June 7th, 1920
Ku Klux Klan Mounts Publicity Campaign to Attract Members
Confederate veterans founded the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1865. From beneath white hoods, they terrorized freedmen and Republican politicians with threats, beatings, and murder. They strived to undermine Reconstruction and restore racial subordination in the South. Faced with federal opposition, the Klan dissolved by the 1870s, but reemerged early in the next century.
In 1915, William Simmons revived the Klan atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain, organizing men around the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish man accused of killing a white woman. That same year, the film The Birth of a Nation debuted, presenting Klansmen as saviors of white man’s civilization and white women’s chastity. President Woodrow Wilson screened the film at the White House.
On June 7, 1920, Simmons hired publicists to grow membership for the white supremacist organization. Playing up white anxieties following the first World War, the Klan launched a “100 Percent Americanism” campaign, promoting Klansmen as defending the nation from blacks, Catholics, Jews, foreigners, and “moral offenders.” This “neat package of hatred” caught attention quickly, and within sixteen months, nearly 100,000 new members had joined.
In 1921, public pressure prompted Congress to investigate Klan violence and undue influence in local and state governments, but when Klan officials denied the allegations, Congress ended its inquiry. Immediately thereafter, new Klan membership applications jumped to 5000 per day. By 1924, there were three million active members nationwide, including 35,000 in Detroit, 55,000 in Chicago, 200,000 in Ohio, 240,000 in Indiana, and 260,000 in Pennsylvania.
June 15th, 1920
Three Black Men Lynched in Duluth, Minnesota
In 1920, the black population of Duluth, Minnesota, numbered 495 out of 98,000 residents. Many had been recruited from the South to work at United States Steel's local plant, while others worked as janitors, servers, porters, and assemblers. Despite their small numbers, black Duluth residents endured significant discrimination; they received lower pay and, barred from white neighborhoods, lived in substandard housing. As in other Northern cities during the era of black migration, many white workers in Duluth felt threatened by black labor and racial tension was high.
On June 14, 1920, two white teenagers, James Sullivan and Irene Tuskan, attended the John Robinson Circus in Duluth. The next morning, they claimed Mr. Sullivan had been held at gunpoint while six black circus workers raped Ms. Tuskan. Though a doctor examining Ms. Tuskan found no evidence of assault, six young black men were arrested and jailed. Newspapers reported the alleged assault and false rumors soon spread that Ms. Tuskan had died from her injuries.
That evening, a mob of 5000 to 10,000 whites gathered at the jail and seized, beat, and lynched three prisoners, Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson, and Elias Clayton. The Minnesota National Guard arrived the next morning to secure the area and guard the surviving prisoners. No one was ever convicted for the lynchings. The incident was one of 219 lynchings in Northern states between 1889 and 1918. After more than eighty years, on October 10, 2003, a memorial to the three men killed was dedicated near the site of their deaths.
October 5th, 1920
Four Black Men Lynched in Macclenny, Florida
On October 5, 1920, four black men were killed in Macclenny, Florida, following the death of a prominent young white local farmer named John Harvey. According to news reports at the time, Harvey was shot and killed at a turpentine camp near MacClenny on October 4, 1920. The suspected shooter, a young black man named Jim Givens, fled immediately afterward and mobs of armed white men formed to pursue him. Givens’s brother and two other black men connected to him were questioned and jailed during the search, though there was no evidence or accusation that they had been involved in the killing of Harvey.
Those three men - Fulton Smith, Ray Field, and Ben Givens - were held in the Baker County Jail late into the night until, around 1:00 a.m. on October 5, a mob of about 50 white men overtook the jail and seized the men from their cells. The mob forced the men to the outskirts of town, where they were tied to trees and shot to death. A fourth lynching victim, Sam Duncan, was found shot to death nearby later in the day. Also with no alleged ties to the killing of John Harvey, Duncan was thought to be an unfortunate soul who had encountered a mob seeking Jim Givens and been killed simply for being a black man.
Three days later, the Chicago Defender, a Northern black newspaper, reported that most of the black community of Macclenny had deserted the area in fear of further violent attacks while whites posses continued to search for Jim Givens.
