Early 1900′s Black American South

After Reconstruction, the Southern economy was improving then was hit by several set-backs.  These set backs included the boll weevil infestation (late 1800s-1920s), The Great Migration (1910-1930), The Great Depression (1929), the Dust Bowl(1934-1939).  Boll weevil beetles from Central America travelled through Mexico into the South and devastated cotton crops (cotton buds were their main food source) by the 1920s.[1]  The Great Migration is a time period marked by one and a half million black Americans who moved out of the rural South to find employment and equality in urban industrial cities of the country.  This movement was the best way for blacks to escape lynchings, unemployment and oppression.  The Great Depression was a time of economic uncertainty for all Americans.  The southern portion of the United States was hit particularly hard by the Depression since it had not fully recovered from the Civil War costs.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt noted the people of the South were his main priority in terms of helping to assist them to economic revitalization.  The dust bowl was the result of a combination of drought and crop exhaustion.  The dust bowl instilled the importance of crop rotation, allowing different portions of land to lay fallow to rejuvenate its nutrients for more plentiful crop growth.

Black women’s roles in the South did not comprise of relaxation nor a life of ease.  Since most of the south was farmland, Southern economy was agriculturally based.  Women’s main responsibilities centered around the domestic sphere.  They ran the household, raised the children, cooked the food, as well as worked in the field when needed.  Yet, they still found themselves in a subservient role to men.  It was not uncommon for black women to find themselves in circumstances such as Celie, Nettie, or Sofia’spositions in the movie The Color Purple.  Legally, black women had no voice in legal matters and any abuse they faced would not be entertained by the courts.  So, they only way to deal with abusive issues was to survive them the best way they could, be it by submission like Celie, running away like Nettie or fighting back like Sofia.  It is important to note that not all black women were abused, many lived happy, fulfilling lives.

Black women were very active and effective in their pursuit toward citizenship in the 1800s.  When the 13th Amendment (1864), 14th Amendment (1868), and 15th Amendments (1870) were ratified, black Americans believed they were American citizens and equal to whites.  Yet, black women found the government did not recognize their citizenship nor their right to vote.  Because of this the technicality of gender, women found their battle for citizenship and rights not yet over by the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.  Women began to rally and gather in pressure the government to recognize women’s rights.  During the time that the movie takes place, the early 1980s, American women are increasingly active in the suffragist movement.  Many women feel that until they get the right to vote, men running the government will maintain superiority over women.  Many suffragist organizations formed over the years, like the International Women Suffrage Alliance (1904, middle class women), Equality League of Self Supporting Women (1906, to reach working class women), as well as the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference (1913, to enfranchise white women only).  Although historically active in the passing of laws for African Americans to gain American citizenship as well as the right to vote, black women found their desires for such rights ignored by white men and women as well as black men.  It was not until 1920 that all women, nationwide, gained the right to vote.[3]

Religion played a large role in the life of black Americans in the South.  It was known to be the center of their social lives, offering in most cases the only place to gather that was free of white authority, especially in the South.  In churches, black Americans were able to gather and speak freely about what concerned them, including illegal and immoral practices of whites against them.  Another attaction of the church was identifying gospels in the Bible with their own oppression and recognizing that the Bible related a personal, historical context of their lives in the South.

Music was an intregal part of African American lives, especially in the South.  Blues music first emerged from work songs, folklore, and spirituals that identified with the difficulties of southern black life experiences.  This music was unlike classical music appreciated by whites in that it does not conform to specific rules which European standards were based.  The blues were played with a sultry sound which was felt more than learned.  Although many whites were repulsed by this black music sound, it did not deter black Americans in the South from enjoying and identifying the blues as their own music.


 [1] Stuart E. Tolnay, The Bottom Rung:  African American Family Life on Southern Farms, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 123-133.

 [2] A History of the American Suffragist Movement, http://www.suffragist.com/timeline.htm/, (accessed on October 2, 2010).

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  1. Pingback: What was life like in the time that Ida Wells Barnett lived? | michaelasmommy's Blog

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