There are two states in the American south that historically had large numbers of both African-Americans and Latinos, as well as laws banning marriage between black people and white people: Texas and Florida. However, as far as I know, the laws only disallowed marriage between African-Americans and Anglo-Americans. How were these laws applied to the local Latino populations? Were these anti-miscegenation laws applied if a white Cuban wanted to marry an African-American? How were brown Latinos treated?
I know that in other states, like New York, that had no anti-miscegenation as well as large numbers of Latinos and African-Americans it was common for the two groups to get married; because they were forced to live in a lot of the same neighbourhoods. Were Latinos in Texas and Florida in the same situation?
Yes, in Texas, anti-miscegenation laws still applied to Latinos (Mexican Americans) as they were usually defined as White. It was much more obvious depending on the dominance of Spanish or Native lineage.
This was documented in "Flores vs. State" (1910). The law stated that a "White" person, F. Flores, in this case being Mexican, was arrested with his wife, Ellen Dukes, as she had traces of African-American lineage.
Those witnesses who testified to the fact that the woman appellant married was of negro extraction were not aware of how near she was to purity of negro blood; they did not know whether she was within the specified degrees mentioned in article 347 of the Penal Code or not.
Normally it seemed to have worked out for many mix Mexican-African American couples in Texas, as many were able to mask their lineages easier due to already being of mixed race (also typically mixed with Native American). ["Dangerous Liaisons: Sex and Love in the Segregated South", Robinson]
Even if the state discovered that one of the parties in the relationship had some racial mixture, the state would then have the very difficult task of proving that the individual in question had sufficient black ancestry. Such was the case in Flores v. State (1910).
Flores and Ellen Dukes were convicted but appealed their case. The ambiguity of her lineage helped the State reverse the small court's decision.
The couple appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Although the court acknowledged that Dukes had black blood, the court held that the state had failed to prove the degree of it.
It's cases like this that show the flaws of such a system of oppression based on racial lines, with mixed races, at some point the lines are blurred. The history of slavery in Texas was more forgiving since the Mexican government forbade slavery while Texas was still under Mexican rule. The anglo colonists brought their slaves with them, and after Texas Independence, it was reenacted by zealous landowners. San Antonio remained more lenient due to its Mexican population and later German populations being against slavery. Mixed feelings on slavery existing through the civil war, with the city voting against cessation from the Union. San Antonio's complicated history as a Confederate supply depot
The largest city in Texas at the time, San Antonio's population separated into three roughly equal groups: Anglos, Germans, and Mexicans. The three groups did not mix, although a distaste of slavery and a resentment of the Anglo population, who held most of the property, united the city's German and Mexican citizens, Ellsworth writes.
Robert Lee was not in the city when it rebelled, before being put back into order by Confederate hands. Twohig was a friend of his and they sympathized with one another over slavery.
Perhaps Lee felt a kinship with Twohig, who, according to Wood, was suspected of being a Unionist sympathizer. Records show the Irish immigrant purchased and freed several slaves.
You don't hear much about that in the history books. Please check out the links to read more.
Difficulties Faced by Interracial Couples Historically and Today
Interracial relationships have taken place in America since colonial times, but couples in such romances continue to face problems and challenges.
America’s first “mulatto” child was born in 1620. When the enslavement of Black people became institutionalized in the U.S., however, anti-miscegenation laws surfaced in various states that barred such unions, thereby stigmatizing them. Miscegenation is defined by sexual relations between people from different racial groups. The term stems from the Latin words "miscere" and "genus," which mean "to mix" and "race," respectively.
Incredibly, anti-miscegenation laws remained on the books until the latter half of the 20th century, making interracial relationships taboo and posing barriers to mixed-race couples.
Key facts about race and marriage, 50 years after Loving v. Virginia
In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Loving v. Virginia case that marriage across racial lines was legal throughout the country. Intermarriage has increased steadily since then: One-in-six U.S. newlyweds (17%) were married to a person of a different race or ethnicity in 2015, a more than fivefold increase from 3% in 1967. Among all married people in 2015 (not just those who recently wed), 10% are now intermarried – 11 million in total.
Here are more key findings from Pew Research Center about interracial and interethnic marriage and families on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision.
1 A growing share of adults say interracial marriage is generally a good thing for American society. Nearly four-in-ten adults (39%) say the growing number of people marrying someone of a different race is good for society, up from 24% in 2010. Adults younger than 30, those with at least a bachelor’s degree and those who identify as a Democrat or lean Democratic are especially likely to say this.
Americans today also are less likely to oppose a close relative marrying someone of a different race or ethnicity. Now, 10% say they would oppose such a marriage in their family, down from 31% in 2000. The biggest decline has occurred among nonblacks: Today, 14% of nonblacks say they would oppose a close relative marrying a black person, down from 63% in 1990.
2 Asian and Hispanic newlyweds are the most likely to be intermarried. Nearly three-in-ten Asian newlyweds (29%) were married to someone of a different race or ethnicity in 2015, as were 27% of Hispanic newlyweds. Intermarriage for these groups was especially prevalent among the U.S. born: 39% of U.S.-born Hispanics and almost half (46%) of U.S.-born Asian newlyweds were intermarried in 2015.
Although Asian and Hispanic newlyweds are most likely to be intermarried, overall increases in intermarriage have been driven in part by rising intermarriage rates among black and white newlyweds. The most dramatic increase has occurred among black newlyweds, whose intermarriage rate more than tripled from 5% in 1980 to 18% in 2015. Among whites, the rate rose from 4% in 1980 to 11% in 2015.
3 The most common racial or ethnic pairing among newlywed intermarried couples is one Hispanic and one white spouse (42%). The next most common intermarriage pairings are one white and one Asian spouse (15%). Some 12% of newlywed intermarried couples include one white and one multiracial spouse, and 11% include one white and one black spouse.
4 Newlywed black men are twice as likely as newlywed black women to be intermarried. In 2015, 24% of recently married black men were intermarried, compared with 12% of newly married black women. There are also notable gender differences among Asian newlyweds: Just over one-third (36%) of newlywed Asian women were intermarried in 2015, compared with 21% of recently married Asian men.
Among white and Hispanic newlyweds, intermarriage rates are similar for men and women.
5 Since 1980, an educational gap in intermarriage has begun to emerge. While the rate of intermarriage did not differ significantly by educational attainment in 1980, today there is a modest gap. In 2015, 14% of newlyweds with a high school diploma or less were married to someone of a different race or ethnicity. In contrast, 18% of those with some college experience and 19% of those with a bachelor’s degree or more were intermarried.
The educational gap is most striking among Hispanics. Nearly half (46%) of Hispanic newlyweds with a bachelor’s degree were married to someone of a different race or ethnicity in 2015, yet this share drops to 16% for those with a high school diploma or less.
6 One-in-seven U.S. infants (14%) are multiracial or multiethnic. This share is nearly triple the share (5%) in 1980. Multiracial or multiethnic infants include children younger than 1 year old who live with two parents and whose parents are each of a different race, those with one Hispanic and one non-Hispanic parent, and those with at least one parent who identifies as multiracial.
Among interracial and interethnic infants, the most common racial/ethnic combination for parents is one non-Hispanic white and one Hispanic parent (42%). The next largest share of these infants have at least one parent who identifies as multiracial (22%), while 14% have one white and one Asian parent and 10% have one white and one black parent. The share of infants with interracial or interethnic parents also varies considerably across states, from 44% among those in Hawaii to 4% among those in Vermont.
7 Honolulu has the highest share of intermarried newlyweds of any major metropolitan area in the U.S. Four-in-ten newlyweds in Honolulu (42%) are married to someone of a different race or ethnicity, followed by newlyweds living in the Las Vegas (31%) and Santa Barbara, California (30%) metro areas. At the same time, just 3% of newlyweds in or around Asheville, North Carolina, and Jackson, Mississippi, are intermarried.
(Interactive : Which U.S. metro areas have the largest and smallest shares of intermarried newlyweds?)
Generally, newlyweds living in metropolitan areas are more likely to be intermarried (18%) than those in more rural, non-metro areas (11%).
People of mixed heritage have been citizens of the United States since the country’s inception. Indeed, one scholar has insisted that “American History would be unrecognizable without ethnic intermarriage”. 1 But while Americans proudly describe their nation as a “melting pot,” history shows that social convention and legal statutes have been less than tolerant of miscegenation, or “race mixing.” For students and teachers of history, the topic can provide useful context for a myriad of historical and contemporary issues.
Laws prohibiting miscegenation in the United States date back as early as 1661 and were common in many states until 1967. That year, the Supreme Court ruled on the issue in Loving v. Virginia, concluding that Virginia’s miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. In this article, we look at the history of miscegenation in the United States, some motivations for anti-miscegenation policy, the landmark decision of Loving v. Virginia, and some applications of the topic for the social studies classroom.
Miscegenation in U.S. History
The first recorded interracial marriage in North American history took place between John Rolfe and Pocahontas in 1614. In colonial Jamestown, the first biracial Americans were the children of white-black, white-Indian, and black-Indian unions. By the time of the American Revolution, somewhere between 60,000 and 120,000 people of “mixed” heritage resided in the colonies. During his presidency, Thomas Jefferson begged Americans to consider “let[ting] our settlements and [Indians’] meet and blend together, to intermix, and become one people”. 2 American patriot Patrick Henry even proposed that intermarriage between whites and Indians be encouraged through the use of tax incentives and cash stipends. 3
Despite Henry’s proposal, interracial unions were not well accepted in the colonies and, in many cases, were made illegal. The idea that Africans and their descendants were not only different from, but inferior to the English was prevalent in the days of Shakespeare and consequently migrated to America with the first colonialists. 4 With the introduction of slaves to the colonies, laws were developed to keep the races separate.
