The period of 1865 to 1900 begins shortly after the Civil War and marks a great degree of American progress westward. But, as the following will show, the progress that would eventually connect the eastern and western seaboards was fundamentally meant only for whites, as all others were targeted for persecution, oppression, violence, intimidation and forced labor. With minor exception, racial conflicts in the South primarily focused on black oppression and persecution. However, as the country expanded out towards the West, the primary focus was on Native Americans and how best to displace them from lands they had held for centuries. Chinese and Mexican immigrants were used as cheap and, in some ways, forced labor, making them easy targets for intimidation by whites in search of a passive labor force that was easily intimidated. It now only seems that the end of the Civil War marked a new beginning in this country, one based upon equality for all people. But, the truth is that regardless of the bloodshed, White Americans were never intent upon viewing people of color as their equals.
Shortly after the end to the Civil War Congress passed legislation that guaranteed all citizens, regardless of their race, the same rights to enforce contracts and to lease, sell and purchase property. Even more important was the legislation granted citizenship to all former slaves (Vincent Tischauser, 2002). The reaction by many southern whites was quite vitriolic and led to the death of a great many freedmen, families burned out of their homes and public beatings, leading President Ulysses Grant to send the Army for purposes of quelling the violence and restore order. However, federal intervention was short-lived and by 1876 the government appears to have given up with intervening in the affairs of the South, and southern whites appear to have taken advantage of this by creating laws specifically aimed at curtailing equal rights for blacks. Known as Jim Crow Laws, they were also created for legally separating blacks from white society throughout the South and was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in the landmark case, Plessy v. Ferguson, which had taken place towards the end of the century in 1896 (Vincent Tischauser, 2002).
By 1870 supporters of freedmen in the South had all but given up with their attempts at securing parity, and with the advent of a decade-long economic depression race relations was no longer at the forefront of problems facing supporters living primarily in the North (Vincent Tischauser, 2002). With the lack of intervention by the federal government, violence perpetrated against blacks living in the South escalated. Most Southern whites were not apologists concerning the fact that blacks were the target of persecution because former slaves were considered second-class citizens. As argued by author Leslie Vincent Tischauser (2002), “The were no longer slaves but neither were they free” (p. 74). Laws meant to ensure equality for blacks living in the South were circumvented by White southern political leaders. For example, by the 1890s, literacy tests were imposed throughout the South, requiring everyone, regardless of their race, to pass tests for purposes of voting. But the tests were rigged because they were proctored by whites intent on failing blacks regardless of passing scores (Vincent Tischauser, 2002).
The end to the conflict between northern and southern states also marked the beginning of Reconstruction, but what should have been period of opportunity for all in states that had been ravaged by war actually turned into a means of reinstituting a type of slavery throughout the South. From 1865 to 1877, the Reconstruction would see the rise vagrancy laws which were used in southern states as a way for whites to regain control over black labor. According to Evelyn Nakano Glenn (2004), a Professor of Gender and Women’s and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, “vagrancy laws became a widely used means of compelling labor from newly emancipated blacks in the South and from Mexican immigrants in the Southwest” (p. 90). Vagrancy laws were passed throughout the country, even in the West where they were used to target nonwhites, typically Mexicans and Asians, as a punitive tool. However, vagrancy laws were instituted throughout the Southwestern region of the country to specifically target Mexicans, where they were used as a means of intimidation because they lacked citizenship and feared deportation, thus making them more pliant in terms of rigorous labor in cattle ranching, agriculture and mining (Nakano Glenn, 2004).
Racial conflict differed in the American West during this period because a great deal of attention and energy was paid to Native Americans. The Homestead Act of 1862 eventually gave rise to a mass migration of white settlers throughout the Great Plains and further west, however the legislation barred former slaves from taking advantage of the generous acreage allotted to each settler by the legislation (Vincent Tischauser, 2002). Along with the flood of Eastern migrants came the American Calvary, who used force to displace Native Americans and eventually “imprison” them into squalor upon reservations. With construction of the Transcontinental Railroad came more resistance by Native Americans who meant to protect their lands from whites bent upon destroying buffalo herds and forcing the indigenous peoples into even smaller reservation areas (Vincent Tischauser, 2002). As construction of the railroad system advanced increasingly more Chinese and Mexican laborers, and their families, were bound into indentured servitude, living on meager subsistence and treated quite harshly throughout 19th century expansion (Vincent Tischauser, 2002).
The history of racial conflict in the South and West during the period of 1865 to 1900 is marked by white oppression of all peoples of color. Blacks in the South were particularly marked for persecution by whites bent upon ensuring that legal equality was never instituted, while throughout the West Native Americans were fighting a losing battle to stem the tide of migration from Eastern whites. Blacks were excluded from enjoying the western land grab that had been instituted by the American government, while Asians and Mexicans essentially became de facto slaves as expansion towards the West required cheap labor that was easily pliant and intimidated. While it may seem that the ideals that were hard-fought during the Civil War were meant to establish equality for all, the adverse is more true to fact. White Americans were never intent upon viewing people of color as their equals.
- Nakano Glenn, E. (2004). Unequal freedom: How race and gender shaped American citizenship and labor. United States: Harvard University Press.
- Vincent Tischauser, L. (2002). The changing nature of racial and ethnic conflict in United States history: 1492 to the present. United States: University Press of America.