Modern history

An Anxious Affluence



David Curtis (D. C.) Stephenson's relentless pursuit of the American dream kept him constantly on the move. Born in 1891 to Texas sharecroppers, Stephenson moved with his family to the Oklahoma Territory in 1901. After quitting school at age sixteen, he drifted around the state for more than a decade, working for a string of newspapers and gaining a reputation as a heavy drinker and a ladies' man. In 1915 he married and appeared to settle down; however, he soon lost his newspaper job, abandoned his pregnant wife, and hit the road working for one newspaper after another in between binges of drunkenness. His wife divorced him, and in 1917 Stephenson joined the army to fight in World War I. He was stationed stateside, but his service was marked by a series of drunken brawls and sexual misadventures. Nevertheless, he rose to the rank of second lieutenant and received an honorable discharge in 1919.

Stephenson remarried and settled in Indiana, where he finally found financial and political success. In 1920 he joined the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Reconstruction-era organization that had reemerged in 1915 in Georgia. The newly revived Klan spread beyond the South, targeting African Americans, recent immigrants, Jews, and Catholics as enemies of traditional Protestant family values. Stephenson directed Klan operations in twenty-three states, building a profitable empire on fear and prejudice as well as get-rich-quick schemes that appealed to the spirit of American adventure. A few years later, however, his old pattern of self-destruction led to his arrest and conviction on rape and second-degree murder charges and the end of his Klan career.

Ossian Sweet also pursued the American dream. Like Stephenson, he rose from humble beginnings, but he had far more to overcome. The descendant of slaves, Sweet was born in 1895 and grew up in the central Florida town of Bartow. Hoping to shield him from the violence that whites used to keep Bartow's blacks in their place, Sweet's parents sent him north when he was thirteen years old to get an education.

After attending Wilberforce University in Ohio and Howard Medical School in Washington, D.C., Sweet moved to Detroit in 1921 to open a medical practice in the city's ghetto known as "Black Bottom." He married, and in 1924 the Sweets decided to buy a house for their growing family, which now included an infant daughter, in a working-class neighborhood occupied exclusively by whites. Before the Sweets moved in, their white neighbors, with Klan backing, began organizing to keep them out.

When the Sweet family finally moved into their house on September 8, 1925, they encountered a hostile crowd in the street. Dr. Sweet had brought some backup with him, including two younger brothers and several friends. Armed in case the mob got out of hand, the Sweets and their defenders fired their weapons at the crowd after rocks smashed through the upstairs windows of the house. When the shooting stopped and the police restored calm, one white man lay dead and another wounded. Dr. Sweet, his wife Gladys, and the other nine occupants of his house went on trial on first-degree murder charges. The NAACP represented the eleven defendants and hired the famous criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow. After two trials—the first ended in a hung jury—Darrow won an acquittal for his clients in 1926.

THE AMERICAN HISTORIES of Ossian Sweet and D. C. Stephenson illustrate the competing forces that shaped the 1920s. Both achieved a measure of financial success, but they did so in the post—World War I atmosphere of growing social friction and intense racial resentments. After serving in the war, many blacks and ethnic minorities had a greater sense of pride in themselves. When Sweet’s parents decided to send him north to get an education, they were responding to the racial violence that plagued the South, but they were also demonstrating their belief that a better life was possible for their son. By contrast, Stephenson grew wealthy by tapping into the same racial tensions that shaped the Sweets’ lives. Just as the census of 1890 had announced the end of the frontier, the census of 1920 indicated that the population of rural America had dwindled and that the majority of Americans now lived in cities with more than 2,500 people. Many who considered themselves “100 percent Americans,” born and bred in small towns or living in sections of cities with homogeneous populations, believed that racial and ethnic minorities threatened their power. Although the general prosperity of the period masked the tensions lying beneath the surface, it did not eliminate them. As the experiences of D. C. Stephenson and Ossian Sweet show, the decade following the end of World War I opened up fresh avenues for economic prosperity as well as new sites for cultural clashes exacerbated by the tensions of modern America.

Three women strolling on Seventh Avenue in Harlem, 1927. The Granger Collection, New York

Postwar Turmoil

The return of peace in 1918 brought with it problems that would persist into the 1920s. Government efforts to suppress opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I fostered an atmosphere of repression that continued after the war ended, culminating in a wave of anti-Communist actions known as the Red scare. An influenza epidemic that killed hundreds of thousands ofAmericans and millions of people around the world heightened the climate of fear. Finally, the abrupt and painful transition away from a wartime economy produced inflation, labor unrest, and escalating racial tensions. The 1920s would come to be known as a decade of prosperity, but in the years immediately following the war the prospects for growth and stability seemed bleak.

