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2. Black & White

As black soldiers returned from Europe after World War One, and southern blacks migrated to northern cities by the thousands; as black writers and artists in Harlem spawned the New Negro movement, and black political spokesmen commanded national attention, "race" announced itself as a rapidly changing factor in postwar America. Racial pride advanced as a new "modern" generation of black leaders achieved self-directed gains in social and political realms. Racial hatred escalated to new extremes of virulence and destruction as whites resisted the inevitable adjustments to black advancement. The period saw the most horrific racial riots in U.S. history to that time, and also welcomed the first black representative elected to Congress since 1901. Here we explore the black-white division through commentary, political cartoons, visual art, and musical drama. (For commentary on white-Asian relations in the western U.S., see Native & Foreign.)

    Collected commentary Black & White PDF file
  • Collected commentary. This collection offers contemporary commentary on the racial issues in America by black and white writers in essays, editorials, speeches, memoirs, congressional testimony, novels, poetry, political cartoons, drawings, photographs, and other sources. Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. How did black and white observers differ in portraying the racial divide of the period? in predicting its future? [Note: W. E. B. Du Bois, in his piece "Ten Phrases" satirizing white prejudices, uses a racial epithet for blacks.] (12 pp.)

  • Political cartoons Black & White PDF file
  • Political cartoons. Eighteen cartoons on the racial issues of the 1920s are presented with guidance for analyzing and discussing the cartoons. How did white and black cartoonists interpret the racial divide? the depth of the "race problem"? the role of citizens, states, and the federal government in addressing the problems? Compare how black cartoonists and artists adapted whites' racial caricatures (see the "black mammy" caricature in the 1925 Chicago Defender cartoon and in visual art of the 1960s civil rights era.) Study the cartoons with the five other cartoon collections in this Theme DIVISIONS and complete the cartoon analysis chart. (Cartoons, 19 pp.; Chart: 2 pp.)

  • Aaron Douglas, Charleston PDF file
  • Aaron Douglas, Charleston, Internal Link to Discussing Art page gouache painting, ca. 1928. An African American modernist artist active in the Harlem Renaissance, Aaron Douglas produced eight illustrations in gouache (a thick heavily pigmented watercolor technique) for the English edition of Magie Noir (Black Magic, 1928), a short story collection by the French writer Paul Morand that portrayed black-white interactions in Africa, the West Indies, and the U.S. In the story Charleston, an American woman raised in Charleston tries to justify her hysteric fear of black men that leads to the brutal murder of a black saxophone player in France—a "purely American tragedy," writes Morand, "acted inside provincial France." How did Douglas's drawing interpret this "purely American tragedy"? (See Discussing Art guidelines.) (1 p.)

  • W. E. B. Du Bois on the East St. Louis race riot PDF file
  • W. E. B. Du Bois on the East St. Louis race riot of 1917. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, notably during the "Red Summer" of 1919, devastating race riots erupted across the nation at a level of mass violence unprecedented in American racial history. Many were spurred by white resentment of blacks' increasing employment in the nation's industrial centers outside the South, aggravated as returning white soldiers found factory jobs filled by southern black migrants, and, as in East St. Louis, Illinois, as African Americans were hired to replace unionized whites striking for higher wages. The mayhem in East St. Louis in July 1917 left nine white and one to two hundred black people dead, thousands injured, and vast swaths of black neighborhoods burned to the ground in what was later deemed a "mass lynching."1 After studying the aftermath of the riot firsthand for the Crisis, W. E. B. Du Bois penned a heartfelt piece weaving sociological analysis with the epic tragedy of human-wrought cataclysm, excerpted here to highlight his thesis that the riot illuminated "every element of the modern economic paradox." On the final page of these excerpts appears a review of Du Bois's essay by journalist Robert Benchley, who challenged his white readers to acknowledge Du Bois's indictment of purposeful white obliviousness to the depths of racial injustice in America. Why did Du Bois present the background for the riot as an epic tragedy? (8 pp.)

