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The Struggle for Economic Equality, 1900-1950s

In the first half of the 20th century, many African Americans struggled for economic equality amidst discriminatory attitudes and policies.
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African Americans made up less than 2 percent of California's population in the decades before World War I, numbering about 7,800 in 1900. Despite their small numbers, they maintained a sense of community through memberships in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and organizations such as W. E. B. DuBois's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, and the California Association of Colored Women's Clubs. In other parts of the country, African Americans such as Booker T. Washington, head of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, were making inroads into education.

The Struggle for Economic Equality (1900-1950s)

Most African Americans lived in California's growing urban centers. Racial discrimination often relegated them to low-paying service jobs, such as the men in Anaheim's street corner shoeshine business or the chauffeur standing behind Edith Story and her automobile. But the 1907 photograph of businessmen, which commemorates the 13th annual meeting of Oakland's Afro-American Council, demonstrates the ongoing presence of a black middle class.

Some black entrepreneurs — including several women — managed to find financial success through hard work and good fortune. Former slave Biddy Mason used the money she earned as a nurse to invest in Los Angeles real estate, becoming a wealthy philanthropist and founding the First AME Church. Mary Ellen Pleasant, another former slave, ran several businesses and restaurants in San Francisco and used her resources to fight for African American civil rights.

African Americans were also part of the popular culture, although their participation was often segregated. A 1923 photograph shows baseball player "Bullet" Hilary Meaddows of Oakland's Colored Giants, a team in the Negro Leagues. A 1926 photograph shows African American musicians, the Hartzog Radio Night Hawks, just one of many such jazz bands of the 1920s.

Despite some notable success stories, most African Americans found it difficult to break out of the "traditional" occupations of domestic work and manual labor. This situation began to change as the United States entered World War I, and they found work in war-related industries.

War Brings Change (1940s-1950s)

At the end of World War I, immigration from outside the United States was largely curtailed, cutting off the flow of new workers to industry and contributing to the "Great Migration" of African Americans from the South to industrial centers in the North.

World War II brought more change. As one photograph shows, African Americans enlisted in the military, and they also moved up the blue collar ladder to careers such as firefighting. In both the armed forces and the fire department, they served in segregated units, as the photograph of Oakland's Engine Company 22 shows. Again, as after World War I, African Americans migrated to California in large numbers. They found work in war industries, including shipping, as illustrated by the photographs of workers at the Richmond Shipyards.

Many of these migrants came to Los Angeles. Ironically, as illustrated by the 1943 photographed captioned "Wartime housing in Little Tokyo's Bronzeville," a number of newcomers found housing in former Japanese American neighborhoods — in homes and apartments left vacant when residents were incarcerated in internment camps. Chester Himes's 1945 novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, exposed the racial discrimination faced by many black migrants in wartime Los Angeles. Racist real estate policies, including restrictive covenants, limited their ability to move out of segregated urban neighborhoods. Discrimination restricted their access to skilled and professional jobs as well as to higher education. As they returned home from the fight against fascism in Europe, many African American veterans saw the struggle for civil rights at home as an issue that needed to be addressed.

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Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.

Note about image quality

Some of the photographs in this exhibition--most notably, those taken by Dorothea Lange--do not accurately represent the high quality of the original images. This is because of the technology available at the time they were scanned. We hope to have new versions of the photographs available soon.


"African Americans: The Struggle for Economic Equality, 1900-1950s" was curated and written by the University of California in 2005 as part of the California Cultures project.

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The text of this exhibition is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:

African Americans: The Struggle for Economic Equality, 1900-1950s curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2005, Regents of the University of California.