Posted on: April 22, 2021
Set in an unidentified northern city in the early 20th century, Rachel was written in 1914—midway through one of the largest migrations in U.S. history, and a time of profound societal change in both the North and the South. Portraying the experience of a Black family newly arrived from the South, Rachel highlights both the opportunities and discrimination experienced by Black people in the 1910s.
Only a small percentage of Black Americans left the South in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the first time in American history when many Black Americans were free to migrate. The 1900 census showed 90% of Black Americans still resided in the South, with 75% of Black households in rural locations. Under Reconstruction, the period in which the U.S. tried to rebuild after the war, Congress passed three amendments aimed to emancipate, protect, and enfranchise formerly enslaved people, but true equality was impossible to enforce. In 1877, the U.S. removed all Union troops and ceded control to Southern states and localities, paving the way for a range of oppressive policies:
The mass northward movement of Black Americans, known as the Great Migration, began in 1910 and continued until the Depression in the ‘30s. Approximately 450,000 Black Americans left the South between 1910 and 1920. In addition to leaving the discriminatory and dangerous conditions in the South, people came for the promise of work and economic opportunity in the industrialized North.
A street in Harlem in the decade after Rachel was written
Black populations in Northern cities saw immense growth between 1910-1920, increasing by:
Black communities typically developed in particular areas of the cities. In New York, Black communities grew in two major areas: San Juan Hill (in the West 60s) and The Tenderloin (approximately 20th Street to 42nd Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues). While segregation was not legally sanctioned in the North, Black people still faced racism and prejudice: for example, landlords charged higher rents and offered inferior housing stock to Black renters. Still, Northern cities offered opportunity. They provided a locus for emerging Black culture and social life. Black people could see themselves as creators and performers in theatres, night clubs, as well as athletes on sports fields.
In an essay published several years after the premiere of Rachel, Angelina Weld Grimké shared that one of her intentions with the play’s setting was to change white people’s biases about Black living conditions:
“Certainly colored people are living in homes that are clean, well-kept with many evidences of taste and refinement about them.”Learn more about Black life in New York in the early 20th century.
Upon arriving in the North, Black men and women did not find a warm welcome in the industries or professions in which they looked for work. They faced strenuous and dangerous working conditions in factories and slaughterhouses, with little opportunity to move up in industrial jobs. Black workers were explicitly barred from labor unions and used by factories to break strikes, which increased the antagonism from white workers, often recent European immigrants.
Most jobs available were unskilled (“menial”) labor and service jobs—no great improvement from what was available to them in the South. Black men were hired as porters, chauffeurs, and janitors, and Black women—who often found jobs more easily than men—worked as laundresses, domestics, and in child care.
In Rachel, Grimké shows examples of better paid service jobs available to Blacks.
Grimké’s portrayal of a widowed mother also reflects the situation of many Black women who came to the North on their own and became heads of their households.
Many Northern states abolished school segregation in the years between 1865 and 1890. New York State passed a law in 1900 that “no person shall be excluded from any public school...on the account of race or color”. These integration policies were often driven by a desire to avoid the cost of operating a dual school system, rather than a commitment to racial equity. Grimké’s play shows how Black students in an integrated neighborhood school faced bullying and ostracism from white classmates and harmful discrimination from their teachers.
Northern anti-segregation laws were passed when Black students were still a small percentage of the population. As the Black population grew in the early 20th century, so did racial tensions in the schools. Districts across the North introduced segregation policies—such as assigning Black students to separate classrooms or schools—which continued long into the 20th century.
Photo Above: A page from the 1923 Crisis magazine edited by W. E. B. Du Bois for the NAACP.
Rachel has been identified as the forerunner of “lynching plays” by Black authors in the early 20th century. Grimké explores the emotional legacy of trauma, violence, and terror through the experience of one Black family, which speaks to the lived experience of thousands.
The act of lynching—an unsanctioned mob killing, typically by hanging, of an individual in retaliation for an alleged offense—originated on the American West, where vigilante justice was the norm before western territories became incorporated into the U.S. government. Lynching in the South transformed after the Civil War. Groups of former Confederate soldiers began organizing into large paramilitary groups—most famously, the Ku Klux Klan (founded in 1865)—and lynching emerged as a tool of racial control.
Lynchers looked for any transgression—real or invented—to enforce white supremacy and inflict terror. They frequently accused Black men of rape, based on their own fears about interracial relationships. Any allegation of a crime, violent or minor, or any perceived social transgression, allowed Black people to become targets of violence. Grimké’s plot indicates that Black business people and community leaders who challenged the status quo were also at risk, and the years between 1915-1940 saw an increased number of lynchings of ministers and community leaders. While some lynchings were hidden affairs, others were conducted as public spectacles, attended by thousands of white people who supported these demonstrations of racial control.
The first year without a lynching on record in the U.S. was 1952, but the decline of lynching has corresponded with an increase in capital punishment enforced against Black people.
“There are very few monuments or memorials that address the history and legacy of lynching in particular or the struggle for racial equality more generally. Most communities do not actively or visibly recognize how their race relations were shaped by terror lynching.” —from Lynching In America, by the Equal Justice Initiative (2017)Learn more about lynching in America.
Grimké, like other authors of lynching plays, chose not to stage the violent act itself, but focused on the impact of lynching on every aspect of Black lives. With the play, Grimké hoped to appeal to white women, stating, “If...the white women of this country could see, feel, understand just what effect their prejudice and the prejudice of their fathers, brothers, husbands, sons were having on the souls of the colored mothers everywhere, and upon the mothers that are to be, a great power to affect public opinion would be set free and the battle would be half won.” ♦Read Angelina Weld Grimké’s essay about the play.
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