Black History Timeline: 1920–1929

Marcus Garvey In Harlem
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

The 1920s, often called the Roaring Twenties, is synonymous with the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance. Black musicians, visual artists, and writers were able to achieve great fame and notoriety for their work during this period. Black students were establishing fraternities and sororities on college campuses, new organizations were being founded to support Black Americans in the fight for equality, Black politicians were elected, and the world of professional sports saw Black players making history.

At the same time, Black communities were ravaged by riots, subjected to racism and discrimination in every way possible, and under the near-constant threat of the highly-active Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups that felt Black Americans and White Americans could never be equal. Learn more about what Black Americans experienced, accomplished, and overcome between 1920 and 1929.

Zeta Phi Beta sorority members standing and founders sitting on a couch
Zeta Phi Beta founders surrounded by several members of the sorority in 1951.

Afro Newspaper / Gado / Getty Images

1920

January 16: Zeta Phi Beta, a Black sorority, is founded at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The sorority vows to take part in political and social change for Black and women's rights and hold members to high academic standards. The founding members are Arizona Cleaver Stemons, Pearl Anna Neal, Myrtle Tyler Faithful, Viola Tyler Goings, and Fannie Pettie Watts. These women are part of an important movement in Black history.

The New Negro Movement of the 1920s represents a new approach to the fight for civil rights. In the past, Black Americans like Booker T. Washington attempted to carve out a place for Black people in a society dominated by wealthy White Americans by making White people feel comfortable and unthreatened. Now, Black Americans confidently demand equality with protests, literature, media, and more. The NAACP is highly active during this time in lobbying for the right to vote and the end of segregation. The Ku Klux Klan is also active and growing, with as many as 8 million members estimated to have been a part of the organization, many of them in positions of political power. The Zeta Phi Beta expands in spite of racial tensions and becomes the first sorority to charter a chapter in Africa.

February 13: The Negro National Baseball League is founded by Andrew Bishop "Rube" Foster (1879–1930). Eight teams are part of the league: the Chicago Giants, the Chicago American Giants, the St. Louis Giants, the Indianapolis ABCs, the Dayton Marcos, the Kansas City Monarchs, the Detroit Stars, and the Cuban Stars. This league provides an opportunity for Black players to compete professionally, an opportunity not granted them by the White-owned and -operated Major Leagues. The league plays teams from other Black leagues as well as White non-league teams, drawing crowds of both White and Black Americans. Though Jim Crow and segregation continue to define the nation's ideas about race relations, the Negro National League is successful in bringing talented Black players to national prominence and proving that White and Black players can be equally capable.

August 18: The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified, granting women the right to vote. However, Black American women residing in Southern states are barred from voting through poll taxes, literacy tests, voter intimidation tactics including threats, and grandfather clauses. Voter disenfranchisement of Black Americans is common, but not all advocates for women's suffrage agree that Black people are equal to White people and should be able to vote, and many that do regard Black suffrage and women's suffrage as separate goals.

August 1–31: Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) holds the first international convention of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in New York City. Garvey founded this association in 1914, inspired by the teachings of Booker T. Washington in "Up From Slavery" that stressed the importance of racial solidarity and working hard to achieve independence and economic success in eventually elevating Black Americans to equal status as White Americans. The goal of the UNIA is to celebrate African American heritage; advocate for Black opportunities in education, politics, and the workplace; and promote Pan-Africanism. There are more than 5,000 members by 1922.

Ruined houses smoking with people watching from the other side of the street
Black houses and businesses lay in ruins following the devastating Tulsa Race Massacre estimated to have taken 300 lives.

Oklahoma Historical Society / Getty Images

1921

The first exhibition of Black American artists is held at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. Artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner are featured in the exhibit. By giving Black artists a platform to display their work, this event marks an important moment of the Harlem Renaissance, which spanned the 1920s. The Great Migration that began around 1916 has brought Black Americans by the thousands from the South to the North in search of equality and Harlem, with a population of nearly 175,000 Black Americans, serves as a hub for Black cultural expression.

