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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Topic: FreedomTopic: IdentityTopic: InstitutionsTopic: PoliticsTopic: Forward
Topic: Politics
Toolbox Overview: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Resource Menu: Politics
Text 1. Racial Politics
Text 2. The Race Problem
Text 3. Segregation
Text 4. The Vote
Text 5. Lynching
Text 6. Goals
Text 7. Action

Timeline: 1860-1920


  Resource Menu

Booker T. Washington, 1912
Booker T. Washington, 1912

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What forms of political action did African Americans initiate? For what goals?
  •  How was political action affected by the increase in discrimination and violence during the 1890s?
  •  How did black leaders frame their political objectives for their white audience?
  •  To what extent did black political action affect the lives of ordinary African Americans?

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  1.  Racial Politics
- Frances Harper, "Open Questions," Ch. 26 of Iola Leroy, 1893
- Images of African American political action, 1860s-1910s

After emancipation, black organizations made great strides in building institutions for educational, economic, and social uplift. By the 1890s, however, it was obvious that white opposition and violence would continue to worsen throughout the nation—white supremacy campaigns, enforced segregation, disenfranchisement, and lynchings (to which the federal government turned a blind eye). Now black leaders had to enter the political arena in a new way, not just as legislators and state officials, but as initiators of political action.

To begin this topic, we read a chapter from Frances Harper's 1892 novel Iola Leroy, which, according to the New York Times, was "probably the best-selling novel by an African-American before the twentieth century." Harper, a writer, teacher, and political activist, uses her novel as a platform for arguing the logic of equal rights for African Americans. In this chapter the "open questions" of white supremacy and racial justice are debated by a northerner, Dr. Gresham, and his southern visitor Dr. Latrobe. Their interchange encapsulates the racial politics of the 1890s. In tandem with "Open Questions," peruse the fifteen images of African American postbellum political action (ten engravings and five photographs). Note the settings and variety of the political activity depicted in the images (created primarily by white observers). 6 pages, plus any images you may choose to print.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  2.  "Race Problem"
- Clara Ann Thompson, "Uncle Rube on the Race Problem," poem, 1900
- Frederick Douglass, "The Race Problem," address, 1890, excerpts
- Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, oil on canvas, 1899

"How does it feel to be a problem?"—the question with which Du Bois begins The Souls of Black Folk—is our focus here. How did African Americans respond to the white-defined "problem"? How did they redefine it from their perspective? And how did they cope with the real threat of violence that haunted even the discussion of the issue? We begin with "Uncle Rube on the Race Problem" by Clara Ann Thompson, the daughter of former slaves and a lifelong poet. In 33 four-line stanzas, Thompson creates the response of "Uncle Rube" to a group of white men who question him on the "race problem." Next we read a speech by Frederick Douglass to a African American literary and historical association in Washington, D.C. We usually read Douglass while studying slavery and abolitionism, and may overlook that he remained a forceful spokesman long after emancipation—at the time of this address in 1890, he was the U.S. minister to Haiti.

The final "text" is Winslow Homer's painting The Gulf Stream, which depicts a lone American black man at sea in a storm-ripped boat (named Anne-Key West). By 1899, the year of this painting, lynchings were rampant (94 African Americans were lynched in that year alone), and the storm of disenfranchisement and white supremacy was crossing the southern states. As Du Bois later wrote, "So dawned the time of Sturm und Drang: storm and stress to-day rocks our little boat on the mad waters of the world-sea" (The Souls of Black Folk, ch. 1). 11 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  3.  Segregation
- U.S. Supreme Court, Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, excerpts
- Charles W. Chesnutt, "A Journey Southward," Ch. 5 of The Marrow of Tradition, novel, 1901, excerpts
- Richmond Planet, coverage of streetcar boycott, 1904, excerpts

Perhaps the single most telling moment of the 1890s for black citizens was the Supreme Court's decision that segregated public facilities did not violate the Constitution. Why a "telling moment?" Because it said to African Americans "you're on your own." The federal government would not enforce integration, just as it would not pass an anti-lynching law or, later, maintain integrated federal workplaces. Thus we first read from the Court's decision—from the majority opinion that segregation does not "[stamp] the colored race with a badge of interiority," and from Justice Harlan's poignant dissent that segregation does, in fact, give "a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law" guaranteed by the Constitution.

In the second reading, Charles Chesnutt gives us a view of life after Plessy. On a train journey from New York to North Carolina, a "mulatto" physician is forced to leave the car in which he had begun the journey because it had become a white-only car on arriving in Virginia. The complexity of response and nuance that Chesnutt works into this brief chapter is astounding. The third text is a pair of news articles on the 1904 Baltimore streetcar boycott, which was organized to protest a state law allowing streetcar companies to segregate passengers by race. Like the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of a half century later, this boycott lasted almost a year and nearly bankrupted the streetcar company. Unlike the Montgomery boycott, however, it did not see success. To end the boycott, the Virginia legislature mandated segregated streetcars, and further protest was to wait for a later day. 14 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  4.  The Vote
- William J. Whipper, Statement to the South Carolina Constitutional Convention, 1895, excerpts
- "Negro Rule," The [Raleigh, N.C.] News and Observer, cartoon, 27 September 1898

