A Culture of Change

The Jazz Age

Jazz music exploded as popular entertainment in the 1920s and brought African-American culture to the white middle class.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the development of jazz during the 1920s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Jazz Age was a post-World War I movement in the 1920s from which jazz music and dance emerged. Although the era ended with the outset of the Great Depression in 1929, jazz has lived on in American popular culture.
  • The birth of jazz music is credited to African Americans, but both black and white Americans alike are responsible for its immense rise in popularity.
  • The rise of jazz coincided with the rise of radio broadcast and recording technology, which spawned the popular "potter palm" shows that included big-band jazz performances.
  • Female singers such as Bessie Smith emerged during this period of postwar equality and open sexuality, paving the way for future female artists.

Key Terms

  • Charleston: A 1920s-era dance popularized by African Americans and named for the city of Charleston, South Carolina.
  • potter palm: A popular type of radio show consisting of amateur concerts and big-band jazz performances broadcast from cities such as New York and Chicago.
  • flapper: A young woman whose unconventional clothing and progressive attitude personified the free spirit of the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age.

If freedom was the mindset of the Roaring Twenties, then jazz was the soundtrack. The Jazz Age was a cultural period and movement that took place in America during the 1920s from which both new styles of music and dance emerged. Largely credited to African Americans employing new musical techniques along with traditional African traditions, jazz soon expanded to America's white middle class.

Birth of Jazz

Following World War I, large numbers of jazz musicians migrated from New Orleans to major northern cities such as Chicago and New York, leading to a wider dispersal of jazz as different styles developed in different cities. As the 1920s progressed, jazz rose in popularity and helped to generate a cultural shift. Because of its popularity in speakeasies, illegal nightclubs where alcohol was sold during Prohibition, and its proliferation due to the emergence of more advanced recording devices, jazz became very popular in a short amount of time, with stars including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Chick Webb. Several famous entertainment venues such as the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club came to epitomize the Jazz Age.

Portrait of Cab Calloway singing into a microphone while holding sheet music.

Cab Calloway: Cab Calloway became one of the most popular musicians of the Jazz Age in the 1920s.

Growth of Jazz

African-American jazz was played more frequently on urban radio stations than on their suburban counterparts. Young people of the 1920s were influenced by jazz to rebel against the traditional culture of previous generations, a rebellion that went hand-in-hand with fads such as the bold fashion statements of the flappers and new radio concerts.

Dances such as the Charleston, developed by African Americans, instantly became popular among different demographics, including among young white people. With the introduction of large-scale radio broadcasts in 1922, Americans were able to experience different styles of music without physically visiting a jazz club. Through its broadcasts and concerts, the radio provided Americans with a trendy new avenue for exploring unfamiliar cultural experiences from the comfort of their living rooms. The most popular type of radio show was a "potter palm," an amateur concert and big-band jazz performance broadcast from New York and Chicago.

The photograph shows a trombonist, a trumpeter, a drummer, a violinist, and a bassist. The drum set says

The King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra, 1921: During the Jazz Age, popular music included current dance songs, novelty songs, and show tunes.

Due to the racial prejudice prevalent at most radio stations, white American jazz artists received much more air time than black jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Joe "King" Oliver. Big-band jazz, like that of James Reese in Europe and Fletcher Henderson in New York, was also popular on the radio and brought an African-American style and influence to a predominantly white cultural scene.

The illustration on the sheet music cover shows the silhouette of a man playing the banjo and a woman playing the guitar dancing on top of a jelly roll. The text of the cover art reads,

"The Jelly Roll Blues": "The Jelly Roll Blues" was one of the first jazz songs to reach a widespread audience through radio play.

Flappers and Ladies of Jazz

The surfacing of flappers—women noted for their flamboyant style of dress, progressive attitudes, and modernized morals—began to captivate society during the Jazz Age. This coincided with a period in American society during which many more opportunities became available for women, in their social lives and especially in the entertainment industry.

Several famous female musicians emerged during the 1920s, including Bessie Smith, who garnered attention not only because she was a great singer, but also because she was a black woman. It was not until the 1930s and 1940s, however, that female jazz and blues singers such as Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday were truly recognized and respected as successful artists throughout the music industry. Their persistence paved the way for many more female artists who came afterward.

Portrait of Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith: The music of singer Bessie Smith was immensely popular during the Jazz Age, and she both influenced and paved the way for generations of female artists.

Although the Jazz Age ended as the Great Depression struck and victimized America throughout the 1930s, jazz has lived on in American popular culture and remains a vibrant musical genre to this day.

Art Movements of the 1920s

Art Deco was a dominant design style of the 1920s artistic era that also was influenced by the Dada, Expressionist, and Surrealist movements.

Learning Objectives

Describe popular art movements of the 1920s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The 1920s was a period of significant artistic growth that included definable schools of design, architecture, and art that are still recognizable and influential today.
  • Art Deco was the dominant style of design and architecture in the 1920s. It originated and spread throughout Europe before making its presence felt in North American design.
  • Expressionism and Surrealism were popular art movements in the 1920s that originated in Europe. Surrealism involved elements of surprise and unexpected juxtapositions, and both movements embraced a philosophy of nonconformity.
  • Dada  began in Zürich, Switzerland, and the style incorporated nonsense, absurdity, and cubist elements.

