July 25th, 1890
White Advocate of Black Voting Rights Murdered in Mississippi
In 1875, the last Union forces left Mississippi, Reconstruction ended, and state Democrats began an ongoing campaign to restore and maintain white supremacist rule. Black Mississippians, whose citizenship and voting rights had been established by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, were now without proximate federal protection and wholly vulnerable to discrimination. When Mississippi convened delegates to create a new state constitution in 1890, disenfranchising the black electorate was a primary goal.
Elected delegates were the only Mississippians authorized to attend and participate in the constitutional convention that would create the state’s new governing document. During the summer of 1890, F.M.B. “Marsh” Cook, a white Republican and former candidate for Congress, campaigned for a delegate position out of Jasper County. An advocate of civil rights for the country’s new black citizens, Cook vowed that he would use his position as delegate to oppose all attempts to create a state constitution that limited black voting rights. Cook also encouraged the local black community to organize against the creation of discriminatory constitutional provisions.
Cook’s political views were not popular among some whites in the community and he received threats. On the afternoon of July 25, 1890, one day after giving a speech regarding the upcoming convention, Cook was found dead near Mount Zion Baptist Church. He had been dead for several hours, fatally struck by fifteen rounds of buckshot. No one was arrested or tried for the killing, and after Cook’s death, local Democrats alleged he was a dangerous man who had been inciting local blacks against whites. The 1890 Mississippi constitutional convention moved forward, and resulted in a state constitution that established literacy tests and poll taxes that effectively disenfranchised nearly all of the state’s black electorate.
September 5th, 1890
Mississippi Abolishes Convict Lease System and Authorizes Creation of Parchman Farm Penitentiary
In the summer of 1890, 134 delegates gathered in Jackson to create a new constitution for the state of Mississippi. Their primary goal was the political disenfranchisement of the state’s black citizens; one newspaper headline declared “White Supremacy” as “The One Idea of the Convention.”
Another key issue confronting the delegates was convict leasing, a system whereby the state leased its prisoners–overwhelmingly black–to private plantations and railroad camps where they faced brutal conditions and were often literally worked to death. The system was so outrageous that a legislative committee formed six years earlier to investigate conditions had documented widespread abuse. However, the legislature had not acted on those findings.
Rather than humanitarian concerns, the opposition to convict leasing that emerged in 1890 was spurred by economic competition. White laborers and owners of small farms felt the convict leasing system allowed the privileged plantation owners and railroad tycoons to maintain their economic dominance and displace white workers by leasing cheap black labor from the state. The conflict threatened to split the white Democratic consensus that had controlled the state since 1876.
Accordingly, on September 5, 1890, an overwhelming majority of delegates to the Mississippi constitutional convention voted to abolish convict leasing. Because there was no penitentiary large enough to hold the state’s prisoner population at that time, the convention set the order to take effect four years in the future: December 31, 1894. In the meantime, the convention ordered that the state establish a “prison farm” to house and work the state’s prisoners.
Despite the he convention’s order, convict leasing lingered for years in Mississippi, and Parchman Farm would not begin accepting its first prisoners until 1901. By 1917, 90 percent of Parchman’s prisoners would be black men.
November 4th, 1890
White Supremacist “Pitchfork” Benjamin Tillman Elected Governor of South Carolina
On November 4, 1890, Benjamin Ryan Tillman was elected governor of South Carolina. An outspoken white supremacist, Tillman advocated for violence against African American voters and staunchly opposed educational access for black people.
Tillman’s political career catapulted to success after his involvement in the 1876 Hamburg Massacre, where white men rioted and killed nine people in a predominantly African American town in South Carolina. In his gubernatorial campaign, Tillman promised to keep the state’s African American population in a position of permanent inferiority. In his inaugural address and throughout his administration, he emphasized white supremacy and the necessity to revoke African Americans’ rights. Concerning the education of African Americans, Tillman argued, “when you educate a Negro, you educate a candidate for the penitentiary or spoil a good field hand.”
He served two terms as governor and played a critical role in the 1895 South Carolina Constitutional Convention. In order to vote under the revised constitution, a man had to own property, pay a poll tax, pass a literacy test, and meet certain educational standards. The 1895 constitution disenfranchised African American voters and served as a model for other southern states.
Tillman was elected United States Senator for South Carolina in 1895, and he served in this capacity for twenty-four years. Throughout his tenure, he opposed African American equality, women’s suffrage, and any federal interference in state government. Tillman’s philosophy helped shape the era of oppression and abuse of African Americans throughout the South. A statue honoring Tillman still stands on the grounds of South Carolina’s State Capitol.
December 29th, 1890
Massacre at Wounded Knee
In the late nineteenth century, the United States Government began forcefully relocating Native Americans onto reservations, where they were dependent on the government for food and clothing.
In response, some Lakota embraced a religion called Ghost Dance, whose followers believed that Native Americans would become bulletproof and return to their freedom following a great apocalypse. The Ghost Dance performance and religion frightened the federal government and sensationalist newspapers across the country stoked fears about an uprising by Native Americans.
