Race in America:
Renaissance and Depression
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
- Composed by Abel Meeropol, performed by Billie Holliday
Tulsa marked the low point for mass white violence against Blacks, but certainly didn’t end it. White violence against Black Americans followed different patterns in the South and in the North and Midwest. Southern murderous racism usually involved individual lynchings, while Northern and Midwestern racists formed mobs and assaulted entire Black neighborhoods or rampaged through city streets attacking Black people.
That’s a very rough generalization, as the worst mob attack took place in Arkansas, and one of the last mass attacks took place in Rosewood, Florida in 1923. Florida had seen dozens of lynchings over the preceding years, and when Black people began to move North in the Great Migration, Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward openly advocated ejecting them all in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Following a common pattern, the violence in Rosewood began with an allegation of sex between a Black man and a white woman; in this case, a woman named Fanny Taylor was said to have been assaulted by a Black man. She initially did not claim to have been raped, but when local whites learned that a Black inmate had escaped from a chain gang, they decided that he had also raped Fanny Taylor. They lynched a Black man after torturing a confession out of him, that he had helped hide the fugitive, and attacked the cabin of a Black family they also suspected of harboring the supposed rapist. There they met resistance and two of the mob were killed, igniting their rage. They then proceeded to ignite the Black community of Rosewood and shoot anyone who ran out of the burning buildings. Many fled into the nearby swamps, while white postal workers and train conductors helped others escape. Up to 150 people were killed, though only eight were confirmed to have died (including the two white marauders), and Rosewood was effectively erased from the map.
An all-white grand jury convened a month later. They condemned the violence, and indicted no one. Rosewood would be forgotten for the next fifty years.
The original Cotton Club location, on Lenox Avenue
As the American economy gained momentum in the years early 1920’s, the majority population lacked the need for a scapegoat for their own distress. Large-scale massacres no longer took place, and lynchings subsided. Part of the latter shift came from an intensive anti-lynching campaign waged by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but even so 1952 would be the first year in the United States during which no Black person was lynched. And as we’ve seen, some American racists diverted their energies into enriching the founders of the Second Ku Klux Klan.
Following the usual pattern in modern economies, the appearance of new consumer goods fueled prosperity in the decade that became known as the Roaring Twenties. Henry Ford not only pioneered manufacturing methods to make his new automobiles, but financing that put them in reach of huge swathes of the population. Ford, though a virulent anti-Semite, insisted on paying his Black workers at the same rate as he did whites. Unions, realizing that Black workers would soon form a pool of competing lower-wage labor, began to extend membership and protection to Blacks. This didn’t exactly make for overall equal pay, as the higher-skilled (and higher-paid) jobs went to white men.
Despite the effects of the Great Migration, 85 percent of African-Americans still lived in the Deep South. There, Jim Crow laws remained fully in force. But in the Northern states, the new Black communities began to build a culture of their own. Harlem remained a farming area until the middle of the 1800’s, but development took off in the last decades of the century.
Large-scale investment in housing made it attractive for immigrants, with many Jewish, Italian and Eastern European immigrant families settling there. Blacks began arriving in the early 1900’s, following attacks by white mobs on Black residents of the Tenderloin district in August 1900. The Afro-American Realty Company, founded in 1904, encouraged Blacks to move to Harlem. When white property owners tried to buy up apartment buildings that rented to Blacks and evict the tenants, the Afro-American Realty Company bought other buildings and kicked out the white residents. Soon the tit-for-tat contest ended, and Harlem’s Black population soared. Black churches moved to Harlem from all over New York, helping to accelerate the internal migration, while newly-arrived Black migrants from the Deep South headed for Harlem.
By 1910, Harlem was 10 percent Black, rising to 32 percent in 1920 and 70 percent in 1930, when Harlem’s 175,000 Black residents supposedly represented the largest concentration of Black people outside Africa. Simple numbers made a repeat of the Greenwood assault unlikely, and Black culture finally had a chance to develop along its own lines. The flowering took place in other Northern cities as well, but nowhere did it approach what became known as the Harlem Renaissance.
In literature, poetry, art, music and even boxing, Black figures now stood at the very cutting edge of Western culture. “Harlem” became synonymous with evolving Black culture; the Harlem Globetrotters, founded in Chicago by Jewish entrepreneur Abe Saperstein, did not actually play in Harlem until 1968.
Hi-de hi-de hi-de-hi. New Year's Eve 1937. Cab Calloway performs at the Cotton Club for an exclusively white audience.
But by the late 1920’s, an invasion of white patrons priced many Black customers out of famous venues like the Cotton Club and even less well-known establishments catered to white customers with Jim Crow-like segregation. Only in the 1960’s would the majority of businesses in Harlem become Black-owned; Black ownership was limited to a few low-profit categories like beauty parlors, which in turn became central to Black community life.
While white businessmen raked in much of the cash generated, they could not siphon off the new Black identity that now arose. For the first time in the United States, Black voices told Black stories, and this time – despite strenuous efforts – they could not be silenced. In 1919, the NAACP named the James Weldon Johnson poem Lift Every Voice and Sing, set to music, “The Negro National Anthem.” The Manhattan Harmony Four recorded it in 1923.
