Tag Archives: racial prejudice

Chinese Plantation Workers

Before the 1870s, there were only a tiny handful of Chinese people living in the American South. But with the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of black slaves, Southern planters began to eye the Chinese as possible substitutes for their former human property.

It should have been an ideal match. After all, according to reports from California, Chinese laborers were docile and hardworking. Why should they be less so as field hands than as gold miners and railroad workers? If the Chinese would be willing to work according to the terms that had prevailed under slavery, perhaps the emancipated blacks could be persuaded to return to their former condition as well.

So in 1869, Southern elites organized a conference to discuss Chinese labor. Hundreds of delegates assembled in Memphis, Tennessee. A notable Chinese labor contractor assured the crowd that the Chinese were obedient, industrious, and naive; a famous importer of Chinese labor promised that workers could be brought from China on five-year contracts for as little as ten dollars a month.

Giddy with the prospect of building a new South on the backs of coolies, the delegates raised a million dollars for the cause, then set about aggressively recruiting Chinese labor.

American clipper companies distributed handbills in Chinese ports, making extravagant promises. For example, some of them claimed that Chinese workers could become “richer than mandarins” in the American South. This campaign succeeded in bringing about two thousand Chinese workers to the South in 1869 and 1870.

Both the Southern planters and the Chinese laborers quickly became disillusioned. The plantation owners were accustomed to exerting absolute control over their workers; they believed that the way to increase productivity was to have overseers whip grown men into tractability. But the Chinese considered their relationship to the planters to be a normal business arrangement; they expected their employers to adhere to the terms of their contracts, and had no intentions of laboring under oppressive conditions.

On one plantation, the Chinese responded to the whipping of a Chinese servant by staging a strike. Elsewhere, a Chinese labor gang attempted to lynch a Chinese agent for giving them false information about the terms of their employment. Unlike the former slaves, the Chinese laborers worked under contract, and they proved to be shrewd negotiators, hiring bilingual interpreters and lawyers to protect their interests. When employers violated contracts, the Chinese filed lawsuits. In this they were supported by a postwar government that was alert to any signs of racial exploitation in the South.

The Southern oligarchy’s dream of holding Chinese workers in bondage turned out to be a nightmare. Within a few years, most of the Chinese had walked away from their contracts and moved to cities, where they accepted real jobs or opened their own businesses. By 1915 there were almost no Chinese workers on Southern plantations.

(Chang 93-99)

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The Democratic Party Goes Liberal

Since the Civil War, the GOP had identified itself as the Party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, while the Democratic Party had always been dominated by southern Jim Crow conservatives.This all began to change during the Great Depression.

In 1932, a wave of newly-active voters from among the white American middle class swept the polls. They managed to place liberal Democrats in office at all levels of the government, including the presidency. Franklin D. Roosevelt, during his first one hundred days in office, led the federal government in a series of unprecedented actions to help Americans survive the economic crisis. His New Deal raised the hopes of millions, and working-class Americans everywhere loved him.

They also loved his wife, Eleanor, who became the first politically active first lady in US history. She connected easily and with no apparent condescension to the poor and to African Americans, who mostly fell into that category. (While about 30 percent of Americans were unemployed during the Depression, among blacks the unemployment rate was around 50 percent.)

While the New Deal focused on economic liberalism, it did not at first include the kind of racial liberalism exemplified by Eleanor Roosevelt. Early New Deal leaders were mostly northern white intellectuals who had little firsthand experience with the southern white mindset. They believed that race prejudice was a result of economic conditions – African Americans were discriminated against because they were poor – and they naively thought that once the New Deal had lifted blacks out of poverty, race would cease to be an issue.

Eventually, as they saw their economic programs in many states segregated along racial lines, they began to realize that racism was the cause, rather than the effect, of black poverty. Of course, black leaders had been saying this all along, but finally, New Deal liberals began to see it too.

