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Losing ground: African-Americans in the North, 1890-1920

As most Americans are aware, the history of civil rights for African-Americans has been anything but a straight continuum. In The Philadelphia Negro (1900), W.E.B. Du Bois recounts how in 1837 African-Americans in Pennsylvania were disenfranchised when the word "white" was inserted in language that qualified voters. This came after African-Americans had enjoyed the right to vote for 47 years. And during the Civil War, while slaves were being freed in the South, African-Americans were being hunted down by mobs in New York.

For African-Americans, the years 1890-1920 were a sort of dark age. In the South, this was a period of continual reverses. They were being disenfranchised through various laws requiring poll taxes, literacy tests, etc. Then in 1896 came Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision that ruled the doctrine of separate but equal as constitutional.

What surprised me was how a similar change was occurring in the North. African-Americans weren't losing the right to vote, but they were losing ground as economic and social barriers seemed to increase. I thought this animosity might have been due to friction as greater numbers of African-Americans migrated from the South. But while a continual stream of African-Americans moved North in the 19th Century, an even greater number of immigrants arrived. The proportion of African-Americans in most northern cities either fell or was stable between 1870 and 1900. Du Bois shows that for Philadelphia, their proportion peaked in 1810.

Increasingly, blacks in the North were relegated to certain jobs. For men, porters, janitors, waiters,  and common laborers. And for women, work as domestics, laundresses, and seamstresses. And neighborhoods became increasingly segregated.

The best explanation I've read for what was occurring is presented by David Blight in his Race and Reunion: the Civil War in American Memory. Which the publisher describes as "a history of how the unity of white America was purchased through the increasing segregation of black and white memory of the Civil War." As the nobility of the white South, if not it's cause, became increasingly accepted by those in the North, African-Americans became seen as an impediment to reconciliation. And Southern attitudes were increasingly accepted in the North.

A particularly apt example of this is recounted by Jennifer Fronc in her book, New York Undercover. She writes about the Committee of Fourteen and how it worked to force the segregation of New York saloons by depicting race mixing as immoral. This was something new, a Southern white code being enforced by paternalistic Northerners.

Blight recounts how in 1913, Woodrow Wilson's administration initiated policies of segregation within Federal departments. Two years later, the immensely successful The Birth of a Nation was released. The film's sympathetic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan became generally accepted and the Klan became resurgent, in North as well as the South. In the 1920s, membership grew to four million and the Klan showed its strength with a march down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Philadelphia Negro does an excellent job of depicting the lives of Philadelphia's African-Americans in 1900, as well as giving a historical context. It is a sociological study done with an academic rigor unusual for the time. More personal depictions can be found among the pieces in The life stories of undistinguished Americans as told by themselves.  For instance, "A Northern Negro's Autobiography"  is the story of an African-American woman born and raised in an Upstate New York village and her experiences after moving to a Northern city and traveling in the South. She tells of the slights she herself suffered and also about her efforts to find employment for qualified African-Americans. Mr. Dooley, the comic commentator, also makes some cogent observations.

What for most Americans was a period of optimism fulfilled, was for African-Americans just the opposite.

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