The “Nadir of Race Relations” and the Great Migration
The early 1900s marked the low point in 20th-century race relations between white Americans and
Evaluate race relations in the early 20th century, noting the tensions among whites, African Americans, and European immigrants
- As racism reached its high point in the United States, African Americans lost many of the gains in civil rights that had been achieved during Reconstruction.
- Anti-black violence, lynchings, segregation, legal racial discrimination, and expressions of white supremacy increased in the early 1900s.
- Segregation was enforced, especially in the middle and Southern states, by a set of repressive regulations and customs known as the Jim Crow laws.
- Beginning in about 1915, many black people left the South and migrated to the North to seek better conditions. Competition for jobs and housing with immigrants, as well as returning veterans, resulted in tense and violent clashes in many U.S. cities.
- nadir of race relations: The period in U.S. history, spanning from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 through the early 20th century, when racism in the country is deemed to have been worse than in any other period after the American Civil War. During this period, African Americans lost many of the gains in civil rights that had been achieved during Reconstruction. Anti-black violence, lynchings, segregation, legal racial discrimination, and other expressions of white supremacy increased.
- Jim Crow: A system of state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965. These laws mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in Southern states of the former Confederacy under the guise of “separate-but-equal” status for African Americans.
The nadir of race relations in the United States was an ideological era of nationwide hostility directed from white Americans against African Americans. Racism was so pervasive and, in many cases, so violent, that many African Americans realized they could not influence racists to change their views. Many came to believe that only white people had the power to destroy white supremacy and the racist economic, political, cultural, and social networks that supported it.
Many white Americans around the nation and in the U.S. territories overseas supported legal and customary rules of segregation known colloquially as “Jim Crow,” especially in the Midwest and the South. Racism was so prevalent that even American presidents embraced segregationist attitudes and polices in the government and the military, while black Americans turned toward civil rights and Afrocentric movements led by W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.
The “Nadir of Race Relations”
Historians still debate the exact point in time at which the so-called nadir took place, but a commonly cited period spans the late 1880s to just after World War I, when lynchings—extra-judicial killings of black people—were common. During this period, the popular and academic understandings of slavery in the United States, the Civil War, and Reconstruction supported a Confederate, pro-slavery point of view. This perspective argued that African-American demands for justice were ill-informed and illegitimate, since the competition between black people and white people over resources and power was a zero-sum game.
The Great Migration and Social Tensions
Extending from around 1915 through the 1930s, many black people living in the South moved to Northern cities, seeking better living conditions such as more work and an escape from the common vigilante practice of lynching, the extra-judicial killing of black people, commonly by hanging.
In what became known as the Great Migration, more than 1.5 million black people left the South, and, while they faced difficulties, their chances overall were better in the North. They had to adapt to significant cultural change, as most went from rural areas to major industrial cities. In the South, white people worried about the loss of their labor force and so frequently tried to block the black migration.
Even in the North, there was still segregation; black people had to compete for jobs and housing in cities that also drew millions of Eastern- and Southern-European immigrants. African Americans commonly experienced racism in the context of territorialism, often from ethnic Irish people defending their power bases. Blackface performances—in which white people donned costumes and extensive makeup to appear black and portrayed African Americans as ignorant clowns—were still just as popular in the North as in the South.
In some regions, black people could not serve on juries. The Supreme Court reflected conservative tendencies and did not overrule the Southern constitutional changes that disfranchised African Americans. Despite being made up almost entirely of Northerners, in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court ruled that “separate-but-equal” facilities for black people were in fact constitutional.
The years during and after World War I saw profound social tensions in the United States, not only because of the effects of the Great Migration and European immigration but also due to demobilization and the competition for jobs with returning veterans. Mass attacks on black people, sparked by strikes and economic competition, occurred in Houston, Philadelphia, and in East St. Louis in 1917. In 1919, there were riots in several major cities, resulting in the so-called Red Summer. The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 erupted into mob violence that lasted several days, leaving 15 white people and 23 black people dead. The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma was even more deadly, with white mobs invading and burning the city’s Greenwood district.
Jim Crow Laws
Enacted between 1876 and 1965, Jim Crow laws formalized racial segregation in the Southern States, systematizing a number of economic, educational, and social disadvantages for African Americans.
Describe the origin and the effect of Jim Crow laws
- Jim Crow laws legalized segregation in all public facilities in former Confederate states, with a supposedly “separate-but-equal” status for black Americans.
