After the Civil War, Congress championed the cause of newly freed African Americans by enacting the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment provided citizenship and equal protection under the law. The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed black men the right to vote. Other legislation to enforce these amendments followed.
However, between 1873 and 1883 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that set back federal efforts to protect the civil rights of African Americans until 1957, when the first civil rights law since Reconstruction was passed. In the South, where ninety percent of African Americans lived, state constitutions were amended to legalize disenfranchisement. The Ku Klux Klan resorted to beating, lynching, and burning homes to reinforce white supremacy. Black labor was bound to the land as peonage and sharecropping replaced the antebellum plantation system of slavery. In both the North and the South, African Americans were segregated by law and by custom in schools, public accommodations, housing, transportation, armed forces, recreational facilities, hospitals, prisons, and cemeteries.
In 1896 the Supreme Court sanctioned legal separation of the races in its ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which stated that separate but equal facilities did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Science, history, and popular culture bolstered racial policy by promoting the myth of Negro inferiority. By the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans found themselves reduced to a color-caste system almost as oppressive and destructive as the chattel slavery they had endured. A new wave of racial violence swept the U.S., erupting in a torrent of lynchings and race riots. The worst of these riots occurred in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908.
Booker T. Washington
Born a slave in Virginia, Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), became the most influential black leader in the United States between 1895 and his death in 1915. Washington founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute and built it into one of the nation’s best-known colleges. In 1900, he organized the National Negro Business League to foster black entrepreneurship. With an extensive network of supporters called the Tuskegee Machine, Washington exercised control over black federal appointments, the funds for black colleges, and the editorial policy of some newspapers. His power waned as racial violence and discrimination escalated. Washington recognized the NAACP as a challenge to his leadership and retaliated by trying to undermine the NAACP’s fund-raising.
Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Speech
In this speech before an integrated audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, in September 1895, Booker T. Washington proposed a compromise by which African Americans would not agitate for social and political equality in return for the opportunity to acquire vocational training and participate in the economic development of the New South. The compromise won him the support of white industrialists, politicians, and philanthropists in the North and South. But his accommodating racial policy did little to improve the condition of African Americans. In the first decade of the twentieth century, a resurgence of racial violence led to nearly a thousand lynchings as well as race riots in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898); Atlanta, Georgia (1906); and Springfield, Illinois (1908).
Du Bois Congratulates Washington on Atlanta Speech
Although W.E.B. Du Bois would later publish a pointed challenge to Booker T. Washington’s philosophy in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), at the time of Washington’s Atlanta speech, Du Bois wrote this letter to express his congratulations. Dubois advocated uplifting African Americans through the higher education of a “Talented Tenth” of the population who could guide the masses to higher civilization. He believed it was important to press for immediate civil rights without compromise. Washington advocated economic strength as the key to advancement. He believed that through vocational training, African Americans would become productive workers in a segregated society. They would win the respect of whites by acquiring wealth and property and thus earn full citizenship in due time.
W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), an eminent scholar-activist, was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A graduate of Fisk and Harvard universities, he became a pioneer in the fields of sociology and black history. While a professor at Atlanta University he cofounded the Niagara Movement and the NAACP, and emerged as a leader in the Pan-African Movement. Du Bois left academia in 1910 to become the NAACP’s director of publicity and research, its only black officer at that time. He resigned in 1934, but later returned to the NAACP as director of special research from 1944 to 1948. An early socialist, in 1961 Du Bois joined the Communist Party, and, at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah, moved to Ghana, where he died August 27, 1963, on the eve of the March on Washington.
Plessy v. Ferguson Supports Segregation
By the time Homer A. Plessy, a New Orleans octoroon (a person with one-eighth Negro blood) challenged that city’s right to segregate public transportation by riding in a “Whites Only” railcar, the constitutional amendments passed after the Civil War to provide protections and rights for Negro citizens had eroded. The Louisiana state courts ruled against Plessy, and his subsequent appeal, against the ruling by Judge John Howard Ferguson, to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied in 1896. The impact of Plessy was to relegate blacks to second-class citizenship. They were separated from whites by law and by private action in transportation, public accommodations, recreational facilities, churches, cemeteries, and school in both Northern and Southern states.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931)—fiery journalist, women’s rights activist, and civil rights militant—is best known for her anti-lynching crusade. She mobilized public opinion against lynching through her newspaper editorials, pamphlets, clubs, and lecture tours in the northern United States and Great Britain. She also served as secretary of the Afro-American Council, directing its anti-lynching bureau. Her activities laid the groundwork for the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign. A staunch critic of Booker T. Washington, Wells-Barnett helped organize the NAACP, but she was skeptical of the NAACP’s white leadership and moderate stance and became inactive after 1912. She continued to fight for social justice independently, focusing on women’s suffrage and civic reforms.
