A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States


       There are novelty maps that you buy called "A New Yorker's view of the U.S." The map shows a massive Manhattan Island, with a George Washington Bridge leading out to an enormous desert--nothing, just dry barren land; the desert ends on the coast line of California, on which there are just a few visible eruptions like Los Angeles and San Francisco. To the New Yorker, the Mid -West literally doesn't exist; it's only something one flies over in order to get to the coast where there may be some primitive signs of life.
        What would the Progressive Era have looked like to African-Americans? In most textbooks, the Progressive Era is as clearly demarcated as the Rocky Mountains. 1900-1914. The Age of Reform. You can hold it, you can touch it, you can see it. It's there. For the weary and lost traveler trying to navigate history, its a sure landmark, a chronological anchor. But from the Black perspective, the historical map must have seemed very different. For them this "Era" barely happened. I'd go so far as to say that many Blacks didn't know that there had been a Progressive Era until long after it was over, so barely did it exist for them. The hardships of immigrants were the focus for well-meaning Progressives. But the problems of African-Americans weren't  really on the Progressive agenda. To fully understand the point Blacks had come to by 1900, one has to go back...
back....and further back....all the way...
         The Civil War had ended. The South had lost, or so it seemed. The central question facing the nation in the aftermath of the war and Lincoln's assassination was the "reconstruction" of the South (and the nation). On what terms would southern states be readmitted to the Union? And what would be the future of the Black man (and woman)? It's on this latter question that we focus here. What emerges in the immediate post-war years is a continuing power struggle between the North and the South, with the North attempting to consolidate its victory and the South attempting to seize victory from the jaws of defeat. This struggle can best be understood through the metaphor of high-stakes

chess game.
                                     NORTH                                                       SOUTH

1st move: the 13th amendment (see handout)
                                                                         Countermove: The Black Codes are passed
                                                                                  in  southern states, 1870's (read)
Countermove: Freedmen's Bureau established
                       14th Amendment ratified
                        Reconstruction governments organized
                                                                                      Countermove: KKK organized
Countermove: 15th amendment ratified
                       Union army kept in South
                       Generals rule as governors
                                                                                            the "Compromise of 1877"

          The chart is explained below.
          In 1865, the North freed the slaves and permanently ended slavery  through the 13th Amendment (Amazingly, there are still cases of slavery prosecuted in the United States every year!) For southern whites the loss of their slaves represented a catastrophic loss of  their labor force. So the South (by which I mean the white South) counterattacked. One southern state after another passed so-called Black Codes. (Stop and read them now!)  As you can see, the purpose of the Codes was essentially to reintroduce slavery under another name. Through complex labor contracts, Blacks, supposedly now free, were tied to the land, and could only leave under great penalty. They were rendered even more helpless by codes which denied them the right to own firearms and which compelled them to call their employers "master", thus perpetuating the racist rituals of slavery days.
           The Radical Republicans who controlled the United States Congress said NO WAY!! to this southern scheming. They realized that the South was trying to get around the intent of the 13th Amendment (Read the three so-called "Civil War Amendments"--the 13th, the 14th, the 15th; they are quite brief). So the Radical Republicans who were committed to Black liberation went into action. They organized the Freedman's Bureau--sort of a domestic Peace Corps--whose job it was to set up schools and hospitals for poor Blacks and whites and to supervise the labor contracts Blacks were being pressured to

sign. This was done to ensure that Blacks were not forced back into slavery. The federal government also pushed through the 14th Amendment which nullified the Black Codes.

         Note the 3 parts to the 14th Amendment:

1) People in this country have two citizenships, one in their state, and one in the United                                  States.
2) States (therefore) can not take away someone's federal rights; and no rights can ever                                 be taken away by states or by the national government without "due process of law"                           (trials, etc). This is called the Due Process Clause.
3) Also citizens must enjoy the equal protection of the laws. Laws can't regulate or constrain  one group and not another. This is called the Equal Protection Clause.

         Given this protection, and backed by the guns of the Union army, African-Americans attempted to play a more active political role in the South by voting, running for office, and sometimes getting elected. It seemed Blacks were beginning to win real power over their lives. Alas, the South had another counterattack up its sleeve; the KKK (the Ku Klux Klan), which tried to make it clear to blacks that voting--even registering to vote--could be very dangerous business. The KKK sought to keep Blacks "in their place" through terror.
         The Radical Republicans were, however, hip to the program. They saw how determined the South was, how rough and nasty it was prepared to be to maintain white privilege. They said, ENOUGH!! What they did was very simple. First, Congress pushed through the 15th Amendment. In no uncertain terms Blacks are given the right to vote--whoops!--make that "Black males." Black women and white women would have to wait another 50 years for the right to vote, a fact which embittered many white female abolitionists. ("Wait," they were told: this is the "Negro's hour.") Second, the federal government decided to keep their troops in the South. In fact, they cut the South into military districts under the control of Union generals. Blacks could now vote, under the protection of the Union army's bayonets. So much for the Klan.
        And vote African-Americans did. They voted, were elected to state legislatures, and  a few were even elected to the U.S.Congress; One was elected Lieutenant Governor of
Louisiana. This was happening in the 1870's. From that time until the 1960's, southern views dominated historical interpretations of these Reconstruction governments. To the

