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The Nadir:
Race Relations in Early Twentieth-Century America
Course Learning Objectives
• Describe structures and manifestations of racial inequality in
the U.S. since emancipation.
• Understand how changing historical contexts create
opportunities and constraints that influence when and how
social movements emerge.
• Assess the philosophies, strategies, tactics, and demands of
activists and organizations advocating racial justice.
Trigger Warning
Today’s class will include discussion and written descriptions of brutal
racist violence and images of the Ku Klan Klan.
No images of graphic violence will be displayed on the slides.
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
In this case, which centered on an 1890 Louisiana law
segregating railway coaches, the U.S. Supreme Court
ruled that segregation laws passed by states were not
necessarily unconstitutional, meaning they did not
directly violate the framework or principles of the U.S.
government and its founding document. The Plessy
decision established the doctrine of “separate but
equal,” which held that racial segregation was
permissible (and not in violation of the 14th
amendment’s “equal protection” clause) as long as the
facilities and services available to both “White” and
“Colored” people were “equal.” Plessy v. Ferguson
marked the official beginning of the era of Jim Crow
segregation, which would endure for almost sixty
years, shaping nearly every facet of Southern life.
White Supremacy in the “Jim Crow” South
Named for the 19th century minstrel character
“Jumpin’ Jim Crow,” the Jim Crow system of
segregation relegated African Americans to second-
class citizenship in the South. This discriminatory
system of white supremacy was supported by
structures, laws, and practices that served to
disempower, humiliate, and dehumanize Black
Americans.
Dimensions of Jim Crow
• Social: segregation of facilities including schools, transportation, hotels, and restaurants;
required Black people to defer to white people in most cases; legal and extralegal
consequences for interracial sexual relationships involving a Black male.
• Economic: employment and housing discrimination; restrictions on credit; emergence of
sharecropping as new economic system in South.
• Political: restrictions on Black political participation, including voting and juror service;
racially-biased criminal justice system, e.g. in most jurisdictions, a Black person could
not testify against a white person accused of a crime.
* All dimensions of Jim Crow were supported or enabled by state-sanctioned violence that
permitted crimes committed by white people against Black people to go unpunished and
allowed white mobs to attack Black people for alleged or invented offenses.
The Nadir
• “Nadir” means “low point.” In U.S. history, this term refers to the period at the
end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century during which efforts
to institute formalized racial segregation and to reassert systems of white
supremacy took myriad oppressive and violent forms. White supremacy was more
pronounced and less veiled at this point than at any other time in U.S. history.
• Massive erasure of Black gains made during Reconstruction era, esp. in terms of
political and economic power  Establishment and strengthening of Jim Crow.
• The “Lost Cause” mythology emerged, portraying the Confederacy as heroic
rather than traitorous, suggesting the Civil War was about issues other than the
defense of slavery (i.e. “states’ rights”). The Lost Cause served as a defense of
white supremacy, suggesting that slavery was in fact a morally good system while
reinforcing views of Black inferiority.
• During this period, white backlash against progress for racial equality became
more entrenched and violent, e.g. the rise of lynching, mob violence, race riots,
massacres, and the reemergence of Ku Klux Klan.
What did segregation
look like in the
Jim Crow South?
Sharecropping
Above: Photo of sharecroppers taken by Dorothea Lange
in Mississippi in 1937. From the Library of Congress.
Left: Sharecroppers picking cotton in Georgia, photograph
by T.W. Ingersoll, 1898.
Sharecropping
• Since the advent of the cotton gin in 1793, the Southern economy was anchored by large cotton
plantations. After the prohibition of enslaved labor and the end of Reconstruction, the Southern
labor system quickly reoriented to a system known as sharecropping.
• Large white landowners hired “sharecroppers” to plant cotton on their land. Sharecroppers were
not paid a wage, but lived on the land they farmed and earned a “share” of the profit generated
from the crop they grew. Most sharecroppers were Black, but poor white people also worked as
sharecroppers.
• At the beginning of each year, sharecroppers were required to purchase all their seeds, farming
supplies and tools, and food from the plantation store, owned by the landowner, at inflated prices.
