Intro to Afro-American Studies


The Urban Experience: 
The Proletarianization of Afro-Americans

Toward a Paradigm of Unity in Afro-American Studies

LOGIC OF CHANGE Social Cohesion Traditional Africa - Slavery - Rural Life - Urban Life
Social Disruption - Slave Trade - Emancipation - Migrations -
UNITS OF ANALYSIS Ideology A1 B1 C1 D1 E1 F1 G1
Nationality A2 B2 C2 D2 E2 F2 G2
Class A3 B3 C3 D3 E3 F3 G3
Race A4 B4 C4 D4 E4 F4 G4


  The white man turned    ......  I'm from up North," he said.... "They need men up there - good men - all they can get. If Big Mat speaks for this family tell him they can use him and all the other able menfolks in his house:' . . . 
  The man reached back in his pocket and pulled out a roll of bills. It was more money than Chinatown had ever thought was in the world. The permanent grin. almost left his face as the man shucked off a ten-dollar bill and gave it to him.... 

  "The freight train will stop at Masonville Junction at midnight. That's tonight. That's where you boys board her for the North."... 

   Hiding his cheek under one big hand, Mat listened to them tell about the crazy jackleg. Not one muscle in his body moved, though Chinatown was waving the bill under his nose.... 

   "What on your mind, Mat?" He took his hand away from his face. A long purple welt blossomed on his cheek.... 

   "Git the stuff packed," Big Mat said. "We goin' to be at MasonviU6 Junction 'fore midnight.'.' . . . 

Saturday morning Big Mat went to the mill a changed man. A- borning in him was a new confidence.... 

   Through the long, hot hours he would do twice as much work as anybody else. In competition with white men, he would prove him- self... 

   Without slowing between molds, they took tests of the steel. The sweat ran into Big Mat's wide-mouthed gloves and made small explosions when it fell on the hot test steel. Big Mat did not flinch. Alone he held the spoon steady. It took two hunkies to hold up a spoon. He smiled behind his expressionless face. His muscles were glad to feel the growing weight of the steel. The work was nothing. Without labor his body would shrivel and, be a weed. His body was happy. This was a good place for a big black man to be.

William Attaway, Blood on the Forge, 1941. 



It is not only the long house, the small pay, and the lack of privacy - we often have to share a room with the children - that we maids find hardest to bear. It is being treated most of the time as though we are completely lacking in human dignity and self- respect. During my first year at this work I was continually hopeful. But now I know that when I enter that service elevator I should park my self-respect along with the garbage that clutters it. Self- respect is a luxury I cannot retain and still hold my job. My last one was a good example of this.... 

Lucille and I both met our Waterloo in the following fashion. I had cooked a huge dinner for many guests - we always had company besides the ordinary family of five - and it was 9:00 P.M. before we two sat down to our meal, both too tired to eat.

Suddenly the bell rang furiously and Lucille came back, flushed with anger. "She say to put the cake right on the ice!"

Soon the bell rang again. "Is that cake on the ice?" called out Mrs. B -

I sang out. "We've just started our dinner, Mrs. B - Later I said to Lucille: "Does she think we're horses or dogs that we can eat in five minutes - either a coltie or a Kiltie?" (Kiltie was the d6g.) Lucille, who loved such infantile jokes, broke into peals of laughter.

In a second Mrs. B - - was at our side, very angry. She had been eaves-dropping in the pantry. "I heard every word you said!"

"Well, Mrs. B - -  we're not horses or dogs, and we have been e4fing only five minutes!"

"You've been a disturbing influence in this house ever since you've been here!" Mrs. B - - thundered. "Before you came Lucille thought I was a wonderful woman to work for - and tonight you may take your wages and go. Tomorrow, Lucille, your aunt is to come, and we shall see whether you go too!" . . .

Jobless, and with only $15 between us and starvation, I still felt a wild sense of joy. For just a few days I should be free and self- respecting! ...

 Naomi Ward, "I Am a Domestic," 1940.

