In today’s episode we’re going to explore race in the 1920s and dig into a few key moments and movements to see how race and ethnicity played a key role in shaping the American interwar years.

CLICK HERE for Corresponding Lesson Plan for this Episode

Transcript for Race in 1920s America: Hellfighters, Red Summer, and Restrictive Immigration

Written and researched by Elizabeth G. Masarik, PhD

Produced by Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Elizabeth: We often think of 1920s America as the Roaring Twenties. We envision speakeasies and flappers, young women with bobbed hair and no corsets. It is remembered as a glamorous period of excess but also as a period where mass consumption of manufactured goods and popular culture rose to levels that we can recognize today. New-fangled radios brought baseball games directly into peoples living rooms. Electric vacuum cleaners sucked the dirt out of mass-produced rugs, bought from a department store on credit.

Marissa: These heady post-war years exemplified both the possibilities of what freedom and prosperity meant to many Americans, as well as the limits of those freedoms. Nativism, racism, and the first Red Scare marched right alongside the growth of American consumer culture, the Great Migration, and the Jazz Age.

Elizabeth: In today’s episode we’re going to explore race in the 1920s and dig into a few key moments and movements to see how race and ethnicity played a key role in shaping the American interwar years.

I’m Elizabeth

and I’m Marissa

and we’re your historians for this episode of Dig.

Thank you for joining us today! Before we dive in, we want to thank you, our listeners, and especially our Patreon supporters, who help keep this history excavation team digging. A big shout-out and thanks to our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Lauren, Edward, Iris, Denise, Susan, Agnes, Peggy, Colin, Maddie, Maria, Jessy and Hannah! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to to learn more.

Marissa: With the entry of the United States into World War I, many African Americans wanted to prove their patriotism, anticipating their being finally seen by white America as full citizens deserving of respect.  When the U.S. declared war against Germany on April 4, 1917, more than 20,000 Black men enlisted in the U.S. military. After the Selective Service Act was enacted in May 1917, those numbers increased dramatically. By July of 1917 over 700,000 African Americans had registered for military service.

Elizabeth: An article in the Black newspaper, Chicago Defender stated that “the Race throughout the country has made up its mind to one thing, and this is the men drafted, if called into the service of the country, must be called into the army and not to farm.”[1] Unfortunately the military was unwilling to be a vehicle for social change, choosing status quo over effective military logic. Black recruits found themselves barred from service in the Marine Corp. They were admitted to the Navy but were only allowed to serve in menial positions. Black men were accepted into the Army, but only in segregated units.

Marissa: However, African-American soldiers provided much-needed support overseas to the European Allies. Those in black units who served as laborers, stevedores and in engineer service battalions were the first to arrive in France in 1917.

Elizabeth: One of the first African American infantry regiments to serve in World War I was the 369th Infantry Regiment, commonly known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The Hellfighters, like many other Black units, were assigned to the French Army throughout the war effort because many white American soldiers refused to perform combat duty with Black Americans.

Marissa: The U.S. Army campaigned strenuously to persuade the French not to treat black soldiers as equals- not to eat or socialize with them, or even shake their hands. A memo sent to the French mayors of the Meuse division upon the arrival of the African American 372nd Infantry Regiment in 1918 stated:

The question is of great importance to the French people and even more so to the American towns, the population of which will be affected later when the troops return to the United States. It therefore becomes necessary for both the colored and white races that undo mixing of these two be circumspectly prevented.[2]

Basically this memo is saying, don’t treat our Black American soldiers with equal respect as whites because then our Black soldiers are going to expect to be treated with respect once they return to America.

Elizabeth: The French army had from the start included many colonial units with non-white personnel from among Morocco, Algeria, and Senegal. Also, since the French desperately needed fresh troops they were less concerned with race than the Americans

Marissa: For the most part, the French did not show hatred towards them and did not racially segregate Black American troops and they were treated as if they were no different than any other French unit. Black American soldiers were issued French weapons, helmets, belts, and packs, but continued to wear their U.S. uniforms.

