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THE FORGOTTEN VIEW The African American Life during the Great Depression

This is a textbook about African American history between the years of 1900 to present day. The lack of visible information of the history of African Americans and the widespread teaching of primarily white history prompted me to format my project this way. My main goal was to give the African American community a simple way to access their past.

In the early decades of the 1900s, many African Americans were moving from the south to the north in search of economic and social opportunities. This mirrored the move African Americans in New York were making from the southern parts of Manhattan to Harlem. A cause of the “Black Migration” was that many northern companies wanted cheap labor and knew they would be able to find it in the poverty-stricken group of Southern AfricanAmericans. Many African Americans from the South could not find jobs due to the Jim Crows laws that discriminated against African Americans due to their race which led them to feel disenfranchised. They believed if they could go up North, more opportunities would be opened to them. In addition to that, “natural disasters in the south put black workers and sharecroppers out of work...during and after World War I, immigration to the United States fell, and northern recruiters headed south to entice black workers to their companies ( Staff, 2009).” 

Figure 1. Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 1: During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans. (World Atlas, 2017)

Donald B. Gibson, a notable critic, said about Langston Hughes, “differed from most of his predecessors among black poets . . . in that he addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to black people. During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read . . .

Figure 2. The Cotton Club (Getty Images, 1938)

Until the time of his death, he spread his message humorously—though always seriously—to audiences throughout the country, having read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet (Schwartz, 2017)”.

Zora Neale Hurston was similar to Hughes in the same way that she refused to beautify the sufferings of African American culture just so white readers would feel comfortable. Instead, she wrote about the racial tensions and the discrimination faced by African Americans in the South just because of their skin color (Hutchinson, 2017). However, although the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration seemed to be a time for economic prosperity, it was not. The Harlem Renaissance hides the socioeconomic problems that everyday African Americans went through. When the Harlem Renaissance was occurring, more and more African American families were moving into Harlem and many white families were moving out. Due to the influx of African Americans in Harlem, the value of real estate went down. Many banks did not want to give out mortgages to African Americans which led to any capital investment in Harlem diminishing.Â

The banks then started the practice of redlining. Redlining was made by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) that showed which areas were desirable to buy a home in. There were four categories: green equated to best, blue equated to still desirable, yellow equated to definitely declining, and red equated to hazardous. The factors on how each neighborhood received its score depended on how many African Americans were in the neighborhood at that time. If there were no African-Americans, that area was considered “Best”. On the other hand, the area was considered “hazardous” if the majority of the population was African Americans (Domonoske, 2016). The northern part of America had a way to enforce Jim Crow laws in the North without being looked at as racist. The South had enforced Jim Crow laws and enforced it through the law; the North used Jim Crow laws through their discriminatory actions. This is seen through the livelihoods of African Americans.

Figure 3. Sign made by white residents protesting housing project (Truman Library, 1942)

African Americans could only work as unskilled workers because not many of them had the resources to go to college. This caused a majority of African American men to work in factory jobs and unlike their white counterparts, they did not have a chance to receive a higher position and increase their social mobility.  Likewise, African American women worked in the households of middle-class and upper-class white households as caretakers and as housekeepers. They also received low salaries and had no way to increase their social standing with this job. Both of these occupations paid African Americans well under the national average which led African American families to live in poverty (Greenberg, 2010). Although a majority of African Americans lived in Harlem, a majority of the landlords were white. The white landlords made the rents in Harlem extremely high so that in order to pay the landlord many African American families had to live in one apartment. This caused overcrowding in many apartments throughout Harlem leading to unsafe conditions. Many think that during the Harlem Renaissance, it was an era of prosperity for all African Americans but in truth, it was only a time of prosperity for the few African Americans that received fame from their music and/or writing. 

The Harlem Renaissance came to an end when the stock markets crashed in 1929 leading to the Great Depression. The Great Depression affected white and black people alike, but African Americans were more negatively affected. The unskilled, majority of whom were African Americans, were the most affected during the Great Depression since they saw the sharpest decrease in wages and highest cuts in employment and “blacks endured higher unemployment rates than whites for the same reasons they had lost their jobs more quickly in the early Depression: lack of skills and the discrimination of employers. Semi-skilled and unskilled jobs, where African Americans were highly concentrated, had the highest unemployment rates all decade long (Greenberg, 2010)”. This furthered pushed African Americans down into poverty since they lost their jobs three to four times faster than any other race. Also, women were cutting down on outside help which made many African American women lose their source of income.  

Figure 4. Domestic worker (Library of Congress, 1940)

The way African American women were treated by white women was terrible and the wages they received for their work was abysmal. The wages that African American women were working for was so low that Robert Boyd, a Mississippi State University sociology professor, says, “that they actually offered their services at the so-called ‘slave markets’ — street corners where Negro women congregated to await White housewives who came daily to take their pick and bid wages down (O., 2015) .” Although white people were affected by the Great Depression, they had more opportunities than their African American counterparts. As a study shows, “Over half of the families in the BLS Harlem survey had two wage-earners even if they were not husband and wife; this was probably the only way the family could manage financially. The family described above required four earners, three of them working all fifty-two weeks of the survey year, to break even; the family had $28.58 in savings at the year's end. By contrast, most white families that managed to stay off the relief rolls did so on one income. For all native-born white families in the BLS's larger income and expenditure survey, 80 percent had only one earner (Greenberg, 2010).”

