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Alan Mattay - November 5, 2016


During the Prohibition Era, the Chicago Defender, founded by Robert S. Abbott in 1905, was the country’s most widely circulated African-American newspaper. Abbot viewed theDefender as an “advocacy press” whose central mission was guarding the rights of African Americans. The paper was also a key booster of what it called the “Great Northern Drive.” It promised African-American readers in the South that they could find greater opportunity and equality in the cities of the North.

From WWI to the end of the 1920s, roughly million African Americans moved from the South to the North and West. Hundreds of thousands of others who remained in the South moved from the countryside to the cities. African Americans who participated in the Great Migration were disproportionately young.

Young people who migrated North not only escaped the severe racial order of the South, but also their community’s elders who regulated the moral conventions of small town life. The anonymity of the city allowed migrants to escape the prying eyes of the rural towns they left behind. This phenomenon alarmed reformist institutions such as the Defender, not only saw itself as a guardian of African Americans but also as a guardian of public virtue.

Middle-class reformers in the African-American community were concerned about the apparent revolution in manners and morals that was taking place in the United States. They fretted that young migrants away from their families would not be able to resist the temptations of urban life. The Defender published articles instructing Southerners on the proper way to behave in the North. The paper warned its readers to avoid bad habits ranging from chewing gum and slouching to talking loudly and wearing kitchen aprons in public. The paper saw its mission as not just bringing rural African Americans in the South to the North, but also teaching them how to behave in their new home. The Defender was particularly concerned with the phenomenon of the flapper.

Middle-class black reformers contrasted the flapper with the feminine ideal of black womanhood, which Erin Chapman refers to as “race motherhood.” (1) A typical editorial from a 1922 issue of the Defender complains about the presence of flappers within the African-American community but insists that “the colored girl is the most modestly dressed members of the female sex on our streets. True we have a few rattle-brained ‘flappers’ but the great majority dress and act in a manner convincing to any fair-minded person that virtue and good breeding are not confined solely to the Caucasian race.” (2) For reformers, racial progress and social uplift entailed maintaining the honor of black women.

Even though the Defender was engaged in a campaign to get African Americans to move the North and adjust their behavior, the paper insisted that the values of the countryside should prevail in the minds of African-American women. Under a headline titled, “Not a Flapper Mother,” the Defender praised one Mississippi mother for “raising a family of 17 children,” while running a farm. (3) In one letter to the editor titled “Down With Flapper”, May L. Williams insisted that the city would not change her, insisting that she was an “old-fashioned country girl” who has never attended a “petting party” and will not “drink, smoke, play cards, or dance.” (4) Another letter to the editor from a 17-year-old high school girl who proclaimed herself an old-fashioned girl “that my Race will be proud of, not just a toy for men, because that’s all your flappers are.” (5)

The Defender’s campaign against the flapper extended to its Junior page. Editors used ridicule to fight the flapper and solicited from young readers around the country drawings of their interpretation of what a flapper looked like. The paper hoped that these parodies would serve as effective moral suasion, steering impressionable black youth away from the supposedly loose morals and vices of the flapper.

The Defender’s of moral campaigns were largely ignored. The typical age of an African-American female migrant to the North was 15-16 and these teenagers bobbed their hair and wore make-up, just like their white counterparts. Young migrants embraced the ideal of the “New Negro,” a more assertive, self-assured black American who demanded her citizenship rights.


 (1) Chapman, Erin D. Prove It On Me: New Negroes, Sex, and Popular Culture in the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

(2) “The ‘Flapper’ Age.” The Chicago Defender, July 29, 1922.

(3) “Not A Flapper Mother.” The Chicago Defender, November 4, 1922.

(4) May L Williams. “Down With Flapper.” The Chicago Defender, September 1, 1928.

(5) Louise Thompson. “She’s No Flapper.” The Chicago Defender, August 18, 1928.