The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was rooted in the struggle of Americans of African descent to obtain basic rights of citizenship in the nation. Antislavery initiatives had gradually abolished the “peculiar institution” in the Northern states by the 1830s but free blacks were not accorded full citizenship rights. In the South, political and economic dominance of slaveholders hindered discussion of abolition. Discord between the North and South ultimately led to civil war, and finally, emancipation of slaves.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Northern Republicans in Congress proposed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution that granted the newly freed slaves freedom, citizenship, and the right to vote, respectively. Several civil rights acts were also passed in an attempt to protect the freedom of the freed population. During the Reconstruction era, African American men participated in electoral politics as voters and as public officials. Federal protection of the rights of blacks was dealt a major defeat with the Compromise of 1877, when Southern Democrats conceded the closely contested 1876 presidential election to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. Blacks, however, continued to attend schools and churches, participate in politics, and exert their rights as citizens as much as possible in the face of growing white resistance and violence. In a number of cases culminating with 1883’s Civil Rights Cases, the Supreme Court Slaughter-House Cases decisions reinforced white Southern efforts to consign blacks to an inferior legal and social status.

States in the South gradually adopted a variety of methods to disenfranchise black voters and instituted “Jim Crow” (segregation) laws mandating the separation of the races in practically every aspect of life. Debt peonage (involuntary servitude of laborers), sharecropping and tenant farming often reduced blacks to generational poverty. The Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist organizations engaged in lynchings, beatings, and burnings to enforce the new racial order and to keep African American voters away from the polls or any type of political activity. Beginning in the 1870s, blacks migrated in increasing numbers from the South to northern and western regions, a phenomenon that would ultimately transform the racial geography of the country. In 1896 the Supreme Court sanctioned the legal separation of the races with its ruling in the case Plessy v. Ferguson. Popular black leader Booker T. Washington advised African Americans to focus on education and economic self-improvement, strategies he deemed necessary to acquire on the road to civil rights in the face of racism. In reference to blacks and whites, he said in 1895, “In all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.”

See timeline for this period

The United States Constitution

The U.S. Constitution did not explicitly mention slavery, slaves, or freed blacks in the original text. Framers of the U.S. Constitution inserted the three-fifths compromise, in which slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, for the purpose of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives—thereby increasing the power of the slave states in Congress. The U.S. Constitution also contained a fugitive slave clause, which referred only to persons “held to service or labour,” and enforced the rights of slaveholders to reclaim runaway slaves. In addition, the U.S. Constitution prohibited the importation of slaves after 1808, but the language did not refer to Africans. The inclusion of these clauses in the nation’s founding document is a testament to the economic and political influence of the institution of slavery at the founding of the country.

United States Constitution. Philadelphia: Claypoole and Dunlap, September 9, 1787. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00)

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African American Patriots

As white men were fighting for their freedom in the Revolutionary War, many African Americans were also caught up in the fight for independence from England. American of African descent Crispus Attucks was one of five killed in the Boston Massacre of 1770, and men of color were among the minutemen at the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker and Breed’s Hills. However, some Revolutionary War leaders attempted to stop African Americans from participating in the war, fearing the blacks would believe they were fighting for their own rights. When the British began to recruit blacks by promising them freedom, the white patriots reconsidered and allowed about five thousand African Americans to serve.

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Slaves Petition for Freedom, 1777

Free and enslaved blacks pressed for emancipation during the Revolutionary era in states including Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, and Connecticut. On January 13, 1777, slaves led by Prince Hall and Lancaster Hill petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for their freedom. The petitioners challenged state leaders to examine their consciences and the laws of nature established by the great “parent of the universe” to decide whether the slaves should be free. They proposed that slavery was untrue to the Christian faith and questioned how white citizens who followed “the mild religion of Jesus” could hold fellow human beings in perpetual bondage.