This expression takes many forms, such as art, music, writing, and dance. Icons of the Harlem Renaissance include trumpeter Louis Armstrong, writer and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, author Zora Neale Hurston, and many others. Besides being a historical representation of Black pride and independence, this exhibit gives America an idea of what it means to be Black, for one of the first times in history outside of offensive stereotypes portrayed in media.

January 3: Jesse Binga (1856–1950) establishes Binga State Bank in Chicago. The banking institution is the largest Black-owned bank in the United States and it employs Black Americans that otherwise are not likely to work in finance due to lack of opportunity for Black people in professional careers. This bank allows Black Americans to manage their finances and pursue economic opportunities without racism playing a role in decision-making processes, as it has until now in the White-dominated personal finance sector. In 1929, the stock market crashes, which contributes to the start of the Great Depression. Hardships resulting from this as well as embezzlement allegations force the Binga State Bank to shut down in 1930.

March: "Shuffle Along," written by Noble Sissle (1889–1975) and Eubie Blake (1887–1983), debuts on Broadway. The musical is considered the first major theatrical production of the Harlem Renaissance. All cast members are Black and the musical draws large audiences and rave reviews from critics White and Black.

March: Harry Pace establishes Black Swan Phonograph Corporation in Harlem. The company is the first Black record company, a significant accomplishment for both Black business and Black expression as the label catered to Black listeners with Jazz and Blues singers. Prominent artists signed by Black Swan include Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters. The label briefly experiences great success but is forced to negotiate with White-owned labels for opportunities and finally declare bankruptcy in 1923 when larger mainstream labels dominate the competition and cause Black Swan sales to plummet.

May 31: The Tulsa Race Riot begins. Late in the day on May 31, a Black man named Dick Rowland is accused of assaulting a White woman. Between midnight and 6 a.m., a mob of armed White citizens raids a stretch of 44 blocks—occupied by Black houses and businesses—in response. When the riot ends the following day, an estimated 300 people have been killed, the vast majority of them Black. Properties and businesses have been burned to the ground and several blocks of Greenwood, a Black district referred to as "Little Africa," were destroyed. This event becomes known as the Tulsa Race Massacre.

June 14: Georgiana R. Simpson becomes the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in philology when she graduates from the University of Chicago. The next day, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander becomes the first Black woman to earn a degree in economics, hers from the University of Pennsylvania. Soon after, Eva B. Dykes graduates from Radcliffe with a Ph.D. in language studies, the first Black woman with such a degree.

James Weldon Johnson holding a telephone from the early 1900s
NAACP executive secretary James Weldon Johnson, the Black civil rights activist determined to get anti-lynching legislation through Congress in the 1920s.

Library of Congress / Getty Images

1922

The Harmon Foundation is developed to recognize the work of and support Black artists. William Elmer Harmon, a White real estate developer, was inspired to use the Harmon Foundation to recognize Black artists, business owners, educators, and others when he realized that Black artists were struggling to sell their work simply because they were Black. This foundation starts giving out awards for excellence to Black people across various industries in 1925.

January 26: The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, the first of its kind, passes the U.S. House of Representatives in part due to the efforts of the NAACP. In particular, NAACP secretary James Weldon Johnson, with the help of journalist Ida B. Wells and other outspoken civil rights activists, lobbies tirelessly for anti-lynching legislation. With the support of House representative Leonidas C. Dyer, this bill declaring lynching and mob violence a violation of 14th Amendment rights is considered by the House. The bill is passed.

Though the bill passes with 231 in favor and 119 opposed, it is blocked from reaching the Senate for a final vote by southern Democrats who filibuster to stop it from being debated. But while the Dyer Anti-Lynching bill does not become law, it gives publicity to the fight for Black civil rights.

