Emancipation: Did Emancipation Improve the Conditions of Former Slaves in the United States?

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Editor: Mark G. Malvasi
Date: 2003
History in Dispute
From: History in Dispute(Vol. 13: Slavery in the Western Hemisphere, circa 1500-1888. )
Publisher: St. James Press
Document Type: Viewpoint essay
Pages: 9
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1320L

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Emancipation: Did Emancipation Improve the Conditions of Former Slaves in the United States?

Scholars have long debated the consequences of emancipation in the United States. Freed from bondage by war, the former slaves occupied an ambiguous position in Southern society. For the most part, the freedmen rejected their dependence and celebrated their freedom. Yet, they also sought to assert and maintain it, “to make sure,” as Peter Kolchin has written, “that they were really free, not just free in name.” Determined to escape subservience, the freed blacks desired most of all to work for themselves and to acquire land. They opposed the return to gang labor or to any other arrangement characteristic of slavery. Landownership remained an unrealized ambition for most blacks in the South, though they forced changes in economic relations that enhanced their independence.

Blacks, for example, refused to work under the supervision of overseers. They also exacted concessions from anxious planters fearful of losing their services to a rival who offered more-generous terms. During the years immediately following the Civil War (1861–1865), blacks did not effect revolutionary changes in Southern society. Rather, they essentially fought their former masters to a stalemate, a remarkable accomplishment in itself, considering the many disadvantages under which they operated even in the favorable political climate of Reconstruction (1865–1877). As a people, blacks, incapable of achieving complete freedom, nevertheless prevented themselves from being transformed into a wholly servile agricultural labor force. Although the sharecropping system that came to prevail in the postwar South bred dependence, it also allowed blacks greater autonomy over their work and their lives. Since they had a direct economic stake in producing a good crop, freedmen worked hard, but did so on their own terms and without supervision. In addition, sharecroppers saw themselves as partners in a joint economic venture, not as wage laborers subject to the whim and will of an employer. “I am not working for wages,” explained Bernard Houston, an Alabama sharecropper, in a letter to George S. Houston on 3 August 1867, “but am part owner of the crop and as I have all the rights that you or any other man has I shall not suffer them abridged.”

Yet, after emancipation, blacks arguably faced worse instances of racism, discrimination, and violence than they had endured under slavery. Southern whites tried systematically to deny freedom to blacks. Southern state legislatures enacted Black Codes designed to return blacks to a status approximating slavery by limiting their right to own land, to enter certain occupations, or to gain access to the courts. The authorities also coerced blacks Page 51  |  Top of Articleto agree to labor contracts with white landlords if the blacks could not document residence or employment. The continued social, economic, and political subordination of blacks has suggested to some historians that emancipation did not significantly alter the lives or improve the lot of the former slaves.

Emancipation did not work miracles. Exploitation, poverty, and racism remained prominent and disturbing aspects of Southern life. Although blacks asserted their freedom and took advantage of every opportunity to remake their lives, they did so within a restrictive legal, political, and cultural framework. Then, too, blacks acquiesced in and, in some ways, even welcomed racial segregation. Whites, of course, sought to keep blacks separate and subordinate. Blacks’ purposes were more complex. They retreated from the white world not only because they felt unwelcome and often unsafe but also because they embraced a new sense of community and self-reliance.

By the 1870s, however, even the hope and promise of establishing an interracial society had faded. The end of slavery created such magnified and grandiose expectations that disappointment and disillusionment became almost inevitable. Even under ideal conditions, intractable economic, social, political, and cultural realities would have rendered so exalted and diverse a set of desires remote and unattainable. Nevertheless, historian Eric Foner concluded, “like a massive earthquake, the Civil War and the destruction of slavery permanently altered the landscape of Southern life.” Amid adversity and failure, Foner argued, the era of emancipation and Reconstruction nonetheless inaugurated “America’s unfinished revolution.”

Viewpoint: Yes. Freedom offered African Americans the opportunity to improve their lot, although immediate political, economic, and social improvements were limited

At the end of the Civil War (1861–1865) Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania proposed that the U.S. government confiscate 394,000,000 acres of land from approximately seventy thousand Confederates and parcel it out in 40-acre allotments to every adult male freedman. The remainder, Stevens argued, ought to be sold to pay the public debt, fund pensions for disabled Union veterans, and compensate loyal Unionists in the South whose property had been damaged or destroyed during the war. Congress, however, rejected Stevens’s Confiscation Plan; many members of the Republican Party found its attack on private property too radical.