- While de jure, or legalized, segregation applied mainly in the Southern United States, de facto segregation existed in the Northern United States.
- Segregation lead to economic, educational, and social disadvantages for African Americans.
- Jim Crow laws originated in the 1870s, after white politicians disenfranchised black voters by a combination of intimidation, poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residency and record-keeping requirements. They were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
- de jure: By right, in accordance with the law, legally.
- de facto: In fact or in practice; in actual use or existence, regardless of official or legal status.
- Jim Crow: A system of state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965. These laws mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in Southern states of the former Confederacy under the guise of “separate-but-equal” status for African Americans.
The Jim Crow laws, enacted between 1876 and 1965, were a major factor in the African-American Great Migration during the early part of the 2oth century. These laws mandated de jure (i.e. legalized) racial segregation in all public facilities—public schools, public transportation, and public places such as restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains—in former Confederate states, with a supposedly “separate-but-equal” status for black Americans. In reality, this separation led to inferior treatment, financial support, and accommodations than those provided for white Americans, which systematized a number of economic, educational, and social disadvantages.
De jure segregation applied mainly in the Southern United States. Northern segregation was generally de facto (i.e. occurring in practice, rather than being established by formal laws), with patterns of segregation in housing enforced by covenants, bank lending practices, and job discrimination—including discriminatory union practices—for decades.
State-sponsored school segregation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1954 in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, while the remaining Jim Crow laws were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Origins of the Laws
During the Reconstruction period of 1865–1877, federal law provided civil-rights protection in the Southern United States for African Americans who had formerly been slaves. In the 1870s, white Democrats had regained political power in every Southern state—sometimes as a result of elections in which paramilitary groups intimidated opponents, attacking black people or preventing them from voting. These Democratic, conservative Redeemer governments legislated Jim Crow laws, segregating black people from the white population.
Black people were still elected to local office in the 1880s, but the Democrats passed laws to restrict voter registration and electoral rules, with the result that political participation by most black people and many poor white people began to decrease. Between 1890 and 1910, 10 of the 11 former Confederate states passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disfranchised most black people and tens of thousands of poor white people through a combination of poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residency and record-keeping requirements. Voter turnout throughout the South dropped drastically as a result. Those who could not vote were not eligible to serve on juries and could not run for local offices; they effectively disappeared from political life, as they could not influence state legislatures, and their interests were overlooked.
Jim Crow in the Early 1920s
The separation of African Americans from the general population was becoming more formalized during the Progressive Era (1890s–1920s), but it was also becoming increasingly ingrained tradition. Even in cases where Crow laws did not expressly forbid black people to participate in sports or recreation, for instance, culture did.
As a result, the presidential election of 1912 was steeply slanted against the interests of African Americans. Most black Americans still lived in the South, where they had been effectively disenfranchised, so they could not vote at all. While poll taxes and literacy requirements banned many poor or illiterate Americans from voting, these stipulations frequently had loopholes that exempted white Americans from meeting the requirements. In Oklahoma, for instance, anyone qualified to vote before 1866, or related to someone qualified to vote before 1866 (a type of “grandfather clause”), was exempted from the literacy requirement—but the only people who could vote before that year were white male Americans. That is to say, white Americans were effectively excluded from literacy testing, whereas black Americans were singled out by the law.
Theodore Roosevelt and Race
Theodore Roosevelt’s treatment of the Brownsville Affair, in which 167 African American soldiers were wrongfully discharged from the Army, caused the black community to turn away from the Republic president they had once supported.
Describe the effect of Theodore Roosevelt’s treatment of the Brownsville Affair
- In 1906, members of a segregated black Army unit were wrongfully blamed for the death of a white bartender and the wounding of a white police officer.
- After a flawed investigation by the Army, President Roosevelt ordered the dishonorable discharge of 167 soldiers, causing outrage among the African American community.
- Prior to the Brownsville Affair, the black community had overwhelming supported the Republican president.
- minority report: A committee report written by at least two committee members to officially state their position on an issue, when those members are in the minority on that issue (not necessarily in the political minority party).
Both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson are criticized for their treatment of African Americans during their terms as U.S. president. For Roosevelt, President from 1901–1909, the Brownsville Affair in particular aroused criticism of his treatment of African Americans.
