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African Americans on the Eve of World War I
In the years prior to World War I, racism, discrimination, and segregation shaped the lives of African Americans in all parts of the country. In the South, where nearly 90 percent of the nation's 10 million African Americans lived, the black population endured racial conditions that did not differ much from slavery. Rural African Americans in particular, who made up almost 79 percent of the black Southern population, were trapped in a system of economic exploitation, political disfranchisement, legal oppression, and violent repression. African Americans living in the Southern cities enjoyed a higher degree of personal freedom, but, just like the rural black population, they lacked the right to vote, did not enjoy legal equality, and were subject to intimidation and violence. In the North, East, and West, which were home to 10 percent of the nation's black population, the majority of African Americans eked out a living, predominantly in cities. Segregation and discrimination relegated them to low-paying jobs and confined them to substandard housing in decrepit neighborhoods. In many states, they had the right to vote, but because of their small numbers, they lacked any political power.
The poor conditions of African Americans, particularly in the rural South, were largely the product of government neglect in the years following the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment, adopted in 1865, had freed 4 million slaves, but the federal government had failed to provide them with financial resources to ensure their economic independence from white Southerners. With no money to move North, many African Americans stayed in the South. Some relocated to Southern cities, while others remained on the plantations where they had worked as slaves. They dismantled the former slave quarters and used the materials to built small one-room wooden cabins. Frequently, these were no more than dilapidated shacks with dirt floors and leaking roofs. They lacked windows and proper furniture and did little more than provide shelter from the South's sweltering heat or the occasional torrential rain storms. Here they raised their children and those of friends who had been sold to other parts of the South prior to the Civil War. Often the only means of support available to African Americans in the South was to farm for white plantation owners who had lost their slave workforce but not their lands as a result of the Civil War.
By 1910, nearly 76 percent of black Southern farmers worked as sharecroppers. Under this system, white plantation owners rented parcels of their land to the former slaves, who promised to pay at the end of the harvest season a share of their crop in lieu of rent. However, until the black sharecroppers could harvest any crop, they needed seeds, tools, and equipment as well as food and clothing for their families. With no money in their pockets, they were forced to conduct business with the white landowner, who provided them with necessary supplies in exchange for putting a lien on their crop, sometimes charging as much 60 percent interest. Thus, by the time the black farmer harvested his crop, he owed the white planter not only a share of his crop for rent, but also for the items he had purchased in the plantation store. Since white plantation owners routinely defrauded and overcharged African Americans, black farmers often owed them more money than their crops generated. As a result, black sharecroppers entered the new planting season with debt, which incurred high interest rates and ensured that they owed white planters even more money at the end of the following year's harvest. Sharecropping and the crop-lien-system kept the black farmers in perpetual debt and trapped in economic bondage. Unable to pay off their debts and gain financial independence, black sharecroppers were bound to the land of white plantation owners, just like the slaves had been prior to the Civil War.
Sharecropping was subsistence farming that depended on the work of all family members, including children and women. Children usually performed various household chores. They helped clean the house, assisted with the preparation of meals, did the laundry, took care of the younger children, fed chickens, brought water to their parents and siblings who worked in the field, and, depending on their age, helped with the harvest. Struggling to support their families, African American women continued to do what they had done during slavery. They picked cotton or tobacco with their husbands, raised their children, took care of their households, and worked as nannies, cooks, maids, or laundresses for white families. In 1910, nearly 97 percent of all black women workers were farm laborers, personal servants, or laundresses. The little amount of money black women earned while working for whites helped alleviate some of the worst suffering of sharecropping families, but it did not end their financial hardship.
The sharecropping system caused appalling economic conditions, which also had a detrimental impact on the health of rural black Southerners. Facing insurmountable debts, black sharecroppers could not afford nutritious food. Their average diet consisted of bread, beans, corn, grits, cornmeal, molasses, yams, okra, collard or mustard greens, and occasionally a piece of pork, chicken, fish, opossum, or raccoon. The food was rich in starches but often short on essential vitamins and proteins. To supplement the meals of their families, black women who worked as domestic servants often took table scraps or castoffs from their white employers—a common practice known as "pan-toting." Nonetheless, the diet of black sharecroppers lacked many essential nutrients.
