African Americans and Civil Rights in Progressive Era Connecticut

Introduction

“For African Americans,” urban historian Steven J. Diner wrote, “the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century seemed in many respects the worst of times” (p. 125).  Between the late 1890’s and the early 1920’s, in response to what was perceived as the excess of the Gilded Age “robber barons,” a powerful  wave of social reform shook the nation.  Reformers of the Progressive Era, as it has become known, fought to ameliorate the conditions of workers, bust up the trusts and monopolies, institute a graduated income tax, and expand the right to vote to women.  However, these mainstream reform movements did not, in general, take on the question of civil rights for African Americans.

Black businesses and the African American professional class developed in spite of the neglect of the Progressive movement.  The Northern states had not enacted Jim Crow laws that codified segregation as did the former states of the Confederacy, but unofficial segregation prevailed in many areas of life, growing more rigid with the great migration of African Americans from the South after World War I.  While Black men had the vote, and street cars, railroads, public bathrooms, and water fountains served everyone together, many other public accommodations like hotels and restaurants were segregated by practice.

World War I Black veteran demands end to discrimination in public accommodations.

Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer, March 3, 1919

“Technically,” historian Stacey Close wrote, ” ‘separate but equal’ had been outlawed in the 1870’s but in reality it remained in place.  .  .  “ (“Connecticut,” p. 195).  At the same time, Connecticut newspapers regularly carried news of incidents of extreme extralegal violence against the Black community in other parts of the country, violence that included lynching and riots destructive to African American property and lives.  Editorials in the state’s mainstream newspapers often condemned this lawlessness, but these condemnations did not go so far as to demand full equality inside Connecticut itself.

In the midst of this difficult situation, African Americans in Connecticut stood with great dignity and resilience in their own defense.  Churches and fraternal organizations rallied against the play “The Clansman” and the film “The Birth of a Nation.”  Communities celebrated the champion Jack Johnson and the educator Booker T. Washington.

Washington toured Connecticut often and wielded a great deal of influence. After his death, according to Stacey Close, “the way was opened for the greater ascent of the NAACP” (“Connecticut,” p. 195).  When the war ended, the NAACP helped to organize Black World War I veterans into an effort to bring the democracy that they fought for in Europe home to Connecticut.  The mainstream newspapers covered their protests and these accounts can be read here in their context, that is, alongside stories of the racialized culture wars that surrounded the Jack Johnson/Joe Jeffries prizefight, together with laudatory reviews of ”The Clansmen” theater production that rewrote Reconstruction to justify white supremacy, with news of the national legislative refusal to pass an anti-lynching law, and coverage of the defeat of a state legislative response to appeals to end discrimination in public accommodations.  The articles and editorials in the newly digitized white-owned and managed Connecticut newspapers can be compared and contrasted with treatments of the same or like events in Southern newspapers or in African American newspapers—such as the Chicago Broad Ax and the St. Louis Appeal—that are all accessible in the same Library of Congress database of historic newspapers, Chronicling America.

 

Timeline of Events

  • 1905       Founding of the Niagara Movement by W.E.B. Du Bois and William Trotter
  • 1909       African American state residents oppose “The Clansman” performances
  • 1909       Founding of national NAACP
  • 1910       Johnson-Jeffries fight film controversy
  • 1915       African American state residents oppose “Birth of a Nation” film showings
  • 1915       Death of Booker T. Washington
  • 1917       Opening of US intervention into World War I
  • 1919       W.E. B Du Bois publishes “Returning Soldiers”
  • 1919       2500 People attend National Conference on Lynching
  • 1919       “Red Summer” of extralegal violence against African   Americans on a national scale
  • 1919       Black veterans petition for an end to segregation in Connecticut public accommodations
  • 1921       Marcus Garvey’s UNIA holds international convention which attracts 50,000 people

How to Search in Chronicling America

 

To search only Connecticut newspapers, click on the “Advanced Search” tab and then select “Connecticut.”  To search only African American newspapers from around the country, click on the “All Digitized Newspapers” tab, then in the pull-down menu called “Ethnicities,” select “African American.”

Remember that you have to search with terms in use at the time, even though these terms are no longer acceptable.

Possible search terms
  • Colored
  • Negro
  • The Clansman
  • Birth of a Nation
  • Jack Johnson
  • Booker T. Washington
  • W.E.B. DuBois
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
  • Marcus Garvey
  • Lynching
  • Universal Negro Improvement Association
  • William Trotter
Sample Searches

 

Bibliography

Close, Stacey.  “Black Southern Migration, Black Immigrants, Garveyism, and the Transformation of Black Hartford, 1917-1922,” The Griot (Spring 2004), pp. 55-68.

Close, Stacey.  “Connecticut & the Aftermath of the Civil War” and “Black Southern Migration and the Transformation of Connecticut, 1917-1941,” in Elizabeth J. Normen, editor ,  African American Connecticut Explored.  Middletown, Conn.:  Wesleyan University Press, 2013, pp. 187-197 and pp. 239-252.

Collins, Ann V.  All Hell Broke Loose:  American Race Riots from the Progressive Era through World War II.  Santa Barbara, Calif.:  Praeger, 2012, pp. 71-86.

Diner, Steven J.  “African Americans Quest for Freedom,” in A Very Different Age:  Americans of the Progressive Era.  New York:  Hill and Wang, 1998, pp. 125-154.

Du Bois, W. E. B.  “Returning Soldiers,” The Crisis (May 1919), pp. 13-15.  http://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1295987016703125.pdf.  Accessed May 5, 2016.

Franklin, John Hope.  From Slavery to Freedom:  A History of African Americans.  Boston:  McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Hunter, Kathleen.  The African Americans of Connecticut.  Hartford, Conn.:  Connecticut State Department of Education, 2001.

Johnson, Charles S.  The Negro Population of Hartford, Connecticut.  New York:  The League, 1921.

Jones, Mark.  ““To Tell Our Story:” Mary Townsend Seymour and the Early Years of Hartford’s Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1917-1920” in Connecticut History, Vol. 44, No.2 (Fall 2005), pp. 205-223.

Orbach, Barak.  “The Johnson-Jeffries Fight and the Censorship of Black Supremacy,”  Arizona Legal Studies Discussion Paper No. 10-09, April 2010.  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1563863.  Accessed May 20, 2016.

Scott, Emmett J.  Negro Migration during the War.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1920, pp. 54-58, 141-142.

Stone, Frank Andrews.  African American Connecticut:  African Origins, New England Roots.  Storrs, Conn.:  Isaac N. Thut World Education Center, 1991.

Warner, Robert Austin.  New Haven Negroes:  A Social History.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1940, pp. 182-300.

Note:  The Connecticut State Library has digitized the service records of a number of African American World War I veterans.  For example, see http://cslib.cdmhost.com/cdm/ref/collection/p4005coll1/id/329

 

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