Black Codes The South Carolina Black Code

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Black Codes
The South Carolina Black Code

South Carolina’s Black Code applied only to “persons of color,” defined as including anyone with more than one-eighth Negro blood. Its major features included the following:

1. Civil Rights

South Carolina’s code declared that “persons of color” now had the right “to acquire, own and dispose of property; to make contracts; to enjoy the fruits of their labor; to sue and be sued; and to receive protection under the law in their persons and property.” Also, for the first time, the law recognized the marriages of black persons and the legitimacy of their children. But the law went on to state that, “Marriage between a white person and a person of color shall be illegal and void.”

2. Labor Contracts

The South Carolina code included a contract form for black “servants” who agreed to work for white “masters.” The form required that the wages and the term of service be in writing. The contract had to be witnessed and then approved by a judge. Black servants had to reside on the employer’s property, remain quiet and orderly, work from sunup to sunset except on Sundays, and not leave the premises or receive visitors without the master’s permission. Masters could “moderately” whip servants under 18 to discipline them. Whipping older servants required a judge’s order. Time lost due to illness would be deducted from the servant’s wages. Servants who quit before the end date of their labor contract forfeited their wages and could be arrested and returned to their masters by a judge’s order. On the other hand, the law protected black servants from being forced to do “unreasonable” tasks.

3. Vagrancy

All Southern Black Codes relied on vagrancy laws to pressure freedmen to sign labor contracts. South Carolina’s code did not limit these laws to unemployed persons, but included others such as peddlers and gamblers. The code provided that vagrants could be arrested and imprisoned at hard labor. But the county sheriff could “hire out” black vagrants to a white employer to work off their punishment. The courts customarily waived such punishment for white vagrants, allowing them to take an oath of poverty instead.

4. Apprenticeship

Southern Black Codes provided another source of labor for white employers—black orphans and the children of vagrants or other destitute parents. The South Carolina code authorized courts to apprentice such black children, even against their will, to an employer until age 21 for males and 18 for females. Masters had the right to inflict moderate punishment on their apprentices and to recapture runaways. But the code also required masters to provide food and clothing to their apprentices, teach them a trade, and send them to school.

5. Courts, Crimes, and Punishments

South Carolina’s Black Code established a racially separate court system for all civil and criminal cases that involved a black plaintiff or defendant. It allowed black witnesses to testify in court, but only in cases affecting “the person or property of a person of color.” Crimes that whites believed freedmen might commit, such as rebellion, arson, burglary, and assaulting a white woman, carried harsh penalties. Most of these crimes carried the death penalty for blacks, but not for whites. Punishments for minor offenses committed by blacks could result in “hiring out” or whipping, penalties rarely imposed on white lawbreakers.

6. Other Restrictions

South Carolina’s code reflected the white obsession with controlling the former slaves. It banned black people from possessing most firearms, making or selling liquor, and coming into the state without first posting a bond for “good behavior.” The code made it illegal for them to sell any farm products without written permission from their white employer, supposedly to guard against stealing. Also, blacks could not practice any occupation, except farmer or servant under contract, without getting an annual license from a judge.


“No Negro shall be permitted to rent or keep a house within the limits of the town under any circumstances… No Negro or freedman shall reside within the limits of the town… who is not in the regular service of some white person or former owner.”

“No freedman shall be allowed to carry any firearms, or any kind of weapon.”
“No freedman shall sell, barter, or exchange any article of merchandise within the limits of [the town] without permission in writing from his employer.”
“Every adult freed man or woman shall furnish themselves with a comfortable home and visible means of support within twenty days after the passage of this act” and anyone failing to do so “shall be immediately arrested by any sheriff or constable and hired out to some citizen being the highest bidder, for the remainder of the year.”

To Consider:

  • In what ways were blacks protected by these new laws?

  • Some people charged that these new laws were a backdoor attempt at reestablishing slavery. Do you agree?

  • What white attitudes toward blacks are reflected in these laws?

  • If southern states enacted black codes to stabilize labor relations, as many claimed, how did the provisions above effect that objective?

  • What other objectives are these laws trying to achieve?

Lynchings: By State and Race, 1882-1968 *





































































































New Jersey




New Mexico




New York




North Carolina




North Dakota




















South Carolina




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West Virginia
















*Statistics provided by the Archives at Tuskegee Institute.


