1920’s / 1930’s Race Relations in the U.S.

Political Cartoon representing Jim Crow Laws Source

Essential Question: How were African Americans treated in the 1920’s and 1930’s and how did they respond to this type of treatment?

Directions for Students: For your assignment, you will need to pick a decade, either the 1920’s or the 1930’s and pretend that you are a black working class American. You will be writing three journal entries about different experiences you have during this time. Use the following documents to help you in writing your journal entries. At the end of each journal entry, make sure to add a drawing of what you wrote about in your journal.  Your journal entries can either be handwritten or typed out, but your pictures need to be hand drawn. You will not lose points for art ability, I just want to see that you tried your best to create a visual of the content you wrote about. Make sure each journal entry is at least 3 paragraphs or 12-15 sentences.

Entry #1: In your first journal entry, write about your life in the South. What job do you have? Do you have a family? How does having or not having a family impact your experience? How is life different for you as compared to white working class Americans? Make sure to include how you are affected by Jim Crow laws and describe at least one instance where you were able to see this difference. 

Entry #2: In your second journal entry, write about a specific lynching you have heard about. Use the lynching map to pinpoint a specific case where someone was lynched. Who was this person? Were they related to you? A Friend? Someone you knew from your town? Or were they a stranger? How does this make you feel? For your drawing, draw how this interaction made you feel. 

Entry #3: In your final journal entry, pretend that you have just participated in the Great Migration, and are now living in Harlem, New York. Describe what you see in your new city. What art have you seen or literature have you read? How does this compare to life in the South? Do you like it better in the South or in Harlem? Why? 

Historical Context:

While the 1920’s can be remembered as a prosperous and exciting time for many people, it was not for everyone. Jim Crow laws limited what African Americans were allowed to do, where they were allowed to go, what bathrooms or water fountains they were allowed to use, while also segregating them from their white counterparts. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, lynchings were continuing to occur throughout the United States, with the revitalization of the Ku Klux Klan. While these acts were occurring throughout the United States, Harlem, New York saw a different side of life. In Harlem, many black artists and writers were publishing their works that shined a light on what it was like to be black in America. Artists and writers expressed their experiences through their craft and many people took to listening and learning about their experiences. This also allowed other members of the black community to feel as though they were not alone through the struggles they faced and the experiences they had.

Jim Crow Laws:

In 1896, the Supreme Court Case of Plessy vs. Ferguson allowed for segregated facilities for white and black people. The Supreme Court decision found this to be constitutional as long as these facilities were separate, but equal. Because of this Supreme Court decision, laws were imposed to segregate white and black people. These laws came to be known as Jim Crow laws after a character in a minstrel play, where a big part of the play was making fun of black people. Jim Crow laws severely affected the American lives, but most directly that of African Americans.

Document #1: This document is from “The Appeal” an African American newspaper. How do you think states were able to get away with treating African Americans as subordinates to their white counterparts? Do you think they were violating the 14th amendment with how African Americans were treated and the facilities they were to use? source
Document #2: In this image, the entrance for black people was at the back of the building. Does this entrance look equal to where the white entrance was at the front of the building? Source
Document #3: This is an image of a bus station in Durham, North Carolina in 1944. While this photograph was not taken during the 1920’s or 1930’s, do you think this is a photograph that you could see being taken during those decades as well? Source


With the revitalization of the Ku Klux Klan during the late 1910’s and early 1920’s, the amount of lynchings were going up as well. The KKK was known for lynching, which meant to hang or kill someone who was allegedly accused of a crime, many people. Many remember the KKK as an organization that only killed blacks, but quite a few Chinese, Latinos, and Italians were lynched by the KKK for not agreeing or meeting their criteria for membership. Groups such as the NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, worked to bring statistics and stories of how lynchings were affecting their community to light, in the hopes that people would stop.

Document #4: Since this source is from the 1910’s, how do you think it impacted people moving into the 1920’s and 1930’s? Source

Harlem Renaissance:

From the mid-1910’s to the early 1940’s, there was a mass migration of African Americans from southern states to northern states, specifically, Harlem, New York, known as the Great Migration. With so many African Americans moving to Harlem, it became a city that was rich with African American culture and traditions. Because of this, many African American artists and writers were able to flourish, publishing their work and getting lots of buzz around it. Many people in the Harlem were either writing, or creating other kinds of art that expressed experiences they had had throughout their lives. Because so many African Americans were living in Harlem and close to the art, they had better access to it and were able to see it and relate to the different experiences that were expressed. Many people found solidarity in one another because of these artists and writers that were so open about their experiences.

Document #5: What is the strange fruit that Billie Holiday is singing about? What kind of message do you think she is trying to send with this song? Source
Document #6: The Lyrics to Strange Fruit. Do you think this was a problem that was only happening in the South, like Holiday sings about, or do you think this was also happening in Northern states as well? Why? Source
Document #7: How do you think this experience has affected Hughes throughout his life? Do you think he is the only person to experience this or was this a common problem that many African Americans faced? Source

Visualizing the Past

In the classrooms I’m teaching in this year, I have 11th and 12th graders that are taking U.S. History. There are many ways to bring what my students are learning to life. My students respond better when their learning becomes a bit more interactive and they a making students responsible for their own learning in a new way.