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A Petition for Voting Rights

Massachusetts-born Paul Cuffee (1759–1817) was the son of an African father and a Native American mother. In 1780 Cuffee, who was a successful ship owner, along with his brother and several others, petitioned Massachusetts for the right to vote, citing the principle of taxation without representation. They did not win immediately, but voting rights were granted to African Americans in that state three years later.

From a drawing by John Pole; Abraham L. Pennock, engraver. Captain Paul Cuffee, Mason & Maas, 1812. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (292.00.00)

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Moves toward Freedom in Northern States

Although Vermont would not officially join the union until 1791, its legislature prohibited slavery in 1777. Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey soon followed. In 1780 the Pennsylvania legislature enacted an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. The legislators wrote that they rejoiced “to extend a portion of that freedom to others which has been extended to us.” Rights provided by the act for freed blacks included recognition of marriage contracts, protection of orphaned or abandoned children, and equality before the law. Blacks had the right to vote but rarely exercised it. In 1838 voting rights in Pennsylvania were rescinded.

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Freedom for Elizabeth Freeman, Massachusetts

After being assaulted by her master, Elizabeth Freeman (1742?–1829), known as Mum Bett, was among those who petitioned for freedom in Massachusetts. She had heard a reading of the Declaration of Independence and discussions about the Massachusetts state constitution of 1780. Bett went to attorney Theodore Sedgwick, shown here, asking him to help her claim her liberty and obtain the equality promised in those documents. In Brom & Bett v. J. Ashley, Esq., the jury in the Great Barrington Court of Common Pleas set Elizabeth free. In his autobiography W. E. B. Du Bois claimed Bett as an ancestor.

Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin. Theodore Sedgwick. Philadelphia, 1801. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (295.00.00)

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End of Slavery in Massachusetts

The trial involving Quock Walker (1753–?) in 1783 ended slavery for all those in bondage in Massachusetts. The Walker decision included language from the Declaration of Independence and the 1780 state constitution, which declared “that all men are born free and equal” and that every subject was entitled to liberty and legal protection as well as life and property. “In short,” the court ruled, the state “is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. . . . There can be no such thing as perpetual servitude” unless the individual’s liberty is forfeited by some criminal misconduct.

Paul Finkelman, ed. Abolitionists in Northern Courts. The Pamphlet Literature. Series III: Slavery, Race, and the American Legal System. “The case of Nathaniel Jennison for Attempting to Hold a Negro as a Slave in Massachusetts in 1781.” Clark, NJ: Law Book Exchange, 2007. Law Library, Library of Congress (296.00.00)

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African American Church Founders, 1787

Pulled from their knees during prayer in 1787, African Americans left their Philadelphia church, St. George’s Methodist Episcopal, formed the Free African Society, and began the formation of churches of their own, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church under Richard Allen and the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas under Absalom Jones. Both leaders became civil rights advocates as well as ministers. African American preachers and churches would often be in the vanguard of the quest for civil rights from this period through the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

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A Contract for a Slave

Many of the founding fathers were slave owners, which helps explain their ambivalence on slavery and civil rights issues. Former president Thomas Jefferson wrote this contract on April 19, 1809, (on the anniversary of the Battle of Concord and Lexington that began the Revolutionary War) for the sale of the slave John Freeman to President James Madison. Thomas Jefferson had purchased John Freeman for $400 from William Baker on July 3, 1804. When Jefferson was president, Freeman was his dining room servant at the White House.

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). A sales contract between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for John Freeman, April 19, 1809. Autograph manuscript. Carter G. Woodson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (003.00.00)

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Slave Testimonies

Testimonies of former slaves form the basis of stories recounted by Ossie Davis (1917–2005) and Ruby Dee (1922–1914) in the dramatic and choral work “Slavery,” broadcast October 28, 1965, on National Educational Television as part of the History of the Negro People series. Davis wrote the piece, which includes Negro spirituals sung by Voices, Inc.

