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1920s urbanization and immigration

The Gilded Age saw a shift in the U.S. population from rural to urban living, with a majority living in cities by 1920. This era offered economic opportunities for immigrants and internal migrants, and new roles for women in the workforce. However, it also sparked fears among native-born white Protestants, leading to immigration restrictions and a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

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Video transcript

- [Narrator] During the Gilded Age, the population of the United States had started to shift sharply towards living in urban rather than rural environments. In 1900, 1/3 of the American population lived in cities, drawn by the wide availability of factory jobs. But by 1920, the scales finally tipped, and for the first time the majority of people in the United States lived in cities. It was the beginning of a new modern era. We've talked in other videos about the economic opportunities that the cities provided for both international immigrants and internal migrants, like the half a million African Americans who left the South in the years surrounding World War I in search of a better life in the North. Although factory jobs were subject to dangerous working conditions and wages were low, for both immigrants and Southern African Americans, the pay and the standard of living was usually an improvement on their previous circumstances. The transition to life in the modern industrial city also offered new opportunities for women. With the rise of big corporations doing business across time zones and countries, there was an increasing need for clerical workers, like secretaries and typists. White women began to take on these roles. And by the end of the 1920s, about 25% of women worked outside the home. Women also began to fill the ranks in employment categories that were beginning to be defined as female professions, like nursing and teaching. And a growing number of women continued to work even after they were married. These kinds of clerical jobs were generally closed to minority women whose options for work outside the home were limited to domestic service or agricultural labor, although some African American women began to train in segregated institutions for service in segregated institutions, for example, going to black nursing schools in order to work in black hospitals. The mass production techniques of the 1920s also meant that the price of consumer goods dropped so that average people could afford to buy appliances and even cars. People had enough disposable income to go to the theater or to an amusement park or to a speakeasy illegally selling alcohol. After the prim and proper Progressive Era and the trauma of World War I, many people embraced a carefree attitude of self-fulfillment through leisure and consumption or, in other words, having fun and buying stuff. But not everyone was thrilled with this new modern era of diverse city living. During World War I, an emphasis on 100% Americanism squelched dissenters who protested against the draft or questioned U.S. involvement in the war. Then, after the Russian Revolution, labor strikes and a series of bombings in 1919 led to fears that radical communists were threatening the country. These incidents, combined with the flawed racial pseudoscience of the day that cast all people other than those descended from Northern and Western Europeans as less evolved, led to a growing sense among native-born, white Protestants that the country was becoming less and less American. In 1915, the Ku Klux Klan experienced a resurgence in the United States that lasted for about 10 years. Unlike the Reconstruction Era KKK, in this time period, the Klan had large membership numbers in northern and western cities, and they targeted Jews and Catholics, many of whom were recent immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, in addition to African Americans. These fears led to the passage of new immigration restrictions in the 1920s. In 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, which limited the number of immigrants allowed from Europe to 350,000, or about a third of pre-World War I levels. Then, in 1924, Congress limited immigration even further with the Immigration Restriction Act. This act set quotas of immigrants who could arrive from each nation. The quotas heavily favored immigrants from Northern and Western Europe and slashed the numbers of Southern and Eastern European immigrants down to as little as 1% of their pre-World War I yearly numbers. Africans from all countries were limited to just 1,000 immigrants per year, and Asians were completely barred from entry. The law did not limit the immigration of Mexicans whom western farmers relied upon for seasonal labor. Interestingly, in 1924, Congress also passed a law establishing that all Native Americans were now U.S. citizens, although they often had difficulty accessing the rights of citizenship from reservations. What do these quotas and efforts at defining the racial makeup of the United States tell us about who was considered eligible to be part of the American people in the 1920s? As we move forward into talking about the Great Depression and World War II, keep thinking about the ways that citizenship is defined and how that definition changes over time.