In the 1890s the U.S. was approaching what historians would later call the 'nadir' of race relations between whites and blacks. The number of lynchings peaked in 1892, at 230, and continued at rates of over 100 murders per year. Southern states invented new measures to disfranchise black voters.
On May 18, 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its famous ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. In a vote of 8 to 1, the justices ended three decades of struggle over keeping public spaces integrated, ruling that states could force railroad companies to exclude African-Americans from first-class, or "ladies," cars. The lone dissenting vote was cast by Justice John Marshall Harlan--who was, interestingly, the only southerner on the Court and a former slaveholder. "The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race," he argued, "while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution." Nevertheless, 'separate but equal' segregation--hardly equal in any sense--had won the Court's approval.
During the Civil War and Reconstruction, Northern newspapers had begun to depict blacks in positive terms, especially black soldiers who had fought bravely for the Union. Such descriptions and images probably helped build support for the enfranchisement of black men, but by the 1890s, they had again become rare. In advertisements, fiction, theater, and political debates, white Americans encountered images of blacks as ignorant buffoons and ignored the severe problems facing black Americans. Though historians today view Plessy v. Ferguson as a landmark decision in the rollback of civil rights guarantees, political leaders and editors completely ignored it in the presidential campaign.
National magazines also provided little or no coverage of lynching in 1896, though these murders were reaching a zenith. In 1900, a delegation of African-American leaders asked President McKinley to speak out against lynching, but he merely congratulated black men on their "progress" over the previous decades. The Republican platform did make a brief statement against lynching, but little reference was made to it during the campaign.
Of course, prejudices against blacks was not the only form of political and social discrimination in the U.S. Antisemitism figured prominently in campaign rhetoric, debates around immigration centered on anti-Chinese sentiment, and depictions of events in Turkey also drew on white prejudices against Turks as a " dark and heathen race."
The full text of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision and Justice Harlan's dissent is available at Bowdoin College. See also the Supreme Court page.
1896 was a year of transition in African-American leadership. In the previous year one of the nation's greatest black leaders, Frederick Douglass, had died at age 77. In the same year Booker T. Washington gave his famous address at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, September. He advised black Southerners to "cast down your bucket where you are," seeking friendship with white Southerners and success in business. In a pointed reference to labor activism in the North, Washington advised white Southerners to "cast down their bucket" also, "among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, .... those people who have, without strikes and labor wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities."
With the Atlanta address, Washington emerged as the nation's most prominent African-American spokesman. In September 1896, a few months after Plessy and in the midst of the presidential campaign, Washington gave this address in Brooklyn stating his views on black political and social rights.
The lives of other black leaders were in transition in 1896. Ida B. Wells, a black journalist who had been the nation's most effective anti-lynching crusader in the early 1890s, was living in Chicago in 1896. She had married civil-rights activist Ferdinand Barnett in 1895 and subsequently limited her public work in order to devote time to her family. In the meantime W.E.B. DuBois, who would later dispute Washington's strategies for black advancement, had just finished his Ph.D. at Harvard. In 1896 he published his first book, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade. The following year he accepted a teaching position at the University of Atlanta.
Ida B. Wells Barnett, investigative journalist, civil rights leader, and anti-lynching activist
The Library of Congress American Memory Project includes a large collection of African-American Pamphlets, 1880-1920. At this site you can read works by Ida B. Wells and sit in on an 1898 meeting of the National Afro-American Council in Washington, D.C., where participants discussed strategies for opposing lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement.
The full text of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision and Justice Harlan's dissent are available online through Touro Law School.
A Watermelon-Eating Contest
Between Two Colored Serving Men.
Puck, 21 September, 1891
COLORED MEN SEE HANNA.
They Add a Few Demands of Their Own to the Chairman's Troubles.
National Chairman Mark Hanna ... yesterday had to spend nearly two hours with a committee of colored gentlemen representing all the colored factions in New York. Some of those present represented two or three factions. Otherwise the committee would have had to have more members.
...Representatives were present from New York, Kings, Westchester, Monroe, Albany, Queens, Fulton, Saratoga, Rennselaer and Cayuga Counties. Alfred C. Cowan was at their head, as President of the Colored Republican Association of New York.
