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Jim Crow and the 1890s

Jim Crow and the 1890s

Key Terms

Poll Tax
Grandfather clause
Literacy test
Booker T. Washington
Jim Crow/segregation

A Blood Red Record: the 1890s and American Apartheid

Michael O'Malley, Spring 1999

Racism isn't always the same. There are some periods during which it seems to get much more intense. The 1890s were a period of intense, horrifying racial violence and deliberate, sustained political oppression of African Americans. This lecture tries to explain the extent of this racial hatred by looking at the ways Americans understand "race" itself. The violence of the 1890s was irrational, extreme, because "race" is an incoherent, irrational idea. An incoherent idea can't be defended in reasonable terms. When it's threatened, its defenders become irrational themselves, and they work to restore or shore up the boundaries that are threatened. This lecture also considers, and rejects, the idea that free markets will naturally remove racism.

Part I: Losing the "Race"

We will begin with a premise: that there is no such thing as "race." This may seem ridiculous--look around, professor! People are different races! We all understand what "race" means, but our understanding usually doesn't hold up under careful scrutiny. For one thing, scientists have no good definitions of "race." The term is not used, for example, to classify animals. No one talks about the "race" of Australian border collies. "Race" is a social construct, something we humans invented to make sense of the difference between people. It works in a very general way, but it's not stable. For example, what is the child of a black father and white mother? When does a dark skinned Latino man become a black man? Are Asian Indians white or black? When do American Indians stop being Asian? What would you call Tiger Woods? Americans see this problem most explicitly today in children of mixed parentage. Lenny Kravitz and the former "Prince" are two good examples--as people of "mixed race" they tend to be sort of confusing. The simplistic idea "race" can't account for them.

There are many "multi-racial" societies in the world--Brazil, South Africa, and the former Soviet Union are only a few of the many nations with mixed populations. Most multi-racial societies set up a special category for persons of mixed "race." South Africa, for example, had three basic categories: white, black, and "colored." Colored people generally enjoyed a higher status than dark people did; the lighter they were the higher their status. The United States has been mostly unique in insisting that everyone be either one race or another.

Historically, Americans have used the term "black" or "negro" to describe all persons with any African ancestry, no matter what they actually look like. Confronted with people like Tiger Woods, or the former Prince, Americans have generally insisted they are "black." In custom, Americans have usually observed the "one drop" rule, which said that "one drop of African blood is enough to color a whole ocean of caucasian whiteness. There were also laws established to define race. In most states, someone who was1/8 black (that is, had one great grandparent known to be "black") counted as legally "black," even though this is invisible to all intents and purposes. In some states, 1/16 (one great, great grandparent known to be "black") was the rule. Facing--literally--the fact that "black" and "white" were not fixed and unchanging categories, white Americans generally just preferred to ignore it. To make clear how silly and arbitrary this is, imagine reversing the terms a bit. Imagine that Shaquille O'Neal had an Irish great grandparent--this seems very likely, given his last name. If you reversed American traditions, O'Neal would be legally "Irish," not black--one drop of "irish" blood would be enough to color a whole ocean of blackness.

How did we get to a situation where states had to define what "black" meant? Although we sometimes imagine that hostility has always ben the rule, there has always been a great deal of "racial mixing" in America. Under slavery, it was common for owners to have sex with their female slaves. But working class Americans also tended to intermarry at higher rates than we might expect--hence O'Neal and Karl Malone. Living side by side, white and black people tend, as human beings, to "get together."

But American racism depends on the idea that there is a sharp, unbridgeable boundary between "the races." Racism assumes that white and black can never be equal or the same. Slavery depended on the idea that black people were racially inferior, and vastly different from whites, and slaveowners would sometimes claim this knowing that their own children--children they had fathered by slave women--were slaves. Doesn't this seem like a bizarre situation? That you would go around insisting on some vast difference between white and black, while all the time knowing that you were related to your slaves, seems to modern eyes absurd and grossly hypocritical. White Americans, in the South especially, could see all around them evidence that race was not some kind of fixed category. Yet they chose to believe in a vast difference, a very sharp and unbridgeable boundary, between white and black.

When these boundaries have threatened to collapse, whites have often responded with near hysteria, with ferocious violence.

Part II: The Generation of the 1890s

We'll begin here with a review of Reconstruction. There was, in the late 1860s and early 1870s, a period of dramatic political and economic gains for African Americans. They were elected to national and local offices, and were able to establish free public schools and colleges. But in the face of growing northern apathy and growing southern hostility, these gains were undone. By 1877 Reconstruction was declared over.