• After the harvest, the landowner and the sharecropper would “settle” the sharecropper’s annual
account, deducting from their profit (as determined by the landowner) the costs of the supplies
purchased over the year. Often sharecroppers earned very little, or even ended the year “owing” the
landowner money after growing crops for them and tending to their land. Sharecroppers and their
families lived on the land they worked, making their shelter and livelihood dependent on staying in
the good graces of the landowner.
—13th Amendment
(Ratified Dec 1865)
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude,
except as a punishment for crime whereof the party
shall have been duly convicted,
shall exist within the United States, or any place subject
to their jurisdiction.”
Florida, 1915.
Georgia, 1903.
“Black Codes” and the Convict Lease System
(both emerged after Civil War)
“…Black Codes proscribed a range of actions—such as vagrancy, absence from
work, breach of job contracts, the possession of firearms, and insulting gestures
or acts—that were criminalized only when the person charged was black.”
(Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?, pg. 28).
Mississippi State Penitentiary
(aka Parchman Farm),
est. 1901
NAACP flag flown in protest to
mark known lynchings.
Lynching and Mob Violence
• “Lynching” refers to mob violence under the guise of
administering justice for a supposed crime but before
due process (a “fair trial”) is carried out. Historically,
the act of killing has often followed torture or other
acts of violence against the alleged offender.
• In U.S. history, lynching has typically been carried out
by public hanging, often for perceived offenses of
overstepping the rules of white supremacy.
• Though most victims of lynching have been Black,
other subordinate racial groups (e.g. Italian, Jewish)
have historically also been targeted.
• According to the NAACP, 4,743 lynchings occurred in
the U.S. between 1882 and 1968.
Ida B. Wells’Anti-Lynching Crusade
• In the late-19th century, suffragist, newspaper owner, and
sociologist Ida B. Wells began collecting data on lynching
murders of Black Americans, first published in 1895 in The
Red Record. Wells aimed to educate the rest of the nation
about the prevalence of lynching in the American South.
• Born enslaved in Mississippi, Wells was a life-long
advocate of anti-lynching legislation. Wells’ work was
hugely influential in bringing attention to the prevalence of
lynching around the U.S.
• In March 2022, more than 90 years after Wells’ death, the
Emmett Till Antilynching Act was passed into law by
Congress and signed by President Biden, finally rendering
lynching a federal hate crime.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett
(1862-1931)
“Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour,
the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an
insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent
people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten law’ that justifies them in
putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by
jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal. …
… During the last ten years a new statute has been added to the ‘unwritten
law.’ This statute proclaims that for certain crimes or alleged crimes no negro
shall be allowed a trial; that no white woman shall be compelled to charge an
assault under oath or to submit any such charge to the investigation of a court
of law. The result is that many men have been put to death whose innocence
was afterward established; and to-day, under this reign of the ‘unwritten law,’
no colored man, no matter what his reputation, is safe from lynching if a
white woman, no matter what her standing or motive, cares to charge him
with insult or assault.”
-Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law in America” (1900)
“I Met A Little Blue-Eyed Girl”
by Bertha Johnston
I met a little blue-eyed girl--
She said she was five years old;
‘Your locket is very pretty dear;
And pray what may it hold?’
And then—my heart grew chill and sick—
The gay child did not flinch—
‘I found it—the tooth of a colored man—
My father helped to lynch.’
‘And what had he done, my fair-haired child?’
(Life and Death play a fearful game!)
‘Oh, he did nothing--they made a mistake—
But they had their fun, just the same!’
Published in The Crisis (July 1912)
The Birth of a Nation
The nadir of American race relations was signified
by the popularity of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The
Birth of Nation. It centers on the years after the
Civil War and depicts the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as
a noble force protecting America, white supremacy,
and white womanhood. Black characters,
caricatured by white actors in blackface, are
portrayed as ignorant, violent, and sexually
predatory. Organizations like the NAACP worked
unsuccessfully to have the film banned, claiming it
inflamed racial tensions. Shortly after the film’s
release, the KKK reemerged. The Birth of a Nation
was the first film to be screened at the White
House. President Woodrow Wilson characterized it
as “writing history with lightening.”