In An American Dilemma (1975), Gunner Myrdal states that miscegenation policy developed because intermarriage was a principal concern in the white man’s order of discrimination, followed by intercourse involving white women, use of public facilities, political franchise, legal equality, and employment. Similarly, Joel Kovel contends in White Racism: A Psychohistory (1970) that sexuality is at the core of racism and, subsequently, miscegenation laws. On the other hand, Oliver Cox asserts in his Caste, Class, and Race (1959) that economic exploitation, rather than a loathing of interracial sex, was the real basis for miscegenation prohibitions. Cox further argues that miscegenation laws also refused blacks the opportunity to attain the cultural status of whites. White colonists also were fearful of an alliance between African Americans and American Indians and the strength in numbers that such a union of oppressed peoples could produce. 5
Whatever the motivation for miscegenation policy, in 1661 Virginia passed legislation prohibiting interracial marriage and later passed a law that prohibited ministers from marrying racially mixed couples. The fine was ten thousand pounds of tobacco. Then, in 1691, Virginia required that any white woman who bore a mulatto child pay a fine or face indentured servitude for five years for herself and thirty years for her child. Similarly, in Maryland, a woman who married a Negro slave had to serve her husband’s owner for the rest of her married life. 6 Over time, Maryland’s laws became increasingly strict, and in 1715 and 1717 Maryland’s legislature made cohabitation between any white person and a person of African descent unlawful. As the number of colonies grew, miscegenation laws became increasingly commonplace by the time of the American Civil War, at least five states had enacted anti-miscegenation laws. 7
During slavery there were, of course, frequent mixed race births, many resulting from the rape of enslaved black women by white slave owners. Between 1850 and 1860, the mulatto slave population increased by 67 percent in contrast, the black slave population increased by only 20 percent. 8 At about this time, the notion of hypodescent, or the “one drop rule,” became prevalent. This is the idea that someone with even one distant African ancestor is black. The belief guaranteed that the children from these forced unions would remain slaves. In 1900 Booker T. Washington summed up the practice when he remarked:
It is a fact that, if a person is known to have one percent of African blood in his veins, he ceases to be a white man. The ninety-nine percent of Caucasian blood does not weigh by the side of the one percent of African blood. The white blood counts for nothing. The person is a Negro every time. 9
Increased immigration at the turn of the twentieth century generated discourse on the question of race&emdashmuch of it negative. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, repeatedly expressed his belief that the Irish were of an inferior race, that Asians should not be allowed to enter the U.S., and that Jews had “not yet gotten far enough away from their centuries of oppression and degradation” to become a physically strong race. 10 The concept of the American “melting pot” was not as humanitarian as it is sometimes portrayed. At the time, practices were put in place to “Americanize” immigrants by causing them to lose as much of their distinctive ethnic identity as possible and adopting Anglo-American culture. Although modern U.S. society considers people of Irish, Italian, Polish, and English descent “white,” in 1911 these four European nationalities were considered separate “races”. 11
During the 1920s there was a rekindling of racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership grew dramatically. Intolerance was also manifested in other ways. In 1924 a Virginia law was passed that prohibited whites from marrying anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood”. 12 Virginia was not unique marriage between whites and blacks was by this time illegal in thirty-eight states. Furthermore, in 1924 Congress passed the Immigration Act, a series of strict anti-immigration laws calling for the severe restriction of “inferior” races from southern and eastern Europe.
As late as the 1950s, almost half of the states had miscegenation laws. While the original statutes were directed wholly against black-white unions, the legislation had extended to unions between whites and Mongolians, Malayans, Mulattos, and Native Americans. 13
During the 1960s, the civil rights movement helped reverse many of the legal barriers against miscegenation. The Warren Court, through its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, was actively striving to end discrimination against blacks. So when the case of McLaughlin v. Florida appeared on the docket in 1964, the Court was again ready to deal with the question of racial classification. In McLaughlin, the Court ruled as invalid a Florida statute that allowed more severe penalties for cohabitation and adultery by interracial couples than same-race pairs. Justice Potter Stewart in a concurring opinion concluded, “it is simply not possible for a state law to be valid under our Constitution which makes the criminality of an act depend upon the race of the actor”. 14
McLaughlin v. Florida was instrumental in paving the way for the 1967 case of Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia. In that year, sixteen states still had laws that made interracial marriages illegal. 15 The case was brought about by Perry Loving, a white man, and his African American and American Indian wife, Mildred Jeter. Since interracial marriage was illegal in their home state of Virginia, the couple was married in Washington, D.C. When they returned to Virginia, the newlyweds were arrested and put in jail for breaking the law. Before dawn one morning, police officers barged into their bedroom, shined a flashlight on them, and demanded to know what the couple was doing. Mr. Loving pointed to their framed marriage certificate on the wall, but the officers informed them that the D.C. license was not legal in Virginia.
At the trial, the Virginia judge gave the Lovings a choice: they could spend one year in jail or move to another state. In his opinion, the judge said:
Almighty God created the races, white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix. 16
The couple grudgingly moved to nearby Washington, D.C., and appealed their case, which eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, the Court found the laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the Court’s decision: “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry or not marry a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed upon by the State.” With that decision, all the remaining anti-miscegenation laws in the country were null and void. 17
While the Loving decision fought racism in the legal arena, there is much more to be done in the social arena. The recent cases surrounding an “all white” Georgia cemetery and a school prom in Alabama illustrate the continuing intolerance for mixed-race unions and individuals that exists in the United States.
Applications for the Classroom
As teachers retell the history of the United States, it is important to include discussion of racism, intolerance, and continued prejudice. Because contemporary youth culture seems to blur the lines between racial classifications, students will undoubtedly find relevance in more recent applications of miscegenation policies in communities throughout the United States. The following case studies will facilitate classroom discussion and more in-depth examination of the issues associated with miscegenation laws and practices. The Suggestions for Further Reading, below, can also provide more detailed information and exploration of the topic.
Georgia Church Cemetery
By the late 1960s, the United States began to experience a “biracial baby boom.” Unfortunately, just because interracial marriages were now legal, that did not mean that interracial couples—or their children—were well accepted in society. This reality was made lamentably obvious during the 1996 case of a Georgia church whose leaders elected to disinter the body of a mixed race infant who was buried in the church’s all-white cemetery. After the decision gained national attention and protest, the church backed down and allowed the baby to remain in the family plot. But just one week later, the church made national headlines again when it refused to marry the baby’s parents, a white woman and a black man. This case study can generate purposeful discussion of views toward interracial marriages, local community mores, and racism in general.
Alabama School Prom
High school students will find the case of a 1994 high school prom in Alabama to be especially relevant. In February the white principal at the seven-hundred-student Randolph County High School called an assembly of seniors and juniors. The school’s student body was 62 percent white and 38 percent black. Hulond Humphries, who had been principal of the school for twenty-five years, asked if anyone was planning to attend the prom “with someone who was not of the same race.” When several students indicated that they were planning to do just that, the principal threatened to cancel the event. The junior class president, ReVonda Bowen, whose father is white and mother is black, asked the principal what his order meant for her. The principal allegedly replied that Bowen’s parents had made a “mistake” and that he hoped to prevent others from doing the same. 18
Community condemnation was swift. Parents organized demonstrations and called for a boycott of classes. In response, about one-fifth of the high school students did not attend classes for several days. Although the principal withdrew his threat of canceling the prom, he was suspended with pay by a four-to-two vote from the local school board. Bowen’s parents filed a civil rights lawsuit for the degrading comments their daughter endured. Even still, there were some white parents who applauded the principal’s strict approach, and Humphries was reinstated two weeks later. Eventually, Humphries was reassigned to the central office and a new white principal and black assistant principal were appointed. The Alabama prom case can be a useful case study to discuss the history of anti-miscegenation sentiment in the United States and how it can still be found in present-day society.
The recent census can provide another immediate source for discussion. For the 2000 census, the Census Bureau for the first time allowed people to check as many racial categories as they felt applied. In an effort to make it easier for citizens to take part in the survey, Census 2000 also used its shortest form since 1820.
The first U.S. census in 1790, supervised by Thomas Jefferson, placed people into one of three categories: free white male, free white female, and other persons (which included free blacks, slaves, and “taxable Indians”). Seventy years later, the government began adding other categories like Mulatto, Chinese, and American Indian. The 1890 census added further distinctions and had categories for White, Black, Mulatto, Quadroon, Octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian. By 1910 the Census Bureau had eliminated the terms mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon it was assumed that three-quarters of all blacks in the United States were racially mixed anyway. Anyone with any African American ancestry would henceforth be counted as black. The 1990 census required people to choose one of the following racial categories: White, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Eskimo/Aleut, or Other. These classifications had been adopted and in use since 1970.