white South,  African-Americans showed themselves incapable of government. Allegedly, Black representatives drank wine and shucked peanuts on the floors of the state legislature. A real joke,  laughingstocks -- yet one more humiliation forced on the white South by the North. In the 1960's, interpretations began to change; suddenly research established that the "Reconstruction governments" --while far from perfect -- were the first in southern history to pass laws which benefited poor southerners, white and black, through public school education laws, the creation of hospitals, low interest loans, etc. The wonderful novel Freedom Road tells the story well.

         It looked like the South had been outfoxed or at least out-gunned, but along came the Presidential election of 1877. And here follows the strange tale of how it can be seriously argued that, in one important respect, the South actually won the Civil War. The race pitted Republican Rutherford Hayes against the Democrat Samuel Tilden. All things being equal, the South would vote for Tilden rather than for the accursed party of Lincoln. Here's the weirdness: Tilden won the popular vote; more people voted for him than for Hayes. But the electoral vote was tied, with but a few disputed southern electoral votes waiting to determine who the next President would be. Hayes resolved that he very much wanted to be President and decided to play,"Let's make a deal." The deal was, he would agree to pull federal troops out of the South if  the disputed votes were cast for him. It was a deal that neither Hayes nor the South could refuse. The deed was done, and the so-called "Compromise of 1877" was made (some called it the "Great Sell-out" of 1877). Hayes became President, and the federal troops headed back North. You might already have guessed  that things didn't look too good for Black people in the South.

Terms so far
Reconstruction                           the KKK
Radical Republicans                  The Compromise of 1877
13, 14 & 15 amendments          Hayes-Tilden contest
Black Codes                                Freedmen's bureau
Reconstruction governments    

         In very short order, Black people were placed under a reign of terror initiated by the Klan. The integrated reconstruction state governments, which Blacks and poor whites had voted for and served in, were physically attacked and dispersed by southern racists. Southern state governments were returned to the control of the so-called "Redeemers" -- the
very same wealthy, elite southerners who had controlled southern society before the Civil War. The "Redeemer governments" busily re-wrote the history books, as far as

Reconstruction was concerned (making Blacks look as bad and incompetent as possible) and they went and did something worse: they proceeded to take the vote away from Black males. This was a pretty nifty trick, as the 15th Amendment was quite clear on this subject. However, southern politicians proved equal to the task. Now that there were no federal troops to stop them, Southern state after state added various clauses to their state constitutions, restricting the right to vote in the following ways:
          1) Anyone could vote as long as their grandfather had voted. Alas, the grandfathers of Blacks happened to have been slaves and couldn't vote. This was called the Grandfather  Clause.
          2) Anyone could vote as long as they could prove they could read. White people were given "Dick and Jane" books to read; Blacks were given Bill Schechter's lecture notes. This  was called the Literacy Test.
           3) Anyone could vote as long as they could pay a special voting tax. Guess who didn't have the money? This was called the Poll Tax  (It was only declared unconstitutional in 1964).
           4) Anyone could vote as long as they could get a letter from their employers attesting to  their good character. Certain folks just couldn't seem to get that letter. This was                                 called the Good Character Test.

         This all happened in the 1880's and 1890's. Note that none of the distinctions were made on the basis of race per se, thus they cleverly skirted around the 15th Amendment. But they did succeed in removing most southern African-Americans from the voting rolls. And when all else failed, the KKK was ready to step in and do their worst. Thus were southern Blacks disenfranchised (meaning: lost the right to vote, "franchise" being a synonym for the " right to vote"), and they would not vote again in large numbers until the '60's, only thirty years ago.
         The worst, however, was still to come.
           In 1896, when the country was already reeling from an Excedrin-extra strength economic depression, and as the spectre of revolution shadowed the Bryan/ McKinley tussle, a very important case came before the Supreme Court. It dealt with the arrest of a
Louisiana man who had been asked to move from the train seat in which he was sitting to
the "Black" section of the train in the rear. He refused,  was arrested, and was convicted of