In order for blacks to get civil rights onto the agenda of the Democratic Party, first they had to join that party. This meant leaving the Republican Party – the party of Lincoln and emancipation. For many this was a painful decision; as one man said, Roosevelt might feed him, but Lincoln had freed him. Nevertheless, in the late 1930s, blacks in the North and West overwhelmingly switched to the Democratic Party. That shift was to permanently change American politics and the civil rights movement.

In some ways, Republicans brought it on themselves. For a long time, the GOP had been taking black votes for granted. They had largely ignored the subject of black civil rights, figuring that African Americans had no choice but to vote Republican; the only alternative was the Democratic Party, the party of the Confederacy and white supremacy. Now suddenly, the triumph of the liberal Democrats gave black voters new motivation to switch parties.

Also, New Deal aid did reach African American families, saving homes and livelihoods. This was a strong influence on winning black support for the Democratic Party.

A third reason black voters switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party in the 1930s had to do with the Roosevelts themselves. Largely through Eleanor’s prompting, FDR established an unofficial “Black Cabinet” committee of African American leaders, to advise him on race issues in the New Deal. He actively welcomed African Americans into the Democratic Party and made a special effort to court the black vote in the 1936 election. While his popularity among all Americans virtually assured his reelection, he won a large percentage of the black vote that year. More and more blacks would continue to become Democrats in the following years and decades.

While conservative southern Democrats continued to fight black civil rights to the end, it was the liberal Democrats who would eventually reshape racial law in America.

(Flamming 150-157)

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The Tulsa Race Riot

The late 1910s witnessed a wave of white-on-black racial violence throughout the American West. Major race riots included those in Houston (1917), East St. Louis (1917), Chicago (1919), Elaine, Arkansas (1919) and Omaha, Nebraska (1919).

The last and worst of this wave of racial violence erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31, 1921. Tulsa was at that time a rapidly growing city, mostly white but with a sizeable and prosperous black population; the city was tightly segregated, and the homes and businesses of black middle-class families were centered in an area called Greenwood.

The incident began when a black man named Dick Rowland was falsely accused by some white men of having made advances upon a white girl. Rowland was arrested and locked in a courthouse jail; that afternoon, a white newspaper announced in bold headlines that there would be a lynching that night.

A group of Greenwood’s leading citizens and property owners decided to intervene. At dusk, about two dozen got their guns and drove to the courthouse. Already a white mob of several hundred was assembled. Approaching the sheriff, the Greenwood men offered their services; the sheriff informed them that he had already contacted the National Guard, and that the situation was under control. The men, convinced for the moment, got in their cars and returned to Greenwood.

Meanwhile, the white mob was growing. At some point, part of the mob tried to break into the National Guard armory to seize guns and ammunition; the Guard held them off but failed to disperse them. News of the escalation reached Greenwood; this time, from 50 to 75 men assembled and returned to the courthouse.

No one knows who fired the first shot, but someone did, and a riot broke out. The Greenwood men, outnumbered 75 to 3,000, managed to fight their way out of downtown and back toward their own neighborhood. The white mob followed them; fighting continued all night, and sometime the next morning, Greenwood began to burn. In broad daylight, as their homes and businesses went up in flames, as many as 6,000 blacks were rounded up and force-marched to internment centers.

The destruction continued all day. White newspaper photographers followed the mob and took pictures of the burning buildings. The National Guard did nothing to stop the violence; the whites freely continued destroying property as they chose.

The number of deaths due to the violence was never accurately established. Estimates range from 30 to 300 persons dead; perhaps half of these were white men. More than 1,000 homes and businesses in Greenwood were destroyed; black Tulsa lay in ruins. White officials at the city and state levels openly blamed the riot on the small group of black men who had arrived downtown with guns. Many black families left the city, never to return.

The violence in Tulsa began a panic in Los Angeles, when rumors of a Klan riot began to circulate; reportedly, black Los Angeles had been scheduled for the “Tulsa treatment” on July 4.