By the 1990s, many Americans felt that the selections available did not adequately describe who they were, and so they opted to check off “other” and use the write-in blank. On the 1990 census almost ten million people marked their race as “Other” most of these were Latinos who are unwilling to identify themselves as white, black, or Indian. Americans using the write-in blank self-identified nearly three hundred races, six hundred American Indian tribes, seventy Hispanic groups, and seventy-five different combinations of multiracial ancestry. 19
Census 2000 can be a useful starting point in the discussion of the concept of “race,” its ever-changing nature, and the transforming face of U.S. society.
Some Final Thoughts
Today there are more people of mixed heritage being born in the U.S. than at any other time in the nation’s history. In 1990 one in thirty-three children born was of mixed race. By 1995 the number had grown to one in twenty. In some states like California, one in every six births is a child of mixed race. 20 For teachers, in effect these numbers mean that within one generation, there will be one mixed race child in every school classroom in the country. 21 It is likely that most school classrooms already have some individuals who identify themselves as “mixed.” Not only is it historically accurate to include discussion of miscegenation in social studies classrooms, it is also a vehicle for making the curriculum more inclusive and representative of our population.
1 Joel Perlmann, Multiracials, Racial Classification, and American Intermarriage: The Public’s Interest (New York: Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, 1991), 5.
2 Martha Hodes, ed., Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 11.
3 Lawrence Wright, “One Drop of Blood,” New Yorker (24 July 1994): 6.
4 Derrick A. Bell, Race, Racism, and American Law, 2d ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980).
6 Race (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).
7 Association of American Law Schools, ed., Selected Essays on Family Law (Brooklyn: Foundation Press, 1950).
8 Zack, Race and Mixed Race.
9 Quoted in John G. Mencke, Mulattoes and Race Mixture: American Attitudes and Images, 1865-1918 (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1979), 37.
10 Thomas G. Dyer, Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980).
11 United States Immigration Commission, 61st Cong., Dictionary of Races or Peoples (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1911).
12 Ellis Cose, “One Drop of Bloody History,” Newsweek (13 February 1995): 70.
13 Association of American Law Schools, ed., Selected Essays, 278.
14 Bell, Race, Racism, and American Law, 62.
15 The sixteen states that had anti-miscegenation laws in 1967 were: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.
16 Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia, 388 US. 1 (1967).
17 However, it was not until 7 November 2000 that the electorate of Alabama passed an amendment to the Constitution of 1901 that abolished the prohibition of interracial marriage.
18 Ronald Smothers, “U.S. Moves to Oust Principal in Furor on Interracial Dating,” New York Times, 18 May 1994, 20A.
19 Tom Morganthau, “What Color is Black?” Newsweek (13 February 1995): 65.
20 “Multiracial Americans Seek Acceptance as Numbers Grow,” Sacramento Bee On-Line, 12 October 1997, 2.
21 Susan Mitchell, “The Next Baby Boom,” American Demographics (October 1995).
Other Sources Used
Ploscowe, Morris, Henry H. Foster Jr., and Doris Jonas Freed. Family Law: Cases and Materials, 2d edition. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.
Porterfield, Ernest. “Black-American Intermarriage in the United States.” In Intermarriage in the United States. Edited by Gary A. Cretser and Joseph J. Leon, 17-34. New York: Haworth Press, 1982
Cose, Ellis. “One Drop of Bloody History.” Newsweek (13 February 1995): 70.
Crohn, Joel. Mixed Matches. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1995.
Hodes, Martha, ed. Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
Root, Maria P. P., ed. The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996.
———, ed. Racially Mixed People in America: Within, Between, Beyond Race. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1992.
Spickard, Paul R. Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
Wright, Lawrence. “One Drop of Blood.” New Yorker (24 July 1994): 6.
Zack, Naomi. Race and Mixed Race. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
Almonte, Paul, and Theresa Desmond. Interracial Marriages. New York: Crestwood House, 1992.
Bender, David, ed. Interracial America: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
Cruz, Bárbara C. Multiethnic Teens and Cultural Identity. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2001.
Dodd, Johnny. “Portrait in Black and White.” People Weekly (23 February 1998): 19.
Gay, Kathlyn. The Rainbow Effect: Interracial Families. New York: Franklin Watts, 1987.
Gillespie, Peggy, and Gigi Kaeser. Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multiracial Families. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
Smolowe, Jill. “Intermarried . . . with Children.” Time (Fall 1993): 66.
Related Web Sites
Jei’s Interracial Resources Page
Triangle Interracial and Multicultural Experience (T.I.M.E.)
Bárbara C. Cruz is an associate professor of social science education at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Her teaching and research interests include multicultural and global perspectives in education as well as innovative strategies for teaching social studies.
Michael J. Berson is an associate professor of social science education in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of South Florida. His research explores global child advocacy and technology in social studies education.
AFRICAN AMERICANS AND JIM CROW
For these reasons, Jim Crow presented a formidable opponent — one that could divide its victims against themselves. Numerous leaders stepped forward to speak to the quandary of race relations. Booker T. Washington (1856 – 1915) advised black men to shift their focus from electoral politics to economics, to take up the trades, farming, and domestic and service work in order to build character and capital. While Washington supported industrial education, Du Bois recommended that the most talented of black folk be trained in the liberal arts so that they could emerge as leaders of the race. Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862 – 1931), a fearless antilynching campaigner, took up the mantle of agitation, advising African Americans to protect themselves and to leave the South altogether.
The question of migration as a form of protest dominated black discourse and action after emancipation, and as the century turned, a trickle of black southerners, mostly women, began to leave the land for the cities of the South and the North. They laid the groundwork for what was later called the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans left the brutalities of the South for the possibilities of the North. Black migrations were fueled by several factors. African Americans hoped to escape the tyranny of the South, especially economic oppression. The importunate character of sharecropping pressed families to give up the land for the city. There, however, they found new sets of barriers to employment or improved living conditions. Nevertheless, as the war economies expanded and European immigration slowed, African Americans found employment in the industries and the trades. Black people also migrated to find personal freedom not available to them in the South. African American women, for example, migrated to escape the persistent danger of public sexual assault by white and private assault by black men. As migrants within the South, women also laid the foundations upon which black southern communities were built, and it is here that the war against Jim Crow took place.
In urban areas, African Americans upbuilt communities from small settlements of freedpeople into dynamic neighborhoods of homes, institutions, and organizations. Although segregated, schools instilled a sense of race pride and responsibility in children. Churches served multiple roles, as community, political, and recreational spaces. Teachers, professors, undertakers, doctors, lawyers, and nurses served to uplift the black community. Held in high esteem, they presented not only models to emulate, but also a daily reminder of black accomplishment despite Jim Crow. National organizations like the NAACP, the National Negro Business League (NNBL), and black fraternities and sororities all functioned to improve the quality of life for African Americans. Founding segregated YWCAs, YMCAs, Boy ’ s Clubs, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts, adult African Americans supervised the development of young people with an eye toward the demands of citizenship. Indeed, although historians have called the early years of Jim Crow “ the Nadir, ” the lowest point in African American history, the period also was the zenith of the black press, black business, black church organizations, and the black women ’ s club movement as African Americans set about the work of race progress.
Still, the disadvantages of Jim Crow far outweighed the advantages, and beginning in the 1930s, African Americans took up a number of civil rights crusades. The NAACP, for example, began the battle against educational inequality, with the support of local branches. Local communities also engaged in “ don ’ t-buy-where-you-can ’ t-work ” campaigns, denying their dollars to businesses that did not employ black people. Veterans returned from a war against racism expecting to be accorded citizenship rights commensurate with their sacrifices. Turned back at the courthouses, they launched voting rights campaigns. By the 1940s, several events signaled that the demise of Jim Crow had begun. In Texas, the Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Allwright, Election Judge, et al. 312 U. S. 649 (1944) ended the all-white primary, opening the southern electoral process to black voters. In 1948 President Harry Truman (1913 – 2003) signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces. Finally, the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education sounded the end of constitutionally sanctioned Jim Crow in public schools, making way for African Americans to demand the integration of all public facilities and accommodations.
Just as Jim Crow was not a strictly definable historical period, the struggle against it was protracted. Using forms of direct action, nonviolent protests, and demonstrations, civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s were determined to break the back of Jim Crow, and they were successful, at least as far as the legal arena was concerned. Inasmuch as Jim Crow was a milieu that permeated culture and ideology historically, the struggle against American apartheid continues.
SEE ALSO Apartheid Bamboozled Black Face Brown v. Board of Education, 1954 Civil Rights Civil Rights Movement, U.S. Discrimination Discrimination, Racial Ku Klux Klan Lynchings Minstrelsy Race Relations Racism Segregation Separate-but-Equal Stereotypes Truman, Harry S. Tulsa Riot Voting Rights Act White Supremacy Whiteness Wilmington Riot of 1898
One of the more interesting bits of information from this project was the breakdown of states by their laws on interracial marrying. Maryland was the first colony to outlaw marriages between “freeborn English women… with Negro slaves.” On a more positive note, there were nine states that never had anti-miscegenation laws before they became states! (For more information on the history of interracial marriages, please go to https://www.thoughtco.com/interracial-marriage-laws-721611.)