Elizabeth: However, this disconnection from the U.S. Army troubled many Black troops. Harry Haywood of the 370th Infantry, another Black unit in France, wrote that upon arrival in France, “The American equipment with which we had trained was taken away and we were issued French weapons – rifles, carbines, machine guns, automatic rifles, pistols, helmets, gas masks and knapsacks.” He noted the men’s feelings about this writing, “The men were greatly chagrined when they were ordered to turn in their American equipment and were issued French equipment instead.” Historian Chad Williams notes that “even the food rations of the French army, consisting of soup and two quarts of red wine, differed dramatically from those of the American Expeditionary Forces. From the guns they wielded down to the food they ate, the black soldiers of the Ninety-third Division had to confront the reality of being in, but not of, the U.S. Army.”[3]

Marissa: The 369th Hellfighters provided the longest service of any regiment in a foreign army and unfortunately had the record for the most casualties as well. The Hellfighters fought in the trenches for 191 days straight. Private Henry Johnson of the 369th was the first American to receive the Croix de guerre, a French medal of valor. On December 13, 1918, one month after Armistice Day, the French government awarded the Croix de guerre to 170 soldiers from the 369th, and a unit citation was awarded to the entire regiment.

Harlem Hellfighters. Black and white picture of WWI soldiers.
“Some of the colored men of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action.” Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor. 1998 print.
Records of the War Department General and Special. Staffs. (165-WW-127-8)

Elizabeth: Black colonial troops marched in the victory parade in Paris but the Wilson administration did not allow Black Americans to march in the parade under the American flag.

Marissa: At the end of the war, the 369th returned to New York City and paraded through the city on February 17, 1919. Thousands of people lined city streets to welcome the Black soldiers home. Faces in the crowd were predominantly white when the parade began on Fifth Avenue at 61st Street but as the parade proceeded uptown and marched into Harlem, Black New Yorkers crammed onto the sidewalks to cheer them on. Henry Johnson rode in an open-top car holding a bouquet of red lilies and proudly wearing his French Croix de Guerre.

Elizabeth: Chad Williams paints a wonderful picture of this parade so I’m going to quote him here:

The men of the regiment, donning their French-issued helmets, rifle bayonets gleaming in the winter sun, and marching in a military formation perfected while serving with the French, made for an imposing site. They conveyed an image of power, discipline, and aggressive black manhood. The New York Times was particularly fascinated by the regiment’s impressive stature, commenting on the “bigness” and battle-scarred “grim-visaged” demeanor of the men. The dramatic return…represented a visually striking claim for full, inclusive citizenship in front of New York’s most prominent white citizens.[4]

Marissa: The parade became a marker of African American service to the nation. In the 1920s and 1930s, the 369th marched through the neighborhood each year, traveling from their armory to catch the train to their annual summer camp. This parade day became an unofficial holiday, with Harlem school children being let out of classes so that they could wave the men on.

Elizabeth: African Americans used the Great War to show their patriotism and to prove they could contribute to the protection and advancement of the country.

Marissa: Because of their valorous service in protecting democracy in Europe, African-American servicemen expected more equality in wages and job opportunities when they returned home. In the aftermath of World War I, W.E.B. DuBois urged returning soldiers to continue fighting for democracy at home.

Elizabeth: In the article “Returning Soldiers,” printed in the May 1919 issue of The Crisis, DuBois strikes at the heart of American hypocrisy and racism writing:

We are returning from war! The Crisis and tens of thousands of black men were drafted into a great struggle. .. we fought gladly and to the last drop of blood; for America and her highest ideals, we fought in far-off hope; for the dominant southern oligarchy entrenched in Washington, we fought in bitter resignation. For the America that represents and gloats in lynching, disfranchisement, caste, brutality and devilish insult—for this, in the hateful upturning and mixing of things, we were forced by vindictive fate to fight also.

But today we return! … We stand again to look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade. … This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land.

It lynches.

And lynching is barbarism of a degree of contemptible nastiness unparalleled in human history. Yet for fifty years we have lynched two Negroes a week, and we have kept this up right through the war.

It disfranchises its own citizens.

Disfranchisement is the deliberate theft and robbery of the only protection of poor against rich and black against white. The land that disfranchises its citizens and calls itself a democracy lies and knows it lies.

It encourages ignorance.

W.E.B. Du Bois in 1918, by C.M. Battey

It steals from us.

It insults us.

This is the country to which we Soldiers of Democracy return. This is the fatherland for which we fought! But it is our fatherland. It was right for us to fight. The faults of our country are our faults. Under similar circumstances, we would fight again. But by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.

We return.

We return from fighting.

We return fighting.

Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America or know the reason why.[5]

Marissa: That’s such a powerful piece and really sums of the mood of many African Americans after the Great War. And just to be clear, African American leaders were in no way unanimous in their support to go to war. Labor leader A. Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owens, editors of the Socialist newspaper The Messenger wrote, “Let DuBois…etc. volunteer to go to France to make the world safe for democracy. We would rather make Georgia safe for the Negro.”[6] So before and after, there was no singular Black voice, so-to-speak, but a plethora of voices and ideas on how to solve the “race question.”