A cartoon threatening that the KKK would lynch carpetbaggers,

Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Independent Monitor, 1868


c. 1866-1868, Thomas Nast from Harper’s Weekly

To Consider

  • What methods were used to limit the rights of blacks in the South?

  • What impact would these tactics have on both black and white society in the South?

Voting Restrictions

With the official end of Reconstruction in 1877, Southern states stripped African Americans of their right to vote.

  • Literacy Tests Since it had been illegal under slave laws to teach slaves to read and write, most newly-freed African Americans were illiterate and could not pass these tests. Literacy tests were extremely difficult, often involving a comphrension and writing assessment on the state constitution.

  • Poll Taxes States imposed special voter registration fees called poll taxes that had to be paid before a person was allowed to vote. Given the economic situation for many African Americans in the South, these fees were more than they could afford.

  • Grandfather Clauses States often granted exemptions from poll taxes and literacy tests for anyone whose grandfather was eligible to vote in 1867.

Excerpt from the “Constitution of the State of Louisiana, Adopted May 12, 1898”

“Sec. 5. No male person who was on January 1st, 1867, or at any date prior, entitled to vote under the Constitution of the United States, and no son or grandson of any such person, shall be denied the right to register and vote in this State by reason of his failure to possess the educational or property qualifications prescribed by this Constitution…”

Jim Crow

Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice popularized the black-faced minstrel on the American stage with his 1828 caricature of a crippled plantation slave, dancing and singing the words: "Weel about and turn about and do jus' so,/Eb'ry time I weel about, I jump Jim Crow."


The following Jim Crow etiquette norms show how inclusive and pervasive these norms were:

  1. A Black male could not offer his hand (to shake hands) with a White male because it implied being socially equal. Obviously, a Black male could not offer his hand or any other part of his body to a White woman, because he risked being accused of rape.

  2. 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.

  3. Under no circumstance was a Black male to offer to light the cigarette of a White female -- that gesture implied intimacy.

  4. Blacks were not allowed to show public affection toward one another in public, especially kissing, because it offended Whites.

  5. Jim Crow etiquette prescribed that Blacks were introduced to Whites, never Whites to Blacks. For example: "Mr. Peters (the White person), this is Charlie (the Black person), that I spoke to you about."

  6. Whites did not use courtesy titles of respect when referring to Blacks, for example, Mr., Mrs., Miss., Sir, or Ma'am. Instead, Blacks were called by their first names. Blacks had to use courtesy titles when referring to Whites, and were not allowed to call them by their first names.

  7. 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.

  8. White motorists had the right-of-way at all intersections.

Stetson Kennedy, the author of Jim Crow Guide, offered these simple rules that Blacks were supposed to observe in conversing with Whites:

  1. Never assert or even intimate that a White person is lying.

  2. Never impute dishonorable intentions to a White person.

  3. Never suggest that a White person is from an inferior class.

  4. Never lay claim to, or overly demonstrate, superior knowledge or intelligence.

  5. Never curse a White person.

  6. Never laugh derisively at a White person.

  7. Never comment upon the appearance of a White female.

Here are some of the typical Jim Crow laws, as compiled by the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site Interpretive Staff:

  • Barbers. No colored barber shall serve as a barber (to) white girls or women (Georgia).

  • Blind Wards. The board of trustees shall...maintain a separate building...on separate ground for the admission, care, instruction, and support of all blind persons of the colored or black race (Louisiana).

  • Burial. The officer in charge shall not bury, or allow to be buried, any colored persons upon ground set apart or used for the burial of white persons (Georgia).

  • Buses. All passenger stations in this state operated by any motor transportation company shall have separate waiting rooms or space and separate ticket windows for the white and colored races (Alabama).

  • Child Custody. It shall be unlawful for any parent, relative, or other white person in this State, having the control or custody of any white child, by right of guardianship, natural or acquired, or otherwise, to dispose of, give or surrender such white child permanently into the custody, control, maintenance, or support, of a negro (South Carolina).

  • Education. The schools for white children and the schools for negro children shall be conducted separately (Florida).

  • Libraries. The state librarian is directed to fit up and maintain a separate place for the use of the colored people who may come to the library for the purpose of reading books or periodicals (North Carolina).

  • Mental Hospitals. The Board of Control shall see that proper and distinct apartments are arranged for said patients, so that in no case shall Negroes and white persons be together (Georgia).

  • Militia. The white and colored militia shall be separately enrolled, and shall never be compelled to serve in the same organization. No organization of colored troops shall be permitted where white troops are available and where whites are permitted to be organized, colored troops shall be under the command of white officers (North Carolina).