Keeping this in mind, I wanted to construct this map for my visualization:
Initially I had an idea to make two dashboards with different levels of specificity. One would be more general — if a person who identifies as Black and Chinese, they would be considered “Mixed” in the general dashboard and, in the more detailed one, they would be able to pick from the over 250 racial categories the Census has, as of 2017. I made attempts to make this but it appeared too visually overwhelming in Tableau. There wasn’t a “type-in” and wildcard so the users would either have to read through a 252-option list or know that it is Chinese & African American not African American & Chinese.
I was rather disappointed in this discovery because even if it weren’t considered interracial, I know that there are people, from researchers to comedians like Ali Wong, who would want to see data on inter-Asian marriages, for example. Not only was the design of this list of hundreds of different races and combinations of races difficult, there was also the issue of the United States collecting data like these only since 2000 and, given my time frame, I had only two Census’ and one ACS from 2017 and these “trends” didn’t show much.
And now I would like to give advice to people who are trying to create a dashboard for the first time in Tableau. For my data visualization, I initially found it difficult to construct some of the features I wanted to make for my dashboard because Tableau wasn’t as intuitive as I had thought.
Please, Everyone — Use Tableau Public!
This website has been such an invaluable resource for me because it provides clear examples of what I want to do even if the topic had nothing to do with marriage, US history or the Census. If I came across a dashboard with a feature I wanted, I downloaded it and learned a great deal from it concerning how to construct the features I wanted. (example: drop-down lists and having the visualization change with the selections made) One display, in particular, has helped me was this one on presidential approval ratings over time. This visualization had many features I want in my dashboard and its source data characteristics that were in my data as well. There are gaps in the source data as there are in mine. This dashboard had the ability for the user to compare two different presidents and compare the ratings over time and I wanted something similar in my dashboard, only I wanted users to be able to pick two races and see marriage rates between the two selected races over time.
If ever a category was hard to define, the various groups lumped under the name “Arab American” is it. After all, Hispanic Americans or Asian Americans are so designated because of their counties of origin. But for Arab Americans, their country of origin—Arabia—has not existed for centuries. In addition, Arab Americans represent all religious practices, despite the stereotype that all Arabic people practice Islam. As Myers (2007) asserts, not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arab, complicating the stereotype of what it means to be an Arab American. Geographically, the Arab region comprises the Middle East and parts of northern Africa. People whose ancestry lies in that area or who speak primarily Arabic may consider themselves Arabs.
The U.S. Census has struggled with the issue of Arab identity. The 2010 Census, as in previous years, did not offer an “Arab” box to check under the question of race. Individuals who want to be counted as Arabs had to check the box for “Some other race” and then write in their race. However, when the Census data is tallied, they will be marked as white. This is problematic, however, denying Arab Americans opportunities for federal assistance. According to the best estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau, the Arabic population in the United States grew from 850,000 in 1990 to 1.2 million in 2000, an increase of .07 percent (Asi and Beaulieu 2013).
Why They Came
The first Arab immigrants came to this country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were predominantly Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian Christians, and they came to escape persecution and to make a better life. These early immigrants and their descendants, who were more likely to think of themselves as Syrian or Lebanese than Arab, represent almost half of the Arab American population today (Myers 2007). Restrictive immigration policies from the 1920s until 1965 curtailed all immigration, but Arab immigration since 1965 has been steady. Immigrants from this time period have been more likely to be Muslim and more highly educated, escaping political unrest and looking for better opportunities.
History of Intergroup Relations
The proposed Park51 Muslim Community Center generated heated controversy due to its close proximity to Ground Zero. In these photos, people march in protest against the center, while counter-protesters demonstrate their support. (Photos (a) and (b) courtesy of David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)
Relations between Arab Americans and the dominant majority have been marked by mistrust, misinformation, and deeply entrenched beliefs. Helen Samhan of the Arab American Institute suggests that Arab-Israeli conflicts in the 1970s contributed significantly to cultural and political anti-Arab sentiment in the United States (2001). The United States has historically supported the State of Israel, while some Middle Eastern countries deny the existence of the Israeli state. Disputes over these issues have involved Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine.
As is often the case with stereotyping and prejudice, the actions of extremists come to define the entire group, regardless of the fact that most U.S. citizens with ties to the Middle Eastern community condemn terrorist actions, as do most inhabitants of the Middle East. Would it be fair to judge all Catholics by the events of the Inquisition? Of course, the United States was deeply affected by the events of September 11, 2001. This event has left a deep scar on the American psyche, and it has fortified anti-Arab sentiment for a large percentage of Americans. In the first month after 9/11, hundreds of hate crimes were perpetrated against people who looked like they might be of Arab descent.
Although the rate of hate crimes against Arab Americans has slowed, Arab Americans are still victims of racism and prejudice. Racial profiling has proceeded against Arab Americans as a matter of course since 9/11. Particularly when engaged in air travel, being young and Arab-looking is enough to warrant a special search or detainment. This Islamophobia (irrational fear of or hatred against Muslims) does not show signs of abating. Scholars noted that white domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, who detonated a bomb at an Oklahoma courthouse in 1995, have not inspired similar racial profiling or hate crimes against whites.
The Major Demographic Shift That's Upending How We Think About Race
The usual way that race labels are applied in the United States in everyday parlance and in government statistics fail to capture a phemenon poised to reshape how race is actually lived in America: the increase in multiracial marriages and births, which almost certainly will lead to more blended populations in future generations. As this trend continues, it will blur the racial fault lines of the last half of the twentieth century. The nation is not there yet. But the evidence for multiracial marriages and multiracial individual identity shows an unmistakable softening of boundaries that should lead to new ways of thinking about racial populations and race-related issues.
Sociologists have viewed multiracial marriage as a benchmark for the ultimate stage of assimilation of a particular group into society. For that to occur, members of the group will already have reached other milestones: facility with a common language, similar levels of education, regular interaction in the workplace and community, and, especially, some level of residential integration. This is what we saw with European immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Russia in the last century. After decades of being kept at arm’s length by “old” European groups such as those from Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia, the newer arrivals finally began to intermarry with the more established ethnic groups as they became more upwardly mobile and geographically dispersed. Hispanics and Asians differ from white Europeans, of course—most significantly, for these purposes, Americans tend to view them as racial groups rather than ethnic groups. And race divisions, especially between whites and blacks, have historically been far less permeable. So the blending of today’s new racial minorities through multiracial marriage is breaking new ground.
Multiracial marriages have been rising dramatically. In 1960 (before federal statistics enumerated Hispanics and before the 1965 legislation that opened up immigration to more countries) multiracial marriages constituted only 0.4 percent of all U.S. marriages. That ﬁgure increased to 3.2 percent in 1980 and to 8.4 percent in 2010. More than one in seven newlywed couples are now multiracial.
Amid this overall increase, the propensity to marry out of one’s racial or ethnicity varies. Among recently married whites, 17 percent were married to someone of another race, but for Hispanics and Asians, more than four in ten recent marriages are multiracial. Among minorities,blacks continues to have the lowest prevalence of multiracial marriages, a legacy of the anti-miscegenation statutes that persisted in 16 states until 1967, when the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in the landmark Loving v. Virginia decision. It was only after this ruling in the post–civil rights environment that black multiracial marriages began to rise noticeably, but among recent, typically younger marriages involving blacks, nearly three in ten were multiracial marriages, signaling an important breakthrough in the long history of black marital endogamy.
Especially noteworthy is the rise in white-black multiracial marriages: In 1960, white-black marriages amounted to only 1.7 percent of all black same-race marriages, but in 2010, they amounted to 12 percent. White-black relationships are even more prevalent among recent cohabiting couples.
The geographic dispersion of new minority populations to the New Sun Belt states in the South and Mountain West—and into the largely white, interior Heartland states—is dispersing multiracial marriages along with it. The highest prevalence of multiracial marriages is found in Hawaii, where three in ten marriages are multiracial, followed by Alaska and Oklahoma. These states have long-standing populations of Asians, Alaska Natives, and American Indians, respectively. Just below are a mix of states where Hispanic and Asian immigrants have maintained a long-term presence, including New Mexico, California, Texas, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado. At least one in ten marriages in these states is multiracial. Multiracial marriages are also growing in the New Sun Belt (states such as Georgia, Utah, Idaho, and North Carolina) and even several Heartland states (Minnesota, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Indiana). Although many new Hispanic migrants to these regions are less assimilated than elsewhere with regard to measures such as English language proficiency and education, they are likely to have substantial interaction with their states’ non-Hispanic populations, which may be leading to more multiracial marriages than might otherwise occur. For example, in Idaho and Utah, the prevalence of multiracial marriages among Hispanics is 43 and 44 percent, respectively. These rates stand in contrast to rates of 26 and 21 percent in the more mature Melting Pot states of California and Texas.
At the other end of the spectrum are 14 states where multiracial marriages account for less than 5 percent of all marriages. In West Virginia, only about 3 in 100 marriages are multiracial.
An obvious consequence of a rise in multiracial marriages would be an increase in multiracial children, which would lead to a greater share of the population claiming a mix of racial backgrounds. The marriage of individuals from various European immigrant backgrounds led to the melting pot that characterizes much of today’s white population. It would seem only natural to anticipate a similar boom of multiracial persons in the years ahead. Yet in the case of multiracial marriages, national and cultural boundaries are not the only lines being crossed. New ground is being broken, pushing back against long-standing social and even legal constraints that often subjugated multiracial persons—particularly those with white-black ancestry—to second-class status. In many cases, individuals who could “pass” as white tried to do so in order to become part of the mainstream.