Black people had the opportunity to begin moving out of the South in large numbers and they did. They moved to the cities of the North and the South, but particularly important was the move out of the South, and eventually to the cities of the West. The great migrations occurred during the two world wars when there was a great demand for unskilled labor in northern industries. Harold Baron captures the essence of what took place during this period:

This new demand for black workers was to set in motion three key developments: first, the dispersion of black people out of the South into Northern urban centers; second, the formation of a distinct black proletariat in the urban centers at the very heart of the corporate-capitalist process of production; third, the break-up of tenancy agriculture in the South. World War II was to repeat the process in a magnified form and to place the stamp of irreversibility upon it. 

This is the basis for the Black community that we know today



Between 1910 and 1940, the proportion of the Black population residing in urban areas of the United States increased from 28% to 48.2% (side diagrams below). When the census was first taken in 1790, Black people were found in large numbers in only four cities: New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston. After Emancipation, Blacks began migrating to northern as well as southern cities, but it was World War I that witnessed the mass migrations to northern cities. "Hostilities in Europe," wrote Baron,  "placed limitations on American industry's usual labor supply by shutting off the flow of [European] immigration at the very time the demand for labor was increasing sharply due to a war boom and military mobilization." Blacks thus were drawn into the steel, meat-packing, and auto industries, of northern cities and into shipbuilding and heavy industry of southern cities. Though post- war demobilization brought heavy unemployment for Black people, a strong economic recovery and very restrictive immigration laws in the early 1920s encouraged a second migration out of the South. E. Franklin Frazier notes in The Negro in the United States:

During and following the War there was a great demand for unskilled labor to fill the gap created when immigrants returned to Europe and immigration from Europe ceased. At the same time economic conditions in the South growing out of the tenancy system tended to "push" the Negro out of the South. During 1915 and 1916, crop failures, floods, and the ravages of the boll weevil resulted in the widespread disorganization of the plantation economy. In a study which was designed to measure the relative strength of the "pull" of northern industries and the "push" of southern agriculture, Lewis concluded that the "pull" of the North was primarily responsible for the migrations. 

   World War I I  gave further impetus to the "pull" of northern cities (see Figures D and E and Table 9 below). During and following World War II, Blacks for the first time were drawn in large numbers to the west coast where defense industries were located.  

   In 1950, only 40% of the Black population lived on farms and the number of acres operated declined 37% to 25.7 million acres. Moreover, in 1950 the United States Census Bureau reported that for the "nonwhite" population - 95% of which was Black - only 18.4% were employed as farm workers, with 38% as "blue collar workers" (mainly industrial) and 34% as "service workers." This transformation of the social form of the Black community - from a pre dominantly agricultural laboring class in the rural South to an integral sector of the industrial proletariat more concentrated in the  urban North - is one of the most significant social tranformations in the history of the United States. 




By the 1970s Black people had become an urban people. In 1890 whites were twice as likely to be in cities, passing the 50% mark by 1920. However, the World War I and World War II migrations to the city by Black people, as well as other subsequent developments (sub urbanization of whites, increased fertility/birth rates and lower mortality/death -rate for Blacks, etc.), have resulted in Black people today being more urbanized than whites.



This new urban experience, in combination with their experience in World War I, produced a new response by Black people in the 1920's.


TABLE 9 CITIES WITH A BLACK POPULATION OF 100,000 OR MORE 1940, 1930, 1920, 1910, and 1900.
CITY 1940 1930 1920 1910 1900
    ( NORTH )    
New York 458,444  91,709 60,666
Chicago  277,731       44,103   30,150 
Philadelphia 250,880  84,459 60,613
 Detroit  149,119      5,741  4,111 
Washington 187,266  94,446  86,702
Baltimore 165,843      84,749 79,258
St. Louis   108,765  43,960  35,516 
New Orleans 149,034      89,262  77,714
Memphis  121,498  52,441 49,910
Birmingham 108,938       52,305  16,575
Atlanta 104,533  51,902    35,729 

 Source: E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro in the United States, p. 230.



There was a new confidence and determination, which can be seen in this editorial W. E. B. DuBois wrote for The Crisis in 1919:

We return from the slavery -of uniform which the world's madness demanded us to don to the freedom of civil garb. We stand again to look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade. We sing: This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land. 

It lynches. 

And lynching is barbarism of a degree of contemptible nastiness unparalleled in human history. Yet for fifty years we have lynched two Negroes a week, and we have kept this up right through the war. 

  It disfranchises
its own citizens. 

  Disfranchisement is the deliberate theft and robbery of the only protection of poor against rich and black against white. The land that disfranchised its citizens and calls itself a democracy lies and knows it lies. 

