state assembly.
The Great Depression also witnessed the entry of African Americans into the ranks of organized labor in unprecedented numbers. The formation in 1938 of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), an outgrowth of the American Federation of Labor’s Committee for Industrial Organization established in 1935, was crucial to this development. In advancing the cause of industrial unionism, the CIO sought to organize all the workers in a given industry including the steel, automobile, rubber, and meatpacking industries, in all of which blacks were concentrated in large numbers. This was in sharp contrast to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the nation’s largest labor body, which mainly represented the interests of the skilled workers in the trades/crafts, and whose affiliates, if not excluding African Americans outright, permitted them to form segregated locals. Still, the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which gave labor the right to organize, helped both the CIO and AFL to grow and increase the number of blacks in their affiliates. This act, however, was of little help to attempts by such bodies as the Southern Tenants Farmers Union to unionize black and white sharecroppers and tenant farmers.
The Communist Party, very active in attempting to address the problems and difficulties spawned by the Great Depression, continued its efforts to speak out against racial injustice and woo African Americans. These had begun in the late 1920s when it emphasized “self- determination” for the Black Belt as an oppressed nation. These efforts, through which the party expanded its influence in the black community during the 1930s, especially among intellectuals like Richard Wright and Max Yergan, took several forms. For example, some CIO organizers were party members who took a special interest in unionizing black workers. The party was also active in organizing black sharecroppers in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and North Carolina. In addition, anti-eviction activities on behalf of urban tenants, many of whom were black, won it support from some blacks, as did the party’s work in defending nine blacks in the celebrated 1931 Scottsboro Case.
Finally, African Americans were not unmindful of the rising tide of Fascism in Europe during the 1930s, and they were among the earliest and most vocal Americans to condemn it, due in great part to the notion of white supremacy that accompanied fascist ideology. In the case of Mussolini-led Italy, the brutal Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, inspired by Mussolini’s grandiose vision of reviving the Roman Empire and his desire to avenge the humiliating defeat of the Italians in 1895 by the Ethiopians at Adowa, aroused black anger. In order to collect funds to aid Ethiopian refugees, blacks formed organizations such as the International Council of Friends of Ethiopia and the Ethiopian World Federation. The Nazi doctrine of Aryan supremacy that emerged from Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in Germany also provoked African American anger and resentment. Blacks were particularly incensed by Hitler’s snubbing of Jesse Owens during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin after Owens had won an unprecedented four gold medals. Given black opposition to Fascism, the boxing victories ofJoe Louis over the Italian Primo Camera in 1936 and the German Max Schmeling in 1938 (in which Louis avenged his 1936 defeat) acquired a special symbolic meaning for black Americans as “race” victories.
African Americans during the thirties were also well aware of the imperial policies and activities of Japan, the third of the Axis powers that would eventually oppose the United States in World War II. They were particularly aware of Japan’s efforts to win their support and allegiance by portraying itself as the savior of the darker races. It was mainly through the Pacific Movement of the Eastern World, organized in Chicago in 1932, that Japan sought to convince American blacks that it was the international leader of nonwhites in the struggle against white supremacy.
Black Americans were more adversely affected by the Great Depression than other Americans, and perhaps out of frustration and/or attempts to cope with the agony and misery spawned by the depression, they engaged in considerable organizational activity during the thirties.
Materials and Preparation
Students should read either chapter 27 in The African American Experience: A History (“The Great Depression and the New Deal, 1929-1941”) or chapter 33 in African American History (“Black America and the Great Depression”).
Students should in addition read the excerpt from Lester B. Granger’s article.
Students and the teacher should read pages 54-68 in Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History .
The teacher should read chapters 19 and 20 in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (“The New Deal” and “The American Dilemma”).
Each of the activities that follow will take one class period.
- Identify the major ways in which African Americans were affected adversely by the Great Depression.
- Lead the students in discussing the great impact the Great Depression had on the black community (such as high unemployment rates, high welfare recipient rates,job displacement). As part of this discussion, indicate to students that various New Deal programs (for example, the Works Projects Administration) proved somewhat beneficial to black Americans. Also inform students that such programs encouraged black Americans to switch their allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party.
- Evaluation: Have the students write a short story about a poor New Jersey African American family living during the Great Depression. The story should indicate how this family’s plight is alleviated somewhat by a New Deal program (such as the Civilian Conservation Corps).
- Describe the major organizational activities in which black Americans engaged themselves during the 1930s.
- In addition to mentioning the religious sects to which many African Americans flocked during the 1930s (for example, Father Divine’s Peace Movement and Daddy Grace’s United House of Prayer for All People), explain to the students that during the 1930s many black workers joined unions, especially those belonging to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Then have students read Lester B. Granger’s “The Negro-Friend or Foe of Organized Labor?”. Have them imagine they are black workers in the 1930s. Ask them which worker in Granger’s article they believe “acted wisely”? Divide the class into two groups, each group representing one of the workers, and let the groups debate the pros and cons of each worker’s position.
- Be certain to let students know that historically craft unions (skilled workers) have been more hostile to African American workers than industrial unions (unskilled workers) have been. Explain that skilled workers, through apprenticeships, have always tried to maintain a scarcity of labor as a way of keeping wages high, and that this also led them to exclude women workers and immigrants from their ranks. Their strength lay in having relatively few workers whose skills could not be acquired in a relatively short time. Unskilled workers on the other hand, realizing that they were easily replaceable in case of a strike, have stressed the need to organize everyone in a given industry, including blacks and women. Their power is in their numbers.
