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Racial Prejudice

A Watermelon-Eating Contest Between Two Colored Serving Men. Puck, 21 September, 1891

In the 1890s the U.S. was approaching what historians would later call the 'nadir' of race relations between whites and blacks. The number of lynchings peaked in 1892, at 230, and continued at rates of over 100 murders per year. Southern states invented new measures to disfranchise black voters.

A Watermelon-Eating Contest Between Two Colored Serving-Men—Puck, 21 September, 1891

On May 18, 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its famous ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. In a vote of 8 to 1, the justices ended three decades of struggle over keeping public spaces integrated, ruling that states could force railroad companies to exclude African-Americans from first-class, or "ladies," cars. The lone dissenting vote was cast by Justice John Marshall Harlan--who was, interestingly, the only southerner on the Court and a former slaveholder. "The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race," he argued, "while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution." Nevertheless, 'separate but equal' segregation--hardly equal in any sense--had won the Court's approval.

During the Civil War and Reconstruction, Northern newspapers had begun to depict blacks in positive terms, especially black soldiers who had fought bravely for the Union. Such descriptions and images probably helped build support for the enfranchisement of black men, but by the 1890s, they had again become rare. In advertisements, fiction, theater, and political debates, white Americans encountered images of blacks as ignorant buffoons and ignored the severe problems facing black Americans. Though historians today view Plessy v. Ferguson as a landmark decision in the rollback of civil rights guarantees, political leaders and editors completely ignored it in the presidential campaign.

National magazines also provided little or no coverage of lynching in 1896, though these murders were reaching a zenith. In 1900, a delegation of African-American leaders asked President McKinley to speak out against lynching, but he merely congratulated black men on their "progress" over the previous decades. The Republican platform did make a brief statement against lynching, but little reference was made to it during the campaign.

Of course, prejudices against blacks was not the only form of political and social discrimination in the U.S. Antisemitism figured prominently in campaign rhetoric, debates around immigration centered on anti-Chinese sentiment, and depictions of events in Turkey also drew on white prejudices against Turks as a " dark and heathen race."

The full text of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision and Justice Harlan's dissent is available at Bowdoin College. See also the Supreme Court page.

African-American Responses

1896 was a year of transition in African-American leadership. In the previous year one of the nation's greatest black leaders, Frederick Douglass, had died at age 77. In the same year Booker T. Washington gave his famous address at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, September. He advised black Southerners to "cast down your bucket where you are," seeking friendship with white Southerners and success in business. In a pointed reference to labor activism in the North, Washington advised white Southerners to "cast down their bucket" also, "among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, .... those people who have, without strikes and labor wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities."

Ida B. Wells Barnett, investigative journalist, civil rights leader, and anti-lynching activist

Democracy and Education

With the Atlanta address, Washington emerged as the nation's most prominent African-American spokesman. In September 1896, a few months after Plessy and in the midst of the presidential campaign, Washington gave this address in Brooklyn stating his views on black political and social rights.

Ida B. Wells Barnett, investigative journalist, civil rights leader, and anti-lynching activist

The lives of other black leaders were in transition in 1896. Ida B. Wells, a black journalist who had been the nation's most effective anti-lynching crusader in the early 1890s, was living in Chicago in 1896. She had married civil-rights activist Ferdinand Barnett in 1895 and subsequently limited her public work in order to devote time to her family. In the meantime W.E.B. DuBois, who would later dispute Washington's strategies for black advancement, had just finished his Ph.D. at Harvard. In 1896 he published his first book, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade. The following year he accepted a teaching position at the University of Atlanta.

The Library of Congress American Memory Project includes a large collection of African-American Pamphlets, 1880-1920. At this site you can read works by Ida B. Wells and sit in on an 1898 meeting of the National Afro-American Council in Washington, D.C., where participants discussed strategies for opposing lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement.

The full text of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision and Justice Harlan's dissent are available online through Touro Law School.


They Add a Few Demands of Their Own to the Chairman's Troubles.

