Introduction: African American Student Activism in the 20th Century

By Franklin, V. P. | The Journal of African American History, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Introduction: African American Student Activism in the 20th Century


Franklin, V. P., The Journal of African American History


In the 20th century social and political activism was an important aspect of student life and culture in the United States. As historians and other social scientists begin to assess the dominant patterns and trends in movements for social change over the past century, they are beginning to conclude that student activism was an important element in itself and as part of larger social reform movements. At the dawn of the 20th century when the Progressive reform movement was in full swing, the "College Settlement Movement" was launched by undergraduate men and women who opened settlement houses in poor immigrant neighborhoods in U.S. cities. The college students moved into the settlements and provided education and social welfare services in the form of English and "Americanization" classes, health and child care, industrial training, and recreational programs. The settlement house movement laid the groundwork for the new field of "social work" as an area of research, governmental activity, and professional training and advancement, particularly for college-educated women. (1)

College students were a privileged and elite population, but in the 1920s many sought even more personal freedom to accept or rebel against the social conventions and cultural traditions they inherited from the generations that spawned the "Great War." College students were in and of the "Jazz Age" in the 1920s, and the roaring on college campuses was confined to weekend sporting events. (2) Historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz in her examination of "campus life and undergraduate cultures" found that after World War I, "a new kind of adolescent entered college, one who rejected parental ways and questioned the broader society. College rebels claimed much that college life had guaranteed: its pleasures, commitment to the present moment, and intensity. To this the rebels added repudiation of conformity and belief in youth's special ability to perceive social and aesthetic solutions to contemporary problems." (3)

African American college students not only questioned the rules and regulations that governed their lives on campus in the 1920s, but many also viewed themselves as "New Negroes" who should use their collegiate training to advance the race. To a very great extent, the black college rebellions in the 1920s were generated by the cognitive dissonance black collegians experienced when they left the real world of the "New Negro" and entered the Victorian environment maintained on campus by white and black administrators. Although W. E. B. Du Bois, through his blistering commentaries in The Crisis magazine, helped to stir up the rebellions, the protests at Fisk, Howard, and Lincoln Universities and Hampton Institute represented efforts aimed at modernization of race relations on campus and a bid for intellectual and social independence on the part of students who openly challenged the traditional authorities. Student activism in the 1920s paved the way for larger reforms in the organizational structures and administrative practices in black higher education. (4)

The widespread mobilization of students for peace and against the advance of fascist movements in the 1930s represented one of the high points in student activism in the 20th century. Thousands of students joined campus branches of socialist and communist organizations that came to be considered the "Old Left" and organized their own groups, such as the American Student Union, National Student Federation, National Student League, the Student League for Industrial Democracy, and the American Youth Congress, with its black counterpart Southern Negro Youth Congress, formed in 1937. (5)

African Americans who attended college during the era of the Great Depression were truly privileged. Unlike their counterparts in the 1920s, black collegians in the 1930s were pleased with themselves and their position, and were generally not interested in bringing the horrors of the outside world to the campus.

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