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My project will examine economic inequality amongst different groups of people from the late 1860s to the early 1930s. Within this time frame I will touch on four eras and segmentations in American history that played a crucial role in sustaining economic inequality. These four segments in time include: The Reconstructive Era (1865-1877), Immigration and Urbanization (1880-1910), Industrialization and Capitalism (1890s-1930), The Great Depression (October 29,1929). All four of these time periods will be exposed by primary sources to show how economic equality was a prominent theme in American history.

Reconstruction Era (1865-1877)

For my first exhibit, I will introduce the Reconstructive Era where ideologies and reform gave African Americans no essence of economic freedom that the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments were intended for. Starting in 1865 and 1866 of post-Reconstruction, sharecropping became the first “freedmen” labor that African Americans would contribute to. Under direct supervision of white land owners, African Americans would work on the white men’s plantation for little rations, or small profit. The sharecropper would have to provide the seed for plants, housing, working stock, and feed for the stock. As well as providing the labor, the sharecropper then had to pay the white landowner one-half or more of what the crop provided. During the early 1880s, the job opportunities for the black community entailed farming and industrial agricultural, however work and maintenance became very limited. Post slavery, some African Americans were able to acquire farmland, where opportunities arose such as mining, tobacco factories and iron surfacing. In South Carolina and Georgia, the rice kingdom boomed, however, black farmers could not afford the capital necessary to repair irrigation systems and machinery that was destroyed by the civil war. This resulted in black farmers having to be self-sufficient farmers who could not compete with white industrial farmers. In the deep South, African Americans ended up owning a smaller percentage of land in 1900 than they owned at the end of Reconstruction reform[5]. According to my exhibits on display, this museum will feature some of the ideologists and reforms along the way; showing people such as Henry Grady and his “New South”. As well, the unsuccessful-as a whole- Kansas Exodus will be visited. As the white south still had a deep rooted hatred for African Americans, my artifacts will show that there was no concise, positive consequence that any regulations following the reconstruction amendments would have fixed.

Immigration and Urbanization (1880-1910)

My museum will then move on to focus on the rise of immigration and urbanization from 1880 to 1910. During the time period, mass immigration and urbanization grew in major cities in the north such as New York, Detroit, and Chicago. Most of these European immigrants were coming from Ellis Island in New York, which was the nation’s main facility to process immigrants in 1892. At the same time, Asian immigrants were coming to the United States through Angel Island in California. By 1910 three-fifths of workers for the largest manufacturing industries in the United States were foreign born. Some immigrants moved into tenements where living conditions were crammed, unsanitary, and dangerous. Often times, immigrants worked out of their tenement apartments, where work was done slowly and inefficiently due to lack of space and resources. Other immigrants moved into ethnic neighborhoods where less assimilating occurred, and they could speak their native tongue. As a result, in this exhibit, I will touch on immigrant families in their tenement homes looking crammed and uncomfortable, I will show primary sources such as articles, showing the amount of immigration that took place in this time period. Finally, an academic novel by Christian Christiansen will be showed, which is filled with primary sources from the 1900s representing capitalism. Christiansen overall described the time period as “unprecedented inequality, mass poverty, and social despair” [1]. This exhibit will expose how the mass immigration and urbanization attributed to the rising economic inequalities.

Industrialization and Capitalism (1890s-1930)

With a mass population brought a boom in consumer freedom. Department stores, chain stores, and retail stores all started to rise, assuming hundreds of low wage jobs. This new found American society was run by what was called a “wages system” which modernized to be capitalism; and this essentially brought economic competition amongst high populated, urbanized areas where consumers could consume freely. To suppress the low class, large corporations even built “company towns”. This was the idea of building a complete town around a factory in which employees work at. The town could include a church, grocery store, park, etc. This proved that capitalism could reform within, and did not need regulation or labor unions[2]. As a result large companies such as J.P Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Ford were the pinnacle of modern capitalism in the early 1900s, meanwhile immigrants and low skilled workers stayed among their class because  these towns were put in place so employees could be tied to their low paying job. In this exhibit, I will show the effect big business and monopolies had on the middle and low class. I will show an example of multiple big businesses and how they effectively change their business model to create efficiency over employment. I will also show examples of Company Towns which became later regulated once they diminished the amount of economic freedom they allowed. Hence, economic inequality prevailed according to this exhibit. 

The Great Depression (October 29,1929)

For my last segment I will touch on the Great Depression, showing how economic inequality increased. On October 29th, 1929, the stock market crashed, and over a billion dollars were lost and thousands of investors were crippled; in which they would never see money that they invested ever again. At this point in history, Henry Hoover was president and was left with a country who essentially begged for help. President Hoover’s reaction was to implement the solution of encouraging voluntary efforts of big businesses to invest and hire the unemployed. After seeing no light at the end of the tunnel, struggling citizens of America had no choice but to blame President Hoover for slow success in efforts of alleviating the Great Depression. Citizens who were now homeless in big cities such as New York and Seattle were forced to live in small shack homes in which they called “Hoovervilles”[4]. Others moved in with families, became tenement farmers, or moved out west in hope for better opportunity in agriculture. In the summer of 1932, democratic candidate from New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt showed optimism and promise with his reforms of the “New Deal”. As Hoover failed to stimulate the economy, FDR and the New Deal became new hope that the country needed, and Franklin Roosevelt won the 1933 election by a landslide.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in on March 4th 1933, and became the 32nd president of the United States. The famous quote “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” gave sense of confidence and pride to the American people[6]. There is no denying that FDR and the New Deal relieved unemployment, however minority groups, the poverty gap, and the national debt all felt the repercussions. As Franklin Roosevelt’s speech appeared as a refreshing air for most American citizens, African Americans were not reimbursed like the white majority was, and the national debt increased. For example, the Social Security Act was “arguably” beneficial because of the exclusion of African Americans. According to a scholarly source, “policymakers in 1935 deliberately excluded African Americans from the Social Security system because of prevailing racial biases during that period”[1]. This came from immense pressure from southern, white, land owning farmers that wanted African Americans excluded from this act. The act therefore excluded African Americans from agricultural and domestic work such as sharecropping, becoming nannies and cleaners. As a result, 70% of African Americans were out of jobs in 1938. The national debt also took hurting after some acts such as the WPA spent over 11 billion of government money. After the New Deal, the national debt more than doubled, from 21 billion to 43 billion [3]. Again, FDR with his enlightening inaugural speech and the New Deal did decrease the unemployment rate, and help farmers and small bankers get back on their feet. However, it was not until World War II that FDR’s second term brought full employment and more inclusion of minorities to join the war effort and make the American economy somewhat boom once again.


[1]Christiansen, Christian. Progressive Business. An Intellectual History Of The Role Of Business In American Society. 1st ed. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. 201

[2]”Company Towns: 1880S To 1935″. Social Welfare History Project, 2015.

[3]Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History. 5th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.

[4]Roosevelt, F. (2019). Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address. [online] History. Available at: [Accessed 12 Apr. 2019].

[5]Smith, John David. “More Than Slaves Less Than Freedmen: The ‘Share Wages’ Labor System during Reconstruction.” Civil War History 26, no. 3 (September 1980): 256–66.

[6]”The Great Depression”. 2019. The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library And Museum.