The failure of Stevens’s program meant that Reconstruction (1865–1877) would have only a limited economic content and would, therefore, not sustain the freedom that the former slaves had won. As a consequence, from the outset blacks’ political and civil rights rested on precarious foundations. Had Republicans understood the need to give the freedmen economic support, they might have enabled both black and white farmers to gain a measure of economic independence. Had Southern planters lost their land and control of their labor force, there could have been no revival of the plantation economy as occurred in the South even before the end of Reconstruction. Finally, had black and white farmers been able to practice subsistence agriculture and to produce for local markets instead of growing cash crops such as cotton for wealthy landowners, they might not have been drawn into the international depressions of the 1870s and 1890s that ruined their chances for a better life.

At the dawn of the twentieth century most blacks in the South remained bound to whites as sharecroppers or tenant farmers. Few blacks owned, or even managed to rent, land, and thus they remained poverty-stricken and propertyless, both dependent on and subordinate to whites. Even then, complained one planter, sharecropping “is wrong policy; it makes the laborer too independent; he becomes a partner, and has a right to be consulted.”

With the help of the federal government, and for a time sympathetic state governments, blacks had gained a measure of political power during Reconstruction. The United States was the only society in which freed slaves, within a few years of emancipation, had acquired significant political rights, which opened the doors of opportunity that were never again completely closed. Yet, without a solid economic foundation, this revolutionary experiment in freedom and democracy proved impossible to maintain.

Former Confederate general Robert V. Richardson, treasurer of the American Cotton Planters’ Association, anticipated the limits of Reconstruction when he wrote in December 1865: “The emancipated slaves own nothing, because nothing but freedom has been given to them.” Like many of his contemporaries, whether Congressmen or freedmen, Richardson knew that freedom defined merely as self-ownership was limited, for it threw blacks into society poor, uneducated, and disadvantaged in countless

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Copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln Boston Athenaeum Copy of the Emancipation Prociamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln (Boston Athenaeum)

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ways. A writer for the Louisville Democrat knew it, too, for he asserted that the former slave needs to understand that “he is free, but only to labor,” and that he must, therefore, be prevented from obtaining access to land. Blacks, on the contrary, believed they were entitled to land, if for no other reason than the contributions they had already made to American economic development and prosperity. In a powerful speech delivered in 1866 and cited in Eric Foner’s Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (1983), freedman Bayley Wyat proclaimed that blacks:

has a right to the land where we are located. For why? I tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands, has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; for that reason we have a divine right to the land.… And den didn’t we clear the land, and raise de crops ob corn, ob cotton, ob tobacco, ob rice, ob sugar, ob everything. And den didn’t dem large cities in de North grew up on de cotton and de sugars and de rice dat we made?… I say dey had grown rich, and my people is poor.

To mean anything, freedom had to mean more than merely the end of slavery. Freedmen such as Wyat insisted that it did; Richardson and other members of the Southern planter aristocracy contended that it did not.

The end of slavery destroyed the social system of the South, but for many people the old order died hard. Members of the Southern slaveowning elite, to say nothing of the slaves themselves, struggled to understand, adjust, accept, and forgive. For those whites who had shaped the Southern ruling class, the defection of so many slaves marked the end of their world. No blacks could any longer be trusted. Yet, with the end of slavery, some whites felt themselves emancipated from the burdens of having to care for their slaves. Those who could not accept the reality that blacks had been freed simply burned their slave quarters and ordered the former slaves off the land, threatening to kill them if they lingered. Others responded more cautiously, hoping to convince the blacks to remain with them and to work for wages. Still others despaired, not for the blacks but for themselves. They wondered how they could survive without slaves to cultivate their land, care for their houses, cook their meals, nurture their children, and satisfy their whims. No matter what the response of the whites, blacks had attained their freedom, but as a consequence they were now on their own with the odds, and increasingly the law, stacked against their success.

The political, economic, and social condition of blacks in the United States did not immediately improve with emancipation. Daniel H. Chamberlain, the last Republican governor of South Carolina during Reconstruction, summed up the situation, explaining to former abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison that “the uneducated negro was too weak, no matter what his numbers, to cope with the whites.” Freed blacks endured legal discrimination in the form of the Black Codes and such rulings as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Supreme Court of the United States declared constitutional state laws mandating segregation, and Cumming v. County Board of Education (1899), in which the Court determined that laws establishing separate schools for white children were constitutional even if there were no schools for blacks comparable to the white schools from which they were now legally excluded. If the law by chance failed to limit access to public facilities or to proscribe the activities of blacks, custom and practice did not. The editor of the Richmond Times conveyed the prevailing sentiments when he wrote:

It is necessary that this principle [of segregation] be applied in every relation of Southern life. God Almighty drew the color line and it cannot be obliterated. The negro must stay on his side of the line and the white man must stay on his side, and the sooner both races recognize this fact and accept it, the better it will be for both.

