Black History Timeline: 1930–1939

U.S. sprinter Jesse Owens running ahead of two other runners
U.S. sprinter Jesse Owens taking home the win for America in the 200 meter dash at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Imagno / Getty Images

In the midst of the Great Depression and Jim Crow laws throughout the 1930s, Black Americans continue to make great strides in the areas of sports, education, visual artistry, and music. This decade sees many revolutionary books and novels published and the formation of several key Black organizations and institutions.

Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad speaking and wearing an embroidered hat
Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

1930

April 7: One of the first art galleries to feature Black art opens to the public at Howard University. Founded by James V. Herring, a Black American, the Howard University Gallery of Art is the first of its kind and its first exhibition is so successful that a permanent collection is created. Since establishing the university's art department in 1928, Herring has been directing the department's artistic vision and using it to give Black art a platform ever since. Herring has a say in all work that is showcased and a hand in the careers of many up-and-coming Black artists that come through Howard University, including Alma Thomas and David Driskell. Herring is a proponent of breaking down racial boundaries within art rather than showcasing only Black art, and so features the work of Black and non-Black artists together in his galleries. He feels that keeping Black and White art separate only adds to the narrative that Black art is not equal to White art and that similarities should be celebrated.

July 4: The Black Islamic movement known as the Nation of Islam (NOI) is established in Detroit, Michigan, by Wallace Fard Muhammad. Within four years, Elijah Muhammad takes control of the religious movement after Wallace Fard Muhammad's retirement, relocating its headquarters to Chicago. The goal of this radical Black religious group is to improve the lives of Black Americans by helping them achieve independence, peace, and unity with one another. A few years after it is founded, the NOI acquires many followers. But because the group supports Black nationalist ideas including the separation of Black people from the rest of society and promotes anti-semitic and anti-White ideologies, this group also gains many critics, including Black Americans who see this movement as detrimental to the civil rights movement.

All nine Scottsboro Boys standing together
The nine Scottsboro Boys stand together after being falsely accused of raping Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. From left to right: Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Andy Wright, Willie Roberson, Ozie Powell, Eugene Williams, Charlie Weems, Roy Wright, and Haywood Patterson. Bettmann / Getty Images

1931

Walter White as NAACP Secretary: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) hires Walter White as its executive secretary. With White in this role, the organization becomes more effective at exposing and reducing racial discrimination. He implements more aggressive campaign tactics including protesting and lobbying politicians and other elite Americans, strategies that make the organization more powerful than ever before. White also succeeds in fundraising for the NAACP, heading legal campaigns, and supports many Black artists during the Harlem Renaissance.

Important to White's success is the fact that he is a Black man whose lighter skin causes him to often be mistaken for White. He uses this to his advantage to get close to powerful White people and investigate cases of violence against Black people such as lynchings and riots. He exposes information about over eight race riots and 40 lynchings acquired in these investigations and brings these injustices against Black people to the public.

Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American": Symphony composer William Grant Still becomes the first Black American to have his music performed by a major orchestra. His piece, "Symphony No. 1 'Afro-American,'" is composed in 1930, performed by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931, and four years later performed by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. The symphony features elements of jazz and the blues and is likened to a Black spiritual. Still's music celebrates Black culture and portrays the trials and tribulations Black Americans have faced over centuries, including enslavement and discrimination.

March 25: In March, nine Black young men—one of whom is only 13 years old and the oldest 20—are accused of raping two White women in Scottsboro, Alabama. They come to be known as the Scottsboro boys. The boys are found riding the train illegally and taken into custody by the police, who convince two White women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, to claim that the boys had raped them. The young women make the false claims likely because they do not want it revealed that they too were riding the train illegally, but Price is a much more willing witness than Bates, who says very little throughout the trial. The nine Black youths are Andrew Wright, Leroy Wright, Charlie Weems, Clarence Norris, Eugene Williams, Haywood Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Ozie Powell, and Willie Roberson. Their case begins on April 6 and they are quickly convicted of the crimes and sentenced to death; Leroy Wright, the youngest, to prison for life. Samuel Leibowitz is their defense attorney, and he works for no pay.

The case of the Scottsboro Boys quickly receives national attention, thanks to the efforts of various organizations and protesters fighting for their freedom. The NAACP and American Communist Party, particularly the International Labor Defense, come together to form the Scottsboro Defense Committee. This committee ensures that the case is kept as public as possible and that America understands racism is at play. In 1933, Bates testifies that she and Price had never been raped and she joins the fight to free the boys. In 1937, four of the boys are released. Over the next several years, the remaining five are paroled or escape from prison.

