The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship
The Depression, The New Deal, and World War II
The stock market crash of 1929 caused soup lines to become the order of the day for the skilled and unskilled alike in urban areas across the nation. African Americans in both cities and rural areas, many already living in poverty, suffered greatly from the economic depression. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he promised a “new deal” for all Americans that would provide them with security from “the cradle to the grave.” Although there were many inequities in the New Deal housing, agricultural and economic programs, blacks had opportunities to obtain employment, some in areas previously closed to them. Black writers, for example, participated in the New Deal's writing projects, while other black Americans interviewed former slaves for the Works Project Administration (WPA). These New Deal programs generated numerous documents that found their way to the Library's collections.
The New Deal programs did not end the Depression. It was the growing storm clouds in Europe, American aid to the Allies, and ultimately, U.S. entry into World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that revitalized the nation's economy. Remembering their experiences in World War I, African American soldiers and civilians were increasingly unwilling to quietly accept a segregated army or the discriminatory conditions they had previously endured. Northern black troops sent to the South for training often had violent encounters with white citizens there. Black-owned newspapers protested segregation, mistreatment, and discrimination. Labor leader A. Philip Randolph threatened a march on Washington, D.C. by hundreds of thousands of blacks in 1941 to protest job discrimination in defense industries and the military. To avoid this protest, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, reaffirming the “policy of full participation in the defense program by all persons, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin.”
World War II, Segregation Abroad and at Home
In the Grip of Segregation
Shot near the beginning of World War II, this photograph documents segregation in the United States. Although it was universal in the South, de facto and de jure segregation also existed in other parts of the U.S. Efforts to erode segregation by organizations such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters were slow and laborious.
Marion Post Wolcott. Negro Man Entering Movie Theatre by "Colored" Entrance. Belzoni, Mississippi, in the delta area. October 1939. Copyprint. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-12888 (8–3)
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Traveling Jim Crow
“Jim Crow” laws mandated that blacks have separate facilities for travel, lodging, eating and drinking, schooling, worship, housing, and other aspects of social and economic life. This railroad station sign in Manchester, Georgia, indicates the location of the restroom for black men. Failure to obey such signs could lead to arrest and imprisonment.
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Non-White Households in Birmingham, Alabama, 1940
This atlas of Birmingham, Alabama, analyzes housing statistics from the 1940 census. It is part of a series of atlases entitled Housing: Analytical Maps that were produced by the New York City office of the Works Project Administration in conjunction with the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Based on block statistics, these atlases document cities with populations over 50,000 and cover such topics as average rent, major repairs, bathing equipment, persons per room, owner occupancy, and mortgage status, as well as percentage of non-white households per block. On these maps, showing non-white households for two sections of Birmingham, Alabama, the segregated residential pattern is readily apparent; the two darkest patterns represent the areas with over fifty percent non-white households.
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A Naval Hero
On December 7, 1941, during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Mess Attendant Doris “Dorie” Miller came to the aid of his shipmates on the U.S.S. West Virginia, helping to move the injured out of harm's way, including the mortally wounded captain. Though untrained in its use, Miller also manned an antiaircraft machine gun, downing several Japanese planes before being ordered to abandon the sinking ship. Miller's courage and devotion to duty at Pearl Harbor earned him the Navy Cross, the first ever awarded to an African American sailor. This honor is even greater in light of the fact African Americans were only allowed to serve in the messman's branch of the Navy at the time. Though later killed in action in 1943, Miller's legacy of bravery in the face of great danger and discrimination lives on.
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Murder of African American Veterans
African American veterans returning to the South after military service in World Wars I and II were often unwilling to be subjected to the humiliation and degradation of segregation and discrimination in the land for which they served and shed blood. Some whites, especially in the South, felt that these veterans needed to be terrorized into submission, whether they wore the nation's uniform or not. Charles White's drawing indicates the collusion between some law enforcement officers and the Ku Klux Klan.
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African American Nurses Abroad
Even though an extreme shortage of nurses in World War II forced the federal government to seriously consider drafting white nurses, defense officials remained reluctant to recruit black nurses throughout the war. Allowing black nurses to care for whites was considered a violation of social norms. Nevertheless, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, led by Mabel Staupers, and rights groups like the NAACP, loudly protested racial policies in the Army Nurse Corps and the military in general. These groups achieved some success. This photograph documents the arrival of the first African American nurses in England.