Ironically, one area where African Americans were not as negatively affected was in the area of mortgages. Since mortgages were rarely given in Harlem, the complete absence of mortgages that came after during the Great Depression didn’t affect the Harlem community as much (Gross, 2017). Public and private aid given to offset the losses caused by the Great Depression did not reach the Harlem community and stayed within the white masses in New York City. In order to help themselves, Harlemites supplements themselves with programs that the city wouldn’t supply to them. However, these programs slowly diminished as the years went on because the people of Harlem couldn’t afford to support the programs anymore. Although the cost of living went down, it did not decrease proportionally to the wage African Americans received during the Depression.


Figure 5. Overcrowding in Harlem tenements (Manning, 1938)

This increased the number of children looking for ways to help the situation at home. Some children resorted to theft and shoplifting thus increasing the child delinquency rates in Harlem. Racial tensions were also at an all-time high during this era. Both African Americans and white people were fighting for the same menial jobs but white people always received preferential treatment. The mentality during the Great Depression was “blacks first fired and last hired”. Many managers would hire white people before even thinking about hiring African Americans. Negative stereotypes was a large reason for not employing African Americans during this era. Alfred Smith, a racial advisor, said, “He found this discrimination or "displacement of Negro labor" in all types and levels of employment. Employers' concerns about racial disturbances among workers, their fear that blacks would not perform their tasks well enough, the lack of adequate training among blacks, and the traditions of certain jobs'(Greenberg, 2010).” Even if African Americans did receive jobs, they had no job security because many labor unions would not accept African Americans due to their race.  

The New Deal was supposed to help all Americans to get back on their feet from the Great Depression, however most of the time many agencies discriminated against African Americans. Some of the agencies that discriminated against African Americans were The National Recovery Administration (NRA), Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). An instance of this is when the “AAA paid farmers to withdraw cotton lands from production, county officials barred African Americans from representation and deprived them of government checks. For their part, by exempting domestic service and unskilled labor from minimum wage and participatory provisions, the NRA and the social security programs eliminated nearly 60 percent of African Americans from benefits (Trotter, 2004)”.


Figure 6. Sign that discriminates against African American workers (Milwaukee Courier, 2014)

The refusal of these agencies to help African Americans further pushed them into poverty and would affect them for years to come because this would keep African Americans on relief rolls and welfare even after the Great Depression ended ensuring that the status of African Americans would be firmly below the status of white people. Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to make the New Deal more equal by making rules that discrimination was illegal in any of the New Deal programs. However, administrators in New York would go around the rules that made discrimination illegal to make sure African Americans wouldn’t recover from their losses during the Great Depression. The government also tried to help by using “race-blind” techniques but decided that they would give all neighborhoods the same amount of aid. However, “this by no means always translated into actual practice. But even when it did, as was generally the case in New York, the assumptions of the underlying theory were flawed. In reality, race determined economic opportunity to an extent generally unacknowledged by liberal whites of the period. Race-blind policies therefore often hurt the race that was farther behind, to begin with (Greenberg, 2010).”

Harlem was a neighborhood that suffered more than other neighborhoods that were a majority white; the amount of aid the people in Harlem needed far exceeded the amount of aid that white neighborhoods received as predominantly white neighborhoods had been receiving aid throughout the  Great Depression. The Great Depression showed African Americans where they were placed in the hierarchy of America. They were placed on the fringes of society trying to hold on to the threads society gave them.

Figure 7. Segregated New Deal program (African American Civilian Conservation Corp) (Alamy Photo, 1935)

The aftershocks of the Great Depression lasted for African Americans decades after the Depression had ended. White men and women quickly integrated back into work life and quickly moved up the social ranks, unlike African American men and women who received their jobs at the factories and re-entered the cycle of low income and poverty. African American workers stilled faced blatant racism in the workforce. Many private industries refused to employ them reasoning that their current workers would disagree with, “black fairings or promotions, or that unions would not admit them. Both they and unions argued that blacks lacked appropriate skills, but rarely did either accept blacks for training or apprenticeship programs (Greenberg, 2010)”. Riots that occurred in Harlem due to police brutality against an African American World War II veteran caused many customers who would visit Harlem for entertainment to look for other sources of leisure away from Harlem (Greenberg, 2010). Many people in Harlem were working for the entertainment industry in Harlem and this decline hit many African Americans financially.  The sufferings of African Americans continued to the 1950s especially in the area of housing. 