Sculptor Augusta Savage looking at two of her small sculptures
Sculptor Augusta Savage admiring two of her sculptures.

Bettmann / Getty Images

1932

Tuskegee Study: A 40-year study begins in Tuskegee, Alabama, testing the impact of syphilis on 600 Black men. Three hundred ninety-nine of the men have syphilis and 201 do not. The "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male" or the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is established through the U.S. Public Health Service in partnership with Tuskegee University. The men are never informed that they have the disease or told the true purpose of the study, which is not to help them but to examine the effects of late-stage syphilis that is left untreated. Because the participants are misled about the goal of the experiment and lied to about their treatment, the study, carried out without their informed consent, is one of the most egregiously unethical experiments ever conducted. The study goes on for 40 years.

The participants are told they are being treated for "bad blood" and compensated for their participation with free food and medical exams, but none receive proper treatment for their syphilis, even when penicillin is discovered to be highly effective at treating the disease. Only placebos and methods already known to be ineffective and/or toxic are administered, as well as non-therapeutic diagnostic procedures, such as spinal taps, which the clinicians call treatments to get the patients to agree to them. The clinicians are aware of the dangers of untreated syphilis infections, which include cardiac complications and paralysis among many other things, a few years into the experiment, yet they continue the experiment. This study comes to represent the widespread problem of racism in the medical field and causes many Black Americans to mistrust the intentions of medical professionals. When the experiment is finally terminated in 1972, most of the participants have transmitted syphilis to their partners and passed it down to their children and many have died from health issues related to their untreated syphilis.

"Take My Hand, Precious Lord": Thomas Dorsey, known as the "father of African-American gospel music," writes "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." His work joins gospel and blues music, two genres notable in Black culture, and becomes a leading influence in the fledgling genre of gospel blues. He also impacts the way gospel music is performed, encouraging choir members to move their bodies and dance while performing and interpret musical compositions loosely.

Los Angeles Sentinel: Leon H. Washington publishes Sentinel in Los Angeles. This weekly Black newspaper is the largest Black-owned newspaper in the country and one of the oldest Black publications as well.

Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts: Sculptor Augusta Savage opens the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts out of Harlem, New York. This is the largest art center in the United States. Savage becomes the first Black woman to join the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. Her work pays tribute to Black Americans—some artists and musicians, some politicians and leaders, and others common people—and depicts them authentically and with great detail. Over the course of her career, Savage sculpts busts of both Marcus Garvey, Black nationalist and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and W.E.B. DuBois, a writer and civil rights activist. One of Savage's most famous sculptures, Gamin, depicts a Black boy, her nephew, with realistic features, a relatively atypical practice both in style and subject. Black children see her sculpture and appreciate finally seeing art that looks like them.

James Weldon Johnson with a serious expression on his face
NAACP secretary and writer James Weldon Johnson.

Donaldson Collection / Getty Images

1933

Along This Way: James Weldon Johnson publishes his autobiography, "Along This Way." Johnson, a writer and activist his whole life and the executive secretary of the NAACP from 1920 to 1930, writes about his experiences as a Black American and the discrimination he has faced because of this in his personal life and career. After retiring from the NAACP, Johnson becomes a professor at Fisk University in 1932 and the first Black professor at New York University in 1934. Other published works by Johnson include "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man," "God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse," "Fifty Years and Other Poems," and "Book of American Negro Poetry." Johnson joins prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance including Zora Neale Hurston, Louis Armstrong, and Langston Hughes and comes to represent Black intellectualism.

Mis-education of the Negro: Historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson publishes "Mis-education of the Negro." Dr. Woodson, an educator since 1903, feels passionate about bettering the country's education system for Black Americans. This book details everything that he sees wrong with the way the American education system educates, or "mis-educates," Black students. In particular, he criticizes the way that schools fail Black students by not taking their environments and experiences as Black Americans into account when teaching them. This approach, Dr. Woodson argues, is a disservice to Black students because it discourages them from embracing their culture and history and conditions them to feel as though the only way to succeed is to be more like White people and do as they are told. Dr. Woodson's book provides valuable insight into the ways that the nation could improve its treatment of Black Americans and Black activists get to work lobbying for more inclusive and effective educational practices. Dr. Woodson's other books, many of which discuss topics presented in "Mis-education of the Negro," include "The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861" and "The Negro in Our History."

Zora Neale Hurston wearing a hat and smiling
Harlem Renaissance author and playwright Zora Neale Hurston.