  • Nurses. No person or corporation shall require any White female nurse to nurse in wards or rooms in hospitals, either public or private, in which negro men are placed (Alabama).

  • Prisons. The warden shall see that the white convicts shall have separate apartments for both eating and sleeping from the negro convicts (Mississippi).

  • Reform Schools. The children of white and colored races committed to the houses of reform shall be kept entirely separate from each other (Kentucky).

  • Teaching. Any instructor who shall teach in any school, college or institution where members of the white and colored race are received and enrolled as pupils for instruction shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof, shall be fined... (Oklahoma).

  • Wine and Beer. All persons licensed to conduct the business of selling beer or wine...shall serve either white people exclusively or colored people exclusively and shall not sell to the two races within the same room at any time (Georgia).


To Consider

  • What do these laws and rules of etiquette reveal about white attitudes toward blacks?

  • Notice how pervasive Jim Crow laws were – why was this necessary? What does it tell you about the goals of the society?

Plessy v. Ferguson

In 1890, Louisiana passed a statute called the Separate Car Act declaring that all rail companies carrying passengers in Louisiana must provide separate but equal accommodations for white and non-white passengers. The penalty for sitting in the wrong compartment was a fine of $25 or 20 days in jail. A group of black citizens joined forces with the East Louisiana Railroad Company to fight the Act. In 1892, Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth black, purchased a first-class ticket and sat in the white-designated railroad car. Plessy was arrested for violating the Separate Car Act and argued in court that the Act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. After losing twice in the lower courts, Plessy took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the previous decisions that racial segregation is constitutional under the separate but equal doctrine.

In a 7-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ferguson.  The majority rejected Plessy’s Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment arguments, instead putting its stamp of approval on the doctrine of “separate but equal.”  The dissent, written by Justice John Marshall Harlan, disagreed, arguing that segregationist laws indoctrinate society with the belief that the two races are not equal.

Key Excerpts from the Majority Opinion

The decision was not unanimous.
Speaking for a seven-person majority, Justice Henry Brown delivered the opinion of the court.

This case turns upon the constitutionality of an act of the general assembly of the state of Louisiana, passed in 1890, providing for separate railway carriages for the white and colored races. . . .

The constitutionality of this act is attacked upon the ground that it conflicts both with the thirteenth amendment of the Constitution, abolishing slavery, and the fourteenth amendment, which prohibits certain restrictive legislation on the part of the states.

1. That it does not conflict with the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, is too clear for argument. . . .

Indeed, we do not understand that the thirteenth amendment is strenuously relied upon by the plaintiff. . . .

2. . . .The object of the [Fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power. . . .

So far, then, as a conflict with the fourteenth amendment is concerned, the case reduces itself to the question whether the statute of Louisiana is a reasonable regulation, and with respect to this there must necessarily be a large discretion on the part of the legislature. In determining the question of reasonableness, it is at liberty to act with reference to the established usages, customs, and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort, and the preservation of the public peace and good order. Gauged by this standard, we cannot say that a law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public conveyances is unreasonable, or more obnoxious to the fourteenth amendment than the Acts of Congress requiring separate schools for colored children in the District of Columbia, the constitutionality of which does not seem to have been questioned, or the corresponding acts of state legislatures.

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it. . . . The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other's merits and a voluntary consent of individuals. . . . Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.

To Consider

  • What do the justices state is the object of the Fourteenth Amendment?  

  • The Plessy decision distinguishes between political and social equality. Discuss this distinction. Can one exist without the other?  

  • What racial and cultural assumptions are inherent in the statement that "legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or abolish distinctions based upon physical differences?"   Do you agree?

  • The decision states that legislation cannot overcome social prejudice. Can it reinforce social prejudice? How?  

  • How do you respond to the court's contention that if any inferiority is evident, it is only because colored people "choose" to interpret the act in that manner? Do you believe colored people had a choice whether or not to feel or not to feel inferior in light of such legislation?  

  • According to Justice Brown's opinion, social equality must be the result of what three factors? What do you think of his criteria?

Key Excerpts from the Dissenting Opinion

Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote the dissent.