  It encourages ignorance. 

  It has never really tried to educate the Negro. A dominant minority does not want Negroes educated. It wants servants, dogs, whores and monkeys. And when this land allows a reactionary group by its stolen political power to force as many black folk into these categories as it possibly can, it cries in contemptible hypocrisy: "They threaten us with degeneracy; they cannot be educated." 

  It steals from us. 

  It organizes industry to cheat us. It cheats us out of our land; it cheats us out of our labor. It confiscates our savings. It reduces our wages. It raises our rent' It steals our profit. It taxes us without representation. It keeps us consistently and universally poor, and then feeds us on charity and derides our poverty. ' 

 It insults us.

 It has organized a nationwide and latterly a worldwide propaganda of deliberate and continuous insult and defamation of black blood wherever found. It decrees that it shall not be possible in travel nor residence, work nor play, education nor instruction for a black man to exist without tacit or open acknowledgment of his inferiority to the dirtiest white dog. And it looks upon any attempt to question or even discuss this dogma as arrogance, unwarranted assumption and treason.

 This is the country to which we Soldiers of Democracy return. This is the fatherland for which we fought! ... But by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and, brawn to fight a stern", longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own Ian

 We return. 
 We return from fighting. 
 We return fighting. 
 Make way for Democracy! 


A new term developed for this confident and determined Black - the "New Negro."


  In 1920, The Messenger outlined the aims of the "New Negro" so that the general public would have a "definite and clear portrayal": 

In politics, the New Negro, unlike the Old Negro, cannot be lulled into a false sense of security with political spoils and patronage. A job is not the price of his vote. He will not continue to accept political provisory notes from a political debtor, who has already had the power, but who has refused to satisfy his political obligations. The New Negro demands political equality. He recognizes the necessity of selective as well as elective representation. He realizes that so long as the Negro votes for the Republican or Democratic party, he will have only the right and privilege to elect but not to select his representatives. And he who selects the representatives controls the representatives. The New Negro stands for universal suffrage.

A word about the economic aims of the New Negro. Here, as a worker, he demands the full product of his toll. His immediate aim is more wages, shorter hours and better working conditions. As a consumer, he seeks to buy in the market, commodities at the lowest possible price.

The social aims of the New Negro are decidedly different from those of the Old Negro. Here he stands for absolute and unequivocal "social equality." He realizes that there cannot be any qualified equality. He insists that a society which is based upon justice can only be a society composed of social equals. He insists upon identity of social treatment.

 It went on to specify the methods for achieving these goals: 

First, the methods by which the New Negro expects to realize his political aims are radical. He would repudiate and discard both of the old parties - Republican and Democratic. His knowledge of political science enables him to see that a political organization must have an economic foundation. A party whose money comes from working people, must and will represent working people. Now, everybody concedes that the Negro is essentially a worker. There are no big capitalists among them. There are a few petit bourgeoisie, but the process of money concentration is destined to weed them out and drop them down into the ranks of the working class. In fact, the interests of all Negroes are tied up with the workers. Therefore, the Negro should support a working class political party. He is a fool or insane, who opposes his best interests by supporting his enemy. As workers, Negroes have nothing in common with their employers. The Negro wants high wages; the employer wants to pay low wages. The Negro wants to work short hours; the employer wants to work him long hours. Since this is true, it follows as a logical corollary that the Negro should not support the party of the employing class. Now, it is a question of fact that the Republican and Democratic Parties are parties of the employing or capitalist class.

On the economic field, the New Negro advocates that the Negro join the labor unions. Wherever white unions discriminate against the Negro worker, then the only sensible thing to do is to form independent unions to fight both the white capitalists for more wages and shorter hours, on the one hand, and white labor unions for justice, on the other, It is folly for the Negro to fight labor organization because some white unions ignorantly ignore or oppose him. It is about as logical and wise as to repudiate and condemn writing on the ground that it is used by some crooks for forgery. 

As a consumer, he would organize cooperative societies to reduce the high, cost of living. 

The social methods are: education and physical action in self defense. That education must constitute the basis of all action, is beyond the realm of question. And to fight back in self defense, should be accepted as a matter of course... 