Poor nutrition took its toll among black Southerners, weakening their bodies, lowering their life expectancy, and raising their morbidity and mortality rate. Many children of black sharecroppers were so hungry that they drank enormous amounts of water to quench their hunger, while others cried themselves to sleep at night. Poverty not only led to inadequate diets that made black Southerners more susceptible to deadly diseases, but also contributed to poor hygiene and sanitation, which further undermined their health. Tuberculosis, hookworms, syphilis, gonorrhea, dysentery, pellagra, rickets, and diphtheria, all caused by poor living conditions, had devastating consequences for rural black Southerners. When epidemics such as smallpox, cholera, typhus, and scarlet and yellow fever swept through the South, they resulted in heavy death tolls among African Americans.
The physical well-being of rural black Southerners was further compromised by the lack of health care and medical services. No public health service offered educational outreach programs that instructed them about proper nutrition, sanitation, and hygiene or the prevention of diseases. Those who became sick and had to seek professional treatment had to travel to towns and cities. There they encountered a health care system that provided only limited services for African Americans. Most white doctors refused to see black patients, and white hospitals either excluded them or treated them in inferior facilities, including basements, attics, and utility sheds. By 1900, only 2,000 black physicians and dentists as well as 40 black hospitals served the nation's nearly 9 million African Americans, however, most were not within reach of the majority of rural black Southerners. Given the lack of adequate nutrition, the prevalence of poor sanitation and hygiene, and limited access to health care providers, it is not surprising that African Americans had a high infant mortality rate and a life expectancy of only thirty-nine years in 1910, compared to fifty years for whites.
Health problems, caused by malnutrition and a lack of sanitation, not only cut short the lives of African Americans, but also undermined their efforts to obtain an education. Learning on an empty stomach, however, was not the only detriment to education. Black schools, particularly in the rural South, were notoriously underfunded and ill-equipped. Prior to World War I, African Americans represented 11 percent of the U.S. population, but they received only 2 percent of the nation's school funds. Many Southern states spent an annual average of $3.81 for each black student enrolled in the public schools, whereas spending for white students averaged $9.37 per year. Salaries of teachers also reflected a racial divide. In 1916, black teachers in the South earned less than half the salary of white teachers. Classes of black students met in poorly constructed one-room school houses, which did not differ much from the shacks the children called home. High student-teacher ratios and outdated instructional materials and equipment further aggravated educational inequities.
The planting and harvest season proved to be another roadblock to education. When farmers needed all hands in the fields, black school attendance suffered and schooling often came to a halt. In 1914–1915, Southern black children attended an average of thirty-five days of classes during the entire school year. Although economic necessity left the sharecropping parents little choice but to use their children as workers, they were nonetheless troubled by the effect it had on their schooling. Education, African American parents hoped, would provide their children with the training and skills necessary to earn a living and break free from the shackles of sharecropping. However, the poverty that was inherent in the sharecropping system slowed the progress of education among African Americans in the South. By 1910, less than 45 percent of rural black Southerners under the age of ten were enrolled in schools, and more than 33 percent of those aged ten or older were illiterate. Without adequate schooling, their future looked grim. Just like their parents, they were doomed to a life of sharecropping, which kept them in utter poverty.