Key Terms

  • Dada: A cultural movement that began in Zürich, Switzerland, during World War I and peaked from 1916 to 1920. The movement primarily involved visual arts, literature (mainly poetry), theatre, and graphic design, and was characterized by nihilism, deliberate irrationality, disillusionment, cynicism, chance, randomness, and the rejection of the prevailing standards in art.
  • Expressionism and Surrealism: Avant-garde modernist cultural movements, originating in Europe in the early twentieth century.
  • Art Deco: An eclectic artistic and design style that began in Paris in the 1920s and flourished internationally throughout the 1930s and into the World War II era.

The 1920s was a remarkable period of creativity that brought forth new, bold movements that changed the way the world looked at itself, both externally and internally. In design and architecture, Art Deco originated in Europe and spread throughout the continent before its influence moved across the Atlantic to North America. In art, the movements known as Expressionism, Dada, and Surrealism all played major roles in reconfiguring the focus and perception not only of visual arts, but also of literature, drama, and design.

Art Deco

Art Deco was a dominant style in design and architecture of the 1920s. Originating in Europe, it spread throughout western Europe and North America in the mid-1920s and remained popular through the 1930s and early 1940s, waning only after World War II. The name "Art Deco" is short for Arts Décoratifs, which came from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts) held in Paris in 1925. The first use of the term is attributed to architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, known as "Le Corbusier," who wrote a series of articles titled, “1925 Expo: Arts Déco,” in his journal, L’Esprit Nouveau.

The eclectic style emerged from the years between World War I and World War II, often referred to as the interwar period, and combined traditional craft motifs with Machine Age imagery and materials and an embrace of technology. Visually it is characterized by rich colors, lavish ornamentation, and geometric shapes. Artists employing the Art Deco style often drew inspiration from nature and initially favored curved lines, though rectilinear designs became increasingly popular.


The Chrysler Building: Art Deco architectural style in the United States was epitomized by the Chrysler Building in New York City.

In the United States, New York City's Chrysler Building typified the Art Deco style. Other American examples can be found in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The Hoover Dam, constructed between 1931 and 1936 on the border between Nevada and Arizona, includes Art Deco motifs throughout the structure including its water-intake towers and brass elevator doors.

Expressionism, Dada, and Surrealism

German Expressionism began before World War I and exerted a strong influence on artists who followed throughout the 1920s. Initially focused on poetry and painting, Expressionism typically presented the world from a solely subjective perspective, radically distorting it for an emotional effect that evokes moods or ideas rather than physical reality. Many artists, however, began to oppose Expressionist tendencies as the decade advanced.

The works of Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch’s famous 1893 painting, The Scream, are thought to have influenced Expressionists, who counted among their numbers painters such as Wassily Kandinsky, Erich Heckel, and Franz Marc, as well as dancer Mary Wigman.


The Scream: Edvard Munch's 1893 painting, The Scream, influenced twentieth-century Expressionist artists.

Dada began in Zurich, Switzerland, during World War I and became an international phenomenon, although it was initially an informal movement intended to protest the outbreak of World War I and the bourgeois, nationalist, and colonialist interests that Dadaists believed were root causes of the conflict. The movement opposed cultural and intellectual conformity in art and in society in general, usually displaying political affinities with the radical left. The reason and logic of the capitalist system had led to the war, Dadaists believed, and their rejection of that ideology led to an embrace of chaos and irrationality in their art. Machines, technology, and Cubist elements were features of their work.

Dada artists met and formed groups of like-minded peers in Paris, Berlin, Cologne, and New York City who engaged in activities such as public gatherings, demonstrations, and publication of art and literary journals. Notable Dadaists included Richard Huelsenbeck, who established the Berlin group, and George Grosz, who called his work a protest, “against this world of mutual destruction.”


Republican Automatons: The 1920 painting, Republican Automatons, by George Grosz was an example of Dadaist protest art.

Arising from Dada activities during World War I and centered in Paris, Surrealism was a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s. Surrealism spread around the globe and impacted the visual arts, literature, theater, film, and music. The movement also informed political thought and practice, philosophy, and social theory.


The Elephant Celebes: Max Ernst's 1921 oil painting, The Elephant Celebes, was an example of European Surrealism, which profoundly influenced the artistic culture of the United States.

Surrealist works featured elements of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions, and non sequitur. Many Surrealist artists and writers regarded their work as the material expression of the movement's philosophy. The movement's leader, French anarchist and antifascist writer André Breton, emphasized that Surrealism was, above all, a revolutionary movement. In 1924 he published the Surrealist Manifesto, which called the movement “pure psychic automatism.” Spanish painter Salvador Dali, best known for his 1931 work, The Persistence of Memory, was one of the most famous practitioners of Surrealism.


The Persistence of Memory: Salvador Dali's 1931 painting, The Persistence of Memory, is one of the most well-known examples of Surrealism.


The 1920s are often referred to as the "Golden Age of Hollywood," with "talkies" and the first all-color features replacing silent films.

Learning Objectives

Describe cinema in the 1920s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The 1920s in cinema spawned the first feature with sound effects and music, Don Juan, and the first movie with talking sequences, The  Jazz  Singer.
  • Following the rise of  talkies, large studios began acquiring movie-theater chains across the country.
  • Cartoon shorts were popular in movie theaters during this time; the late 1920s saw the emergence of Walt Disney.
  • Most Hollywood pictures adhered closely to formulas—Western, slapstick comedy,  musical, animated cartoon, biopic—and the same creative teams often worked on film, made by the same studio.

Key Terms

  • Talkies: The nickname given to movies with sound, which ended the era of silent films in Hollywood.
  • Golden Age of Hollywood: A period during which Hollywood studios prolifically produced movies; it lasted from the end of the silent era in American cinema in the late 1920s to the early 1960s.
  • Don Juan: A 1926 Warner Bros. film, directed by Alan Crosland. It was the first feature-length film with synchronized Vitaphone sound effects and musical soundtrack, though it has no spoken dialogue.

