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Race Relations

At the turn of the century (thirty-five years after the Civil War had ended) most people in the United States of African descent still lived in the South. The South was changing in that fabric manufacturing was increasing. Atlanta had already become a factory town, and with its skyscrapers it looked like a northern city.

Many blacks were still working on plantations and many were working as sharecroppers. Some were living well despite the failure of reconstruction, but most former slaves were without property.

For some Southern whites ideological change would come slowly. There were still those who believed that the Bible described blacks as inferior and a damned people. At this point in history many Southern whites still saw blacks as ineducable. Many whites still believed in the divine right of whites to rule, which fit with the extension of imperialism that had been taking place in the world in recent decades. Among Southern whites there was still fear that white power would melt away if equal rights were granted to blacks, that people of African heritage would overwhelm people of European heritage.

To preserve their culture and maintain the status it was common among whites to favor a public separation of the races. In 1896 the Supreme Court in a case called Plessy versus Ferguson sided with Southern states that wanted "separate but equal" facilities for blacks. By the turn of the century, "White Only" and "Colored Only" signs were common. There were laws describing where blacks could and could not reside, attend church, eat, use public toilets or drink water, and most whites outside the South cared little about this segregation, and there were probably more than a few who sympathized with it.

Laws against racially-mixed marriages had existed in the colonies before US independence. The laws also criminalized cohabitation and sex between whites and non-whites, and there were bans on marriages between whites and Native Americans or Asians — hopes apparently to prevent the blendings that had begun with master-slave relations in the US and the mix of European, Indian and black relations common in the Americas.

Politically the South was dominated by Democrats and to protect their dominance and white power they created literacy tests, poll taxes and long residency requirements for voting. In Southern states many identified as Negroes became disenfranchized. Maryland, Tennessee and Kentucky were exceptions, and in the cities of Houston and Antonio (Texas), city administrators made in possible for blacks to vote.

Meanwhile, vigilantism still existed, and lynching was its common method (as it was with vigilantism of whites against whites). According to the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law, 25 whites were lynched during the year 1901 in the US, and 125 blacks.

In Mississippi, racism and fear were expressed by "night riding" whites attempting to force black farmers to abandon the land they owned or rented. There and elsewhere in the Deep South many blacks remained at the mercy of whims of whites. Some whites were too dumb to see a connection between the oppression put upon black men and these men defending themselves by their shuffling and cringing, these whites seeing it instead as another indication of black inferiority. The Deep South had its brighter and white citizens, and citizens who were highly educated, but it had men of low status who found pleasure in having others they could consider as lower in status than they.

The oppression of blacks included arrests on trumped-up charges with extended jail or prison terms with the victims leased to mine owners, farms, logging companies and other industries. The victims existed without amenities, with excruciating chain-gang drudgery and beatings for discipline. During the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) the US Justice Department moved to end this slavery — slavery being unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court held to a strict interpretation of slavery. This meant that Congressional action was needed to end the manner in which black men were being entrapped, but Congressional action would not be forthcoming.

Some blacks sought a better life for themselves through migration, and some southern landowners became distressed at losing black workers. In the North, blacks found employers hiring immigrant white workers. These were times when real wages had stopped rising in the North, wages having been bid down by the supply of immigrant labor.*   Blacks from the South found urban slums, prejudice, resentment and fear. In the North, blacks were being ridiculed in vaudeville shows and in some popular songs. And the jobs that blacks acquired paid only about half what whites were paid for the same or comparable work.

There was a lot of pessimism and many who were satisfied with the existing order of things, but there those who wanted reforms. Mark Twain was one of them. Another was the labor leader and Socialist Party candidate for US President, Eugene Debs. In a 1903 article titled "Danger Ahead" he would write:

The class struggle is colorless... Socialists should with pride proclaim their sympathy with and fealty to the black race, and if any there be who hesitate to avow themselves in the face of ignorant and unreasoning prejudice, they lack the true spirit of the slavery-destroying revolutionary movement... When I see the poor, brutalized, outraged black victim, I feel a burning sense of guilt for his intellectual poverty and moral debasement that makes me blush for the unspeakable crimes committed by my own race.

Another progressive on the issue of race was Theodore Roosevelt.

* See Real Wages in the United Sates 1890–1926 by Paul H. Douglas, referenced by Samuel Eliot Morison.

CONTINUE READING: The Roosevelt Presidency and US to November 1904

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.