Episode 11 (Segment 1): Africans and Europeans on the Move

Episode 11 (Segment 1): Africans and Europeans on the Move


As new immigrants arrive from Eastern
Europe, largely as a result of the chaos brought on by World War I, many African Americans
are going to find a good deal of value in some of their insights and philosophies that
these new arrivals brought with them. Because many of the Eastern European rivals have faced
similar exploitation and oppression in their own countries, perhaps they will make
affective partners in fighting oppression and the United States. Perhaps the class based solutions
built into the philosophies of socialism and communism will offer a way of getting
around the limitations of race. Perhaps, but along with their limitations, there are also built
in conflicts between the class based philosophy and the philosophies of
integration and racial separatism. From 1910-1920, African Americans were
on the move. In what historians call, “ The Great Migration,” an estimated half a
million African Americans flocked to northern cities. In my view, the reasons for the
migration are often oversimplified. I want to make it clear that this is just my perception
here. I’m not going to directly contradict your text in that the commonly held
perceptions of the causes of the migration are accurate; first, African Americans left to escape
southern discrimination and racial oppression; Second, the boll weevil infestation of Southern cotton
fields in the late 1910s forced many sharecroppers and laborers to search for alternative
employment opportunities; Third, the enormous expansion of war industries created job openings
for blacks mostly in service jobs vacated by new factory workers. There’s
one cause, however that has been critical to some other themes that we’ve
discussed earlier, but is also often overlooked – that is, the overproduction of
cotton. Around the turn of the twentieth century, two things started to happen. First, new
machinery greatly increased planters’ capacity to harvest cotton crops. Second, they were
very few viable economic options available in the south. Many platters tried their hand at
wheat, figs, and various other crops, but cotton as it turned out proved to be the only
sure bet. There were many African Americans who, after emancipation, vowed that they
never again wanted to see another cotton ball in their lifetimes – even if they returned
to cotton. Better capacity to harvest cotton along with the fact that everybody and
their cat trying to harvest it, caused cotton to flood U.S. markets. The result is
typical supply and demand economics: supply goes up beyond the demand, the price plummets.
The reason this is important is that I believe it is no accident that at this particular
moment in our history, the United States for the very first time begins to build an empire
abroad, both in the Caribbean and in the Philippines. From its vantage point in the
Philippines, US venture capitalists gained access to new markets and a place to offload excess
goods, in this case, cotton creating new demand and thereby stabilizing the price. So
clearly, there is a link the forces that are drawing African Americans into the military ventures
in the Philippines and the circumstances drawing African Americans northward — that is
economic depression in the south and need to expand economically. While a few
went west, many blacks made their way northward to take advantage of labor
opportunities made available during World War I. Most went to the northern cities of Chicago, Detroit,
Saint Louis, and Harlem. The cultural renaissance that took place in these cities will be
discussed in the next lecture, but what’s important to note here is that the segregation and
discrimination they experienced in the north was usually less overt, but many northern cities did
embrace Jim Crow segregation. As we saw in Part 1 of this lecture, racism and racial
violence was far from unheard of in northern cities. Another aspect of the north that they
encountered with a large numbers of ethnic Europeans were also flocking to U.S. shores. That is
the reason why when the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced it expanded its focus to include ethnic
Europeans, as we saw in Part 1 of this lecture. The Great Migration changed the
composition of the Northern workforce. For a brief time, African Americans were able to find an
abundance of good paying jobs. In addition, women — both black and white — also filled the labor vacuum
as many of the men were off to war. Interestingly, the change in composition also brought
changes in the sociology of work. For example, before World War I it was practically unheard
of to have a female secretary. As women filled secretarial positions during the wartime
labor shortage it was coincidentally at this time that the job of a secretary became a
predominantly female occupation. Also coincidentally the status and compensation for that job,
while relatively high for jobs that were available to women, was lower than it had been when
it was a male occupation. The same thing happened after World War II with telephone
operators for example when women began to fill those positions. When the men returned from
war the occupation continued to be associated as “women’s work” and the status
of the occupation was also lowered. After the war, however, when white men
found African Americans, ethnic Europeans, and women occupying the positions that they had
left I’m sure you can imagine there would be a great deal of labor unrest. That is the
reason why in 1919, in addition to the racial tension that was discussed in part 1 of this
lecture, class tensions also erupted in the form of 3600 labor strikes. As many groups began
to see other ethnic groups as competitors for jobs, there was a great deal of pressure on
labor unions that were often ethnically exclusive. Again, I mentioned this before, but I’m
sure you can imagine the complete foolishness of racial exclusion in labor unions because it
made it easy for employers to pay ethnic groups against one another by
using them as strikebreakers.

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