In Part One we looked at the beginnings of slavery in the western hemisphere, Part Two covered the era up to the Civil War and Part Three looked at the post war era and reconstruction. Today we will look at the turn of the century and into the 20th century. If you missed any of these installments simply click on the “part” number and the link will open.
For southerners, insult was added to injury with the “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” plus the occupation by the Union Army. Northerners who came down to take advantage of the situation (carpetbaggers) and southerners who were Republicans or sympathetic to Reconstruction (scalawags) were not well thought of to say the least, as the cartoon depicts. The KKK was formed in Tennessee in 1865 after the defeat in the war. Bitterness was widespread, and everywhere was a reminder of what had been and the new reality.
After Reconstruction, the plight of the former slaves got worse instead of better. The sharecropper arrangement was little better than being a slave. Those who had a marketable skill could find jobs in some cases, and for agriculture a tenant arrangement was a much better option. However none of these was ideal and many blacks found themselves desperate for survival. Disease and starvation were not uncommon. Those who sharecropped or tenant farmed were dependent on the quality and quantity of the harvest, and they often were dependent on the landowner for mules and equipment. With no assets they couldn’t borrow to make it through tough times. Sharecropping and tenant farming became the dominant form of farming in the cotton south until the 1950s.
The tremendous upheaval of society, millions of former slaves now free trying to survive and the end of Reconstruction set the stage for the end of the 19th century. The southerners labeled this post reconstruction period “Redemption”, a time in which white democrat dominated state legislatures enacted Jim Crow laws and, beginning in 1890, disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites through a combination of constitutional amendments and electoral laws. Bitter memories of the war and Reconstruction were major factors in imposing a period of white supremacy known as “The Age Of Jim Crow.”
Many of the aims of the more radical Republicans during Reconstruction were either unfulfilled or undermined. Turn of the century SCOTUS rulings upheld the changes in state constitutions and laws preventing most blacks from voting in the south until the 1960s. Federal enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments never happened until legislation was passed in the mid 1960s as a result of the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968).
In 1915, there was a revival of the KKK in Georgia. In many ways, the KKK was much like Al Qaeda or ISIS. There was not a centrally controlled organization. It was an idea and its efforts were carried out by like minded individuals and groups located throughout the south. This regeneration of the Klan was more than anti-black, they stood and acted against Roman Catholics, Jews, foreigners and organized labor. Their methods of intimidation included cross burnings, bombings, beatings, shootings and of course lynchings. At the federal level, there was never an anti-lynching law passed. Every single one was blocked by Democrats.
Blacks may no longer have been owned by a slave owner, but they had a new master, and as we learned in Part One, blacks were and are not the only slaves.
I believe at this time there were largely three forces as work; those who genuinely wanted to improve the plight of the former slaves, those who wanted to maintain a separation and those who wanted to take advantage of the situation for ulterior motives.
In the post slavery years, two powerful voices rose up among the black community, Frederick Douglass and Booker T Washington. Of course Douglass gained attention well before the Civil War with his book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in 1845, and eventually other books and newspapers. Douglass was an adult in slavery while Washington was a young boy during the Civil War. Booker put himself through school and later founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute which became Tuskegee University.
Both of these men were controversial in their own ways and certainly they were complex individuals. I’d encourage you to do some research on them. I cannot possibly mention all the important figures of this time, my intent is a high level overview of the progression of slavery and its aftermath.
While progress was being made in some cases, the southern states were digging their heels in, although perhaps it would more appropriate to day Democrats. The 1896 SCOTUS case of Plessy v Ferguson ruled that “separate but equal”, segregation, was legal. There was a move by Democrats to repeal the 14th and 15th amendments, and the “pro Klan” movie Birth of a Nation was the first ever movie played at the White House when Woodrow Wilson was president.
Woodrow Wilson brought Jim Crow to the north. Wilson immediately after inauguration moved to segregate the railway mail service and eventually the military. Wilson and many of his contemporaries were committed eugenicists, and as such believed that blacks were genetically inferior to whites. Of course this was also the time period in which Margaret Sanger began her work which led to Planned Parenthood and an attempt to stop the growth of the blacks at the source. We view Adolf Hitler as evil, yet many in this country shared his beliefs. I’m not saying here that Hitler was not evil, I’m saying he had plenty of company.
I sometimes wonder if Hitler had not done what he did, what might have occurred here in this country. A nation founded on liberty and freedom rounded up and interred well over 100,000 people without due process, one that embraced the idea of “social Darwinism” to determine a person’s worth.
Some notable quotes by Woodrow Wilson:
“Segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”
“The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation—until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”
“[Reconstruction government was detested] not because the Republican Party was dreaded but because the dominance of an ignorant and inferior race was justly dreaded.”
E.L. Godkin, the founder and editor of The Nation wrote in 1900 that “the Declaration of Independence no longer arouses enthusiasm; it is an embarrassing instrument which requires to be explained away. The Constitution is said to be “outgrown.’” Those who once “boasted that it had secured for the negro the rights of humanity and citizenship” now listen “in silence to the proclamation of white supremacy” and make “no protest against the nullifications of the 15th Amendment.”
Things were building to a crescendo in the black community, a pressure cooker that was about to pop and let off some steam. Another prominent figure was to emerge, and along with some dedicated Republicans the “Civil Rights” era ushered in a sea change in America. In our final part of the series we’ll look at the Civil Rights Era to today.