March 1st, 1921
Idaho Bans Marriage Between Blacks and Whites
On March 1, 1921, Idaho amended its anti-miscegenation law to include additional restrictions on interracial marriage. Idaho passed its first anti-miscegenation law in 1864, which banned marriage between a white person and "any person of African descent, Indian or Chinese." The punishment for marrying in violation of the statute was imprisonment for up to two years. Idaho also passed a law banning interracial cohabitation in 1864, violation of which could result in a $100-$500 fine, six to twelve months in jail, or both. The anti-miscegenation law was amended in 1867 to increase the range of fines and the maximum possible prison time to ten years. In 1921, the law was amended again to ban marriage between whites and "mongolians, negroes, or mulattoes," although the state's population at the time was less than .02% African American. The Idaho state legislature repealed the anti-miscegenation law in 1959.
Idaho was not unique in its attempts to obstruct marriage between the races. In the 1920's, Social Darwinism had captured the attention of the country's elite, who became concerned with maintaining and promoting the eugenic racial purity of the white race by controlling procreation. Concerned that states were not adequately enforcing their anti-miscegenation laws, eugenicists pushed for stronger measures against racial mixing and stricter classifications to determine who qualified as white when seeking a marriage license. Like Idaho, many states added the racial category "mongolian" during this time in response to an influx of Japanese immigrants to the United States.
April 5th, 1921
Georgia: White Landowner Faces Trial in Murder of Eleven Black Sharecroppers
Although slavery was officially abolished in 1865, African Americans continued to be held as de facto slaves in systems of peonage, a form of debt bondage. “Peons” or indentured servants owed money to their “masters” and were forced to work off their debt, a process that took years. A federal law passed in 1867 prohibited peonage but the practice continued for decades throughout the South. It was notoriously difficult to prosecute those who violated the federal law and those who were prosecuted were often acquitted by sympathetic juries.
Fear of a peonage prosecution led to a brutal spree of murders in rural Georgia in 1921. John Williams, a local white plantation owner, held blacks on his farm against their will in horrific, slavery-like conditions. After federal investigators suspected that Williams was violating the peonage law, Williams decided to get rid of the “evidence” of his crime by killing eleven black men whom he had been working as peons. Williams’s trial began on April 5, 1921, and four days later he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in prison several years later.
Following the murders by Williams and other local atrocities against black people, Georgia Governor Hugh Dorsey in 1921 released a pamphlet entitled “A Statement from Governor Hugh M. Dorsey as to the Negro in Georgia.” Dorsey had collected 135 cases of mistreatment of blacks in the previous two years, including lynchings, extensive peonage, and general hostility. Dorsey recommended several remedies, including compulsory education for both races; a state commission to investigate lynchings; and penalties for counties where lynchings occurred. Reflecting on the mob violence that had become common throughout the South, Dorsey wrote, “To me it seems that we stand indicted as a people before the world.”
In response, several officials denied the charges contained in the pamphlet and many Georgians called for Dorsey’s impeachment.
June 1st, 1921
White Rioters in Tulsa Leave Hundreds Dead, Black Community Destroyed
In 1921, the black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, enjoyed significant economic prosperity and political independence. Located in the city's Greenwood District and known as "Negro Wall Street," it was considered one of the wealthiest black communities in the nation.
On May 30, 1921, nineteen-year-old Dick Rowland, a black man, boarded an elevator while working in a building in downtown Tulsa. The elevator was operated by Sarah Page, a seventeen-year-old white girl. When a store clerk heard a scream, he ran to the elevator to find Ms. Page and, thinking she'd been attacked, called police.
Ms. Page told police that Mr. Rowland had startled her by grabbing her arm but she did not want to press charges. Rumors spread, and the story quickly morphed into a rape allegation. Police arrested Mr. Rowland at his Greenwood home and jailed him at the courthouse. The next night, a mob of white men sought to lynch him but the sheriff and deputies defended the jail, along with thirty armed black men from Greenwood who also stood guard.
Undeterred, members of the mob returned with firearms, and several whites were killed or wounded in the ensuing gunfight. When the black men retreated to Greenwood, white rioters attacked the town, burning forty city blocks, killing up to 300 black residents, and displacing many more. The prosperous black community was destroyed, but no rioters were convicted and survivors received no compensation for lost property. After eighty years, Oklahoma approved funds to redevelop the area and build a memorial in 2001.
October 3rd, 1922
In Ozawa v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Law Banning Japanese Immigrants from Becoming Citizens
Beginning in 1790, the immigration laws of the United States limited naturalization to free white immigrants. In 1870, Congress passed a revised immigration law that allowed for the naturalization of immigrants of African descent, but in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade the naturalization of Chinese immigrants.