Former Slave Fountain Hughes Interviewed by Hermond Norwood in 1949

Former slave Fountain Hughes (1848 or 1854–1957) describes his life during the final years of slavery and after Emancipation in an interview conducted by Hermond Norwood, a Library of Congress employee, in Baltimore in 1949.

Settlement in Sierra Leone

Before white Americans became actively involved in colonization, Captain Paul Cuffee (1766–1817) tried to convince African Americans to consider business and settlement ventures in Sierra Leone. Cuffee also attempted to get support from the U.S. Congress but did not succeed. At his own expense, Cuffee took thirty-eight blacks from the U.S. to settle in Sierra Leone in 1815. With the help of Philadelphia’s wealthy sail maker, James Forten (1766–1842), a free black, Cuffee held a meeting in Philadelphia in 1817 to convince willing blacks to join him in the venture. Not one of the members of the meeting was in favor of the idea.

Daily National Intelligencer, January 11, 1814. Serial and Government Publications Division Division, Library of Congress (300.00.00)

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Colonization Controversy

Most blacks were many generations removed from Africa and felt that settlement there was akin to expulsion from the land of their nativity. Galvanized, the antebellum African American community held many meetings and conventions and wrote numerous pamphlets and articles decrying forced colonization.

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The American Colonization Society

In 1816 around fifty influential men including Elias Caldwell, Bushrod Washington, Henry Clay, John Randolph, and Daniel Webster met in Washington, D. C., to discuss sending U.S. blacks to Africa. Clay, a slaveholder who felt that free blacks were a threat to slavery, proposed “to rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of its population.” Others were primarily concerned with African evangelization, and still others believed that a colony would give blacks the opportunity to be truly free. Finally, on December 28, these delegates formed the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States.

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  • American Colonization Society certificate for James Madison, 1816. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (302.00.00)

  • American Colonization Society certificate copper engraving plate. American Colonization Society Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (303.00.00)

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Daniel Coker Settles in Sierra Leone

Maryland-born Daniel Coker (1780–1846), was a preacher, author, and teacher living in Baltimore who decided to settle in Africa. In 1820 while he traveled on the first American Colonization Society ship, the Elizabeth, to Sherbro Island off the coast of Sierra Leone, he kept a detailed journal of his travels. The climate and the water on the island were so unhealthy that the colonization agents and many of the settlers died. Coker was appointed as interim leader of the group. Eventually, all the settlers moved to Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was from there that U.S. naval ships took some of the settlers further down the coast to found Liberia in 1822. Coker remained in Sierra Leone. Partly because malaria and yellow fever eliminated most white colonization agents in West Africa, blacks repeatedly gained important leadership positions.

Journal of Daniel Coker, 1820. Peter Force Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (301.00.00)

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Denunciation of Colonization

Maria W. Stewart (1803–1879), a free black, was a preacher, orator, writer, and teacher. She grew up in Connecticut, and was recruited by William Lloyd Garrison to write for his abolition newspaper The Liberator. Influenced by David Walker’s militant appeal to black men to rise against their masters, she denounced colonization, saying, “Now that we have enriched their soil and filled their coffers . . . they would drive us to a strange land. But before I go, the bayonet shall pierce me through.” Stewart is considered to be the first African American female activist. At a time when it was considered improper for a woman to speak before a mixed audience, Stewart spoke at Boston’s African Masonic Hall in February 1833. In the address she accused black men of lacking the “ambition and requisite courage” to fight for their rights. One of her articles is shown here.

The Liberator, July 14, 1832. Facsimile. Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (304.00.00)

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Founder of The Liberator

As a proponent of immediate emancipation who condemned the United States Constitution as a proslavery document, William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), a white abolitionist, received national attention when he began to publish a newspaper called The Liberator in 1831. Many white abolitionists and many members of the African American community supported Garrison. Churches, anti-slavery organizations, and wealthy blacks such as Robert Purvis, John B. Vashon, and James Forten contributed money, articles, or both to support the newspaper. Garrison published the paper until the abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Oswald Garrison Villard (1872–1949), one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization that would later be in the vanguard of the civil rights movement, was Garrison’s grandson.

