Racial Tension in the Roaring Twenties
In the early 1920s, white Americans, especially those living in booming Northern cities, enjoyed post-war prosperity and economic growth. On the other hand, Southern black Americans saw little change in their socioeconomic status. The combination of increasing racial pride and long-standing racial hatred led to a tension-filled decade, known as the Roaring Twenties.
1 Ku Klux Klan
Even though the Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866, membership increased dramatically during the 1920s. Membership was secretive, but historians estimate that there were between one and eight million members by the mid-1920s. Klan members used their power to manipulate state and local politics, forcing members to recruit voters who promised to support racist politics, white supremacy, Anglo-Saxon Protestantism and segregation. In 1924, the Klan successfully orchestrated and won mayoral elections across the nation, stretching from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. The Klan also participated in violent activities, such as whippings, tar-and-feather attacks and lynchings across the South and Midwest.
2 Universal Negro Improvement Association
Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) that included over 700 branches in 38 states by the 1920s. He used biblical values to support his political and economic goals that were designed to help poor, often mistreated, black Americans. He also started a newspaper called “Negro World” that had between 50,000 and 200,000 subscribers at the beginning of the decade. The UNIA focused on racial pride and was the first to coin the phrase, “black is beautiful.” Garvey stressed the importance of economic prosperity and suggested that it was the quickest way to freedom and independence. Whites weren’t the only ones who disliked the UNIA. Some African-American leaders opposed Garvey because he supported black nationalistic and "back to Africa" views and collaborated with the Klan.
3 Jazz Music
Jazz music influenced pop culture in the 1920s and led to increased racial tensions. Mainstream whites often associated the music with sensual, animalistic, immoral behavior and resented black musicians who created and promoted the catchy songs. Some white music educators worried that jazz music would replace classical European music and corrupt young listeners. Edgy white club owners, who were part of the jazz-era entertainment subculture, often hired black singers and musicians to perform for their white audiences. Jazz music was a significant element that influenced racism in the Roaring Twenties.
4 Tulsa Race Riot
The early 1920s witnessed one of the worst race riots in American history. It started when a black man, Dick Rowland, accidentally stepped on a white woman’s foot in an elevator. The woman, Sarah Page, was the operator of an elevator at the Drexel Building in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She screamed out in pain and witnesses falsely accused Rowland of inappropriate sexual conduct. Rowland was arrested, and 75 armed black men came to Rowland’s defense. A heated battle broke out between the blacks and whites and lasted all night, leaving much of Tulsa in ruins. The National Guard arrived the following day and fired machine guns at the black opposition, resulting in their eventual surrender. Over 300 participants were killed in the riot and it took 10 years for Tulsa to recover from the extensive property damage.
- 1 PBS: The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s
- 2 National Humanities Center: America in Class: Becoming Modern: America in the 1920s: Ku Klux Klan
- 3 National Humanities Center: Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association
- 4 PBS: Culture Shock: The Devil's Music: 1920s Jazz
- 5 Montgomery College: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921