Finally, the New Negro arrived upon the scene at the time of other forward, progressive, groups and movements - after the great world war. He is the product of the same world wide forces that have brought into being the great liberal and radical movements that are now seizing the reins of political, economic and social power in all of the civilized countries of the world. 

His presence is inevitable in these times of economic chaos, political upheaval and social distress. Yes, there is a New Negro. And it is he who will pilot the Negro through this terrible hour of storm and stress.



Most of this energy was generated in and focused on the urban environment - with mixed results, as will be seen later in the chapter.



 The urban experience for Black people was similar to that of any other formerly rural and poor people. The city was a relatively small place where large numbers of people lived and therefore social and cultural activities were intensified. Moreover, the economic basis for all of this was significantly different from the rural experience.

Black people were transformed into wage workers with little opportunity to be self-employed or to own the means of making a living (like a piece of land) in an independent way. In the city virtually everyone worked for someone else. Unlike white workers, however, Blacks in the city were the "last hired and the first fired" so that the vicious pattern of rural discrimination persisted in a new form in the urban environment.

Initially, there continued to be jobs that were occupied by Black people only. As Harold Baron has pointed out :

In industry generally the black worker was almost always deployed in job categories that effectively became designated as "Negro jobs.". . . The superintendent of a Kentucky plough factory expressed the Southern view: "Negroes do work white men won't do, such as common labor; heavy, hot, and dirty work; pouring crucibles; work in the grinding room; and so on. Negroes are employed because they are cheaper. . . . The Negro does a different grade of work and makes about $.10 an hour less." There was not a lot of contrast in the words of coke works foremen at a Pennsylvania steel mill: "They are well fitted for this hot work, and we keep them because we appreciate this ability in them.". "The door machines and the jam cutting are the most undesirable; it is hard to get white men to do this kind of work."

Certainly there was a limit beyond  which black people couldn’t go, at least in large numbers. In other words, there was a job ceiling that existed in both the North and the South, as Baron aptly describes:

In the North there was some blurring of racial distinctions, but they remained strong enough to get the black labor force off quite clearly. While the pay for the same job in the same plant was usually equivalent, when blacks came to predominate in a specific job classification, the rate on it would tend to lag. White and black workers were often hired in at the same low job classification; however for the whites advancement was often possible, while the blacks soon bumped into a job ceiling. In terms of day-to-day work, white labor was given a systematic advantage over black labor and a stake in the racist practices....  

In the South, where four-fifths of nation's black population still lived at the end of the 1920s, the situation of black labor was to all appearances essentially unchanged.... Black workers were concentrated in stagnant or declining plants, such as sawmills, coal mines, and cigar and tobacco factories. The increased hiring of blacks in such places was chiefly a reflection of the fact that the jobs had no future and the employers were not able to attract white workers. Black employment in textiles was severely limited, as in South Carolina, where state law forbade blacks to work in the same room, use the same stairway, or even share the same factory window as white textile workers.


Throughout the 1920s and 1930s as Blacks continued to migrate to the cities, they were forced into "Negro jobs," which became workplace ghettos. St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton described the situation in their 1945 study:

....the bulk of the Negro population became concentrated in the lower- paid, menial, hazardous, and relatively unpleasant jobs. The employment policy of individual firms, trade-union restrictions, and racial discrimination in training and promotion made it exceedingly difficult for them to secure employment in the skilled trades, in clerical or sales work, and as foremen and managers. Certain entire industries had a "lily-white" policy - notably the public utilities, the electrical manufacturing industry, and the city's banks and offices.

Ira De A. Reid, who was on the Social Security Board, further detailed the plight of Black workers:

Blind alley occupations for workers who have latent capacity for other jobs is, the rule rather than the exception among Negro workers. For the Negro there is little encouragement and less opportunity for promotion. Success stories of rises from laborer to superintendent and manager are few. Opportunities for training are even more restricted. Apprenticeships are few and other opportunities for trade training rare. Schools do not see the wisdom of training Negro pupils in skilled crafts because there is no opportunity for placing them after they have been trained. Employers will not hire them because they have no training. The vicious circle continues when a privileged few do received  the training or the required apprenticeship only to find that white workers refuse to accept them as fellow workmen. Strikes have been waged on this account. Union workers have been known to walk off the jobs when a Negro fellow unionist was employed.


