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The U.S. Grows Up, 1881-1899

The 33 years between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898 was the longest period of peace in U.S. history, and America used the time to grow. New inventions transformed the country. Industry, pushed originally by flamboyant capitalists, began to take on the look of modern big business. Women and working people fought to make progress. Blacks endured endless persecution, but they weren't slaves anymore. Lost causes like the Populist Party and protests by laborers and farmers sowed the seeds for later reform.

As the United States grew more powerful, it played a bigger role in the world. The country that started as colonies gaining their own independence ended up fighting Spain to take over its colonies and, a little embarrassed, eventually set those colonies free. The United States became strong and stable enough to help lead the world into the 1900s.

SOCIAL CHANGE IN THE GILDED AGE

Some see the time after the Civil War as a time of complacency, when the U.S. caught its breath and concentrated on making money and inventing things. Mark Twain called this period the Gilded Age because he thought people were covering up reality in gold paint. Even though the pace of change slowed down, people who saw injustice often worked to improve society.

- The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1866.

- Clara Barton, a beloved nurse from the Civil War, founded the American Red Cross in 1881 .

- The Anti-Saloon League (1893) won some temporary victories, but Prohibition, when it came in 1919, lasted little more than a decade (see Chapter 16).

Separate but not equal

Politics didn't help blacks in the closing years of the 1800s. They weren't slaves anymore, but society was still holding them down. According to the chilling phrase used until the 1960s, keeping blacks "in their place" meant, for many Southern whites, that blacks would be kept poor, segregated, and unable to vote. Jim Crow laws (1890) prohibited blacks from mixing with whites in Southern schools, buses, trains, and parks. These restrictive laws also erected phony literacy tests and poll taxes to keep blacks from voting. The laws didn't apply to anyone whose family was eligible to vote before 1866 and therefore exempted all white people from a test designed to be nearly impossible to pass.

Despite many challenges, Jim Crow laws were finally cleared away only by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. An early attempt to appeal to the Supreme Court, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), failed when the court ruled that "separate but equal" facilities were legal under the Fourteenth Amendment. This ruling was a good day for the segregationist South but a bad day for justice. (See Chapter 23 for the best Supreme Court rulings.) The lives of blacks were separate but almost never equal. Just to make sure blacks and their Northern supporters were too frightened to fight back, whites lynched more than 1,000 blacks during the 1880s and 1890s.

Example

Question: What was the significance of the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)?

Answer: The decision said that "separate but equal" public facilities were acceptable under the civil-rights laws.

Blacks were left to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and they did so:

- Booker T. Washington (1885): Booker T. Washington taught hundreds of blacks to make a living at his Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. His Atlanta Compromise Speech (1895) called for blacks to better themselves through education even while they remained separate but linked to whites, like the individual fingers of a hand. Blacks mostly attended special black colleges until they began to be admitted to traditionally white institutions in the 1960s.

- George Washington Carver (1900): George Washington Carver was a respected agricultural chemist who publicized many uses for peanuts and sweet potatoes at a time when the South needed a crop to replace cotton.

- W. E. B. Du Bois (1910): W. E. B. Du Bois earned a PhD from Harvard and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

- Paul Dunbar (1900): Writer Paul Dunbar made the literary world appreciate the experience of blacks through poetry and dialect in Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896).

Example

Question: What did Booker T. Washington support in his Atlanta Compromise Speech?

Answer: He favored black self-help and accepted separate but cooperative development with whites.

 
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