Mr. Hanna's colored brethren didn't want much. They simply wanted to start a National Colored Man's Headquarters and one place on the National Executive Committee. Charles Anderson, secretary to State Treasurer Calvin, is understood to be the colored men's candidate for National Executive Committeeman. Of course, the National Committee is expected to put up for the national headquarters. It is possible that Mr Hanna will stand for this, but it is a 40 to 1 shot that Mr. Anderson doesn't go on the Executive Committee.
... In the brief which the colored men presented it was ... demanded that the colored men be given a fair show in the division of State and national patronage.
--New York World, 5 August 1896
It is apparent to all educators and interested observers that our systems of instruction have thus far failed to implant in the negro a desire for a higher and purer religion, to develop and strengthen his moral sense, to decree his tendency to crime, to increase his industrial or techic capacity in the years when it is most needed, to impart high ideals of living and of the dignity of honest labor, to teach the necessity for frugality, thrift, and industry, to take proper advantage of the negro child's remarkably developed natural faculties, to root out his feelings of dependence, and to teach him self-help or to obviously strengthen his reason or train his judgement.
--George R. Stetson, Protestant Episcopal Review, from Public Opinion 31 December, 1896
We have a solid South as opposed to a solid North; and in the South itself, a solid black vote against the solid white.
That such a condition is most ominous to both sections and both races, is apparent to all.
If we were dealing with a few tribes of red men or a few sporadic Chinese, the question would be easily disposed of. The Anglo-Saxon would probably do just as he pleased, whether right or wrong, and the weaker man would go under.
But the Negroes number 8,000,000. They are interwoven with our business, political, and labor systems. The assimilate with our customs, our religion, our civilization. They meet us at every turn,--in the fields, the shops, the mines. They are a part of our system, and they are here to stay. . . .
The white people of the South will never support the Republican Party. This much is certain. The black people of the South will never support the Democratic Party. This is equally certain. . . . . Therefore a new party was absolutely necessary.
--Tom Watson, "The Negro Question in the South," Arena , October 1892
Whispers of discontent among the colored republicans are heard on every hand. They refer to their campaign committee as "Lily Whites"... "They don't know we niggers now," remarked one of the colored leaders yesterday.... "I don't like de mixin' dat's goin' on 'twixt de goldbug democrats an' our new 'publican leaders. Nigger smells sumpen burnin', an' its got starch in it."
--Birmingham State Herald, 19 September 1896
OBJECTED TO THE NEGRO.
...Among the crowds at Mr. Cockran's speech Tuesday night was a well-dressed negro. He stood close to the lower tier of boxes near the Madison Avenue entrance, and listened attentively to the orator.
This was the Rev. Charles H. Dickerson, pastor of the Bethlehem Congregational Church, of Newark, who is regarded as one of the most highly cultured colored men in the country.
He is a graduate of Yale, an alumnus of Oberlin College, and a writer of recognized ability. He is a member of the Republican Committee of Essex County, and is booked to stump New Jersey for sound money.
...Mr. Dickerson had no sooner seated himself than the trouble began. Two women sat at the other end of the box and one reddened with anger as her eye rested on the intruder's brown face. She snapped out:
"I, for one, will not sit in the same box with a negro. Nothing could induce me to."
Her tone was loud, and hundreds of eyes were turned on the box. Gentlemen in adjoining boxes hissed under their breath, while one woman cried, "Shame! Shame!"
But the autocrat of Box No. 3 tapped on the rail with her fan and beckoned a policeman.
"Put that man out," she ordered in a shrill falsetto whisper. "This is no place for him."
The big policeman firmly declined to interfere. Then an usher was summoned and came.
"Come, get out of this," said he to Mr. Dickerson. "The box is reserved."
"But," protested the unfortunate Newarker, who throughout the trying scene exhibited great self-control, "the management has announced all seats as free after 8.15 o'clock."
"Wrong again, my colored friend," sneered the official... With these words he grabbed Mr. Dickerson by the coat collar, and dragged him to his feet.
--New York World, 20 August 1896