The period between 1914-1939 witnessed a number of unexpected changes in the United States. During these years we turned away from the Progressive Movement, gave up our neutrality, fought a world war, experienced a period of unusual prosperity, mixed with scandal, poverty, the worst depression the world has ever endured the curtailment of immigration and finally the New Deal.
Caught up in these happenings, black Americans experienced drastic changes in their status.
World War I gave to blacks all over the country opportunities to improve their lot in life. When the War broke out, immigrants, who had been flooding the country at about 1,000,000 a year since 1900, could not leave Europe.
The War made the United States the workshop of the world. Badly in need of laborers for mines, railroads, shipyards, automobile factories, flour and meat packing houses, white employers looked to the only source of labor available--Southern blacks.
Blacks by the thousands answered the demand, streaming north to fill the labor gap. As Negroes left Missouri cities for Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York, Cleveland, Chicago and other northeastern cities, blacks from rural Missouri entered the factories and railroads of St. Louis and Kansas City. It was a hey day for Negroes w ho could make $5 a day in the Ford factories of Detroit and similar wages in the iron-steel factories and shipyards.
When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, some 20,000 Negro fighting men volunteered, many of whom were from Missouri. The Negro soldier had a double purpose in fighting: the first was to save the world for democracy and the second was his belief that victory by the allies would gain him the full citizenship so long promised, but so long denied.
The post-war years, however, held out small hope of improvement for the Missouri Negro. Negro soldiers were beaten and lynched when they returned home. America became intolerant and reactionary.
No institution reflected this wave of intolerance better than the newly-revived Ku Klux Klan. By 1920, the Klan had 100,000 members coast to coast. For a few years in the mid-twenties, the Klan was very powerful in Missouri and according to the Jefferson City Tribune in 1926, figured in local politics.
Moreover, unions organized opposition to the introduction of black workers into northern industries and urban centers. In an effort to retaliate, black unions, like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, under the labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, made an attempt to organize Negro workers.
In 1914, there were 900 Pullman Porters in St. Louis who comprised the largest number of black railroad workers in the city. In an extremely hostile environment, the union began recruiting Missouri members and drawing public attention to their grievances. The Pullman Company used repressive tactics including threats of discharge and actual discharge to fight the union's gains.
Adding to the racial conflict resulting from job competition, was friction caused by Negroes trying to move into formerly all-white neighborhoods.
In 1925, Samuel R. Hopkins, president of the Square Deal Realty and Loan Company, was the victim of the first bombing of homes occupied or about to be occupied by Negroes in Kansas City.
The Negro still had very little political influence at this time. At best, all the Negro could hope for was a small political job from the Republicans. Out of gratitude, the Negro largely supported the Republican Party. The Republicans did little for the black man. The Democrats did even less. In fact, Missouri Democrats were even opposed to blacks filling stereotyped janitor roles.
Following the turn of the century, the Negro sought to improve his lot on many fronts. Black leaders felt the Negro needed to improve his economic situation and obtain some economic power before he could expect any improvement in race relations.
Following the program advocated earlier by Booker T. Washington, who founded the Negro Business League in 1900, Negro newspapers called upon the black population to establish self-help programs and to become more self-reliant as farmers, mechanics and businessmen.
One of Washington's staunchest supporters in St. Louis was John W. Wheeler, born in Kentucky in 1847. Coming to St. Louis in 1873, he later published a newspaper in which he urged Negroes to establish businesses. Wheeler used the pages of the Palladium to attack all sorts of discrimination directed toward Negroes.
The Kansas City Call urged its Negro readers to create "racial business, political and religious forces" such as the Jews had done with B'nai B'rith. One such group was Kansas City's Negro Helping Hand Association which not only found jobs for the unemployed, but also gave clothes, meals and carfare to the needy.
There were a number of individual success stories among Negro businesses during this period. The Douglass Life Insurance Company was started in 1920, with its home office in St. Louis. By 1923, it had over 20,000 policy owners in Missouri, and was doing business in twenty cities and towns in the state, exclusive of Kansas City and St. Louis. Kansas City had its Acme Life Insurance Company which opened its offices with capitalization of $50,000.
Annie Malone, formerly of St. Louis and founder of Poro College, amassed over a million dollars in the beauty culture business.
In 1934, St. Louis Negroes owned 635 businesses and professional enterprises with a capital investment of about $1,000,000. Of the 1,701 black professionals there were 36 lawyers, 105 physicians, 41 dentists, 110 graduate nurses, 114 social workers, 210 ministers, and 487 teachers. This represented considerable growth from the 310 retail stores operated by Negroes in St. Louis in 1930.
Sixteen per cent of the teachers in the St. Louis school system were Negroes in 1934. and 17 per cent of the pupils in the public schools were black.
