Most secondary sources have the same rough story of African- American life in the United States. First, African-Americans were subject to racial discrimination on all levels of society. Secondly, he Constitution declared each one as 3/5 a person, and until 1865 almost all were slaves. During the Reconstruction, many of the former slaves that remained in the South eked out a living as sharecroppers and were terrorized into becoming the underclass of the new apartheid. However, students of history do not truly “get” what happened during that time until they hear or read a firsthand account.
First, we will discuss Booker T. Washington’s autobiography. As a former slave in Virginia, he had secured an education for himself and sought to help other former slaves become as prosperous as possible through socially acceptable means because inciting a cultural revolution was at best a suicidal endeavor. Then we will move on to Gilbert Stephenson’s treatise on race distinction in American Law, which legally defined the Negro, and detailed all legal prohibitions from seating assignments on the train to marriage. We will conclude with Langston Hughes’ autobiography, which is less personally revealing than a commentary on racism as well as the blossoming renaissance of art and music in the black community. These are first hand accounts from the post-Civil War Era to just before the Civil Rights movement.
In the antebellum era, it was forbidden for slaves to receive any kind of education other than learning his task or learning about Christianity. However, the slave was not even allowed to read the Bible. As such, Washington eagerly sought the forbidden fruit of learning. When he had first heard about the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, he thought, “that it must be the greatest place on earth, and not even Heaven presented more attractions for me at that time”(Washington, 42). Most people today would not understand this sentiment as education in today’s world is compulsory and as such, is reviled. One view of education that has not changed over time was that it was a way out of manual labor. For many blacks in the rural south, the ability to work in a different sector of society was a dream come true, however Washington did not see it that way.
“I not only learned that it was not a disgrace to labor, but learned to love labor, not alone for its financial value, but for labor’s own sake and for the independence and self-reliance which the ability to do something which the world wants done brings”(Washington, 74). He began to teach this message to people of all ages in his community. Later, we come to the true purpose of his book: he reveals that the best way to advance his people was to get them to perfect themselves in industry and secure property (Washintgon, 85). As whites were homicidally opposed to black participation in politics, or ambitions for equality, Washington believed that the quickest way to attain equality was to work hard, become educated, and stay away from political agitation or seek political office. Also, he believed that it was necessary to stay under the radar, which was wise in light of the laws at the time.
Stephenson wrote at length in defining the “place” blacks were supposed to occupy in American Society. The Negro had to be legally defined because the mixing of white men with slave women had produced racially ambiguous offspring. At the time of the writing, it had gotten to the point where people with blond hair and blue eyes were classified as Negro because of a distant ancestor. In the end, people of color were defined as “one who is descended from a Negro to the third generation inclusive, though one ancestor in each generation may have been white”(Stephenson, 15). The status of Negroes was so degraded that it was considered defamation to say that a white person is a Negro or akin to a Negro.
In addition, anyone with white skin that was found to have Negro ancestry would have been deprived of all civil rights, robbed of his property, and tried without a jury under the “Negro Act”(Stephenson, 27). Written to uplift the superiority of the white race and degrade those of African or Asian ancestry, these draconian laws were enforced to maintain the blood purity of whites. Also, Negroes were not allowed to “pursue or practice the art, trade, or business of an artisan, mechanic or shopkeeper, ‘ or any other trade, employment or business (besides that of husbandry, or that of a servant under contract for service or labor) on his own account and for his own benefit, or in partnership with a white person”(Stephenson, 42).
The U.S. had become so oppressive in its policy toward African-Americans that it was no surprise when a significant population of them decided to emigrate to racially tolerant societies such as France. In 1940, Langston Hughes wrote about his experience briefly escaping the harsh reality of life in America while traveling the world. As it turns out, many black artists would leave the U.S. and become expatriates to France. “The cream of the Negro musicians then in France, like Cricket Smith on the trumpet, Louis Jones on the violin, Palmer Jones at the piano, Frank Withers on the clarinet, and buddy Gilmore at the drums, would weave out music that would almost make your heart stand still at dawn in a Paris nightclub”(Hughes, 162). With such florid descriptions, one gets the impression that music and art was a great escape from the harshness of life in the 1940’s. Unfortunately, not many people had the means to make better lives for themselves in other places; but the good news is that ultimately, life got better in the U.S. after people began to accept the contributions of black and other non-white cultures.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940
Stephenson, Gilbert Thomas. Race Distinction in American Law. D. Appleton & Company, 1910
Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery: An Autobiography