Life of African Americans in the South in the 1930s


In the 1930s, the lives of African Americans in the Southern United States were deeply impacted by racial segregation, economic challenges, and pervasive discrimination. This article delves into the various aspects of their lives during this period, exploring topics such as education, employment, social conditions, cultural expression, civil rights, and the Great Depression.

1. Education

Despite the existence of segregated schools, African American education in the South during the 1930s faced numerous challenges. These challenges included inadequate funding, limited resources, and often underqualified teachers. African American students also had to contend with outdated textbooks and overcrowded classrooms.

Despite these obstacles, many African American educators and community leaders worked tirelessly to improve the quality of education. They established their own schools, known as Rosenwald schools, with funding from philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and the African American community. These schools provided a better educational experience for African American students.

1.1 Challenges in Education

The challenges faced by African American students in the 1930s South were manifold. One major challenge was the lack of access to quality education. Many schools for African Americans were poorly funded and lacked essential resources such as libraries, laboratories, and adequate facilities.

Another challenge was the shortage of qualified teachers. African American teachers were often paid less than their white counterparts and had limited opportunities for professional development. Consequently, many African American students did not receive the same level of education as their white peers.

1.2 Rosenwald Schools

The establishment of Rosenwald schools played a crucial role in improving education for African Americans in the South. These schools were built with financial support from Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist and CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Company. The African American community also contributed to the funding and construction of these schools.

Rosenwald schools provided better educational opportunities, emphasizing vocational training, agricultural education, and academic subjects. They played a significant role in fostering racial pride and community development among African Americans.

2. Employment

In the 1930s South, African Americans faced significant employment challenges due to systemic racism and the economic impact of the Great Depression. They were often confined to low-paying jobs with long hours and minimal benefits. Discrimination in hiring practices and limited access to unions further exacerbated their difficulties.

Many African Americans were employed in agricultural labor, working in fields or as sharecroppers. They faced exploitative conditions, low wages, and limited opportunities for economic mobility. African American women often worked as domestic servants in white households.

2.1 Sharecropping and Tenant Farming

Sharecropping and tenant farming were prevalent among African Americans in the 1930s South. Sharecroppers worked on land owned by white landowners and received a portion of the crops they produced as payment. Tenant farmers, on the other hand, rented land and paid the landowners with a share of their crops.

These arrangements often left African American farmers in a cycle of debt and poverty. They lacked control over the land they worked on and were frequently exploited by landowners, who charged exorbitant fees for supplies and deducted them from the farmers’ earnings.

2.2 Limited Opportunities for Advancement

Discrimination in employment opportunities severely limited African Americans’ chances for advancement. They were often denied access to higher-paying jobs and career development opportunities. Many African Americans had to rely on informal networks and community support to find employment.

Despite these challenges, some African Americans managed to establish successful businesses and professions within their communities. These individuals became important role models and sources of inspiration for others seeking economic empowerment.

African Americans in the South in 1930s

1930s African-American Civil Rights

3. Social Conditions

African Americans in the 1930s South faced widespread discrimination and segregation in all aspects of their lives. They were subjected to Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation and upheld white supremacy. These laws mandated separate facilities for African Americans, including schools, hospitals, transportation, and public spaces.

The social conditions for African Americans were marked by racial violence, lynchings, and acts of intimidation. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups targeted African Americans, perpetuating a climate of fear and hostility.

3.1 Segregation and Jim Crow Laws

Jim Crow laws enforced strict racial segregation in public spaces. African Americans were required to use separate facilities, such as water fountains, restrooms, and seating areas. They were also subjected to “separate but equal” policies, which ensured inferior facilities for African Americans compared to those provided for white individuals.

Segregation not only affected public spaces but also extended to housing and neighborhoods. African Americans were often confined to segregated neighborhoods with limited access to resources and opportunities.

3.2 Racial Violence and Intimidation

Racial violence and acts of intimidation were prevalent in the 1930s South. African Americans were frequently targeted by white supremacist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, who used violence and intimidation to maintain white dominance.

Lynchings, in particular, were a common form of racial violence during this period. African Americans were often lynched for perceived transgressions or as a means of exerting control and instilling fear within the African American community.

4. Cultural Expression

Despite the hardships and restrictions imposed upon them, African Americans in the 1930s South found ways to express their culture, creativity, and resilience. Music, literature, and other forms of artistic expression played a vital role in preserving African American identity and fostering community cohesion.

4.1 Blues and Jazz

The 1930s saw the emergence of blues and jazz as prominent genres of African American music. Blues, often characterized by its melancholic lyrics and soulful melodies, served as a means for African Americans to express their struggles and emotions. Jazz, on the other hand, emphasized improvisation and showcased the talent and creativity of African American musicians.