At the beginning of the 1920s, films were silent and colorless. By the end of the decade, cinema had changed significantly with major leaps in technology that marked the "Golden Age of Hollywood" and ended the era of the silent film, which itself had ended the previous, widespread popularity of vaudeville theater. Box-office sales leapt to new heights as the studio system became the dominant business model in movie making.

Color and Talkies

The first all-color feature, The Toll of the Sea, was released in 1922, with the next big leap coming in 1926 with the Warner Brothers Pictures (later shortened to Warner Bros.) release of Don Juan, the first feature with sound effects and music. In 1927, Warner Bros. followed that cinematic milestone with another in the form of The Jazz Singer, the first sound feature to include limited talking sequences. This release arguably launched what came to be known as the "Golden Age of Hollywood."


The Jazz Singer, 1927: Theatrical poster for The Jazz Singer, the first feature film to include talking sequences, which began the era of "talkies."

The public went wild for "talkies," and movie studios converted to sound almost overnight. In 1928, Warner Bros. released Lights of New York , the first all-talking feature film. In the same year, the first sound cartoon, "Dinner Time," was released. Warner Bros. ended the decade in 1929 by unveiling the first all-color, all-talking feature film, On with the Show.


Cartoon shorts, using the moving sketch technique of animation, were popular in movie theaters during this time. The late 1920s saw the emergence of Walt Disney and his eponymous studio. Disney’s marquee character, Mickey Mouse, made his debut in "Steamboat Willie" on November 18, 1928, at the Colony Theater in New York City. Mickey would go on to star in more than 120 cartoon shorts, as well as in "The Mickey Mouse Club" and other specials. This jump-started Walt Disney Studios and led to the creation of other characters going into the 1930s. Oswald, a character created by Disney in 1927 before Mickey, was contracted by Universal Studios for distribution purposes and starred in a series of shorts between 1927 and 1928. He was the first Disney character to be merchandised.


Walt Disney: In 1928, Walt Disney gave the world "Steamboat Willie," aka Mickey Mouse, followed by numerous other cartoon characters who have become instantly recognizable.

The Studios and Stars

Most Hollywood pictures adhered closely to formulas—Western, slapstick comedy, musical, animated cartoon, or biopic—and the same creative teams often worked on films made by the same studio. Cedric Gibbons and Herbert Stothart always worked on MGM films, Alfred Newman worked at 20th Century Fox for 20 years, Cecil B. DeMille's films were almost all made at Paramount Pictures, and director Henry King's films were mostly made for 20th Century Fox.

Each studio had its own style and characteristic touches. Films were also easily recognizable as the product of a specific studio largely based on the actors who appeared. MGM, for example, claimed it had contracted, "more stars than there are in heaven."

The period saw the emergence of box-office stars, many of whom are still household names, such as Mae Murray, Ramón Novarro, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Warner Baxter, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Bebe Daniels, Billie Dove, Dorothy Mackaill, Mary Astor, Nancy Carroll, Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, William Haines, Conrad Nagel, John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, Dolores del Río, Norma Talmadge, Colleen Moore, Nita Naldi, John Barrymore, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Anna May Wong, and Al Jolson.


Louise Brooks: American actress Louise Brooks was one of the box-office stars who became famous in the 1920s at the outset of the "Golden Age of Hollywood."

Each of these stars was contracted to work for a specific studio and distribution company, which was one aspect of the studio system that became the dominant Hollywood business model and continues today, albeit in a far less restrictive form that does not tie actors to any specific company.

Theater Monopolies

After the release and huge success of The Jazz Singer in 1927, Warner Bros. was able to acquire its own string of movie theaters, purchasing Stanley Theaters and First National Productions in 1928. MGM had owned the Loews string of theaters since its formation in 1924, while the Fox Film Corporation owned the Fox Theatre chain. Paramount, which had already acquired Balaban and Katz in 1926, purchased a number of theaters in the late 1920s, to the point of holding a monopoly on theaters in Detroit, Michigan. By the 1930s, all of America's theaters were owned by the "Big Five" studios: MGM, Paramount Pictures, RKO, Warner Bros., and 2oth Century Fox.


The Toll of the Sea, 1922: The Toll of the Sea, released in 1922, was the first color feature made in Hollywood.


Flappers were the personification of a new spirit in fashion, dance, and music in the 1920s.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the changing social norms characterized by the rise of the flappers

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Flappers  were young women known for their styles of short hair, straight waists, and above-the-knee hemlines, as well as for their general disdain for social and sexual norms.
  • Flappers favored a young and boyish style in women's fashion, which largely emerged as a result of French fashions, especially those pioneered by the French designer Coco Chanel. Short hair, flattened breasts, and straight waists were some common features of this look.
  • Dance clubs and contests became very popular in the 1920s. Classical pieces, operettas, and folk music were all transformed into popular dance melodies in order to satisfy the public craze for dancing. The Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom were popular venues.
  • The most popular dances during the decade were the fox-trot, waltz, and American tango. From the early 1920s, a  variety  of eccentric novelty dances were also developed including the Breakaway, Charleston, and Lindy Hop.

Key Terms

  • Musical: A stage performance, show, or film that includes singing, dancing, and musical numbers performed by the cast.
  • Jazz: A musical genre that originated in African-American communities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It blended various styles including brass band, blues, and traditional African music to become a unique, international genre that continues to evolve today.
  • Charleston: A popular dance during the 1920s, named for the oldest city in South Carolina.
  • Coco Chanel: (19 August 1883–10 January 1971) A French designer of women's clothes and founder of the Chanel brand. She is widely regarded as one of the greatest designers in the history of fashion.