The practice of dividing whites from blacks and other nonwhites began in the early years of nationhood, when the slave population was counted separately and the “one drop” rule stipulated that if a person had any black ancestors, they could not be classiﬁed as white. Although classiﬁcations in later censuses included Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Hindu, there was little attempt to think of these largely “racial” categories as subject to mixing. This stands in contrast to the collection of information on parental birthplace and ancestry or national origin, which was widely used to study the blending of white ethnic populations. Although multiracial populations emanating from multiracial marriages certainly existed, they were not well documented in national statistics.
Beginning with the 2000 census, federal guidelines mandated that when U.S. government statistical agencies collect information on race, they must provide options for persons who identify with more than one race. The impetus for this change came from a well-organized grassroots effort by people who thought of themselves as multiracial and wanted to be officially recognized as such.
The census permits identiﬁcation of combinations of up to six speciﬁc racial categories, including “some other race,” a catch-all category for those races not speciﬁcally identiﬁed. In 2010, those identifying as “white and black” made up the largest single group—a population that more than doubled over the preceding decade, especially among the young. For every 100 black toddlers under age ﬁve, 15 toddlers are identiﬁed as both white and black—a sharp rise since 2000. In a handful of Western, Great Plains and New England states, the population of “white and black” persons is more than 20 percent of the black-only population.
But the more vivid evidence of the erosion of the white-black divide is found in the South, the region historically most resistant to racial change. Because of past prejudices and customs, the white-black population, as a percentage of all blacks, is still considerably lower in the South than in other parts of the country. In a slew of states from Maryland to Texas, “white and black” populations amount to less than 5 percent of the black-only populations in Mississippi and Louisiana, “white and black” populations constitute only 1 percent. Yet the South is attracting blacks in large numbers, including multiracial blacks, from all parts of the country. And when states are ranked by the growth in their “white-black” multiracial populations in the ﬁrst decade of the 2000s, rather than their current totals, the southern states lead all others. In that period, the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama more than tripled their white-black multiracial populations. Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Kentucky were not far behind. In fact, southern states as a whole accounted for 41 percent of the nation’s decade-long gain in the “white and black” multiracial population.
Overall, the share of the U.S. total population that categorizes itself as multiracial—2.9 percent—is surprisingly small in light of the pervasiveness of multiracial marriages.There are several reasons to believe that the official numbers markedly understate size. One is that the census does not include Hispanics in its count of multiracial persons because they are considered an ethnic rather than a racial group. After the 2010 census, the Census Bureau began to experiment with the implications of changing this policy. It allowed respondents to choose new multiracial categories such as “white and Hispanic” or “black and Hispanic.” This change led, in one scenario, to a rise in the multiracial share of the population to 6.8 percent, well above the 2.9 percent in the 2010 census. Moreover, earlier projections using a similar approach by non-census researchers show the U.S. multiracial population reaching 10 percent in the year 2020 and 18 percent in the year 2050.
A second reason why the multiracial population may be going undercounted is that the single racial status of children is often determined by the adult who ﬁlls out the census form. Research suggests that in identifying the race of their children, multiracial couples often select single-race identities that they believe will be more socially acceptable or will better prepare their children for success. This, of course, may change as these children come of age and begin defining themselves. President Barack Obama, the child of a multiracial marriage, announced through his spokesperson that he identiﬁed himself as “black” rather than “white and black” on his 2010 census form. It is likely, however, that younger and future generations of Americans from multiracial families will be more likely to embrace their heritage.
Reprinted with permission from Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America by William H. Frey (Brookings Press, 2014).
Relationships Essential Reads
Being Mindful to Avoid "Falling" in Love With the Wrong People
Why Healthy Relationships Need Boundaries
On OK Cupid, black women and white men seemed to be adjusting their standards according to their popularity. Black women received the fewest emails and responded to the most, while White men received the most emails and responded to the fewest. Black, Asian and gay people are disproportionately more likely to use online dating services in general, which could also be in reaction to perceived scarcity of desirable partners using more traditional ways of meeting.
Even though the OK Cupid results reflect the behavior of over a million online daters, each dating site draws somewhat different demographics. OK Cupid has a reputation for attracting a young, nerdy-cool, highly educated crowd. How about more broadly used dating sites? In a Yahoo personals study done at UC Irvine, 91% of members claimed to have no race preference for their matches but white men who dated interracially selected Asian and Latino dating partners significantly more often than black women and Asian men were the least preferred matches for white women. Yup, not a level playing field.
In a speed dating study using Columbia University grad students, white, black and Hispanic women were all far more likely to say no to Asian men than all other men. While various surveys have shown that women in general have a stronger preference than men do for same-race partners, the Asian women in the Columbia sample didn't show a greater preference for Asian men. Black women strongly preferred black men but the black men didn't reciprocate their level of interest to nearly the same degree 2 .
The same gender difference show up in interracial sex. In a major sex survey of over 3000 people called Sex in America that was done twenty years ago, ten times more single white women than single white men reported that their most recent sex partner was black.
And then there's porn. Asian males are notoriously absent, which could be due to their general lack of interest in participating in these films, but Asian Studies Professor Darrell Hamamoto sees it differently. He was so peeved about what he called the de-sexualization of Asian men in films (in Hollywood as well as porn industry) that he produced his own porn film called Skin on Skin, using an entirely Asian cast. As UCLA professor Russell Leong put it: "Asian men can kick butt, but they can't have a kiss." Reader, I challenge you to count the number of Asian male romantic leads in major American (non martial arts) films on more than one hand. I'm just starting to see a change on the small screen (thank goodness - and we need more!) but the big screen is a tough nut to crack.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same?
- Legacy of slavery contributed to African-American male idealization of white women as forbidden fruit and status symbols.
- As slaves, black women were raped as the property of white men and have ongoing aversions of white men as a result.
- Because black men have been oppressed by white men, black women are taught to have "stand by your man at all costs" loyalty to them.
- Evolutionary mate selection theorists say height, hairiness, and larger penises are associated with greater masculinity. Petiteness and long hair are associated with femininity. Asian men are shorter and less hairy (on average) than black or white men. Black women have shorter natural hair and have slightly greater muscle and bone density (on average) than other women. So Asian men are viewed as less masculine than others and black women are viewed as less feminine than others. Black and Asian penis size myths are perpetuated even though they have been debunked in various scientific studies.
- Stereotypes about Asian submissiveness and black aggressiveness fuel assumptions about what partners will be most "masculine" and "feminine", and who will be the bad boy and good girl.
- White standards of beauty devalue black women and Asian men and our media embrace these standards.
What do you think? What has been your experience?
1. Can Intermarriage Make You Smarter and Richer? May 27, 1999 http://www.stats.org/newsletters/9708/interrace2.htm
2. Racial Preferences in Dating (2008). Fisman, R., Iyengar, S., Kamenica, E. & Simonson, I. Review of Economic Studies 75, 117-132
African Americans in the Great Depression and New Deal
For African Americans, the Great Depression and the New Deal (1929–1940) marked a transformative era and laid the groundwork for the postwar black freedom struggle in the United States. The outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929 caused widespread suffering and despair in black communities across the country as women and men faced staggering rates of unemployment and poverty. Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), a Democrat, was inaugurated as president in 1933, he launched a “New Deal” of ambitious government programs to lift the United States out of the economic crisis. Most African Americans were skeptical about benefiting from the New Deal, and racial discrimination remained rampant. However, a cohort of black advisors and activists critiqued these government programs for excluding African Americans and enacted some reforms. At the grassroots level, black workers pressed for expanded employment opportunities and joined new labor unions to fight for economic rights. As the New Deal progressed a sea change swept over black politics. Many black voters switched their allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party, waged more militant campaigns for racial justice, and joined interracial and leftist coalitions. African Americans also challenged entrenched cultural stereotypes through photography, theater, and oral histories to illuminate the realities of black life in the United States. By 1940, African Americans now wielded an arsenal of protest tactics and were marching on a path toward full citizenship rights, which remains an always evolving process.
