Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom

Era of Segregation 1876-1968

The years after the Civil War were hopeful and disheartening for African Americans. With the end of slavery, they had hoped to attain full citizenship. Instead they found themselves resisting efforts to put in place a new form of oppression—segregation. In the face of these attacks, African Americans created institutions and communities to help them survive and thrive.

During the Jim Crow era, discriminatory laws and practices made traveling by car a difficult and even dangerous experience for African Americans. Published from 1936 to 1966, the Negro Motorist Green Book listed motels, restaurants, service stations, and other accommodations that served African Americans. 

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Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876-1968 captures the major aspects of that struggle and illustrates how African Americans not only survived the challenges set before them but crafted an important role for themselves in the nation. Through their struggle, they challenged the nation to live up to its ideals of freedom and equality. It also looks at how the nation was changed as a consequence of these struggles and emerged from them more in sync with its pronouncements about freedom, equality, and democracy. This period represents a critical era for the United States and for African Americans. It puts to the test whether African Americans would have full citizenship rights after more than 250 years of enslavement.

We claim exactly the same rights, privileges and immunities as are enjoyed by white men—we ask nothing more and will be content with nothing less.

Report of the Colored Convention Montgomery, Alabama, 1867
Now!, ca. 1965

Now!, ca. 1965

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Dwandalyn and Roderic Reece in memory of Pauline Watkins Reece, © SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

Journey Through
the Exhibition

 

Era of Segregation Storylines

When Reconstruction came to an end in 1877, the majority of African Americans lived in the South. As white southerners regained control of state and local governments, they passed new laws to keep blacks and whites segregated and to condemn African Americans to an inferior, restricted, second-class citizenship. To resist the impact of these laws, African Americans created communities and institutions to sustain themselves and looked for ways to protest their treatment.

African American Population Statistics, 1870

  • Total U. S. Population: 38,558,000
  • African American Population: 4,880,009 (12.6 %)
  • 90% of African Americans lived in the south
  • 85% lived in rural areas in 1890
  • New Orleans was the city with the largest African American population
  • Georgia was the state with the largest African American population
  • African American literacy rate: 20%

In 1903 scholar and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois warned that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line.” The solution to that problem would depend largely on how people of color responded to efforts to control and dehumanize them. Excluded by the larger society, African Americans protested inequality and at the same time created institutions, businesses, organizations, and communities to meet their own needs. As the African American population enlarged, their organizations increased in size and influence.

African American Population statistics, 1900

  • Total U.S. population in 1900: 79,994,575
  • African American population in 1900: 8,883,994 (11.6%)
  • 90% of African Americans live in the south.
  • African American literacy rate: 56%
  • Washington, D.C. was the city with the largest African American population: 86,700
  • Georgia was the state with the largest African American population: 2.8 million

The experiences of World War I, at home and abroad, changed the attitudes of a generation of African Americans. They were less willing to retreat in the face of discriminatory treatment. They felt greater pride in their African heritage and grew more strident in their resistance to attacks on their civil rights. This new attitude was evident in their music, literature, and other cultural expressions as well as in their political and social activism.

African American Population Statistics, 1920

  • Total U.S. population: 105,710,620
  • African American population: 10,463,131 (9.9%)
  • 85% of African Americans lived in the South
  • 66 % of African Americans lived in rural areas
  • New York City was the city with the largest African American population: 152,467
  • Georgia was the state with the largest African American population: 1,034,813
  • African American literacy rate: 77%

After World War II, a generation of African Americans saw less and less reason to endure attacks on their civil rights. Training under the G.I. Bill had lessened African American dependence on sharecropping. Moreover, rising numbers of African Americans relocated to cities. They wanted change immediately and were willing to force change even at the risk of their own safety. Returning veterans and their generation were central to the success of the civil rights movement that emerged after the war.

African American Population Statistics, 1950

  • Total U.S. population: 150,697,361
  • African American population: 15,042,286 (10%)
  • 68% of African Americans lived in the South
  • 73% lived in urban areas
  • New York City was the city with the largest African American population: 747,608
  • Georgia was the state with the largest African American population: 1,062,762
  • African American literacy rate: 90%

A Closer Look

The Power of Individual Choices and Collective Action in the Era of Segregation
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“A Man Was Lynched Yesterday"

As a result of the war years, the NAACP became the strongest civil rights organization capable of fighting against post-war prejudice and discrimination. ...For eighteen years, it boldly flew a huge flag over its New York headquarters stating, “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.”
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From Sit-Ins To Wade-Ins

From lunch counters to bus boycotts, the African American fight for integration and equality touched every aspect of life. What you may not be familiar with is the Civil Rights struggle to integrate America’s pools and beaches. Journey with us as we explore the struggle for summer leisure, and the bravery that secured your right to a day in the sand. Voiced by Sterling K. Brown.
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March on Washington Legacy

Movie from the National Museum of African American History and Culture's exhibit, Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963 on view at the National Museum of American History December 14, 2012 - September 7, 2014.