The 1920s saw the rise of the flapper, a new breed of young women who wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, danced, and flouted social and sexual norms. Flappers were known for their style and the widespread popularization of new cultural trends that accompanied it. They personified the musical and dance movements emerging from the dance clubs playing jazz and new versions of old music, which became enormously popular in the 1920s and into the early 1930s.

Flapper Style

Jazz and other new musical and dance forms exploded onto society in the 1920s. This pop-culture movement was personified by the flappers, whose fashion styles represented their free spirits and new social openness. This style largely emerged as a result of French fashions, especially those pioneered by the French designer Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel. Called garçonne in French ("boy" with a feminine suffix), flapper style aimed to make girls appear young and boyish: short hair, flattened breasts, and straight waists were common features of this look. Although the styles typically associated now with flappers did not fully emerge until about 1926, there was an early association in the public mind between unconventional appearance, outrageous behavior, and the word "flapper."


Coco Chanel, 1920: Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was a French designer who was highly influential in the flapper fashion style of the 1920s.

The flapper look included short, disheveled hair in boyish styles such as the "bob cut," while finger waving was used as a means of styling. The evolving flapper appearance required "heavy makeup" in comparison to what had previously been acceptable outside of professional use in the theater. With the invention of the metal lipstick container and compact mirrors, bee stung lips and an emphatic mouth came into vogue. Huge, dark eyes heavily outlined in mascara and kohl-rimmed, were in style. Blush came into fashion when it ceased to be a messy application process.

Pale skin was originally considered to be the most attractive, but tanned skin became increasingly popular after Coco Chanel donned a tan after spending too much time in the sun on holiday. A tan suggested a life of leisure, without the onerous need to work. In this way, women aspired to look fit, athletic, and healthy. Jewelry usually consisted of Art Deco pieces, including beaded necklaces and brooches. Horn-rimmed glasses were also popular.

Despite any scandalous images flappers generated, their look became fashionable in a toned-down form among respectable older women. Significantly, the flappers removed the corset from female fashion, raised skirt and gown hemlines, and popularized short hair for women. Flapper dresses were straight and loose, leaving the arms bare and dropping the waistline to the hips. Silk or rayon stockings were held up by garters. Skirts rose to just below the knee by 1927, allowing flashes of leg to be seen when a girl danced or walked through a breeze. High heels between two and three inches also became popular.

Flappers did away with corsets and pantaloons in favor of "step-in" panties and simple bust bodices to keep their chests in place while dancing. They also wore new, softer and suppler corsets that reached to their hips, smoothing the whole frame, giving them a straight, up-and-down appearance, as opposed to the old corsets that slenderized the waist and accented the hips and bust.


The Flapper Magazine: The cover of the November 1922 issue of The Flapper magazine.

Dance Music, Clubs, and Contests

In the flapper period, dance music took parts of various existing musical styles and created a new form. Classical pieces, operettas, and folk music were all transformed into popular dance melodies in order to satiate the public craze for dancing. For example, many of the songs from the 1929 Technicolor musical operetta, The Rogue Song, starring the Metropolitan Opera star Lawrence Tibbett, were rearranged and released as dance music and became popular club hits in 1929.

The advent of "talkies," motion pictures with synchronized sound, made musicals all the rage. Hollywood film studios flooded the box office with extravagant and lavish musical films, many of which were filmed in early Technicolor, a process that created color motion pictures rather than the starker black-and-white films. One of the most popular of these musicals, Gold Diggers of Broadway, became the highest-grossing film of the decade in 1929.


Gold Diggers of Broadway: The 1929 musical, Gold Diggers of Broadway, became the highest-grossing film of the decade.

The Harlem neighborhood of New York City played a key role in the development of dance styles by serving as the location of several popular entertainment venues where people from all walks of life, races, and classes came together. The Cotton Club featured black performers and catered to a white clientele, while the Savoy Ballroom catered to a mostly black clientele.

Dance Styles

Dance clubs across the United States sponsored contests in which dancers invented and competed with new moves and professionals began to hone their skills in tap dance and other current moves. The most popular dances throughout the decade were the fox-trot, waltz, and American tango. Large numbers of recordings labeled under these styles gave rise to a generation of famous recording and radio artists.

From the early 1920s, however, the dance scene produced a variety of eccentric trends. The first of these were the Breakaway and the Charleston, which were both based on African-American musical styles and beats, including the widely popular blues. The Charleston's popularity exploded after its feature in two 1922 Broadway shows. A brief Black Bottom dance craze, originating from the Apollo Theater, swept dance halls from 1926 to 1927, replacing the Charleston in popularity. By 1927, the Lindy Hop, based on the Breakaway and the Charleston and integrating elements of tap, became the dominant social dance and was the forebear of Swing dancing.


Josephine Baker does the Charleston: Celebrated singer Josephine Baker dances the Charleston, one of the novelty dances that swept pop culture in the 1920s.

The Eugenics Movement

Eugenics, a prejudicial pseudoscience with roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gained popularity and impacted American state and federal laws in the 1920s.