National Chairman Mark Hanna ... yesterday had to spend nearly two hours with a committee of colored gentlemen representing all the colored factions in New York. Some of those present represented two or three factions. Otherwise the committee would have had to have more members.

...Representatives were present from New York, Kings, Westchester, Monroe, Albany, Queens, Fulton, Saratoga, Rennselaer and Cayuga Counties. Alfred C. Cowan was at their head, as President of the Colored Republican Association of New York.

Mr. Hanna's colored brethren didn't want much. They simply wanted to start a National Colored Man's Headquarters and one place on the National Executive Committee. Charles Anderson, secretary to State Treasurer Calvin, is understood to be the colored men's candidate for National Executive Committeeman. Of course, the National Committee is expected to put up for the national headquarters. It is possible that Mr Hanna will stand for this, but it is a 40 to 1 shot that Mr. Anderson doesn't go on the Executive Committee.

... In the brief which the colored men presented it was ... demanded that the colored men be given a fair show in the division of State and national patronage. —New York World, 5 August 1896

It is apparent to all educators and interested observers that our systems of instruction have thus far failed to implant in the negro a desire for a higher and purer religion, to develop and strengthen his moral sense, to decree his tendency to crime, to increase his industrial or techic capacity in the years when it is most needed, to impart high ideals of living and of the dignity of honest labor, to teach the necessity for frugality, thrift, and industry, to take proper advantage of the negro child's remarkably developed natural faculties, to root out his feelings of dependence, and to teach him self-help or to obviously strengthen his reason or train his judgement. —George R. Stetson, Protestant Episcopal Review, from Public Opinion 31 December, 1896

We have a solid South as opposed to a solid North; and in the South itself, a solid black vote against the solid white.

That such a condition is most ominous to both sections and both races, is apparent to all.

If we were dealing with a few tribes of red men or a few sporadic Chinese, the question would be easily disposed of. The Anglo-Saxon would probably do just as he pleased, whether right or wrong, and the weaker man would go under.

But the Negroes number 8,000,000. They are interwoven with our business, political, and labor systems. The assimilate with our customs, our religion, our civilization. They meet us at every turn,--in the fields, the shops, the mines. They are a part of our system, and they are here to stay. . . .

The white people of the South will never support the Republican Party. This much is certain. The black people of the South will never support the Democratic Party. This is equally certain. . . . . Therefore a new party was absolutely necessary. —Tom Watson, "The Negro Question in the South," Arena , October 1892

Whispers of discontent among the colored republicans are heard on every hand. They refer to their campaign committee as "Lily Whites"... "They don't know we niggers now," remarked one of the colored leaders yesterday.... "I don't like de mixin' dat's goin' on 'twixt de goldbug democrats an' our new 'publican leaders. Nigger smells sumpen burnin', an' its got starch in it." —Birmingham State Herald, 19 September 1896


...Among the crowds at Mr. Cockran's speech Tuesday night was a well-dressed negro. He stood close to the lower tier of boxes near the Madison Avenue entrance, and listened attentively to the orator.

This was the Rev. Charles H. Dickerson, pastor of the Bethlehem Congregational Church, of Newark, who is regarded as one of the most highly cultured colored men in the country.

He is a graduate of Yale, an alumnus of Oberlin College, and a writer of recognized ability. He is a member of the Republican Committee of Essex County, and is booked to stump New Jersey for sound money.

...Mr. Dickerson had no sooner seated himself than the trouble began. Two women sat at the other end of the box and one reddened with anger as her eye rested on the intruder's brown face. She snapped out:

"I, for one, will not sit in the same box with a negro. Nothing could induce me to."

Her tone was loud, and hundreds of eyes were turned on the box. Gentlemen in adjoining boxes hissed under their breath, while one woman cried, "Shame! Shame!"

But the autocrat of Box No. 3 tapped on the rail with her fan and beckoned a policeman.

"Put that man out," she ordered in a shrill falsetto whisper. "This is no place for him."

The big policeman firmly declined to interfere. Then an usher was summoned and came.

"Come, get out of this," said he to Mr. Dickerson. "The box is reserved."