Historical / Getty Images

1934

Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois Leaves the NAACP: Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois resigns from the NAACP. He has served as the organization's director of publicity and research and as a member of the board of directors from 1910 to 1934. Dr. Du Bois, who helped to found the NAACP, also runs the organization's monthly publication, The Crisis. He makes the decision to leave the NAACP when his increased interest in marxism, African nationalism, and more radical approaches to fighting racism no longer align with the organization's desire to achieve equality for Black Americans through advocacy and legislative advancements.

'Jonah's Gourd Vine': Anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston publishes her first novel, "Jonah's Gourd Vine." Hurston is inseparable from the Harlem Renaissance and she earns much praise and backlash for her work, which defies societal norms. She writes almost exclusively about Black Americans, and she does so without concealing aspects of their identities or the struggles they face. "Jonah's Gourd Vine" is the first of many novels she would write and it tells the story of a young Black couple. This novel incorporates elements of southern Black culture such as hoodoo practices and Hurston writes realistically about living as a Black American in a community dominated by racism. She writes in Black Vernacular English and her willingness to portray Black Americans genuinely is unprecedented and pushes boundaries set by writers before her. Her novels and plays, with their use of folklore and Black cultural themes, contribute in a small way to a greater acceptance of Black Americans in society by White people.

Members of the National Council of Negro Women including founder Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune
Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune (front, center) and members of the National Council of Negro Women.

Afro Newspaper / Gado / Getty Images

1935

Count Basie Orchestra: Pianist Count Basie establishes the Count Basie Orchestra, which becomes one of the most popular bands of the Swing Era. Basie and his group come to define big band sound and popularize the jazz genre. He records with other prominent Black musicians including Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald.

February–April: The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Norris v. Alabama that a defendant has the right to a trial by a jury of their peers. This ruling overturns the Scottsboro Boys' early conviction, which was handed down by an all-White jury. Upon investigation, the court discovers that Black Americans have never been made jurors in the county where the trials took place and finds the deliberate exclusion of qualified candidates on the basis of race to be unconstitutional. This ruling not only affects the outcome of the Scottsboro case by reversing the ruling made by the original jury but also impacts America's judicial system by forcing officials to consider the importance of diversity and inclusion in the U.S. court system.

July: The Southern Tenant Farmer's Union (STFU) is established by the Socialist Party to assist southern sharecroppers in fighting for better wages and working conditions. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers are being exploited by landowners and planters and cheated out of fair wages, sometimes even evicted for little to no reason. The union is formed by 11 White and seven Black men who feel that they are similarly disadvantaged as farmers. The STFU is one of the first unions to be fully integrated, and it is this fact as well as the organization's socialist ties that garner negative attention. Many attacks occur during union meetings, some race-based and others based on fear of the communist party. Women are allowed to attend some meetings, which also makes this union stand out.

December 5: Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune establishes the National Council of Negro Women, calling more than 28 leaders of national women's organizations together. This is the first national council comprised of Black women's organizations. As Black women accustomed to facing discrimination and being excluded from politics, members of this council come together to advocate for themselves and achieve equality in a society that disadvantages them both for the color of their skin and their gender. Dr. Bethune chooses Washington, D.C., for the council's headquarters. Coretta Scott King is one of the members. The group sponsors efforts intended to equip Black Americans with knowledge about how to better their quality of life and lobbies politicians for everything from diversity in the White House to the abolishment of poll taxes designed to disenfranchise Black voters.

Judge William H. Hastie sits at his desk and works
Judge for the U.S. Virgin Islands William H. Hastie works at his desk.

Bettmann / Getty Images

1936

Division of Negro Affairs: Dr. Bethune is appointed Director of the Division of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration. She is the first Black woman to receive a presidential appointment and is the highest-ranking Black woman in an administrative position in President Theodore Roosevelt's administration. This branch partners with universities, politicians, and business owners to help prepare Black women for the workforce. Thousands of Black girls and young women participate in programs Bethune organizes, earning money during their job training and bettering their communities by supporting essential industries like healthcare and education. An estimated 300,000 Black young women come through this program.

Syphilis and Its Treatment: Dr. William Augustus Hinton becomes the first Black American to publish a textbook when he writes Syphilis and Its Treatment. In 1929, Hinton developed a blood test for diagnosing syphilis that was determined to be superior to existing tests—including Wassermann and Sigma—because it provided more accurate results and was easier to administer. This book discusses Hinton's findings after years of researching syphilis. Hinton's work has a profound impact on the field of medicine and his textbook gains the respect of many medical professionals and scholars. In this way, he helps to prove the capabilities of Black Americans. However, not all members of the scientific community recognize his accomplishments or take him seriously as a professional because he is Black, and Hinton strives to overcome the trials presented by his race throughout his career.