Learning Objectives

Describe the goals and consequences of the eugenics movement

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The eugenics  movement, which had its roots in European pseudoscience, played a major role in debates on U.S.  immigration  policy, particularly with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. Many believed  immigrants  were inferior and should be prevented from marrying and breeding.
  • State laws were written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to prohibit marriage and force sterilization of the mentally ill in order to prevent the "passing on" of mental illness to the next generation.
  • Both class and race factored in to eugenic definitions of "fit" and "unfit." By using intelligence testing, American eugenicists asserted that social mobility was indicative of one's genetic fitness.
  • American eugenicists provided the so-called scientific proof used to justify racial oppression in the United States and Europe. Nazi administrators on trial for war crimes in Nuremberg after World War II justified more than 450,000 mass sterilizations by citing American eugenics programs as their inspiration.

Key Terms

  • Charles B. Davenport: (1866–1944) A prominent American eugenicist and biologist. He was one of the leaders of the American eugenics movement, which was directly involved in the sterilization of around 60,000 "unfit" Americans and strongly influenced the Holocaust in Europe.
  • eugenics: A social philosophy that advocates the improvement of human hereditary qualities through selective breeding.
  • Francis Galton: (1822–1911) A British sociologist and anthropologist who coined the term "eugenics" and promoted the idea of the survival of the fittest in humans through selective breeding.

Eugenics was a field sociological and anthropological study that became popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a method of preserving and improving the population through cultivation of dominant gene groups. Rather than considered scientific genetics, however, eugenics is now generally associated with racist and nativist elements who desired so-called "scientific" evidence for prejudicial beliefs and government policies. The eugenics movement in the United States was used to justify laws enabling forced sterilizations of the mentally ill and prohibiting marriages and child bearing by immigrants, while in Europe, eugenics theories were used by the Nazi regime in Germany to justify thousands of sterilizations and, later, widespread murder.

Origins and Proliferation

In its time, eugenics was touted as scientific and progressive, the natural application of knowledge about breeding to the arena of human life. Researchers interested in familial mental disorders conducted studies to document the heritability of illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. Rather than true science, though, eugenics was merely an ill-considered social philosophy aimed at improving the quality of the human population by increasing reproduction between those with genes considered desirable—Nordic, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon peoples—and limiting procreation by those whose genetic stock was seen as less favorable or unlikely to improve the human gene pool. The method considered most viable in attaining this goal was the prevention of marriage and breeding among targeted groups and individuals, but over time, the far more extreme action of sterilization became acceptable.

While these ideas existed for centuries, the modern eugenics movement can be traced to the United Kingdom in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The theory of evolution made famous by Charles Darwin was used by English sociologist and anthropologist Francis Galton, a half cousin of Darwin, to promote the idea of a human survival of the fittest that could be enacted through selective breeding. He coined the term "eugenics" in 1883, and in 1909, wrote the foreword to the first volume of the Eugenics Review, the journal of the Eugenics Education Society, which named him as its honorary president.


Francis Galton: A half cousin of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton founded field of eugenics and promoted the improvement of the human gene pool through selective breeding.

Legitimizing and Legalizing

Eugenicists and supporters began organizing and holding formal discussions and conferences and publishing papers that proliferated through Europe and America. Three International Eugenics Congresses were held between 1912 and 1932, the first taking place in London. Leonard Darwin, son of Charles, presided over the meeting of about 400 delegates from numerous countries—including British luminaries such as the Chief Justice Lord Balfour, and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. The meeting served as an indication of the growing popularity of the eugenics movement.

The logo shows a tree labelled

Second International Eugenics Congress logo, 1921: Eugenics was a popular pseudoscience in the early decades of the twentieth century and was promoted through three International Eugenics Congresses between 1912 and 1932.

The American eugenics movement was rooted in the biological determinist ideas of Galton and included those who believed in the genetic superiority of specific Caucasian groups, supported strict immigration and anti-miscegenation laws, and supported the forcible sterilization of the poor, disabled, and "immoral."

Both class and race factored into eugenic definitions of "fit" and "unfit." Using intelligence testing, American eugenicists asserted that social mobility was indicative of one's genetic fitness. This reaffirmed the existing class and racial hierarchies and explained why the upper to middle class was predominately white, with middle to upper class status being a marker of "superior strains." Eugenicists believed poverty to be a characteristic of genetic inferiority, which meant that that those deemed "unfit" were predominately of the lower classes. Because poverty was associated with prostitution and "mental idiocy," women of the lower classes were the first to be deemed "unfit" and "promiscuous." These women, who were primarily immigrants or women of color, were discouraged from bearing children, and were encouraged to use birth control.

American eugenics research was funded by distinguished philanthropists and carried out at prestigious

universities, trickling down to classrooms where it was presented as a serious science. In 1906, J.H. Kellogg provided funding to help found the Race Betterment Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan. The Eugenics Record Office (ERO) was founded in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 1911 by the renowned biologist Charles B. Davenport, using money from both the Harriman railroad fortune and the Carnegie Institution.

Portrait of Charles Benedict Davenport

Charles Benedict Davenport: American biologist Charles B. Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office in 1911.

Laws were written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America to prohibit marriage and to force sterilization of the mentally ill in order to prevent the "passing on" of mental illness to the next generation. The first state to introduce a compulsory sterilization bill was Michigan in 1897, but the proposed law failed to garner enough votes by legislators to be adopted. Eight years later, Pennsylvania's state legislators passed a sterilization bill that was vetoed by the governor. Indiana became the first state to enact sterilization legislation in 1907, followed closely by Washington and California in 1909.


Men and women were compulsorily sterilized for different reasons. Men were sterilized to treat their aggression and to eliminate their criminal behavior, while women were sterilized to control the results of their sexuality. Because women bore children, eugenicists held women more accountable than men for the reproduction of the less "desirable" members of society. Eugenicists, therefore, targeted mostly women in their efforts to regulate the birth rate, to "protect" white racial health, and to weed out the

"defectives" of society.