  • Clarence Darrow on the Sweet trials PDF file
  • Clarence Darrow on the Sweet trials of 1925-26. In the autumn of 1925, the famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow welcomed a break after two exhausting trials—the Leopold & Loeb murder trial of 1924, and the internationally publicized Scopes "monkey trial" of 1925. At age 68, he was "determined not to get into any more cases that required hard work and brought me into conflict with the crowd," as he wrote in his 1932 memoir, The Story of My Life. But soon he was central to another sensational trial, another campaign for social justice. Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black physician in Detroit, was facing trial for murder with ten codefendants. Having purchased a house in a white neighborhood and anticipating a mob attack, Sweet gathered nine relatives and friends in the house, distributed firearms, and notified the police. While hundreds of rioters converged on the house, throwing rocks and epithets, shots rang out. Sweet's brother Henry fired at the crowd from a second-story window, injuring one man and killing another. Two trials followed, both heard by all-white juries, a given at the time. The first trial—in which Darrow argued the long-honored precept that "a man's house is his castle" which he is duty-bound to defend—ended in a hung jury. The second trial, in which only Henry Sweet was tried, ended in acquittal. How did the Sweet trials epitomize the racial divide of the period? How were they a distinct phenomenon of time, place, and persons? (7 pp.)

  • Within Our Gates. Responding to postwar racism and racial violence, African American film producer Oscar Micheaux released the second film of his long career, Within Our Gates, in early 1920. Directed to a black audience, the film dramatized the realities of segregation, Jim Crow, and race hatred that black citizens had to survive and, with great effort, transcend. Accused of murdering their white landlord, a Mississippi sharecropping couple is lynched and burned by a white mob. Their children are able to escape, including their adopted daughter Sylvia, a young woman whose attempts to raise money for a black school provide the structure for the multilayered plot (see plot summary from Turner Classic Movies). As Sylvia eludes capture in the forest, she cries "Justice! Where are you? Answer me! How long? Great God almighty, HOW LONG?" She is discovered and assaulted by the landlord's brother who stops in horror at the sight of a scar on her chest, proof that she is his daughter from a marriage with a black woman. With this plot turn Micheaux delivered a direct rebuke to white producer D. W. Griffith, whose film Birth of a Nation in 1915 had glorified the brutal southern repression of newly freed blacks after the Civil War. Griffith had opened his 1919 film A Romance of Happy Valley with the epigraph "Harm not the stranger / Within your gates / Lest you yourself be hurt," presaging a character's near murder of his unrecognized child, the "stranger within your gates" (in Biblical usage, a minority or outside group living within a culture2). By mirroring Griffith's film in Within Our Gates, Micheaux challenged Griffith to heed his own warning—harming black citizens "within our gates" will come to damage the nation as a whole. (77:03. We recommend that you mute the added music, a Haydn string quartet, which is inappropriate for much of the film's content.) INTERNET MOVING IMAGE ARCHIVE

  • Show Boat miscegenation scene. In 1927 the standard Broadway musical was an amalgam of comedy and singing skits (like vaudeville and musical revue) without a unifying plot and avoiding controversial social issues. Then Show Boat opened—with a running plot, songs tied to the action, black and white actors performing in major roles, and a subplot involving miscegenation (interracial marriage) in Mississippi in the 1880s. Based on Edna Ferber's 1926 best-selling novel of the same name, with music, libretto, and lyrics by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat marked a pivotal moment in American musical theater. To view the crucial miscegenation scene, we direct you to the 1936 film adaptation that closely recreated the stage production. In the scene, the town sheriff arrives to arrest the interracial couple, Steve and Julie, for violating Mississippi's anti-miscegenation law. Alerted to the danger, Steve, who is white, cuts the finger of his wife, a mixed-race woman who had been passing for white, and swallows some of her blood—thus enabling him to claim truthfully that he "had Negro blood" in him. The sheriff departs after the showboat captain stands up for Steve, but the couple is immediately fired from the showboat troupe. For the time, this singular scene would prove sufficiently unsettling, especially to southern audiences, that it was omitted from the 1929 silent film version. How daring was this scene for the 1920s? What does its presence in a Broadway musical indicate about racial relations in the decade? (7:59) YOUTUBE

See also Ku Klux Klan and "Age of Prosperity." For primary resources on the Great Migraton and the Harlem Renaissance, see The Making of African American Identity: Vol. III, 1917-1968.