November 12: Sigma Gamma Rho, a Black sorority, is founded in Indianapolis, Indiana, at Butler University. The seven founders are Bessie Mae Downey Rhoades Martin, Cubena McClure, Dorothy Hanley Whiteside, Mary Lou Allison Gardner Little, Hattie Mae Annette Dulin Redford, Nannie Mae Gahn Johnson, and Vivian White Marbury. All are educators committed to service and social justice.

Building with cars parked out front with a neon sign that reads "Cotton Club"
The Cotton Club in 1938 after its relocation from Harlem to Midtown.

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

1923

Dewey Gatson, who goes by Rajo Jack DeSoto, is the first Black American to participate in a professional car race, and he does so in an upgraded Model T Ford. He is picked up by Rajo Motor and Manufacturing, which is how he gets the nickname Rajo Jack. "DeSoto" is a pseudonym he uses to pass as Portuguese when registering to race, an ethnicity more readily accepted into segregated races than Black Americans.

Because he is Black, Rajo Jack is not allowed to race in events organized by the American Automobile Association until years later in 1954. But even before this, his racing draws crowds and fans. The more recognition he gets and success he achieves, the more White spectators are forced to challenge their perceptions of Black Americans and what they were capable of.

January: The National Urban League, a civil rights organization, begins publishing the magazine Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life. Edited by Charles S. Johnson, this publication becomes one of the leading forces of the Harlem Renaissance. The magazine features work by Black scholars and professionals including Eugene Kinckle Jones, Edith Sampson, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

January 1: The Rosewood Massacre occurs, an event that starts as a race riot and ends with the decimation of Rosewood, Florida, and the deaths of at least eight people, some Black and some White. On January 1 of 1923, a White woman named Fannie Taylor makes a claim that a Black man came into her home and attacked her. Believing the attacker to be a Black man named Jesse Hunter, a mob of angry White citizens assembles under the leadership of Fannie's husband, James Taylor, and Levy County Sheriff, Robert Walker, in search of him. KKK members are among those in the mob.

The armed mob makes its way through the Black community of Rosewood, threatening, beating, and killing several innocent people in their path. Rosewood is in ruins by the time the mob has been stopped several days later. Many sources now speculate that Fannie Taylor's claims that a Black man attacked her were likely a lie she told to conceal the fact that she was having an affair and her lover was the one that hurt her.

January 3: William Leo Hansberry (1894–1965), a professor at Howard University, teaches the first course on African history and civilization at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He teaches about the purported existence of civilized societies in Africa long before civilized societies existed in Greece or Rome. His work is not well received by his colleagues or the greater community of historical researchers, who doubt the validity of his claims. But despite the criticism he faces, Hansberry's work bolsters the field of Black studies and inspires many Black American scholars that would come after.

January 12: Marcus Garvey, founder of the UNIA, is arrested for mail fraud and sent to a federal prison in Atlanta. He and other officials from the UNIA are charged when accounting errors and evidence of mail fraud are revealed in the books for Black Star Line, a shipping company he founded with the UNIA in 1919 that was intended to boost the African economy. Responsible for bringing Garvey to court is J. Edgar Hoover, an F.B.I. agent that has been suspicious of Garvey due to his outspoken activism and radical civil rights efforts and tracking him for several years.

February: Bessie Smith records her first sides for Columbia Records. Her song “Down Hearted Blues” is the first record by a Black artist to sell a million copies. This record is added to the National Registry in 2002. She earns the title "Empress of the Blues" and creates a signature singing and performing style—bold and full of emotion—that many try and fail to replicate. Throughout her career, she performs with other prominent Black artists including Don Redman, Louis Armstrong, and James P. Johnson.

February 23: In the Moore v. Dempsey court case, the Supreme Court, led by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, rules that federal courts are duty-bound to review claims of mob domination of state trials in which members of the public influence the outcome of a trial through intimidation, torture, and harassment, impacting the right to a fair and complete trial. In most cases, this involves mobs of angry White Americans gathering outside of courthouses while Black people and members of minority ethnic or religious groups are on trial, often threatening violence against defendants not found guilty.