Figure 8. Harlem Riots in 1935 (Hilaire, 2016)

Much of Manhattan still refused to lease to African Americans so the number of rents in Harlem skyrocketed even though the living conditions were unsanitary and unsound. This was because speculators would buy a house in a neighborhood and fill it with African American tenants. The surrounding neighbors would become frightened that their neighborhood was turning undesirable and fled from the neighborhood. The speculator could then buy those house for a low price and fill them with more African American tenants and this cycle would keep on repeating until the majority of the population was African American (Commons, 2008). Although the speculator bought it for a cheap price, the rents were high and African Americans had to go back to sharing one apartment just so they could meet the rent. This overcrowding led to unsanitary conditions and disease. As one report from 1990 writes, “life expectancy for a 15-year-old female resident of Harlem would be roughly on a par with a that of a fifteenyear-old girl living in India. She'd have about a 65% chance of surviving to 65 - while a black man would have about a 37% chance of making it to the same age, on a par with an Angolan male (Commons, 2008)�.

The circumstances surrounding Harlemites was so bad that a reverse Great Migration occurred where millions of African Americans left cities in the North to go back to the South during the early 2000s. Coates says, “Southern metropolitan areas, particularly Atlanta, led the way in attracting black migrants in the late 1990s. In contrast, the major metropolitan areas of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco experienced the greatest outmigration of blacks during the same period (Coates, 2010)�. These conditions followed African Americans throughout the rest of the twentieth century and still occurs in modern-day Harlem.

Figure 9. East Harlem in 1970s (Parenti, 1970)

History books that are mainly euro-centric don’t focus on the trials and tribulations of African Americans because African Americans history is filled with poverty and discrimination caused by the actions of white people. The Great Depression was a time of suffering for everyone no matter what color you were however if you were a person of color the suffering was exacerbated. Most students in America see the plights of white people in the Great Depression because that is what is deemed as important and crucial for knowledge. The sufferings of African Americans don’t matter because in the eye of America African Americans never mattered unless there was something to profit off of them. The citizens of Harlem lives mirrored the lives of African Americans all throughout the country during the Depression. Lack of help, slave conditions and the apathy of the United States government towards their suffering made African Americans in Harlem and the United States acknowledge where their position was in this country.

Works Cited O. (2015, May 12). 8 Ways That Racism Made the Great Depression Worse for              Black People. Retrieved April 18, 2018, from                                                                          depression-worse-black-people/2/ Coates, T. (2010, January 07). The Harlem Renaissance Was Not A Socio-                        Economic Movement. Retrieved April 18, 2018, from                                                                harlem-renaissance-was-not-a-socio-economic-movement/33130/ Commons, C. (2008, June 10). A brief history of Harlem. Retrieved April 18,                  2018, from                    people/sociology/brief-history-harlem Domonoske, C. (2016, October 19). Interactive Redlining Map Zooms In On                    America's History Of Discrimination. Retrieved April 18, 2018, from                                                                                    way/2016/10/19/498536077/interactive-redlining-map-zooms-in-on-                     americas-history-of-discrimination Greenberg, C. L. (2010). "Or does it explode?": Black Harlem in the Great                         Depression. New York: Oxford University Press.                                                     

Gross, J. (2012). NYC Then/Now: Great Depression & Great Recession.                        Retrieved April 18, 2018, from                                                                                 Staff. (2009). Harlem Renaissance. Retrieved April 18, 2018,                     from                                 renaissance Hutchinson, G. (2017, December 15). Harlem Renaissance. Retrieved April 18,             2018, from                   American-literature-and-art Schwartz, C. (2017, July 22). The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Retrieved April 18,                 2018, from  TROTTER, J. W. (2004). African Americans, Impact of the Great Depression               on. In R. S. McElvaine (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Great Depression                       (Vol. 1, pp. 8-17). New York: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved                           April 18, 2018, from                                                                                                            

Image Citations Alamy Photo (1935). Segregated New Deal Program (African American                      Civilian Conservation Corp). Received from                                                              conservation-corps-ca-1935-the-ccc-like-59780166.html Getty Images (1937). African Americans lining up for food and clothing.                      Retrieved from              from-the-great-ohio-river-flood-of-1937/ Getty Images (1938). The Cotton Club. Retrieved from                                                        cotton-club-at-night-news-photo/50458016 Hilaire, Jennifer (2016). Harlem Riots in 1935. Retrieved from                              Library of Congress (1940). Domestic worker. Retrieved from                                            workers-alliance-feminism-labor-unions Manning, Jack (1938). Overcrowding in Harlem tenements. Retrieved from     

Milwaukee Courier (2014). Sign that discriminates against black                    workers. Retrieved from                                                                                      years-after-being-deemed-unconstitutional-jim-crow-                         continues-to-plague-america/help-wanted-white-only-sign/ Parenti, Michael (1970). East Harlem in 1970s. Retrieved from                                      whats-a-slum-urban-poverty-and-marginality-in-america/ Truman Library (1942). Sign made by white residents protesting                     housing project. Retrieved from                                                           

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