Also known as the Brownsville Raid, the Brownsville Affair arose from tensions between black soldiers and white citizens in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906. When a white bartender was killed and a police officer wounded by gunshot, townspeople accused members of the 25th Infantry Regiment, a segregated black unit stationed nearby. Although commanders said the soldiers had been in the barracks all night, evidence was planted against them. As a result of an Army Inspector General’s investigation, Roosevelt ordered the dishonorable discharge of 167 soldiers, costing them their pensions and barring them from other civil-service jobs. The administration withheld news of the discharge of the soldiers until after the 1906 Congressional elections so the pro-Republican black vote would not be affected.
Black people and many white people across the United States were outraged at Roosevelt’s actions. Prior to the Brownsville Affair, the black community had supported the Republican president. They were loyal to the party of Abraham Lincoln, and they also noted that Roosevelt had invited civil rights leader Booker T. Washington to a White House dinner and had spoken out publicly against lynching. Roosevelt had also appointed numerous African Americans to federal office, such as Walter L. Cohen, whom he named register of the federal land office.
After the Brownsville Affair, however, black people began to turn against Roosevelt. Leaders of major black organizations, such as the Constitution League, the National Association of Colored Women, and the Niagara Movement, tried unsuccessfully to persuade the administration not to discharge the soldiers. From 1907–1908, the U.S. Senate Military Affairs Committee investigated the Brownsville Affair and in March 1908 reached the same conclusion as Roosevelt. A minority report by four Republicans concluded that the evidence was too inconclusive to support the discharges. In September 1908, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois urged black people to register to vote and remember their treatment by the Republican administration when it was time to cast a ballot for President.
A renewed investigation in the early 1970s exonerated the discharged black troops. The government pardoned them and restored their records to show honorable discharges but did not provide retroactive compensation for the time they could have been working.
Woodrow Wilson and Race
Despite promises made to black voters during the election of 1912, Woodrow Wilson gave into the demands of white Southern Democrats, fired a number of black Republican politicians, and supported racial segregation.
Describe the effect of Woodrow Wilson’s racial policies.
- Despite promising to work for African Americans, Woodrow Wilson supported racial segregation and acquiesced to the demands of white Southern Democrats that their states be allowed to deal with issues of race, such as voting, without interference from Washington.
- Wilson and his cabinet members fired a large number of black Republican office holders in political-appointee positions.
- In a meeting with prominent civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter on November 12, 1914, Wilson responded to Trotter’s outrage by claiming that workplace segregation was a benefit to both races.
- The segregation that the Wilson administration had introduced into the federal workplace was maintained by succeeding presidents and not officially renounced until the Truman administration in the late 1940s.
- Ku Klux Klan: Encompasses three distinct past and present far-right organizations in the United States that have advocated extremist reactionary currents, such as white supremacy, white nationalism, and anti-immigration, historically expressed through acts of terrorism.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson, a Progressive Democrat, was the 28th President of the United States, from 1913 to 1921. A Southerner, Wilson was said to be a vocal fan of the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the rise of the first Ku Klux Klan. The film also helped popularize the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, which gained its greatest power and influence in the mid-1920s. Wilson’s praise was used to defend the film from criticism by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). While President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, Wilson discouraged black people from applying for admission, preferring to keep the peace among white students rather than face an outcry if black students were admitted.
Numerous black people voted for Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 election based on his promise to work for them. Yet as the first Southern-born president of the post-Civil War period, Wilson did not interfere with the well-established system of Jim Crow and instead acquiesced to the demands of Southern Democrats that their states be allowed to deal with issues of race, such as voting, without interference from Washington.
Black leaders who supported Wilson were angered when segregationist white Southerners took control of Congress and Wilson appointed many Southerners to his cabinet; Wilson and his cabinet members fired a large number of black Republican office holders in political-appointee positions, though they also appointed a few black Democrats to such posts.
Wilson’s Southern cabinet members pressed for segregated workplaces, even though federal offices had been integrated since 1863. Wilson ignored complaints when his cabinet officials established official segregation in many federal government departments, such as the post office, because of his own firm belief that racial segregation was in the best interests of black and white Americans alike. New facilities were designed to maintain this segregation, with U.S. Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo defending the establishment of separate toilets in the Treasury and Interior Department buildings by saying, “I am not going to argue the justification of the separate toilets orders, beyond saying that it is difficult to disregard certain feelings and sentiments of white people in a matter of this sort.”
