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[Detail] North Star, June 2, 1848. Edited by Frederick Douglass.

Race and the Rise of Industrial America, 1876-1900

When the last federal troops were withdrawn from Southern states after the Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction, white Southerners were determined to end African American participation in the political process and withhold basic civil rights. By the 1890s, they had enacted a series of laws that essentially reduced blacks to servitude.  These so-called Jim Crow laws flouted guarantees incorporated in the Constitution by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The federal government abandoned enforcement of constitutional protections and stood aside as the efforts to ensure equal rights and due process of law were swept away by Jim Crow laws. Frederick Douglass used every method at his disposal to arouse the public to the virtual re-enslavement of African Americans. 

In a speech on the Convict Lease System   instituted throughout the South in the post-Reconstruction period, Douglass described the system as subjecting African Americans to a new form of slavery.  He explained the lease system in Southern states and, using the state of Louisiana as a model, wrote of the consequences of attempts made to escape:

 …Bloodhounds are used in La. for recapture, as in perhaps all of the Southern states, and the La. Bloodhounds are not educated to self-restraint.  Like their masters, they will tear a black convict to pieces in short order.”

Read more of Douglass’ speech about the Convict Lease System:

  • What was the Convict Lease System? What was its purpose?
  • Describe some of the abuses of the system that Douglass documented.
  • What did Douglass mean when he asked: “Which is the criminal, the ignorant, helpless, malformed individual, or the state that deliberately instigates and superintends the malformation?” How would you answer this question?

Lynching was an abusive and criminal tactic used by lawless gangs in the South.  Between 1882 and 1901, the annual number of lynchings in the nation usually exceeded 100.  A lynching was an illegal mob killing—usually by hanging—of a person accused or suspected of a crime. Despite pressure, Congress never passed an anti-lynching law.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964, however, provided for federal intervention in the event of harm to persons seeking their constitutional rights.

Ida B. Wells became one of the most inexhaustible advocates of an anti-lynching law.  In a   pamphlet, “A Red Record,” she exposed the problem of lynching and presented a clarion call for the nation to end the abuse. The title page included a measure of her rage in the statement, “Respectfully submitted to the Nineteenth Century civilization in the ‘Land of the Free and, the Home of the Brave’.”  A letter from Frederick Douglass addressed to Wells was included as the preface to the pamphlet: 

Brave woman! You have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighted nor measured.  If the American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half Christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame, and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read….

From the “Preface” to “A Red Record”

In 1892 Douglass wrote an article for The North American Review in which he charged that lynchings, the acts of ignorant mobs, were condoned by wealthy and educated descendants of Southern rebels. The article aroused protest throughout the South and Douglass responded in a lecture titled “Lessons of the Hour.”

Not a breeze comes to us from the late rebellious states that is not tainted and freighted with Negro blood.  In its thirst for blood and its rage for vengeance, the mob has blindly, boldly and defiantly supplanted sheriffs, constables and police.  It has assumed all the functions of civil authority.  It laughs at legal processes, courts and juries, and its red-handed murderers range abroad unchecked and unchallenged by law or by public opinion…

We claim to be a highly-civilized and Christian country.  I will not stop to deny this claim, yet I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood-chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the coloured people of this country, by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South….

From “Lessons of the Hour” ( pages 4-5 )

  • What factors do you think accounted for the federal government’s failure to pass an anti-lynching law?
  • What tactics did Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, and others use to pressure the government to act?

In a speech on the occasion of the twenty-first anniversary of emancipation in the District of Columbia, Douglass assessed the current situation in Jim Crow America and celebrated the end of slavery in the nation’s capital.  Douglass called his remarks “The United States Cannot Remain Half-Slave and Half-Free,” recalling Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech.

Douglass repeatedly urged the labor movement to open its ranks to African American workers.  In an address to the Convention of Colored Men in Louisville, Kentucky, in September 1883, Douglass urged labor unions to freely enlist African Americans in their struggle to obtain an eight-hour day, better working conditions, and higher wages: 

The Labor Question—Not the least important among the subjects to which we invite your earnest attention is the condition of the labor class at the South.  Their cause is one with the labor classes all over the world.  The labor unions of the country should not throw away this colored element of strength.  Everywhere there is dissatisfaction with the present relation of labor and capital, and to-day no subject wears an aspect more threatening to civilization than the respective claims of capital and labor, landlords and tenants.  In what we have to say for our laboring class we expect to have and ought to have the sympathy and support of laboring men everywhere and of every color.

From “National Convention of Colored Men” (page 6)

  • Why did Douglass argue that it was advantageous for labor unions to enlist support from African Americans?
  • Conversely, why should African Americans support the unions?

Douglass was a loyal Republican and urged African Americans to support the party.  Read Douglass’ handwritten lament on the election of Grover Cleveland in the 1884 presidential election.  In the 1888 campaign, Douglass criticized calls for the formation of a Negro Democratic Party and urged African American voters to support Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison.

  • Why did Douglass support Republican candidates during Reconstruction and the post-Reconstruction era?
  • What arguments did Douglass use to urge African Americans to support the Republican Party?
  • How did Douglass regard the 1888 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, Alan Thurman?
  • Research the outcome of the 1888 election. How was the result of the election tied to Douglass’ next position?
telegram from John W. Hutchinson

Telegram from the General Correspondence 1895, Feb. 22-26 file. Learn more about John W. Hutchinson by searching the Frederick Douglass Papers or the Music for the Nation collection at the Library of Congress.

Search the collection using the keyword Haiti to find a series of folders containing lectures, articles, and letters on the island republic and remarks regarding Douglass’ short tenure as United States Minister and Consul General to Haiti (1889-1891).

Frederick Douglass died in February 1895. Analyze the file of letters and telegrams sent in the days immediately following his death. Note who sent telegrams or letters and the topics of the various communications. What do these communications suggest about Douglass’ influence? The way in which people in various walks of life regarded him? What, if anything, can you discern about the aftermath of the death of a well-known American in the late nineteenth century?  What kinds of issues was his family required to deal with?

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