Improvement in the Social Status of African Americans, Women, and Native Americans, Between 1865 and 1912
One of the tenets of the American Dream states that, in this country, regardless of race, color or creed, everyone has a fair chance to chase and accomplish their ambition. However, American dream in the past few centuries had excluded many factions of the society including, women, Mexican Americans, immigrants, African Americans and Native Americans. For many a period in American history, all these factions were treated inhumanely, discriminated and was denied their basic rights. With the end of the civil war, many crucial political changes took place, which had a profound impact on some social issues, as well. In between the period of 1865-1912, groups, such as the African-Americans, Women, and Native-Americans, which had been traditionally subjected to discrimination and bias, made small but significant progress in their social status.
Initially, slavery was not the only reason for the civil war between the North and the South, but when the war ended slavery occupied the central stage more than any other issue. The period between 1865 and 1877, is known as the reconstruction era and it marked a crucial phase in the American history. During the year 1865, the 13th Amendment of the constitution outlawed involuntary servitude, and the African Americans were granted citizenship. Almost four million slaves were freed of their slavery shackles and a body called Freedmen Bureau was established, in March, 1865, to oversee the transformation process in the South.
The Freedmen Bureau provided food, clothing, and guidance in negotiating labor contracts to the African Americans. The Bureau had the right over the confiscated confederate lands, and they were given the power to allocate them to Southern farmers without deference to their color or ethnicity. The main function of the Bureau was, to regulate the relationship between the freed slaves and their former masters in the new labor market.
Despite all these measures, the hate and apathy, deep rooted in the southern community, did not fade. Most Southern States resented the liberation of slaves, as slavery was the backbone of their economic system. Many states, such as Virginia, adopted rules known as ‘Black codes’, which prevented the Blacks from being treated as equals. For example, the codes called for placing restrictions on the entry of Blacks in a particular Parish, and stipulations were placed against Blacks indulging in trade related activities.
Also, the police forces in the Southern States were given unlimited powers through the Vagrancy laws, to act against the African Americans. These hurdles ensured that, the emancipation process was not smooth, and hence the progress was painstakingly slow. Gradually though, the slave based economy of the South was transferred into a sharecropping economy. The fifteenth amendment of the US constitution, which was ratified by the congress in February 3, 1870, gave the Blacks the legal power to vote.
Many black leaders emerged during this period, who gave leadership and motivation to the African Americans to fight for their rights. Booker T. Washington is one such leader, whose speech in Atlanta during 1895, against the lynching practices of clans such as the Ku Klux Klan, made him a popular figure. He aimed at community building, by organizing middle class Blacks to establish schools and self help groups.
However, leaders like W.E.B. Dubois resented Washington’s supportive views on segregation. An article titled ‘Race War in the North’ published in the year 1908, in the New York Independent, written by William English Walling, called for like minded volunteers to come together and form a body for fighting for black rights. Many activists, such as Mary White Ovington, W.E.B. Dubois, and Dr. Henry Moskowitz responded to their call and this led to the formation of NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), in 1909. The movement went on to become one of the major political groups in the civil rights movement.
Thus, from the year 1865, when the Southern states were defeated and forced to free the slaves, the African community had made steady progress. They worked on a paid labor term basis, they had legal rights, and they had representative bodies and leaders to lead them. The Jim Crow laws and the ‘equal but separate’ segregation would continue for many years after 1912, yet, one cannot deny that there was a significant improvement in the quality of life for African Americans during this era.
The woman’s rights movement in America learnt a lot from the African Americans movement, in terms of their ability to organize, protest and publicize, and their struggle coincided with the anti-slavery movements. The woman suffrage campaign began decades before the civil war, but it gained momentum during the years that immediately followed the end of the war. The women protests movements fought against the legal and social conventions of the day.
It mainly protested against the widely prevalent so-called “Cult of True Womanhood”, which required a Victorian era woman to be a submissive wife and devoted mother. The movement called for recognition of a woman as an individual and a citizen of the United States of America. In the year 1890, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was formed, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as its first president. The association gave boost to the protests, and called for laws to provide women the same rights and power exercised by men, as they were born equal.
The movement concentrated on a broad spectrum of goals before narrowing down to securing the franchise for women. Wyoming was the first state to grant women voting rights in the year 1869. Later 3 other Western states followed suit - Colorado in 1893, Idaho in 1896 and Utah in 1896. Before 1910, only these four states acknowledged the right of women to vote, but NAWSA carried out intense campaigns throughout the country and between 1910 and 1914 many states allowed women to vote including, Washington, Kansas, and California.
Many prominent women leaders took an active part in the campaign, and some of them like Ruth Hanna McCormick and Jeannette went on to become congresswomen. Though the campaign had momentum, it was a slow process and some leaders broke away to form another party called the rival Congressional Union in the year 1913, under the leadership of Alice Paul.
Alice Paul had experience in the English suffrage movement, and she adopted a more militant tactic. She conducted mass rallies to raise support for her cause and followed a more confrontational approach. This brought many younger women into the women suffrage movement. In 1915, Carrie Chapman Catt, who secured the leadership post of NAWSA introduced a strategy, which she named ‘Winning plan’, that involved relentless and disciplined campaigns. These efforts culminated in the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in August 26, 1920, which gave women voting rights.
After being systematically exterminated by settlers, war, and disease and being replanted away from their homeland and culture, any progress is comparatively less for the Native Indians, yet, their life too improved during this period. The 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, ended almost all armed resistance from the Native Americans, and many tribes tried to merge with the mainstream American society.
On June 1868, the scattered members of the Navajo tribe uniting under the name Dinéh, left their reservations and started to walk back to their homelands, in a ‘long walk’. This is one of the very few times, when the US Government allowed the tribes to return to their traditional boundaries. The government allotted the tribe 3.5 million acres of land in their native land, within the area enclosed by their four sacred mountains.
They were one of the first tribes to adapt quickly to their new situation, and within a few years were able to increase their holdings to 16 million acres. They also successfully increased their flock of 15,000 sheep, given to them by the US Government, to 1.7 million by the year 1892, and their population too showed an increase from 8,000 in 1868 to 22,000.
The social movement aimed at reforming Indian administration was initiated by volunteers, who had worked close with the Native Americans. They witnessed the corrupt and indifferent management of Indian affairs by the officials, and urged the government to speed up assimilation. By 1865, the Government entered into contracts with missionaries, for setting up schools and teaching agricultural techniques to the Indians. In the year 1877, $ 2 million dollars were spent on the education of Native Americans by the US government.
In 1883, Code of Indian Offences was proposed, which outlined the modality of judging Indian crimes. According to this code, a separate Court of Indian Offenses was formed, which had three Indians to judge offences. This was a major step that tried to stop the cultural hindrances caused by the assimilation process. In 1905, a Supreme Court verdict clarified that the tribes held the political rights for taxation, administering justice and regulating domestic relations.
Thus, we see that those factions, who were historically excluded from the process of social and economic progress in America, made some substantial development in the years between 1865 and 1912. Their progress was slow, but considering the years of repression faced by them and the opposition they faced during the process of advancement, it can be said that they had achieved a lot during this time.
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