After the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the naturalization eligibility of other Asian immigrant groups was unclear. In 1914, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese-American who had lived in the United States since the age of nine, filed a petition for naturalization. When his petition was denied, he challenged the denial in court and his case reached the United States Supreme Court in 1922. Oral arguments were held on October 3 and 4.
On November 13, 1922, the Supreme Court held unanimously that Mr. Ozawa and other Japanese immigrants were ineligible for American citizenship, on the basis that the Immigration Act of 1790 limited naturalization to free whites, and people of Japanese or other Asian descent did not qualify as white. In 1924, Congress passed a further revision to the immigration law that forbade all immigration from Japan and other countries in Asia. The ban on immigration from Asia and the naturalization of immigrants from Asia was not repealed until 1952. The 1952 law in turn imposed extremely restrictive national quotas on immigration from Asia, which were not repealed until 1965.
December 2nd, 1922
Eugenicist Henry Laughlin Publishes "Model Sterilization Law"
In the early 20th century, state legislatures began passing sterilization laws authorizing the compulsory sterilization of men and women considered less desirable citizens based on factors such as economic status, mental or physical ability, and race. By 1914, a dozen states had passed sterilization laws, but many did not survive constitutional challenges. In December 1922, after extensive investigation into state sterilization laws and their reception in state courts, Harry Laughlin, biologist and co-founder of the American Eugenics Society, published a model sterilization law in his study, Eugenical Sterilization in the United States.
The model law was designed to aid lawmakers in developing more effective and “constitutionally acceptable” sterilization laws in their jurisdictions. Laughlin’s model law passed the ultimate test in 1927, when the United States Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s compulsory sterilization law in Buck v. Bell. Virginia's law had been developed using Laughlin’s model as a blueprint; 18 states eventually passed similar statutes.
After the publication of Laughlin’s model law and the Court’s decision in Buck, the rate of sterilization in the United States soared. Prior to the mid-1920s, approximately 3000 Americans had been forcibly sterilized; by 1938, the number had increased to nearly 30,000; and at least 65,000 had been forcibly sterilized by the 1970s. Laughlin’s model law was influential abroad as well. In 1933, the German government led by Adolf Hitler used Laughlin’s model to draft its own sterilization law, which authorized the forced sterilization of 80,000 “un-fit” persons within a year of its passage and 300,000 by the start of World War II.
December 14th, 1922
Harvard University President Defends Exclusion of Black Students from Dorms
On December 14, 1922, Harvard University alumnus Roscoe Bruce received a letter from Harvard President Abbott Lowell regarding Mr. Bruce’s attempts to reserve a freshman dormitory room for his son. “I am sorry to tell you,” wrote Lowell, “that in the Freshman Halls, where residence is compulsory, we have felt from the beginning the necessity of not including colored men.” Mr. Bruce’s son was denied housing according to a policy of racial exclusion that had been in place at Harvard since 1915, when Lowell instituted the requirement that freshmen live on campus. Black students were barred from dorms and dining halls.
Harvard had admitted small numbers of black students intermittently since 1847, and its inclusiveness in that regard was unusual compared to the segregated universities of the South. Educational opportunities were sparse for blacks across the country and it was rare in both the North and South for a black child to make it to high school. In the North, “industrial schools” were built in place of high schools in black communities and black students were encouraged to attend them. Thus, black students accepted into Harvard were a rarified few.
Roscoe Bruce’s father was enslaved in Mississippi before Emancipation and had been elected a United States Senator from Mississippi during Reconstruction. Mr. Bruce graduated from Harvard in 1902 before discriminatory policies like the one used to exclude his son were created. He and other members of the black community wrote to President Lowell in protest. Following World War I, the policy created such a public controversy that it was reported by the national media and alumnae and public figures weighed in on both sides. Despite the backlash, Lowell stood firm on his policy until it was reversed by Harvard’s Board of Overseers in March 1923.
Despite reversal of the policy, black Harvard students indicated that racial separation on campus continued to be enforced informally until at least the 1950s.
January 5th, 1923
Rosewood, Florida, Destroyed by Rioting White Mob
On January 1, 1923, in Sumner, Florida, Fannie Taylor, a sixteen-year-old married white woman, claimed she had been assaulted by Jesse Hunter, a black fugitive from a prison chain gang. There was no evidence against Hunter, but local white men launched a manhunt in Rosewood, a nearby town of about 200 black people. On January 2, a mob of white men kidnapped, tortured, and lynched Sam Carter, a black craftsman from Rosewood, on suspicion that he had helped Jesse Hunter escape.