Between 1877 and 1890, despite overwhelming hostility, the standard of living for southern freedmen and women rose steadily. In that period, according to historian Leon Litwack:

  1. Total acreage owned by African Americans tripled
  2. School enrollment and literacy increased by over 40%

Historians have also noted that voting by African Americans also increased, and that in some districts African Americans were able to hold onto substantial political power. They also point to the crucial role played by African American schools and colleges like Howard, Morehouse, Fiske and Tuskeegee, and the appearance of a small but growing African American middle class of professionals--doctors lawyers, teachers.

But in addition to measurable change, historians also point to changes in attitude. A new generation, born in freedom, rejected old patterns of deference and dependence towards whites.

Charles Chesnutt, one of America's greatest African American writers, described the attitudes of this new generation in his brilliant novel of the 1890s, The Marrow of Tradition. One of his characters, a trained nurse, has been hired to work in the home of a wealthy white woman who retains an elderly ex-slave as a servant. "These old-time negroes,"the nurse thinks to herself,

Made her sick with their slavering over the white folks, who, she supposed, favored them and made much of them because they had once belonged to them--much the same reason why they fondled their cats and dogs. For her part, they gave her nothing but her wages, and small wages at that, and she owed them nothing more than equivalent service. It was purely a matter of business; she sold her time for their money. There was no question of love between them.

Chesnutt describes the decline of the old system of forced deference that had governed relations between masters and slaves. Wage labor, which theoretically makes no distinction between black and white, had replaced a system of exploitation--slavery--based entirely on racial distinctions. In the employment market the nurse should be simply a nurse--not a black nurse or a white nurse, but a nurse with certain skills. Theoretically, in a free market society a carpenter is just a carpenter, not a black carpenter or a white carpenter. An employer shouldn't care about anything but the skills and the wages. African Americans, in the 1890s, had pinned their hopes to the market, as we will see below.

By the 1890s, there was a generation gap between those born and raised under slavery and those raised free. Booker T. Washington was the most powerful spokesman for this new generation.

Washington was an impressive man of enormous dignity and keen persuasive skill. He had been born under slavery, the son of a slave mother and white father. He had learned to read and write with help of a benevolent white woman, and after freedom, he financed his own education and became an educator himself. He founded Tuskeegee Institute and became the most prominent spokesman for the African American community for the next 20 years.

Washington's life conformed to what many Americans, then and now, choose to believe about success. He had gone from "rags to riches," and "pulled himself up by his own bootstraps." He was born poor and ignorant to a fractured family. But with hard work, determination, luck and the help of a benevolent patron, rose to fame and fortune. He was the first African American to have dinner at the White House--though plenty of African Americans had served dinner there.

Washington advocated what we could call "middle class" values. He advised African Americans to work hard, to be honest, punctual and respectful, save money, to buy property, and live in quiet, modest virtue.

He advised no action on the question of civil rights and equality. "The wisest among our race,"he declared in a famous speech, "understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly." Instead, he believed that if African Americans acted as modest, quiet, responsible members of the community, they would eventually have to be recognized by whites for the importance of their contribution.

Washington advised his followers that they would have to start at the bottom, and work up, and he advocated manual training--handwork like carpentry, plumbing, metalworking--as the surest path to success. The South was trying to industrialize, and Washington saw that it needed laborers. African Americans could fill that need, and thereby gain equality. He wrote: "No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized."

This message had enormous appeal to white and black Americans. It harmonized white middle class cultural beliefs with the aspirations of the new generation of free men and women. Washington occupied a position of great influence with whites, who found his message especially attractive and took him as spokesman for his race. Listening to Washington, it was possible to believe in a growing class of sober, humble yet hard-working and ambitious African Americans who would work with patience towards their inevitable rise to equality. Unfortunately, history proved Washington to be tragically wrong.

Part III: The 1890s

The 1890s saw a three pronged counter attack aimed at erasing African Americans' participation in politics and the economy. We will go through each one.

  1. Disenfranchisement--every southern state, between 1890 and 1905, passed laws designed specifically to prevent African Americans from voting.
  2. Jim Crow Laws--In this same period, each southern state passed laws formally segregating public facilities. It was in the 1890s that the famous "white" and "colored" signs appeared.
  3. Lynching--In this same period, a campaign of lynching began, targeting African American men especially


In the 1890s, each southern state passed constitutional amendments placing stipulations on voting that hit African Americans hardest. There were three main ways of doing this: poll taxes, property tests and literacy tests.