Some of the first Americans to benefit from this case are six Black men who had been convicted in an unjust Arkansas trial. These men, sharecroppers, were accused of starting a "Black uprising" when they retaliated after being attacked by a group of White Americans by killing one of their attackers. Their jury included some of the White people responsible for having them accused of an uprising in the first place. The jury deliberated for only a few minutes before declaring the men guilty, the whole time hearing the shouts of a mob promising to kill the men if they weren't put in jail. These six men are released following the Moore v. Dempsey ruling.

September: The Cotton Club opens in Harlem. This nightclub, cabaret, and speakeasy, opened by convicted murderer and gangster Owen Madden, features Black artists performing for a White audience. The club itself is decorated like a plantation and romanticizes the institution of slavery and African culture. The stage where Black musicians and dancers perform is painted like quarters for enslaved people and the opportunity to experience "authentic Black entertainment," as Madden advertises, draws great crowds of wealthy White Harlemites. Some performers are turned away because their skin is too dark and Black Americans are generally not allowed in the audience.

Many famous Black artists and entertainers perform at the Cotton Club, including Duke Ellington, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sammy Davis Jr. Langston Hughes criticizes this establishment for taking advantage of Black Americans, drawing customers away from Black-owned clubs, and promoting racism with the use of segregation and harmful stereotypes against Black people.

November 20: Garrett T. Morgan patents the caution light, also known as the three-position traffic signal. Like many Black entrepreneurs and business owners including Elijah McCoy and Henry Boyd, Morgan's career is never without racism and discrimination. Because he is Black and consumers are less likely to purchase goods created by Black inventors, he goes to great lengths in order to conceal his identity and achieve success throughout his career. Morgan uses disguises and fake personas, sponsorships by other companies, and publicity surrogates to sell his inventions in a society that applies heavy racial bias to purchasing decisions. He often goes by "Big Chief Mason," an Indigenous person, and wears a costume when advertising his products.

Morgan sold his traffic signal design to General Electric for $40,000. He also invented the gas mask or safety hood used by firefighters and started The Cleveland Call, a Black daily newspaper.

James Van Der See wearing glasses and a suit smiling slightly
Photographer James Van Der Zee on the other side of the camera.

Nancy R. Schiff / Getty Images

1924

James Van Der Zee (1886–1983) begins his career as a photographer. He is one of the first mainstream photographers to regularly capture Black Americans, including famous musicians and performers as well as families. He is commissioned by Marcus Garvey to photograph UNIA events.

The National Bar Association, originally called the "Negro Bar Association," is founded by Black attorneys in Des Moines, Iowa. The civil rights movement in Greenville, South Carolina, and the Iowa Colored Bar Association inspire its inception. It is incorporated in 1925. Among the founders are George H. Woodson, Gertrude E. Rush (the only woman to co-found the association), and William Harold Flowers. According to the association's website, the National Bar is the world's largest national network of predominantly Black attorneys and judges.

Ku Klux Klan members in hoods and robes walking down the street with the U.S. Capitol Building visible on the horizon
Ku Klux Klan members wearing full hoods and robes march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in August of 1925.

Bettmann / Getty Images

1925

Alain Locke (1885–1954) publishes The New Negro, an anthology featuring Black writers and visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

Clifton Reginald Wharton (1899–1990) becomes the first Black Foreign Service officer (and the only one in the next 20 years) and later, in 1961, the first Black Foreign Service officer to become an Ambassador. In 1958, he is appointed Minister of Romania by President Eisenhower, which makes him the first Black U.S. diplomat in Europe.