- Political History
- Cultural History
- Labor and Working Class History
- Women's History
- African American History
Last Hired, First Fired: The Crisis of the Great Depression
On the eve of the Great Depression, African Americans across the country already occupied a fragile position in the economy. 1 In the late 1920s, the vast majority of African Americans toiled as domestic servants, farmers, or service workers, jobs marked by low wages, weak job security, and fraught labor conditions. 2 Approximately eleven million African Americans lived in the American South, where they principally labored as sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and wage workers. Approximately 10 percent of black southerners owned land, but most cultivated crops on white-owned land and received a small share of the harvest. 3 Many regions of the South were already suffering from an economic downtown, and most black southerners were locked in an endless cycle of poverty, exploitation, and malnutrition. Disfranchisement and violence—especially the dangers of lynching and sexual assault—created a culture of fear for -black southerners. 4
Between 1915 and 1930 , approximately 1.5 million black southerners had migrated to northern and midwestern cities, such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia. Not only did New York attract southern migrants, but thirty thousand immigrants from the West Indies also settled in the city, which made the Harlem neighborhood a very cosmopolitan place. 5 African Americans also streamed into western cities, such as Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco. 6 Black migrants had aspired to improve their economic and political standing in their new cities. But most discovered that Jim Crow was ever present beyond the Mason-Dixon line, marked by racial segregation, interracial police violence, and labor segmentation. Some black men were able to secure low-level positions in industry, while most black women labored as servants, cooks, and laundresses. However, southern migrants were able to vote in elections, which created black political constituencies to be courted by politicians. The ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 enabled most migrant women to vote, and they participated enthusiastically in politics. 7
In October 1929 , the US stock market crashed, which precipitated the most serious economic crisis in the nation’s history. Banks began to fail, businesses closed, and workers across the nation lost their jobs. The Great Depression triggered immediate suffering in black communities. Economic conditions had been poor in the South since the early 1920s, but the Great Depression marked a new low. Between 1929 and 1933 , the price of cotton dropped from eighteen cents to six cents, which only exacerbated black southerners’ precarious economic position. With a decline in cotton prices, the number of black sharecroppers fell. 8 In northern and midwestern cities, white unemployment reached as much as 25 percent, but for black workers in Chicago, New York, and Pittsburgh, 50 percent were out of work, and that number climbed to 60 percent for black workers in Philadelphia and Detroit. 9 African American workers were often the last hired, and thus, the first fired. The Great Depression initially slowed the pace of migration, but black African Americans continued to stream out of the South throughout the 1930s. 10
With the crisis of the Great Depression, African Americans struggled to receive adequate relief from the crushing impact of unemployment and poverty. White officials distributed relief in the form of food, money, or work programs, but many reasoned that African Americans did not need as many resources as white Americans. 11 At the federal level, President Herbert Hoover’s administration responded to the crisis of the Great Depression by creating the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which offered loan payments to large corporations in order to restart the economy, but very few of these dollars reached suffering workers in the United States. 12
African Americans turned toward their community institutions to alleviate the worst effects of poverty and suffering. Middle-class African Americans spearheaded relief efforts by working with their churches, fraternal orders, and social and political organizations to assist unemployed workers. 13 As the chief purchasers for their families, black women were keenly aware of the cost of living and used the power of their pocketbooks to cope with the Depression. In 1930 , Fannie Peck formed the Housewives’ League of Detroit, asking members to patronize black-owned businesses as a way to protect these establishments and keep money in the black community. By 1934 , the organization had ten thousand members. These organizations mushroomed in other cities, such as Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh, underscoring the importance of black women’s organizing at the grassroots level. Women also banded together to clothe, feed, and house their families. In New York, Detroit, and St. Louis, black women staged meat boycotts and protested rent evictions, while in Cleveland, they protested electricity shut offs. 14 Some African Americans joined the Communist Party (CP) during the Great Depression, finding that this organization was an important vehicle to achieve economic survival for their families. Across the country, black activists united with the CP to fight against interracial police brutality, press for an economic redistribution in society, or protest the unjust criminalization of the thirteen men falsely accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama. 15 As black citizens struggled to survive during the Great Depression, they pondered whether they should remain loyal to the Republican Party or cast their lot with Democratic candidate FDR and his vision for a New Deal in American society.
The New Deal and Racial Discrimination
African Americans supported President Hoover by a two-to-one margin in the 1932 election. While most African Americans still associated the Grand Old Party with Abraham Lincoln and civil rights, Hoover had an uneven record on racial justice. 16 He made black equality a plank in his campaign platform and appointed black men to serve in patronage positions and tapped black women to sit on government advisory committees. But other practices in his administration distressed African Americans. In 1930 , he permitted the War Department to segregate black and white gold star mothers on separate ships gold star mothers were women whose sons had been killed in World War I. 17 That same year, Hoover nominated John J. Parker to the US Supreme Court. A former governor of North Carolina and Republican, Parker had once declared that African Americans should not participate in politics and publicly supported disfranchisement laws. In response, African Americans in the nation’s two largest civil rights organizations—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW)—banded together to thwart Parker’s confirmation. In response to this robust lobbying, the senate narrowly voted not to confirm Justice Parker, and many scholars point to this victory as a new era in black politics. 18
Hoover’s opponent in the 1932 election, FDR, bore the burden of the Democratic Party’s long support for racial segregation and intolerance. 19 Between 1913 and 1920 , the last Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson, had installed racial segregation in the federal government and thwarted opportunities for black government workers. 20 On the surface, FDR seemed little better. A northerner who served as governor of New York, he also maintained a home in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he received therapeutic treatments for polio and seemed comfortable in the white South, a crucial region in the Democratic coalition. 21 Furthermore, FDR’s running mate was the Texas politician John Nance Garner—further evidence that FDR would likely embody the worst impulses of the Jim Crow South as a Democratic president. Although some African Americans supported FDR, most black voters remained loyal to the Republican Party. 22
Even before FDR’s inauguration, his administration began to take a different path from his predecessors on race relations. Over half of the servants who were hired to work in the White House were African American, which was the largest number in recent years. Two of the most notable were a married couple from Georgia who had met FDR in Warm Springs Irvin McDuffie worked as FDR’s valet and his wife, Elizabeth, labored as a maid in the White House. Both Irvin and Elizabeth McDuffie became active in Washington’s black community, and they helped to humanize the Roosevelt administration to African Americans in the early 1930s by giving interviews in the press and attending White House events with black performers. However, while FDR was willing to bring black servants into the White House, he appointed no African Americans to the cabinet or other administrative positions. 23
Once FDR was inaugurated as America’s thirty-second president in March 1933 , he pursued an ambitious agenda to bring relief to unemployed persons and set the economy on a path of economic recovery. In his first hundred days, FDR created five sweeping programs, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). White administrators oversaw all of these programs, and most were not attuned to racial discrimination, which meant that very few black workers experienced immediate relief. For example, both the TVA and AAA were aimed at the South, and without vigilance, it was easy to deny benefits to African Americans. The AAA evicted black sharecroppers and tenant farmers off of the land they were cultivating. The CCC hired unemployed young men to labor on public works projects and its white director, a native of Tennessee, believed that young black men did not need these jobs as much as their white men. As a result, the CCC admitted fewer black men, housed them in segregated dormitories, and barred black CCC workers from most administrative positions. The TVA tried to bring rural electrification and economic development to the South, but its strict practices of racial segregation thwarted black participation. 24
The National Recovery Administration’s (NRA) program of regulated wage codes underscored how the federal government based their programs on the needs of white men and women. In theory, the NRA was intended to provide a minimum wage for worker in various industries. But in practice, the NRA did not recognize the ways that race intersected class and sex. The NRA’s cotton industry hours regulation excluded the central positions where black male workers labored, while the southern lumber industry’s wages were far lower than those wages paid in the North. Even when black workers were eligible for higher wages, employers preferred to pay this money to white workers. 25 The NRA also sought to regulate the hours and wages for hairdressers. Most white hairdressers had white clients who received their treatments during regular working hours. But black domestics who worked during the day and received their treatments in the evening comprised the clientele of most black hairdressers. Across the country, black hairdressers banded together to protest this exclusionary legislation, pointing out that black women did not have identical interests as white women. One black hairdresser in Washington, DC, even declared that the New Deal was “a white man’s law.” 26
The Social Security Act epitomized the New Deal’s negligence toward race and sex. Social Security was a revolutionary piece of legislation that granted unemployment insurance and retirement benefits to workers in the United States. It was designed to mitigate the worst effects of the Great Depression by providing income to unemployed workers and preventing poverty among the elderly. But, southern white men who were determined to preserve the South’s racial order served these on congressional committees and inserted a provision in the proposed Social Security legislation that excluded farmers and domestic workers. 27 Representatives from two major black organizations—Charles Hamilton Houston from the NAACP and George E. Haynes from the National Urban League (NUL)—testified in Congress, stressing the importance of including all black workers. 28 But when FDR signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935 , it deemed farmers and domestics ineligible, which meant that 87 percent of all-black women and 55 percent of all African American workers were excluded. 29 A broad swath of African Americans protested these exclusions, ranging from individual black workers to the NACW and the Grand Order of the Elks, but this legislation was not broadened until the 1950s. 30
During the early 1930s, the one New Deal agency that took decisive action against racial discrimination was the Public Works Administration (PWA), a massive program of construction projects. During the 1930s, the PWA spent $6 billion and built thousands of projects across the country, including airports, schools, hospitals, libraries, and public housing (see figure 1). 31 Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, a former president of the Chicago branch of the NAACP, headed the PWA, which was created as part of the NIRA. To express sensitivity toward race, Ickes announced that he would hire a “Special Advisor on the Status of Negroes” for the PWA and selected Clark Foreman, a white southerner. The appointment of a white man, especially when there were hundreds of qualified black men and women for this position, upset African Americans, causing them to express profound concern whether the New Deal would provide substantive change in black communities. 32 However, Ickes also sought the advice of black advisors, who counseled him on the ways that African Americans could benefit from the PWA. He tapped two black graduates of Harvard University—economist Robert Weaver and attorney William Hastie—to serve in the PWA. 33
Figure 1. Through their residency in these PWA housing complexes, African Americans were able to save money and plan for their future. “PWA (Public Works Administration) housing project for Negroes.” Omaha, Nebraska, November 1938.