Discussion Questions

  1. What racial issues dominated relations between black and white Americans in the period 1918-1930?
  2. How were they affected by postwar conditions and attitudes, and by the postwar "modernization" of America? Where did they stand as the U.S. entered the Great Depression?
  3. Study these resources with those on the Ku Klux Klan. To what extent was race central to the 1920s Klan? Was the Klan the greatest adversary of black Americans in the period?
  4. What core issues, tensions, aspirations, and changes defined the black-white division in America in the 1920s that fueled other social-economic divisions of the period?
  5. How did black and white commentators, artists, and cartoonists differ in portraying the racial divide of the period? in foreseeing its future?
  6. How did they differ in defining the role of citizens, states, and the federal government in addressing the issues?
  7. Compare how black cartoonists and artists adapted whites' racial caricatures in the period, e.g., see the "black mammy" caricature in the 1925 Chicago Defender cartoon and in visual art of the 1960s civil rights era.
  8. Complete the cartoon analysis chart in this Theme DIVISIONS to study the cartoonists' viewpoints and the visual devices they used to convey them, e.g., their use of American symbols of liberty and of the Klan's white hood and robe.
  9. How did Aaron Douglas's painting Charleston interpret the "purely American tragedy" of lynching?
  10. Compare Charleston with Douglas's other works for Magie Noir and with his body of work in the 1920s and 1930s (see Supplemental Sites below). What were Douglas's singular artistic devices for portraying racial pride, and the racial divide?
  11. How did W. E. B. Du Bois characterize the East St. Louis race riot of 1917 as reflecting "every element of the modern economic paradox"?
  12. Why did he present his analysis as part sociological overview, part epic tragedy?
  13. How did journalist-humorist Robert Benchley respond to Du Bois's essay? How did he challenge his white readers to acknowledge Du Bois's indictment of whites' obliviousness racial injustice in America?
  14. How did the Sweet trials epitomize the racial divide of the period? On the other hand, how were they a distinct phenomenon of time, place, and persons in the 1920s?
  15. Why are the Sweet trials not remembered as are the Scopes trial, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, the Leopold-Loeb trial, and other highly publicized trials of the decade?
  16. What aspects of postwar racism and racial violence did the African American producer Oscar Micheaux examine in Within Our Gates?
  17. What messages did Micheaux direct to his black audience? to white viewers? to white producer D. W. Griffith?
  18. Who is the "stranger within our gates"?
  19. Why did Micheaux conclude his film with a call to optimism and patriotism: "Be proud of your country, Sylvia"?
  20. For 1928, how daring was the miscegenation scene in Show Boat? What does its centrality in a Broadway musical indicate about racial relations in the decade?
  21. How might 21st-century audiences respond to the scene in revivals of Show Boat?
  22. Create a dialogue between one of these pairs of black and white spokesmen represented in this section. Decide the central topic of the dialogue. How will the dialogue end—an agreement, a solution, a shared quandary, an understanding of differing perspectives, a failure to communicate, etc.?
    Black                    White
    W. E. B. Du Bois and Clarence Darrow
    W. E. B. Du Bois and Reinhold Neibuhr
    Mordecai W. Johnson and Reinhold Neibuhr
    Walter F. White and editor of the Forum
    Walter F. White and George Chamlee
    Aaron Douglas and John P. Fort
    Langston Hughes and Nello Teer
    Jessie Redmon Fauset and Robert & Helen Lynd
    Alain Locke and Walter Lionel George
    Mary Church Terrell and woman witness of Marion, Indiana, lynching
    editor, Kansas City Call and editor, Gainesville (Florida) Daily Sun
    Oscar Micheaux and producer of Show Boat (1936 film)
    Leslie Rogers or Fred B. Watson and John T. McCutcheon
    W. B. Williams and Jay N. "Ding" Darling

Framing Questions

  • What factors precipitated and fueled the social divisions of the 1920s?
  • How did each division reflect postwar adjustments and the "modern age"?
  • What issues overlapped the multiple social divisions of the period?
  • How had each issue evolved by 1930 as the nation entered the Great Depression?