"But," protested the unfortunate Newarker, who throughout the trying scene exhibited great self-control, "the management has announced all seats as free after 8.15 o'clock."

"Wrong again, my colored friend," sneered the official... With these words he grabbed Mr. Dickerson by the coat collar, and dragged him to his feet.

—New York World, 20 August 1896

© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press

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Major events of the campaign,
in cartoon and story. (Click date)

  • Feb 27: People’s Advocate: Reading Tillman's Speech
  • Mar 19: People’s Advocate: Pitchfork
  • Apr 4: The Ram’s Horn: Rescued
  • Apr 15: Sound Money: History Repeats Itself
  • Apr 25: The Ram’s Horn: The Stranger at Our Gate
  • May 28: Prohibitionist’s convention, Pittsburgh, PA
  • June 16: Republican convention, St. Louis, MO
  • June 21: Denver New Road: Cleveland's Romance
  • June 28: L.A. Times: Bucking a Wall
  • July 4: Socialist convention, New York, NY
  • July 11: Democratic convention, Chicago, Illinois
  • July 9: Rocky Mountain News: A Soliloquy
  • July 11: Harper’s Weekly: Gold Bugs
  • July 12: L.A. Times: The Old Lady and Her New Wheel
  • July 16: People’s Advocate: McKinley's Evil Sprit
  • July 18: Harper’s Weekly: Altgeld and Bryan
  • July 22: Silver convention, St. Louis, MO
  • July 25: People’s Party convention, St. Louis, MO
  • July 22: Rocky Mountain News: Wall Street's Private Studio
  • July 25: Harper’s Weekly: Farmer McKinley
  • July 25: Judge: The Silver Candle
  • July 27: Chicago Record: Bryan's Tightrope
  • Aug 5: Rocky Mountain News: The Plain English of It
  • Aug 6: Sound Money: Spain and Rothschilds
  • Aug 8: McKinley accepts Republican nomination
  • Aug 9: Denver New Road: Bryan's Romance
  • Aug 12: Bryan accepts Democratic nomination
  • Aug 13: American Non-Conformist: Farmer Hanna
  • Aug 15: Rocky Mountain News: Bryan the Lion
  • Aug 16: L.A. Times: Aesop's Fox
  • Aug 18: Rocky Mountain News: Hanna the Wizard
  • Aug 20: Sound Money: The Cross of Gold
  • Aug 20: L.A. Times: Popocratic Witches
  • Aug 22: The Ram’s Horn: A Double Burden
  • Aug 29: Harper’s Weekly: McKinley the Veteran
  • Aug 29: Labor Advocate: Look at This
  • Aug 30: St. Louis Globe Democrat: Dime Museum
  • Sept 2: National (Gold) Democratic convention, Indianapolis, IN
  • Sept to Nov 1: McKinley front-porch campaign, Canton, OH
  • Sept 3: New York Journal: Li Hung Chang
  • Sept 5: Harper’s Weekly: The Crown of Thorns
  • Sept 5: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Just the Bare Facts
  • Sept 6: L.A. Times: Comrades in Arms
  • Sept 6: St. Paul Pioneer Press: A Bryan Dollar
  • Sept 8: Early election day in Arkansas and Vermont
  • Sept 9: Rocky Mountain News: John Bull
  • Sept 10: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Arkansas and Vermont
  • Sept 11 to Nov 1: Bryan travels 13,000 miles by train, stump-speaking around the nation.
  • Sept 11: St. Paul Pioneer Press: The Divorcee
  • Sept 11: St. Louis Globe Democrat: Uncle Sam Diagnoses
  • Sept 12: Labor Advocate: Their Argument Misses Fire
  • Sept 12: The Ram’s Horn: Building Up His Business
  • Sept 12: Harper’s Weekly: Populist Supreme Court
  • Sept 12: New York Journal: Hanna's Funds
  • Sept 13: Boston Globe: The Silver Dog
  • Sept 13: L.A. Times: Uncle Sam's Circus
  • Sept 14: L.A. Times: Populist Pandora
  • Sept 14: Rocky Mountain News: Playing Upon a Single String
  • Sept 17: Rocky Mountain News: Chinese Immigration
  • Sept 18: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Against Turkey