Black voices rose elsewhere. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, founded in 1925, gave Black workers a unionized voice for the first time. It would take a dozen years to win a contract with Pullman Palace Car Company, but they did so, and in 1941 the union was instrumental in convincing President Franklin Roosevelt to bar racial discrimination in military contract work. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union (yes, the STFU) represented both Black and white sharecroppers. Initially aligned with the Communist Party, it won a number of strike actions in the 1930’s and demonstrated for equal pay for Black and white workers. Eventually they split with the Communists, but still saw their organizers attacked and killed. They would continue until 1970, though they gave up their name and their glorious acronym.
Negro History Week took place in February 1926, marking a surge in Black pride; it would be expanded fifty years later into Black History Month. Black voices spread from Black-owned newspapers into radio, and works by Black authors like Langston Hughes appeared from mainstream presses.
This Black cultural surge hit a brick wall in late 1929 with the onset of the Great Depression. Black workers generally filled lower-wage jobs that suffered the greatest displacement, while the crash of commodity prices, with no matching fall in rent or other expenses, devastated sharecroppers. While Black workers suffered more, white workers also suffered, and as has happened in many times and places, some of them sought someone to blame. Lynchings once again rose in number, while Jim Crow laws continued to be fiercely applied.
Strange Fruit. Smith and Shipp are murdered by a white mob. August 1930.
Accused of raping a white woman and murdering her boyfriend, two African-American men, Abram Smith and J. Thomas Shipp, were broken out of a jail in Marion, Indiana in August 1930 by a large white mob which battered the walls down with sledgehammers. They hanged the two men, and when Smith tried to pull the noose off his neck, used the sledgehammer son his arms to break them and keep him from wriggling loose. A souvenir photo would be seen by songwriter Abel Meeropol in 1937, who wrote the lyrics that became the Billie Holiday signature song Strange Fruit.
In Duck Hill, Mississippi, two Black men were lynched in April 1937. Roosevelt “Red” Townes and Robert “Bootjack” McDaniels had been charged with murdering a white store owner. A white mob of well over 200 men snatched them from the Montgomery County Courthouse during a lunch break, loaded them on a school bus and drove them into nearby woods followed by at least 50 automobiles. There the mob chained them to trees and tortured them with blowtorches until McDaniels confessed to the murder. The mob then blazed away at McDaniels, hitting him multiple times – just how many is not clear – including a fatal shot to the head.
McDaniels (left) and Townes (right). Duck Hill, Mississippi, April 1937.
Then it was Townes’ turn. Under the blowtorch he confessed to killing the store owner, stealing cattle, burning houses and a laundry list of other unsolved crimes. The mob then soaked him in gasoline and set him alight. Afterwards, Sheriff Edgar Wright said that he recognized none of the men who took McDaniels and Townes into the woods. “It was all done very quickly,” his deputy Hugh Curtis said later, “quietly and orderly.”
This lynching differed from the 5,000 others in one key respect: a local photographer took pictures, which were sold as souvenirs by Campbell’s Studio of Grenada, Mississippi, the largest nearby town. They appeared in Life magazine, bringing the reality of lynching to a wide national audience; Nazi propagandists happily used them to contrast the humanity of their own Nürnberg codes to American savagery. Both Life and Campbell’s Studio stoutly defended the identity of the photographer, presumably one of the “orderly” murderers.
A federal anti-lynching bill died in the Senate a month later under yet another Southern filibuster, despite a Gallup poll showing 72 percent approval and constant lobbying by Eleanor Roosevelt (but not her husband). “We shall at all costs,” Louisiana Democratic Senator Allen Ellender declared, “preserve the white supremacy in America.”
The Depression brought a fundamental shift to African-American politics, and thereby to American politics as a whole. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932 on a platform calling for new measures to fight the Depression, and he did so as soon as he took office. Over Republican objections, he rammed through new jobs programs, relief for farmers, new banking rules and much more. And most importantly for African-Americans, his administration insisted on applying these programs equally to Black and white workers and families.
Southern Democrats, joined by Republicans, howled that giving relief payments to Black workers would create “a permanent welfare class.” Roosevelt, prodded by his wife Eleanor, persisted in applying benefits equally regardless of race, but the president depended on Southern Democrats to carry his agenda through Congress. When Roosevelt tapped a Black minister to open the 1936 Democratic National Convention with the traditional prayer, South Carolina Sen. “Cotton Ed” Smith, a virulent racist even by the standards of 1936, stormed out in protest.
The murder of Bootjack McDaniels, April 1937. The US Senate sent its thoughts and prayers, in 2005.
Despite the open racism of one wing of his party, African-Americans – those who could vote at all - gave their vote to Roosevelt in 1936 in overwhelming numbers, beginning a fundamental shift in American politics as Black and racist voters swapped party affiliations over the decades that followed. That brought little influence to Blacks at first, as racist white Southern Democrats held the power to block Roosevelt’s agenda.
The filibuster remained a potent weapon against anti-lynching legislation. In addition to the 1937 filibuster, the Senate also used the maneuver to kill bills in 1922 and 1935. In June 2005 the Senate passed a resolution offering condolences to lynching victims and apologizing for its failure to pass an anti-lynching bill. As of this writing (July 2021) it still has not, however, actually passed an anti-lynching bill.
The full series is here:
• Race in America: Founded on Slavery
• Race in America: Civil War
• Race in America: Jim Crow
• Race in America: The Black Doughboys, Part One
• Race in America: The Black Doughboys, Part Two
• Race in America: Red Summer
• Race in America: Tulsa
• Race in America: Klan Scam
• Race in America: Strange Fruit
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.
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