While there may be in Louisiana persons of different races who are not citizens of the United States, the words in the act 'white and colored races' necessarily include all citizens of the United States of both races residing in that state. So that we have before us a state enactment that compels, under penalties, the separation of the two races in railroad passenger coaches, and makes it a crime for a citizen of either race to enter a coach that has been assigned to citizens of the other race. Thus, the state regulates the use of a public highway by citizens of the United States solely upon the basis of race.

However apparent the injustice of such legislation may be, we have only to consider whether it is consistent with the constitution of the United States.

The thirteenth amendment does not permit the withholding or the deprivation of any right necessarily inhering in freedom. It not only struck down the institution of slavery as previously existing in the United States, but it prevents the imposition of any burdens or disabilities that constitute badges of slavery or servitude. . . . But, that amendment having been found inadequate to the protection of the rights of those who had been in slavery, it was followed by the fourteenth amendment . . . declaring that 'all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside,' and that 'no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.' These two amendments [Thirteenth and Fourteenth], if enforced according to their true intent and meaning, will protect all the civil rights that pertain to freedom and citizenship...

The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage, and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law...

. . . The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficient purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the constitution, by one of which the blacks of this country were made citizens of the United States and of the states in which they respectively reside, and whose privileges and immunities, as citizens, the states are forbidden to abridge. Sixty millions of whites are in no danger from the presence here of eight millions of blacks. The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law. What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, than state enactments which, in fact, proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens? That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation as was enacted in Louisiana.

To Consider

  • According to Justice Harlan, what effects will this type of legislation have on the United States and its citizens? 

  • What does Justice Harlan believe is the real meaning behind the legislation enacted in Louisiana? Do you agree? Why or why not?



The Black American community responded to white mob violence in several ways. Black people resisted this oppression. This resistance was expressed in three ways: retaliatory violence, Northward migration, and organized non-violent protest.

There are records of numerous instances of individual and collective acts of Black retaliatory violence. Although retaliatory violence seemed unreasonable, and often led to more lynching and violence, Blacks frequently armed themselves and fought back in self-defense.

Several Black leaders advocated self-defense against mob attack. Through the pages of The Crisis, W. E. B. DuBois occasionally encouraged Blacks to fight back. “If we are to die,” he angrily wrote after a Pennsylvania mob lynched a Negro in 1911 “in God’s name let us not perish like bales of hay.” Lynching, said DuBois, would stop in the South “when the cowardly mob is faced with effective guns in the hands of the people determined to sell their souls dearly,” (Oct. 1916). A. Phillip Randolph, editor of the militant Socialist monthly, The Messenger, also advocated physical resistance to white mobs: “The black man has no rights which will be respected unless the black man enforces that respect...We are consequently urging Negroes and other oppressed groups concerned with lynching and mob violence to act upon the recognized and accepted law of self-defense.”18 The NAACP, considered moderate by Randolph, also defended the legality of Black retaliatory self-defense from mob attack.

Poet Claude McKay, in 1921, captured the sentiment of many militant Negroes in his poem, “If We Must Die”: “If we must die/let it not be like hogs: hunted and penned in an accursed spot!/...If we must die; oh let us nobly die/ dying but fighting back.”19

By the First World War, Blacks were increasingly armed and prepared to defend themselves from mob violence in many parts of the country, even in the deep South. In one case, the mayor of Memphis, Tennessee was advised, “The Negroes would not make trouble unless they were attacked, but in that event they were prepared to defend themselves.” Most of the race riots were the result of Negro retaliation to white acts of persecution and violence. However, in most cases, because of the overwhelming white numerical superiority, Negro armed resistance was futile.

Another response of disillusioned Black people to the southern reign of terror was the “Great Migration” which began shortly before World War I. In the decade between 1910 and 1920, more than five hundred thousand Blacks fled from the social and political oppression of the South to the overcrowded industrial centers of the North. The number of Blacks in Northern cities increased substantially. Despite southern efforts to halt the Black exodus, the annual rate of Black northward migration reached seventy-five thousand by the 1920s.

Organized non-violent protest, educating public opinion about the barbarity of lynching, and the passage of federal anti-lynching legislation were seen by many Black leaders to be the most effective weapons against antiBlack mob violence. The pioneer organizer of the crusade against lynching was a Black woman named Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Mrs. Barnett, editor of the Memphis Free Speech, had more to do with originating and carrying forward the anti-lynching crusade than any other person. Almost single-handedly, she rallied anti-lynching sentiment in the United states and England. She served as chairman of the Anti-Lynching Bureau of the Afro-American Council. Mrs. Wells published several pamphlets exposing the barbarity of lynching, including A Red Record written in 1894.

