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[Detail] Training School for Wives and Mothers, Baton Gouge, La. 1888.

African Americans at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century

In 1897, prompted by news reports of countless lynchings in the United States, P. Thomas Stanford published a book entitled The Tragedy of the Negro in America:  A Condensed History of the Enslavement, Sufferings, Emancipation, Present Condition and Progress of the Negro Race in the United States of America. The author, who was born a slave in Virginia,  served the Stanford family in Boston for a time before running away to New York.  While in New York, he became a Christian and received an education “through the kindness of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Rev. Henry Highland Garnett, and the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher,” three luminaries in the abolitionist crusade in American history.

Chapter VIII of the text, “Lynchings,” begins with a sketch of the lynching of four members of the Waggoner family of Tennessee in 1893. Stanford writes:

In fifteen years and three months 1,697 Negroes have been lynched in defiance of statute law and in the very presence of legal officials, which is a fact so horrible that one is tempted to believe it is not to be surpassed, perhaps not equalled, in brutal wickedness even in Darkest Africa. President, Senators, Congressmen, Governors of States, and Mayors of Cities--each and all of them know that this diabolical work has been done, and is continued until now, and that the murderers go unpunished, but seem to be incapable of stopping it. Power and authority appear to be vested in nobody to command Governors of States to arrest and punish the fiends who so openly abrogate the Constitution, and, to tell plain truth, not many governors seem to take much notice of the murders which are done almost beneath the windows of their homes. 

From The Tragedy of the Negro in America, pages 138-139

The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He May Become by William H. Thomas was a controversial review of African American history published in 1901. Thomas was a northerner of mixed race who had served in the Union Army and gone South following the Civil War to teach; he also served in the South Carolina legislature. Thomas began his work with a general survey of American slavery and failed government policy during Reconstruction. However, the principal focus of his book was a vitriolic criticism of African American society at the dawn of the twentieth century.  Thomas viciously attacked virtually all aspects of African American life, including black ministers.

  • Read about lynching in both Thomas’s and Stanford’s books. How do the two perceive lynching?
  • Although both authors deplore lynching, they differ in their appraisals of the cause of mob violence. Whose appraisal do you think is more valid? What evidence convinces you?
  • Efforts to secure the passage of an anti-lynching law in the United States failed. What factors account for the failure of the United States to pass an anti-lynch law?

The Negro in the South, His Economic Progress in Relation to His Moral and Religious Development is a collection of four lectures given at the Philadelphia Divinity School in 1907 by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.  Washington focused on economic development of African Americans in the South and asserted that former slaves needed to recognize that labor is noble. Du Bois, on the other hand, argued that the South would never be able to compete with the rest of the world until African Americans were fully integrated into its political life.  Du Bois criticized white Christians who forced blacks out of their congregations and denied them the means to establish churches of their own.

  • How do these lectures dramatize the differences in these two prominent leaders’ approaches to race relations?
  • What points did Washington argue particularly convincingly? What points made by Du Bois were especially strong?