Segregation was still the general rule in Missouri during the thirties. The state's largest urban area, St. Louis, had twenty-one higher educational facilities in 1934, only two of which would admit blacks. Of the city's eighty-four recreational centers, only ten were open to Negroes, and four of those were segregated. Only six of St. Louis' forty-two philanthropic centers and camps were desegregated. Seven out of seventy swimming pools and playgrounds were open to black St. Louisans.
Racial violence was common in Missouri during the twenties and thirties.
In December, 1924, Roosevelt Grigsley was lynched by a mob of 200 men who took him from law enforcement officers in Charleston, Missouri. In 1930, State troopers were twice called into the little town of Ste. Genevieve to put down racial violence. The entire Negro population, with the exception of two families was forced to leave the town.
A reign of terror also swept Missouri during the election of 1934. In March, a Negro Democratic precinct captain in Kansas City was slain. Eleven other blacks were injured in what was the bloodiest balloting in the city's history. In that same week, gunmen tried to prevent Negroes from voting by terrorizing the Southeast Missouri community of Holland, climaxing a series of "Anti-Negro Demonstrations" which had recently occurred elsewhere in that section of the state.
National Negro protest and civil rights organizations were slow in getting established in Missouri. The first such organization was the National Urban League founded in New York in 1911. The Urban League of Kansas City was formed in 1920.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) the largest and most influential civil rights organization in the country, found difficulty in getting established.
The Jefferson City Branch is typical. This branch was established. after more than two years of effort, on September 10, 1923. All that was required to get a charter from the National Headquarters was twenty-five dues paying members. Membership cost ù as $1 a year.
There was a general fear on the part of many Negroes that the white population would be hostile to any such organization. Also, many Negroes were just not interested in joining any organization which was not secret.
The NAACP owes its existence in Missouri in part to the institution of lynching. There had been a lynching in Columbia, Missouri, only 30 miles from Jefferson City, in 1923, and there had been lynchings in Missouri on a regular basis since 1890, with many lynchings previous to that date. Most of the lynchings were for murder, but some Negroes had been lynched for "unknown reasons".
Leadership was important in the establishment of Jefferson City's NAACP according to Charles E. Robinson, the only living charter member of the local branch. Experienced men from St. Louis and Kansas City aided local leaders.
Health care was still a problem for Negroes. In March, 1925, during Negro Health Week, the Secretary of Missouri's Negro Industrial Commission, Robert S. Cobb, estimated 13,000 Missouri Negroes were ill all of the time and their annual loss in earnings was approximately $1,350,000. Cobb said Missouri Negroes had an excessive death rate caused by ignorance of health laws, poverty, environment, migration to urban areas. Furthermore most white doctors refused to treat them and white hospitals refused to admit them.
In order to improve their health care, Negro doctors like J. E. Perry of Kansas City turned houses into improvised hospitals to treat black patients. In November 1910, Dr. Perry founded the Wheatley-Provident Hospital, the first black private hospital in Kansas City. It is a sad commentary on Missouri racism that just ten years ago, a respected Kansas Citian, felled by a cerebral hemorrhage---while at work, was taken to a hospital on a stretcher but denied admittance simply because he was black
Blacks had to wage a continuous struggle for adequate health facilities in the black community.
In July, 1929, black St. Louisans, led by attorney Homer G. Phillips, barely avoided a major setback to their health care. Instead of erecting a new $1.2 million hospital which the Board of Aldermen had already approved, a white alderman attempted to persuade the Board to give the black community the old Deaconess Hospital. It had outlived its usefulness and was to be vacated by the whites in September, 1930. The white alderman's efforts failed and the new hospital was built. It was named for Homer G. Phillips and opened its doors in 1937.
Blacks also continued to advance educationally. In 1929 within a week of N. B. Young's being named the new head of Lincoln University, the Missouri Legislature authorized any Negro youth who had no high school in his district to attend high school at Lincoln University. All fees were to be paid and the State would provide the student with an additional $75.
In the 1930's, Missouri and the nation were in the midst of the greatest depression ever experienced. The depression hit Negroes hardest of all. They were the last to be hired and the first to be fired.
Whites began taking what were once regarded as "nigger" jobs--waiters, porters, and other menial work.
When the state government changed administration in January, 1933, white girls even replaced Negro elevator operators at the state capitol as well as in major state offices. Blacks had been "expected" that positions vacated by Negroes would be "filled with Negroes". The battle for employment continued to be uphill for the Negro. In 1934, Negro workers had no share in the construction of Kansas City's new municipal auditorium. Race exclusiveness among local labor unions was the excuse given.
The depression hit the sharecroppers of "Bootheel" Southeast Missouri very hard. Most of the houses occupied by white and black tenants in the Bootheel were crude shacks. Poorly constructed, these shelters were unpainted, wooden and dilapidated, lacking plaster and insulation.