But it didn’t happen. Los Angeles was a very different place from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa was a southern-style city, and Greenwood was the kind of all-black neighborhood that didn’t exist in the cities of the West Coast. In places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, blacks lived and worked in mixed neighborhoods, interspersed with whites, Mexicans, and Asians. There would be no way to attack the “black district” without destroying the property of many non-blacks. This diversity could not, of course, prevent violence on an individual basis, but it may explain why the cities of the West Coast escaped the race riots so prevalent during this period.

(Flamming 130-133)

 

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From Reconstruction to Jim Crow

In the years immediately following the Civil War, most former slaves did not leave the South. Instead, they placed their faith in the federal government’s plan for Reconstruction. As the defeated Confederate states were rejoined to the Union, the freedmen hoped they would be able to enjoy the rights of American citizenship in a redeemed, Reconstructed South.

Initially, Reconstruction was amazingly successful. Three Constitutional amendments were ratified in quick order: The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) outlawed slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) gave full citizenship to former slaves, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) extended the franchise to all male citizens, regardless of race or color. Southern Reconstruction governments also quickly established systems of public education for former slaves and their children.

These gains were not to last. As the party of Lincoln began to morph into the party of Big Business, Northern Republicans lost interest in southern racial conflicts; the last federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877. This officially ended the Reconstruction process, and things went bad very quickly.

Outraged by the loss of slavery, the former Confederates, now the Democratic Party, committed themselves to creating a strict racial caste system instead. They began by systematically destroying the Republican Party in the South. Republican leaders were run out of town, or murdered outright. Republican voters were threatened, beaten, and killed. Democrats destroyed Republican votes or stuffed ballot boxes with fake Democratic votes. As the North declined to interfere, Southern Democrats pushed black voters, and white Republican voters, out of the political system.

The Democrats used several methods to disfranchise black voters. One way was to require an annual tax of anyone wishing to maintain their voters’ registration; most blacks and poor whites did not have the necessary cash to pay for a vote that probably wouldn’t be counted anyway. Another method was to require registrants to read and successfully interpret the Constitution – to the satisfaction of the Democratic registrar – in order to be allowed to vote.

During the 1890s, thousands of black men and women were lynched by white mobs. No white southerner was ever convicted of any crime related to the lynchings, and few were even charged. Often, law enforcement officials themselves were involved in the murders. This was the ultimate form of disfranchisement: the unchecked, wholesale murder of black citizens, with no consequences for the murderers.

With disfranchisement complete, segregation laws were quickly passed throughout the South. By the end of the century, the white supremacist system known as Jim Crow was firmly established. African Americans in the South had no legal or political rights at all, and the dream of Reconstruction was over.

(Flamming 94-98)

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Exodusters

In the years immediately following the Civil War, black southerners did not suddenly leave the South for greater opportunities in the North or out West. Most freedmen placed their hope in Reconstruction, as their Republican allies sought to redeem the South and protect their newly-acquired political rights.

But Reconstruction did not go far enough. The freedmen were never given the allotments of land they’d been promised. The Southern state governments were all recaptured by former Confederates, and all federal troops left the South in 1877, leaving the former slaves to fend for themselves. With no protection, they faced unrestrained violence, especially in the areas along the lower Mississippi River, in northeastern Louisiana and western Mississippi.

In 1879, rumors started to circulate that the federal government was making plans to send boats up the Mississippi to transport black families to St. Louis and on to freedom out West. The promised land, where they  hoped to build their new lives, was the state of Kansas.

Kansas had a strong abolitionist history. It was there that John Brown and other white abolitionists first took up arms against the slave South. During the war, Kansas had been a refuge for blacks fleeing slavery, and it was there that blacks were first armed to fight for the Union. After the war, the Republican government of Kansas was strongly in favor of black civil rights.