  • Sept 18: Rocky Mountain News: A Horrible Suspicion
  • Sept 19: Judge: Bryan's Cross
  • Sept 19: Labor Advocate: How They Love The Farmers
  • Sept 19: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Election-Year Friend
  • Sept 20: Boston Globe: Writ of Replevin'
  • Sept 20: L.A. Times: Populist Delilah
  • Sept 20: L’Abeille de Nouvelle Orleans: The Sultan Laughs
  • Sept 20: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: John Bull's Theft
  • Sept 21: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: The Robber And His Victim
  • Sept 24: L.A. Times: Resurrecting Secession
  • Sept 24: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Treachery
  • Sept 25: Daily Inter-Ocean: Democratic Jonah
  • Sept 26: Harper’s Weekly: Silver Bullfight
  • Sept 26: L.A. Times: For Sale
  • Sept 26: National Reflector: Rings On The Hog
  • Sept 26: Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Bicyclist Bryan
  • Sept 29: L.A. Times: Poor Circulation
  • Oct 1: Pioneer Press: Silver Trust Hog
  • Oct 3: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Workingman's Friend
  • Oct 4: Raleigh New and Observer: Hanna and Dixon
  • Oct 6: Election Day in the state of Florida (not all states voted on the first Tuesday in Nov).
  • Oct 6: Chicago Times: X-Ray of Bryan's Brain
  • Oct 6: Pioneer Press: Silver Conversation
  • Oct 6: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Florida's Lifeline
  • Oct 8: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Democratic Florida
  • Oct 8: New York Journal: Confident Hanna
  • Oct 10: Harper’s Weekly: Three Witches
  • Oct 10: The Coming Nation: The Worker's Treadmill
  • Oct 11: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Resurrection
  • Oct 13: New York Journal: Hanna and Workers
  • Oct 13: St. Louis Globe Democrat: Bryan as Jack Cade
  • Oct 13: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: The Gold Balloon
  • Oct 15: Coxey's Sound Money: Uncle Sam Enslaved
  • Oct 15: Rocky Mountain News: Elected McKinley
  • Oct 16: Boston Globe: Bryan the Salesman
  • Oct 17: Coming Nation: Labor Exploitation
  • Oct 20: L.A. Times: Burning Cross of Gold
  • Oct 21: The Coming Nation: Socialism
  • Oct 22: Sound Money: The Old Party Scale
  • Oct 22: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Hanna's Crown of Thorns
  • Oct 24: Harper’s Weekly: Altgeld and Guiteau
  • Oct 25: Daily Inter-Ocean: Bryan's Balloon
  • Oct 25: Omaha World Herald: Getting Women to Register
  • Oct 27: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Hanna, Trusts, and Morgan
  • Oct 28: Puck: A New Civil War
  • Oct 30: St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Hanna in Lehigh Valley
  • Oct 31: Republicans announce “Flag Day,” then argue with Democrats and Populists over meaning of the flag
  • Oct 31: Harper’s Weekly: Democratic Wind-Up Toys
  • Oct 31: New York Journal: Buncombe Brigade
  • Oct 31: The Ram’s Horn: Ignorance, Stupidity, and Fraud
  • Nov 2: McKinley wins presidential election
  • Nov 2: L.A. Times: Clown Bryan
  • Nov 4: L’Abeille de Nouvelle Orleans: Knock-Out Punch
  • Nov 4: St. Paul Pioneer Press: Elephant on the Silver Pillow
  • Nov 5: Sound Money: Prediction for 1900
  • Nov 14: Judge: Republican Tam O'Shanter
  • Nov 14: Coming Nation: Our Farmers Situation
  • Dec: Overland Monthly: Uncle Sam Looks Abroad
New Spirits
New Spirits
Perceptions and Realities: The Victorian Age Inventions of the era Tramps and Millionaires Yellowstone Park Journals of the era White City/1893 Worlds Fair The Civil War President McKinley