Elizabeth:  So now let’s give a bit more context to what contemporaries called the “race question” at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties. On the eve of World War I, 90 percent of the African American population in the United States lived in the southern United States. However, between 1910 and 1920, half a million black individuals and families left the South to travel north for the “warmth of other suns,” as Langston Hughes described it.

Marissa: This mass movement of people is known as The Great Migration. During this period the Black population in Chicago more than doubled, so too for New York City, and Detroit. Smaller rust belt cities like Buffalo, Rochester, and Cleveland had similar gains.

Elizabeth: There were many reasons why Black people decided to migrate from the South to the North.  The opportunity for higher paid, less demeaning work was a huge factor. World War I increased factory production and industrialization, which provided many opportunities for better work and wages.

Marissa: Educational opportunities were also a huge draw. Non-segregated schooling meant that Black children would be educated in a proper school building, with running water and heat in the winter, not a shack on a back lot as in most places in the South.

Elizabeth: Black migrants also looked forward to being able to vote in local and national elections. While not illegal in the south, the “redemption” of southern states after the Civil War had all but barred black men from voting at the polls. Violence, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and other such chicanery prevented the overwhelming majority of eligible Black people from voting in the South.

Marissa: And of course finally, migrating North was a way to escape the violence of the South; the violence of Jim Crow laws, the violence of being treated as second-class, the violence and rape of black women by white men, and the violence of mob rule and lynching. All very real reasons why migrating to the North could be beneficial for Black people.

Elizabeth: The Great Migration technically lasted from 1915 to 1970, but we tend to think of the bulk of this migration happening during the interwar years between WWI and WWII. Journalist Isabel Wilkerson in her Pulitzer Prize winning book The Warmth of Other Suns, chronicles the Migration in minute detail but also tackles the underrepresented later part of this migration with oral histories and interviews.

Marissa: Upon arriving in northern cities, Black migrants experienced a whole new level of freedom in the North that was just not possible in the South. However, it was no utopia and they experienced numerous disappointments in the North.

Elizabeth: African Americans faced restrictiveemployment in northern cities. They might earn better wages than they had in the South, but they were not hired in upwardly mobile positions in high numbers. Instead they found themselves relegated to employment as janitors and maids, busboys, and other supportive service roles.

Marissa: Additionally, Black workers were barred from joining unions, like the American Federation of Labor and other craft unions. More radical unions like the International Workers of the World (IWW), which had welcomed all workers and races into their fold, were practically defunct after WWI and the first Red Scare.

Sign erected outside the Sojourner Truth housing project in Detroit, 1942

Elizabeth: African American migrants also faced severe housing discrimination and segregation in northern cities. Although they might be making higher wages, they were also spending higher amounts on food and housing. Places to live in the cities were in short supply, which was compounded by racially segregated neighborhoods, forcing many Black families to cram multiple people into small, dilapidated rented homes or apartments.

Marissa: Southern African Americans could also experience prejudice by northern Black people, who felt that southerners were uneducated and unrefined and worried that their southern cousins’ behavior would undermine northern Black’s struggle for equality.

Elizabeth: Yet, even with these setbacks the opportunities that Black people had in the north were overwhelmingly better than what they had left behind. Streams of migrants flowed into northern cities, following rail and bus lines. Isabel Wilkerson notes that “migration streams were so predictable that by the end of the Migration…one can tell where a Black northerner’s family was from just by the city the person grew up in – a good portion of blacks in Detroit, for instance, having roots in Tennessee, Alabama, western Georgia, or the Florida panhandle because the historic rail lines connected those places during the Migration years.”[7]

Marissa: This influx of Black southerners drastically changed the racial makeup of entire neighborhoods and cities. The period after World War I was marked by a era of serious self-reflection among African Americans and fostered “the New Negro Movement.” This term was coined by writer Alain Lock and was the name of a book that collected the works of many black authors of the Harlem Renaissance. The “New Negro Movement” promoted a renewed sense of racial pride, cultural self-expression, economic independence, and progressive politics.

Elizabeth: New York City was a popular destination of Black Americans during the Great Migration. The city’s Black population grew 257 percent, from 91,709 in 1910 to 327,706 by 1930. The explosion of artistic and Afro-centric cultural expression among African Americans in neighborhoods like Harlem, created the Harlem Renaissance between the end of World War I and the lead up to World War II.