Artists such as Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, and Louis Armstrong gained recognition for their contributions to the blues and jazz genres, providing a platform for African American cultural expression.

4.2 Literature and Visual Arts

African American literature and visual arts also flourished during the 1930s. The Harlem Renaissance, a cultural and artistic movement centered in Harlem, New York, showcased the talents of African American writers, poets, and artists.

Authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright explored themes of racial identity, social injustice, and the African American experience in their works. Painters such as Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence depicted African American life and history through vibrant colors and powerful imagery.

5. Civil Rights

The 1930s marked a pivotal period in the fight for civil rights for African Americans in the South. Despite the prevalent discrimination and racism, African Americans and their allies began organizing and advocating for equal rights and social justice.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) played a significant role in challenging racial segregation and discrimination through legal means. The organization filed numerous lawsuits challenging Jim Crow laws and advocating for equal rights.

Landmark cases such as Gaines v. Canada (1938) and Smith v. Allwright (1944) brought attention to the systemic inequalities faced by African Americans and paved the way for future civil rights victories.

5.2 Activism and Community Organizing

African American activists and community leaders played a crucial role in advocating for civil rights during the 1930s. Figures such as Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Du Bois, and A. Philip Randolph fought for racial equality, voting rights, and economic opportunities.

Organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were also established during this period, laying the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the following decades.

6. The Great Depression

The Great Depression of the 1930s had a devastating impact on African Americans in the South. Already facing economic hardships and discrimination, African Americans were disproportionately affected by the economic downturn.

6.1 Unemployment and Poverty

Unemployment rates soared during the Great Depression, and African Americans were among the hardest hit. They faced higher unemployment rates compared to their white counterparts and often struggled to find work in an already discriminatory job market.

Poverty levels among African Americans increased significantly, exacerbating existing social and economic disparities. Many African American families faced severe financial hardships and struggled to meet basic needs.

6.2 New Deal Programs and African Americans

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs aimed to alleviate the economic crisis, but they often fell short in addressing the specific needs of African Americans. Many New Deal programs reinforced racial segregation and excluded African Americans from benefits and employment opportunities.

However, African American activists and organizations, such as the National Urban League and the NAACP, pushed for greater inclusion and fought against discriminatory practices within New Deal programs.

7. Unique FAQs

FAQ 1: Were African American schools in the South completely separate from white schools?

No, African American schools in the South were segregated from white schools. Jim Crow laws enforced the separation of races in education, resulting in separate schools for African American and white students.

FAQ 2: Did any African American individuals achieve success in the 1930s South?

Yes, despite the challenges and discrimination they faced, some African American individuals achieved success in various fields. Figures such as Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Du Bois, and A. Philip Randolph made significant contributions to civil rights and community development.

FAQ 3: How did African Americans cope with racial violence and intimidation?

African Americans developed strategies to cope with racial violence and intimidation, such as relying on community support systems, establishing mutual aid societies, and organizing civil rights campaigns. The formation of organizations like the NAACP provided a collective platform for resistance and advocacy.

FAQ 4: How did the Great Depression affect African American communities?

The Great Depression worsened economic conditions for African American communities in the South. Unemployment rates soared, poverty levels increased, and access to relief programs was often limited due to racial discrimination. African Americans faced severe economic hardships and struggled to survive during this period.

FAQ 5: Did the efforts of African American activists in the 1930s lead to any significant changes?

Yes, the efforts of African American activists and organizations in the 1930s laid the foundation for future civil rights victories. Legal challenges and advocacy brought attention to racial inequalities, and community organizing paved the way for the civil rights movement of the following decades.

FAQ 6: How did African Americans contribute to the cultural landscape of the 1930s South?

African Americans made significant contributions to the cultural landscape of the 1930s South through music, literature, and visual arts. Artists such as Bessie Smith, Langston Hughes, and Jacob Lawrence showcased African American talent and creativity, providing a platform for cultural expression and identity.

FAQ 7: Did African Americans have any access to healthcare and social services in the 1930s South?

African Americans faced limited access to healthcare and social services in the 1930s South. Segregation policies extended to healthcare facilities, resulting in inferior medical care for African Americans. Many relied on community-based healthcare providers and mutual aid societies for support.


The 1930s were a challenging period for African Americans in the South. Racial segregation, economic hardships, and discrimination characterized their lives. However, despite these obstacles, African Americans demonstrated resilience, cultural expression, and activism, laying the groundwork for the progress of the civil rights movement in the years that followed.

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