Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Montage of images and link description. Eleanor Roosevelt Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience
The Film & More
Interview Transcripts | Bibliography | Primary Sources

David Levering Lewis : The Plight of the African American
David Levering Lewis 1900 saw the publication of a very important book by Booker T. Washington called Up from Slavery. It was his idealized autobiography. I suppose it's popularity was genuine. It reflected the widespread attitude of many African Americans that with frugality and humility and patience the American Dream could and would apply fully to them. The emphasis was really on work not so much on education for professional pursuits, but good common pursuits in teaching and in agriculture and in commerce. That view, though applauded since so many people read Up from Slavery, so many African Americans, was a partial view because as it appeared things were getting really much worse for African Americans and there was, I think, an attempt to deny that things were going to get as bad as soon they would. And that was perhaps a factor in the appeal of this autobiography. There was a certain degree of wish fulfillment because in the decade before, in the 1890s the political power of African Americans was nullified, beginning in 1890 with the revision of the Mississippi constitution and then the constitution of the State of South Carolina and the constitution of the State of Louisiana and, of course in between came the pivotal decision by the Supreme Court in Plesey versus Ferguson which institutionalized what was called euphemistically "separate but equality". And so against that backdrop, African Americans had a great deal to fear and a great deal to agonize over. And yet it's remarkable how resolute African Americans remained convinced that there was still the possibility of a bargain and that bargain was, of course, explicated in the writings and in the life and utterances of Booker T. Washington. It's been called by Washington's biographer a "faustian bargain". And that was that in turn for the surrender, the virtual surrender of civil rights or the power of the ballot there would be an economic margin opened for African Americans to find their way and to thrive.

In 1900, it's too soon to know whether or not that faustian bargain is a viable bargain. Looking back, we know that, of course, it was not. We know that many African Americans would decide that it was not viable because we are only three years in 1900 from the the countertext, The Souls of Black Folk, by Booker Washington's nemesis, Dubois, which would say "The bargain isn't going to work." I suppose also you get a sense of what African Americans were thinking by looking at reaction, the response to this imperial venture we were talking about earlier. On the one hand, African Americans had cheered the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, had marched off in large numbers, the Ninth and Tenth cavalry, for example, and the 24th and 25th infantry regiments to fight in Cuba. Of course, the fighting is much exaggerated. What, we have 248 Americans fall in battle in the Cuban sector and 5,000 perhaps felled by typhoid. But there they were. Indeed, the paymaster general of the occupation forces is a former African American congressman from Mississippi, John R. Lynch. And so to play a part in freeing the Cubans and bringing democracy to them was very much part of the enthusiastic commitment of African Americans there. But when the Philippines insurrection consequences become clear, African Americans, also forming an important contingent in the occupation forces, are at the forefront of criticizing and deploring the annexation of the Philippines. Indeed, if Kipling penned "Pick up the white man's burden," a famous African American poem appearing in a prominent African American newspaper was "The black man's burden," and it deplored, in fact, the assumption of this duty which was pernicious and which, indeed was racist and which they saw as part of the larger picture of white supremacy galloping the globe.

By 1900, disfranchisement was virtually total in the South. It's not a concern in the North because the migration has not yet made that a concern. A generation has passed since manumission. The feeling of African Americans and the predicament of African Americans was one of despair mixed with cautious optimism. One must remember there has been that halcyon decade of reconstruction when there was active participation by African Americans in the politics and civil activities of the South and of the nation. But by 1900, Southern state after Southern state has revised its constitution in a way that excludes the African American voter. Indeed, revision of constitutions was accompanied by some rather bloody strategies on the part of white supremacists. There had been a particularly sanguinary riot in Wilmington, North Carolina and there will shortly be a very sanguinary riot sort of bookending this 1900 period in Atlanta. And so the combination of brutality and constitutional revisions had meant in parallel with the Supreme Court's historic Plesey versus Ferguson decision -- it has meant that the civil liberties of African Americans were shrinking to the point of invisibility. But there had been, nonetheless, a kind of compensatory deal struck in the South and between the industrial North and the recrudescent white South in the which the African American, having surrendered his -- or been forced to surrender his civil liberties, would have an economic margin of maneuver and Booker Washington and the Tuskegee ideology represented and blemitized(?) that what one historian has called "faustian bargain" between the White South and the Black South.

The problem, I suppose, is that you were told what you could not do every day of your life. The lynching, of course brutality indeed, but I think it must have been simply the certainty that you were going to be told "no" in terms of your most basic and reasonable wishes, wants and needs. That must have been the soul-destroying quality of segregation that escapes the rather cold illustrations of what it meant in terms of facts and figures.

The rapidity with which segregation, or a better word might be apartheid, comes along is rather startling when you look back. Many Americans will, I suppose, have assumed that it was a gradual thing that took quite some time but by 1900 had been long congealed. In some places, yes, but by and large, no. The 1890s is the decade of the acceleration of the separation of the two races in the South, and by virtue of that, of course, in the North as well, because the North will mimic the "settlement of race relations", as it was called in the south as African Americans out migrate from the South to the North, and that begins about this time, too. An area which illustrates the perniciousness of the separation is the area of education, of course, because that was an area in which all Americans were committed to. No one should be denied basic education, irrespective of race, and even with the ideology of white supremacy prevailing in the South, that was conceded. There were some, like Ben Tilman, who said not even education, but generally that was conceded. But in terms of tax revenues it was increasingly meaningless. That is to say, the ratio of dollars white to black grew and grew and grew, beginning in 1900 so that, oh, 20 years later it would be something like ten to one, that may be even conservative, in favor of whites, subventions of white public education in the South. In response to that, there was even a federal, one of the last federal attempts to ameliorate the situation in the South had happened in the late 1890s, a federal education bill which would have appropriated tax dollars out of the tariff for educational systems in the South in which the disparity was so great, that there should be remediation through tax monies. It was, of course, defeated, but that is a measure of a federal government generally disinterested in doing much in the area of education for anybody being prevoked and for a legislative possibility to have existed for a brief time in the 1890s.

I suppose African Americans were not one whit different from other Americans who were poor percentage-wise, but probably not that much more. and so there was the same belief in American exceptionalism despite the loss of the ballot, despite the violence that was manifested through the epidemic of lynching that really gets going in the 1890s and the first decade of this century. Nonetheless there was this dogged belief that if we stay and if we apply ourselves, things will get better. And this was not a fantasy. African Americans, no more than people in the East End of New York, were not nuts in this belief self-improvement and improvement over time in the natural course of things. And it is reflected in, say, the founding, in 1900, of the National Negro Business League which had chapters in most states reflected in the convening of the first Pan African Conference in London by Dubois, but attended by a few prominent African Americans reflected, I suppose, in "The Ballad of Casey Jones" which took the nation by storm, a railroad engineer who died in a train crash with his hand still on the throttle and the particulars of the crash escape me now, but the point was he was very good at what he did and he died for it in "The Ballad of Casey Jones" and he was African American was on everybody's lips, so to speak.

back to Interview Transcripts

Interview Transcripts | Primary Sources | Bibliography

Program Description | Enhanced Transcript | Reference

The Film & More | Special Feature | Timeline | Maps | People & Events| Teacher's Guide