Many North Carolinians believed that the 1920s would be a decade of economic growth. They bought cars and goods advertised in national magazines, such as rayon dresses and vacuum cleaners. North Carolina’s white women could vote, and they expressed new freedom in short skirts and cigarettes. For the 75 percent of the state’s population who still lived in rural areas, these changes were evidence of both the decline of traditional values and the growing distance between urban and rural America.
Many North Carolinians moved to urban areas in search of jobs in textile mills, tobacco manufacturing, road construction, and furniture factories. The manufacturing sector grew in the 1920s.
Textile mills prospered as technological advances mechanized more of the manufacturing process. In 1925 Love opened a rayon mill in Burlington that grew into Burlington Mills, the nation’s leading producer of “synthetic silk.” Greensboro’s Bernard Cone applied new theories to minimize the waste of time, space, and manpower. This innovation preserved the profits of the textile mills.
Tobacco manufacturing and furniture production also contributed to North Carolina’s prosperity. North Carolinians found jobs in the ever-expanding tobacco industry. The state’s supply of timber helped the furniture industry grow. In the 1920s, North Carolina became the nation’s leading furniture producer.
The North Carolina government used this industrial prosperity to expand the state’s highway and road system, improve the education and health-care systems, and enact prison reform and mental health services.
But Roaring Twenties did not help North Carolina’s rural population. Agricultural overproduction drove prices down. Many farmers lost their land and migrated to the cities.
The influx of people to urban areas meant that there were often more workers than jobs. With higher levels of unemployment, workers lost the power to negotiate for better wages or better working conditions. A manager could always replace unhappy workers. Unstable cotton prices and overproduction reduced the profit margin of the textile plants. Higher production targets for workers led to more labor discontent in North Carolina.
Urbanization did provide new opportunities for African Americans. Many found jobs in the tobacco industry. They were banned from the textile industry, which had promised that the benefits of industrialization would go to whites. To make matters worse, the Ku Klux Klan expanded, and African Americans in North Carolina faced continual violence.
The Roaring Twenties were an era of prosperity that did not last. The economic struggles that farmers, textile workers, and African Americans experienced suggested deeper problems with the overall economy. In 1929 textile workers went on strike. Several months later, the stock market crashed, and the promise of continued prosperity ended.
Source: Roaring Twenties
By Dr. Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, Reprinted with permission from the Tar Heel Junior Historian. Fall 2003, NC Museum of History. Via NCpedia. org