Explore 1857-1904

1857 African Americans denied citizenship In the Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Fugitive Slave Act and declares that "Negroes," whether free or enslaved, are not citizens. As Chief Justice Taney puts it, they have "no rights which any white man is bound to respect." Free Black people are taxed like whites, but they do not enjoy the same protection and entitlements. African Americans are not granted citizenship until the Fourteenth Amendment is ratified in 1868. In the meantime, the wealth of centuries of slavery accrues exclusively to whites. When slaves in Washington, D.C., are freed in 1862, the only reparation paid is not to slaves but to slaveowners for loss of their property.
1859 Evolution shapes debate When Darwin introduces the mechanism for evolution, it dramatically alters public debate. "Racial" differences, previously explained by some as the result of separate, divine origins, are now seen as the result of historical change and divergence over time. Evolution provides a new paradigm for comparing group "progress" but it also introduces the threat of competition and possible extinction. Herbert Spencer captures the public's excitement and anxiety when he coins the phrase "survival of the fittest" in applying Darwin's ideas to the social realm. Advocates of Spencer's "social darwinism" view the hierarchy of races as the product of "nature," not specific institutions and policies. Consequently, social reform or improvement is pointless.
1868 14th Amendment guarantees equal rights Passage of the Fourteenth Amendment is a landmark event, not only for African Americans but for all Americans. Conceived during Reconstruction, the amendment extends citizenship to African Americans and attempts to heal the wounds of the Civil War by emphasizing national unity over sectional divisions. The amendment defines citizenship for the first time, guarantees all citizens equal protection and due process under the law, and most importantly, grants citizens privileges and immunities that cannot be abridged. Although the amendment's strength is tested by discriminatory laws and policies throughout the 20th century, the equal protection clause nevertheless forms the cornerstone of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and provides the legal basis for all civil rights and anti-discrimination efforts to this day.

Birth of eugenics

Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin, coins the term eugenics, meaning "good genes," to apply Darwin's ideas to suit his vision of an ideal society engineered through selective breeding. Eugenics writings find a receptive audience among white intellectuals in the early 20th century and profoundly influence many aspects of American life, including immigration policy, antimiscegenation laws, involuntary sterilization, and schooling. Although the American eugenics movement collapses by World War II, its effect on institutions and social policy is long-lasting, finding its fruition in Nazi Germany.
1887 Jim Crow segregation begins Beginning in the late 19th century, southern states codify a system of laws and practices to subordinate African Americans to whites. The "new" social order, reinforced through violence and intimidation, affects schools, public transportation, jobs, housing, private life and voting rights. Cutting across class boundaries, Jim Crow unites poor and wealthy whites in a campaign of aggression and social control, while denying African Americans equality in the courts, freedom of assembly and movement, and full participation as citizens. The federal government adopts segregation under President Wilson in 1913, and is not integrated until the 1960s.
1898 Birthright citizenship established Most people take for granted that anyone born in the U.S. is a citizen. However, that hasn't always been the case, especially for groups barred from naturalizing. The 1898 Supreme Court case of Wong Kim Ark v. United States first establishes the precedent of birthright citizenship when the court rules that, under the 14th Amendment guarantee, a Chinese man born in America to immigrant parents is a citizen even though his parents are ineligible for citizenship. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, Asians, like other minority groups, fight consistently for inclusion. The Chinese alone bring 170 cases to the U.S. Supreme Court, most under the 14th Amendment.
1899 White Man's Burden In February 1899, McClure's Magazine publishes a poem by Rudyard Kipling which advocates American imperialism in Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Picking up where Manifest Destiny leaves off, the concept of the White Man's Burden not only justifies expansion, it presents the colonization of people as a noble enterprise. Racial superiority has become more than common sense - whites now have a moral imperative to govern inferior peoples, a mission preordained in the hierarchy of races. Against the backdrop of Jim Crow segregation and mass immigration from Europe and Asia, the concept figures prominently in debates over citizenship and social fitness at home and in the newly acquired territories.
1899 Europeans seen as not quite white At the turn of the century, immigration to the U.S. from southern and eastern Europe swells dramatically. Many of the new arrivals are "ethnics" employed in undesirable low-wage jobs and living in the urban ghetto. Like the African, Mexican and Chinese Americans also performing unskilled, industrial labor, these immigrants are seen as "not quite white." Reflecting this view, anthropologist William V. Ripley publishes The Races of Europe, dividing whites into a distinct hierarchy of subraces and sub-sub-races. Yet even the degraded Hebrew, Celt and Italian are still legally "white" - they are not denied citizenship or prevented from full participation in American society. They naturalize, organize, vote, and eventually amalgamate into whiteness as they move into government-subsidized white suburbs after WWII and up the economic ladder.
1903 Japanese and Mexican farm workers strike In 1903, Japanese and Mexican farm workers organize the first multi-ethnic agricultural union to demand fair wages and labor rights in the sugar-beet industry in Ventura, CA. The union leads 1200 workers - 90 percent of the labor force - on strike and scores the first victory against big agribusiness in the west. Their success attracts the attention of the American labor movement concentrated in the industrial east. However, when the Mexican secretary of the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association applies for a charter from the American Federation of Labor, it is granted only on condition that the Japanese are excluded. The JMLA refuses to bend, but without the support of other organized labor, the union folds within a few years.
1904 Race on parade at World's Fair St. Louis, MO stages a world's fair to showcase American achievements and celebrate the 100th anniversary of Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase. Nearly 20 million visitors attend. The fair reflects the culmination of 19th century racial ideas in science, politics, and culture. Across from the technology exhibits are groups of indigenous peoples from around the world displayed in their "natural" habitats - a "living illustration" of man's hierarchical development on the earth. By century's end, race is invoked to explain everything: individual character, the cause of criminality, and the natural superiority of "higher" races.


   © 2003 California Newsreel. All rights reserved.