Property tests made it illegal to vote unless you owned property. The poll tax simply put a tax on voting. Poll taxes, now illegal, clearly had a discouraging effect on voting by poor people.

Some historians have argued that the poll tax and property tests were designed to discriminate against poor whites as well. The textbook describes the Populist Party (also called the People's Party), which grew to power in the 1880s and 90s. The Populists made a sweeping radical challenge to mainstream politics. Built on the votes of the poorest citizens, in the South and West, their platform included things like government ownership of the railroads and telegraphs and the elimination of private banking. They were extremely successful in the South in the 1880s, and had managed to nearly dominate some state legislatures.

The Populists are also notable in that they worked for an alliance of poor black and white farmers. Historians disagree about how far their emphasis on black/white cooperation actually went, but one of their leaders, Tom Watson of Georgia, frequently addressed mixed crowds of black and white farmers, telling them "you are separated (by race) so that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings."

Poll taxes and property tests reduced the level of poor white participation in voting considerably, though not as far as they reduced African American voting. Some historians see both of these measures as tools designed to eliminate voting by poor citizens of all colors.

But there were also more flexible tools, like literacy tests,in this method; voters would be confronted by an election inspector, who would ask them to show understanding of some piece of writing. It might be a newspaper story or a childrens' textbook, or it might be article three subsection 5A of the state constitution. The potential voter "passed" at the discretion of the election inspector, who might decide on the spot that the person didn't show sufficient understanding. The literacy test was particularly loathsome, in that it made no pretense of fairness and was used selectively to exclude people the election inspectors didn't want voting.

Some states used poll and property taxes together, some used one or the other, some used literacy tests alone or a combination of all three. The net result was that by 1895, black voting in the South had decreased 65%, white voting by 26%. By 1900, voting by African Americans had almost completely stopped.

These laws were designed, some historians argue, to break the political backs of the people most receptive to populism. But they targeted African Americans more directly.

The most blatantly exclusionary and prejudiced measure passed in the southern states were the notorious "Grandfather clauses."

These measures waived the requirements named above--that is waived the poll tax, property tests and literacy tests--if the voter's ancestors had voted before Reconstruction. The grandfather clause thus effectively allowed whites to vote and excluded African Americans.

The Grandfather clauses were designed for a slightly different purpose--in effect, they split poor white and black voters by privileging one over the other. They prevented the formation of a unified social class--poor farmers--by granting political privileges to whites only. The Grandfather clause told the poor white sharecropper that he was different from the African American sharecropper next door. It created, and strengthened, a racial boundary that ordinary life tended to erase.

There were other measures passed in the 1890s designed to do the same thing--to create racial boundaries.

Segregation by law

The South had been segregated by informal custom early on in some places. There were recognized social rules that didn't need to be spelled out. But there was also a very high degree of integration, in music halls, sporting places, on public transit, and also personally. Black and white people tended to live near each other in the South and see each other daily. The South was in most ways far more integrated than the North.

In the 1890s, segregation was made into law, and specified in signs in public places. Laws passed in the 1890s established separate drinking fountains, bathrooms, restaurants, hotels, train cars, and separate sections of beaches, parks and theaters. You may have seen pictures of this, dating from the 1950s, when the civil rights movement finally overturned segregation. This was the period when those signs first appeared.

Formal legal segregation--r the "Jim Crow" laws, as they were known--was sanctified by Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson, 1896. In this case the Court ruled that separate but equal facilities were constitutional.

The case is particularly interesting because the plaintiff, Homer Plessy, was only 1/8 black. He looked to all intents and purposes like a white man. Plessy was a civil rights activist. He was an educated man who had been chosen for the case in part because he did not look black, but considered himself to be, and was considered to be in his community, a "black" man. Plessy deliberately broke the segregated streetcar law and was arrested. His lawyer hoped to prove, by pointing to Plessy's mixed background, how absurd it was to segregate facilities by color. How could you--why would you--separate black and white when people were often neither one nor the other? Which part of the streetcar should a man like Plessy sit in?

The Supreme Court simply ignored this argument, stating only that Plessy was known to be black, so he was black and would have to sit in the back of the train. The Court went on to argue that segregating facilites posed no problem, as long as the facilities were equal.

As is well known, equality of facilities was never enforced.

What was the purpose of segregation? Why resort to it? It was clearly not just to keep people apart because they didn't like each other--it had a much more deeply rooted psychological foundation.

