Segregation to 1900: Side 1
Between the end of Reconstruction and 1900, the cause of freedom suffered two landmark defeats: the first, in 1883, when the U. S. Supreme Court declared the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional; the second, in 1896, when the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling made “separate but equal” the law of the land. These decisions opened the floodgates to a host of state segregation statutes and left African Americans, in the words of President James Garfield (1881) on “the middle ground between slavery and freedom.”
Although Kentucky accepted black freedom, neither the leadership nor the masses of white Kentuckians were willing to concede black equality. Segregation was imposed one law at a time and, within a few years, Kentucky law required segregation in accommodations, theaters, ball parks, race tracks, and public transportation—social domains that, unlike schools, had not always been segregated before. African Americans across the state united to oppose the 1892 separate coach law, but, after the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the controversial statute in 1900, civil rights for Kentucky African Americans had, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist. The only crucial exception was the franchise and Kentucky African Americans, largely because their numbers were too small to represent a threat to white domination, never lost the ability to exercise their right to vote.
By 1900, the color line had been drawn through all walks of American life, a line that barred blacks from all places and spaces in which there might even be the appearance of equality with whites. These laws became a new and seldom questioned standard for race relations in Kentucky and throughout the nation—and African Americans had reached what historian Rayford Logan termed the nadir, the lowest point, in African America history.
Segregation to 1900: Side 2
By trial and error, imitation and invention, Louisville’s black leadership developed a two-pronged strategy to meet the daunting challenges of the post-Reconstruction era: first, to make separate as “equal” as possible; and, second, when possible, to attack and breach the walls of segregation. Black Louisvillians had several key assets in executing this strategy.
By 1900, Louisville had gained a reputation as city in which racial compromise was sometimes possible. African Americans represented nearly 20 percent of the total population of Louisville and were the 7th largest black community in the nation. Being at the bottom of a wealthy local economy was more advantageous than being at the top of a poor one—and, hence, most African Americans were employed and some were moderately prosperous. Equally important, the size of Louisville’s black population made the black vote significantly more meaningful than in other sections of the state. And, finally, a new generation of outstanding black leaders— most notably William H. Steward, Reverend Charles H. Parrish, Sr., and Albert Ernest Meyzeek—learned to leverage these assets to wrest concessions from local white leaders.
As a testament to their efforts, by 1900, Central Colored High School was, perhaps, the largest black public school in the United States. The percentage of African American homeowners was higher in Louisville than in any other American city. There were sixty-six churches, sixty-seven fraternal organizations boasting 7,500 total members, twelve black women’s clubs, thirteen physicians, eight attorneys, fifty-nine ministers, a Colored Old Folks Home, a YMCA, and more than one hundred teachers in the city. State University offered liberal arts, theological, medical and legal education.
Life in segregated Louisville was not idyllic. Poverty and poor housing were commonplace. Violence, crime and police brutality were widespread. But separate was more equal than in most other black communities in the state and nation—and that in itself was an impressive achievement.
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