A Civil Rights Lesson for Black History Month – by Marc Brenman

When I started teaching civil rights in graduate school, I developed a timeline of Black History in the United States. I included positive ones as well as tragedies, and tried to include more than African-American connected events, to represent a fuller picture of American history than is usually represented. I also included some world events to provide context and some removal from a “calculus of suffering” so often indulged in by one group comparing its history with another. The timeline makes no promises of completeness, and is a work in progress. It is generally referenced, and is fairly reliable. This timeline proved to be popular with students, who mostly had been raised and educated on the myth of progress, American Dream, and City on a Hill themes. They were surprised by the uneven progression of social equity in American history, with its frequent “one step forward, two steps back” meme. I’ve chosen some examples from just one year in this timeline for Black History Month.

Black History Month: Here’s 1920 internationally

The Treaty of Versailles ended World War I and stipulated that the Allies would occupy the Rhineland for 15 years. In 1919, French troops occupied this part of Western Germany. Between 20,000 and 40,000 of them were Senegalese Tirailleurs—about half from Arab North Africa and about half from central and interior Africa. The presence of African soldiers caused hysteria in Germany and shock on both sides of the Atlantic. Germans panicked over the so-called “Black Horror on the Rhine.” Deviant racial sexual imagery, including caricatures of monkey-like soldiers—often with giant phalluses—ravaging helpless German women spread widely in print and public discourse. By 1920, rallies had been held in 25 German cities, including one with 50,000 attendees in Hamburg. Sympathetic rallies by German-American groups were organized across the US by “The American Campaign against the Horror on the Rhine.” One at Madison Square Garden attracted 12,000 protestors of Irish and German descent. In the Presidential contest of 1920, some supporters of Warren G. Harding supported his promise that, “he would do his best to get those n…..s out of Germany.” Even Pope Benedict XV and his successor Pius XI objected to African presence on German soil.

Black History Month: Here’s 1920 nationally

Twelve racial categories are listed in the US Census. There are four variations of white as well as Negro, Mulatto, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Native, Foreign-born, and “All other.”

A largely rural and conservative Congress, with immigration restriction its legislative priority, learned to its dismay that the 1920 census showed cities, especially in the Northeast, to be growing substantially.  If, as the Constitution required, the Census were used to reapportion Congress, 11 seats would shift from rural to urban states, increasing the electoral base of unionized immigrant voters. Alarmed congressmen claimed that the Census must be flawed.  They decided to postpone the reapportionment until the nation could have a “better” census, a decade later. Reapportioning was canceled, and Constitutional requirements ignored.

The federal-state vocational rehabilitation system was created with passage of the Smith-Fess Act. The Citizen’s Rehabilitation Act recognized the commonality of disabled citizens and injured veterans by expanding vocational guidance and placement services to include all Americans with physical disabilities. In 1943 Congress broadened its scope to include services to people with mental disabilities. Since then changes in federal law and regulations have tried to focus the system on people with the most severe disabilities.

Officially segregationist planning policies began in Birmingham, Alabama, when the first city plan and zoning ordinance institutionalized racial zoning that prevented people of color from living in parts of the city. Birmingham used urban planning as an excuse to implement racial zoning laws, sidestepping the 1917 US Supreme Court’s Buchanan v. Warley decision that struck down racial zoning. The result was the South’s longest-standing racial zoning law, from 1926 to 1951, when it was redeclared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Into the 40s, 50s, and 60s, more exclusionary zoning, highway construction, urban renewal, and public housing further segregated the city and limited opportunities for Blacks. Despite the fact that African-Americans were at least 38% of Birmingham’s residents, they were unable to choose where to live. In the1940s they rebelled by attempting to purchase homes in off-limit areas. Their efforts were labeled a challenge to city planning, resulting in government and court interventions that became violent. More than 50 bombings occurred between 1947 and 1966, becoming nationally publicized only in 1963, when four Black girls were killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

In 1920 and 1922, White Plains and Scarsdale, New York adopted zoning codes to keep out lower-cost housing. Within a few years, every incorporated community in Westchester County, New York, had similar ordinances. Many real estate developers attached covenants to their properties that barred homeowners from selling to African-Americans. Developers advertised their efforts. “Restrictions? Yes!” a Bronxville developer stated in a 1925 magazine. By 1947, the majority of houses in Westchester, Queens and Nassau counties had covenants prohibiting sales to African-Americans.

The writer and diplomat James Weldon Johnson became the NAACP’s first Black secretary. Throughout the 1920s the fight against lynching was among the NAACP’s top priorities. The NAACP supported the federal Dyer Bill, which would have punished those who participated in or failed to prosecute lynch mobs. Though the US Congress never passed the bill or any other anti-lynching legislation, many credit the resulting public debate—fueled by the NAACP’s report, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1919—with drastically decreasing the incidence of lynching.

In summer of 1920: Three Black men lynched in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

The Palmer Raids and other World War I–era abuses spawned the American Civil Liberty Union’s founding.

African-American separatist leader Marcus Garvey submitted complaints to the League of Nations on behalf of the “Negro Peoples of the World.”

In the North, there was growing hostility from whites as Blacks moved there. Restrictive covenants blocked Black entry into many neighborhoods. Many schools were openly segregated, and many shopkeepers and theaters displayed “whites only” signs.

In November 1920, four Black men in Baker County, Florida, were jailed as possible witnesses or suspects in the death of a white farmer. The KKK and what was described as 50 white men invaded the jail and seized the men, dragging their bodies across the county, then shooting and lynching them.  A KKK Grand Wizard threatened that if a “fellow sells his house to a n—–,” they would spread the word and that “boy better just get out of the state.”

The Ocoee massacre was considered the “single bloodiest day in modern American political history”.  African-American-owned buildings and residences in Ocoee, a city in Orange County, Florida, were burned to the ground. The African-Americans living there who were not direct victims were later driven out by threats or force. 330 acres plus 48 city lots owned by18 Black families were lost. The town became all-white and stayed that way for 61 years. By 1920 there were just over 1,000 residents; almost half were African-Americans. The Klan paraded through the streets of the Black community. They warned that “not a single [African-American] will be permitted to vote” and if any of them did so there would be dire consequences.

Walter White, the African-American civil rights activist who led the NAACP, arrived in Orange County a few days after the event. He used his light complexion (blonde hair and blue eyes), to work undercover as a white northerner interested in buying orange groves. He found that the whites were “still giddy with victory.” About 56 African-Americans were killed. The exact number could not be determined because some of the victims had been burned to death. The massacre may have been precipitated by the white community’s jealousy of the prosperous African-American landowners. Within weeks, only two African-Americans remained in town. By the 1930 census there were none. Not a single African-American dared live in Ocoee for sixty years. The city didn’t hire its first Black worker until 1986. For 18 years following the massacre, not a single Black vote was cast in Orange County.

Black History Month: Civil Rights 1920 Context

The US Supreme Court rules that since Native Americans who live on reservations pay no state taxes, they cannot vote.

Ukrainian nationalists kill approximately 60,000 Jews.

Ratified on August 18, the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees women the right to vote. After unsuccessfully lobbying Congress for women’s voting rights during the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, many suffragists focused their efforts on state legislatures and by 1918 half the states granted women at least partial voting rights. The support of women during WWI won widespread support, including that of President Woodrow Wilson, originally a dogged opponent of the measure.

The National Negro Baseball League was organized. In a generally segregated country, this professional baseball league gave Black and Hispanic players a platform to thrive.

Marc Brenman

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