African‐Americans after Reconstruction

In much of the country in the late nineteenth century, social tensions were defined in terms of rich versus poor, native‐born versus immigrant, and worker versus capitalist. In the states of the former Confederacy, despite all the calls for a New South in the years after Reconstruction, tensions continued to center upon the relations between blacks and whites. Although a small percentage of African‐Americans found work in the new iron foundries and steel mills, they were generally barred from the textile mills that grew into the region's major industry. Mill owners preferred to use white women and children rather than blacks, who were increasingly portrayed as lazy, ignorant, and shiftless. Consequently, the overwhelming majority of African‐Americans were tied to the land as sharecroppers or tenant farmers. By 1900, segregation was institutionalized throughout the South, and the civil rights of blacks were sharply curtailed.

Jim Crow laws and segregation. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1875, racial discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels, railroads, and theaters was prohibited. Several challenges to the law were mounted in the courts. In 1883 the Supreme Court ruled in the Civil Rights Cases that the Act was invalid because it addressed social as opposed to civil rights. Furthermore, the Court noted that the Fourteenth Amendment protected people against violations of their civil rights by states, not by the actions of individuals (for example, when the owner of a hotel refused to rent a room to an African‐American). In the wake of the decision, state legislatures throughout the South enacted laws that legalized racial segregation in essentially all public places, from schools to hospitals to restaurants. The Supreme Court upheld such Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in its landmark decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In this case, the Court set forth its famous separate but equal doctrine, which stated that segregation in itself did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, provided the facilities for blacks and whites were equal.

Segregated facilities, whether schools or public transportation, were rarely equal. For example, while several Southern states spent nearly the same amount on the education of whites and blacks in 1890, there was a tremendous disparity in spending in favor of whites within 20 years. Legalized segregation also reinforced the notions of white racial superiority and African‐American inferiority, creating an atmosphere that encouraged violence, and during the 1890s lynchings of blacks rose significantly. Despite these obvious problems, the concept of separate but equal was not overturned by the Supreme Court until 1954.

Losing the right to vote. The end of Reconstruction did not mean an end to African‐American political influence in the South. Blacks continued to serve in several state legislatures as late as 1900 and were even elected to Congress after 1877, albeit from all‐black districts. However, a change took place in the 1890s as attitudes about race became more strongly felt and the prospect of an electoral alliance between poor whites and blacks that could threaten the power structure became a possibility. While the Fifteenth Amendment ensured that African‐Americans could not be denied the right to vote simply because they were African‐American, the southern states came up with various ways to disenfranchise blacks.

Mississippi's 1890 constitution imposed limitations on voting that were aimed primarily at African‐Americans. These limitations included residency requirements, disqualification of individuals convicted of even minor crimes, payment of all taxes (including the poll tax), and a literacy test. Loopholes existed within these restrictions to favor whites who might have been otherwise ineligible to vote. For example, an illiterate person who could demonstrate to the registrar that he “understood” the constitution would be allowed to vote. Louisiana adopted the so‐called grandfather clause, which allowed men to vote if their fathers or grandfathers had been eligible to vote as of January 1, 1867. No blacks had the right to vote anywhere in the South at that time. Although the Supreme Court ultimately declared the grandfather clause unconstitutional, this and similar laws drastically cut African‐American voter registration in the South by 1900.

The African‐American response. Blacks responded to increasing discrimination in several ways. The initial wave of the Great Migration of African‐Americans, moving from the rural South to the urban North, began in the 1890s, and there was a very small emigration back to Africa as well. Former slaves established all‐black towns in Tennessee, Kansas, and the Oklahoma Territory, and organized early civil rights organizations such as the Citizens Equal Rights Association (1887) and the Afro‐American League (1890). The divisions within the African‐American community on how best to achieve equality were reflected in the disparate philosophies of two men: Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois.

The founder of the Tuskegee Institute (1882), an agricultural and vocational training school in Alabama, Washington believed that blacks should concentrate on economic self‐improvement rather than on demanding social equality and civil rights. After he outlined his views in a speech in Atlanta in 1895, which included an apparent acceptance of segregation, his accommodationist position became known as the Atlanta Compromise. Massachusetts‐born and Harvard‐trained Du Bois attacked Washington's philosophy in his The Souls of Black Folks (1903). He believed that education for blacks had to include more than learning a trade, and he demanded access to higher education. Indeed, Du Bois believed it would be this educated African‐American elite that would lead the way to equality by using the ballot box in states where they could vote and “agitation,” or protest, where they could not.