Collected commentary
Political cartoons
      Cartoon analysis chart
Douglas, Charleston
Darrow on the Sweet trials
Du Bois on the East St. Louis race riot
Micheaux, Within Our Gates
Show Boat miscegenation scene
12 pp.
19 pp.
 2 pp.
 1 p.
 7 pp.
 8 pp.
         View online.
         View online.
49 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Freedom's Story: Teaching African American Literature and History, scholars' essays and guidance (National Humanities Center)
Analyzing political cartoons: guides from
Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, 1920, full text (University of Virginia Library)

The Crisis, Sept. 1917 issue on the East St. Louis race riot (Modernist Journals Project, Brown University and the University of Tulsa)

The East St. Louis Massacre: The Greatest Outrage of the Century, by Ida Wells-Barnett, 1917 (Northern Illinois University Libraries)

East St. Louis, Illinois, race riot, 1917, overviews
Sweet Trials, Detroit, 1925-1926; overviews and resources
"First black judge . . . in Detroit," Detroit News silent newsreel, mid-1920s (Virtual Motor City, Wayne State University)

Oscar Micheaux, overviews
Aaron Douglas, overviews
Aaron Douglas, works online
Show Boat: A Hypertext Project (University of Virginia Library)

Show Boat: New York Times review, Dec. 28, 1927 (The New York Times)

Primary sources in The Making of African American Identity: Vol. III, 1917-1968: chronological order (National Humanities Center)
Primary sources in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York)

1"Historians, journalists, and civil rights leaders who have studied the East St. Louis riot believe that more than one hundred African Americans, and perhaps as many as two hundred, were killed . . . with many of their bodies, including those of small children and infants, burned beyond human recognition . . . What happened in East St. Louis in 1917, wrote Gunnar Myrdal in American Dilemma, was not so much a riot as a "terrorization or massacre," a 'mass lynching.'" Harper Barnes, Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Walker & Co., 2008), p. 2.

2The "stranger within the gates" appears often in the Old Testament, e.g., Leviticus 19: 33-34. "And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God." [King James version]

– Aaron Douglas, Charleston, gouache and pencil on paperboard, ca. 1928. North Carolina Museum of Art, 2005.15; purchased with funds from the North Carolina Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest) and the State of North Carolina, by exchange. Reproduced by permission of VAGA (artists' copyright service).
– Portrait photograph of Dr. Ossian Sweet, ca. 1925, Detroit Public Library. Reproduced by permission.
– Leslie Rogers, "Smashing an Old Idol," political cartoon, The Chicago Defender, April 25, 1925. Reproduced by permission.
– Lynching of Thomas Schipp and Abram Smith, Marion, Indiana, photograph, August 7, 1930 (detail). Indiana Historical Society, Item ID: P0411_BOX19_FOLDER15. Reproduced by permission.
–Portrait photograph of Jessie Redmon Fauset, n.d. Courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, ID#1699952.
– "3,000 Will Burn Negro" and "John Hartfield Will Be Lynched . . . ," from New Orleans States and Jackson [MS] Daily News, reprinted in the Crisis, August 1919, p. 208. Reprinted by permission of the Modernist Journals Project, Brown University and the University of Tulsa.
– African American woman burned in East St. Louis race riot of 1917, photograph captioned "Narcis Gurley, 71 next birthday. Lived in her home 30 years. Afraid to come out till the blazing walls fell in," The Crisis, September 1917, p. 236. Reprinted by permission of the Modernist Journals Project, Brown University and the University of Tulsa.
– Still from Within Our Gates, silent film by Oscar Micheaux, 1920. Screen capture courtesy of Internet Moving Image Archive.

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