The War, Prosperity and Depression Era

Edmonia Lewis
"Federal Emergency Relief Administration: FERA camps for unemployed women.
Negro camp in Atlanta, GA, 1934."
Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York.

The War, Prosperity and Depression Era spanned the years of 1914-1932. This was a period of expansion and flux. The first three decades of the twentieth century were critical moments in the advent of new academic fields of research, such as sociology.  Methods to explain the social and intellectual divide between whites and people of color were strongly reinforced by university studies in pseudoscience.  Politically perverse interpretations of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution fanned the flames of racial antagonism.  The concept of Social Darwinism applied Charles Darwin's scientific theories of evolution and natural selection to social development. The concept of survival of the fittest extended to conquered and conquering people in business, education, and politics. This justification was enthusiastically adopted by many American businessmen as scientific proof of their superiority, especially in areas of gender and race. 

During this time, the federal government sought to expand American influence throughout the western hemisphere.  President Theodore Roosevelt promoted an activist foreign policy. He forced an American political agenda into South and Central America, southeastern Asia and throughout the Pacific Rim on behalf of political and business interests that benefited imposing forces verses the domestic interests of particular nations.  In 1914 war erupted in Europe, reluctantly involving American citizens. African Americans were cautious to enter this fight, yet many thought the war would allow African American men to demonstrate their brave, courageous and patriotic personas, like they had in all military efforts.

Concurrently, African American women remained committed to providing opportunities for themselves and their communities. The recent failure of Reconstruction was thwarted by the advent of the national black women’s club movement. Many of these women were college educated, Christian principled and dedicated to racial uplift. Aware that their race and gender linked them to one another, the desire to empower and educate all aspects of the community drove these women to see themselves reflected in the successes of the entire race. Historian Deborah Gray White wrote that clubwoman opted to be living examples of achievement, thereby being their own best defense. “In order to be one’s own best argument, however, clubwomen had to make “the cause” and their lives indistinguishable to themselves, their peers, and to future generations.”1 African American women continued to expand and reach for higher goals in establishing themselves as fully entitled American citizens. In areas of education, professionalism, arts, sports, and self-help efforts they established new levels of attainment.


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