Segregation was designed to strengthen and reinforce racial boundaries. Segregation was an attempt to remind people that they are different, that despite what they might have in common they are not the same kinds of creatures. Describing the Jim Crow laws, Charles Chesnutt wrote:

The author of this piece of legislation had contrived, with an ingenuity worthy of a better cause, that not merely should the passengers be separated by the color line, but that the reason for this division should be kept constantly in mind. Lest a white man should forget he was white--not a very likely contingency--these cards would keep him constantly admonished of the fact; should a colored person endeavor, for a moment, to forget his disability, these staring signs would remind him continually that between him and the rest of mankind not of his own color, there was by law a great gulf fixed.

The real purpose of the Jim Crow laws, I think, was to reinforce a distinction that everyday living tended to erase-to prevent people from realizing what they had in common, and keep them from achieving any sense of community.

It artificially reinforces racial distinctions that might have tended to disappear, or might have lost their stigma. Those "staring signs," as Chesnutt put it, would keep making Homer Plessy simply "black," not a person whose family reflected America's complicated, mixed racial past.

The final step in this process of making racial distinctions stick was a campaign of lynching and terrorist violence. As they had in Reconstruction, southern whites began a new campaign of violence against African Americans, this time expressed through the medium of lynching.

Part III: Lynching

In the 1890s an average of 187 lynchings occurred every year, mostly in the South. That's roughly two a week, year in, year out.

Once or twice a week African Americans in the South would read or hear about someone, perhaps someone they knew, being chased with dogs, brutally beaten, then hung or burned alive.

If we think about this sort of lynching at all, we typically think of it as the actions of a few "rednecks," under cover of darkness; the actions of a violent minority. This is a comforting belief, and it would indeed be a comfort if it were true. But it is not.

These lynchings in the 1890s were not just hangings, at night, by a few, but systematic festivals of torture. Typically crowds of several hundred or a thousand would gather to watch as the citizens each took their turn at the victim--breaking bones, burning the skin, ripping flesh with pincers. The crowd would carry off souveniers. In this link, including audio, Florida native "William Brown" recalls the lynching he was forced to witness, and th momentos the crowd carried away.

"In those days," recalled a black Mississipian, "it was Kill a mule, buy another. Kill a nigger, hire another. They had to have a license to kill anything but a nigger. We was always in season."

Reasons for lynchings, compiled by the journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, included: "insubordination; talking disrespectfully; striking a white man, slapping a white boy, writing an insulting letter, a personal debt of fifty cents, a funeral bill of ten dollars, organizing sharecroppers, being too prosperous" But in popular fantasy the excuse given for lynchings was usually rape--the bogey of rape dominates the lynch mentality.

At the 1893 lynching of Henry Smith in Texas, 10,000 people, some brought by special excursion trains, reportedly gathered to watch as Smith, accused of raping a child, was tied to a chair on a mobile platform labeled "Justice" and driven around town.

The murdered girl's father then proceeded to systematically torture him with hot irons, first burning the skin off the soles of his feet and then moving up. When the Father tired, other relatives took over. Smith's tongue was burned out to silence his cries, then his eyes put out. Finally his body was burned. A photographer took pictures, and reportedly a gramophone record of the whole proceeding was made.

At the 1919 lynching of John Hartfield, the accused rapist was chased by dogs, shot a number of times and captured. There was no trial. Newspapers in Vicksburg, Tennessee carried headlines: "3,000 WILL BURN NEGRO. JONH Hartfield WILL BE LYNCHED BY ELLISVILLE MOB AT 5 O'CLOCK THIS AFTERNOON. NEGRO JERKY AND SULLEN AS BURNING HOUR NEARS." The crowd arrives with picnic baskets, and carried off souvenirs of the body.

Again, we might like to believe that lynchings were done by "rednecks" in dark of night. But lynchings were more often either tolerated, or encouraged or actually led by respectable pillars of the community.

Former US Senator William V Sullivan declared in 1908: "I led the mob which lynched Nelse Patten and I am proud of it. I directed every movement of the mob and I did everything I could to see that he was lynched."

"Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, Governor and later Senator from South Carolina, in 1892 declared "Governor as I am, I would lead a mob to lynch the negro who ravishes a white woman." One of Tillman's speeches on the subject can be found here.

Southern leaders often cited the idea of the black male rapist as the justification for lynching, which is puzzling, since as Wells' investigation shows, lynching was much more often for trivial offenses like those listed above. Wells believed that white men developed these theories of the predatory black male because they were unwilling to admit that white women sometimes freely chose black men as their partners. Some historians have argued that lynching sent a dual message: one the one hand, a clear message to African Americans, but also a message to white women that their conduct, their choice of words of friends or sexual partners, was a matter of explosive and dire importance. In other words, some historians suggest that the intent of these lynchings was also to keep women down.

