Up From Slavery

Up From Slavery Racism in the 1890s

The period after slavery saw dramatic change for African Americans. During the Reconstruction Era of the late 1860s and early 1870s, blacks were elected to political office and established a number of schools and colleges. By 1890, the amount of property owned by African Americans had tripled, and the literacy rate increased by over 40%. More blacks were voting, and a new generation rejected old patterns of deference towards whites. The "American dream" appeared to be a reality for a growing number of former slaves and their descendants.

Unfortunately, such gains were not to go unchallenged. First, between 1890 and 1905, every southern state passed laws designed to keep blacks from voting. Property taxes made it illegal for people to vote unless they owned property, while poll taxes put a tax on voting. Each of these practices discriminated against the poor, although one could argue they hurt poor whites as much as blacks. Literacy tests allowed for more discrimination, as election inspectors would ask voters to show their understanding of a piece of writing and could selectively exclude those they didn't wish to vote. The most blatantly exclusionary measures were "Grandfather clauses," which allowed each of these tests to be waived if a person's ancestors had voted before Reconstruction (i.e., if they were white). The results were devastating: by 1895, black voting in the south had decreased by 65%, and by 1900 it had practically ceased altogether.

Legal segregation of public facilities also began during this period. The south had been fairly integrated at first, with blacks and whites living near each other and frequenting the same institutions. New "Jim Crow Laws" established separate drinking fountains, restaurants, bathrooms, hotels, train cars, and so on, and the famous "white" and "coloured" signs appeared. The Supreme Court sanctified the laws in Plessy vs. Ferguson, ruling that it was constitutional to mandate separate but equal facilities. Counter to what Booker T. Washington advocated, this practice aimed to separate the races and keep blacks and whites from seeing what they had in common or from building any sense of community.

Finally, southern whites began a campaign of violence against African Americans through the practice of lynching. An average of 187 lynchings occurred each year in the 1890s - roughly two per week. Such lynchings tended to draw large crowds, and citizens took turns torturing the victim. Reasons could be as simple as talking disrespectfully or even being too prosperous, although the most common accusation was rape. Such lynchings were publically condoned, with white elected officials proudly bragging about their involvement.

Washington alludes to black disfranchisement and lynchings in his autobiography, but he is careful not to be too outspoken against them. While he secretly supported civil rights causes, he was wary of losing the support of white philanthropists by doing so publicly. Such a reaction earned him the scorn of black activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois, but made a lot of practical sense during the heated racial tensions of the day.