Blacks also confronted intimidation, violence, and disfranchisement that compromised their liberty, robbed them of their citizenship, and threatened their dignity as human beings, to say nothing of their lives. Yet, whatever its limitations, freedom was better than nothing, and whenever opportunities for action arose, blacks seized the initiative to strike a blow in the cause of liberty. As slaves, blacks had lived for a long time with oppression and exploitation, and they proved more than willing to fight and die for freedom, as the approximately 209,000 who took up arms against the Confederacy demonstrated.

In Eugene D. Genovese’s From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (1979), one of these soldiers, Corporal Prince Lambkin, provides an eloquent and unforgettable statement of blacks’ determination to put an end to bondage. Rising to address his fellow soldiers of the First South Carolina Volunteers, one of the celebrated all-black regiments of the Union Army, Lambkin declared:

Our mas’re dey hab lib under de flag, dey got dere wealth under it, and ebryting beautiful for dere chilen. Under it dey hab grind us up, and put us in dere pocket for money. But de fus’ minute dey tink dat ole flag mean freedom for we colored people, dey pull it right down, and run up de rag ob dere own. But we’ll neber desert de ole flag, boys, neber; we had lib under it for eighteen hundred sixty-two years, and we’ll die for it now.

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It is no small irony that those men and women who were denied their freedom did their share and more to preserve the birthright of every American. Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Lambkin, and countless others whose names history does not record, knew the value and the meaning of freedom. Because they had withstood and overcome slavery, they also knew what freedom cost.

The failure of Reconstruction, the survival of the plantation system, and the ongoing exploitation of blacks obscure the drama of emancipation. For blacks, the end of slavery marked the fundamental turning point in their individual and collective lives, whatever hardships they encountered as a result. Testifying before a Senate committee in 1883, Reverend E. P. Holmes of Georgia, a former house servant, made plain the importance that freedom had for black people. “Most anyone ought to know that a man is better off free than as a slave,” Holmes said, “even if he did not have anything. I would rather be free and have my liberty. I fared just as well as any white child could have fared when I was a slave, and yet I would not give up my freedom.”


Viewpoint: No. Despite having escaped slavery, African Americans still faced racial prejudice and legal discrimination; the promise offered by emancipation faded when blacks, impoverished, illiterate, and disadvantaged, experienced continuing exploitation in the labor market

The end of slavery might have destroyed the social system of the Old South, but it did nothing to eliminate racism. As early as 1865 legislatures in all Southern states except North Carolina enacted Black Codes designed to control blacks and to restrict their civil rights. Although these regulations varied from state to state, the most common provisions included the establishment of racial segregation in public places, the prohibition of interracial marriage, and the legal recognition of marriages between blacks. Black Codes also prevented blacks from serving on juries or from testifying against whites in court, though they could give testimony against other blacks. In some states, such as Mississippi, these laws reinstituted many of the criminal provisions of the slave codes. The Mississippi law, for example, declared that “all penal and criminal laws now in force describing the mode of punishment of crimes and misdemeanors committed by slaves, free negroes, or mulattoes are hereby reenacted, and decreed to be in full force against all freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes.”

The Black Codes in general forbade blacks from entering any but agricultural employment. In Mississippi they prevented blacks from buying or renting farmland and required them to sign an annual labor contract with a white employer; in South Carolina they made it illegal for blacks to purchase or own city lots and compelled them to pay a tax of between $10 and $100 to enter an occupation other than farming or domestic service. Blacks were also prohibited from leaving the plantation, or from entertaining guests upon it, without permission. If blacks could not give evidence of being employed, they could be detained under a charge of vagrancy and fined, or bound to work for a white landowner if unable to pay. The vagrancy statute imposed involuntary labor as punishment for a wide array of persons deemed antisocial, including:

rogues and vagabonds, idle and dissipated persons, beggars, jugglers, or persons practicing unlawful games or plays, runaways, common drunkards, common night-walkers, lewd, wanton, or lascivious persons, … common railers and brawlers, persons who neglect their calling or employment, misspend what they earn, or do not provide for the support of themselves or their families, or dependents, and all other idle and disorderly persons, including all who neglect all lawful business, habitually misspend their time by frequenting houses of ill-fame, gaming houses, or tippling shops.