Such horrific events probably have many possible meanings, but their impact on African Americans is clear. There are photographs of some of these lynchings and they convey some aspects of the ordeal. But the sheer viciousness comes through best in the songs of the earliest recorded blues musicians, like Robert Johnson. Johnson sang of terror barely under control, of white men and women whose unreasoning hatred for him and his people was like a hellhound on his trail. In "crossroads blues" Johnson described being trapped at a rural crossroads where he wasn't supposed to be, at sunset, desperately trying to flag a ride, and finally falling to his knees and begging God for mercy.

Why was there such violence? My own answer is that the violence was extreme, ritualized, exaggerated because race an extreme, ritualized, exaggerated category. My answer is also that racism is not automatic, not "human nature:" it took an enormous amount of social violence to make racism work--disenfranchisement, segregation laws, and finally even bizarre and grotesque acts of violence, to keep white and black people separate, and especially to keep black people down.

Why did the north allow this to go on?

North and South were at time preoccupied with idea of "reunion" between two sections of the country. This became especially pressing as the Spanish American war began. A common photographic of the period, reproduced in magazines and lithographs, showed grey-bearded Confederate and Union veterans shaking hands in front of a shield bearing pictures of the Maine. The price of this union was invisibility for African Americans, who had to be made to disappear to foster the idea of white unity.

During the 1890s, the pattern of American immigration began to shift. Earlier periods of immigration, especially immigration from Ireland and Germany, had been troubling enough to native whites. Nativists--who wanted to forbid further immigration to the UnitedStates--were especially disturbed by the new immigrants who began to enter the US in large numbers in the 1890s. These new immigrants tended to be from Eastern and Southern Europe, or, in California, from China and Japan. The period marked the height of social darwinism and scientific racism. Native whites worried that Poles, Russian Jews, or Sicilians were racially dangerous to the United States: they would contaminate its racial stock. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, which limited immigration but also directly violated the 15th amendment by stating that a Chinese person could never become a citizen. Scientists interested in race, like the anthropologist Madison Grant, argued that the white race was committing "race suicide" by not haing children at the same pace as immigrants. This is reflected in Grant's essay on "the Passing of the Great Race" and in Roosevelt's "Strenuous Life" essay. Scientific racism made Americans less interested in protecting the rights of African American citizens, who were commonly regarded as genetically inferior.

For example, the 1903 Encyclopedia Britannica, under the subject heading "negro," pointed out that "By the nearly unanimous consent of anthropologists this type occupies the lowest position in the evolutionary scale, thus affording the best material for the comparative study of the highest anthropoids and the human species-the fundamental equality [claimed for the negro] by ignorant philanthropists is belied by the whole history of the race."

In 1906 one of the founders of the American Museum of Natural History, Madison Grant, established an exhibit at the Bronx zoo. An African bushman, captured by an anthropologist, was placed in a cage in the monkey house, with an orangutan. The two were exhibited daily to the crowds, who thrust peanuts and coins through the bars. The New York Times found the exhibit amusing, and commented on how "one had a good opportunity to study their points of resemblance. Their heads are much alike, and both grin in the same way when pleased."

You have seen how pervasive racial stereotypes were in the Spanish American War. Obviously, the North was hardly inclined to intervene on behalf of its African American citizens.


Why the heightened racism of the 1890s?

Some possible answers:

  1. The Populist movement. Some historians claim that fear of the Populist Party, and its alliance of poor white and black farmers, was the most important cause. I tend to disagree with this--I believe this was a factor, but not the major factor.
  2. African Americans' rise to success and the fear on the part of whites that the "American dream" of prosperity might actually be coming true for black Americans. Along with this increase in prosperity came a decline in deference, as the example from Charles Chesnutt suggests.
  3. The need to reinforce and restore racial boundaries. The presence of successful, hard working people of another race upset the ideal of white unity--as southern whites had maintained unity by enslaving blacks, now society as a whole would create unity among whites by reducing them to a condition of institutionalized separateness.

My own conclusion emphasizes the last two factors. African Americans were re-negotiating what it meant to be black. They were assuming the prerogatives of citizens, acting more like equals, and prospering in the market. Whites found this unacceptable, and they acted to invent, or reinforce, or restore racial boundaries that they thought were collapsing. The violence of the 1890s was extreme, irrational, crazed, because the idea of "race" is itself deeply flawed, and unsustainable on its own. Only the most extreme social violence could uphold it.