The struggle of Black leaders and organizations to make lynchings a federal crime was long and futile. At the beginning of the twentieth century, such organizations as the Afro-American Council and the Niagara Movement, precursors of the NAACP, demanded investigation of lynchings and legislation to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. In 1900, Negro Congressman George White introduced America’s first anti-lynching bill, only to see it die in the House Judiciary Committee.

In the first year of its existence, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People launched a vigorous campaign against lynching and all forms of racism and discrimination. By 1918, The Crisis, the NAACP organ, was alerting one hundred thousand people each month to the horrors of mob violence and the demands of Black America. The NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee attacked segregation and discrimination in the courts. The NAACP’s attempts to secure federal anti-lynching legislation, such as the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, were unsuccessful. However, the Association’s nationwide and interracial fight against lynching eventually helped reduce the annual number of lynchings in the United States.

To Consider

  • In what ways did the black community respond to the conditions in the South?

  • What obstacles did they face?

Booker T. Washington Delivers the 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech

On September 18, 1895, African-American spokesman and leader Booker T. Washington spoke before a predominantly white audience at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. His “Atlanta Compromise” address, as it came to be called, was one of the most important and influential speeches in American history. Although the organizers of the exposition worried that “public sentiment was not prepared for such an advanced step,” they decided that inviting a black speaker would impress Northern visitors with the evidence of racial progress in the South. Washington soothed his listeners’ concerns about “uppity” blacks by claiming that his race would content itself with living “by the productions of our hands.”

One-third of the population of the South is of the Negro race. No enterprise seeking the material, civil, or moral welfare of this section can disregard this element of our population and reach the highest success….

…Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life we began at the top instead of at the bottom; that a seat in Congress or the state legislature was more sought than real estate or industrial skill; that the political convention or stump speaking had more attractions than starting a dairy farm or truck garden.

A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal, “Water, water; we die of thirst!” The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A second time the signal, “Water, water; send us water!” ran up from the distressed vessel, and was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” And a third and fourth signal for water was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River. To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are”— cast it down in making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded.

Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions. And in this connection it is well to bear in mind that whatever other sins the South may be called to bear, when it comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man’s chance in the commercial world, and in nothing is this Exposition more eloquent than in emphasizing this chance. Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour, and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.

To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your firesides. Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labour wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South. Casting down your bucket among my people, helping and encouraging them as you are doing on these grounds, and to education of head, hand, and heart, you will find that they will buy your surplus land, make blossom the waste places in your fields, and run your factories. While doing this, you can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen. As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defense of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one. In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.

There is no defense or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all. If anywhere there are efforts tending to curtail the fullest growth of the Negro, let these efforts be turned into stimulating, encouraging, and making him the most useful and intelligent citizen. Effort or means so invested will pay a thousand per cent interest. These efforts will be twice blessed—blessing him that gives and him that takes. There is no escape through law of man or God from the inevitable:

The laws of changeless justice bind Oppressor with oppressed;

And close as sin and suffering joined We march to fate abreast...

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house….

To Consider

  • In Washington’s view, what is necessary for American blacks to achieve equality in American society?

  • What arguments does Washington make in support of his approach?

W.E.B. DuBois Critiques Booker T. Washington

The most influential public critique of Booker T. Washington’s policy of racial accommodation and gradualism came in 1903 when black leader and intellectual W.E.B. DuBois published an essay in his collection The Souls of Black Folk with the title “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” DuBois rejected Washington’s willingness to avoid rocking the racial boat, calling instead for political power, insistence on civil rights, and the higher education of Negro youth.

Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission; but adjustment at such a peculiar time as to make his programme unique. This is an age of unusual economic development, and Mr. Washington’s programme naturally takes an economic cast, becoming a gospel of Work and Money to such an extent as apparently almost completely to overshadow the higher aims of life. Moreover, this is an age when the more advanced races are coming in closer contact with the less developed races, and the race-feeling is therefore intensified; and Mr. Washington’s programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races. Again, in our own land, the reaction from the sentiment of war time has given impetus to race-prejudice against Negroes, and Mr. Washington withdraws many of the high demands of Negroes as men and American citizens. In other periods of intensified prejudice all the Negro’s tendency to self-assertion has been called forth; at this period a policy of submission is advocated. In the history of nearly all other races and peoples the doctrine preached at such crises has been that manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses, and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it, are not worth civilizing.