Sterilization rates across the country were relatively low, California being the exception, until the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell that legitimized the forced sterilization of patients at a Virginia home for the mentally retarded. These statutes were not abolished until the mid-twentieth century, with approximately 60,000 Americans legally sterilized.

Prior to the sterilization ruling in the Supreme Court, eugenicists had already played an important role in government policy by serving as expert advisers on the threat of "inferior stock" from eastern and southern Europe during the Congressional debate over immigration in the early 1920s. This led to passage of the federal Immigration Act of 1924, which reduced the number of immigrants from abroad to 15 percent from previous years.

Portrait of Harry H. Laughlin

Harry H. Laughlin: Harry H. Laughlin served as director of the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York.

There are also direct links between progressive American eugenicists such as Harry H. Laughlin and racial oppression in Europe. Laughlin wrote the Virginia model statute that was the basis for the Nazi Ernst Rudin's Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. Before the realization of death camps in World War II, the idea that eugenics would lead to genocide was not taken seriously by the average American. When Nazi administrators went on trial for war crimes in Nuremberg after the war, however, they justified more than 450,000 mass sterilizations in less than a decade by citing U.S. eugenics programs and policies as their inspiration. These sterilizations were the precursor to the Holocaust, the Nazi attempt at genocide against Jews and other ethnic groups they deemed unfavorable to the human gene pool.

The Southern Renaissance

The Southern Renaissance literary movement of the 1920s and 1930s broke from the romantic view of the Confederacy.

Learning Objectives

Describe the Southern Renaissance

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Authors of the Southern Renaissance addressed three major themes: the burden of history related to  slavery and loss, conservative Southern culture, and the region's association with racism and slavery.
  • The formation of the Fugitives, a group of poets and critics based in Nashville following World War I, is often referred to as the beginning of the Southern Renaissance. William Faulkner is regarded as the Southern Renaissance's most influential and famous writer.
  • Opposition to  industrialization  in the South following World War I was a popular theme among Southern Renaissance writers, who became known as "Southern  Agrarians."
  • African-American writers from the South, such as Richard Wright, were not considered part of the Southern Renaissance movement, which consisted exclusively of white authors.

Key Terms

  • The Fugitives: A group of poets and literary scholars who came together at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, United States, around 1920.
  • William Faulkner: (1897–1962) An American writer and Nobel laureate from Oxford,

    Mississippi. He is best known for his 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury.
  • H.L. Mencken: (1880–1956) A journalist, satirist, cultural critic, and scholar. Known as the "Sage of Baltimore," he is regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century.

The Southern Renaissance was a movement that reinvigorated American Southern literature in the 1920s and 1930s. The writers of the movement broke from common Southern cultural literary themes, notably the regrettable fall of the Confederacy, to address more personal and modernized viewpoints including opposition to industrialization and the South’s abiding racism. The Southern Renaissance included famed writers such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Robert Penn Warren. Perhaps ironically, however, this movement that explored racial questions and themes seemed to exclude African-American writers of the time.

Origins and Themes

In the 1920s, the satirist H.L. Mencken led the attack on the genteel tradition in American literature, ridiculing the provincialism of American intellectual life. In his 1920 essay, "The Sahara of the Bozart," a pun on a Southern pronunciation of "Beaux Arts," he singled out the South as the most provincial and intellectually barren region of the United States, claiming that since the Civil War, intellectual and cultural life there had gone into terminal decline. This created a storm of protest from within conservative circles in the South. Many emerging Southern writers, however, already highly critical of contemporary life in the South, were emboldened by Mencken's essay. In response to the attacks of Mencken and his imitators, Southern writers were provoked to reassert Southern uniqueness and engage in a deeper exploration of the theme of Southern identity.

Portrait of Henry Louis Mencken

Henry Louis Mencken: H.L. Mencken was an influential American writer and social critic who unwittingly helped to launch the Southern Renaissance literary movement.

The Fugitives

The start of the Southern Renaissance is often traced back to the activities of a group known as " The Fugitives," a collection of poets and critics based at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, just after the World War I. The group included John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and others. Together they created the magazine, The Fugitive (1922–1925), so named because the editors announced that they had fled, "from nothing faster than from the high-caste Brahmins of the Old South."

The emergence of the Southern Renaissance as a literary and cultural movement also has been seen as a consequence of the opening up of the predominantly rural South to outside influences due to the industrial expansion that took place in the region during and after World War I. Southern opposition to industrialization was expressed in the famous essay collection, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930), written by authors and critics from the Southern Renaissance who came to be known as "Southern Agrarians."

Previously, Southern writers tended to focus on historical romances about the "Lost Cause" of the Confederate States of America, commonly known as the "Confederacy." This writing glorified the heroism of the Confederate Army and civilian population during the Civil War and the supposedly "idyllic culture" that existed in the antebellum South. Southern Renaissance writers broke from this tradition by addressing three major themes in their works. The first was the burden of history in a place where many people still personally remembered slavery, Reconstruction, and a devastating military defeat. The second was the South's conservative culture, specifically addressing how an individual could exist without losing a sense of identity in a region where family, religion, and community were more highly valued than one's personal and social life. The final theme was the South's troubling history with regard to racial issues.

Because of the chronological distance these writers had from the Civil War and slavery, they were able to bring objectivity to writings about the South. They also employed new, modernistic techniques such as stream of consciousness and complex narratives. Among the writers of the Southern Renaissance, William Faulkner is arguably the most influential and famous as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Beyond Faulkner, playwright Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie), author Robert Penn Warren (All the King’s Men), and others including Caroline Gordon, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Katherine Anne Porter, and Allen Tate were classified as Southern Renaissance writers.

