Faced by such intimidation, discrimination and poverty, many black people left the rural south and moved to the cities of the northern USA. Through the 1920s the black population of both Chicago and New York doubled: New York’s from 150,000 to 330,000 and Chicago from 110,000 to 230,000. In the north, black Americans had a better chance of getting good jobs and a good education. For example, Howard University was an exclusively black institution for higher education. In both Chicago and New York, there was a small but growing black middle class. There was a successful ‘black capitalist’ movement, encouraging black people to set up businesses.
In Chicago they ran a successful boycott of he city chain stores, protesting that they would not shop there unless black staff were employed. By 1930 almost all the shops in the South Side belt where blacks lived had black employees. There were internationally famous black Americans, such as the singer and actor Paul Robeson. The popularity of jazz made many black musicians into high profile media figures. The black neighbourhood of Harlem in New York became the centre of the Harlem Renaissance. Here musicians and singers made Harlem a centre of creativity and a magnet for white customers in the bars and club.
Black artists flourished in this atmosphere, as did black writers. The poet Langston Hughes wrote about the lives of ordinary working class black Americans and the poverty and problems they suffered. Countee Cullen was another prominent poet who tried to tackle racism and poverty. In one famous poem (‘For A Lady I Know’) he tried to sum up attitudes of wealthy white employees to their black servants. She even thinks that up in heaven Her class lies late and snores While poor black cherubs rise at seven To do celestial chores Black Americans also entered politics.
WEB DuBois founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1919 it had 300 branches and around 90,000 members. It campaigned to end racial segregation laws and to get laws passed against lynching It did not make much headway at the time, but the numbers of lynchings did fall. Another important figure was Marcus Garvey. He founded Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey urged black Americans to be proud of their race and colour. He instituted an honours system for black Americans (like the British Empire’s honours systems of knighthood).
The UNIA helped black people to set up their own businesses. By the mid 1920s there UNIA grocery stores, laundries, restaurants and even a printing shop. Garvey set up a shipping line to support both the UNIA businesses and also his scheme of helping black Americans to immigrate to Africa away from white racism. Eventually, his businesses collapsed, partly because he was prosecuted for exaggerating the value of his shares. He was one of very few businessmen to be charged for this offence. Garvey’s movement attracted 1 million members at its height in 1921. One of these was the Reverend Earl Little.
He was beaten to death by Klan thugs in the late 1920s, but his son went on to be the black rights leader Malcolm X. Although important, these movements failed to change the USA dramatically. Life expectancy for blacks increased from 45 to 48 between 1900 and 1930, but they were still a long way behind the white, whose life expectancy increased from 54 to 59 over the same period. Many black people in the northern cities lived in great poverty. In Harlem in New York they lived in poorer housing than whites, yet paid higher rents. They had poorer education and health services than the whites.