Marissa: Writers, photographers, artists, playwrights, and musicians associated with the Renaissance asserted pride in Black life and identity, a rising consciousness of inequality and discrimination, and interest in the rapidly changing modern world.

Elizabeth:Another major movement during this time was called Garveyism and its followers Garveyites. Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican newspaper publisher and labor organizer who built one the largest Black nationalist organizations in the world.

Marissa: Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica in 1914 with his co-founder and future wife, Amy Ashwood. The UNIA began as a fraternal organization focused on Black racial uplift through education and jobs training for black people. However, Garvey struggled to grow the UNIA in Jamaica. At the invitation of Booker T. Washington, Garvey immigrated to Harlem, New York in 1916.

Elizabeth: Garvey began the Harlem UNIA in a basement with 17 members but in less than two years, the UNIA grew enormously. Garvey’s message of Black economic and political independence resonated with many African Americans in the United States, and soon branches were forming in cities across the country and eventually in different parts of the world. By 1920 Garvey claimed nearly a thousand local divisions in the United States, the Caribbean, Central America, Canada, and Africa.

Marissa: Garvey published a newspaper titled Negro World, which spread the UNIA’s message of racial pride. The paper touted the richness of African culture and preached a message of Black economic and political independence. Garvey insisted that Black people would only be respected once they were economically strong. He encouraged followers to open businesses that would cater to Black customers and to create a Black economy within white capitalism. Garvey practiced what he preached and established the Negro Factories Corporation to promote Black-owned businesses. He launched a shipping company called the Black Star Line, as well as a chain of restaurants and grocery stores, laundries, a hotel, and a printing press.

UNIA Parade, organized in Harlem, 1920

Elizabeth: Large UNIA meetings were alive with excitement and felt akin to religious revivals. Official UNIA songs and slogans were interspersed with prayer and pageants. Entire families could come for a day of activism and excitement, participating in debates, plays, and fashion shows. The UNIA provided many Black Americans an organization with actionable ends. Men, many who were WWI veterans, could join the African Legion. Those under the age of 18 could join the UNIA Juvenile Division. Women joined the Universal Motor Corps, an auxiliary of the African Legion, where they learned military discipline, automobile driving, and auto repair. Women could also join the Black Cross Nurses, modeled after the Red Cross.

Marissa: Garvey pushed for a “return to Africa,” where Black Americans should reject the American political system and to move to Africa. Although Garvey was popular, not all of his followers were supporters of his “return to Africa” idea. In fact, Garvey and Black leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois became bitter enemies as they envisioned different ways for Black people to exert their independence and full citizenship.

Elizabeth: Beginning in 1919 the Garvey and the UNIA movement became a target of the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to the FBI. In a campaign directed by the young J. Edgar Hoover, Bureau of Investigation officers tracked and reported on UNIA activities across the country. Hoover also coordinated seven federal agencies to investigate Garvey and the movement from all angles until he eventually brought him down. In 1922 Garvey was indicted for mail fraud. He served two years in prison and was deported to Jamaica in 1927. I think it’s safe to say this state surveillance of Garvey and the UNIA was a precursor to COINTELPRO and Hoover’s fear of a “black messiah,” who could unify African Americans. We talk about this in depth in our Black Panthers episode.

Marissa: After Garvey’s arrest and later deportation, the movement began to break apart into different organizations. Nevertheless, the spirit of Garveyism inspired many Black Americans. In fact, Malcolm X’s parents had been Garvey supporters, giving us a generational glimpse of the long civil rights movement.

Elizabeth: Militancy of WWI vets and movements like the New Negro Movement and Garveyism increased the axieties of whites who feared they were losing social status and dominance. This unease erupted in violence during the Red Summer of 1919.

Marissa: In April of 1919, racial tensions in Jenkins County Georgia flared and white mobs burned the Black churches in town and killed numerous Black men. In the spring and summer months that followed, similar massacres happened across the United States throughout the summer. Violent white assaults against Black people began spiraling out of control in major cities like Philadelphia, Washington, New York and Chicago, places where African Americans were migrating in large numbers during the Great Migration. From April to November 1919, roughly 30 riots broke out across the eastern U.S., with hundreds of accounts of beatings, lynchings and the burning of Black churches and buildings by white people.

Elizabeth: These examples of anti-Black collective violence are often and problematically termed “race riots,” which gives the impression of groups of Blacks and whites in conflict to one another- a “both sides” kind of thing. But in almost every single case, all of this violence was started by white mobs initiating the violence in Black neighborhoods and against black people. 

