African American Life in the Depression

"It is not the story of sadness or despair, but rather one of success and victory. It is the story of triumph over adversity... The story of an uncommonly industrious, established, and motivated people that prospered in spite of segregation" -Agnes Cross White (1)

Charlottesville's African American community was not building new magnificent country club estates or spending their leisured hours at the hunt club during the 1930s. Needless to say, life was considerably more difficult for blacks in Charlottesville. Many blacks lost their jobs, as unskilled labor and industrial employment became scarce. But while the white community relied on tradition, history, and old money to ride out the Depression, the black community challenged tradition and discrimination, and soon they began to thrive in their own right. African Americans strove to better educate themselves and their community, to stand up for their Constitutional civil rights, and to take an active role in improving their collective condition, demanding the respect of the white community.

African-American areas in Charlottesville, c. 1933

The above map (courtesy of the Albemarle County Historical Society) shows the areas in Charlottesville inhabited by African-Americans c. 1933. Living conditions in the African American community were, in many cases, less than desirable, and in some neighborhoods were downright horrible. Black neighborhoods were almost completely segregated from white neighborhoods and were mostly found in low-lying regions or near the railroads. (2) Even within the black community itself there was segregation according to economic conditions. The area south of 6th street along the "Old Scottsville Road" was home to the poorest blacks, an area where unemployment and crime were high.(3) The area was known as the prostitution district after the Civil War and contained both whites and blacks alike. But after the city cracked down on prostitution, the whites moved away, leaving only the poorest blacks.

Residents of these neighborhoods had to struggle for mere survival during the Depression. In 1933 the local black newspaper ran the following account:

"A little fellow stood in the doorway of a cold house and gnawed on a piece of hard bread. He complained to his mother about being hungry and was joined by a chorus of six or seven other hungry voices. ...Three blocks away, a little girl around nine years of age, who might have been pretty had it not been for the fact that she was undernourished, walked slowly down the street without even a sign of shoes on her cold little feet and temperature below zero.... The above accounts may sound like 'trial leads' for a novel of New York tenement life, [but] they appear in this weeks' issue as actual reports of true cases of unfortunate citizens right here in our community, in our race, and in our city." (4)

This article indicates that although there was a consciousness even within the black community in Charlottesville that the worst of the suffering was elsewhere in big cities like New York, there were those in Charlottesville who were in dire need of assistance. The same article ends with a call to the black community to aid their neighbors in need, pleading "Don't wait. You're brother is hungry." (5)

Better conditions, however, could be found between the west end of Preston Avenue and Rugby Road, and also in the area between 4th Street NW and 13th Street. Helen Camp de Corse reports in her 1933 Masters thesis that in these neighborhoods the "houses [were] good and yards attractive" and the inhabitants "[attended] well the Baptist churches." (6) Most of the residents of these areas were high school, trade school, or even college graduates, and were active in the life of the community. In general, only the more successful and educated blacks attended church or were members of local civic organizations. In 1933 African Americans in Charlottesville could boast seven black churches, six of which were Baptist. African American women had organized by the same year eleven local clubs that belonged to the State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, all of which gave generously to the poor, especially of their own race. (7) These clubs, with membership totaling over two hundred fifty, "[exerted] definite cultural influence upon the Negroes of Charlottesville," discussing books, current events, and local charities. (8) Throughout the Depression, this upper class of blacks proved more than willing to aid the less fortunate members of their race in any way possible, always encouraging them to educate and better themselves.

Employment

The largest source of employment in Charlottesville for blacks during the Depression was the University community, which at that time was composed of about 2500 students and faculty. The University created lots of domestic jobs that were usually filled by black women. Young black males often served as personal attendants for students. Black men could also find construction work from time to time on the University's numerous projects throughout the Depression, but the work was by no means steady. During the Depression, unskilled labor such as construction and industrial work took the biggest hit, and blacks were often the first to be laid off by white business owners. In many cases, women who were able to hold down more steady domestic jobs doing housework and childcare supported the family during the times when men were out of work. One single black mother remembers:

"I took care of people, and babysitted, and helped people out doing housework. I really loved what I was doing because I didn't have education to do nothing else. But like I said, I was a good cook...and I always had enough for my son...We didn't make much, but we never throwed away nothing...Back then, there wasn't anything for you to do but maybe work in somebody's kitchen or restaurants, you know, movies and things like that." (9)

Black young men, who before the depression would often quit school early to go find work in the cities, were staying in school longer, since there were no jobs to be had. Those who worked for students were usually well taken care by their employers, and were "swell dressers, jest like the students." (10) Camp de Corse reports meeting one boy who had ten tailor made suits and the shoes to match that were given to him by the students for whom he worked. (11) Overall, however, jobs for blacks were difficult to find and equally hard to keep. But most blacks stubbornly found a way to make ends meet and lived to tell their stories of struggle with pride and a sense of accomplishment.