Wilson and William Trotter
On November 12, 1914, Wilson met with a group led by prominent civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter to discuss the continuing spread of segregation. In what became an acrimonious exchange in the Oval Office, Trotter listed examples of federal workplace segregation in several government buildings run by the Treasury Department, War Department, Interior Department, and others. Noting the backing he and other black leaders had provided Wilson in the 1912 election campaign, Trotter said, “Only two years ago you were heralded as perhaps the second Lincoln, and now the Afro-American leaders who supported you are hounded as false leaders and traitors to their race.” Questioning Wilson’s promises to aid black Americans with programs that included economic reforms, Trotter said, “Have you a ‘New Freedom’ for white Americans and a new slavery for your Afro-American fellow citizens ? God forbid!”
Wilson countered that he considered workplace segregation a benefit to black people and that the aim was “not to put the Negro employees at a disadvantage [but] to make arrangements which would prevent any kind of friction between the white employees and the Negro employees.” Told by Trotter that black people considered workplace segregation to be a humiliation, Wilson responded, “If you think that you gentlemen, as an organization, and all other Negro citizens of this country, that you are being humiliated, you will believe it. If you take it as a humiliation, which it is not intended as, and sow the seed of that impression all over the country, why the consequence will be very serious.” Trotter continued with his claims that Wilson’s position about Jim Crow aiding black people was disingenuous and ended by saying, “We are sorely disappointed that you take the position that the separation itself is not wrong, is not injurious, is not rightly offensive to you.” An angered Wilson countered that the civil libertarian had insulted him, stating, “You have spoiled the whole cause for which you came,” before ending the meeting abruptly. In 1914, Wilson told The New York Times, “If the colored people made a mistake in voting for me, they ought to correct it.”
Despite Wilson’s clear support for separation of the races, hardline segregationists, such as Georgia Congressman Thomas E. Watson, believed he did not go far enough in restricting black employment in the federal government.
The segregation that the Wilson administration had introduced into the federal workplace was maintained by succeeding presidents and not officially renounced until the Truman administration in the late 1940s.
Woodrow Wilson’s policy of military segregation led to conflict, rioting, and the brutal sentencing of the all-black Twenty-Fourth U.S. Infantry Regiment.
Explain the effect of Woodrow Wilson’s policy of military segregation
- Woodrow Wilson supported military segregation, assigning African American soldiers to all-black units commanded by white officers.
- When the black Twenty-Fourth U.S. Infantry Regiment was transferred to Houston where military segregation was enforced, the regiment and the local authorities clashed.
- An incident in which police beat a black soldier set off a nighttime riot by 156 African-American troops resulting in the shooting deaths of two soldiers, four police officers, and nine civilians.
- Nineteen of the mutineers were executed, and 41 received life sentences.
- AEF units: United States Armed Forces sent to Europe under the command of General John J. Pershing in 1917 to help fight World War I.
President Woodrow Wilson also supported segregation of the military, even when the need for troops during the First World War was so great that a national draft was reinstituted. African Americans were drafted on the same basis as white people and made up 13% of draftees. By the end of the war, more than 350,000 African Americans served in AEF units on the Western Front, earning pay equal to that of white soldiers, although they were assigned to segregated units commanded by white officers, under a policy approved by Wilson. This kept the great majority of black people out of combat.
When a delegation of black soldiers protested the government’s discriminatory actions, Wilson told them “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.” W.E.B. Du Bois had supported Wilson in the 1916 presidential campaign and in 1918 was offered an Army commission in charge of dealing with race relations—Du Bois accepted, but he failed his Army physical and did not serve.
A mutiny by soldiers at Camp Logan near Houston in 1917 was precipitated directly by segregation. The all-black Twenty-Fourth U.S. Infantry Regiment was transferred from Columbus, New Mexico, where segregation had not been enforced. In Houston, however, they were met with segregated street cars and white workers at their camp who demanded separate water fountains. This led to clashes with local authorities, including an incident in which police beat a black soldier and set off a nighttime riot by 156 African-American troops resulting in the shooting deaths of two soldiers, four police officers, and nine civilians. A police officer and a soldier died later from wounds sustained in the riot, while another soldier died from injuries he received during his capture the next day. Nineteen of the mutineers were executed, and 41 received life sentences.
Marcus Garvey, a prominent Jamaican, led a Back-to-Africa movement that promoted the return of the African diaspora to their ancestral lands.
Describe the Pan-African philosophy of Marcus Garvey
- Garvey espoused a Pan-African philosophy, known as Garveyism, which focused on the complete and unending redemption of the continent of Africa by all people of African ancestry.
- Garvey’s philosophy led him to organize the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica in 1914, which went on to have international influence.
- Convinced that black people should have a permanent homeland in Africa, Garvey sought to develop Liberia.