August 8: 30,000 unmasked Ku Klux Klanspeople march on Washington, D.C. This is thought to be the largest the Ku Klux Klan has ever been. The white supremacists march down Pennsylvania Avenue for three hours until they reach the Washington Monument. The Klan has been active in enforcing discriminatory policies and practices that advantage White people, lobbying for the election of racist politicians, and carrying out vigilante violence against Black Americans and members of minority groups as they see fit throughout the country following the Civil War. Some Americans regard their terrorist activity as patriotic.

August 25: Asa Philip Randolph establishes the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids. This trade union aims to help Black railroad porters and maids working for the Pullman Palace Car Company obtain fair treatment, including better pay, hours, and opportunities for promotion. This is the first successful Black trade union in history. The union signs its first contract with Pullman in 1937 and in 1941 persuades President Roosevelt to ban the practice of employment discrimination on the basis of race in the war industry, which he did via Executive Order 8802. In 1960, Randolph founds the Negro American Labor Council. He and his organizations are avid supporters of Martin Luther King, Jr.

October: The American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC), a communist-based organization, is developed by Lovett Fort-Whiteman to promote racial unity and help Black laborers fight racism and discrimination. Like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, this union is intended to advocate for Black workers that are not afforded the same opportunities and considerations as their White counterparts. However, the ANLC is mostly unsuccessful because it serves a Communist agenda and many Black Americans do not feel this party aligns with their interests. Both Asa Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Marcus Garvey of the United Negro Improvement Association are outspokenly opposed to the ANLC.

Dr. Mordecai Johnson wears graduation robe and cap while walking with President
Dr. Mordecai Johnson, the first Black president of Howard University, wears graduation attire and walks with President Hoover.

Bettmann / Getty Images

1926

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg sells his collection of books and artifacts to the Carnegie Corporation. The collection becomes part of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.

Alfred Knopf publishes The Weary Blues, the first volume of poetry by 24-year-old Langston Hughes. Hughes is regarded as one of the world's greatest Black writers.

February 7: Negro History Week is celebrated for the first time. It was developed by historian Carter G. Woodson to raise awareness for Black accomplishments throughout history and encourage Black pride. Woodson chose the week of February 7 because it contains the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, two figures inseparable from Black history.

Since 1976, what was once known as Negro History Week is known as Black History Month, a holiday declared as a national observance by President Ford. Throughout the month of February, Americans celebrate the contributions Black people have made to society and honor Black culture with speeches, media, rallies, and more.

June 26: Dr. Mordecai Johnson is the first Black president of Howard University. This milestone comes 59 years after the institution was founded. He appoints many Black scholars and leaders, including Rhodes Scholar Alain Locke and poet Sterling Brown, to professorships. The institution becomes known as the historically Black university it is today.

Harlem Globetrotter team members surrounding coach and owner Abe Saperstein
The 1964 Harlem Globetrotters team surrounds coach and owner Abe Saperstein.

PhotoQuest / Getty Images

1927

January 7: The Harlem Globetrotters basketball team plays its first game. This team was established the previous year in Chicago by Abe Saperstein, a Jewish booking agent and basketball coach, and is called the Harlem Globetrotters despite not being Harlem-based to represent the fact that the team is all Black (Harlem has the largest Black population in the country). Some view the existence of an all-Black team as progress in the fight for racial equality and a symbol of unification while others see the team as little more than a publicity stunt that uses offensive Black stereotypes to entertain White spectators. In addition to being skilled athletes, the Harlem Globetrotters are entertainers that incorporate theatrics and comedy into every game to capture the audience's attention, at the suggestion of their coach.

The team members are subjected to racism everywhere they go, often denied access to facilities because they are Black, barred from playing White teams, and ridiculed by basketball fans that do not believe Black Americans should be allowed to participate in professional sports. Still, the Harlem Globetrotters are used by the U.S. State Department to give the impression of positive race relations in America. And despite hostility at every turn, the Harlem Globetrotters gain popularity. However, racism is still at play. The team is paid very poorly compared to White professional teams—including Saperstein's other teams—and Saperstein books as many games as possible to make more money and gain more traction, the team often playing every night.