First Black Federal Judge: William H. Hastie is appointed by President Roosevelt as the first Black federal judge. Hastie serves on the federal bench in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Roosevelt's decision to appoint a Black judge is driven by his desire to replicate the success of Black judiciaries appointed by the British to the West Indies. He feels that appointing a Black person to a judicial office in the Virgin Islands, where the population is predominantly Black, will prove beneficial to constituents. Hastie is a judge here until 1939.

August: Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. His achievement thwarts Adolf Hitler's plan to use the Olympics to demonstrate "Aryan Supremacy" to the world. When Owens, a Black man, wins, he proves that Black people are capable of standing up to White athletes. Many feel that his participation in the Olympics this year was dangerous under Hitler's leadership, and NAACP director Walter White urged Owens not to participate. Owens, however, felt it was important to represent Black Americans in sports and went in spite of the danger being Black under Hitler's racist regime presented.

Dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham wears a striped headdress and flowing skirt and dances with her arms above her head
Choreographer and dancer Katherine Dunham wears an African-inspired costume while performing.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

1937

Negro Dance Group: Katherine Dunham forms the Negro Dance Group. Dunham's group performs Afro-Caribbean dance and executes routines that portray folktales and elements of Black heritage. Dunham revolutionizes modern concert dance by incorporating racial messages into her choreography and introducing bold and rhythmic interpretations not standard to European-inspired dance during this time.

June 22: Joe Louis wins the heavyweight championship against James J. Braddock at Comiskey Park in Chicago. This makes him the first Black heavyweight champion. This is seen as a small victory for Black Americans in the pursuit of equality because a Black man's accomplishment is highly publicized.

September 18: Zora Neale Hurston publishes the novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God." This book about a young Black woman looking for love while navigating grief is arguably her most famous and influential work and it takes its place as one of the most prodigious products of the Harlem Renaissance. The novel is rich with Black cultural references and covers issues such as racism in the south. However, it is not well received by many Black readers who feel that Hurston's portrayal of Black Americans is rife with racial stereotypes and lacking in depth, perhaps for the purpose of appeasing White readers. Among those who criticize the novel in this way are Alain Locke and Richard Wright. The novel sells fewer than 5,000 copies in its first 30 years.

October: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids signs a collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman Company. This contract raises wages for rail workers, shortens their hours, and betters their working conditions.

Artist Jacob Lawrence stands hunched over his work, a colorful painting
Artists Jacob Lawrence stands over one of his paintings.

George Rose / Getty Images

1938

First Black Woman to Become a State Representative: Crystal Bird Fauset becomes the first Black woman elected to a state legislature. She is chosen for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, which is comprised of two-thirds White representatives. In this role, she introduces nine bills. Fauset is also responsible for founding both the Black women's division of the Democratic National Committee known as the Colored Women's Activities Club and the United Nations Council of Philadelphia.

February: Jacob Lawrence debuts his work in an exhibition at the Harlem YMCA. Lawrence depicts life as a Black person in many nuanced ways and paints Black historical figures including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Lawrence believes that there is beauty in overcoming difficulty and chooses to paint Black people, who have endured enslavement and oppression for centuries, for this reason. His unique style is a form of cubism, and his work is quickly raised to a level of national recognition. Some of his most notable works include "The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture," "The Migration of the Negro," and "Harlem."

Marian Anderson standing in front of several microphones, closing her eyes, and singing with the Lincoln Statue in the background
Marian Anderson gives an outdoor performance at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

1939

Black Actors Guild of America: The Negro Actors Guild of America or the Black Actor's Guild is founded by Fredi Washington, Ethel Waters, and others in association with the Theatre Authority, a nonprofit that organizes welfare efforts for performers. Tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is made honorary president of the group. This organization is formed to positively change the way Black Americans are portrayed in media, provide support to impoverished entertainers, and educate the public about working as a Black entertainer. The Negro Actor, a quarterly journal, is published primarily to accomplish the latter.

First Black Woman to Become a Judge: Jane M. Bolin is appointed to the domestic relations court of New York City. This appointment makes her the first Black woman to become a judge in the United States.

April 9: Marian Anderson sings at the Lincoln Memorial in front of 75,000 people on Easter Sunday. This is significant to Anderson's career because she has been denied many bookings over the years due to racism and Eleanor Roosevelt presents her with the NAACP Spingarn Medal this year as well.

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Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1930–1939." ThoughtCo, Jan. 28, 2021, thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1930-1939-45427. Lewis, Femi. (2021, January 28). Black History Timeline: 1930–1939. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1930-1939-45427 Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1930–1939." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1930-1939-45427 (accessed May 7, 2021).

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