Portrait of William Faulkner

William Faulkner, 1954: William Faulkner, author of the 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury, was a leading voice in the Southern Renaissance movement.


The Southern Renaissance inspired many Southern writers of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, including authors Reynolds Price and Walker Percy, poet James Dickey, influential Southern Gothic movement members Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers, Pulitzer Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Eudora Welty, and Harper Lee, who won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which is considered a classic of American literature.

Exclusion of African Americans

Despite many writers of the Southern Renaissance exploring the South’s history of racism and slavery with an eye toward healing those wounds, none of the prominent African-American writers of the day were seen as part of this literary movement. While the Harlem Renaissance was considered a celebration and rebirth of African culture in America, there were African-American writers who hailed from the South who were not necessarily slotted into either of the "Renaissance" groups.

Some of the most outspoken criticisms against the idea of the lost cause of the Confederacy came from African-American, Southern writers prior to World War I, including from Charles W. Chesnutt, who penned the novels, The House Behind the Cedars in 1900 and The Marrow of Tradition the following year. Yet African-American writers were not considered part of the Southern literary tradition as defined by the white, primarily male authors who saw themselves as its creators and guardians. This is a rather glaring omission, considering the prominence of other notable African-American writers from the South such as Richard Wright, a Mississippi native and author of the renowned 1940 novel, Native Son.

Portrait of Richard Wright

Richard Wright: Native Son author Richard Wright was one of the notable African-American authors who has been arguably overlooked as part of the Southern literary tradition.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was an arts and literary movement in the 1920s that brought African-American culture to mainstream America.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the Harlem Renaissance

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Racial consciousness was the prevailing theme of the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American cultural movement in the 1920s named for the historically black Harlem neighborhood of New York City.
  • The Renaissance was built upon the "New Negro" movement, which was founded in 1917 by Hubert Harrison and Matthew Kotleski as a reaction to race and class issues, including calls for political equality and the end of segregation.
  • In several essays included in the 1925 anthology, The New Negro, editor Alain Locke contrasted the "Old Negro" with the "New Negro" by stressing African-American assertiveness and self-confidence during the years following World War I and the Great  Migration.
  • Seeking to counteract the rise in racism during the postwar years, black artists, writers, and musicians developed unique styles that challenged pervading stereotypes of African-American culture as the Harlem Renaissance developed.
  • While black-owned businesses supported the Harlem Renaissance, the movement also relied on the patronage of white Americans for the dissemination of its works.

Key Terms

  • Marcus Garvey: (1887–1940) A Jamaican political leader, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator who was a staunch proponent of the Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements.
  • New Negro Movement: A militant movement, founded in in 1916–1917 by Hubert Harrison and Negro League baseball star Matthew Kotleski, that was associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
  • Alain Locke: (1885–1954) An American writer, philosopher, educator, and patron of the arts.

The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned the 1920s and 1930s. It sprang up as part of the "New Negro" movement, a political initiative founded in 1917 and later named after the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke. Though the Harlem Renaissance was centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, many French-speaking black writers from African and Caribbean colonies who lived in Paris were also influenced by the Renaissance. The zenith of this "flowering of Negro literature," as James Weldon Johnson preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance, was placed between 1924 and 1929.

New Negro Movement

"New Negro" was a term used in African-American discourse, beginning in 1895 and lasting for the first three decades of the twentieth century, to characterize an outspoken advocacy of dignity and a refusal to submit quietly to the practices and laws of Jim Crow racial segregation. Popularized by writer and philosopher Alain LeRoy Locke, the New Negro concept received its greatest attention around 1917 to 1928, when it became better known as the "Harlem Renaissance."

For African Americans, World War I highlighted the widening gap between U.S. rhetoric regarding, "the war to make the world safe for democracy," and the reality of disenfranchised and exploited black farmers in the South and the poor and alienated residents of northern slums. In France, black soldiers experienced the kind of freedom they had never known in the United States, but returned to find that discrimination against blacks was just as active as it had been before the war. Many African-American soldiers who fought in segregated units during World War I, like the Harlem Hellfighters, came home to a nation whose citizens often did not respect their accomplishments.

In 1916–1917, Hubert Harrison and Negro League baseball star Matthew Kotleski founded the "New Negro" movement, which energized the African-American community with race- and class-conscious demands for political equality and an end to segregation and lynching, as well as calls for armed self-defense when appropriate.

In a 1925 anthology, The New Negro, which grew out of the 1924 special issue of Survey Graphic on Harlem, editor Alain Locke contrasted the "Old Negro" with the "New Negro" by stressing African-American assertiveness and self-confidence during the years following World War I and the Great Migration. Race pride had already been part of literary and political self-expression among African-Americans in the nineteenth century. However, it found a new purpose and definition in the journalism, fiction, poetry, music, sculpture, and paintings of many figures associated with the Harlem Renaissance.


Alain Locke: A portrait of Alain LeRoy Locke, leader of the New Negro movement and inspirational figure of the Harlem Renaissance.

No one better articulated the hopes and possibilities associated with the idea and ideal of the "New Negro" than the Harvard-trained philosophy professor Alain LeRoy Locke, who later described himself as the "midwife" to aspiring young black writers of the 1920s. According to Locke, The New Negro, whose publication by Albert and Charles Boni in December 1925 symbolized the culmination of the first stage of the New Negro Renaissance in literature, was assembled, "to document the New Negro culturally and socially—to register the transformations of the inner and outer life of the Negro in America that have so significantly taken place in the last few years." Highlighting its global scope, Locke compared the New Negro movement with the, "nascent movements of folk expression and self determination" that were taking place internationally.