The Supreme Court and Civil Liberties

On March 3, 1919, the Supreme Court invoked the Espionage Act to uphold the conviction of Charles Schenck, the general secretary of the Socialist Party, for mailing thousands of leaflets opposing the military draft. Delivering the Court’s unanimous opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that during wartime Congress has the authority to prohibit individuals from using words that create “a clear and present danger” to the safety of the country. Although the trial record failed to show that Schenck’s leaflets had convinced any young men to resist conscription, the Court upheld his conviction under Holmes’s doctrine.

Later in 1919, the Supreme Court demonstrated what a slippery slope the “clear and present danger” test presented for freedom of speech in a case that concerned what many American leaders believed posed a great threat to the nation: the spread of worldwide communism, the system of government that challenged capitalism. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 and the subsequent creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics terrified officials of capitalist countries in western Europe and the United States. Their concerns escalated in 1918, when Russia, until then an Allied power, signed a separate treaty with Germany and pulled out of the war (see chapter 20). In response, President Woodrow Wilson ordered U.S. troops to assist antiCommunist Russian forces fighting against the Bolshevik regime.

Wilson’s actions generated vocal opposition from American supporters of the Russian Revolution. In New York City, a small group of anarchists and socialists welcomed the fall of capitalism in Russia and the prospects of a worker-controlled state that would promote economic democracy. Many of these activists were immigrants who had fled from Russia to avoid czarist repression against political dissidents and Jews. In August 1918, a handful of anarchists, including Jacob Abrams, dropped leaflets off a building on the Lower East Side urging workers to protest “barbaric [American] intervention” and calling on them to engage in “a general strike” until the United States removed its troops from Russia. The government prosecuted six defendants, five men and one woman, for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts; the jury found all of them guilty. On November 10, 1919, in Abrams v. United States, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial verdict, finding the distribution of the incendiary leaflets in wartime illegal.

The Red Scare, 1919-1920

The conviction in the Abrams case reflected broader concern over the Red scare—the fear of Communist-inspired radicalism in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Though communism failed to gain a foothold in the United States, the actions of a tiny contingent of radicals kept the threat alive and played into the hands of ambitious politicians and business leaders who wanted to crush labor agitation, which they perceived as anti-American.

Immediate postwar economic problems further increased the anxiety of American citizens, reinforcing the position of officials who sought to restore order by suppressing radicals. Industries were slow to convert their plants from military to civilian production, and consumer goods therefore remained in short supply. The war had brought jobs and higher wages on the home front, and consumers who had been restrained by wartime rationing were eager to spend their savings. With demand greatly exceeding supply, however, prices soared by 77 percent, frustrating consumers. At the same time, farmers, who had benefited from wartime conditions, faced falling crop prices as European nations resumed agricultural production and the federal government ended price supports.

A series of widespread strikes launched by labor unions in 1919 contributed to the fear that the United States was under assault by sinister, radical forces. As skyrocketing inflation undercut wages and employers launched a new round of union-busting efforts, labor went on the offensive. In 1919 more than four million workers went on strike nationwide, including those in key industries such as steel, transportation, and shipbuilding. In September, striking Boston policemen left the city unguarded, resulting in widespread looting and violence. Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge sent in the National Guard to break the strike and restore order.

Public officials and newspapers decried the violence, but they also greatly exaggerated the peril. Communists and socialists did support some union activities; however, few of the millions of workers who struck for higher wages and better working conditions had ties to extremists or sought to overthrow capitalism. The major prewar radical organization, the Industrial Workers of the World, never recovered from the government harassment that had crippled it during World War I. Postwar Communist parties in the United States claimed fewer than seventy thousand followers. However, scattered acts of real violence allowed government and business leaders to stir up anxieties about the Communist threat. On May 1, 1919, radicals sent more than thirty incendiary devices through the mail to prominent Americans, though authorities defused them before the mail bombs reached their intended targets. The following month, bombs exploded in eight cities, including one at the doorstep of the home ofA. Mitchell Palmer, the attorney general of the United States, who emerged shocked but uninjured.