J. Notman. William Lloyd Garrison. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (307.00.00)

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The American Anti-Slavery Society

William Lloyd Garrison, Arthur Tappan (1786–1865) and other abolitionists founded the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) in 1833. Much earlier, in 1775, the Pennsylvania Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage had become the first abolition society in the western world. This group led the assault against slavery in Pennsylvania and became an example to abolitionists in other states. Garrison, wealthy white philanthropist Tappan, and the members of the AASS used moral suasion to win others to their cause. They argued that slavery was a sin and should be abolished immediately and without compensation to former slave-owners. It was Garrison who, after hearing Frederick Douglass talk about his life in slavery, invited Douglass to join the abolitionist lecture circuit.

Declaration of Anti-Slavery Convention Assembled in Philadelphia, December 4, 1833. American Anti-Slavery Society Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (308.00.00)

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Pennsylvania Hall

Pennsylvania Hall was built by the state’s Anti-Slavery Society in 1838 with the aid of hundreds of contributors. One message at the jubilant dedication ceremony on May 14 was written by former President John Quincy Adams, who hoped the hall would be a place where liberty and equality of civil rights could “be freely discussed and the evils of slavery fearlessly portrayed.” Hopes for the hall were soon dashed. By the evening of May 17, three days after its opening, it was in flames. Because blacks and whites sat together in the building discussing abolition and walked arm in arm in the neighborhood, some white Philadelphians were incensed. Arsonists torched the hall and city firemen only watched and sprayed water to protect neighboring buildings as the hall burned to the ground.

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Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass (1817?–1895) was born into slavery in Tuckahoe, Maryland. He ran away from slavery in 1838 by boarding a train in Baltimore wearing a sailor’s suit made by his future wife, Anna Murray, and carrying borrowed seaman’s papers. He joined his fiancée in New York; they married, then traveled on to Massachusetts. A caulker of ships by trade, Douglass found difficulty getting a job because of prejudice among white workers. He was surprised to encounter so much racial antagonism among Northern whites.

Douglass, an avid reader of The Liberator, began attending anti-slavery meetings. After giving a speech at a Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society meeting in 1841, Garrison urged Douglass to become a lecturer for the society. Douglass was so articulate that people did not believe he had been a slave. To prove that he had indeed been enslaved, Douglass published his Narrative in 1845. Because he gave names, places, and dates, he had to flee to England to evade recapture. In 1846 his supporters in England raised money to buy his freedom so that he could return to the U.S.

Alexander Hay Ritchie, engraver. Frederick Douglass. Hartford: Hartford Publishing Company, 1868. Reproduction. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (309.00.00)

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The Roberts Case

In April 1850 the Massachusetts Supreme Court rejected a suit filed on behalf of Boston five-year-old Sarah Roberts that sought to outlaw school segregation. There was a school for African American children but Sarah had to pass several all-white schools to get there. Attorney Charles Sumner (1811–1874), who would later become a U.S. Senator and an architect of civil rights for freed slaves, argued the case along with one of the first black lawyers in America, Robert Morris (1823–1882). Sumner’s arguments for equality before the law would echo for more than a century. He attempted to prove that racially separate schools could never be equal but did not win the case. The African American community staged a school boycott and held statewide protests. In 1855 the state legislature passed the nation’s first law prohibiting school segregation.

Charles Sumner. Equality Before the Law: Unconstitutionality of Separate Colored Schools in Massachusetts. Washington: F. & J. Rives & Geo. A. Bailey, 1870. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (311.00.00)

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African Americans—Slave or Free—Are Not Citizens

The Dred Scott decision in 1857 was intended by its author, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, to settle the citizenship question for African Americans. Scott (1795–1858) was a slave in Missouri who was taken to the free state of Illinois and the free federal territory of Wisconsin by his master before returning to Missouri. Abolitionists sued on Scott’s behalf, arguing that since he had lived in a free state and a free territory, he should be declared free. Dred Scott v. Sanford declared that a person of “the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States,” and they had none of the rights, privileges, or immunities guaranteed to U.S. citizens. The case also invalidated the Missouri Compromise, suggesting that Congress could not abolish slavery without amending the Constitution.