Woodrow Wilson: The “Lost Cause” President
In mobilizing national support for U.S.
involvement in the Great War (WWI) in 1917,
Wilson, a descendent of Confederate soldiers
and the first Southerner to win the presidency
since 1848, offered “a full-throated embrace of
the Lost Cause: ‘There are many memories of
the Civil War that thrill along the blood and
make one proud to have been sprung of a race
that could produce such bravery and
constancy.’To a standing ovation of applause
and rebel yells [and appearing before both U.S.
and Confederate flags], Wilson warmly
recalled how ‘heroic things were done on both
sides.’”
Source: Michael Paradis, “The Lost Cause’s Long Legacy,” The Atlantic (26 Jun 2020).
Woodrow Wilson and veterans of the Civil War at the
Battle of Gettysburg 50th Anniversary (4 Jul 1913).
Public Domain.
The Great Migration represented a sustained effort on the part of Black Americans to escape the
stifling oppression of the Jim Crow South. Between 1916 and 1970, about six million Black
Americans left the rural South, the largest internal mass migration in U.S. history.
The Red Summer of 1919
Racial violence erupted in dozens of
U.S. cities, including Chicago and
Washington, sparked by resentment over
competition for jobs and housing, as well
as perceived violations of de facto
segregation. These tensions were made
worse by an economic recession and the
return of soldiers from World War I,
including many Black veterans who
found they were treated no better as a
result of their military service. Writer
and activist James Weldon Johnson
referred to this period of racial terror as
“Red Summer.”
New York Tribune (27 July 1919)
“If We Must Die” (1919)
by Claude McKay
If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
“Black Wall Street” –
The Greenwood District, Tulsa, OK
Historians argue that this 1921 Tulsa
Tribune newspaper story helped
incite a racial massacre
(DeNeen L. Brown/The Washington Post).
Tulsa Race Massacre
May 31– June 1, 1921
Black men in Tulsa were marched under armed guard during the race massacre on June 1,
1921. (Department of Special Collections/McFarlin Library/University of Tulsa/AP)
(1 Jun 2021) “There are two dead Negroes at the Frisco
depot.”
Oklahoma City
(10 Jun 2021).

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1.17.23 The Nadir: Race Relations in Early 20th C America.pptx

  • 1. The Nadir: Race Relations in Early Twentieth-Century America
  • 2. Course Learning Objectives • Describe structures and manifestations of racial inequality in the U.S. since emancipation. • Understand how changing historical contexts create opportunities and constraints that influence when and how social movements emerge. • Assess the philosophies, strategies, tactics, and demands of activists and organizations advocating racial justice.
  • 3. Trigger Warning Today’s class will include discussion and written descriptions of brutal racist violence and images of the Ku Klan Klan. No images of graphic violence will be displayed on the slides.
  • 4. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) In this case, which centered on an 1890 Louisiana law segregating railway coaches, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation laws passed by states were not necessarily unconstitutional, meaning they did not directly violate the framework or principles of the U.S. government and its founding document. The Plessy decision established the doctrine of “separate but equal,” which held that racial segregation was permissible (and not in violation of the 14th amendment’s “equal protection” clause) as long as the facilities and services available to both “White” and “Colored” people were “equal.” Plessy v. Ferguson marked the official beginning of the era of Jim Crow segregation, which would endure for almost sixty years, shaping nearly every facet of Southern life.
  • 5. White Supremacy in the “Jim Crow” South Named for the 19th century minstrel character “Jumpin’ Jim Crow,” the Jim Crow system of segregation relegated African Americans to second- class citizenship in the South. This discriminatory system of white supremacy was supported by structures, laws, and practices that served to disempower, humiliate, and dehumanize Black Americans.
  • 6. Dimensions of Jim Crow • Social: segregation of facilities including schools, transportation, hotels, and restaurants; required Black people to defer to white people in most cases; legal and extralegal consequences for interracial sexual relationships involving a Black male. • Economic: employment and housing discrimination; restrictions on credit; emergence of sharecropping as new economic system in South. • Political: restrictions on Black political participation, including voting and juror service; racially-biased criminal justice system, e.g. in most jurisdictions, a Black person could not testify against a white person accused of a crime. * All dimensions of Jim Crow were supported or enabled by state-sanctioned violence that permitted crimes committed by white people against Black people to go unpunished and allowed white mobs to attack Black people for alleged or invented offenses.
