The Improvement in the Situation for Black People in the USA by 1900

The Improvement in the Situation for Black People in the USA by 1900

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The Improvement in the Situation for Black People in the USA by 1900


The situation for black people in America underwent a huge improvement
after their emancipation, but by 1900, due to segregation laws and
discrimination in general, life was still very difficult for black
people. A common black American saying, ‘We ain’t what we ought to be,
we ain’t what we going to be. But thank God we ain’t what we used to
be.’, was how they summed up the situation for themselves. By 1900,
the black people of America had many more opportunities than pre-1865,
but there was still a long way to go before they gained equality with
whites. They had poor jobs, poor pay and were generally treated as
some kind of a subspecies by whites.

On the positive side, black people were no longer slaves to white
people. In 1865, after president Lincoln’s death and the end of the
civil war, slavery was abolished. The former slaves now had the
freedom to travel, and therefore to find work, and to set up a home.

In the South, radical Republicans had given blacks equal voting rights
to whites; this ensured that the newly enfranchised blacks would vote
for Lincoln’s Republican Party. In the North blacks had legal and
political equality; they could all vote. The right to vote is often
thought of as the badge of citizenship; 700,000 black men in the South
wore this badge after the end of the Civil War, which gave them some
representation (which they had never previously experienced). In 1868,
former black male slaves officially became US citizens through the
Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution; this meant that they, and
everybody else in America, had equality before the law. The Fifteenth
Amendment to the Constitution in 1870 went even further, officially
specifying that the right to vote ‘shall not be denied... On account
of race, colour or previous condition of servitude.’

Education was also available to improve the situation for blacks. In
southern America, Black churches and the federal Freedmen’s Bureau
(1865-1872) made this possible; some colleges of higher education

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(such as Howard and Fisk) even emerged. Education made it possible for
black people to get better jobs, e.g.; doctors, teachers, businessmen,
lawyers and even political leaders, and improved the literacy rate.

However, many of these improvements were reversed or ‘downgraded’
later on. For example, in the Southern states of America literacy and
income voting qualifications were introduced, which affected a higher
rate of blacks than whites; even the test papers of literate blacks
were often doctored or wrongly marked by white Southern registrars, to
disqualify them. Illiterate whites often managed to gain the vote
through ’grandfather clauses’, which claimed that if you had an
ancestor with the right to vote before Reconstruction his right was
passed on to you. Reconstruction had therefore failed to give blacks
any lasting political improvement. Even though slavery had been
abolished, Southerners still kept hold of their previous beliefs and
prejudices. They were frightened of blacks gaining equality and of
miscegenation.

Even though freed black slaves had gained the freedom to travel, due
to their lack of wealth, many could not afford to travel to the
industrialised North in search of work. Most of them remained in the
South of America, which was economically substantially behind the
North, and farmed as tenants under whites. Blacks that did go North
suffered racial discrimination in their search for work (and most
other areas); if a black man were better educated and qualified for
the job than a white man, the latter would still get the job purely
because of the colour of his skin. Blacks were often exploited by
businessmen; they were paid low wages and often used as strike
breakers. Black people even had to pay higher rent than whites for the
same apartments; they were restricted to housing within the black
ghetto where rents were higher. In 1910 in Chicago, a seven room
apartment for blacks was $37.50 a week; for working class whites it
cost $25. The lack of economic power that black people had was a
factor in their slow progress.

The de facto segregation of residential areas, educational facilities
and public facilities spread rapidly after 1865. Under the
Constitution, each individual state could control its own laws;
between 1881 and 1915 many Southern states passed laws discriminating
against blacks. De jure segregation included black and white being
separated in schools, churches, theatres, restaurants, cemeteries,
parks, trains, streetcars and stations in many Southern states. The
Supreme Court took no action on the ’Jim Crow’ laws, legalising
segregation; this implies that they supported them. By 1900, these
laws had reversed most of the gains brought by Reconstruction.

The Plessey v. Ferguson concept, which proposed separate but equal
facilities for black and white, was introduced in 1896. The Supreme
Court said that this was acceptable because it did not contradict the
Fourteenth Amendment. The ’equal’ aspect of Plessey v. Ferguson was,
of course, ignored by the Southern states, who spent ten times as much
money on white schools than black schools; the Supreme Court did
nothing about this. Neither did they take any action when the South
did not uphold the Fifteenth Amendment.

Blacks endured much hostility from resentful and fearful Southern
whites, who were bitter about their loss of the Civil War and
Reconstruction. Violence towards black people was common, and often
came in the form of white supremacist groups, notoriously the Ku Klux
Klan. Between 1885 and 1915, there were 2734 black lynchings in
America; none of the guilty were ever brought to justice, and many
whites would come and watch the events unfold, which implies that
there was extensive support. No legal protection or support existed
for black people, especially in the South, where tension was more
prevalent and hostility more common.

In conclusion, by 1900, black people theoretically had the freedom to
work and build lives for themselves, but realistically their
opportunities were limited and they faced much discrimination and
(especially in the South) hostility from whites. They had to tolerate
de facto discrimination in the North, and de jure in the South, which
undid most of what Reconstitution had done; they were still seen as a
subspecies not fit to mix with white people. The political rights that
they had been given were trampled on in the South, who ignored the US
constitution with the knowledge of the Supreme Court. They therefore
had little government support or protection, and, in the South,
unsatisfactory representation. Compared to when they were enslaved,
their situation had improved, but life in America for a black person
was extremely hard, and there was a long struggle ahead for equality
with whites.
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