The result, presented in this exhibit, depicts a unique reality of the black experience in 1930s America - young adults were members of vibrant social organizations, participated in sporting activities, and worked hard studying for classes.
This is in stark contrast to the other reality of black life in the South in the 1930s: one of rural living, poverty, lynchings, and Jim Crow.
“Truth and Service”
Howard University, referred to as “the capstone of Negro education” boasts many notable alumni and employed leading African American academics during the 1930s, including: Lois Mailou Jones, Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, Sterling Brown, and Rayford Logan.
The student body often busied themselves with extracirricular activities such as athletic teams and fostering community in social circles.
Fraternity and sorority life has long been a hallmark of campus life at Howard University. Five of the historical black Greek-letter organization were founded at Howard: Alpha Kappa Alpha (1908), Omega Psi Phi (1911), Delta Sigma Theta (1913), Phi Beta Sigma (1914), and Zeta Phi Beta (1920).
Howard students were also politically active: in 1936 the football team went on strike before a game with Virginia Union because the University did not provide players with food (some players reportedly sustained themselves on a diet of hot dogs).
Virginia Union College
“The Bridge to Intellectual Freedom”
“Her sons and daughters are ever on the altar”
Students at Fisk University excelled in courses taught by leading black academics of the era.
Among the professors on campus was James Weldon Johnson, Spence Chair of Creative Literature. Before shaping young minds at Fisk, Johnson was recognized as a poet, author, critic, diplomat, editor, and a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“I'll find a way or make one”
Atlanta University fostered an environment of academic excellence. In 1930, the University began offering graduate level programs in social and natural sciences and liberal arts.
Also during the New Deal, Atlanta University began to foster close ties with Spelman College and Morehouse College to form what would become known as the Atlanta University System.
Founder's Day, a tradition celebrated across many historically black colleges and universities, is a day for students, alumni, faculty, and staff to honor the people that established the institution. The annual program consists of a keynote speaker or speakers, musical performances and ceremonies. Founder’s Day is a time to reiterate the history and legacy of the school, inspire students, encourage alumni to stay active, and discuss the future of the institution.
During the New Deal, Atlanta University celebrated with speakers in the school chapel, drill routines, and a parade.
“Knowledge, Leadership, Service”
Tuskegee Institute, when founded by Booker T. Washington, was established as a vocational school that focused heavily in agriculture and teacher training. After World War I, the school's curriculum expanded into industrial fields with the establishment of a trade school.
By the 1930s, students demanded more academic courses in order to receive a well rounded education on par with other American colleges and universities. The purpose was shifting from a job training center to an institution where African Americans could be immersed in an environment of learning.
Athletics was an important part of student life.
The Tuskegee Golden Tigers football team was coached by Cleveland “Cleve” Abbott, who lead the team to victory in the Prairie View Bowl in 1936.
The Marching Crimson Pipers have provided halftime entertainment at games for over 100 years. At many HBCUs, the band's halftime show is often more memorable than the final score.
“If God be with us, nothing is to be feared.”
New Orleans, Louisiana
“Strong through Faith”
New Orleans, Louisiana
Just as today, black college life in the New Deal was a balancing act. African Americans students had to find harmony in the spaces between work and play, campus and home life, and broader social issues and personal development.
In the 80 years since these photos were taken, enrollment of African Americans in college has increased from a select, affluent, couple of hundreds to a more diverse base of over a million.
The photographs in this exhibit are all from the series Kenneth Space Photographs of the Activities of Southern Black Americans, 1936 - 1937 (National Archives Identifier 559211), located at the National Archives at College Park.
For more information and updates about records at the National Archives relating to black history, please visit the Rediscovering Black History blog (http://rediscovering-black-history.blogs.archives.gov/).
Curator — Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist, RDTP
Curator — Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Lead Archivist, RDTP
Research Assistants —
— Rutha M. Beamon, Archives Specialist, RDSS
— Sharon Culley, Archives Specialist, RDSS
— Theresa M. Roy, Archives Specialist, RDSS
Say It Loud! The African American Employee Affinity Group —