Exhibition Luminaries

Daisy Bates
01/019

Daisy Bates

Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, selected nine students to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Bates’s house became a meeting place for supporters of the integration plans. Once the students entered the high school she continued to support and counseled them through the entire school year. Bates and her husband operated the Arkansas State Press newspaper, which focused on civil rights issues and other concerns of the African American community. (Photo credit: Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)
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Mary McLeod Bethune
02/019

Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune was the founder and first president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), which began in 1935. It brought together 28 organizations of African American women. Their goal was to fight for improved national and international racial conditions, especially for women and their families as an “organization of organizations” with a “Unity of Purpose and a Unity of Action.” For more than 80 years, it was has remained one of the most influential African American women’s organizations. (Photo credit: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
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Ruby Bridges was one of six African American children chosen to integrate New Orleans’s all-white elementary schools. Four U.S. marshals escorted Ruby and mother to school when local officials refused to protect her. The entire school year only one teacher agreed to teach her, and only in a class by herself. Her father was fired from his job and her grandparents thrown off the farm they rented. But she finished the school year and remained a student there through elementary school. (Photo credit: Getty Imag
03/019

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges was one of six African American children chosen to integrate New Orleans’s all-white elementary schools. Four U.S. marshals escorted Ruby and mother to school when local officials refused to protect her. The entire school year only one teacher agreed to teach her, and only in a class by herself. Her father was fired from his job and her grandparents thrown off the farm they rented. But she finished the school year and remained a student there through elementary school. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Born in Trinidad Tobago and educated at Howard University, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) joined the civil rights movement as a teenager. He was a Freedom Rider who spent 42 days in Mississippi’s Parchman prison. Afterwards he joined SNCC and helped register voters in Alabama. He became chairmen of SNCC in 1966, but left a year later to join the Black Panther Party. A compelling speaker and writer, Carmichael came to represent an aggressive, confrontational, and even violent approach to African American li
04/019

Stokely Carmichael

Born in Trinidad Tobago and educated at Howard University, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) joined the civil rights movement as a teenager. He was a Freedom Rider who spent 42 days in Mississippi’s Parchman prison. Afterwards he joined SNCC and helped register voters in Alabama. He became chairmen of SNCC in 1966, but left a year later to join the Black Panther Party. A compelling speaker and writer, Carmichael came to represent an aggressive, confrontational, and even violent approach to African American liberation. (Photo credit: Norman James/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
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Charles W. Chesnutt
05/019

Charles W. Chesnutt

Chesnutt was the first African American writer to have an article published in the Atlantic Monthly. He wrote books and short stories that often dealt with controversial issues such as miscegenation, “passing for white,” and class competition within the African American community. His best-known work was a volume of short stories entitled The Conjure Woman. He also wrote several novels condemning the convict labor system. (Photo Credit: Cleveland Public Library Image Collection)
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Shirley Chisholm
06/019

Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm’s father was a factory worker from Guyana and her mother a seamstress and domestic worker from Barbados. They met and married in New York City. Chisholm began her career as a nursery school teacher and became known as an authority on early education and child welfare. She won a seat in the New York State Assembly in 1964 and then the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968, where she was the first black woman elected to Congress. (Photo credit: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
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Dorothy Geraldine Counts
07/019

Dorothy Geraldine Counts

At age 15 Dorothy Counts and three other teens were selected to integrate Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. On her first day an angry crowd of students and adults greeted her with jeers and racial slurs and threw stones and sticks. In school she was taunted by other students. She and her family received death threats. Local police claimed they could not guarantee her safety, and after four days her parents withdrew her from Harding. They sent her to school in Philadelphia. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Father Divine
08/019

Father Divine and the Peace Mission Movement

Father Divine, a charismatic African American spiritual leader, founded his Peace Missions in Harlem and around the country during the Depression. The missions provided employment and inexpensive food, clothing, and shelter for his followers. He was a captivating speaker who offered a philosophy of racial equality and, in his words, “heaven here on earth.” His ideals were embodied in his “Righteous Government Platform,” which called for an end to segregation, lynching, and capital punishment. His economic success during the Depression only enhanced his reputation and attracted more followers. (Photo credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
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W. E. B. Du Bois
09/019

W. E. B. Du Bois

Du Bois wrote the classic book The Souls of Black Folk, in which he contended that Booker T. Washington was wrong and that education and protest were the key to success. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
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Paul Laurence Dunbar
010/019

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Dunbar was a prolific and successful writer won acclaim as a poet, partly for his use of “slave dialect” in his poems. He also produced four books of short stories, four novels, a play, a dozen books and lyrics for a musical. (Photo credit: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)
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Medgar Evers
011/019

Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers joined the U.S. Army after graduating high school in 1943. He served in Europe, participated in the invasion of Normandy, was honorably discharged at the rank of sergeant in 1945. But back home he learned his service did not protect him from discrimination. He and his brother tried to register to vote in Mississippi, and were stopped at gunpoint. Evers joined the NAACP and eventually became its field secretary for the state of Mississippi.
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The Fisk Jubilee Singers traveled worldwide performing to earn money for Fisk University. Their concerts helped make Negro spirituals an important American music tradition. The advent of records made the music of the Jubilee singers more widely available, helping to broaden their appeal.
012/019

The Fisk Jubilee Singers

The Fisk Jubilee Singers traveled worldwide performing to earn money for Fisk University. Their concerts helped make Negro spirituals an important American music tradition. The advent of records made the music of the Jubilee singers more widely available, helping to broaden their appeal. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Marcus Garvey
013/019

Marcus Garvey

Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey was a political leader, journalist, and orator who immigrated to the New York City in 1916. Garvey advocated Pan Africanism, which encouraged a return to Africa as well as economic and political solidarity among African descendants worldwide. To spread his ideas and achieve his goals, he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and his newspaper the Negro World. He also created the Black Star Line, which was to carry people back to Africa and promote economic trade. (Photo credit: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Fred Gray
014/019

Fred Gray

Fred Gray served as Rosa Parks’s attorney. He later filed a lawsuit that ultimately reached the Supreme Court. The Court’s ruling ended segregated busing. Gray continued his civil rights litigation, attacking school segregation, defending the NAACP against a proposed ban in Alabama, and representing Martin Luther King Jr. in a tax evasion prosecution. He later represented the survivors and families involved in the multiyear Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which subjected African American subjects to syphilis infections without their knowledge. (Photo Credit: Bob Fitch photography archive, Stanford University Libraries)
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The Greensboro Four
015/019

The Greensboro Four

During their freshmen year at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University, David Richmond (from left), Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil spent hours discussing racial issues. What emerged from their conversations was the decision to resist the injustice of everyday racial segregation. They received encouragement from a white businessman, Ralph Johnson, who also opposed segregation. The students decided to sit-in at the local Woolworth’s lunch counter. The ultimate success of their protest drew black and white students into the Civil Rights Movement. (Photo Credit: Jack Moebes/Corbis)
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William Christopher Handy
016/019

William Christopher Handy

Both a composer and musician, Handy was one of the most influential blues songwriters of his time and is known as “Father of the Blues.” (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Hubert Henry Harrison
017/019

Hubert Henry Harrison

Harrison was a writer, orator and political activist who was a key promoter of the concept of the proud and forceful New Negro. He was born on the island of St. Croix in the Caribbean. After immigrating to New York City, he founded a militant organization devoted to racial equality—the Liberty League. He also published The New Negro, a magazine that vigorously protested lynching and riots. Harrison eventually aligned with Marcus Garvey and became editor of Garvey’s newspaper, Negro World. (Photo Credit: Columbia University Libraries Archival Collection)
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Dorothy Height
018/019

Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height served as president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for nearly 50 years. She also was active with the national YWCA and helped create its Center for Racial Justice. She was a key planner of the March on Washington in 1963. Through the NCNW she organized the first Black Family Reunion on the National Mall to celebrate traditions and values of African American families. President Barack Obama called her "the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement.” (Photo credit: Dayna Smith/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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Archbishop Iakovos
019/019

Archbishop Iakovos

His eminence Archbishop Iakovos (1911–2005) of the Greek Orthodox Church was an outspoken supporter of civil rights legislation. He traveled to Selma, Alabama, in 1965 to join Martin Luther King Jr. For the second march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, whre they knelt and prayed. He was a compelling example of the many individuals willing to cross racial lines to support the movement. (Photo credit: Mario Geo/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
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Exhibition Objects

Pew from the Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1891

Pew from the Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1891

Dress sewn by Rosa Parks, 1955 - 1956

Dress sewn by Rosa Parks, 1955 - 1956

Sign from segregated Nashville bus number 351, ca. 1950

Sign from segregated Nashville bus number 351, ca. 1950

National Negro Business League pin, ca. 1908

National Negro Business League pin, ca. 1908

Sign for N. Hodges Employment Agency, mid-20th century

Sign for N. Hodges Employment Agency, mid-20th century

Handmade wood and metal washboard, 19th century

Handmade wood and metal washboard, 19th century

Pew from the Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1891
Dress sewn by Rosa Parks, 1955 - 1956
Sign from segregated Nashville bus number 351, ca. 1950
National Negro Business League pin, ca. 1908
Sign for N. Hodges Employment Agency, mid-20th century
Handmade wood and metal washboard, 19th century