From the moment in 1870 that the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote, southern states blocked its implementation. This process escalated after 1890 as the frenzy of "white supremacy" took hold in the South. State by state, voting limits were enacted that technically bypassed the 15th Amendment, and by 1910 the electoral voice of blacks was eliminated from the South. The devices included property requirements, multiple ballot boxes (set up to confuse the uneducated voter), poll taxes (to be paid months in advance), and literacy tests. To pass a literacy test, one had to interpret a section of the state constitution to the satisfaction of an official, whose standards would be prejudicially high for black voters. Illiterate whites could bypass the test due to the infamous "grandfather clause," which waived the requirement for persons whose grandfathers had been eligible to vote on January 1, 1867, i.e., white men only. In twenty years, disenfranchisement in the South was complete: Mississippi (1890), Tennessee (1892), Arkansas (1893), South Carolina (1895), Louisiana (1898), North Carolina (1900), Alabama (1901), Virginia (1902), Texas (1905), Georgia (1908), Oklahoma (1910), and Florida (1880-1910).

To sense how vehemently white supremacy was advanced, study the cartoon "Negro Rule," which was published on Independence Day, 1900, in North Carolina. Black leaders tried to counter the movement, as we read in William Whipper's forceful statement to the South Carolina constitutional convention in 1895. "Stay your hand and do justice," he says, but his appeal was for naught. (The quoted lines at the end of his speech are from John Greenleaf Whittier's "Song of the Negro Boatmen," 1862. A few months earlier Booker T. Washington had quoted the lines in his Atlanta Exposition speech.) Two short documents that capture the ferment of the times. 4 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  5.  Lynching
- Paul Laurence Dunbar, "The Haunted Oak," poem, 1895
- "The Dogwood Tree," postcard, 1908
- Ida B. Wells-Barnett, "Lynch Law in America," The Arena, January 1900
- "Ohio's Anti-Lynching Law," Cleveland Gazette, 8 June 1901

Nothing is more disturbing from this period than lynching. Not only the act itself, but the impunity with which it was used as an instrument of terror and subjugation throughout the South. Thousands of black people were tortured, branded, mutilated, dismembered, and finally hanged or burned by mobs who knew their mode of "justice" would go unpunished. Hundreds of postcards were produced depicting gleeful crowds exhibiting their victims. Lynching "has become so common," wrote a Methodist bishop in 1893, "that it no longer surprises." Anti-lynching movements were spurred by black and white activists, especially women. Anti-lynching bills were submitted in state legislatures, most of which were not passed until the 1930s. Congress never passed an anti-lynching law due to the opposition of Southern Democrats. U.S. presidents of the time rarely made an anti-lynching gesture.

These four documents present a cross-section of the lynching issue, from a white-produced threat postcard to black-initiated efforts to end lynching. They are difficult reading, but that is a given for this topic. 13 pages.

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  6.  Goals
- Booker T. Washington, "The Atlanta Exposition Address," 1895, Ch. 14 in Up from Slavery, 1901
- W. E. B. Du Bois, "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others," Ch. 3 in Souls of Black Folk, 1903

These two readings often comprise the entirety of a class study of African American history from emancipation to the Harlem Renaissance. Our scholars urge us to be wary of this. While the readings are significant, of course, for the opposing positions of Washington and Du Bois on the goals of black progress, they do not tell the story alone.

Having said that, we encourage you to select these texts for your seminar and not bypass them if you have read them before. The Washington text is his famous "Atlanta compromise" speech delivered at the 1895 Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. The Du Bois text is his rebuttal to Washington's plan for black progress—and his vision of the activism required in the new century. Read them again and reflect on the insights you gain from a second look, especially in the context of your other readings for the seminar. So how "accommodationist" is Washington? And how "militant" is Du Bois? What accounts for their diverse perspectives? 18 pages.

Note: Du Bois opens each chapter of Souls with a poetic verse and the score of a spiritual (a "sorrow song"). In chapter three, the spiritual is "A Great Camp-Meeting in the Promised Land," and the verses are from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818).

» RESOURCE MENU Reading Guide Link
  7.  Action
- Booker T. Washington, Address to the National Negro Business League, 1900
- W. E. B. Du Bois et al., Niagara Movement Declaration of Principles, 1905
- James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamunde Johnson, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," song, 1899

"Politics" ultimately means turning words into action. So to conclude this section, we will follow the two black leaders whom we read above, Washington and Du Bois, as they turned their political objectives into action organizations in the early 1900s.

"People who do things," announced the Cleveland Journal, rather "than those who merely 'say things,'" comprised the black leadership attending the 1904 session of the National Negro Business League. Founded by Washington and others in 1900, the League provided a self-help forum for small black businesses, especially in the South. Although not a political group on its face, its goals included the political validation that African Americans would receive from whites, in Washington's view, once they had proved able to progress socially and economically. A view that Du Bois found wanting, even dangerous, especially in its abandonment of "manly self-respect." With other leaders of the northern black elite, Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement in 1905 to promote full civil rights for African Americans. (The movement ended a few years later with the founding of the NAACP, which carried on its principles.)

To conclude this seminar section POLITICS, read the lyrics and listen to the music of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," composed by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, and first performed in 1900. It soon became known as the "Negro national anthem," and in 1920 was adopted by the NAACP as its official song. What does it remain poignant for today's racial struggles? Total pages: 7.

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