25 historians pick a surprising list of 20th-century turning points
On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, TIME proclaimed that his death was “the moment that changed America.” “There is little doubt that his death and its circumstances set loose the darker instincts of the American psyche, ” TIME’s editor Nancy Gibbs wrote then.
And, looking back on the 20th century—the epoch that TIME founder Henry Luce dubbed “the American century”—it’s clear that there were many such moments of change, instances big and small that cleared the way for something greater to come after. Many of those moments are easy to name: the assassinations, the invasions, the elections. Many are more subtle, their impact visible only in hindsight.
With that in mind, TIME invited experts to nominate 20th-century moments that changed the United States. Taken together, those moments create a chronology of an evolving country—and a century in which any moment might be the next big one.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Catches Fire (Mar. 25, 1911)New York Public Library / Getty Images Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911
By Michele Anderson
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company’s fire resulted in the tragic loss of nearly 150 young women and girls on March 25, 1911, in New York City. The garment workers at the company had been attempting to unionize to gain better wages and improved working conditions. The factory’s management responded by locking the workers into the building. Fabric scraps, oil and hot machines crammed into rooms on the upper floors of the ten-story building quickly unleashed an inferno within the building. With the exits blocked, girls attempted to use the rusted fire escape or jump from windows into the fire department’s dry-rotted nets, only to plunge onto the pavement in front of bystanders below. The tragedy was exasperated by the failure of the U.S. government to protect its citizens who were working in deplorable conditions, but it was difficult for anyone who saw the corpses lined up on sidewalks waiting for identification to deny the need for labor reform and improved fire safety equipment. The deaths unified female labor reformers of the Progressive era.
The Great Migration Begins (1915)Chicago History Museum / Getty Images African American men, women, and children who participated in the Great Migration to the north, with suitcases and luggage placed in front, Chicago, 1918.
By Isabel Wilkerson
In today’s world African Americans are viewed as urban people, but that’s a very new phenomenon: The vast majority of time that African Americans have been on this continent, they’ve been primarily Southern and rural. That changed with the Great Migration, a mass relocation of 6 million African Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North and West, starting in 1915.
This leaderless revolution, a response to oppression in the South, was set in motion by the labor shortage in the North during World War I. And once the door opened, a flood of people came. Those who migrated became the advance guard of the Civil Rights movement; they shaped our culture, from music to sports. On the other hand, one of the responses to their presence was fear and hostility. In these big cities that they had hoped would be refuges, they were still blocked from the American dream. The Great Migration was a watershed demographic change in our country’s history—and we’re still living with its effects today. (As told to Lily Rothman)
Isabel Wilkerson is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer of The Warmth of Other Suns, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Lynton History Prize from Harvard and Columbia universities and the Stephen Ambrose Oral History Prize, among other honors. The book is currently being developed into a TV adaption to be executive produced by Shonda Rhimes.
The Prophet Is Published (Sept. 23, 1923)Royal Photographic Society / Getty Images Kahlil Gibran in 1897
By Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen
In the aftermath of World War I, the Lebanese-born, Boston-based poet-philosopher Kahlil Gibran wrote what would become one of the world’s most translated works of philosophy:...