ECONOMIC CONDITION OF THE BLACK WORKER
The “roaring twenties” are often depicted as an era of general prosperity; yet for blacks, and the majority of whites for that matter, this was not the “golden age.” Actually, the already deplorable economic condition of Afro-America began to deteriorate even before the Great Depression of the thirties. Although consistently underpaid in relation to white workers and forced to accept the least desirable jobs, blacks were charged exorbitant rents to live in crowded black ghettos from which they could not escape. Black wage-earners usually found themselves excluded from skilled and semi-skilled, white collar, and, without exception, from managerial positions. E. Franklin Frazier, the noted black sociologist, summed up the situation in 1927: “There are two types of business in New York in terms of Negro hiring policy: those that employ Negroes in menial positions and those that employ no Negroes.”
The Great Depression of the 1930s began for black workers by the end of 1926. “The last to be hired, the first to be fired,” Negroes experienced widespread unemployment as early as 1927, and, by 1929, about one-fifth of all blacks employed in industry had already been thrown out of work. The areas of employment open to blacks, such as the coal, iron, steel, and lumber industries were suffering from declining production and could not absorb those who were squeezed out of cotton production where black workers historically were concentrated, further aggravating unemployment for Negroes. Documents 1–23 demonstrate the difficulties encountered by black workers in the post-war era.
Thus, blacks already suffered from serious economic deprivation when the depression which followed the 1929 stock market crash enveloped the nation and pushed the number of unemployed Americans from 3 million to 15 million by 1932. However much whites suffered, for blacks it was much worse, as can be seen in the unemployment differentials. A National Urban League report for 1931, based on 106 cities, demonstrated that the proportion of Negroes unemployed was from 30 to 60 per cent greater than for whites, and that the percentage of Afro-Americans among the unemployed ran sometimes four to six times as high as their population percentage. As the depression deepened, the differentials between white and black unemployed increased. In Cincinnati 28 per cent of the white and 54.3 per cent of the Negro workers went without work in 1933. Southern cities showed the same pattern, with black unemployment about twice that of white. Relief statistics showed an equally grim picture. Even though blacks constituted only 9 per cent of the population of St. Louis in 1933, for example, they comprised 60 per cent of the relief cases.
The economic difficulties aggravated the usual prejudices encountered by black workers in the labor market. Many employers immediately fired their Negro workers or forced them to undercut white wage-earners in order to keep their jobs. It became a general practice to replace blacks with whites who were in need of employment. As the caste system in the labor force descended the economic ladder, jobs which had previously been classified as “Negro work” became better than no work at all for whites, and blacks were brusquely shoved off the last rung. Documents 24–26 reveal the desperation of black workers during the 1930s.