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.
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
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%