Lynch Law in Georgia
Georgia led most other states in incidents of lynching, second only to Mississippi. Between 1880 and 1900, mob violence in Georgia steadily escalated, peaking in 1899, when twenty-seven lynchings occurred. Among the most savage was the April 23, 1899, lynching of Sam Hose, a black farmer accused of killing his white employer. Hose was summarily abducted from jail, tortured, and burned at the stake. His charred knuckles were displayed in an Atlanta grocer’s store window as a trophy. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and her friends hired Louis P. Le Vin, a white private detective, to investigate Hose’s lynching and those of ten other black men. Wells-Barnett reprinted Le Vin’s report along with excerpts from the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution in this pamphlet.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Lynch Law in Georgia. Chicago: Chicago Colored Citizens, 1899. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5 - Page 6 - Page 7 - Page 8 - Page 9 - Page 10 - Page 11 - Page 12 - Page 13 - Page 14 - Page 15 - Page 16 - Page 17 - Page 18 - Page 19 - Page 20. Daniel A.P. Murray Pamphlet Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (007.00.00)
Digital ID # na0007
A 1900 Satirical Cartoon from Puck Magazine
Georgia’s notoriety for lynching inspired Puck, a British satirical magazine, to feature this cartoon on the cover of the April 11, 1900, issue. It shows an African American family cowering in fear as men with guns and ropes pass in the background. In addition to satire, newspapers, periodicals, fiction, and advertisements commonly depicted African Americans with derogatory caricatures and stereotypes to justify segregation and discrimination.
Founders of the Niagara Movement
In July 1905 W.E. B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter convened a conference of black leaders to renounce Booker T. Washington’s accommodationism. They met at Niagara Falls, in Ontario, Canada, because hotels on the American side of the falls barred blacks. The twenty-nine men in attendance set forth a platform that demanded freedom of speech and criticism; a free press; manhood suffrage; abolition of all caste distinctions based on race or color; recognition of the principle of human brotherhood; belief in the dignity of labor; and a united effort to realize these ideals under wise and courageous leadership. The organization they formed, the Niagara Movement, met annually at the following locations—Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (1906); Boston, Massachusetts (1907); Oberlin, Ohio (1908); and Sea Isle City, N.J. (1909), until it disbanded in 1910 because of internal dissension and lack of funds.
Niagara Movement Founders, 1905. Top row (left to right): H. A. Thompson, Alonzo F. Herndon, John Hope, James R. L. Diggs (?). Second row (left to right): Frederick McGhee, Norris B. Herndon (boy), J. Max Barber, W. E. B. Du Bois, Robert Bonner. Bottom row (left to right): Henry L. Bailey, Clement G. Morgan, W. H. H. Hart, B. S. Smith. Reproduction. Detail. Courtesy of the W.E.B Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (009.00.00)
[Digital ID # MS0312-0394]
The Talented Tenth
Most Niagarites were urban, college-educated professionals, representative of W.E. B. Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth,” a phrase taken from an essay in which Du bois estimated that 1 in 10 blacks could become leaders in society. The founding circle of 29 men from 14 states had increased to about 300 members in 30 branches by 1907. Women were invited to join in 1906, the year the organization was incorporated. Mary White Ovington, a friend of Du Bois, became the only white member in 1908. Booker T. Washington’s supporters, “The Tuskegee Machine,” undermined the Niagara Movement by suppressing patronage, philanthropy, and publicity in the press. The Niagarites countered by issuing this pamphlet designed to enlist male college students and recent graduates. The author, Mason A. Hawkins, was a young Harvard alumnus and principal of the Colored High School in Baltimore.
