How African-Americans Lived in the 1940s

Even with the hardships that African-Americans endured, many, such as Gordon Heath, contributed greatly to creative culture.
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In the 1940s, African-Americans faced considerable obstacles in their everyday lives due to Jim Crow laws and unwritten, racially biased social codes. These laws and behaviors created strictly segregated barriers, and discrimination pervaded most areas of life. Despite these ongoing hardships, the 1940s was a time of creativity, increased economic opportunity and the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.

1 Segregation and Discrimination

In the South, Jim Crow laws existed to disenfranchise black Americans. Due to these laws, African-Americans were forced to use segregated schools, public restrooms, neighborhoods, transportation, and even separate, inferior hospitals. Failure to abide by explicit laws and accepted cultural norms resulted in fines, jail time, harassment, and even outright violence against blacks who sought to challenge this inequitable system. The 1940s saw an increase in activism and opportunities: the black press spoke out about unfair and unjust treatment, while nonprofit organizations and social groups worked to further social reforms. For example, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund was founded in 1940 to protect the legal rights of black Americans.

2 National Defense and World War II

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators.
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The phrase “Double Victory” was coined to describe the ways in which African-American involvement in World War II was both a triumph over totalitarianism abroad and prejudice at home. Nearly one million African-American men and women worked in industrial and defense fields, but did not earn competitive wages to their white counterparts due to discrimination. Labor leaders and activists threatened to march in Washington, D.C., unless African-American workers were treated fairly. President Roosevelt, trying to avoid confrontation, signed Executive Order 8802 in 1941, which prevented employers in the defense industry from discrimination based on race or country of origin. Units of black soldiers, although still segregated in the armed forces, served with honor in combat as well as inactive duty. It was not until 1948 that the armed forces were desegregated.

3 Arts, Culture, and Education

Despite Jim Crow laws, hostility and discrimination, the African-American community of the 1940s contributed a wealth of artistic, educational and cultural work. The United Negro College Fund was founded in 1944 with the purpose of funding historically black colleges and universities, and supporting students who attended them. Musicians like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday charmed both black and white audiences, and contributed fundamentally to shaping the jazz sound. In addition, African-Americans broke sports barriers in competitive football, basketball, tennis and track and field. Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the modern era to play in Major League Baseball in 1947.

4 The Great Migration

Beginning in 1916, African-Americans began moving in large numbers from the South toward large urban centers in the North and West. This process accelerated greatly in the 1940s when manufacturing needs in packinghouses and steel mills required a larger labor force. The migration of black Americans from the South was also a result of new inventions like the mechanical cotton picker that reduced the need for workers in agriculture. Although there were significant cultural clashes between these newcomers and the established communities they came to, the Great Migration gave African-Americans better economic opportunities and forged new communities.

Dianne Laguerta is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College with a bachelor's degree in history and Middle Eastern studies. She studied and conducted research in Cairo, Egypt during the 2012 Egyptian elections, and has traveled throughout the Middle East.