Skip to main content

Urbanization And The Negro: 1933

Urbanization And The Negro


By: James H. Hubert, Executive Secretary, New York Urban League

A Presentation at the Sixtieth Annual Session of thee National Conference Of Social Work [Formerly National Conference Of Charities And Correction] Held In Detroit, Michigan June 11-17, 1933James Henry Hubert, Executive Director, New York Urban League[View Image]
[View Image]
James Henry Hubert, Executive Director, New York Urban League

THE trend of various population elements in the United States toward urban centers provides an interesting study. In 191o we were but 45.8 urban. By 1920 we had reached 51.5 per cent. In the South the trend of Negro population was coincident with and in the same direction as the cotton development, from the east to the southwest, continuing even after emancipation and up until the World War. For one hundred and thirty years the centers of population moved southwest until early in the present century. From 1910 to 1920 the trend changed abruptly and moved toward the northwest.

The peonage system, the boll weevil, introduction of farm machinery, mob violence, and desire for better educational opportunities have all had tremendous influence. For example, recent studies showed that in eight southern states the annual expenditure for education per colored child was $12.50 against $44.31 for each white child-in Georgia, $6.39 for Negroes, $35.42 for whites; in Mississippi, $5.45 for Negroes, $45.34 for whites. Booker Washington once referred to this disparity by saying he thought it too high a compliment to pay to the intelligence of the Negro child to expect it to do as much on $1.00 as the white child did on $10.00.

The tide of Negro migration northward and city ward is not fully explained by the demands of war industry and the shutting-off of foreign immigration. It is explained primarily in terms of a new vision of opportunity, of social and economic freedom, a determined effort to seize, in the face of overwhelming odds, a new lease on life-in spite of the extortionate toll made by overcrowding, disease, and exploitations. It was one last stand in his fight for a chance to improve his condition. It is a fact worthy of note that in spite of this contribution to America in music and art, in the cultivation of rice, cotton, and tobacco, the Negro has had scarcely a pittance of the tremendous growth and prosperity achieved by America since emancipation.

Urbanization offered the Negro his one big chance to diversify his occupations. Of the 320 occupations listed in the I920 census for New York City, Negroes were in 316 of them. While the Negro population increased from 7,500,000 to nearly 12,000,000 from 1890 to 1930, a gain of 58 per cent, the number gainfully employed showed a much greater increase – from 3,000,000 to 5,500,000, an increase of 79 per cent.

There was a marked increase in professional service. The number of janitors increased from 5,945 in 1890 to 78,415 in 1930-an increase of 72,470, or 1,200 per cent. Elevator tenders jumped from 4,999 in 1910 to 16,889 in 1930; cleaners, dyers, and pressers from 3,744 to 15,773.

The number of southern counties in which Negro population exceeded the white dropped from 300 in 1880 to 187 in 1930. Up to 1910 there was no city with a Negro population equaling 100,000. Only two-New York and Philadelphia-had a Negro population of over 50,000. Of the 7,500,000 Negroes in the United States in 1890, less than 1,500,000 were living in centers classified as urban. Today there are over 5,000,000.

It is a significant fact that while there was a distinct loss in both Negro and white rural farm population during the past decade, the land operated by Negroes decreased by 31,835,050 acres, approximately 5,992 square miles (an area slightly larger than the combined land areas of Connecticut and Rhode Island), between 1920 and 1930. At the same time there was a very substantial increase of 34,743,840 acres, or approximately 54,287 square miles for white farm operators.

From 1910 to 1930 there was an actual decrease in rural Negro population of 239,308, or 3.4 per cent; and from 1920 to 1930, 206,408, or 3 per cent. The 1890 census showed 55.8 per cent of gainfully employed Negroes engaged in agriculture, 31per cent in domestic and personal service, while all other occupations accounted for only 13 per cent. By 1930 “all other occupations” had increased to 34.75 per cent.

Urbanization on a large scale is comparatively new among Negroes. Up to 1900, 77 per cent of Negroes were rural dwellers. Since 1910, they have been making up for lost time. The indications are that well before I940 Negroes will have passed native whites of native parents in their degree of urbanization. In spite of the fact that many of the forces pulling the Negroes to cities during the last two decades have diminished in intensity, the drift has continued. Attempts to arouse interest in the “back-to-the-farm movement” have generally fallen on deaf ears. The story is told of a labor agent from the South who went to Chicago some years ago to recruit workers in lumber mills. He was asked, “Mister, where did you say them logs is?” When told “Mississippi,” his reply was, “If you’ll bring them up here we’ll saw them for you.” The Negro in the North was predominantly urban before the opening of the present century. In 1920 he was 70 per cent urban in sharp contrast to native whites, who were only 38.6 per cent.