I think it’d be really fun when we are learning about the Civil Rights Era to have students try and make their own trip off of the Green Book maps. Source The classrooms I am in have their own sets of Chromebooks that students are able to use, so this can be a classroom activity, since many of my students do not have access to computers at home.

In this activity, I would ask students to get a chromebook from the back of our classroom and go to this website. Students would then pick a starting and end point. Students would have to note and 2 places to eat and at least one place to stay along their journey. This might be harder for shorter journeys because not a lot of places allowed black people to eat in their resturants or stay the night. After mapping their journey on the website, students would then have to write a letter to someone back home talking about their journey and the different places they ate and spent the night. They would also need to include some things they saw along the way that would remind them that they are in the 1930’s or 1940’s. These additions might include things like signs saying “whites only” or seeing Hoovervilles as they are traveling along. Students would also need to note how they are traveling from their different destinations, whether by foot or car, or another mode of transportation. This would be a really fun activity for students to be able to first visualize what a journey for a black person might look like prior to the Civil Rights era and also give them a space to synthesize what it was they had been learning about.

This is an activity that I think my students would enjoy and something I could see myself using in the classroom. I know when I’m trying to understand something that it helps to have a visual representation of what it is I’m studying. This helps me get a better idea of what life was like for certain people, better than just reading about it just hearing about it. When I have used interactive maps or other ways to visualize the past in my classroom, my students have responded pretty well to it. I think each of us would benefit from using these platforms to visualize the past.

Discussion Methods – Ideas and Experiences

Over my time in my placement, I have learned that discussions in some classes will just not be beneficial or productive. Some students are just not mature enough to have thoughtful discussions with the class. Because of this, the entire class looses out on opportunities for discussion. There are other kinds of smaller discussions that I’ve been able to try and want to try in the future.

In my previous field experience placement, my Cooperating Teacher was a big fan of having Structured Academic Controversy in her class. One of many times she used this method in her class, they were discussing the start of the Civil War. This was a really productive activity for this topic since there is always so many ideas around what really started the Civil War. It was good for students to be able to see sources from each side and see them argue for and against points they had supported at the beginning of the class, but maybe were completely against by the end. It was very cool to see how these students responded and how well they were able to use the documents provided to them to create valid and strong arguments.

In my classroom this year, my CT and I have tried having students evaluate pictures before we start a new unit and have students jigsaw the photographs so they can see what they will be learning in the next unit. This was beneficial in some classes, but others turned disastrous. Since starting my unit plan, I’ve been a big fan of seeing how students are doing at the end of the class period and what they have learned. Exit tickets have been a really good tool to get that kind of information. I’ve used that in a couple classes, but don’t want it to become too repetitive so I’m excited to try a couple new ideas in the next few class periods.

One tool I’m excited to try is the 3-2-1 method. I think using this method would be helpful for students to feel a bit more empowered in their learning because it focuses on things that they are good at and know how to do. Focusing on what students are good at might also help those who are dealing with stress about tests. I’m also really interested in seeing how the Send-a-problem tool would work. It activates students to do something for themselves and their own learning and might be a tool they can model for themselves and others in the classroom before trying it at home or for other classes as well. My class is having a review day in a couple of class periods so I’m excited to try that one out for them instead of just making a Kahoot for them to review with.

Understanding Racism through Music – Reflection

For this lesson, I chose to use music to understand social problems through history. I had students listen to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and reflect on the lyrics and how it related to the late 1930’s. After a short discussion, I had students listen to Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”. Students were then to compare the two songs and discuss what they say about the time period they were written in. If there had been more time, students were to find their own song that relates to “Strange Fruit” and write about how the two compare and what they both say about the time period they were written in.

It was interesting to get feedback on this lesson. I chose to use the Kendrick Lamar song because I wanted to test it before I used it in my classroom. I have since found a song that does a better job comparing to “Strange Fruit” and I think I will use that song for my lesson instead. I got a lot more hesitant and negative reactions than I thought I would and have since wondered if that would have been the case had I changed the modern day song to compare “Strange Fruit” too. I think my own bias on what my classroom looks like and the classrooms I have been educated in created a comfortability for myself in talking about really heavy topics such as the racism, lynchings, and violence that are sung about in each song. I think that is where many people’s hesitation came from and am interested in seeing how this lesson works in classroom. I think I needed to refine my discussion questions a bit further, but also know that many people were just shocked that I was sharing this song, which surprised me. As surprised as I was, it was good for me to get that reaction so that I’m aware that not everyone would take this topic the same way. Racism and violence are still very present and prevalent in our world today and highlighting people’s experiences throughout history should not be something we shy away from as educators. Creating spaces for students to hear people’s experiences around problems such as lynching and racism is important for them to realize how big of a problem it is, even if it does not affect them directly.