Despite the challenges of race and class in the 1920s, a new spirit of hope and pride marked black activity and expression in all areas. The New Negro movement insisted on self-definition, self-expression, and self-determination, striving for what Locke called, "spiritual emancipation." The Harlem Renaissance participants who emerged from this new idealism, regardless of their generational or ideological orientation in aesthetics or politics, shared a sense of possibility. The many debates regarding art and propaganda, representation and identity, assimilation versus militancy, and parochialism versus globalism enriched perspectives on issues of art, culture, politics, and ideology that have emerged in African-American culture.

Origins of the Renaissance

During the early portion of the twentieth century, Harlem became home to a growing "Negro" middle class. In 1910, a large block along 135th Street and Fifth Avenue was purchased by various African-American realtors and a church group. Many more African Americans arrived during World War I. Due to the war, the migration of laborers from Europe virtually ceased, while the war effort resulted in a massive demand for unskilled industrial labor. The Great Migration brought hundreds of thousands of African Americans from the South to cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and New York. Among them were a great number of artists whose influence would come to bear, especially in jazz music.

Despite the increasing popularity of Negro culture, virulent white racism, often by more recent ethnic immigrants, continued to impact African-American communities. Race riots and other civil uprisings occurred throughout the United States during the so-called Red Summer of 1919, reflecting economic competition over jobs and housing in many cities, as well as tensions over social territories.


The first stage of the Harlem Renaissance started in the late 1910s, notably with the 1917 premiere of Three Plays for a Negro Theatre. These plays, written by white playwright Ridgely Torrence, featured African-American actors conveying complex human emotions and yearnings. They rejected the stereotypes of the blackface and minstrel-show traditions. James Weldon Johnson in 1917 called the premieres of these plays, "the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American Theater."


In 1917 Hubert Harrison, "The Father of Harlem Radicalism," founded the Liberty League and The Voice, the first organization and the first newspaper, respectively, of the "New Negro" movement. Harrison's organization and newspaper were political, but also emphasized the arts, with his newspaper including "Poetry for the People" and book-review sections. In 1927, in the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, Harrison challenged the notion of the renaissance. He argued that the "Negro Literary Renaissance" notion overlooked, "the stream of literary and artistic products which had flowed uninterruptedly from Negro writers from 1850 to the present," and said that the so-called "renaissance" was largely a white invention. It is true that W.E.B. Du Bois had introduced the notion of "twoness" in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, which explored a divided awareness of one's identity that was a unique critique of the social ramifications of racial consciousness. This work preempted the Harlem Renaissance, but also undoubtedly offered some degree of inspiration and fodder for its writers.

The works of the Harlem Renaissance appealed to a wide audience and marked a proliferation of African-American cultural influence, with magazines such as The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Opportunity, the publication of the National Urban League, both employing Harlem Renaissance writers on their staffs, while white-owned publishing houses and magazines also supported the movement. Many authors began to publish novels, magazines, and newspapers during this time. Notable Harlem Renaissance figures included Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Nella Larson, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Jessie Fauset, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, Alain Locke, and Eric D. Walrond.

Potrait of Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston: Author Zora Neale Hurston, best known for her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was one of the literary luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance.


A new way of playing the piano, called the "Harlem Stride Style," emerged during the Harlem Renaissance and helped blur the lines between poor Negros and socially elite Negros. The traditional jazz band was composed primarily of brass instruments and considered a symbol of the South, but the piano was considered an instrument of the wealthy. With this instrumental modification to the existing genre, wealthy African Americans now had more access to jazz music. Its popularity soon spread throughout the country. Innovation and liveliness were important characteristics of performers in the beginnings of jazz. Musicians at the time—including Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and Willie "The Lion" Smith—showed great talent and competitiveness and were considered to have laid the foundation for future musicians of their genre.

During this time period, the musical style of blacks was becoming more and more attractive to whites. White novelists, dramatists, and composers started to exploit the musical tendencies and themes of African Americans in their own works. Composers used poems written by African-American poets in their songs, while implementing the rhythms, harmonies, and melodies of African-American music—such as blues, spirituals, and jazz—into their concert pieces. African Americans also began to merge with white artists in the classical world of musical composition, which had long been popular among white audiences, especially among the middle class and wealthy with roots going back to Europe where classical music had been dominant for centuries.


The Harlem Renaissance rested on a support system of black patrons and black-owned businesses and publications. Yet it also received a great deal of patronage from white Americans such as writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten and philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason, who provided various forms of assistance, opening doors that otherwise would have remained closed to the publication of work outside the African-American community. This support often took the form of patronage or publication. Other whites were interested in so-called "primitive" cultures, as many viewed black American culture at that time, and wanted to see such "primitive" influences in the work coming out of the Harlem Renaissance.

Portrait of Carl Van Vechten

Carl Van Vechten: Writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten was one of the white patrons and proponents of the Harlem Renaissance.


The Harlem Renaissance helped lay the foundation for the post-World War II phase of the Civil Rights movement. Moreover, many black artists who rose to creative maturity afterward were inspired by this literary movement. The Harlem Renaissance was more than a literary or artistic movement; it possessed a certain sociological development—particularly through a new racial consciousness—through racial integration, as seen in the Back to Africa movement led by Marcus Garvey.

Portrait of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936: Langston Hughes was a prominent novelist and poet who emerged from the Harlem Renaissance.

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