The annual income of Missouri sharecroppers was pitifully low in 1936. In that year, while white renters had $845 at the years end, white sharecroppers would have to make do with $415 yearly. A white laborer could expect no more than $264 annually and Negroes of all tenure classes got no more than $251.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal brought new hope to all American blacks. Since the Civil War, Negroes tended to look more to the national than local government for justice.
Negroes were able to gain heart from the appointments of the New Deal Administration. In 1934, President Roosevelt named Dr. William J . Thompkins, well known Kansas City physician and politician, as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia. This was Thompkins' reward for helping swing Negro voters in the Western states for Roosevelt in the 1932 Democratic campaign. Roosevelt also appointed newspaperman, Lester A. Walton, a native of St. Louis, Minister to Liberia, Africa. At the time of his appointment, 1936, Walton was associate editor of the New York Age.
Further encouragement was given blacks, because of Roosevelt's black Cabinet consisting of brilliant persons including William Hastie, Robert Weaver, B. T. McGraw, and Mrs. Mary Bethune.
Roosevelt's NRA, CWA, WPA, and other alphabetical agencies also helped Negro laborers. A CWA project at Lincoln University funded by the federal government at $10,000 gave financial aid to 150 men of whom 25 were students.
Greatest of these projects in which blacks shared was the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC took thousands of young people off the streets and set them to work reforesting barren lands.
The New Deal Housing Program also benefitted blacks by providing funds for low cost housing.
The health problem of Missouri blacks was greatly alleviated by the Public Works Administration, which while aiding in the building of hospitals, schools and playgrounds, also offered employment to blacks.
The National Youth Administration, under Mrs. Mary Bethune, enabled Missouri students, especially Lincoln University students, to secure a college education or learn trades. Some even went on to graduate school.
Probably of greatest permanent benefit to black and white Americans was the Social Security Act of 1935, providing for old age pensions and unemployment insurance. While the benefits were meager, they held out promise to persons who before had been dependent upon charity, relatives or poor houses.
On the local scene, the Negroes' morale was occasionally raised. In 1933, Robert S. Hamilton, a 50 year old black of Kinloch, became St. Louis County's first black justice of the peace. Two years later, William E. White of Kansas City became the first black Missourian to be named as an alternate to West Point.
The liberal climate of the Roosevelt Administration prompted a Missouri case which eighteen years later was to work a veritable revolution in the entire American school system. It was fitting this litigation should have been started by a Missouri black, because Negro parents had appealed to the courts to permit their children to attend white schools which had better facilities and, except in the larger cities, better trained teachers.
The Constitution of 1820 made no mention of separate educational facilities and the Constitution of 1865 provided only that separate schools could be established. By statutory act, the General Assembly in 1865 authorized districts to established separate facilities where the number of Negro children exceeded 20. This was reduced by law in 1872 to 15.
A new Constitution in 1875 required separate educational facilities. The necessary number of Negro children making the segregation mandatory remained at 15 until 1929, when it was reduced to eight.
In 1889, a separation of the races was frozen when the legislature forbade white and black children to attend the same school. When the Constitution was revised in 1945, this racist attitude withstood pleas by whites and blacks, especially the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, the State NAACP, the Urban League and leading churchmen. Instead of revoking the antiquated constitutional clauses of 1865, the legislature was persuaded only to provide that "separate schools shall be provided for white and Negro children except as provided by law."
NAACP Annual Awards Dinner, Jefferson City, 1972.
Thus the burden of continuing the expensive, inferior system fell upon the legislature. By permissive legislation, it could encourage school districts to desegregate their schools. Or it could, by sweeping legislation declare all schools in the state open to all children regardless of race, creed or color.
When the legislative action was not forthcoming, a Lincoln University student, Lloyd Gaines from St. Louis, applied for admission to the Law School at the University of Missouri. When he was refused, he sought a writ of mandamus from the Circuit Court of Boone County.
The State Courts upheld the University's stand.
Gaines was represented by a brilliant corps of NAACP lawyers. Under Missouri ex rel Gaines V. Canada, Registrar of the University of Missouri et al, the case went to the Supreme Court of the United States which handed down its ruling in 1938.
The Court struck at the practice of states which refused to admit Negroes to their graduate or professional schools, by declaring, in brief, that the University of Missouri must either admit Gaines or establish an equal facility on Lincoln University's campus.
Although Gaines mysteriously disappeared before the mandate was issued, the case set a precedent for graduate and professional education for Negroes. It was the prelude for overthrowing the entire "separate but equal" discriminatory doctrine of Plessy vs. Ferguson of 1896. It not only heralded the end of legal discrimination in public school education, but in all fields of American life--a mandate which is still altering American society.
However, Missouri was determined to keep the University of Missouri strictly white. As a result, Lincoln University was given an inadequate sum of money to set up a law school in the old Poro Building in St. Louis.