Believing that boats would arrive any time to take them away to freedom in Kansas, thousands of black families began to congregate on the banks of the Mississippi. The large numbers of people camped on the riverbank, the fact that they appeared to have no leader, and their faith that boats would come for them and that they would be welcomed in Kansas made them national news. Their story seemed like something out of the Old Testament, and they soon became known as “Exodusters.”

Riverboats did eventually begin picking up the crowds, and some 6,000 Exodusters made their way to Kansas.

Although there was neither enough land nor adequate public resources to meet the needs of these new emigrants, Kansas authorities did not turn them away. At both state and local levels, the authorities worked to blend the new arrivals into the state’s growing urban economy. Although many Exodusters had to give up their dreams of land ownership for service jobs in Topeka and other railroad towns, for many it was good enough to be safely out of the South.

(Flamming 74-77)

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Martha Washington’s Black Sister

It was a not very well-kept Washington family secret that Martha Washington had a sister who was black.

Ann Dandridge was the daughter of Martha Washington’s father, John Dandridge, and an unknown slave of mixed African and Native American blood. After John Dandridge’s death in 1756, Ann, who was a young girl at the time, went to live with George and Martha at Mount Vernon and was kept by them as a slave.

Why didn’t Martha free her little sister from slavery? If she had felt any resentment towards her half-sister, Martha could easily have sold or otherwise gotten rid of her, yet she didn’t. She kept her around, lived with her, let her children play with her, but did not set her free.

To Martha, this may have seemed like benevolence. After all, there was no place in 1759 Virginia society for a free black Dandridge female. Ann’s choices in life would have been very limited. She could perhaps have obtained a position as a servant girl to a rich family, but no white man of any substance would have married her. If she had found a black husband, he would most likely have been a slave; her dark-skinned children would have been perpetually at risk of enslavement. Martha may have felt it best to keep Ann enslaved and under her own protection.

So Ann lived at Mount Vernon with her half-sister and brother-in-law. What she did there is unknown, but she probably spent much of her time knitting or sewing in the parlor along with the mistress of the estate and the female house slaves. To visitors she would have seemed just another mixed-race servant, perhaps the mistress’s favorite.

Martha’s “protective” ownership of Ann was not foolproof. Sometime around 1780, Ann Dandridge bore a son, William. It appears that Martha’s son, an unsavory character named Jacky Custis, exerted the rights of a master over a slave; he fathered a child with Ann, who was his aunt as well as his property. Ann’s son William was both grandson and nephew to Martha Washington.

After giving birth to the child of Jacky Custis, Ann married a slave named Costin. The couple had four daughters, all of them nieces of Martha Washington, and all of them born slaves-for-life of the Custis estate. Yet William, her first child and Martha’s grandson, was legally regarded as free, by request of the mistress herself.

Once George and Martha were both dead and Ann was in her forties, she came into the possession of Martha’s granddaughter, Eliza Custis Law.

Eliza and her husband, Thomas Law, were uniquely sensitive to the plight of mixed-race people, for Thomas, before marrying Eliza, had been an official of the East India Company, and had three half-Indian sons.

Upon inheriting ownership of Ann Dandridge in 1802, the Laws freed her almost immediately. Five years later, they emancipated all Ann’s children, her grandchildren, and William Costin’s wife.

(Wiencek 84-86, 282-290)

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Black Cowboys

In the years following the Civil War, Americans in the northern cities were willing to pay the highest prices for any kind of beef, and Texas cattlemen were eager to the oblige them. West Texas and northern Mexico were, at that time, teeming with hundreds of thousands of feral longhorn cattle, descended from early Spanish stock. They were there for the taking, for anyone who could round them up and drive them north.

They couldn’t go straight north, however, because that meant crossing Indian Territory, and the tribes required payment to drive the cattle through. Neither could they go east, because there were too many fences, farms and forests in the way. The only way was to head through the open range of the Great Plains, to railroad towns in the west.