White men continued to terrorize Rosewood searching for Hunter and black residents armed themselves in defense. Late on the night of January 4, a white posse fired into the home of black Rosewood resident Sylvester Carrier (whom they suspected of harboring Hunter) and killed an elderly woman. A gunfight between Carrier and the mob lasted into the early morning, killing people on both sides.
Outraged that blacks had fought back, the posse left the scene to regroup and returned with more men. On January 5, between two and three hundred white men attacked Rosewood, killing an estimated thirty to forty black men, women, and children on sight and burning the town to the ground. Black residents hid in the woods and fled by train to Gainesville, Florida, never to return. Survivors later recounted that Fannie Taylor had made false accusations against Jesse Hunter to conceal her extramarital affair with a white man.
August 24th, 1923
Black Man Lynched in Jacksonville, Florida
On August 24, 1923, a 34-year-old black farmhand Ben Hart was killed based on suspicion that he was a “Peeping Tom” who had that morning peered into a young white girl’s bedroom window near Jacksonville, Florida. According to witnesses, approximately ten unmasked men came to Hart’s home around 9:30 p.m. claiming to be deputy sheriffs and informing Hart he was accused of looking into the girl’s window. Hart professed his innocence and readily agreed to go to the county jail with the men, but did not live to complete the journey.
Shortly after midnight the next day, Hart’s handcuffed and bullet-riddled body was found in a ditch about three miles from the city. Hart had been shot six times and witnesses reported seeing him earlier that night fleeing several white men on foot who were shooting at him as several more automobiles filled with white men followed.
Police investigating Hart’s murder soon determined he was innocent of the accusation against him; he was at his home 12 miles away when the alleged peeping incident occurred.
March 20th, 1924
Virginia Passes Eugenical Sterilization Act
Eugenics, named for the Greek word meaning “well-born,” is a selective breeding philosophy that seeks to eliminate “undesirable” traits by preventing certain kinds of people from reproducing. Sir Francis Galton developed the term in 1883, and described eugenics as “the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.” As eugenics gained widespread support throughout the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, states began to authorize doctors to forcibly sterilize their patients.
Harry Laughlin, a leader in the eugenics movement, drafted a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law that Virginia adopted and enacted on March 20, 1924. The law, which allowed for the forced sterilization of people confined to state institutions as a “benefit both to themselves and society,” was passed on the same day that the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 became law. The Racial Integrity Act required the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics to record a racial description of every newborn baby, and outlawed marriages between “white” and “non-white” partners. Together, the laws sought to “purify the white race.”
When the Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s Eugenical Sterilization Act in Buck v. Bell in 1927, Virginia’s law became a model for the rest of the country and facilitated the forced sterilization of more than sixty thousand men and women nationwide. Children as young as ten years old were targeted for sterilization. Later, Virginia’s law was co-opted by Nazi Germany and relied upon as precedent for the Nazis’ race purity programs. Though eugenical theory was criticized after World War II, forced sterilization persisted long after in the United States.
May 26th, 1924
Immigration Act of 1924 Prohibits Immigration from Asia
On May 26, 1924, the United States Congress passed the eugenics-inspired Immigration Act of 1924, which completely prohibited immigration from Asia. Designed to limit all immigration to the United States, the act was particularly restrictive for Eastern and Southern Europeans and Asians. Upon signing the act into law, President Calvin Coolidge remarked, “America must remain American.”
Congress passed the first highly restrictive immigration law in 1917, requiring immigrants over age sixteen to pass literacy tests and excluding immigrants from the “Asiatic Barred Zone.” This zone included all of Asia; immigrants from China had been barred since 1882 by the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Act of 1924 eliminated immigration from Japan, violating the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which previously protected Japanese immigration.
The law also tightened the national origins quota system, meant to restrict the number of immigrants from a particular country to a percentage of the foreign-born citizens from that country already residing in the United States. The previous quota was based on population data from the 1910 census, but the 1924 Act based the quota on the 1890 census, which effectively lowered the quota numbers for non-white countries. The 1924 system also considered the national origins of the entire American population, including natural-born citizens, which increased the number of visas available to people from the British Isles and Western Europe. Finally, the 1924 Act excluded any person ineligible for citizenship, formalizing the bar on immigration from Asia based on existing laws that prohibited Asians from becoming naturalized citizens.