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Tuskegee Airmen with Lena Horne
General Noel Parrish, seated next to a youthful Lena Horne, stated in his memoirs that he often mediated between the Army officials, whites near Tuskegee who felt that the airmen were uppity, and the aviation trainees themselves. The third president of Tuskegee Institute, Dr. Frederick Douglass Patterson, wrote to Parrish on September 14, 1944: “In my opinion, all who have had anything to do with the development and direction of the Tuskegee Army Air Field and the Army flying training program for Negroes in this area have just cause to be proud. . . . The development had to take place in a period of emergency and interracial confusion.”
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Tuskegee Airmen—Breaking Flight Barriers
During World War II civil rights groups and black professional organizations pressed the government to provide training for black pilots on an equal basis with whites. Their efforts were partially successful. African American fighter pilots were trained as a part of the Army Air Force, but only at a segregated base located in Tuskegee, Alabama. Hundreds of airmen were trained and many saw action.
Toni Frissell became the first professional photographer permitted to photograph the all-black 332nd Fighter Pilot Squadron in a combat situation. She traveled to their air base in southern Italy, from where the “Tuskegee Airmen” flew sorties into southern Europe and North Africa. Best known of those Frissell photographed was Col. Benjamin O. Davis,Jr., the son of the first African American general, pictured on the left, and first Lieutenant Lee Rayford.
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A Threatened March on Washington—1941
The papers of A. Philip Randolph document his protests against segregation, particularly in the armed forces and defense industries during the war. Randolph led a successful movement during World War II to end segregation in defense industries by threatening to bring thousands of blacks to protest in Washington, D. C., in 1941.
The threatened March on Washington in 1941 prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, stating that there should be “no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or Government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” The Committee on Fair Employment Practices was established to handle discrimination complaints.
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Cultural Expressions in the 1940s
William Grant Still: Afro-American Symphony
William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony, written in 1930 and first performed in 1931, epitomizes the African American composer's right to be heard in the concert hall. It is one of several symphonies written by black composers in the early 1930s, including the Florence Price E. Minor Symphony, the Negro Folk Symphony by William Levi Dawson, and the Harlem Symphony by James P. Johnson.
The Library owns two manuscripts of the Afro-American Symphony: the original 1930 version and the second revision of the original (or the third version) done ca. 1935. The second is exhibited here. In the symphony's opening, the English horn melody changes into the driving blues tune that is the symphony's unifying motif.
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Billie Holiday, born in 1915, was the definitive voice of jazz singing from the late 1930s through the 1940s. Like her predecessor Bessie Smith, she excelled in taking any old tune and transforming it into a major human statement. Of her own songs, the most famous are “Billie's Blues” (1936) and “God Bless' the Child That's Got His Own.”
“God Bless the Child” builds on the tradition of Bessie Smith's, “Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out” (1929), which in its turn builds on Cecil Mack's “All In, Down and Out” (1906). Thus, generations of African American songwriters joined together to bring the message that in times of trouble individuals have to rely on their own resources.
Arthur Herzog, Jr., and Billie Holiday. “‘God Bless’ the Child,’ a swing-spiritual based on the authentic proverb ‘God Blessed the Child That's Got His Own.’ New York: Edward B. Marks Music Corporation, 1941. Sheet music. Music Division, Library of Congress (8–17)
© 1941 by Edward B. Marks Music Company. Copyright renewed. Used by permission of Carlin America, Inc. 126 East 38th Street New York, NY 10016
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Music and Music Publishing in the 1940s
Langston Hughes's first published poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” appeared in the June 1921 issue of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis. Since that time it has been set to music repeatedly by African American composers seeking a worthy poem for an extended art song. The best known of these settings is this one by Chicago composer Margaret Bonds, published in 1942 by the Handy Brothers Music Company. Run by W. C. Handy, that company used the money made by “The St. Louis Blues” and other early Handy blues songs to finance the publication of classical music by a generation of African American composers, including J. Rosamond Johnson, Eubie Blake, Noah Francis Ryder, and Harry Lawrence Freeman.
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Anniversary of Freedom
December 18, 1940, was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery or “involuntary servitude” in the entire United States. To commemorate this anniversary, the Library of Congress sponsored an exhibit of books, manuscripts, music, paintings and other works of art, and a concert series.
African American performers during the concert series included soprano Dorothy Maynor and tenor Roland Hayes. Howard University scholars Alain Locke and Sterling Brown participated in the program, and bibliographer Dorothy Porter, historian Carter Woodson, and renowned musicians Harry T. Burleigh, R. Nathaniel Dett, Lulu Childers, and W. Grant Still served on the advisory committees.