The movement was primarily to the four centers-New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit. The small numbers of Negroes settling in the West is deserving of study. Whatever influence Horace Greeley may have exerted on the Negro question before and during the Civil War, his advice to young men to go west has apparently not been taken seriously by the Negro of the present generation. For in I930 there were only 130,000 Negroes in the entire western area. In about fifteen years Detroit’s Negro population jumped from 6,000 to over 100,000. New York City rose from 150,000 in I920 to 327,000 in I930 -an increase of 15 per cent against a 20 per cent increase for its white population.

What has been the effect of this new, unassimilated group on the community life? Everywhere this concentration of Negroes in segregated colonies has been followed by an aggravation of social problems.

According to the White House Conference on Child Health, tuberculosis among Negro children under five years of age is double that of white children; for those between the ages of five and nine, it is four times as great; and from ten to nineteen years of age, it is five times that of whites.

In Chicago, Negro girls and young women have constituted nearly one-third of females confined in the jails. The Department of Correction of New York reported for 1930 that of 59,000 males arraigned in the four courts, 16,39I, or about 28 per cent, were Negroes-five times as great as the population should warrant. One would think that Negroes are especially fond of going to jail. According to studies made by the National Urban League, unemployment runs all the way from four to six times that of the city as a whole. In juvenile delinquency, crime, disease, and the other ills that so vitally affect family life, the story is generally the same. Harlem is referred to in a report of the New York Vice Committee as a place where whites go on a moral vacation.

The causes are not far to seek. A study of 4,000 Negro families of Harlem in 1920 revealed that one-half the income of the heads of these families ($102 per month average) was expended for rent. To supplement this income, over 80 per cent of mothers worked away from home; 65 per cent resorted to taking in of lodgers1

Restriction to definite areas and denial of opportunities to work at the more remunerative jobs were the main contributing factors. A study just completed by the New York Building Congress divides Manhattan into four rental zones. Although the majority of the Negro population falls within the lowest income group, 75 per cent of them live in the fifty- to one-hundred-dollar-per-month rental zone-the third highest rental section for the city.

It is a significant fact that the coming of Negroes has not disturbed, but aided, the natural evolution of the city, as they have usually taken over declining areas, houses abandoned as undesirable in the general forward movement of whites to other sections and supplying tenants for houses that would otherwise remain unoccupied. Strange as it may seem, these newcomers have been compelled to pay from 1o to 40 per cent more for these houses than was paid by white tenants who preceded them. In Chicago, Negro tenants paid from $8.00 to $20.00 for the same room for which white tenants formerly paid $4.00 to $5.00. In New York, Negroes were found paying, in some instances, $110.00 per month for the same apartments for which whites had previously paid $55.00. Similar conditions were found in Philadelphia and Buffalo. According to Woofter in Negro Problems in Cities, foreign-speech people have usually occupied the building before they are turned over to Negroes

The mobility of the urbanized Negro within the city is also greater than that of whites. It is estimated that the average Negro tenant in New York moves once every fifteen months, while the average white family moves only once in five years. It is rather remarkable, however, that the mobility of Negro farmers is less than that of white farmers. The 1925 census studies show a ratio of 1o to 7 in favor of the Negro. A study of 93 selected counties, by C. O. Brannen, show that 53 per cent of white tenants kept their farms less than two years, as compared with 39 per cent of Negroes.

A study of census tracts by the President’s Research Commission on recent social trends shows a pronounced tendency for immigrants to abandon their colonies and disperse among the general population. Negro colonies, on the contrary, show a different history. Instead of scattering, they tend to become more compact and racially more homogeneous. The report says:

As immigrants have poured in from foreign countries and Negroes have migrated from the rural South the newcomers have formed colonies within the cities where they have maintained, as far as possible, their traditional ways of living. Now that immigration has receded almost to the zero point, the question arises as to what will happen to the older immigrant districts found in almost every city. Not enough time has elapsed since immigration slackened to give a final answer to this question. A study of census tract statistics, in the few cities for which data are available for successive period, indicates, however, a pronounced tendency for immigrants to abandon their colonies and disperse among the general population….. As the immigrant moves up the economic ladder, he moves out toward the periphery of the community.