Dred Scott and wife, Harriet. New York: Century Company, June 1887. Reproduction. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (313.00.00)

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Emancipation Proclamation, 1863

Soon after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Southern states began to secede from the Union. This led to civil war. After nearly a year and a half of war, President Lincoln called emancipation of slaves “a fit and necessary war measure.” His Emancipation Proclamation said, in part, that on January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state . . . in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.” The proclamation also allowed the recruitment of African Americans into the United States military. More than 186,000 enlisted by the end of the war. It was actually the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in December 1865, that ended slavery.

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Emancipation Ordinance of Missouri

President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not have legal effect in the border states that remained in the Union. After the conclusion of the war, but before the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, this left slavery intact in these states. Missouri, a border state that maintained the institution of slavery until January 11, 1865, passed the Emancipation Ordinance, commemorated here, prior to ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

E. Knoble and Theodore Schrader. Emancipation Ordinance of Missouri. An Ordinance Abolishing Slavery in Missouri, 1865. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (005.00.00)

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Freedmen’s Bureau, 1865–1872

The period following the Civil War, 1865–1877, is called the Reconstruction Era. One of the first acts of Congress during Reconstruction was to establish the Freedmen’s Bureau on March 3, 1865. The bureau’s work involved issuing food, clothing, and fuel to the destitute; providing help for people searching for missing family members; operating hospitals and homes; supervising labor contracts; officializing marriages between formerly enslaved people; and ensuring freedmen’s rights. The bureau helped missionary societies in the North establish schools for former slaves. The bureau ceased most operations in 1868 and was abolished in 1872.

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African American Men in Congress

The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave the right to vote to all male citizens regardless of color or previous condition of servitude. African Americans became involved in the political process not only as voters but also as elected representatives at the local, state, and national level. Although their elections were often contested by whites and members of legislative bodies were usually reluctant to receive them, many African American men ably served their country during Reconstruction. Pictured here are Senator Hiram R. Revels (R-MS) and Representatives Benjamin S. Turner (R-AL), Josiah T. Walls (R-FL), Joseph H. Rainey (R-SC), Robert Brown Elliot (R-SC), Robert D. De Large (R-SC), and Jefferson F. Long (R-GA).

Currier and Ives. The First Colored Senator and Representatives—In the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States. New York: Currier & Ives, 1872. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (007.00.00)

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The Fourteenth Amendment

By 1902, African Americans had become increasingly frustrated with the federal government’s unwillingness to enforce the second section of the Fourteenth Amendment, which called for reducing a state’s apportionment in Congress when the state prevented any male from voting. Cartoonist Edward Windsor Kemble blames the Republican Party, as represented by its signature elephant, for counseling African Americans, represented by a small child, not to wake up Congress in their agitation to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment.

Edward Windsor Kemble (1862−1931). Congress 14th Amendment 2nd section. Drawing, ink and scraping out over graphite underdrawing, 1902. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (264.00.00)

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The Fifteenth Amendment

The Fifteenth Amendment prohibited states from using race or previous condition of servitude as a basis for disfranchisement. It gave the Supreme Court a basis in which to hold state-sanctioned electoral devices that indirectly impeded the right of blacks to vote in violation of the constitution. One such device was the “grandfather clause,” a state law that declared a voter did not have to meet qualifications to vote, such as a literacy test, provided he was descended from a voter who could vote on January 1, 1867, a limitation that systematically excluded blacks. This lithograph features Hiram Revels (R-MS), who during Reconstruction was the first American of African descent to serve as a senator in the U.S. Congress in 1870 and 1871.

