What Happened to African Americans During 1877-1920?

Booker T. Washington gave public support to Southern racial segregation.
... Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The nation underwent a period called Reconstruction from 1865 to 1877. Recently freed African Americans enjoyed political and social equality at then unprecedented levels. When Reconstruction ended, the self-proclaimed Democratic Redeemers regained control of Southern governments and instituted Jim Crow racial segregation. As a result, many people of color left the South in a process known as the Great Migration.

1 Compromise of 1877

The Reconstruction period ended in 1877. In that year, President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops from the Southern states. Hayes, a Republican, allegedly made a deal with the Democratic Presidential challenger, Samuel Tilden. The 1876 election remained in dispute over ballots in several states. The Compromise of 1877 refers to Republican promise to end Reconstruction in return for Tilden’s election concession. Consequently, African Americans no longer had protection against violent paramilitary groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Moreover, the Democratic Party, dominated in the South by former slave owners and other ex-Confederates, began to regain control over state governments.

2 Civil Rights Cases 1883

African Americans still possessed the constitutional rights provided them by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The former made African Americans citizens and the later granted African-American men the right to vote. However, after the Compromise of 1877 violence against African Americans and Republicans was widespread. The Supreme Court decided in 1883 that the federal courts could do little to help African Americans exercise their civil rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. These Amendments only prevented state officials from abridging civil rights, the Court proclaimed in the Civil Rights Cases. State law enforcement had the responsibility for prosecuting private citizens, such as those in the Ku Klux Klan, who used force against African Americans. With Democrats steadily regaining control of most state and local governments, the likelihood of actual criminal charges for harassing African-American voters was highly unlikely.

3 Racial Segregation

Southern Democrats began pursuing an agenda of racial segregation after 1877. The Fourteenth Amendment clearly prevented state governments from treating citizens differently. However, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that state governments could segregate the races, as long the appropriations remained equal.

Throughout the South, state and local governments created a slew of legislation to separate whites from African Americans. Alabama legislators convened a Constitutional Convention in 1901 to establish its system of segregation. The new Constitution mandated separate schools and prevented interracial marriages. By 1920, a bi-racial caste system defined Southern society. African Americans and whites lived separately at birth, during life and into the grave.

4 Great Migration

African Americans migrated in record numbers to the North from around 1910 to 1930. Racial segregation pushed the migrants out of the South; meanwhile, the perception of better living conditions pulled members of the race to the North. 1.6 million people left during these years. In the North, they established communities in cities such as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia that became centers of African-American cultural life.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.