Baron takes us one step further and analyzes the process by which Black people were proletarianized during this period:
As the size of the black population in big cities grew, "Negro jobs" became roughly institutionalized into an identifiable black sub-labor market within the larger metropolitan labor market. The culture of control that was embodied in the regulative systems which managed the black ghettos, moreover, provided an effective, although less-rigid, variation of the Jim Crow segregation that continued with hardly any change in the South. Although the economic base of black tenancy was collapsing, its reciprocal superstructure of political and social, controls remained the most-powerful force shaping the place of blacks in society. The propertied and other groups that had a vested interest in the special exploitation of the black peasantry were still strong enough to maintain their hegemony over matters concerning race. At the same time, the variation of Jim Crow that existed in the North was more than simply a carry-over from the agrarian South. These ghetto controls served the class function for industrial society of politically and socially setting off that section of the proletariat that was consigned to the least desirable employment. This racial walling off not only was accomplished by direct ruling-class actions, but also was mediated through an escalating reciprocal process in which the hostility and competition of the white working class was stimulated by the growth of the black proletariat and in return operated as an agent in shaping the new racial controls.  

This general pattern of restricting Black people to working-class jobs - and the lowest level of these jobs at that - is known as the proletarianization of Blacks.

Not surprisingly, racial tension was quick to emerge in the urban areas, as employers promoted competition for jobs and used Black workers as strikebreakers against the white working class. "When the conflict erupted into mass violence," Baron observes, "the dominant whites sat back and resolved the crises in a manner that assured their continued control over both groups."

During the depression years, Black people were in dire economic straits in the industrialized urban areas as millions were thrown out of work:

In the first years of the slump, black unemployment rates ran about two- thirds greater than white unemployment rates. As the depression wore on, the relative position of the black labor force declined so that by the end of the decade it had proportionately twice as many on relief or unemployed in the Mid-Atlantic States, and two and a half times as many in the North Central States. In the Northern cities only half the black men had regular full-time employment. In the larger cities, for every four black men in full- time regular employment there was one engaged in government-sponsored emergency relief The differential in the South was not as great, for much of the unemployment there was disguised by marginal occupations on the farms. 


But, as Baron points out, "Two somewhat contradictory results stood out for this period. First, whites were accorded racial preference as a greatly disproportionate share of unemployment was placed on Black workers. Second, despite erosion due to the unemployment differential, the black sub-sectors of the urban labor markets remained intact." Thus, despite the fact that Black people suffered disproportionately during the Great Depression, they continued to adhere as a permanent part of the urban work force, albeit at the lowest levels.

As the country geared up for World War II, initially "the black unemployed had to stand aside while the whites went to work." However, increased military mobilization finally swept Blacks back into the industrial work force:

The vast demand for labor in general, that had to turn itself into a demand for black labor, could only be accomplished by way of a great expansion of the black sectors of metropolitan labor markets. Training programs for upgrading to skilled and semiskilled jobs were opened up, at first in the North and later in the South.... World War I had established a space for black laborers as unskilled workers in heavy industry . During World War II this space was enlarged to include a number of semi-skilled and single-skilled jobs in many industries.

World War II marked the most-dramatic improvement in economic status of black people that has ever taken place in the urban industrial economy. . , . Occupationally, blacks bettered their positions in all of the preferred occupations. The biggest improvement was brought about by the migration from South to North (a net migration of 1,600,000 blacks between 1940 and 1950). However within both sections the relative proportion of blacks within skilled and semi-skilled occupations grew. In clerical and lower-level professional work, labor shortages in the government bureaucracies created a necessity for a tremendous black upgrading into posts hitherto lily-white. 

     Though Blacks continued to face severe discrimination in employment following World War II, the overall structure of the Black work force had been significantly altered (see Chapter 7). During the first half of the 20th century, Black men had been able to move from strictly unskilled labor positions into some skilled labor jobs, mainly as operatives. Black women, particularly later during the 1960s and 1970s, moved from domestic positions into service positions. 


     On the whole, the discrimination that Black people confronted in the northern cities during the first half of the 20th century was less than that of the rural experience, but in some respects it was greater. There was more apparent social equality, the work paid more, and there was a great deal more to do in the course of normal everyday life. However, life was cold and impersonal, prices were higher, and there was much greater relative deprivation. In the city a poor Black person was closer to wealth though without it. It was easier to be without something in the South because Black people there were quite distant from the general wealth of the middle and ruling classes (except for the domestic servants, who were similar to the house slaves), and because of the legacy of slavery.