  • 7. The Nadir • “Nadir” means “low point.” In U.S. history, this term refers to the period at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century during which efforts to institute formalized racial segregation and to reassert systems of white supremacy took myriad oppressive and violent forms. White supremacy was more pronounced and less veiled at this point than at any other time in U.S. history. • Massive erasure of Black gains made during Reconstruction era, esp. in terms of political and economic power  Establishment and strengthening of Jim Crow. • The “Lost Cause” mythology emerged, portraying the Confederacy as heroic rather than traitorous, suggesting the Civil War was about issues other than the defense of slavery (i.e. “states’ rights”). The Lost Cause served as a defense of white supremacy, suggesting that slavery was in fact a morally good system while reinforcing views of Black inferiority. • During this period, white backlash against progress for racial equality became more entrenched and violent, e.g. the rise of lynching, mob violence, race riots, massacres, and the reemergence of Ku Klux Klan.
  • 8. What did segregation look like in the Jim Crow South?
  • 9. Sharecropping Above: Photo of sharecroppers taken by Dorothea Lange in Mississippi in 1937. From the Library of Congress. Left: Sharecroppers picking cotton in Georgia, photograph by T.W. Ingersoll, 1898.
  • 10. Sharecropping • Since the advent of the cotton gin in 1793, the Southern economy was anchored by large cotton plantations. After the prohibition of enslaved labor and the end of Reconstruction, the Southern labor system quickly reoriented to a system known as sharecropping. • Large white landowners hired “sharecroppers” to plant cotton on their land. Sharecroppers were not paid a wage, but lived on the land they farmed and earned a “share” of the profit generated from the crop they grew. Most sharecroppers were Black, but poor white people also worked as sharecroppers. • At the beginning of each year, sharecroppers were required to purchase all their seeds, farming supplies and tools, and food from the plantation store, owned by the landowner, at inflated prices. • After the harvest, the landowner and the sharecropper would “settle” the sharecropper’s annual account, deducting from their profit (as determined by the landowner) the costs of the supplies purchased over the year. Often sharecroppers earned very little, or even ended the year “owing” the landowner money after growing crops for them and tending to their land. Sharecroppers and their families lived on the land they worked, making their shelter and livelihood dependent on staying in the good graces of the landowner.
  • 11. —13th Amendment (Ratified Dec 1865) “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
  • 12. Florida, 1915. Georgia, 1903. “Black Codes” and the Convict Lease System (both emerged after Civil War) “…Black Codes proscribed a range of actions—such as vagrancy, absence from work, breach of job contracts, the possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or acts—that were criminalized only when the person charged was black.” (Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?, pg. 28).
  • 13. Mississippi State Penitentiary (aka Parchman Farm), est. 1901
  • 14. NAACP flag flown in protest to mark known lynchings. Lynching and Mob Violence • “Lynching” refers to mob violence under the guise of administering justice for a supposed crime but before due process (a “fair trial”) is carried out. Historically, the act of killing has often followed torture or other acts of violence against the alleged offender. • In U.S. history, lynching has typically been carried out by public hanging, often for perceived offenses of overstepping the rules of white supremacy. • Though most victims of lynching have been Black, other subordinate racial groups (e.g. Italian, Jewish) have historically also been targeted. • According to the NAACP, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968.
