The Looming Shadow of Death: The Black Vote in the Age of Steam!
At the time of Ulysses S. Grant’s election to the presidency in 1868, Americans were struggling to reconstruct a nation torn apart by war. Voting rights for freed blacks proved a big problem. Reconstruction Acts passed after the war called for black suffrage in the Southern states, but many – in the South and the North – felt the approach unfair. The Acts did not apply to the North.
Contrary to the perception of the North being a utopian promised land for Black people, 11 of the 21 Northern states did not allow blacks to vote in elections. Most of the Border States, where one-sixth of the nation’s black population resided, also refused to allow blacks to vote.
The Republicans’ answer to the problem of the black vote was the addition of an amendment to the Constitution that guaranteed black suffrage in all states, regardless of the party that controlled the government. Congress spent the days between Grant’s election and his inauguration drafting this new amendment, which would be the 15th one added to the Constitution.
The writers of the Fifteenth Amendment produced three different versions of the document. The first of these prohibited states from denying citizens the vote because of their race, color, or the previous experience of being a slave. The second version prevented states from denying the vote to anyone based on literacy, property, or the circumstances of their birth. The third version stated plainly and directly that all male citizens who were 21 or older had the right to vote.
Determined to pass the amendment, Congress ultimately accepted the first and most moderate of the versions as the one presented for a vote. This took some wrangling in the halls of Congress, however, because many Congressmen felt that the first version did not go far enough, and that it left too many loopholes.
Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment on February 26, 1869. But some states resisted ratification. At one point, the ratification count stood at 17 Republican states approving the amendment and four Democratic states rejecting it. Congress still needed 11 more states to ratify the amendment before it could become law.
All eyes turned toward those Southern states which had yet to be readmitted to the Union. Acting quickly, Congress ruled that in order to be let into the Union, these states had to accept both the Fifteenth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to all people born in the United States, including former slaves. Left with no choice, the Southern states ratified the amendments and were restored to statehood.
Finally, on March 30, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment became part of the Constitution. To many, it felt like the last step of reconstruction. But just as many had predicted, Southerners found ways to prevent blacks from voting. Democrats and Republicans clashed over the right of former slaves to enter civic life an white supremacist vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan gained strength as many whites refused to accept blacks as their equals.
Jim Crow – the racial caste system and series of rigid anti-black laws that operated primarily, but not exclusively, in Southern and Border States, between 1877 and the mid-1960s – was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African Americans were relegated to the status of second class citizens.
During this era, many Christian ministers and theologians taught that whites were the Chosen people, and that blacks – all victims of the curse of Noah’s son Ham – were cursed to be drawers of water and hewers of wood (i.e. servants).
Craniologists, eugenicists, phrenologists, and Social Darwinists, at every educational level, buttressed the belief that blacks were, by nature, intellectually and culturally inferior to whites. Politicians gave eloquent speeches on the great danger of integration – the mongrelization of the white race. Newspaper and magazine writers routinely referred to blacks as niggers, coons, and darkies; and their articles reinforced anti-black stereotypes. All major societal institutions reflected and supported the oppression of Black people.
Under Jim Crow, the following “norms” were enforced:
A black boy or man could not shake hands with a white male because it implied being socially equal. And if a black boy or man dared to offer his hand or any other part of his body to a white woman, he risked being accused of – and hanged, castrated or beaten to death for – rape.
Blacks and whites were not supposed to eat together. If they did eat together, whites were to be served first, and some sort of partition was to be placed between them.
Under no circumstance was a black man to offer to light the cigarette of a white woman – a gesture considered an implication of intimacy.
Blacks were not allowed to show public affection toward one another because it offended whites.
Jim Crow etiquette prescribed that blacks were introduced to whites, never whites to blacks. For example: “Mr. Sam (the white person), this is Cleophus (the black person), that I spoke to you about.”
Whites did not use courtesy titles of respect when referring to blacks – Mr., Mrs., Miss., Sir, or Ma’am was never used. Instead, blacks were called by their first names. However, blacks had to use courtesy titles when referring to whites, and were not allowed to call them by their first names.
If a black person rode in a car driven by a white person, the black person sat in the back seat, or the back of a truck.
White motorists had the right-of-way at all intersections.
In conversing with whites, Black people were to follow these simple rules:
Never assert or even intimate that a white person is lying.
Never impute dishonorable intentions to a white person.
Never suggest that a white person is from an inferior class.
Never lay claim to, or overly demonstrate, superior knowledge or intelligence.
Never curse a white person.
Never laugh derisively at a white person.
Never comment upon the appearance of a white female.