- A movement of black opposition to Garvey that came to be known as the “Garvey Must Go” Campaign aimed to reveal Garvey as a fraud. He served three years in an Atlanta prison before being deported to Jamaica.
- Pan-Africanism: A sociopolitical movement seeking to unify native Africans and those of African heritage into a global community.
- African diaspora: The communities throughout the world that have resulted by descent from the movement in historic times of peoples from Africa, predominantly to the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and among other areas around the globe.
- Garveyism: An aspect of black nationalism that refers to the social, economic, and political policies of UNIA-ACL founder Marcus Garvey.
Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) was a Jamaican political leader, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator who was a staunch proponent of the black nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL), as well as the Black Star Line, part of the Back-to-Africa movement that promoted the return of the African diaspora to their ancestral lands.
Prior to the 20th century, African-American leaders advocated the involvement of the African diaspora in African affairs. Garvey was unique in advancing a Pan-African philosophy, known as Garveyism, which focused on the complete and unending redemption of the continent of Africa by people of African ancestry, both at home and abroad.
Promoted by the UNIA as a movement of African redemption, Garveyism would eventually inspire others, ranging from the Nation of Islam to the Rastafari movement, which proclaims Garvey a prophet. His intent was for those of African ancestry to “redeem” Africa and for the European colonial powers to leave. Garvey summarized his essential ideas in the Negro World editorial “African Fundamentalism,” in which he wrote, “Our union must know no clime, boundary, or nationality…to let us hold together under all climes in every country….”
In 1910, Garvey left Jamaica and began traveling throughout the Central American region. Garvey lived in London from 1912 to 1914, where he took classes in law and philosophy at Birkbeck College, worked for newspapers, and sometimes spoke at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner. Garvey’s philosophy, influenced by Booker T. Washington, Martin Delany, and Henry McNeal Turner, led him to organize the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica in 1914.
After corresponding with Booker T. Washington, Garvey arrived in the U.S. in 1916 to give a lecture tour. He visited Tuskegee and afterward met a number of black leaders. In May 1916, he undertook a 38-state speaking tour. In May 1917, Garvey and 13 others formed the first UNIA division outside Jamaica and began advancing the idea of social, political, and economic freedom for black people.
Garvey next set about developing a program to improve conditions for those of African ancestry “at home and abroad” under UNIA auspices. August 1918 marked the first publication of the widely distributed Negro World newspaper. By June 1919, UNIA’s membership had grown to over 2 million. On June 27, 1919, the Black Star Line of Delaware was incorporated by the members of UNIA, with Garvey as President. By September, the Black Star Line obtained its first ship, rechristened as the S.S. Frederick Douglass in September 1919. By August 1920, the UNIA claimed 4 million members, the International Convention of the UNIA was held, and Garvey survived an attempt on his life.
Convinced that black people should have a permanent homeland in Africa, Garvey sought to develop Liberia. The Liberia program, launched in 1920, was intended to establish colleges, universities, industrial plants, and railroads; however, it was abandoned in the mid-1920s after strong opposition from European powers with interests in the region.
A movement of black opposition to Garvey that came to be known as the “Garvey Must Go” Campaign aimed to reveal Garvey as a fraud. Run by a group called the Friends of Negro Freedom, the campaign pressed the federal government to investigate the Black Star Line. They alleged violence by Garvey’s associates, including a related to the assassination of former Garvey deputy J.W.H. Eason in New Orleans in January 1923. The “Garvey Must Go” movement also revealed that Garvey had met secretly with Ku Klux Klan leader Edward Young Clarke in June of 1922.
On January 15, 1923, U.S. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty received a petition for a continued investigation into alleged mail fraud by Garvey that accused him of using the mail to expand the influence of his movement. Garvey was convicted of mail fraud in 1923, and beginning in February 1925 he served nearly three years of a five-year sentence in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. While there he wrote his “First Message to the Negroes of the World from Atlanta Prison,” in which he proclaimed, “Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom and Life.”
U.S. President Calvin Coolidge commuted Garvey’s sentence in 1927, and he was deported to Jamaica. After further political activism abroad, he died in London on June 10, 1940, at the age of 52. Schools, highways, and numerous buildings in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States have been named in his honor. There is a bust of Garvey in the Organization of American States Hall of Heroes in Washington, D.C. Garvey’s admirers have included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Earl and Louise Little, the parents of black militant activist Malcolm X, who met each other at a UNIA convention in Montreal.