Apprenticeship laws authorized the state to bind out to white employers black children whose parents could not support them or who were “not teaching them habits of industry and honesty; or are persons of notoriously bad character.”

Although either the Federal Army, the Freedmen’s Bureau, or the Civil Rights Act (1866) invalidated most of the Black Codes, these laws reveal what the contours of social and race relations in the post–Civil War South would have been if left entirely in the hands of whites. As African American historian W. E. B. Du Bois observed, the Black Codes represented “what the South proposed to do to the emancipated Negro, unless restrained by the nation.” Black Congressman Josiah Walls warned that the Black Codes indicated what Southern Democrats would do “if they should ever again obtain control of this Government.” In essence, whites intended these laws to keep blacks a propertyless, rural, laboring class, slaves in everything but name.

With the adoption of the Black Codes, the freedmen, indeed, found themselves cruelly thrust back into much the same position they Page 55  |  Top of Articlehad occupied as slaves. The laws that had recognized their citizenship and their rights disappeared. Some freedmen nonetheless protested their mistreatment. A letter to the governor of Mississippi from a group of freedmen asked that if “Mississippi has abolished slavery, … does she mean it or is it a policy for the present?” Further, they pointed out that “now we are free, we do not want to be hunted by negro runners and their hounds unless we are guilty of a criminal crime.”

Most blacks sensibly realized that their protests would have little effect on the situation and might in some ways even make it worse. A writer in one African American newspaper declared that the Black Codes “express an average of the justice and humanity which the late slaveholders possess.” He felt assured, though, that with the aid of the federal government “the right will prevail and truth [will] triumph in the end.” For the time being, the government appeared to respond sympathetically to the plight of blacks, suspending the Black Codes in several states. Some Southern state legislatures repealed the harshest laws on their own. While the Codes were thought “dead,” however, the forces that had created them were very much alive.

With the failure of the Black Codes, Southern whites tried to curb the freedom and power of blacks through intimidation, violence, and terror, with the largest number of violent acts arising from the attempts of blacks to assert their rights. Freedmen were assaulted and, in some cases, murdered for not satisfying their employers, for trying to buy or rent land, or for simply trying to leave the plantations on which they had once been enslaved. One Tennessee newspaper reported that white “regulators” were “riding about whipping, maiming and killing all the negroes who do not obey the orders of their former masters, just as if slavery existed.” Many former black soldiers who had fought for the Union returned home only to find cinders and ashes. The rising tide of racist violence prompted one Louisiana freedman to declare: “I would say to every colored soldier, ‘Bring your gun home’.” Other blacks wearily realized that out of the ruin of the Civil War another conflict was smoldering. Whites knew it, too, for a former governor of North Carolina remarked “with reference to Emancipation, we are at the beginning of the war.”

Perhaps the greatest threat to the freedmen was the appearance of a new organization determined to unnerve and overpower blacks and their white supporters: the Ku Klux Klan. Organized in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Klan set out to restore white supremacy throughout the South. Klansmen rode about the Southern countryside wearing white masks and robes, issuing threats, harassing blacks, and on occasion engaging in destruction, violence, and murder. During their brief career, the Klan and similar groups such as the Knights of the White Camellia and the White League “whipped, shot, hanged, robbed, raped, and otherwise outraged Negroes and Republicans across the South in the name of preserving white civilization.”

Congress struck back at the Klan with three Enforcement Acts passed in 1870 and 1871. The first of these measures made it a federal offense to interfere with any citizen’s right to vote. The second placed the election of Congressmen under the supervision of federal election officials and marshals. The third, the so-called Ku Klux Klan Act, made it illegal to engage in conspiracies, to wear disguises in public, and to resist, threaten, or in any way intimidate officials of the courts or the government.

Federal mandates and prosecutions weakened the Klan, but such societies as the Mississippi Rifle Club and the South Carolina Red Shirts continued to harass blacks and white Republicans, enabling conservative whites gradually to reassume control of government and society in one Southern state after another. Republicans fell out of power in Virginia and Tennessee in 1869 and Georgia and North Carolina in 1870, even though the “Old North State” had a Republican governor until 1876. Republicans held on longer in the states of the Deep South, which had larger black populations than those in the upper South. In the elections of 1876, however, voters dismissed the Republicans from office in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida, the three remaining states where they held sway.

