The US Constitution states that everyone is equal, but many groups in America in the 1920s were not treated fairly. There was a great deal of prejudice against those who were not considered 'real' Americans.

Problems faced by black Americans

In 1920, there were 12 million black Americans living in the USA with 75 per cent of them living in the south. Racial intolerance affected every aspect of their lives.

The experiences of black Americans in the southern states

Although slavery had ended in 1865, black Americans in the southern states suffered more discrimination than those in the north. This was because of the Jim Crow laws in the south.

The Jim Crow laws legalised segregation and helped to keep black Americans in inferior positions in society, politics and the economy.

Jim Crow laws

  • The laws meant that white people and black Americans had to live separately. The areas affected by segregation included churches, hospitals, theatres, schools, toilets, cemeteries, parks and other public places.
  • Black Americans could not serve on juries.
  • Schools for black Americans were deliberately kept inferior, so that they would remain uneducated and not advance in society. The authorities spent less on black American schools than those for white people. Textbooks were rare and class sizes were huge. Many could not access any form of education and illiteracy was high.
  • Voting was made difficult for black Americans. To be allowed to vote people had to:
    • Pay a poll tax: Due to low wages, many black Americans were too poor to pay the tax, and were therefore unable to vote.
    • Pass a literacy test: People had to prove that they could read difficult extracts from texts, but literacy levels were low amongst black Americans so few were allowed to vote. Even when some of them were able to pass these tests, they were attacked and threatened if they tried to vote.
  • The “Grandfather Clause” excluded anyone whose grandfather was a slave from voting.
  • Employment was affected. Black Americans were forced to work in low paid, unskilled jobs.

The majority of them were not able to benefit from the flourishing economy of the 1920s. Most black Americans in the south were sharecroppers who suffered when agricultural prices fell throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Three-quarters of a million lost their jobs.

Social customs emphasised the inferiority of black American in society. They had to enter a white person’s house by the back door, not look them directly in the eye or speak before they were spoken to.