  • 15. Ida B. Wells’Anti-Lynching Crusade • In the late-19th century, suffragist, newspaper owner, and sociologist Ida B. Wells began collecting data on lynching murders of Black Americans, first published in 1895 in The Red Record. Wells aimed to educate the rest of the nation about the prevalence of lynching in the American South. • Born enslaved in Mississippi, Wells was a life-long advocate of anti-lynching legislation. Wells’ work was hugely influential in bringing attention to the prevalence of lynching around the U.S. • In March 2022, more than 90 years after Wells’ death, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was passed into law by Congress and signed by President Biden, finally rendering lynching a federal hate crime. Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)
  • 16. “Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten law’ that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal. … … During the last ten years a new statute has been added to the ‘unwritten law.’ This statute proclaims that for certain crimes or alleged crimes no negro shall be allowed a trial; that no white woman shall be compelled to charge an assault under oath or to submit any such charge to the investigation of a court of law. The result is that many men have been put to death whose innocence was afterward established; and to-day, under this reign of the ‘unwritten law,’ no colored man, no matter what his reputation, is safe from lynching if a white woman, no matter what her standing or motive, cares to charge him with insult or assault.” -Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law in America” (1900)
  • 17. “I Met A Little Blue-Eyed Girl” by Bertha Johnston I met a little blue-eyed girl-- She said she was five years old; ‘Your locket is very pretty dear; And pray what may it hold?’ And then—my heart grew chill and sick— The gay child did not flinch— ‘I found it—the tooth of a colored man— My father helped to lynch.’ ‘And what had he done, my fair-haired child?’ (Life and Death play a fearful game!) ‘Oh, he did nothing--they made a mistake— But they had their fun, just the same!’ Published in The Crisis (July 1912)
  • 18. The Birth of a Nation The nadir of American race relations was signified by the popularity of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of Nation. It centers on the years after the Civil War and depicts the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a noble force protecting America, white supremacy, and white womanhood. Black characters, caricatured by white actors in blackface, are portrayed as ignorant, violent, and sexually predatory. Organizations like the NAACP worked unsuccessfully to have the film banned, claiming it inflamed racial tensions. Shortly after the film’s release, the KKK reemerged. The Birth of a Nation was the first film to be screened at the White House. President Woodrow Wilson characterized it as “writing history with lightening.”
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  • 20. Woodrow Wilson: The “Lost Cause” President In mobilizing national support for U.S. involvement in the Great War (WWI) in 1917, Wilson, a descendent of Confederate soldiers and the first Southerner to win the presidency since 1848, offered “a full-throated embrace of the Lost Cause: ‘There are many memories of the Civil War that thrill along the blood and make one proud to have been sprung of a race that could produce such bravery and constancy.’To a standing ovation of applause and rebel yells [and appearing before both U.S. and Confederate flags], Wilson warmly recalled how ‘heroic things were done on both sides.’” Source: Michael Paradis, “The Lost Cause’s Long Legacy,” The Atlantic (26 Jun 2020). Woodrow Wilson and veterans of the Civil War at the Battle of Gettysburg 50th Anniversary (4 Jul 1913). Public Domain.
  • 21. The Great Migration represented a sustained effort on the part of Black Americans to escape the stifling oppression of the Jim Crow South. Between 1916 and 1970, about six million Black Americans left the rural South, the largest internal mass migration in U.S. history.
  • 22. The Red Summer of 1919 Racial violence erupted in dozens of U.S. cities, including Chicago and Washington, sparked by resentment over competition for jobs and housing, as well as perceived violations of de facto segregation. These tensions were made worse by an economic recession and the return of soldiers from World War I, including many Black veterans who found they were treated no better as a result of their military service. Writer and activist James Weldon Johnson referred to this period of racial terror as “Red Summer.” New York Tribune (27 July 1919)
  • 23. “If We Must Die” (1919) by Claude McKay If we must die—let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursed lot. If we must die—oh, let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe; Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave, And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow! What though before us lies the open grave? Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
  • 24. “Black Wall Street” – The Greenwood District, Tulsa, OK
  • 25. Historians argue that this 1921 Tulsa Tribune newspaper story helped incite a racial massacre (DeNeen L. Brown/The Washington Post).
  • 26. Tulsa Race Massacre May 31– June 1, 1921
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  • 29. Black men in Tulsa were marched under armed guard during the race massacre on June 1, 1921. (Department of Special Collections/McFarlin Library/University of Tulsa/AP)
  • 30. (1 Jun 2021) “There are two dead Negroes at the Frisco depot.”

Editor's Notes

  1. Not just an “inconvenience” but a system of daily humiliation and dehumanization that served to solidify white supremacy through a system based on proximate racial inequality.
  2. 1930s. Superintendent’s home.
  3. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/ushistory2americanyawp/chapter/primary-source-ida-b-wells-barnett-lynch-law-in-america-1900/
  4. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/11/20/9766896/woodrow-wilson-racist