. The main process of life in the cities had to do with the increased industrialization of Black workers. This process represented:  

1. an increase in the skill level of Black workers; 

2. an increase in the pay of Black people, especially since both world wars resulted in Black women getting factory jobs too, making a great deal more money than they had ever made before (though it should be noted that Black women were pushed out of their jobs immediately following both wars);

3. an increased association with white workers on a more equal basis, resulting in positive association in comparison with the more blatant racism and oppression that had been the common experience in the South.

The most important aspect of the urban experience for Black people was their proletarianization.



     The northern urban experience also meant that social and cultural life was quite different. Urbanization brought about the functional differentiation of social life in which the church ceased to be the main and central social institution. In the city, each social and cultural activity had its own institution that was more often than not divorced from the church. Either the activity was set up by the government (like public education and public assistance programs), or it was simply the activity of private enterprise (e.g., recreation - movies, bowling, dance halls, bars, etc. - and insurance, health care, death benefits, etc.).



      The cultural life of Black people took a tremendous leap forward in the city, both in quantity and quality. Immediately after the World War I migrations, while the automobile  and pre-depression prosperity of the U.S.A. created the "roaring 20's," Black people in Harlem had a cultural renaissance (rebirth). In every decade since, Black art and culture have advanced in waves. (See Chapter 9, "Black Culture and the Arts.") All of this has two tendencies: (1) more and more Black people have assimilated the dominant culture, become proficient, and in some cases, expert; and (2) the mass culture of Black people has changed to express the urban working-class experience (rather than the rural tenant experience) and has achieved a universal appeal that has continued to make a significant impact on all U.S. culture and most peoples through- out the world.

    In the city Black people faced discrimination in housing so that segregated Black neighborhoods were formed This approximated the rural experience in the South so closely that in Chicago, for example, the South Side was called Chicago's Black Belt. In 1919, Walter F. White observed:


Much has been written and said concerning the housing situation in Chicago and its effect on the racial situation. The problem is a simple one. Since 1915 the colored population of Chicago has more than doubled, increasing in four years from a little over 50,000 to what is now estimated to be between 125,000 and 150,000.... Already overcrowded this so called "Black Belt" could not possibly hold the doubled colored population. One cannot put ten gallons of water in five-gallon pail.

Although many Negroes had been living in "white" neighborhoods, the increased exodus from the old areas created an hysterical group of persons who formed "Property Owners' Associations" for the purpose of keeping intact white neighborhoods  ....  Early in June the writer, while in Chicago, attended a private meeting    ...  Various plans were discussed for keeping the Negroes in "their part of the town," such as securing the discharge of colored persons from positions they held when they attempted to move into "white" neighborhoods, purchasing mortgages of Negroes buying homes and ejecting them when mortgage notes fell due and were unpaid and many more of the same caliber. The language of many speakers was vicious and strongly prejudicial and had the distinct effect of creating race bitterness.

In a number of cases, during the period from January 1918 to August 1919, there were bombings of colored homes and houses occupied by Negroes outside of the "Black Belt." During this period no less than twenty bombings took place, yet only two persons have been arrested and neither of the two has been convicted, both cases being continued.



Writing in 1945, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton described what took place in Chicago in the intervening years: 

The Job Ceiling subordinates Negroes but does not segregate them. Restrictive covenants do both. They confine Negroes to the Black Belt, and they limit the Black Belt to the most rundown areas of the city. There is a tendency, too, for the Negro communities to become the dumping ground for vice, poor-quality merchandise, and inferior white city officials. Housing is allowed to deteriorate and social services are generally neglected. Unable to procure homes in other sections of the city, Negroes congregate in the Black Belt...

They went on to analyze how segregated housing led to further social and cultural segregation:

The conflict over living space is an ever-present source of potential violence. It involves not only a struggle for houses, but also competition for school and recreational facilities, and is further complicated by the fact that Negroes of the lowest socioeconomic levels are often in competition with middle class whites for an area. Race prejudice becomes aggravated by class antagonisms, and class-feeling is often expressed in racial terms.