Library of Congress. An Exhibit of Books, Manuscripts, Music, Paintings, and Other Works of Art Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, December 18, 1940. Brochure. Interpretive Programs Office, Library of Congress (8–31)
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Duke Ellington—Cultural Ambassador
Band leader Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was a musical genius. A composer of over one thousand works and a performer, Ellington traveled all over the world with hos band. They were also featured in motion pictures made by several studios. The Valburn Collection in the Library's recorded sound archives includes eleven thousand Ellington recordings on disc. Performers like Ellington and sports greats like Jackie Robinson helped to break down barriers of racial hostility in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. In 1959, the NAACP awarded Ellington its coveted Spingarn Medal for his contribution to the African American cultural heritage. This image was taken by the famed African American photographer Gordon Parks.
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Breaking Barriers in Sports
Paul Robeson—Singer, Athlete, Actor, Civil Rights Leader
Paul Leroy Robeson, born in New Jersey in 1898, earned an academic scholarship to Rutgers College in 1915. After graduation, Robeson went on to Columbia Law School. He paid his fees there by playing with the National Football League for three years. However, after briefly working in a law firm, Robeson turned to theater. He acted in films and on stage, and sang in concert, winning international acclaim. Outspoken in his criticism of racism, Robeson was blacklisted in the 1940s and 1950s because he refused to repudiate his leftist affiliation. Nonetheless, the NAACP gathered this large group of people to celebrate their presentation of the Spingarn Medal to Robeson for his achievements in 1945.
“Thirtieth Spingarn Medal awarded to Paul Robeson, October 18, 1945.” Copyprint. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (8–26)
Courtesy of the NAACP
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Battling Discrimination at the 1936 Olympics—An Unsent Letter
This letter from NAACP leader Walter White to Jesse Owens urges him not to participate in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, which was under Nazi rule, but it was never sent. In the letter, White writes: “The very preeminence of American Negro athletes gives them an unparalleled opportunity to strike a blow at racial bigotry and to make other minority groups conscious of the sameness of their problems with ours . . . But the moral issue involved is, in my opinion, far greater than immediate or future benefit to the Negro as a race. If the Hitlers and Mussolinis of the world are successful it is inevitable that dictatorships based upon prejudice will spread . . .”
The U. S. did send an Olympic team to Berlin, and Owens was its star, winning four gold medals.
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An African American Woman on the Courts
Althea Gibson, born in 1927 in Silver, South Carolina, first became a champion among African American tennis players. In 1949 Gibson began competing against white players, and in 1956, won the French Open becoming the first African American to do so. The next year at Wimbledon, Gibson won her first singles title and repeated her win the following year, as well as winning the U.S. National Championship titles at Forest Hills, New York, in 1957 and 1958. After several more tennis championships, Gibson turned to golf, playing with the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
In this image Gibson is reaching high for a shot during the women's single semifinal match against Christine Truman at Wimbledon, England in 1957.
[Althea Gibson, of New York, reaching high for shot during women's singles semifinal match against Christine Truman, of England, in the All England Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon, England, July 4, 1957]. Silver gelatin print. New York World-Telegram & Sun Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (8–28)
Courtesy of AP/Wide World Photos
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Wilt the Stilt Captures Basketball Records
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Wilton Norman Chamberlain grew to be seven feet one inches tall. From his youth he dominated the basketball courts. Attending the University of Kansas for two years, Chamberlain led his team through twenty-four wins and three losses in 1956, his first year on varsity. He became a Harlem Globetrotter briefly, and signed with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959. Although he was lured away to other teams, Chamberlain dominated the National Basketball Association (NBA) for fourteen years. Named to the NBA Hall of Fame, he still holds many records, including the honor of being the first player to earn thirty thousand points.
Fred Palumbo. [Wilt Chamberlain, three-quarter length portrait, wearing uniform of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, 1959]. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (8–29)
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Olympian Wilma Rudolph
Born to a large family in Clarksville, Tennessee, Wilma Rudolph was stricken with polio. As a child, there was scant hope that she would ever walk. However, with the help of her family, who massaged her legs, and regular visits to the hospital, she did not need her brace or corrective shoes by the time she was a teenager. She came to excel at track. Rudolph earned a place on the 1956 U.S. Olympic team and won a bronze medal in the 440 meter relay. In the 1960 Olympics, she won gold medals in the 100 and 200 meter dash, and the 400 meter relay, breaking world records in all three events. Rudolph was the first American woman—black or white—ever to win three gold medals in the Olympics.
Wilma Rudolph at the finish line during 50-yard dash at track meet in Madison Square Garden, 1961.
Silver gelatin print. New York World-Telegram & Sun Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (9-23)
Courtesy of CORBIS
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