James C. Beard. The Fifteenth Amendment, Celebrated May 19th, 1870. New York: Thomas Kelly, 1870. Hand-colored lithograph with watercolor. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (006.00.00)

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Civil Rights Cases of 1883

The Civil Rights Act of 1875, much like Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, forbade both public and private acts of discrimination in public accommodations. The Supreme Court’s opinion in the group of five cases, known as the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, severely limited the reach of the Fourteenth Amendment. It held that the Fourteenth Amendment, Section V, allowed Congress to prohibit certain discriminatory action by state and local governments but could not prohibit acts of discrimination by private individuals and organizations.

Supreme Court of the United States. Civil Rights Cases. New York: Banks & Brothers Law Publishing, 1884. Law Library, Library of Congress (008.00.00)

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Educator Booker T. Washington

Born a slave in Virginia, Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) became one of the most popular and influential black leaders in the United States between 1895 and his death in 1915. Washington founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in 1881 and built it into one of the nation’s best-known colleges. In 1900, he organized the National Negro Business League to foster black entrepreneurship. With an extensive network of supporters, Washington influenced black federal appointments, funds for black colleges, and the editorial policies of several newspapers.

In his speech before an integrated audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia, in September 1895, Washington proposed a compromise in which African Americans would minimize agitation for political rights in exchange for vocational training and participation in the economic development of the New South. While his proposals won him considerable national support from the black community and from white industrialists, politicians, and philanthropists, it did little to improve the political condition of African Americans. Few knew that Washington secretly financed challenges to Jim Crow laws. Washington’s accommodationist policies led to the education of many and the establishment of many schools but violence and discrimination against blacks increased. By the twentieth century, a resurgence of violence led to a sharp increase of lynchings as well as race riots in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898); Atlanta, Georgia (1906); and Springfield, Illinois (1908).

C. M. Battey. Booker T. Washington. Photograph, ca. 1890. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (010.00.00)

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Booker T. Washington's "Atlanta Compromise" Speech

In this, the only known sound recording made by Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), the African American leader and educator, reads an excerpt of the famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech that he delivered at the Atlanta Exposition on September 18, 1895. The recording was made on December 5, 1908, for private purposes and was made available commercially by Washington’s son in 1920.

Mary Church Terrell Civil Rights Advocate

Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954), civil rights and women’s rights advocate, was born into a prosperous family in Memphis. A graduate of Oberlin College in 1895, she became the first black woman appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education. The following year, Terrell became the founding president of the National Association of Colored Women. Like other black women of her generation, she was politically involved, despite her formal disfranchisement.

Terrell was also active in the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Although she was a Booker T. Washington sympathizer, Terrell accepted an invitation from W. E. B. Du Bois, who disagreed with Washington’s public accommodation of segregation, to form the NAACP. Only seven of the original sixty founders of the NAACP were African Americans. In 1949, she challenged segregation in District of Columbia restaurants, which led to a landmark 1953 Supreme Court decision. Terrell’s advocacy served as an indispensable bridge between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement.

Addison Scurlock. Mary Church Terrell. Photograph, ca. 1920. NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (012.00.00)

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The “Colored” Population, 1890

Published in the 1890 Statistical Atlas of the United States, this map represents the relationship between white and non-white populations “including all persons of Negro descent, Chinese, Japanese, and civilized Indians,” according to statistics from the 1890 census. The darker shading indicates higher percentages of non-white population in relation to the white population of the United States.

Henry Gannett. Statistical Atlas of the United States, Based upon the Results of the Eleventh Census. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1898. Printed atlas. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, (015.00.00)

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Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896

Although Congress had passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments as well as several civil rights laws to protect the newly freed population, the Southern commitment to white supremacy was intense, and, where groups like the Ku Klux Klan were concerned, violent. Whites wanted to regain power from the Republicans and the hundreds of blacks elected to state and local offices in the South. The U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned the segregation laws they passed in support of white supremacy. In 1892, Homer Plessy (1862–1925), a black man, attempted to ride in a whites-only train car to test a Louisiana segregation law. He was ejected. He sued and the case went to the Supreme Court. That Court, citing the ruling in the Roberts school case in Massachusetts in 1859, ruled that “equal but separate” railroad cars for blacks and whites were constitutional.