One of the most important programs that the PWA spearheaded was the construction of fifty-one public housing projects, which marked the very first time that the US government erected housing for its low-income citizens. Since segregation was rampant in the 1930s, Ickes did not propose integrated housing projects. But he designated nineteen, or one-third, of these housing projects, for African American occupancy. In cities with large black populations, such as Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, African American families moved into affordable, new housing that was designed to be transitional and life changing. 34 In September 1933 , the NAACP lobbied Ickes to issue a non-discrimination clause in the PWA, stating that construction projects could not discriminate on the basis of race. Ickes’s advisors, including Clark Foreman, William Hastie, and Robert Weaver, supplemented this clause with a quota system, stating that all construction crews had to employ a number of black workers that was proportional to their population. They also recruited black architects to design some of these public housing complexes. 35 The success of the PWA in assisting African Americans in such a concrete way demonstrated that black advisors could make a significant difference in New Deal programs, and prompted other government agencies to hire black consultants.
Activism in the Black Cabinet
By the mid-1930s, white administrators had begun to tap black advisors for government programs with more regularity. This shift can be traced to the PWA’s success in addressing racial discrimination, as well as growing black support for New Deal programs and the Democratic Party. In 1935 , the National Youth Administration (NYA), an agency focused on finding work opportunities for young people, appointed prominent clubwoman and school president, Mary McLeod Bethune, to become the Negro Advisor, and later chair, of its Division of Negro Affairs (see figure 2). In taking this position, Bethune became the first black woman to head a government division. A native of South Carolina, she was the founder of the Bethune-Cookman School in Florida, a former president of the NACW, and an activist with deep networks in black women’s politics. In 1935 , Bethune founded a new civil rights organization, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). 36 In the NYA, Bethune lobbied for African Americans to serve in leadership positions at the federal, state, and local levels. Under her watchful eye, more African Americans served in administrative positions in the NYA than any other New Deal program. And by the early 1940s, as many as 20 percent of black youth participated in NYA programs. 37 Mary McLeod Bethune also cultivated a public friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and educated her about the particular problems that African Americans faced in the United States. Through this friendship, Eleanor Roosevelt elevated her standing with African Americans and became an ally of black civil rights causes. Eleanor Roosevelt supported a federal anti-lynching bill, an end to the poll tax, and increased funding for black schools. 38
Figure 2. Mary McLeod Bethune was able to use her appointment in the New Deal to form the Black Cabinet and the NCNW. “Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, founder and former president and director of the NYA (National Youth Administration) Negro Relations.” Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, Florida, January 1943.
Not only did Bethune assume a prominent position in the NYA and inform the First Lady about racial justice, but she also used her new status in Washington, DC, to gather a group of black consultants into the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, which became known as the Black Cabinet. Composed of lawyers, politicians, and journalists, members of the Black Cabinet advised President Roosevelt on matters related to African Americans. Some members of the Black Cabinet included the economist Robert Weaver, lawyer Charles Hastie, Pittsburgh Courier editor Robert L. Vann, who was in the Office of the Attorney General, social worker Lawrence Oxley, and CCC advisor Edgar Brown. The black press covered the Black Cabinet extensively, thereby introducing African American readers to the cohort of black professionals who advised the Roosevelt administration. By 1940 , one hundred African Americans served in administrative positions in the New Deal. But the Black Cabinet was not a formal government institution and Bethune convened its meetings in her office or apartment. 39
Members of the Black Cabinet worked in concert with civil rights organizations to pressure New Deal agencies and programs to end racial bias. For example, in 1933 , the CCC had enrolled a paltry number of young black men. But, after the NAACP put pressure on the CCC, two hundred thousand African American men participated in the program by 1940 , and one-fifth of them learned to read and write while enrolled. 40 In 1935 , Congress passed the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which took over some of the work from the PWA. The WPA’s administrator, Harry Hopkins, built on Ickes’s example by appointing a series of black advisors to design programs that would assist African Americans. 41 In the first year alone, two hundred thousand African Americans joined WPA programs, and that number climbed steadily each year. 42 The WPA constructed black schools and community centers, opened domestic service training centers, conducted adult education classes, and oversaw a myriad of arts projects (see section on “Black Stories in the New Deal Era”). In the rural South, African American men and women flocked to literacy classes, which enabled them to learn to read and supplement the poor education they had received in deeply underfunded schools, or even attend school for the first time in their lives (see figure 3). By the end of the 1930s, black illiteracy fell by 10 percent. 43
Figure 3. Older African Americans flocked to the WPA adult literacy programs. Pictured is an 82-year-old woman who is the “star pupil” in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. “Star pupil, eighty-two years old, reading her lesson in adult class. Gee’s Bend, Alabama.” May 1939.
Despite the presence of racial advisors, however, many New Deal programs failed to address the black structural inequalities that lay at the root of American society. For example, the WPA limited black women’s employment opportunities to domestic service training programs and sewing programs, both of which paid low wages, while it enabled white women to seek opportunities in other industries, such as clerical work, gardening, and nursing. 44 Similarly, when the PWA constructed black housing projects, they engaged in slum clearance by razing black neighborhoods. This practice actually created a housing shortage for African Americans in segregated cities and paved the way for urban renewal programs in the postwar era. When Congress created the United States Housing Authority in 1937 , the bureau did not issue mortgages to African Americans in racially integrated neighborhoods. In all of these instances, New Deal programs did not touch America’s landscape of racial segregation and labor segmentation. 45
New Deal programs were especially challenged to improve the lives of rural black southerners, which was a source of continual frustration. A significant number of FDR’s economic advisors were native to the South and determined to use the New Deal as an instrument to tackle poverty in the region. The Agricultural Adjustment Act tried to increase crop prices by paying farmers to decrease their acreage. But the AAA lacked programs to assist black sharecroppers, who could not receive these payments because they were not landowners. Moreover, prominent white men who served on the AAA’s local committees crafted policies that favored white farmers over black farmers, which sometimes forced black landowners off their land and squeezed sharecroppers out of their jobs. The Resettlement Administration tried to relocate southerners to planned communities, but ultimately, only 1,393 black families were able to benefit from this program. 46 Cumulatively, the New Deal assisted black southerners by allocating money to African American schools, funding public health programs, and improving black housing. 47 While black participation in New Deal programs was uneven, there was no question that it marked a new era for African Americans and enabled them to recast their ideas about citizenship and belonging in the United States. By 1935 , 30 percent of African Americans were recipients of New Deal relief programs and many turned their political allegiances in these shifting times. 48
The 1936 election marked a major test for black politics. In his bid for a second term in office, FDR actively courted the black vote, envisioning African Americans as a part of his expanding electoral coalition that included workers, European immigrants, and white southerners. President Roosevelt was very delicate on the race question. Without supporting anti-lynching legislation publicly, he appealed to black voters by touting his record of black appointments and government programs that assisted African Americans. By the mid-1930s, black voter registration was at an all-time high in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit. In southern cities, some African Americans had managed to escape the barriers of disfranchisement and formed Democratic political clubs. 49 At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in June 1936 , thirty African Americans served as delegates, which was a first for the party. Furthermore, the black press received seats in the press box, a black minister, Marshall L. Shepard, delivered the invocation, and black politicians delivered addresses. 50 And, in the weeks before the election, FDR sent his maid, Elizabeth McDuffie, on the campaign trail to offer personal testimony about the Democratic Party’s commitment to African Americans. McDuffie traveled to midwestern cities where she held rallies and spoke to a total of fifty thousand black citizens. As the child of former slaves, McDuffie argued that the New Deal represented a second emancipation for African Americans. 51 This outreach worked and FDR was reelected in a landslide victory in 1936 . He captured 61 percent of the total vote, but he won 76 percent of the black vote. In this election, he cemented the relationship between African Americans and the Democratic Party. 52 Not all African Americans switched to the Democratic Party, however, and some black voters lamented that neither party offered a robust response to black poverty and civil rights. 53
Militant Black Protest Politics in the 1930s
While African Americans caused a major political realignment by switching from the Republican to the Democratic Parties, they also formed new protest organizations and deployed strategies of mass action in order to achieve racial justice. Early 21st-century historians point to these activities in the 1930s as evidence of a “long” civil rights movement in the United States, which helped to pave the way for the postwar black freedom struggle. 54 During the 1930s, the NAACP and NUL paid close attention to New Deal programs and put pressure on administrators to end racial bias. African Americans frequently reached out to their local branches or the national organization, and the NAACP was swift to conduct investigations and assisted thousands of African Americans across the country. 55 The NAACP had brilliant lawyers in Charles Hamilton Houston and his student at Howard University Law School, Thurgood Marshall. This legal team won landmark cases: Murray v. Maryland in 1936 and Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada in 1938 , which both whittled away at racial segregation in professional and graduate schools. 56 They also scored a victory in the Supreme Court in Hale v. Kentucky in 1938 which opened jury service to African Americans. And the national NAACP, along with local branches, aligned with the CP, despite worries about the party’s radicalism, to secure justice for the Scottsboro Nine, black teenagers who had been accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama in 1931 . All but the youngest were given a death sentence by electrocution in Alabama courts. Ada Wright, mother of two of the accused, traveled with the CP’s International Labor Defense throughout Europe in the early 1930s to spread awareness about the case, and her speaking engagements helped to educate a global audience about the injustices of the legal system for African Americans. 57 Through mass marches, newspaper exposes, and a massive fundraising campaign, the defendants were ultimately exonerated and released from jail. 58