Improving the Community

A Black man entering a theater, forced to use a separate entranceTimes were tough and money and jobs were scarce, but the African American community also had to fight against prejudices rooted much deeper than the rocky economic conditions of the Depression. The thirties were an important time of proactive organization and growing community consciousness for blacks in Charlottesville, and they made many progressive strides towards improving the education and general condition of their people in their community. Jefferson, the black school, offered only grades 1-8 up until 1926, when they began a full high school curriculum, featuring special vocational training. Blacks were not, however, limited to trade learning, and made impressive achievements in the liberal and fine arts. The Reflector, the black weekly newspaper, often featured poetry and other writings of considerable skill by local black students, and Camp de Corse reports that black students displayed impressive talent in music and the visual arts. (12) When given the opportunity, blacks proved to be generally talented, intelligent, and industrious, displaying a community-wide desire to throw off the shackles of white discrimination by proving themselves worthy of respect.

The Reflector served as both a mirror and a catalyst for this type of proactive, progressive community attitude. Each week from early August in 1933 when the paper began, The Reflector educated the black community on everything from civil rights issues to floods in China. The paper held a steadfastly optimistic attitude towards the general improvement of conditions for blacks both in Charlottesville and across the nation, and continually sought to motivate their readers to improve themselves and their fellow community members. In issue number four, editor T. J. Sellars stresses the importance of the idea that all blacks discard the notion of inferiority, "if some of us create or further that impression [of inferiority], then all of us must suffer... for it." (13) Over the course of the Reflector's first year, the paper issued calls to the community to establish an "active civic league of Negroes," a night school to help illiterate adults learn to read, and a library for blacks at the Jefferson school. By the paper's first anniversary, it had doubled in size and had gained extensive advertising support from black and white owned businesses alike. Throughout the Depression, the Reflector continued to be a positive inspiration for community activism and improvement, always urging the most fortunate African Americans to remember their less fortunate struggling brothers and sisters with their time, energy, and support.

Vinegar Hill

The Vinegar Hill community along Main Street between 4th Street and West Preston Avenue was somewhat of a progressive anomaly in the South in the 1930s. Vinegar Hill was home to numerous black-owned businesses, many patronized by blacks and whites alike, and was located in a central downtown area. Such a community is remarkable in a small southern town in this period, where business conditions were generally difficult for enterprising blacks. As historians Leonard Broom and Norval Glenn point out:

"The Negro businessman has several unique disadvantages, whereas white owners of stores and of many service establishments cater to all races, Negro businessmen, with few exceptions, can hope to attract only a Negro clientele. The potential clientele of the Negro businessman is relatively small and relatively poor. (14)

Vinegar Hill was one of the few exceptions. Black owned businesses on Vinegar Hill ranged from construction and insurance firms to barber shops, haberdasheries, and poolrooms. There were dry cleaners, Masonic lodges, furniture and jewelry shops, gas stations, and just about anything else a community needs to survive. Vinegar Hill was also a lively social center for blacks, especially at nights and on the weekends, when the streets, poolrooms, and other hangouts were often packed with a generally well-dressed African American crowd. (15) Although the Hill was also known among blacks as a place where trouble and shady activity were easily found, the mere fact that such a cultural and economic center existed is a testament to the progressiveness and industriousness of the black community in Charlottesville.

The Depression was no doubt a time of hardship for African Americans in Charlottesville. Jobs, especially for black males, were scarce, and money was tight. However blacks in Charlottesville showed remarkable resilience in overcoming these adverse circumstances through community organization and helping each other whenever possible. The black community took significant positive steps in the Thirties to overcome the steeped in prejudices held against them in the minds of whites. Most importantly, the black community embraced an enduring proactive community spirit, working together for the general improvement of their race and community.

Still the vast majority of blacks in Albemarle County lived in the County and not in the City of Charlottesville, most all of them employed in agriculture. The maps below show the total black population and the percent of the total population that was black according to magesterial districts in 1930. Again, the Charlottesville and Ivy districts have the fewest blacks, which corresponds with less agriculture. Click on the maps for larger versions.
Total Black Population map Proportional Black Population to Total Population


National Culture | Further Reading

Notes
1. Agnes Cross White, Charlottesville, an African American Community (Dover, N.H.: Arcadia, 1998) 3
2. Helen Camp de Corse, Charlottesville: A Study of Negro Life and Personality (Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 1933) 7
3. Ibid, 8
4. T.J. Sellars, "S.O.S!!!" The Reflector. Issue 18, 2 December 1933: 1
5. Ibid, 2
6. Camp de Corse, 8
7. Ibid, 25
8. Ibid, 25
9. James Robert Saunders and Renae Nadine Shackelford, Urban Renewal and the End of Black Culture in Charlottesville, Virginia: An Oral History of Vinegar Hill (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company,1998) 9
10. Camp de Corse, 13
11. Ibid, 13
12. Ibid, 44
13. T. J. Sellars, The Reflector. Issue #4, August 26, 1933: 1
14. qtd. In James Robert Saunders and Renae Nadine Saunders, see note 9, p. 7
15. Camp de Corse, 12-13