violating the Louisiana state laws requiring segregation on trains. The man--Homer Plessy was his name--appealed, and his case wound its way up to the Supreme Court ("Plessy vs Ferguson"). He claimed that the state law violated his 14th Amendment rights to the "equal protection of the law." The Court's momentous decision was as follows: the 14th Amendment says that before the law all races are equal BUT it doesn't say that that different races must enjoy their equal rights in the SAME PLACE! Thus the Court established the so-called "separate but equal doctrine," which stated that state laws could require separation of races as long as facilities were equal. In short, a system of racial segregation was constitutional. When the dust settled, the South had become a totally segregated society, cradle to grave. And this was segregation by law. The system acquired the rather folksy name, "Jim Crow". Whatever the name, whether Jim Crow here or apartheid there, it was a brutal, humiliating, inhuman, lethal system.
          Please note the handout which summarizes some state Jim Crow laws. You will see reflected in them the obsession to make illegal--very illegal--any interracial sex or marriage. These laws remained on the books of many states until being overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967. (That isn't a typo!). Until that date, in a vast region of our country, it was virtually illegal for two people of different skin colors to fall in love.
       One yet worse horror was to follow. The white leaders of the South ("the Redeemers", remember) were very threatened by the Populist Movement, which in the South was having some success in bringing together poor white and Black farmers for the first time. This didn't bode well for the elite; keeping the poor divided and fighting each other better served the interests of the rich and politically powerful. So they devoted their energies to whipping up racial hatred to a white heat, and succeeded in inflaming the racial fears of southern whites. And so there began in the 1890's (please place this layer on top of those already laid down:  the depression, the class struggles, the Spanish-American War, etc) an orgy of violence against Blacks. By the early years of the century, lynchings (hangings) of African-Americans had become so routine, so "normal" that they warranted little space in local newspapers. About 5000 African-Americans were killed in this way between 1865 and 1920. During some of these years there averaged one lynching every two days. (Please see examples of newspaper lynching reports).
      So by 1900 a very distinct society had been created in the South. Southerners referred  to it as the "southern way of life." Historians call it the "Closed Society," and it rested on 4 main pillars:

 • The Political pillar..............the disenfranchisement of Blacks
 • The Economic pillar...........the sharecropper system which kept Blacks a cheap labor
                                                             force and trapped them in poverty
• The Psychological pillar.....terror, supplied by the KKK
• The Social pillar..................the Jim Crow System

         This is what life had become for southern African-Americans on the eve of the 20th Century. Who had won the Civil War anyway? Yes, slavery had been abolished, but a vicious caste system had taken its place. What was life like for those Blacks who had migrated (fled?) to the North? It was during the Progressive period that the northern Black urban ghettos began to form. Though segregation by law was less common in the North, poverty and degradation were still the rule for Blacks. While the immigrants were pouring in and leading their well-documented, hard lives on the Lower East Side of New York, here's what life was like for Black people in the City of Chicago, where according to one study in 1910:

         • 45% of employed Black males were janitors, waiters, servants or porters
         • 63% of employed Black women were domestic servants or laundresses
One more figure for the so-called Progressive Era: between 1900 and 1914, 100 Blacks were lynched each year.
          In class, we've already discussed Roosevelt's and Wilson's contradictory attitudes toward Blacks. These also form part of the Black history of the Age of Reform. There was one bright spot, however. In 1908, Jack Johnson became the first Black heavyweight champion boxer of the world. This development didn't make many white people -- the so-called superior race -- very happy. Neither did the fact that Johnson wasn't considered a good example for other Blacks. He was arrogant, didn't take any guff from whites -- and worst of all, he had a white girlfriend. Whites desperately tried to find a "Great White Hope" who could defeat Johnson in the ring and redeem the honor of the white race. Alas, Johnson kept punching their lights out, and smiled when he did it. Finally they got him though. Using the Mann Act which prohibited the transportation of young females across state lines (to prevent the spread of prostitution rings), they arrested Johnson claiming his white girlfriend must be a prostitute -- why else would she be with him? Not waiting to disentangle this contorted logic, Johnson fled the country and returned years later a broken man,  his best fighting years lost. (An incredible parallel with Muhammad Ali, who also was criticized by whites for being an "uppity nigger", and who also was "de-throned" as a result of his refusal to fight in Vietnam).
      So this was the picture folks, not a pretty one. Brutalized, beaten at every turn, Black people endured, and not only endured but sought strategies to fight back to win their true liberation. As you can imagine this was a formidable task against great odds. Two men rose to prominence with very different ideas about how to lead their people out of their new bondage. Their names were Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, and to Blacks, they came to mean a whole lot more than Progressive heroes like LaFollette, TR, and Wilson. To Blacks, these latter names were mere abstractions. It is to the ideas of Washington and DuBois that we now turn.

Disenfranchisement strategies                
The Closed Society                                    
Jim Crow
Plessy vs Ferguson      
W.E.B. DuBois                
Booker T Washington
Jack Johnson

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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