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Collection Calvin Coolidge Papers

African Americans and Consumerism

Prosperity and Thrift contains especially rich resources on African Americans in the consumer economy. While many African Americans, especially in the South, experienced continuing poverty and hardship in the 1920s, the decade was also to some extent an era of opportunities. The pursuit of a higher standard of living, increased personal autonomy, and less discrimination led many African Americans to migrate to the urban North from rural areas in the South. Once in the North, their employment situation benefitted from 1920s legislation restricting the number of immigrants allowed into the country.

Group of people standing and seated in three rows
Group portrait of African American men and woman, between 1915 and 1925, by A. P. Bedou, New Orleans, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. LC-DIG-ppmsca-24952

African Americans in urban communities developed extensive commercial networks and business organizations. Of special note are the activities of the National Association of Wage Earners, National Negro Business League, National Urban League, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The National Association of Wage Earners worked to standardize and improve living conditions for women, particularly migrant workers, and to develop and encourage efficiency among African American workers. The National Negro Business League, directed during the 1920s by Robert Russa Moton, was a national network of African American entrepreneurs and small businessmen. The papers of the league, preserved in this collection, describe African American commercial endeavors and economic aspirations and confirm that African American small businessmen enjoyed a measure of success in the 1920s economy. The National Urban League developed training programs intended to help African Americans migrating from the South to the North and to this end published several surveys of black populations in northern cities. The Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded in 1914 by Marcus Garvey, had over a million members; it advocated racial separatism and provided self-help and self-improvement services and was a source of start-up assistance for small businesses.

African American society in the 1920s expressed a strong sense of cultural identity. The Harlem Renaissance was the center of African American literary and artistic activity during this period. National African American magazines, such as The Messenger, founded in 1917 by A. Philip Randolph, featured articles, fiction, poetry, and advertisements for African American-owned businesses. The back covers of many of its issues feature full-page advertisements for entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker's famous hair- and skin-care products. Opportunity, the magazine of the National Urban League, carried fiction and poetry as well as some advertising and published a regular year-end feature on outstanding African American newspapers. The Southern Workman defended the rights of African American workers. This collection also provides access to two rare catalogs of so-called "race records," a consumer product that African Americans in the 1920s purchased in significant quantities.

Additional Resources

For material on race relations in the Calvin Coolidge Papers, see File No. 93, "The Negro Question" (Part I and Part II); File No. 93a, Commission on Inter-Racial Co-Operation; File No. 93b, Lynching; and File No. 93c, Segregation.

For books in the digital collection dealing with hardship and poverty in the African American community, see The Income and Standard of Living of Unskilled Laborers in Chicago (1927); Case Studies of Unemployment (1931); and Extension Work Among Negroes Conducted by Negro Agents (1923) provides information about rural African Americans, particularly farmers.

For additional related entries in the Guide to People, Organizations, and Topics in Prosperity and Thrift see Colored Merchants' Association; National Negro Industrial Commission; and Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954).