Residential segregation is not only supported by the attitudes of white people who object to Negro neighbors - it is also buttressed by the internal structure of the Negro community. Negro politicians and businessmen, preachers and civic leaders, all have a vested interest in maintaining a solid and homogeneous Negro community where their clientele is easily accessible. Black Metropolis, too, is an object of pride to Negroes of all social strata. It is their city within a city. It is something "of our own" It is concrete evidence. of one type of freedom - freedom to erect a community in their own image. Yet they remain ambivalent about residential segregation: they see a gain in political strength and group solidarity, but they resent being compelled to live in a Black Belt. 

Chicago's Black Belt merely exemplified what was happening to Black people in urban areas throughout the United States.

     Based on this geographical concentration, new ways were developed to oppress Black people through city agencies organized on geographical lines. In the areas of public education, police protection, parks and public recreational facilities, water and sewage disposal, garbage collection, public health, and public transportation, Black people were confronted with discrimination that was not compensated for by the existence of a Black community. By coming to the city, Black people did not escape oppression; they merely had to face it in a new form.




     Black people fought against these new attacks against them. While geographic concentration enabled the ruling class to orchestrate new forms of oppression more effectively, it also enabled Black people to fight back with more intensity, more force. Throughout their urban experience, Black people have combined political pressure with such techniques as boycotts, picketing, marches, demonstrations, and occasional violence to achieve their ends.

Table 10 provides some examples of the means by which Black people in Chicago fought and the outcome of their struggles from 1929 to 1944. 

Table 10 


Campaigns      Date  Groups Involved    Technique     Outcome
 "Spend Your Money Where  You Can Work"   Campaign (directed at  stores in the Black Belt)      1929  Sponsored by Negro Professionals -and Businessmen. (Led by  white  Race Radicals, with broad community support)  Boycott;   
2,000 jobs in Black Belt stores
51st Street Riot   (directed at  white laborers)    1930   Spontaneous outburst, by laborers  Violence  Successful 
Fight for Skilled  Jobs on Construction in    Black Belt (directed at   AFL building trades unions)    1929 - 38   Consolidated  Trades Council  - group of Negro artisans     Picketing;  political  pressure ; some violence Partial success with advent of  New Deal
Fight for Branch Managers with  Daily Times   1937  Negro Labor Relations League - group of young men and women;  some cooperation from Urban League and Politicians Threat of   boycott   Six managers  appointed after one week campaign 
Fight for Branch Managers, Evening American   1937 Negro Labor Relations League - group of young men and women; some cooperation from Urban League and politicians  Conference; implied threat of boycott Eight managers appointed
Campaign for Motion Picture Operators in Black Belt (Directed against AFL Unions) 1938 Negro Labor Relations League - group of young men and women; some cooperation from Urban League and politicians Picketing; threat of boycott Ten operators appointed after short campaign
Campaign for Telephone Operators ( directed against phone company) 1937 - 39 Negro Labor Relations League - group of young men and women; some cooperation from Urban League and politicians Treat that all Negros would remove telephones Unsuccessful ; threat not carried out fully
Drive for Negro Milkmen (directed against major dairies and AFL unions ) 1929 - 39 Fight begun by Whip; revived in 1937 by Council of Negro Organizations and Negro Labor Relations League Threat of boycott; attempt to organize "Milkless Sunday" Unsuccessful due to lack of community support
Campaign for bus drivers and motormen on transit lines 1930 - 44 "United front with strong leftwing influence; campaign aided by FEPC Demonstrations; threat of boycott; strong political pressure Successful in securing a few positions

   Source: St. Clair Drake and Horace R- Cayton, Black Metropolis, p. 743. 

114 - 115

     Elsewhere Blacks also took up militant means. The 1935 riot
that broke out in Harlem marked "the first time blacks moved ion and employed violence on a retaliatory basis against white storeowners," as Baron observed. It was a technique that was to be used in later years. Another one of the ways to struggle was based on the concentration of buying power. Black people used their money to force merchants to hire Black people by shopping only where Black people worked. During the 1920s, Black bourgeois leaders organized "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaigns to gain jobs in white firms operating in the ghettos. Later, the Doctrine of the Double-Duty Dollar was preached, often from the pulpit. St'  Clair Drake and Horace Cayton described -in 1945 the meaning of this doctrine and its importance to the Black community:

