The World 100 Years Ago

By Channing Icenogle

Currently, the country is dealing with the impacts of a pandemic, social injustice is the subject of discussion in the news and a new president has just been sworn into office. However, the previous sentence could also be used to describe the state of the country 100 years prior, in 1921. Even though a century has passed, many of the issues and topics that were prevalent then are still relevant. From things like politics to pop culture, there are many parallels between 1921 and 2021, even though we are only a few months into 2021. Perhaps reflecting on 1921 could provide insight into how the rest of 2021 may turn out. 

1921 was a year focused on recovery, restoration and overall improvement. With Warren G. Harding, freshly elected as President, the United States was focusing on internal as well as external improvement. Just one year earlier, women had been given the right to vote with the passing of the 19th amendment. Outside of becoming increasingly politically active, women began to create social reform regarding mannerisms, expectations, and gender norms. Social feminism was common as young women began behaving differently from previous generations. These ‘new women’ of the 1920s changed society’s expectations and perception of women through the flapper movement. During the progressive era, there was also a focus on workers’ rights and remedying the injustices created by the industrial revolution. Workers began to receive more rights, and the first form of social security began to form in the United States. Progress was being made in the early stages of the civil rights movement as writer, activist and NAACP founder W.E.B Du Bois wrote for The Crisis describing the discrimination and attacks that African Americans faced. However, conflict over the civil rights movement caused the Tulsa Race Massacre in late May and early June of 1921. A young Black man by the name of Dick Rowald was accused of sexually assaulting white elevator operator Sarah Page on May 30. As rumors spread around Tulsa and beyond, armed white people began to loot, pillage and damage the prominently black Greenwood neighborhood. The prosperous business district often called “Black Wall Street” was severely impacted as many buildings were destroyed and harmed during the riots. While 36 were confirmed dead, some historians estimate that number could be closer to 300. Social reform events like these began to define the 1920s as a period of change and gradual societal progress. 

Furthermore, 1921 was a year of recovery, specifically from the Spanish Flu outbreak that lasted from 1919 to 1920. The previous pandemic had left the country in disarray, as unemployment rose 3%, and GDP dropped by 1.5% in America. A key thing to remember is that America handled that outbreak very well, and compared to other nations, the impacts weren’t too large.

Today, we are still facing many pressing social issues that have begun to create change in numerous areas. The tragic deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, have had a significant impact on our current social state. Discussions both virtually and in-person have occurred regarding topics like systematic racism, microaggressions and police brutality. Although not much political action has been taken towards matters like defunding the police or restructuring our justice system, the movement had an impact on numerous people socially. With access to the internet, the people also have ‘cancel culture’ as a way to achieve supposed social justice by calling out others for their mistreatment or harmful behavior towards others. 

On top of that, we see a pandemic ravaging our country once again. Similar to the Spanish Flu that had affected the world in 1918, COVID-19 is also what is considered to be a novel virus. This means that both of these infections had never been widespread before the time of the pandemic. Because of this, these viruses cause major damage as limited knowledge on the illness causes it to spread rapidly within the population. Even a century ago, people were urged to wear masks and face coverings to prevent the spread of disease. Although, back then masks were made of cheesecloth and gauze, and today people tend to use fabric, medical and N-95 masks to protect themselves and others. However, if we are following the course of history, we can expect that Covid-19 should be (mostly) a thing of the past by 2022. For the Spanish Flu, there were multiple waves of the virus that spread, but within two years the majority of the population had been exposed and were over the disease by 1920. Hopefully, with the new Covid-19 vaccines that are being distributed, we can end the pandemic much sooner. 

Recently, there have been some political parallels as well. This January Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. Like President Harding, President Biden came into office promising plans to focus on internal improvement of the United States. Plans like increasing the minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour have been proposed to help create a sustainable base living wage. Due to the pandemic, many workers have been laid off due to businesses not being able to operate. Those who were not deemed to be essential workers were at risk of losing their jobs; roughly 114 million people lost their jobs because of Covid-19 throughout 2020. Workers’ rights and wages have been increasingly talked about as the economic damage of the pandemic has hit lower-wage service jobs particularly hard.