With two million whites deserting cities for farms in I932, very few Negroes left the city for farms.

What effect is this merging of foreign population groups to have on the focus of welfare efforts? In the period of recovery these Negro communities are entitled to a larger share of the social engineer’s efforts. Should not settlement houses consider moving to Negro sections rather than carrying on, out of traditional interest, even after the need has passed? In a large city a head worker recommended moving to a congested Negro area that in the last ten years has become recognized as a delinquency “hot spot.” But the Board of Directors flatly refused to accede to these recommendations on the ground that their settlement-house program was not designed for Negroes.

Instead of facing the question courageously, some welfare agencies are either dodging it entirely or exploiting the Negro for furtherance of other projects. There have been instances where the Negro district with its high death-rate and its slum areas was played up as the sore spot-used as a sob story to secure funds only to be forgotten when those funds were administered.

Strange as it may seem, the Negro has fared much better at the hand of municipal governments than private industry or welfare agencies supported by private philanthropy. He has bartered votes for jobs. In New York it was for public schoolteachers (nearly one thousand), policemen, executive and supervisory jobs in the Department of Public Welfare, and even a civil service commissioner.

Lest these Negro districts might become too powerful through concentration of Negro votes, however, they have been split up. In New York and Detroit the Negro sections were redistricted so as to guard against the Negro having a majority of the voting strength in any congressional district. But for this there would probably be cities other than Chicago sending Negroes to Congress.

Can the Negro survive as a city dweller? Many students of urbanization forecast the ultimate breaking-up of cities. Improved transportation, labor-saving machinery, and other facilities that tend to make life in the country more livable may point to the early decentralization of the American city. Sorokin and Zimmerman in Systematic Source Book in Rural Sociology have pointed out that “catastrophes such as revolutions and financial depressions have generally led to disurbanization. From 1917 to 1920 Moscow decreased from 2,017,000 to 1,028,000; Petrograd from 2,420,000 to 1,469,000.” They predict:

 The wheel of Destiny rolls on to its end; the birth of the City entails its death. Beginning and end, a peasant cottage and a tenement block are related to one another as soul and intellect, as blood and stone. But “Time” is no abstract phase, but a name for the actuality of Irreversibility. Here there is only forward, never back. Long, long ago the country bore the country town and nourished it with her best blood. Now the giant city sucks the country dry, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men till it wearies and dies in the midst of an almost uninhabited waste of country. Once the full sinful beauty of this last marvel of all history has captured a victim, it never lets him go. Primitive folk can loose themselves from the soil and wander, but the intellectual nomad never…. He would sooner die upon the pavement than go “back” to the land.

Many students of the race problem in America have looked to urbanization and northern migration as one possible solution. But in deserting the country for the city, the Negro appears to have merely jumped from the frying pan into the fire.

Education has served to make Negro youth more discontent in the army of the unemployed. Urbanization has accentuated the growing conviction that, regardless of efforts, the Negro finds it increasingly difficult to “make it on the level”; that he cannot beat the color line; that the barrier of race has condemned him to the lower level of life. Is it then any wonder that he responds to the call of class consciousness and revolution?

The curriculum of state educational institutions, built primarily to serve the needs of the rural population, has contained little of help for the farmer. Rather has it emphasized, unconsciously, the city as a place of refuge and salvation, draining the country of its best minds. Generally lacking in a program of vocational guidance, these institutions have influenced their graduates to set their compass for those centers that seem to offer the easiest route to financial and social success. Meanwhile, the farmer was left to fight the brave and hopeless battle without the aid of leaders trained in scientific agriculture.

No plan for recovery can be complete without recognition of the social problems that have grown up around these Negro urban communities. Any way out for the Negro is destined to fail unless it includes a program for making farm life more satisfying, and a workable system for supplying information, direction, and assistance with a view to influencing population trends instead of the present “hit-or-miss” drift now feeding the city slums.

Source: Proceedings Of The National Conference Of Social Work for the Sixtieth Annual Session Held In Detroit, Michigan June 11-17, 1933. pp. 418-425.



View graphic versionView graphic version