The main cattle trails became legendary. Three of the most important were the Chisholm Trail, which ran from the southern tip of Texas through central Oklahoma and ended in Abilene, Kansas; the Western Trail which ended in Dodge City, Kansas; and the Goodnight-Loving Trail which went west to New Mexico, along the Rocky Mountains, and then through Ogallala, Nebraska and on to Wyoming and Montana.

To round up the cattle and drive them north was hardly a one-man job; any cattleman who wished to make the drive needed a good crew of cowboys in order to pull it off.

Horses were a way of life in the Old South, and many former slaves were expert horsemen. These were much in demand as cowboys, especially those former slaves who had worked cattle before the war. While cowboys were usually southern-born white men, most crews included some black cowboys as well.

For black men and white men to work together was an unusual situation in the U.S. of the 1860s, and a rare opportunity for some black men to gain the respect of their white coworkers. On the open range, race seems to have mattered less than skill.

Perhaps the most well-known today of the black cowboys is Nate Love; his action-packed autobiography of 1907 makes no mention that he experienced any white racism as a cowboy. That he was a tough, reckless, freedom-loving American seems to have mattered much more to him than did his race.

Another famous black cowboy was William “Bill” Pickett. After his days riding the open range were over, he gained national fame as a show rider in the early days of Wild West shows and rodeos.

We must be careful not to overemphasize the impact of black cowboys on the general narrative of the West. It is estimated that no more than 25 percent of the cowboys who worked the open range were black. In any case, the era of the open-range cattle drives was short-lived; by the turn of the century barbed wire fences, railroad tracks, the expansion of farming, and the development of the meat-processing industry had put an end to the days of the cowboy. Still, the cowboy crews provide an early example of relative racial egalitarianism in the West.

(Flamming 61-70)

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Robert Gould Shaw

May 28, 1863 was the day of one of the city of Boston’s proudest moments. On that day, four hundred men marched off to battle: the men of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, the Union Army’s first African American regiment.

Leading the column was slender, blond-haired young Robert Gould Shaw, the scion of an upper-crust Boston family. Shaw, a devoted abolitionist, had been proud to accept the commission, and his family, transcendentalists who believed in a utopia of virtue, were likewise proud of him.

Not all of Boston agreed. Prejudice against blacks was still strong in polite Boston society. As the regiment passed through the city, some booed and others threw stones. Yet most of the thousands of Bostonians lining the streets were greatly moved by the sight: four hundred black met proudly marching to battle so their brothers might be free.

Some in the crowd threw flowers at Colonel Shaw, who paused to kiss his sword in salute as the procession passed his family’s house.

A few months later, Colonel Shaw was ordered to attack Fort Wagner on the South Carolina coast. As he led the charge up the parapet, he was killed under heavy fire. Because he was leading a black regiment, the Confederate commander refused to give him a proper military funeral; Shaw was thrown into a common grave with his fallen black soldiers.

Shaw’s father refused to have his son’s body recovered; he believed that for Colonel Shaw to be buried with his soldiers in a common grave was a more fitting tribute than any monument.

(Thomas 19-24)

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The Poem That Changed Washington’s Mind

Shortly after the Second Continental Congress elected George Washington commander-in-chief of the American military forces, he began a systematic policy for barring black men from military service.

Black soldiers had already distinguished themselves in the patriotic cause. But as a Southern white plantation owner, Washington was understandably alarmed at the idea of giving arms to black freedmen and slaves; the prospect of a slave uprising must have been ever before him. And while there is no record that the common white soldier in New England objected to serving alongside black soldiers, many of the upper-class officers believed it dishonorable to include blacks, whether slave or free.

So in November of 1775, Washington issued a general order that excluded all black men from enlisting.

Yet in December of the same year, he suddenly reversed his policy. He issued another order, allowing free black men the right to enlist in the army.