While whites used the sharecropping system to re-enslave black Southerners economically, they also deprived them of their political freedom by disfranchising them. In 1870, Reconstruction Congress had ratified the Fifteenth Amendment, granting African American men the right to vote. However, Southern black political participation was short lived. In 1872, a General Amnesty restored the right of office holding to virtually all former Confederates, sparking a systematic white backlash. White Redeemers came to power, seeking to reestablish white supremacy by reversing the political gains African Americans had made in the aftermath of the Civil War. They reapportioned voting districts with predominantly black residents, a process known as gerrymandering; set up voting booths in areas hard to reach for African Americans; amended state constitutions to disfranchise blacks; initiated complicated registration and voting procedures; and introduced numerous provisions designed to bar blacks from voting. Among the most notorious were the "grandfather clause," which stipulated that only those men whose grandfathers had enjoyed the right to vote were permitted to cast a ballot; the "literacy test," which allegedly tested the ability to read and interpret a passage from the state constitution in order to qualify for the vote; and the "poll tax," which charged a fee for the privilege of voting. By 1902, all of the Southern states had adopted poll taxes. Since none of these provisions used race as a factor to disqualify blacks from voting, they did not violate the Fifteenth Amendment, at least not in a strictly legal sense. But even when whites blatantly violated the constitutional rights of black voters, the Supreme Court did nothing to defend them. While black men had gained the right to vote, Southern state restrictions made it virtually impossible for them to do so. By the late nineteenth century, the number of Southern black voters reached a nadir, and by 1901 the last remaining Southern black congressman left Washington, D.C. It would take more than seventy years for the next black Southerner to be elected to Congress.
For many white men, black political empowerment represented the ultimate humiliation. In an effort to regain control of the South and reassert their manhood, they used violence and intimidation to strip black men of their masculinity. They burned down the farms of African Americans, flogged the men, raped the women, and tortured and killed those who challenged discrimination, segregation, or black disfranchisement. Lynching, the ritualized slaying of African Americans, reached unprecedented proportions in the late nineteenth century. Some lynchings were spontaneous acts of atrocities committed by small groups of whites under the cover of darkness. Yet others were elaborate public spectacles. Local newspapers advertised upcoming lynchings, and there were special excursion trains to the events, which attracted food and souvenir vendors who catered to thousands of spectators, including women and children. Exuding the leisurely atmosphere of county fairs, replete with family picnics, these public slaughters offered their audiences the thrill of witnessing the prolonged torture and death of a black victim, often inflicted by hanging or burning at the stake. Spectators had the opportunity to have their picture taken with the victim or even purchase parts of the charred body. In many cases, local sheriffs—who had been elected by the white majority with the mandate of upholding white supremacy—not only condoned, but actively participated in the lynchings.
The majority of lynch victims were men, though lynch mobs also targeted women, including pregnant women, and less frequently children. Among the most popular justifications for lynchings were accusations of homicide and allegations that a black man had assaulted a white woman, a charge that covered a broad spectrum of offenses ranging from making improper eye contact to rape. Lynch mobs, claiming that black men were lust-driven beasts with an uncontrollable appetite for white women, often tortured and at times castrated their victims—literally emasculating black men—before killing them. For white men the public display of violence in the defense of white womanhood was an opportunity to demonstrate their manliness. But the public nature of lynching served another purpose. It was a warning to all African Americans that white Southerners would not tolerate any semblance of racial equality. Estimates of the number of victims who died at the hands of lynch mobs vary greatly, ranging from 10,000 between 1878 and 1898 to 2,000 between 1882 and 1901. While figures indicate that the number of lynchings declined in the decade prior to World War I, white mob rule continued to terrorize African Americans in the early twentieth century.
In addition to economic exploitation, political disfranchisement, intimidation, and violence, white Southerners used the legal system to reinvent slavery. Vagrancy laws, which empowered local sheriffs to arrest drifters—those who had no permanent residency or employment—singled out black men. Southern courts sentenced them to long prison terms, placed them on chain gangs, and put them to work to rebuild Southern streets, roads, and public buildings. Many times, corrupt prison wardens supplemented their meager incomes and leased convicts to private companies. The convict-lease system not only provided Southern white business owners with a cheap workforce, but also served as a deterrent for African Americans who considered leaving the plantations.
Excerpted from Loyalty in Time of Trial by Nina Mjagkij Copyright © 2011 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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