Northern support for Reconstruction (1865–1877) had begun to wane with the Panic of 1873. Economic hard times distracted Northerners from the problems of the former slaves and made Reconstruction programs seem an expensive luxury. Even whites who favored racial equality usually thought in terms of legal equality, which they believed would naturally follow from emancipation. Yet, for freedom to be meaningful and equality assured, the federal government had to guarantee the physical safety of black men and women and support their liberty by giving them land. When the government failed to do so, Reconstruction faltered and then collapsed.

For a brief period during the 1870s and 1880s greater flexibility and tolerance had characterized race relations in the South. The former slave owner, wrote a South Carolina newspaper editor, “has no desire to browbeat, maltreat, and spit upon the colored man.” There lingered among many white Southerners feelings of benevolence and paternalism toward blacks, and in any event most did not regard blacks as a threat to the existing social and political order.

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The following account is that of Henry Blake, an African American born into slavery in Arkansas; he made these statements when he was interviewed by a representative of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s:

After freedom, we worked on shares a while. Then, we rented. When we worked on shares, we couldn’t make nothing—just overalls, and something to eat. Half went to the white man, and you would destroy your half, if you weren’t careful. A man that didn’t know how to count would always lose. He might lose anyhow. The white folks didn’t give no itemized statements. No, you just had to owe so much. No matter how good account you kept, you had to go by their account, and—now, brother, I’m telling you the truth about this—it’s been that way for a long time. You had to take the white man’s words and notes on everything. Anything you wanted you could get, if you were a good hand. If you didn’t make no money, that’s all right; they would advance you more. But you better not try to leave and get caught. They’d keep you in debt. They were sharp. Christmas come, you could take up twenty dollars in somethin’-to-eat and much as you wanted in whiskey. You could buy a gallon of whiskey—anything that kept you a slave. Because he was always right and you were always wrong, if there was a difference. If there was an argument, he would get mad and there would be a shooting take place.

Source: George P. Rawick, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, volume 8 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972), pp. 175–179.

Such attitudes began to change in the early 1890s when the Populist, or People’s, Party tried to organize black and white farmers into a political coalition to challenge for control of state governments throughout the South. “You are kept apart,” Populist leader Tom Watson of Georgia told an audience of black and white farmers, “in order that you may be separately fleeced.” Such language frightened those in power. They responded by appealing to the fears of Southern whites that the South would again come under “Negro domination,” as they believed had been the case during Reconstruction.

Since competition for the black vote was growing, that relatively small group of men who dominated Southern politics at the end of the nineteenth century, known as the Bourbons, reasoned it was best to eliminate the black vote altogether. The Bourbons were members of the Democratic Party. As long as they could manipulate the black vote to their liking, they had no objection to blacks’ going to the polls and selecting the Democratic candidate of their choice. It was, however, another matter entirely when their Republican, Independent, and especially Populist adversaries began striving to capture the black vote. Under those circumstances, the right of blacks to vote had to be withdrawn.

The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) made it impossible simply to disfranchise blacks, so the Bourbons devised other, less direct, means to keep them from voting. They instituted a poll tax that most blacks could not afford to pay and literacy tests that most blacks, and many whites, could not pass.

Mississippi led the way in the disfranchisement of blacks. At a state convention held in 1890, delegates modified the Reconstruction constitution of 1868, which had extended suffrage to blacks. First, Mississippi established a new residency requirement of two years in the state and one year in the election district that often prevented both black and white tenant farmers, who habitually moved every year, from voting. Second, the new provisions disqualified voters convicted of certain crimes such as vagrancy, to which blacks were uncommonly susceptible. Third, the reforms mandated that all taxes, including the poll tax, be paid by 1 February of election year. Even those rare blacks who could afford to pay their taxes either moved frequently or were not in the habit of keeping careful records. They had plenty of time to lose tax receipts before election day arrived in the fall and were thus barred from voting. Fourth, the new regulations instituted a literacy test. To assist illiterate whites who could not, for example, read a passage from the Constitution, most Southern states instituted what became known as the “understanding clause.” An election official read a portion of the Constitution to a potential white voter and then asked if he had understood it. If he answered “yes,” he was permitted to vote.

