From the Great Depression
to World War II
The Recomposition of
The Great Depression of the 1930s made the generally bad economic situation among African Americans even worse. No group was harder hit by the depression. By 1933 most Blacks could not find jobs of any kind nor contract for their crops at any price.
The heaviest toll came in the rural South, where over half of African Americans lived in 1930. Cotton prices had dropped from eighteen cents to less than six cents per pound from 1929 to 1933, devastating some two million Black farmers who depended on the crop. Over two-thirds of this number made no profits from the crop in the early thirties, and thus had to make ends meet by hunting, growing what they could, scavenging, and begging. Many moved to the cities, even if there were no immediate prospects for jobs there.1
In the urban South the “Negro jobs” disappeared, as desperate whites clamored for Black removal from jobs until all whites were employed. In the urban North unemployment ran between 40 and 50 percent in cities like Harlem, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. In general the Black jobless rate was twice that of white unemployment. Since domestic workers depended on the prosperity of others, this group, which was largely Black, was devastated by the depression; it accounted for 43 percent of those on relief in the North in 1934.2
Outright discrimination by employers and unions added to the burden that Blacks bore during the depression. In New York City two-thirds of the hotels in Manhattan hired no Blacks. Gimbel's department store did not hire Blacks, nor did Metropolitan Life Insurance. Many companies hired only a relatively small proportion of Blacks, and all at the lowest occupational levels.3