The Color Line
Race relations in the United States reached a new low in the first decade of the new century. By 1900 Native Americans had been reduced to dependency, stripped of much of the land granted to them by treaty and left to defend themselves against further encroachment by mining companies and land speculators. On the West Coast Asian Americans continued to encounter resentment and misunderstanding. Relations between whites and blacks were marked by two unavoidable phenomena: violence and segregation. The decade began with a race riot in New York City and saw subsequent riots in Atlanta in 1906 and in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908. In the latter incident two blacks were lynched, four whites were killed, seventy people were injured, and a force of five thousand militiamen was required to restore order in the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. A regiment of black soldiers was summarily and dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army after its role in a riot in Brownsville, Texas, in August 1906. Lynchings of blacks were frighteningly common, though on the decline by comparison with the last two decades of the nineteenth century: there were one hundred such incidents in 1900 alone, and eleven hundred between 1900 and the beginning of World War I.
Segregation, long the practice in most parts of the country, was written into law in southern states during the 1890s and 1900s. Known as Jim Crow laws, these statutes, and the social practices they inscribed, required separate facilities in transportation, accommodations, education, and entertainment. There were separate railroad cars for blacks, usually just behind the engine car, which meant that the passengers had to contend with the heat and dirt from the coal-burning locomotives. Schools were separate, and most white reformers ignored black institutions. This was often true in the North as well, even though there were not many laws on the books mandating it. Throughout the South in the 1900s, the process of depriving black citizens of their constitutional rights continued as the doctrine of white supremacy held sway. The extreme prejudice among some whites was conveyed by J. K. Vardaman, a U.S. senator and later governor from Mississippi, who declared that he was "just as opposed to Booker T. Washington as a voter, with all his Anglo-Saxon re-enforcements, as I am to the coconut-headed, chocolate-colored, typical little coon, Andy Dotson, who blacks my shoes every morning. Neither is fit to perform the supreme function of citizenship." Through such devices as poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests, blacks were deprived of the right to vote throughout the South, a right they would not regain in large numbers until 1965.
In response the black community tried two different approaches. One was led by Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and the most prominent black figure of the decade of the 1900s. Washington preached a doctrine of accommodation and self-help, arguing that blacks should not demand social or political equality until they had established their economic strength. In 1895 he delivered a famous address at the Atlanta Exposition in which he advocated economic cooperation between the races and social separation. Other blacks disagreed with him. They favored integration, and demanded both social equality and the protection of the law against segregation and violence. The most prominent spokesman for this position was W. E. B. Du Bois, who began the Niagara Movement in June 1905 after the Springfield riots. His purpose was to convince whites that blacks deserved to be received fully into American society. In a manifesto written by Du Bois—and issued by the Niagara Movement after its 1906 convention in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia—he decried the poison of racism and the new segregation laws in America: "Never before in the modern age has a great and civilized folk threatened to adopt so cowardly a creed in the treatment of its fellow-citizens, born and bred on its soil. Stripped of verbose subterfuge and in its naked nastiness, the new American creed says: fear to let black men even try to rise lest they become the equals of the white." The Niagara Movement would by the end of the decade lead to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Patterns of Black Life
Blacks faced persistent problems in the 1900s, and their communities were evolving in significant ways as they sought improved educational opportunities, better housing and jobs, and safety from mob violence. At the beginning of the decade two-thirds of the nation's black population often million lived in the rural South. Most worked as farm laborers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers in an agricultural economy that was growing steadily worse, on land that was exhausted from intensive cultivation. The average farm worker in South Carolina in 1902 was paid $10.79 per month, while his counterpart in New York garnered $26.13. Even though blacks comprised half of the population of the South in 1900, there were just more than 150,000 black-owned farms, compared to more than a million owned by whites. Given these conditions, many rural blacks were joining the flight to the city. By 1900 seventy-two American cities had black populations of at least five thousand; Washington, Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia, New York, and Memphis all had black populations that exceeded fifty thousand. Even in cities with well-established black populations, however, discrimination in employment and housing posed major obstacles to black workers. Black women, more than 50 percent of whom were employed by 1910, found work in low-paying jobs as domestics, seamstresses, or as laundry workers. Black men had a somewhat wider range of choices, but often found themselves in menial jobs in factories, on the railroads, in mines, or in the construction trades. Many trade unions refused to admit blacks. The American Federation of Labor, which in 1890 had declared its unwillingness to admit unions that discriminated on the basis of race, quietly reversed its position by the turn of the century, even though this step weakened its effectiveness. Skilled black artisans could command only two-thirds of the wages of their white counterparts. In the face of these long odds, blacks, occasionally with the assistance of white philanthropists, were establishing institutions to improve black schools; using black colleges such as Morehouse College and Howard University to train a new generation of leaders, scholars, and artists; founding innumerable small businesses in urban neighborhoods; and through the churches maintaining a powerful sense of community that would sustain decades of protest and progress.
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: McClurg, 1903);
John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994);
Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1985);
David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (New York: Holt, 1993);
C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, third revised edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974).