In 1890, Louisiana passed the “Separate Car Law,” which purported to aid passenger comfort by creating “equal but separate” cars for blacks and whites. This was a ruse. No public accommodations, including railway travel, provided blacks with equal facilities. The Louisiana law made it illegal for blacks to sit in coach seats reserved for whites, and whites could not sit in seats reserved for blacks. In 1891, a group of blacks decided to test the Jim Crow law. They had Homer A. Plessy, who was seven-eighths white and one-eighth black (therefore, black), sit in the white-only railroad coach. He was arrested. Plessy’s lawyer argued that Louisiana did not have the right to label one citizen as white and another black for the purposes of restricting their rights and privileges. The Supreme Court stated that so long as state governments provided legal process and legal freedoms for blacks, equal to those of whites, they could maintain separate institutions to facilitate these rights. The Court, by a 7-2 vote, upheld the Louisiana law, declaring that racial separation did not necessarily mean an abrogation of equality.
In practice, the tragic process that came to be known as Plessy, represented the legitimization of two societies: one white, and advantaged; the other, black, disadvantaged and despised.
Blacks were denied the right to vote by grandfather clauses – laws that restricted the right to vote to people whose ancestors had voted before the Civil War – by poll taxes – fees charged to poor blacks who desired to vote – white primaries – only Democrats could vote; only whites could be Democrats – and literacy tests in which you could only vote if you could name all the Vice Presidents and Supreme Court Justices throughout America’s history.
Jim Crow states passed statutes severely regulating social interactions between the races. Jim Crow signs were placed above water fountains, door entrances and exits, and in front of public facilities. There were separate hospitals for blacks and whites, separate prisons, separate public and private schools, separate churches, separate cemeteries, separate public restrooms, and separate public accommodations. In most instances, the black facilities were grossly inferior — generally, older, less-well-kept. In other cases, there were no black facilities — no Colored public restroom, no public beach, no place to sit or eat. Plessy gave Jim Crow states a legal way to ignore their constitutional obligations to their black citizens.
Blacks who violated Jim Crow norms – such as drinking from the white water fountain or trying to vote – risked their homes, jobs and even their lives. Whites could physically beat blacks with impunity. Blacks had little legal recourse against these assaults because the Jim Crow criminal justice system – the police, prosecutors, judges, juries, and prison officials – was all white.
Lynchings were public murders carried out by mobs. Between 1882, when the first reliable data were collected, and 1968, when lynchings had become rare, there were 4,730 known lynchings; 3,440 of those were of black men and women. Most of the victims of these lynchings were hanged or shot, but many were burned at the stake, castrated, beaten with clubs, or dismembered.
In the mid-1800s, whites constituted the majority of victims, as well as perpetrators, of lynching. However, by the period of Reconstruction, blacks became the most frequent lynching victims. This is an early indication that lynching was used as an intimidation tool to keep the newly freed blacks, “in their places.”
The great majority of lynchings occurred in Southern and Border States, where the resentment against blacks ran deepest. The southern states accounted for nine-tenths of lynchings. More than two thirds of the remaining one-tenth occurred in the six states which immediately border the South.
Under Jim Crow any and all sexual interactions between black men and white women was illegal, illicit, socially repugnant, and within the Jim Crow definition of rape. Although only 19.2 percent of the lynching victims between 1882 and 1951 were even accused of rape, lynching was often supported by the popular belief that such sadistic murder was necessary to protect white women from black rapists. In fact, most blacks were lynched for demanding civil rights, violating Jim Crow etiquette or laws, or in the aftermath of race riots.
Lynchings were most common in small and middle-sized towns where blacks often were economic competitors to local whites. These whites resented any economic and political gains made by blacks. Members of lynch mobs were seldom arrested, and if arrested, rarely convicted, as at least one-half of the lynchings were carried out with police officers participating in them, and in nine-tenths of the others, the officers condoned the mob action.
Lynching served many purposes: it was cheap entertainment; it served as a rallying, uniting point for whites; it functioned as an ego-boost for low-income, low-status whites; it was a method of defending white domination and it helped stop or retard the fledgling social equality movement.
Many blacks resisted the indignities of Jim Crow, and, far too often, we paid for our bravery with our lives.
Today, we are able to vote without fear of reprisal; without the looming shadow of death that stood at our flanks during the Age of Steam.
Thus, I enjoin you to exercise your right to vote – for me – for my re-examination and re-imagining of the Age of Steam, as I am nominated for Best Blog and for Best Multicultural Steampunk in the 2013 Steampunk Chronicle Readers’ Choice Awards.
Let’s bring some funk to the SPC Awards in 2013!