Supreme Court of the United States. Plessy v. Ferguson. New York: Banks & Brothers Law Publishing, 1896. Law Library, Library of Congress (014.00.00)

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Plessy v. Ferguson Opinions

Excerpts from the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court decision were delivered in an episode of the educational television program Omnibus devoted to the Constitution, broadcast March 4, 1956, over the CBS network. G. Albert Smith as Justice Henry B. Brown reads the majority opinion, and Noel Leslie as Justice John M. Harlan reads the dissenting opinion.

Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. OMNIBUS: © RSA Venture, LLC, Licensed by Broad Reach Enterprises, Inc.

Women’s Rights Activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862−1931), fiery journalist, women’s rights activist, and civil rights militant, is best known for her antilynching crusade. She tried to mobilize public opinion against lynching through her newspaper editorials, pamphlets, clubs, and lecture tours in the North and Great Britain. She also served as secretary of the Afro-American Council. Her activities laid the groundwork for the NAACP’s antilynching campaign for a federal law to protect local citizens from violence. A staunch critic of Booker T. Washington, Wells-Barnett helped organize the NAACP. However, she was skeptical of the NAACP’s white leadership and moderate platform and became inactive after 1912. She continued to fight for social justice independently, focusing on women’s suffrage and civic reforms.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Reproduction, created between 1940–1960. NAACP Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (252.00.00)

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W. E. B. Du Bois, Scholar

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois earned his doctorate at Harvard in 1895, the same year that Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) gave his Atlanta Exposition speech and Frederick Douglass (1817? –1895) died. Du Bois completed several important studies about the slave trade and about the black communities of Philadelphia and Farmville, Virginia. One of Du Bois’s essays criticized Washington’s philosophy of focusing on occupational training for blacks. Du Bois argued that a “talented tenth” of blacks should receive classical training so that they could be community leaders and educators. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois famously wrote, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” He was also a co-founder of the NAACP.

C. M. Battey. W. E. B. Du Bois. Photographic print, ca. 1919. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (016.00.00)

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W. E. B. Du Bois: A Recorded Autobiography

The pioneer civil rights leader, scholar, and author W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) recorded an autobiographical interview for Folkways Records in 1961. In this excerpt, Du Bois relates the experience that turned him into an activist, his criticism of Booker T. Washington, and the beginning of his association with the NAACP, for which he was a founding member.

Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. ‘W.E.B. DuBois: A Recorded Autobiography, Interview with Moses Asch,’ Smithsonian Folkways FW05511, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1961.
Used by permission.

Niagara Movement, 1905

In 1905 a group of African American men met at Niagara Falls to begin to formulate a program seeking full rights for blacks and to discuss alternatives to Booker T. Washington’s conciliatory policies. They were led by W. E. B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter (1872–1934), a journalist and businessman. The platform they developed included demands for free speech and press, the right to vote, equal civil rights, and educational and economic opportunity. Although the group met several times, they did not have the funds to implement their program. The NAACP later adopted most of their platform.

Niagara Movement Founders. Photograph, 1905. Robert McNeil Family Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (017.00.00)

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The National Association of Colored Women

The National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was founded in 1896 through the merger of two African American women’s federations—the National League of Colored Women led by Mary Church Terrell and the National Federation of Afro-American Women led by Margaret Murray Washington (1865–1925), the dean of women at Tuskegee Institute. The NACW emerged as the first major black self-help organization of the Progressive era. Its accomplishments included settlement houses, kindergartens, scholarship funds, orphanages, and homes for the aged and infirmed. The NACW was also in the forefront of the antilynching campaign.

Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954). “What the National Association [of Colored Women] Has Meant to Colored Women.” Typescript, n.d. Mary Church Terrell Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (013.00.00)

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