After the attack on his home, Palmer launched a government crusade to root out and prosecute Communist extremists. Like many American officials, Palmer traced the source of radicalism to recent immigrants, mainly those from Russia and eastern and southern Europe. To track down what he called the “moral perverts and hysterical neurasthenic [neurotic] women who abound in communism,” Palmer selected J. Edgar Hoover, a young Washington, D.C., lawyer, to head the General Intelligence Division in the Department of Justice. In November 1919, based on Hoover’s research and undercover activities, government agents in twelve cities rounded up and arrested hundreds of foreigners, including the anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman. Goldman, along with some 250 people caught in the government dragnet, were soon deported to Russia. Over the next few months, the Palmer raids continued in more than thirty cities. Authorities seized approximately six thousand suspected radicals from their homes and community centers, took them to police stations, interrogated them without the benefit of legal counsel, and held them incommunicado without stipulating the charges against them. Of the thousands arrested, the government found reason to deport 556. The raids failed to uncover extensive plots to overthrow the U.S. government, nor did they lead to the arrest of the bombers.

Initially, most American citizens supported the Palmer raids, but their enthusiasm quickly waned. Many came to see the violations of civil liberties that accompanied the raids as a greater threat to the nation’s traditions than the existence of a handful of American Communists. In 1920 a group of pacifists, progressives, and constitutional lawyers formed the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to monitor government abridgments of the Bill of Rights. Although the Palmer raids ended, the Red scare manifested itself in different forms throughout the 1920s. After J. Edgar Hoover became director of the Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation) in 1921, he continued spying on suspected radicals, collecting information on a variety of Americans, and increasing his power over the next several decades.

Compounding the anxieties fueled by the Red scare, a medical crisis plunged Americans into panic. In late 1918, just as World War I was ending, an influenza epidemic struck the United States. Part of a worldwide contagion, the disease infected nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population and killed more than 675,000 people. Soldiers returning home from the war brought the flu virus with them. Infants and the elderly succumbed, as well as able-bodied young men and women. As the death toll mounted over the course of 1919, terror gripped the nation. Susanna Turner, a volunteer at an emergency hospital in Philadelphia, recalled: “The fear in the hearts of people just withered them. They were afraid to go out, afraid to do anything. If you asked a neighbor for help, they wouldn’t do so because they weren’t taking any chances. It was a horror-stricken time.” A staggering 50 to 100 million people worldwide are estimated to have died from the flu before it subsided in 1920.

Racial Violence in the Postwar Era

Racial strife also heightened postwar anxieties. Drawn by the promise of wartime industrial jobs, more than 400,000 African Americans left the South beginning in 1917 and 1918 and headed north hoping to escape poverty and racial discrimination. (By 1930 another 800,000 blacks had left the South.) This exodus became known as the great migration. Black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender circulated throughout the South, offering glowing stories of the opportunities that adventurous blacks would find if they moved. Some 75,000 southern blacks heeded the call and relocated to Chicago. During World War I, many found work in steel mills, meatpacking, shipbuilding, and other heavy industries, but most were relegated to low-paying jobs. Still, as a carpenter earning $95 a month wrote from Chicago to a friend back in Hattiesburg, Mississippi: “I should have been here 20 years ago. I just begin to feel like a man.” Most African American women remained employed as domestic workers, but more than 100,000 obtained manufacturing jobs.

For many blacks, however, the North was not the “promised land” they expected. Instead, they encountered bitter opposition from white migrants from the South competing for employment and scarce housing. As black and white veterans returned from the war, racial hostilities exploded. In 1919 race riots erupted in twenty-five cities throughout the country, including one in Washington, D.C., that left a deep impression on Ossian Sweet, who witnessed it firsthand.

The worst of these disturbances occurred in Chicago during what James Weldon Johnson, a poet and an NAACP official, called “Red Summer.” On a hot July day, a black youth swimming at a Lake Michigan beach inadvertently crossed over into an area of water customarily reserved for whites. In response, white bathers shouted at the swimmer to return to the black section of the beach. To make their point more forcefully, they hurled stones at him. The black swimmer drowned, and word of the incident quickly spread through white and black neighborhoods in Chicago. For thirteen days, mobs of blacks and whites attacked each other, ransacked businesses, and torched homes. Over the course of the riots, at least 15 whites and 23 blacks died, 178 whites and 342 blacks were injured, and more than a thousand black families were left homeless. Against this background, D. C. Stephenson’s Ku Klux Klan began to flourish in the North.


• What factors combined to produce the turmoil of the immediate postwar period?

• What factors contributed to the rise in racial tensions that accompanied the transition from wartime to peacetime?

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!