Marissa: White violence in Chicago started when a Black teenager, Eugene Williams, was swimming at the beach on Lake Michigan. The raft he was on floated into the whites-only swimming section. A white man threw rocks at Williams, hitting him so hard that he drowned in the water.

Elizabeth: Police showed up and tensions flared when a white police officer prevented a black police officer from arresting the man who killed Williams. Instead, officers arrested a black male bystander. Black observers began to loudy object to what was happening on the beach, prompting white bystanders to start beating and chasing them. This started a frenzy and white mobs soon started spreading into Black neighborhoods, attacking Black businesses, homes, and people.

Marissa: The Chicago riot raged for five days, killing 38 people, roughly 24 African Americans and 15 white people,  and injuring 500 people. Approximately 2,000 people, most of whom were Black, lost their homes to vandalism and fire.

But white racial violence was not isolated to Red Summer….

Elizabeth: On May 30, 1921 a young Black teenager named Dick Rowland entered an elevator at the Drexel Building in Tulsa Oklahoma. Shortly thereafter a white female elevator operator screamed and Rowland was seen running from the area. The next morning, police found Rowland and arrested him.

Marissa: They arrested him because rumors of what had supposedly happened on that elevator had reached a fever pitch. The Tulsa Tribune ran a front-page story that afternoon with the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” reporting that Rowland was arrested for sexually assaulting Page. This of course whipped up a frenzied mob intent on “justice” through lynching.

Elizabeth: As the rumor mill churned, a group of white men gathered outside the courthouse and demanded that the sheriff give them Rowland. The sheriff refused to hand Rowland over to the mob. Soon a group of about 25 armed Black men – many of them WWI vets – arrived at the courthouse to help the sheriff guard Rowland but the sheriff turned them away.

Marissa: An hour later a group of roughly 75 armed Black men returned to the courthouse to protect Rowland. They were met by an armed collection of roughly 1,500 white men. Inevitably shots were fired and soon fighting broke out. The outnumbered Black men retreated into the prosperous African American Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood, known colloquially as Black Wall Street because of the prosperousness of the area and Black-owned businesses. The bustling neighborhood boasted two schools, two newspapers, a hospital, and numerous Black-owned businesses.

Elizabeth: Throughout the night gangs of white Tulsans rampaged Greenwood. Some of these men were even deputized and given weapons by city officials to end the “riot” but instead participated in it. Rumors helped fuel the ongoing violence. Many whites falsely believed that a large-scale insurrection of Black Tulsans was imminent and rumors spread that Black reinforcements from nearby towns and cities were on their way.

Marissa: None of this was true of course but it fueled the hysteria. In the early hours of June 1st, white people continued to rampage the Greenwood District, looting and burning homes and businesses over an area of 35 city blocks. Eyewitness accounts said that planes dropped dynamite on Greenwood. The white mob shot Black people indiscriminately in the street. Firefighters who arrived to help put out fires later testified that rioters had threatened them with guns and forced them to leave.

Elizabeth: There are images of the devastation leveled on Greenwood and when I show these pictures to my classes, students are shocked at how completely decimated the streets of Greenwood are. Some of these images remind me of the scorched earth images taken of Georgia after Sherman’s march to the sea during the Civil War. The level of devastation is kind of unbelievable, particularly when you consider that generations of Black wealth was looted and burned in a 24-hour time span. In money terms, property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million lost in real estate, that’s like $20 million or more in today’s money. Roughly 10,000 Black people were left homeless and 35 square blocks were burned.

Aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa, OK, 1921

Marissa: In the hours after the Tulsa Race Massacre, all charges against Dick Rowland were dropped. Police determined that Rowland had stumbled into Page, causing her to yelp.

Elizabeth: After the Tulsa Race Massacre, as Black Tulsans worked to rebuild their ruined homes and businesses, white Tulsans worked hard to forget about the event. In fact, there was a concerted effort to cover it up. There were never any ceremonies or statues to commemorate the horrible events of May 31-June 1, 1921. Scholars have discovered that the Tulsa Tribune newspaper removed the front-page story of May 31 that sparked the chaos from its archival volumes and police and state militia archives about the riot were missing as well.

Marissa: The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics recorded 36 dead- 26 Black and 10 white. However, historians estimate the death toll was much much higher, at around 300. There are currently archaeological excavations going on in Tulsa on mass graves dated to the massacre as we speak. It’s really not until recently that the Tulsa Race Massacre is mentioned in history books or acknowledged as part of America’s sad and bloody history of inflicting violence on Black Americans.