African Americans also formed new organizations to fight for their economic rights and political interests in the 1930s. In 1931 , black sharecroppers in Alabama established the Alabama Sharecroppers Union in connection with the CP and by 1934 , it had four thousand members. Black women evaluated the strength of their organizations and tested new strategies. In 1935 , Mary McLeod Bethune founded the NCNW, to serve as a civil rights organization for black women. The NCNW gathered members from the NACW, but also federated with sororities, church groups, and professional organizations. Seeking to distance herself from the NACW’s respectability politics, Bethune designed the NCNW to lobby for black women’s interests with a special emphasis on employment opportunities. However, the NCNW was largely a middle-class organization that did not directly assist working-class women. In 1936 , John P. Davis and Howard Professor Ralph Bunche formed the National Negro Congress (NNC) and its youth organization, the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC). The NNC and SNYC reached down below to the grassroots level, recruiting activists, students, and workers to fight for black rights. By the late 1930s, the NNC established seventy-five local chapters across the country. 59
Men, women, and especially, young people, banded together with these new protest organizations to stage militant campaigns across the country. Activists in the NNC fought to broaden New Deal programs, improve living conditions for African Americans, organize black workers into industrial labor unions, protest disfranchisement, and protect all African Americans from interracial violence, especially lynching and police brutality. 60 In Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, DC, black women and men staged Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work campaigns. Citizens picketed the white-owned stores and restaurants in black neighborhoods that did not hire black workers. 61 They also withheld their patronage from these establishments and intimidated black customers. These protests were largely successful and resulted in hundreds of jobs for unemployed and underemployed men and women, including teenagers who needed to supplement their family’s income. 62 African Americans also celebrated a major success when the Supreme Court upheld their right to picket in New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery in 1938 . These grassroots protests in the 1930s demonstrated the power of mass action and would help to inspire protests in the postwar era. 63
Not only did African Americans fight for jobs, but they also formed labor unions within different industries. In 1935 , Congress passed the Wagner Act, which upheld the right of workers to organize labor unions, participate in collective bargaining, and stage strikes, which nurtured a more supportive climate for industrial black workers. The largest black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), negotiated a contract with the Pullman Company to reduce their hours and increase their wages. 64 White labor leaders formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which organized black and white workers in mining, automobile, meatpacking, and steel industries. The CIO made racial equality central to its organization by fighting against pay scales and hiring black organizers in all of its unions. 65 The CIO also became a civil rights ally by lobbying against the poll tax, supporting a federal anti-lynching law, and fighting against labor discrimination. 66 Black tobacco workers and Red Caps both joined CIO-affiliated unions to fight for economic justice during the 1930s. 67 While black women joined some of these labor unions, they overwhelmingly assisted male workers. 68 In the 1930s, with the backing of the NNC, some black women formed a domestic workers union in New York City. But the union proved unable to improve their circumstances significantly during the Great Depression and New Deal eras, and domestic workers remained one of the nation’s most exploited groups, as they still are. 69
During the New Deal era, domestic workers suffered from abject poverty. Not only were they excluded from the Social Security Act, but white families reeling from the Depression fired servants or slashed wages. In 1935 , activists Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke wrote a landmark piece that was published in the NAACP’s organ, the Crisis , entitled “The Bronx Slave Market.” 70 This piece chronicled the desperate black servants who crowded the streets of the Bronx and the white housewives who would hire them for day wages. By terming this a “slave market,” Baker and Cooke underscored the severity of black women’s economic predicaments and the intersections of race, class, and gender during the Depression. 71 One job coveted by Washington, DC, domestic workers was to become a federal “charwoman,” a worker who cleaned government offices. The positions paid higher wages than domestic service and offered retirement benefits, and when the federal government announced it was accepting applications for these positions, between ten thousand and twenty thousand black women showed up to apply for these jobs. Many had spent the night at the station in order to obtain a good place in line. Their numbers were so large that officials had to stop distributing applications and turn toward crowd control. When women learned that they could not receive job applications, they began to express anger and frustration as white police officers were dispatched to contain the crowds of rioting women. The episode illustrated the dire economic circumstances experienced by black women and black families, the women articulating their collective desire to leave domestic service in white women’s houses and their exclusion from many New Deal programs, especially Social Security. 72
Black women and men who had suffered disproportionately from unemployment sometimes turned to the underground economy for survival. African Americans held rent parties, played numbers games, joined economic cooperatives, engaged in petty theft, and traded in sex to survive the effects of the Depression. 73 Yet these activities also made black women and men vulnerable targets for interracial police violence in cities such as Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC. 74
The visibility of African Americans in this era—whether they were marching in picket lines, staging boycotts, or rioting for jobs—underscored a new era in their culture of protest. Simultaneously, art, photography, writing, and oral history offered African Americans bountiful opportunities to recast their image in American culture and speak some of their truths.
Black Stories in the New Deal Era
Through the New Deal, the federal government first began to finance arts projects that, in turn, involved significant black engagement. Not only were writers, actors, photographers, and painters suffering from higher rates of unemployment than other categories of workers, but New Deal administrators also argued that the arts were a crucial part of the nation’s vitality. Largely through the WPA, the federal government organized the Federal Theater Project (FTP) and the Federal Writers Project (FWP), which employed writers and playwrights. The FWP also dispatched interviewers to travel to the South and interview thousands of former slaves in the United States, which became an invaluable resource for historians of slavery. Finally, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) hired photographers to travel across the country and document the lives of ordinary Americans. Not only did the FSA recruit black photographers, but white photographers also snapped searing and indelible images of African Americans. Collectively, all of these initiatives enabled African Americans to defy some of the pernicious racial stereotypes that were perpetuated against them throughout American culture. 75
African Americans participated enthusiastically in both the FWP and the FTP. During the 1920s, cities such as Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC, had witnessed the flourishing of black arts through literature, poetry, painting, film, and playwriting. These artistic communities laid the groundwork for black participation in New Deal artistic programs. 76 Both the FWP and the FTP had Negro divisions that oversaw black projects. The FTP’s Negro Division staged plays, hired black actors and directors, and took black stories seriously. Prior to the FTP, most black actors were limited to artistic opportunities related to minstrelsy. In rare cases, black actors were able to perform in the early phase of black film with auteurs, such as Oscar Micheaux. 77 The FTP’s Negro Division traveled to twenty-two cities across the country, which enabled African Americans to interact with this new, innovative type of theater. Black performers not only acted in plays with themes rooted in African American history and culture, such as racial prejudice, the Haitian Revolution, and lynching, but they also performed all-black productions of Macbeth and Swing Mikado, which reset expectations about black actors portraying historical white and Asian characters. 78
The FWP hired luminaries in black culture, including the writers Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, the scholars St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, and the poet Sterling Brown. These writers documented the contributions of African Americans to United States history and culture. 79
The gathering of ex-slave narratives may have been the most important aspect of the FWP’s work. In the mid-1930s, the last generation of enslaved men and women were about to die. Members of the FWP recognized that this project represented a transformative opportunity for interviewers to speak with the men and women who had survived the trauma of racial slavery and narrate their experiences. Prior to the ex-slave narrative project, the vast majority of historiography about racial slavery was written from the viewpoint of white masters and mistresses. By inviting former slaves to share their recollections and offer their personal testimony, the nation would be able to reckon with its traumatic past.
Between 1936 and 1938 , dozens of black and white researchers traveled to the American South to interview over two thousand former slaves. When the project had concluded, they had amassed ten thousand typed pages and thousands of hours of testimony. These interviews proved invaluable in illuminating some of the hidden worlds of slavery, including sexual violence, physical brutality, and black survival strategies. The vast majority of these former slaves had regional accents, or in some cases, spoke in black dialect. Since white interviewers conducted the majority of the interviews, power relations were imbalanced and former slaves were not as direct as they would be with black researchers, especially around issues of trauma and sexual violence. Moreover, the interviews starkly illuminated the abject poverty that former slaves experienced. 80 The ex-slave narratives offered invaluable information to future historians, who continue to use the narratives as major sources for understanding both American slavery and the disappointment of Reconstruction.
In addition to listening to African Americans through testimony, the FSA hired a series of black and white photographers, who traveled across the country to visualize African Americans and black culture in the 1930s (see figure 4). Photography was a revolutionary instrument that could be wielded for social change. In this era, mass culture, such as advertisements, cartoons, and films, depicted African Americans in derogatory stereotypes as lazy, immature, childlike, and dangerous. These stereotypes were not simply abstract images, but rather, evidence that fueled a social, cultural, and political narrative about who African Americans were. 81 A documentary photograph that depicted a person hard at work, then, made it that much more difficult to deny basic human rights and dignities. These photographs helped to give a human face to African Americans who were suffering as ordinary Americans. White FSA photographers, such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, traveled across the country and snapped indelible photographs of African Americans. These images revealed the complexities of black life across the country. 82 Gordon Parks, one of the most notable black FSA photographers, used his camera as a weapon and captured images of thousands of African Americans throughout the country. His image of Ella Watson, a charwoman in the federal government, dramatically portrayed her between an American flag and a broom, meditating on a black woman who literally mopped the floors of the federal government yet was denied access to major government programs. It is now known as the black American gothic (see figure 5). 83
Figure 4. In this photograph, Dorothea Lange depicts a 13-year-old sharecropper boy in Americus, Georgia, in an image that defies racial stereotypes. “Thirteen-year old sharecropper boy near Americus, Georgia.” July 1937.