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Margaret Washington : Obstacles Faced by African Americans
Maragret Washington African Americans were faced with an almost insurmountable number of obstacles in 1900. Any way you look at it, in terms of the educational system, particularly considering the fact that the majority of them, the large majority are still in the South. And as far as education is concerned, African Americans are given almost no avenue of education on the lower level, which makes it difficult for them to aspire to higher education because they don't have the rudiments to get to that point. Public schools are open to African Americans only in very small communities.

Any way you look at it, socially, politically, economically, education, African Americans were kept out of society. And they had to scratch and bite to get whatever advantages that they did get. And the majority could not get those advantages. If you look at education for instance in 1900 and take for example, Mississippi, which is a state that spends about three dollars a year on the education of a black child and sixty on the education of a white child, then if you look at the whole economic structure in the states of the South which are primarily cotton states, which depend on a sharecropping, crop lien system for the production and the profit of this cotton, which African Americans are the main labor force for, then black children are forced to work rather than go to school. So even if there was money in the family for shoes and clothing which often there was not, the children were needed in the labor force. So that was a constraint on African Americans. Politically African Americans have for the most part lost whatever political situation they had had as a result of Reconstruction. And it was done very brutally and it was done very systematically. First it was done without the law, it was done extralegally through terrorism, through creating these various kinds of laws, informal ways of keeping African Americans from voting. But by the 1890s all the way up past 1900, it became legal, because the various states formed new constitutional conventions which legally disfranchised African Americans. So the political process was closed. And then of course the striking down of the civil rights act meant that all of the gains that had been made about equality and public accommodations, all of that was dead. So everywhere we looked as a people the doors seemed to be closed to us.

Restrictions on Voting

By 1900 the doors to voting and having a voice in the electoral process had shut down for African Americans. This, after a period in Reconstruction and afterwards of African Americans having a voice, especially and what was more important for them, a local voice in the way business was conducted in their communities, such as being on juries, having black prosecutors, having black sheriffs, having black school superintendents. These were the things that were important to African Americans and this is where they had been able to assert themselves in the electoral process. By the 1880s when African Americans, poor African Americans and poor whites looked like they might form a coalition in the South against the large interests in the South, then you get a surge of extreme racism and then you get sort of the converging of what becomes the "solid South." And as a result of this as whites, poor whites and wealthy whites began to unite in the late 1880s against African Americans, then they begin to shut African Americans out. And they do this extralegally. In South Carolina for instance, to keep African Americans from voting they develop what's called an eight box law. And that meant that for every office you had to put your ballot in the correct box for that office and if you didn't, then your ballot was invalid. So they devised all these kinds of means. They had a poll tax in some of the other states, whereby if you didn't make a certain amount of money and couldn't pay that tax, then you could not vote. But then they would waive it for white people who were equally poor. So in these extralegal ways they kept African Americans out of the electoral process. And terrorism of course was rampant. But in spite of that, in spite of the terrorism African Americans continued to try and assert themselves politically because they recognized how important it was on the local level. By the 1890s the state governments have decided that they have to make the disfranchisement of African Americans legal. And then they began to call state constitutional conventions which developed ways of getting around the 14th and 15th Amendment and disfranchising African Americans completely. So African Americans move from a period when they actually have a voice in Southern government to a situation where they have no say so whatsoever. And in addition to that, the violence doesn't stop. It's as though the South has said, okay we're going to disfranchise you legally, but we're going to make sure that you understand that you cannot rear your head and assert yourself. That we have complete hegemony over you, politically, socially and economically. Andthe brutality is a way of solidifying that.


Another issue was in order to make sure that African Americans did not attempt to assert themselves in any way, whether it was voting, whether it was trying to buy land, the white South resorted to terrorism. And that terrorism which was a legacy that never stopped from the time of the Civil War all the way up through this period, reached an intensity in the 1890s and in 1900. And it consisted of lynching African Americans, it consisted of burning African Americans, it consisted of whipping African Americans. It consisted of all kinds of violence against African Americans for asserting themselves in any way. And that's what terrorism is about. It's about keeping people from doing something that you think they may want to do. And so it wasn't just enough to close these avenues to African Americans, it was designed to show them that you can't do it and so don't even try. But terrorism was very much a part of the legacy of the South and it's something African Americans had lived with. They had periods in which it was not as bad as others. And one of the periods in which it was most intense was during the period of the constitutional convention. As a matter of fact, the last 16 years of the 19th century, there were 2500 lynchings in the South. And the majority of them, not all of them, but the majority of them were African Americans.


By 1900 the South was what we call Jim Crowed. That meant that it was segregated. Hadn't always been that way after the Civil War. Laws were passed which made it illegal to segregate public accommodations, to segregate people on the basis of race in restaurants and theatres, on trains and so on. Now what was the case du jour was not always the case de facto. So in spite of the fact that these laws against segregation were there, it didn't mean that they were always obeyed. So African Americans at any point might be confronted about sitting in a white section. But it was against the law and African Americans felt relatively comfortable, especially in urban centers, sitting in places that were integrated. But by the late 1880s segregation became one of the ways in which whites tried to control African Americans. And they began to become very, very strongly attached to segregated seating, to segregated railroad cars. And they used this to separate the races, of course based on their conception of our being inferior. And based especially on the idea that African American men were trying to get next to white women, so you had to create these separate spaces. This begins in the late 1880s and it escalates along with these other issues that are social, political and economic. And segregation becomes something that is a fact, even if it isn't a law. And again, like the disfranchisement movement, it doesn't become law until these various states began to form new constitutions and put these in the new state governments.

By 1900, the majority of the states in the South have called these constitutional conventions that legalize segregation. By 1900, in spite of the fact that some states have not done this legally, they've all done it in terms of the facts of life. So the South is segregated by 1900 and African Americans know that.

We live in a republic. And in a republic the laws are based on liberty, the laws are based on equality. And African Americans, they were not treated like second class citizens, we were treated as non-citizens. And that's what segregation meant to us. Segregation meant that we had no rights. Segregation meant that we were not going to be seated next to other citizens, that we couldn't use the same facilities as other citizens. So we were essentially non-citizens. And so it was a terrible burden for African Americans as a people. And it was something that made many African Americans want to leave the South.

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