October 2: Journalist Floyd Joseph Calvin becomes the host of the first Black journalism radio show. Calvin, who is Black himself, begins broadcasting from WGBS in Pittsburgh about influential Black Americans and topics in Black history. Some of his most important and groundbreaking segments include "Some Notable Colored Men," "The Negro in Art," and "Negro Journalism." Calvin and his show help usher in a new era of journalism in which Black Americans are portrayed in a more positive light as people with aspirations, families, and careers. Until now, journalism has been racist against Black Americans and portrayed them as uneducated, unimportant, and dangerous through sensational journalism tactics and scandal-mongering. His show also exposes racial injustices. 

December 2: Marcus Garvey is released from jail and deported from the United States to Jamaica following his arrest for mail fraud.

Oscar Stanton De Priest sitting at his desk with his hand on his chair
Republican Congressperson Oscar Stanton De Priest pictured working at his desk in 1930.

Keystone / Getty Images

1928

August 5: Atlanta World, a Black daily newspaper, is founded by William Alexander Scott II in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1932, Scott re-brands the newspaper as Atlanta Daily World and the publication becomes the first successful Black daily newspaper in the United States (as well as the first in the 1900s). Being based in the South and active during the civil rights movement, this paper becomes an important force for change. However, rather than take a firm stance on polarizing subjects such as racism and segregation, the Atlanta Daily World reports mostly objectively on issues within the Black community including police brutality, segregation in schools, and lynchings. By remaining somewhat neutral and taking a moderate Republican stance on topics in politics, the newspaper gains supporters even in Jim Crow Georgia and grows into one of the most successful Black-owned businesses in the country.

Scott is shot and killed in 1934, his murderer never convicted. Ownership of the newspaper is transferred to William Alexander Scott II's brother, Cornelius Adolphus Scott.

November 6: Oscar De Priest is the first Black American to represent a northern, urban district when he is elected to Congress representing the South Side of Chicago. He is the first Black American elected to Congress in the 20th century and the first Black Congressperson from the North. De Priest was born to formerly enslaved Black parents and as a child moved from Mississippi to Kansas, his family in search of freedom from oppression as Black Americans in the Jim Crow South. He moved to Chicago in 1889. As a Black member of Congress, De Priest is able to represent the interests of Black Americans in a large city with a Black population that is on the rise, as is the case in many large northern cities at this time.

De Priest's election brings the topics of segregation and racial equality to the forefront of politics. For example, when his wife, Jessie De Priest, is invited to a tea party hosted by First Lady Lou Hoover, the Hoover administration comes under fire from southern Democrats, both members of the public and politicians, for not preserving the "racial integrity of the white race." Throughout his three-term tenure, De Priest becomes a symbol for Black civil rights and advocate for Black Americans. He successfully adds anti-discrimination measures to the bill that launched the Conservation Civilian Corps in 1933.

Fats Waller leaning against a piano and smiling, wearing a hat and vest
Jazz pianist Fats Waller.

Bettmann / Getty Images

1929

June 20: The influential Fats Waller's (real name Thomas Wright Waller) song "Ain’t Misbehavin'" is part of a musical, "Hot Chocolates," that debuts on Broadway. Louis Armstrong plays in the pit orchestra and is featured on the song nightly.

Additional References

  • Anderson, Sarah A. “‘The Place to Go’: The 135th Street Branch Library and the Harlem Renaissance.The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 73.4 (2003). 383–421. 
  • Schneider, Mark Robert. "African Americans in the Jazz Age: A Decade of Struggle and Promise." Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006
  • Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene (ed.). "A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance." Malden, MA: John Wiley and Sons, 2015.
  • Smith, Jessie Carney. "Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events." Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2012
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Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1920–1929." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1920-1929-45440. Lewis, Femi. (2021, July 29). Black History Timeline: 1920–1929. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1920-1929-45440 Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1920–1929." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1920-1929-45440 (accessed August 1, 2021).