- Evaluation: Have the students write a short story in which the two main characters are black workers living during the Great Depression. They have been asked to join the autoworkers’ union, an industrial union. One is opposed, stating that the company has been nice to him. Among other things, it hired him when other companies discriminated against him, and it has contributed funds to his church. The other worker, while not denying the company has been nice, argues that all of this can easily be taken away, that without a union there is no job protection.
- Show students the film I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (96 minutes). It centers on the youthful years of the writer Maya Angelou in Arkansas during the Great Depression. It can be obtained from Knowledge Unlimited, P.O. Box 52, Madison, Wisconsin 53701-0052 (800-356- 2303; 608-836-6660).
- Show students the film The Jesse Owens Story, which, in the form of a docudrama, lays out the life of Jesse Owens, the great track star who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics (175 minutes). It can be obtained from Knowledge Unlimited, P.O. Box 52, Madison, Wiconsin 53701-0052 (800-356-2303; 608-836-6660).
- Show students the film Almos’ A Man (39 minutes). Adapted from Richard Wright’s short story, it depicts a misunderstood black teenage farm worker in the 1930s rural South who thinks that owing a second hand gun will give him manhood. He gets the gun and accidentally shoots a mule, opening himself anew to ridicule. To pay for the mule he must work for twenty-five months. He chooses instead to hop a freight train, gun in pocket, in search of power and dignity. This film 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).
Mary McLeod Bethune. The founder in 1904 of the Daytona Normal and Industrial School in Daytona, Florida, which is today the Bethune-Cookman College, she was the first black woman to hold a high position in the federal government and the only woman member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “black cabinet” during the New Deal.
Father Divine. Born George Baker near Savannah, Georgia, around 1880, he founded the Peace Mission movement, which during the 1930s became the foremost of the nation’s black religious sects.
Daddy Grace. Charles Emmanuel Grace, a native of the Cape Verde Islands, established the House of Prayer for All People, one of the religious sects that black people joined in great numbers during the 1930s.
Joe Louis. The second black man to become heavyweight boxing champion of the world, a crown fie won in 1938, Louis was probably the first quintessential “race hero.”
Arthur W. Mitchell. Chicago politician who became the first African American Democrat elected to Congress.
Jesse Owens. Great track star, he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, the first person ever to accomplish this feat.
Annotated Bibliography and Suggested Reading
- Carter, Dan. 1969. Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South.
- One of the most celebrated legal cases of the 1930s involved nine black youths falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama. The case pitted southern injustice against the feuding defenses of the youths by the NAACP and the Communist Party.
- Harris, William H. 1977. Keeping the Faith: A Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925-1937.
- Harris explores the origins and development of this important black labor union, which became the training ground for black labor leaders and civil rights leaders.
- Kirby, John. 1980. Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era: Liberalism and Race.
- An excellent account of the racial accomplishments and limitations of liberalism under the New Deal.
- Martin, Charles H. 1976. The Angelo Herndon Case and Southern Justice.
- The case of a black Georgia Communist whose labor activisim incurred the wrath of Georgia authorities and illuminated the undemocratic features of the American South in the 1930s.
- Naison, Mark. 1983. Communists in Harlem During the Depression.
- This work thoroughly explores the efforts of the Communist Party to attract African Americans, the attractiveness of the party to a segment of the black population, and the party’s militant anti-discrimination stance.
- Painter, Nell. 1979. The Narrative of Hosea Hudson, His Life as a Negro Communist in the South.
- Painter tells the fascinating story of a man who dared to be black and Red in the American South when either could be dangerous.
- Sitkoff, Harvard. 1973. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: the Depression Decade.
- In clear prose, Sitkoff surveys the organizational activities and thoughts of blacks during the Depression. The author sees the origins of the modern civil rights movement in the struggle of African Americans to secure equal treatment by both the private sector and New Deal agencies.
- Weiss, Nancy. 1983. Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of F.D.R.
- A comprehensive exploration of the factors behind the change of black voting patterns from historically overwhelmingly Republican to predominantly Democratic during the depression, a political realignment that has lasted to the present.
- Wolters, Raymond. 1970. Negroes and the Great Depression: The Problem of Economic Recovery.
- The most thorough analysis of the racial policies of New Deal agencies and their impact on African Americans.
- Gentry, Tony. 1990. Jesse Owens: Champion Athlete.
- Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
- Halasa, Malu. 1989. Mary McLeod Bethune: Educator.
- Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
- Jakoubek, Robert. 1990. Joe Louis: Heavyweight Champion.
- Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
- Mead, Chris. 1985. Champion Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America.
- This biography shows that Joe Louis was not only a great fighter, but also a symbol of the potential progress of black people in America.
- Meltzer, Milton. 1987. Mary McLeod Bethune: Voice of Black Hope.
- A biography of one of the outstanding black American women of the twentieth century.
- Taylor, Mildred. 1976. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
- A novel that focuses on a black Mississppi family — the Logans — during the period of the Great Depression.
- ___. 1981. Let the Circle Be Unbroken.
- In this work of fiction — a sequel to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a Logan family friend is brought before an all-white jury on a charge of murder.
- Weisbrot, Robert. 1992. Father Divine: Religious Leader.
- Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series.
- Wright, Richard. 1937. Native Son.
- Set in the 1930s, this is the story of twenty-year-old Bigger Thomas, who, hired as a chauffeur for a rich white family in Chicago, is bewildered by the kindness shown to him by the family and their Irish housekeeper and becomes involved in a tragedy of mammoth proportions.
- Yates, James. 1989. Mississippi to Madrid.
- The author, born poor and black in Mississippi, recounts the story of his life: growing up in the Deep South, moving to Chicago, and serving in the International Brigade that fought against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War.
Lester B. Granger– “The Negro Friend or Foe of Organized Labor”.
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: Thursday, May 22, 2003