Jim Crow Emerges
Let’s be clear: the colonies that ultimately became the United States of America were a two-tiered society from the moment kidnapped Africans were sold into slavery in Virginia in 1619. The degrees to which Blacks were subjected to inhumane treatment as slaves and then second-class citizenship after the Civil War is well documented. It’s important to understand the emergence of the Jim Crow system of segregation and terrorism for us to clearly understand just how deep the roots of 2019 racism and white supremacy are buried in the body and soul of America’s character.
It is significant that we are currently experiencing what might be labeled a “Second Gilded Age.” The first “Gilded Age” is generally dated from the end of the Civil War (1865) to the beginning of the Progressive Era (1901). It is equally significant that the economics of that era drove the political, social, and cultural tides of the time, as they do today. And this is where Northern complicity in engendering Jim Crow began. The 1865-1900 period in U.S. history was one of extreme transformation. The country came out of the debilitating Civil War as a minor nation on the world stage and, by 1900, is emerged as a world power. Westward expansion, spurred by the growth of railroads as well as urban growth, fueled by industrialization and immigration, transformed the nation. While the South remained a primarily agrarian society, it needed Northern investment (particularly in the period immediately after the Civil War) to regain its place in U.S. society.
Abraham Lincoln authorized construction of a trans-continental railroad in 1862 and building began in 1863 (and proceeded continuously until completion in 1869). Railroad growth around the country boomed after the Civil War, creating fortunes for a few (Vanderbilt, Harriman, Gould, Hill, Stanford, et al), undergirding the economic boom/bust cycles of the period. The “Robber Barons” (“Captains of Industry”) essentially owned the Senate, in particular, and their desire for cheap labor (for steel mills, oil fields, tobacco and cotton fields, coal and copper mines, etc.) and “friendly” legislation (allowing monopolies, for example) was accommodated throughout the Gilded Age. While immigrants were streaming in --- and subjected to their own varieties of discrimination while providing hordes of cheap labor --- the U.S. government continued to abscond with Native American land while leaving Southern states to conduct their own “business” without interference from Washington, D.C.
And in the South, as the Civil War became more and more a distant memory, the “Redeemers,” who had maintained their political power because they had driven out the Northern carpetbaggers, were ultimately overcome by the more radical Democrats, driven by the rural poor who loathed the Blacks, seeing them as a visible reminder of their “Lost Cause” and, now, a challenger for the Whites place on the social/economic ladder. As the final decade of the 19th century began, a seismic shift in U.S. race relations was unfolding.
Between 1890 and 1910, ten of the eleven former Confederate states, starting with Mississippi, passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disenfranchised most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites through a combination of poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residency and record-keeping requirements. Grandfather clauses temporarily permitted some illiterate whites to vote but gave no relief to most blacks. (wiki)
The institutionalization of Jim Crow began with those Constitutions --- and with no outcry from the North. As we reached the end of the last decade of the 19th century, the United States was embarking on its imperial/colonial journey that would lead Rudyard Kipling to dedicate one of his most famous poems to “The United States and the Philippine Islands.” The repeated phrase, “Take up the White Man’s Burden,” is not only about colonizing the Filipinos, of course, because it clearly applies to the turn American politics had taken in the South. First published in 1899, it appears 3 years after the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” case, the cornerstone of legal segregation and the beating heart of American racism for the following 60 years.
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