Other states found different ways for whites to get around the literacy requirement. In 1895 the South Carolina legislature declared that owning property assessed at $300 qualified an illiterate voter. Many more whites than blacks met the prerequisite. Three years later the Louisiana state legislature invented the ingenious “grandfather clause,” which enabled illiterates to vote if their fathers or grandfathers had been eligible on 1 January 1867, when all blacks in the state had been disfranchised. By 1910 the legislatures of Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia had incorporated the grandfather clause into state election laws. Such restrictions were effective in limiting the black vote. In 1896, for example, 130,000 blacks registered to vote in Louisiana; by 1900 that number had fallen to 5,320. According to the census of 1900, Alabama had 121,259 literate black men over the Page 57  |  Top of Articleage of twenty-one, all of whom ought to have been eligible to vote; only 3,742 were registered.

The federal government did little to rectify the situation. In 1890 the Senate, apparently not wishing to interfere in the internal affairs of the states, defeated a bill sponsored by Representative Henry Cabot Lodge (R.–Mass.) that would have authorized federal supervision of state elections to reexamine the qualifications of those excluded from voting. Lodge’s bill marked the last significant attempt to protect black voters until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (1965).

Despite their political limitations, blacks won a few major, if short-lived, victories, chief among them passage of the Civil Rights Act (1875). Although poorly enforced, the Act outlawed discrimination in transportation, theaters, restaurants, hotels, and other places of public accommodation. In 1883, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, with only one dissent, that the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) prohibited state governments from discriminating on the basis of race but did not restrict private organizations, companies, or individuals from doing so. Hence, railroad and street-car companies, restaurants, hotels, theaters, private clubs, hospitals, and the like could legally keep blacks out if they wished.

The repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 did not immediately rob blacks of their rights any more than its passage had guaranteed them. In 1885, for instance, blacks in South Carolina continued to ride in first-class railway cars apparently without exciting comment. As early as 1881, by contrast, the Tennessee state legislature had required railroads operating in the state to provide separate first-class cars for blacks and whites. Not until 1888 did Mississippi require separate railway cars for blacks and whites. When in 1890 Louisiana also established separate cars for blacks and whites, Homer Plessy, an octoroon (one-eighth black) convicted for refusing to leave an all-white car, challenged the constitutionality of the law in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices rendered their decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, upholding state laws that mandated segregation. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Henry Brown Billings from Massachusetts declared that segregation laws “have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of state legislatures in the exercise of their police power.” Separate seating arrangements, the majority of the Court concluded, thus did not deprive blacks of their constitutional rights. The sole dissenting voice came from Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slaveholder and Unionist from Kentucky, who had also opposed repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. “In my opinion,” Harlan wrote, “the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case.” The ruling, Harlan predicted, would “stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens.”

Events made Harlan’s words prophetic. Soon the principle of segregation extended to every aspect of life for blacks, from public accommodations to recreation and sports to health care and employment. The violence that Justice Harlan had foretold also became a reality. Between 1890 and 1899 the number of lynchings that occurred in the United States averaged 187.5 per year, 82 percent of which took place in the South. In 1892 black journalist and social activist Ida B. Wells launched what eventually became an international movement opposed to lynching when she wrote a series of articles about the lynching of three friends in Memphis, Tennessee. The antilynching movement attracted considerable support in all regions of the United States, including the South, much of it coming from white women. Wells’s goal was the enactment of a federal antilynching law, which would empower the U.S. government to prosecute those responsible for lynchings when local and state governments failed or refused to do so.

The opposition to lynching, however, was an exception to the general support for white supremacy. Few whites, Northern or Southern, ever fully accepted the idea of racial equality with former slaves. In time, Northerners who feared the invasion of blacks into their states became increasingly sympathetic to the view of Southerners that black equality really meant the oppression of white people. The reality that blacks faced in both the North and the South during the last thirty years of the nineteenth century was the emergence of a racial caste system embodied in the laws of the United States and sustained by the attitudes and conduct of whites. Regrettably, the hopes that the majority of black Americans had long entertained for equality and integration remained unfulfilled.



Robert Cruden, The Negro in Reconstruction (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969).

W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935).

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Eric Foner, Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983).

Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979).

Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Knopf, 1979).

Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Knopf, 1998).

Benjamin Quarks, The Negro in the Making of America, second revised edition (New York: Collier / London: Collier-Macmillan, 1987).

George Brown Tindall, America: A Narrative History, second edition, volume 2 (New York: Norton, 1988).

Theodore B. Wilson, The Black Codes of the South (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1965).

C. Vann Woodward, American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971).

Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, third edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2877300017