It is Sunday morning in the "black belt " The pastor of one of the largest churches has just finished his morning prayer. There is an air of quiet expectancy, and then - a most unusual discourse begins. The minister, in the homely, humorous style so often affected by Bronzeville's "educated" leaders when dealing with a mass audience, is describing a business exposition:

"The Business Exposition at the Armory was one of the finest achievements of our people in the history of Chicago. Are there any members of the Exposition Committee here? If so, please stand. [A man stands.] Come right down here where you belong; we've got a seat right here in front for you. This man is manager of the Apex Shoe Store - the shoes that I wear.. We can get anything we want to wear or eat from Negroes today. If you would do that it would not only purchase the necessities of life for you, but would open positions for your young folks. You can strut as much as you want to and look like Miss Lizze [an upper-class white person], but you don't know race respect if you don't buy from Negroes. As soon as these white folks get rich on the South Side, they go and live on the Gold Coast, and the only way you can get in is by washing their cuspidors. Why not go to Jackson's store, even if you don't want to buy nothing but a gingersnap?  Do that and encourage those girls working in there. Go in there and come out eating. Why don't you do that?"

This is the doctrine of the "Double-Duty Dollar," preached from many Bronzeville pulpits as a part of the weekly ritual. Church newspapers, too, carry advertisements of all types of business from "chicken shacks" to corset shops. Specific businessmen are often pointed out to the congregations as being worthy of emulation and support, and occasional mass meetings stress the virtues of buying from Negroes - of making the dollar do "double-duty": by both purchasing a commodity and "advancing The Race." The pastor quoted above had been even more explicit in an address before the Business Exposition crowd itself:

"Tomorrow I want all of YOU people to go to these stores. Have your shoes repaired at a Negro shop, buy your groceries from a Negro grocer ... and for God's sake, buy your meats, pork chops, and yes, even your chitterlings, from a Negro butcher. On behalf of the Negro ministers of Chicago I wish to commend these Negro businessmen for promoting such an affair, and urge upon you again to patronize your own, for that is the only way we as a race will ever get anywhere."' . . . 

This endorsement of business by the church simply dramatizes, and brings the force of sacred, sanctions to bear upon, slogans that the press, the civic

organizations, and even the social clubs repeat incessantly, emphasizing the duty of Negroes to trade with Negroes and promising ultimate racial "salvation" if they will support racial business enterprises....

To the Negro community, a business is more than a mere enterprise to make profit for the owner. From the standpoints of both the customer and the owner it becomes a symbol of racial progress, for better or for worse.


     In addition to these consumer boycotts, mass protests were organized in many different ways. For instance, in January of 1941, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, an all-Black union, called for a massive march on Washington. The March on Washington Movement received sufficient support to force President Roosevelt to establish a Fair Employment Practice Committee in exchange for calling off the march. "Although this movement was not able to establish a firmly-organized class base or sustain itself for long," Harold Baron maintains, "it foreshadowed a new stage of development for a self-conscious working class with the appeal that an oppressed people must accept the responsibility and take the initiative to free themselves." The March on Washington Movement triggered off a long history of marches on Washington that continue to this day.

     Lastly, and most importantly, since Black people were becoming workers, the fight against discrimination was aimed at racist practices by both industry and segregated unions. This took its most advanced form in the 1930s with the development of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO) and campaigns in such basic industries as steel and automobile production. In the next chapter, we will take up in more detail the experiences of Black  people as industrial workers in urban centers.




Consumer boycott "New" Negro
Double Duty Dollar Push/Pull
Ghetto Proletarianization
Migration Urban Black Belt
"Negro jobs"/Job ceiling Urbanization/Suburbanization


I. Why did Black people migrate to the cities, particularly the northern industrial cities? How was the agricultural experience of Black people similar to and different from the industrial experience?

2. What kinds of jobs did Black people get in the city?

3. What were the major forms of discrimination and oppression experienced by Black people in the city?

4. How did Black people fight back during this period?



1. Constance McLaughlin Green, The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation's Capital. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967.

2. Theodore Kornweibel,  Jr., In Search of the Promised Land: Essays in Black Urban History. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1981.

3. Hollis R. Lynch, The Black Urban Condition: A Documentary History, 1866-1971. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973.,

4. Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

5, Allen H. Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto 1890-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.


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