To what extent were the years 1880 - 1917 'decades of disappointment' for African Americans?
When Lincoln issued the Emancipation proclamation in 1863, African Americans believed they were on the road to equality and freedom, as they were now liberated and free of their slave owners. However, not even the African Americans themselves could have foreseen the challenges that would face them during the years up to 1917. Legislation change and the problems with legislation severely weakened the rights of black people; and the rise of white supremacy only added to the disappointment of the life as an African American. This is why many historians such as Vivienne Sanders have described the years between 1880-1917 as the ‘decades of disappointments’, as she believes that, ‘much of the promise of the 1860s was not fulfilled’. However, it could be argued that the emergence of key civil rights activists undoubtedly made these years prosperous for African Americans. Booker T. Washington and William Du Bois certainly put the argument of civil rights for African Americans firmly on the map, resulting in these years being encouraging for blacks instead of being disappointing.
It could be argued that in fact the years of 1880-1917 were ones of disappointment for African Americans due to the problems with and the change in key pieces of civil rights legislation. For instance, test cases in 1883 resulted in a Supreme Court decision that the civil rights act of 1875 was unconstitutional. The basis, on which the act was deemed unconstitutional, was the fact that state governments and not federal governments should decide on their own internal affairs. The act had provided some protection for African Americans against discrimination and segregation; in particular it asserted their right to equality before the law. The fact that state governments could now decide their own internal affairs does not seem fair to African Americans, as southern states and indeed their politicians were frequently racist and often took on political responsibilities to ensure white supremacy, which does not bode well for black civil rights. In addition, the discovery in the 1890s of loopholes in the interpretation of the 13th Amendment add to the argument of the years of 1880-1917 being the decades of disappointment for African Americans. The exploited loopholes revealed states could impose voting qualifications, such as literacy and housing conditions, on their people. This at first may not seem discriminatory towards African Americans, but when you consider that many remained illiterate, it effectively prevented African- Americans from exercising their right to vote. Expectedly, this led to a significant drop in the number of black voters, such as in Louisiana where the number of registered black voters dropped from 130,344 to 5320 by 1900. As well as these legislation changes, the introduction of the ‘Jim Crow’ laws added to the disappointment of African Americans. The laws were introduced in most southern states, and resulted in segregation being fully embedded into everyday society. In the words of David Paterson, the aims of the laws were to simply ‘segregate the African Americans from the White Americans’. The laws provided separate schools, hospitals and transport for blacks and whites and in some cases banned mixed marriages. However, it is important to note that the separate schools and hospitals for African Americans were considerably poorer than the ones provided for White Americans, as they received less funding. Indeed the legislation change during this time period dramatically reduced the rights and equality of African Americans, which supports the idea of this time period being the decades of disappointments for African Americans.