Brownsville Affair Erodes Washington’s Support
Two events in 1906 precipitated Booker T. Washington’s decline: the Brownsville Affair and the Atlanta race riot. Around midnight on August 13 marauders shot up saloons in Brownsville, Texas, killing a bartender and wounding a policeman. White residents accused three companies of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry, a black regiment stationed at Fort Brown and depicted in this poster. Federal investigators concluded that the soldiers’ refusal to admit guilt was evidence of “a conspiracy of silence.” The Twenty-Fifth Infantry had supported Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill and distinguished themselves in other battles during the Spanish American War, but President Theodore Roosevelt dishonorably discharged the companies without a court martial despite Washington’s plea. Washington’s refusal to criticize Roosevelt publicly angered African Americans and many whites, including Mary Church Terrell, Oswald Garrison Villard, and other NAACP founders who had supported Washington.
Letter from Mary Church Terrell Concerning the Brownsville Affair
In November 1906 Mary Church Terrell, a civil rights advocate and representative of the Constitution League, an interracial civil rights organization founded by John E. Milholland, met with Secretary of War William Howard Taft to discuss the Brownsville affair. She asked Taft to suspend the soldiers’ dismissal and for a rehearing of the case. The League conducted its own investigation, which led to Senate hearings. Only fourteen soldiers were exonerated out of one-hundred and sixty seven. Sergeant Sanders, the first sergeant of Company B of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry and the recipient of this letter, was dismissed with twenty-five years of service, eighteen months short of retirement with a pension. In 1972 the army conducted a new investigation and the order of 1906 was reversed. Dorsie Willis, the only surviving soldier, received some compensation.
Educator and Rights Advocate Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954), an educator and advocate for women’s and civil rights, was born in Memphis into a prosperous family. A graduate of Oberlin College, in 1895 she became the first black woman appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education. In 1896 she founded the National Association of Colored Women. She was also active in the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Her husband, Robert Terrell, owed his appointment as the first black municipal court judge in Washington, D.C., to Booker T. Washington. Although she was a Washington sympathizer, Terrell was stunned by his response to the Brownsville Affair because of his refusal to publicly criticize President Theodore Roosevelt for dishonorably discharging the companies without a court martial. She accepted W. E. B. Du Bois’s invitation to form the NAACP. Terrell served as a board member and vice president of the Washington, D.C., branch.
Addison Scurlock. Mary Church Terrell, ca. 1920. Photograph. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (012.00.00) Permission for online use courtesy of the Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian
Digital ID # ppmsc-00065
The 1906 Atlanta Riot
The Atlanta Riot of 1906 followed a race-baiting gubernatorial campaign and newspaper reports alleging an “epidemic of rape” that exacerbated white fears of black social and economic empowerment. On the evening of September 22, a white mob of 10,000 rampaged through the black business district. The violence soon spread to Brownsville, a middle-class black suburb. With the police and state militia aiding the mob, more than one thousand black residents fled the city. The riot lasted five nights, killing at least twenty-seven, injuring hundreds, and destroying black-owned property. The carnage caused many African Americans to question Booker T. Washington’s philosophy and the idea of a New South, where blacks would seek economic gains but forgo civil rights. In this letter Francis J. Garrison (1848–1916), an editor and the youngest son of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, thanks Washington, a close friend, for his account on post-riot Atlanta. Garrison later joined his siblings and nephew, Oswald Villard, in building the NAACP.
Springfield, Illinois, Race Riots, 1908
Springfield, Illinois, was famous as the hometown and burial site of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. On August 14, 1908, Springfield erupted in a bloody race riot after Nellie Hallam, the white wife of a streetcar conductor falsely accused George Richardson, a black handyman, of rape. The police spirited Richardson and another black prisoner out of town to protect them from mob violence. Enraged by the escape, the mob rampaged through Springfield, burning black businesses and homes. Three thousand black residents fled the city, and two black men were lynched. The governor called 3,700 state militia troops to suppress the riot, which lasted two days, killed 8 people, injured more than 70 blacks and whites, and destroyed Springfield’s black section. The Springfield riot shocked many Americans because it proved that the South’s violently anti-Negro sentiment had spread North and become a national problem.
Militia camp in tents on State House grounds during the Springfield, Illinois, riots . Photograph. George Grantham Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (015.00.00)
Digital ID # ggbain-02050