In answer to this, it has been claimed that the Negro can survive only through submission. Mr. Washington distinctly asks that black people give up, at least for the present, three things – First, political power, Second, insistence on civil rights, Third, higher education of Negro youth, -- and concentrate all their energies on industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South. This policy has been courageously and insistently advocated for over fifteen years, and has been triumphant for perhaps ten years.

As a result of this tender of the palm-branch, what has been the return? In these years there have occurred:

1. The disfranchisement of the Negro.

2. The legal creation of a distinct status of civil inferiority for the Negro.

3. The steady withdrawal of aid from institutions for the higher training of the Negro.

These movements are not, to be sure, direct results of Mr. Washington’s teachings; but his propaganda has, without a shadow of doubt, helped their speedier accomplishment. The question then comes: Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meagre chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No. And Mr. Washington thus faces the triple paradox of his career:

1. He is striving nobly to make Negro artisans business men and property-owners; but it is utterly impossible, under modern competitive methods, for workingmen and property-owners to defend their rights and exist without the right of suffrage .

2. He insists on thrift and self-respect, but at the same time counsels a silent submission to civic inferiority such as is bound to sap the manhood of any race in the long run.

3. He advocates common-school and industrial training, and depreciates institutions of higher learning; but neither the Negro common-schools, nor Tuskegee itself, could remain open a day were it not for teachers trained in Negro colleges, or trained by their graduates.

This triple paradox in Mr. Washington’s position is the object of criticism by two classes of colored Americans. One class is spiritually descended from Toussaint the Savior, through Gabriel, Vesey, and Turner, and they represent the attitude of revolt and revenge; they hate the white South blindly and distrust the white race generally, and so far as they agree on definite action, think that the Negro’s only hope lies in emigration beyond the borders of the United States. And yet, by the irony of fate, nothing has more effectually made this programme seem hopeless than the recent course of the United States toward weaker and darker peoples in the West Indies, Hawaii, and the Philippines,—for where in the world may we go and be safe from lying and brute Force?

The other class of Negroes who cannot agree with Mr. Washington has hitherto said little aloud. They deprecate the sight of scattered counsels, of internal disagreement; and especially they dislike making their just criticism of a useful and earnest man an excuse for a general discharge of venom from small-minded opponents. Nevertheless, the questions involved are so fundamental and serious that it is difficult to see how men like the Grimkes, Kelly Miller, J.W.E. Bowen, and other representatives of this group, can much longer be silent. Such men feel in conscience bound to ask of this nation three things.

1. The right to vote.

2 Civic equality.

3 The education of youth according to ability.

They acknowledge Mr. Washington’s invaluable service in counselling patience and courtesy in such demands; they do not ask that ignorant black men vote when ignorant whites are debarred, or that any reasonable restrictions in the suffrage should not be applied; they know that the low social level or the mass of the race is responsible for much discrimination against it, but they also know, and the nation knows, that relentless color-prejudice is more often a cause than a result of the Negro’s degradation; they seek the abatement of this relic or barbarism, and not its systematic encouragement and pampering by all agencies of social power from the Associated Press to the Church of Christ. They advocate, with Mr. Washington, a broad system of Negro common schools supplemented by thorough industrial training; but they are surprised that a man of Mr. Washington’s insight cannot see that no such educational system ever has rested or can rest on any other basis than that of the well-equipped college and university, and they insist that there is a demand for a few such institutions throughout the South to train the best of the Negro youth as teachers, professional men, and leaders.

The South ought to be led, by candid and honest criticism, to assert her better self and do her full duty to the race she has cruelly wronged and is still wronging. The North—her co-partner in guilt—cannot salve her conscience by plastering it with gold. We cannot settle this problem by diplomacy and suaveness, by “policy” alone. If worse comes to worst, can the moral fibre of this country survive the slow throttling and murder of nine millions of men?

The black men of America have a duty to perform, a duty stern and delicate,—a forward movement to oppose a part of the work of their greatest leader. So far as Mr. Washington preaches Thrift, Patience, and Industrial Training for the masses, we must hold up his hands and strive with him, rejoicing in his honors and glorying in the strength of this Joshua called of God and of man to lead the headless host. But so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds,—so far as he, the South, or the Nation, does this,—we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them. By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creater with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."


To Consider

  • What critiques does DuBois offer of Washington’s position?

  • Who do you think makes the stronger case?

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