Elizabeth: So obviously, it’s this kind of overt racism and not so overt racism that Black people were fed up with in the 1920s. Often we think of the Civil Rights movement as something from the 1950s and 60s but the Civil Rights movement has a long history in the United States. Black Americans continually resisted white supremacy through organizations like the UNIA, NAACP and other civil rights organizations. In the face of such extreme violence, just rebuilding a house or a business was a fierce act of resistance.

Marissa: The Ku Klux Klan also had a resurgence during the late 1910s and 1920s. You’ll remember that the first KKK arose right after the Civil War to terrorize Black people and Republicans. The second rising was in response to a number of things, one is they were inspired by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation. Another boogy man for the KKK was increased immigration from Eastern European countries that had begun in about the 1890s. Many of these immigrants were not Protestant but were Catholic or Jewish.

Elizabeth: This second Klan peaked in the 1920s, when its membership exceeded 4 million nationally. Members of the new KKK were prominent men and women in society. It wasn’t an underground organization. In fact, more than 30,000 KKK members paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington on Aug. 8, 1925, faces uncovered.  White-robed anti-Semitic and racist Klansmen participated in marches, parades, and nighttime cross burnings all over the country.

Marissa: The revived Klan was fueled partly by white supremacy masked as patriotism and partly by a romantic nostalgia for the old South, but, more importantly, it expressed the defensive reaction of white Protestants who felt threatened by the large-scale immigration of the previous decades that had changed the ethnic character of American society.

Elizabeth: The Klan’s demands that control of the U.S. be returned to “citizens of the old stock” reflected widely held sentiments in the 1920s. Even if one wasn’t a card carrying member of the klan, their sentiments were not deal breakers for a lot of Protestant white Americans.

Marissa: One result of this was a far more sweeping change to immigration policy than ever before. The Immigration Act of 1924, also called the Johnson-Reed Act, aimed to ensure that descendants of the old immigrants from western Europe forever outnumbered the children of the new. The Act limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota.

Data derived from Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1942, Chart No. 113: “Immigration, by Country of Origin, by Decades 1851-1940.”

Elizabeth: The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. This meant that the new quota calculations included large numbers of people of British, Irish, and German descent whose families had resided in the United States for a long time. As a result, the percentage of visas available to individuals from the British Isles and Western Europe increased, but newer immigration from other areas like Southern and Eastern Europe was limited.

Marissa: The act set a total immigration quota of 165,000 for countries outside the Western Hemisphere, an 80% reduction from average before World War I. It also barred immigrants from Asia, including Japan. Lobbyists from the West Coast, where a majority of Japanese, Korean, and other East Asian immigrants had settled, were especially concerned with excluding Asian immigrants.

Elizabeth: The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act had already put an end to Chinese immigration for the most part, but as Japanese and, to a lesser degree, Korean and Filipino people immigrated to the Western United States, an exclusionary movement formed in reaction to what nativists called “Yellow Peril.”

Marissa: When the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act was established it created a new category of people, the illegal alien. The Border Control agency was created with this bill and was created to stop Eastern and Southern Europeans who tried to sneak across the border from Mexico and Canada.

Elizabeth: So, on one hand, we’ve painted a pretty bleak picture of race relations during the interwar years. Yet, on the other we’ve highlighted some amazing movements like the New Negro Movement and Garveyism, both focused on Black racial pride. We’ve covered a lot of different elements in this episode and perhaps we’ll do some deeper dives into specifics in a future episode. I think it’s safe to say that the 1920s show in stark effect both the potential and the limits of American freedom and prosperity.

Thanks for listening.

Discussion mentioned the Darktown Comics by Currier and Ives.


Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Vintage Books, 2010)

Chad L. Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010)

Arthur E Barbeau, Florette Henri, and W. Burghardt Turner, The Unknown Soldiers : Black American Troops in World War I (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974)

What the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed


[1] “Will Fight, But Won’t Farm,” Chicago Defender , July 28, 1917.

[2] Arthur E Barbeau, Florette Henri, and W. Burghardt Turner,The Unknown Soldiers : Black American Troops in World War I, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974), 133.

[3] Chad L. Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 121.

[4] Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy, 217.

[5] W.E.B. DuBois, “Returning Soldiers,” The Crisis, May 1919.

[6] Quoted in Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy, 25.

[7] Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), 178.


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