Margaret Washington on northern racism
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Q: How did people think about race in this period?
A: Slavery in the South reinforced racial attitudes. That's for sure. But it's important to keep in mind that the northern part of the nation had slavery as well, and that some states were very slow in emancipation. New York and New Jersey in particular had very gradual emancipation laws. So that there are African Americans in bondage well into the antebellum era.
It's also important to keep in mind that the midwestern states, as they came into the union, some of them, passed black exclusion laws so that free blacks who wanted to leave, say, the mid-Atlantic and settle in the Midwest were prevented, as well as African Americans who might for one reason or another get their freedom in the South. They were prevented from moving into some midwestern states.
So it would seem as though the nation itself had an attitude that African Americans were inferior. And if you look at some of the laws that were in existence in the northern states, African Americans were not supposed to ride on streetcars; African Americans were not supposed to ride on steamers. The whole idea of Jim Crow and segregation of the races really originates in the North. African Americans couldn't vote in most states, even if they owned property. So the exclusion and the [disfranchisement] was already there.
The concept of democracy seemed to be something in the nation at that time that was for white people. And it really relates to this concept of white nationalism, that no matter how poor you are, no matter what situation you're in, if you're white, then you are far better off than the wealthiest person of African descent. And people operated on that. And it affected the public schools. It affected every aspect of life in America. It affected immigrants coming in, because immigrants, especially the Irish, would come in and they would have immediately a higher status than African Americans who had been born there, whose generations go back to existence in the nation. And this, of course, created a lot of tension, because immigrants coming in would oftentimes be the people who took jobs away from African Americans. So while immigration became a form of economic and social mobility for whites, it became a form of degradation for African Americans.
Associate Professor of History
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