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Exploring the Lives of African American Youth in the Early 20th Century

Dr. Hylan G. Lewis, undated.

Hylan Lewis was born in Washington D.C. in 1911. He received his B.A. from Virginia Union University (1932) and his M.A. (1936) and Ph.D. (1951) from the University of Chicago. Lewis would become a sociologist and a pioneer in the field of community studies. He began his career at Howard University where he was an Instructor in Sociology and Economics from 1933-1941. During his tenure at Howard University in 1937, Lewis taught a course titled Sociology 125: Social Psychology. The students in this particular class were tasked with writing about their early lives. Within the Hylan G. Lewis papers at the Amistad Research Center, there are a number of these essays that have survived. These accounts offer extraordinary insight into African American families and African American childhood experiences during the early 20th century.

There are twenty three student essays written by men and women from various economic and social backgrounds who grew up in urban, suburban, and rural areas. At times the accounts revealed intimate details about parental, sibling, platonic, romantic, and interracial relationships. By reading each essay, one can recognize just how varied the lives of African Americans were at the turn of the century. In his life history, Washington G. Garner, born in Paris, Kentucky in 1914, discussed the mischief that he and his playmates got into as children stating:

As years went by our playmates increased in number until it was easily

called a “Boys Gang.” The gang was composed of about fourteen boys.

All white except myself and another Negro boy. We were all around the same

age with the exception of one white boy. I shared the leadership of the gang

with this older boy. All the boys were children of respectable families. Our

activities included everything imaginable. We would steal, kill people’s

chickens, ride freight trains, and run up accounts on our parent’s grocery bill.

Hazel Dixon’s childhood was not littered with disobedience like Washington’s. She was born in Winterville, North Carolina in 1918. Dixon had very vivid memories of her negative childhood friendships, and she seems to have also had a strained relationship with her mother growing up. She stated:

Instructions for writing life history, circa 1937.

……I was away from my mother. I did not feel the love and close feeling

a child should have for a parent. I believe mother was interested in my

welfare as far as health and education were concerned, socially she did

not see the necessity of that phase of my life. As a result I had no friends,

they did not seem to be able to mix with me. They said I was too friendly,

talked too much, too anxious to please teachers, mother, and older people.

Lewis was very detailed in his instructions for students, giving them the option to focus on many aspects of their lives. He explicitly asked for students to reveal personal family situations, to give concrete experiences, and to be as accurate as possible. Lewis also ensured his students that their narratives would remain strictly confidential. The result was a wealth of information given to Lewis that he probably would not have received so freely outside of an academic space. These histories would inform the type of sociological studies that he would perform for the rest of his career.

Images from the Race Relations Department records and the Hylan G. Lewis papers. Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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