The act was supported by federally-funded eugenicists who argued that “social inadequates” were polluting the American gene pool and draining taxpayer resources. Its quotas remained in place until 1965.
November 21st, 1927
Supreme Court Upholds Law Banning Chinese Americans From White Schools
First adopted in 1890 following the end of Reconstruction, the Mississippi Constitution divided children into racial categories of Caucasian or “brown, yellow, and black,” and mandated racially-segregated public education. In 1924, the state law was applied to bar Martha Lum, a nine-year-old Chinese American girl, from attending Rosedale Consolidated High School in Bolivar County, Mississippi, a school for white students. Martha’s father, Gong Lum, sued the state in a lawsuit that did not challenge the constitutionality of segregated education but instead challenged his daughter’s classification as “colored.”
When the Mississippi Supreme Court held that Martha Lum could not insist on being educated with white students because she was of the “Mongolian or yellow race,” her father appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
On November 21, 1927, in Gong Lum v. Rice, the Supreme Court ruled against the Lums and upheld Mississippi’s power to force Martha Lum to attend a colored school outside the district in which she lived. Applying the “separate but equal” doctrine established in 1896's Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the Court held that the maintenance of separate schools based on race was “within the constitutional power of the state legislature to settle, without intervention of the federal courts.” The Court thus reasoned that Mississippi’s decision to bar Ms. Lum from attending the local white high school did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment because she was entitled to attend a colored school. This decision extended the reach of segregation laws and policies in Mississippi and throughout the nation by classifying all non-white individuals as “colored."
September 16th, 1928
Okeechobee Hurricane Kills Thousands of Black Farm Workers in Florida
On September 16, 1928, a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 140 miles per hour made landfall in Palm Beach County, Florida. The hurricane destroyed a levee that protected a number of small farming communities from the waters of Lake Okeechobee. Most of the residents of these low-lying communities were black migrant farm workers. When the levee was destroyed, water from Lake Okeechobee rushed into these communities, killing thousands.
After the hurricane, black survivors were forced to recover the bodies of those killed. The officials in charge of the recovery effort ordered that food would be provided only to those who worked and some who refused to work were shot. The bodies of white storm victims were buried in coffins in local cemeteries, but local officials refused to provide coffins or proper burials for black victims.
Instead, the bodies of many black victims were stacked in piles by the side of the roads doused in fuel oil, and burned. Authorities bulldozed the bodies of 674 black victims into a mass grave in West Palm Beach. The mass grave was not marked and the site was later sold for private industrial use; it later was used as a garbage dump, a slaughterhouse, and a sewage treatment plant. The city of West Palm Beach did not purchase the land until 2000. In 2008, on the 80th anniversary of the storm, a plaque and historical marker was erected at the mass grave site.
July 13th, 1929
White Mob Forces 200 Black People Out of North Platte, Nebraska
On the afternoon of Saturday, July 13, 1929, more than 200 black residents of North Platte, Nebraska, were driven out of the city by a mob of white residents who were enraged by the alleged murder of white police officer Edward Green at the hands of a black restaurant operator named Louis “Slim” Seeman.
That Friday, North Platte police told Mr. Seeman to either leave the city or pay a $100 fine for beating his live-in girlfirend. Mr. Seeman opted to leave and was placed on a westbound train but he later returned and hid in his home. When the woman he was charged with beating discovered him at the residence, she called the police.
Police officers Edward Green and George Fitzgibbons arrived at the home to search for Mr. Seeman. When Officer Green went upstairs to search, Mr. Seeman emerged with a gun and shot Officer Green as his partner ran for help. Mr. Seeman hid in his chicken hut until an angry mob of police officers and local citizens doused the hut with gasoline and set it ablaze; trapped in the fire, Mr. Seeman was shot and killed by the police or by his own hand.
As officers removed Mr. Seeman’s body, a growing mob of whites seethed outside. Interpreting Mr. Seeman’s deadly standoff as an act of revolt attributable to the entire black community, 500 angry white citizens wielding sticks and ropes demanded that local black citizens leave the city. Facing the threat of deadly violence, North Platte’s 200 black residents departed that night by foot, train, and automobile, leaving behind most of their possessions. A county sheriff later commented, “It was the understanding when they left that they were to stay away. The idea is to keep them out.”