It was a surprising, rather contrary move, and a rare instance of George Washington changing his mind about anything, ever. The change was apparently not for practical reasons, such as needing more soldiers or the concern that blacks would join the English cause. In writing to John Hancock about his decision, Washington explained that it was due rather to the numbers of black soldiers who had approached him to complain of their dissatisfaction at being excluded.

For the first time in his life, Washington had responded in a fair way to an appeal from free black men. What happened to change his mind?

Shortly before Christmas of 1775, Washington received a letter in the mail at his headquarters in Cambridge. Enclosed in the letter were forty-two lines of elegant verse in flawless iambic pentameter. Full of classical allusions, the poem concluded:

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.”

The lines were written by the woman who was, at that time, the most famous slave in America.

Phillis Wheatley was also the first black person, and only the third American woman, to publish a book of poems. Born in Africa, she was purchased at around age six by the wife of a wealthy Boston tailor and merchant, Susannah Wheatley. While shopping for slaves at the dock, Mrs. Wheatley became captivated by the tiny, wretched child she saw there, dressed only in a scrap of carpet. She purchased the little girl, took her home, nursed her back to health, and gave her the name Phillis, after the name of the ship that had brought her to America.

Phillis had been intended for a household servant, but she soon showed signs of an uncommon intelligence, so the family’s teenaged daughter took it upon herself to teach the child to read and write. Soon she was learning Latin, and by the age of nine was occasionally acting as the family secretary. She began writing poetry just four years after her arrival in Boston, and at seventeen gained wide attention in the colonies for her elegiac poem on the death of George Whitefield. Three years later a collection of her poems was published in London.

Washington was extraordinarily moved upon receiving Wheatley’s letter and poem. So moved, in fact, that he broke the rules of social contact between masters and slaves. He wrote a letter back to her, inviting her to visit him in Cambridge.

It was shortly after meeting Phillis Wheatley that Washington made the extraordinary decision to allow blacks to enlist in his army.

(Wiencek 198-215)

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Early Slavery in Virginia

Although slavery existed in Virginia from 1619, when the first Africans were brought to Jamestown, the outlines of the system took shape very slowly. Race-based slavery and racial prejudice seem to have evolved concurrently, in a chicken-and-egg relationship; neither was a factor at the beginning of Virginia’s slave system. In the earliest days, many “slaves” were white indentured servants, and as many as one-third of the black population was free.

The earliest African slaves had been baptized by the Spanish, and bore Christian names; the Jamestown colonists certainly put them to work, yet were reluctant to enslave these fellow Christians for life. Many of the early blacks therefore became “Christian servants” only for a limited period of time, or were set free for having accepted Christianity.

Eventually the Virginia Assembly began cracking down on this rampant application of Christian piety. In 1667 it ruled that the conferring of baptism had no bearing on whether someone was enslaved or free, and in 1682 it passed a law that any “negroes, moors, mulattoes, or Indians” imported to Virginia would automatically be considered slaves.

Many whites and blacks continued to resist these laws; masters persisted in freeing slaves. Moreover, whites and blacks persisted in marrying each other. After all, in seventeenth-century Virginia white indentured servants greatly outnumbered black slaves; these two disadvantaged groups naturally came into close contact with one another.

So in 1691 the Assembly passed a law that any master who freed a slave must pay to transport that freed slave out of the colony; in the same session it forbade white people to marry blacks, on pain of banishment.

One reason Virginia had so many white indentured servants was the British government’s policy of exporting surplus indigent, unemployed, and incarcerated Englishmen to America. This changed around 1700, when England began to require more cheap labor at home. As the supply of white laborers dwindled, Virginia had to make up the difference with slaves.

More and more Africans were imported to the colony, and laws regarding slavery became more and more strict. Low-caste white people became anxious to distinguish themselves socially from the rank of slaves, and began to disdain manual labor. By the mid-eighteenth century, Virginia society had changed to the extent that labor could no longer be hired; it needed to be purchased. By that time, it had become impossible to operate a plantation without the use of African slaves.

(Wiencek 41-45)

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