Throwback Thursday: Looking Back at 1921 and the Twenty-third General Assembly – Part 1

by Patti Dahlberg

If we went back fifty regular legislative sessions and one hundred years, what would we find?

In Colorado, as a result of the November 1920 election (the first national election in which women were able to vote), Republicans retained control of the Colorado House of Representatives with 58 Republicans to seven Democrats, and Democrats lost control of the Colorado Senate with 24 Republicans to 11 Democrats.

Coloradans passed four ballot measures:

Six ballot measures failed:

  • Four initiatives: “Practice of chiropractic and providing for the regulation and licensing thereof”, “Creating the County of Limon”, “Creating the County of Flagler”, and “Providing for the construction of the Moffat, Monarch, and San Juan tunnels and a bond issue therefor”; and
  • Two referred measures: “Increasing the salaries of the Governor, the Secretary to the Governor, Justices of the Supreme Court, and judges of the district courts” and “Increasing the number of county judges”.

So what was the economic, political, and social climate in America leading up to the 1921 legislative session?

In September of 1920, America suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history (at least until the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing) when a large explosive on a horse-drawn carriage was detonated on a busy Wall Street corner. The explosion killed 38 people and injured hundreds of others. In Colorado, the Denver Tramway Strike of 1920 left seven people dead and 50 injured. The Ku Klux Klan, founded during Civil War Reconstruction and known for violence against Blacks, reemerged in the 1920s and started targeting immigrants and certain religious organizations. The Klan tied their messages to the issues of prohibition and clean living. Finding a more mainstream audience as a result, they became involved in local and state politics in many states. Several race riots took place across the country, most notably the Tulsa race massacre where mobs of white residents destroyed 35 square blocks of a predominantly Black business district, leaving at least 35 people dead, and more than 800 people hospitalized. Historians now believe that up to 300 people may have died due to the violence.

On a brighter note, women won the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was ratified by two-thirds of the states on August 18, 1920, (Colorado ratified the 19th Amendment on December 15, 1919, during a special legislative session) and in the November election, Colorado elected three women to serve in the Colorado House of Representatives. Colorado actually initiated female representation in its House of Representatives in 1895 when the citizens elected Clara Cressingham, Carrie Holly, and Frances Klock. The electronic news media was born when a Pennsylvania radio station began airing regular news broadcasts.

The economic prosperity and freewheeling social spirit associated with the Roaring Twenties started with a struggling economy. The Spanish flu pandemic killed around 675,000 Americans (50 million people worldwide) before it was all over. A great number of the flu deaths were among working-age adults, and economists have suggested that the flu was responsible for a six to eight percent decline in worldwide gross domestic product. In addition, the adjustment from a wartime to peacetime economy proved to be a shock to the U.S. economy. Factories had to shut down completely or shut down until retooled to produce other products. Another factor that may have contributed to the economic downturn was a surge in the civilian labor force created when the troops returned from the war, adding to unemployment numbers and wage stagnation. In 1918, the Armed Forces employed 2.9 million people, which fell to 380,000 by 1920. As Europe recovered from war devastation, its agricultural output increased, causing a decline in American agricultural commodity prices. The Dow Jones hit a peak of 119.6 on November 3, 1919, only to spiral downward for the next 20 months, finally bottoming out at 63.9 (a 47% decline) on August 24, 1921. 1920 was a terrible year for businesses; those that did not fail saw huge declines in profits. All these factors combined to cause a deflationary recession, later known as the Depression of 1920-1921, lasting from January 1920 to July 1921.

In Colorado, probably few people anticipated the economic impact the end of the war would have on our state. After all, the farming and mining industries, which had ramped up production to meet wartime demand, enjoyed an initially strong post-war market demand. But as Europe recovered and Europeans became less dependent on America for food and other products, prices fell and food producers found themselves hard pressed, especially on the plains of northeast Colorado. They had borrowed heavily to expand and cash in on the wartime bonanza. As returns diminished, debts were more difficult to service, and Coloradans were hurting.

In the second part of our look back at 1921 and the Colorado Legislature, we’ll take a closer look at the start of the 23rd General Assembly and how it met the challenges of its time.


1921 Tulsa Race Massacre