Sioux chief Sitting Bull led his people during years of resistance to United States government policies. He was killed by Indian agency police on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation on December 15, 1890, when authorities attempted to arrest him for his involvement in the Ghost Dance movement. Shortly after Sitting Bull’s killing, the Sioux surrendered and were marched to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
On the morning of December 29, 1890, 500 troops of the United States 7th Calvary Regiment surrounded a group of Lakota Sioux where they had made camp at Wounded Knee Creek. The troops entered the camp to disarm the Lakota. During a brief scuffle between a soldier and a Native American who refused to surrender his weapon, the rifle fired, alarming the rest of the troops. The troops began firing on Native Americans, who tried to recapture weapons and flee the assault.
The attack lasted for more than an hour and left more than 300 Lakota dead; over half of those killed were women, children, and elderly tribal members, and most of the dead were unarmed.
October 31st, 1891
Striking Tennessee Miners Storm Mine and Free State Prisoners Forced to Work as Strike-Breakers
During the spring of 1891, free miners working for the Tennessee Coal Mining Company went on strike in Briceville, Tennessee, after the company demanded that all miners sign an iron-clad contract with draconian terms. In response to the strike, the company evicted the miners from their homes, built a stockade, and leased dozens of state prisoners to replace the free workers. Using convict labor, the mine reopened on July 5, 1891.
Two weeks later, on July 14, three hundred armed miners stormed the stockade and marched the convicts out of the valley, shutting down the mine once more. In response, Governor John P. Buchanan marched the state militia into the valley and, on July 16, met the miners just north of Briceville to plead for peace. The miners refused to accept the mining company’s treatment, and instead demanded that the governor enforce the state’s laws against iron-clad contracts.
When the miners seized control of the Briceville mine again, on July 20, Governor Buchanan requested a 60-day truce so that he could present the miners’ claims to the Tennessee legislature. The legislature subsequently rejected the miners’ demands, and tensions flared once more.
On October 31, 1891, the miners stormed the Briceville mine and burned the stockades to the ground, freeing more than 500 leased convicts and placing them on trains headed out of the Coal Creek Valley. Free miners in other towns soon followed suit; the conflict spread across the Cumberland Plateau and lasted several months until the militia launched a crackdown in the summer of 1892, leading to the arrests of hundreds of miners. Known as the “Coal Creek War,” this clash ultimately brought about the miners’ goal: the Tennessee legislature abolished convict leasing to private companies on January 1, 1894.
While the free miners no longer had to compete with convict labor, the Coal Creek War did not end the practice of forcing state convicts – mostly “able bodied young colored men” – to labor in mines. Instead, convicts were now shipped to Brushy Mountain and forced to mine coal for the state of Tennessee. By 1904, the state claimed $200,000 per year in profits from convict labor.
March 9th, 1892
Three Black Grocers Lynched in Memphis, Tennessee
In March 1892, three young black men, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Steward, opened the People's Grocery Company in Memphis, Tennessee. Located across the street from a white-owned grocery store that had been the local black community's only option, the new business reduced the white store's profits and threatened the racial order by forcing whites to compete economically with blacks.
A white mob formed, intent on using force to put the black grocery out of business, and the black grocers armed themselves for defense. When the mob attacked, shots were fired and three white men were wounded. Moss, McDowell, and Steward were arrested and sensational newspaper reports published the next day fanned the flames of racial outrage. On March 9, 1892, a white mob stormed the Memphis jail, seized all three men and brutally lynched them. No one was punished for the killings.
Ida B. Wells, a 29-year-old black schoolteacher and journalist living in Memphis, was a friend of the three murdered men and was deeply impacted by their deaths. She published an editorial urging local blacks to "save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons." More than 6000 African Americans heeded her call. Ms. Wells would devote her entire life to documenting and challenging the injustice of lynching through research, writing, speaking, and activism.
May 27th, 1892
White Mob Destroys Ida B. Wells's Newspaper Office in Memphis, Tennessee
After three of her friends were lynched in March 1892, Ida B. Wells became an outspoken activist against white vigilantes' frequent murders of black people and terrorism of black communities. A 29-year-old black schoolteacher in Memphis, Tennessee, Ms. Wells was editor and co-owner of a local black newspaper, The Free Speech and Headlight. She used the newspaper as a forum to share information she gathered about recent lynchings and to reject the dominant justification for lynching as white manhood's appropriate response to the rape of white women by black men. Instead, Ms. Wells found that most black lynching victims were killed for minor offenses or non-criminal transgressions such as failing to pay debts, public drunkenness, challenging whites' economic dominance, or engaging in consensual interracial romance.
On May 21, 1892, Ms. Wells published an editorial challenging the idea that lynching was meant to protect white womanhood. "Nobody in this section of the country," she wrote, "believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women." Memphis's white newspapers denounced Ms. Wells's editorial, deriding her as a "black scoundrel" and fanning local white outrage. On May 27, 1892, while Ms. Wells was in Philadelphia, a white mob attacked and destroyed her newspaper's office and threatened her with bodily harm if she returned to Memphis. She did not return and eventually settled in Chicago, where she remained an advocate of racial justice and vocal opponent of lynching until her death in 1931.
January 3rd, 1895
Nineteen Hopi Leaders Imprisoned in Alcatraz
In the late 1800s, the United States government sought to “Americanize” the Indian population by forcing Native American children into white schools, often far from their homes and families. In 1887, the government established Keams Canyon Boarding School and pressured Native American parents from the Hopi tribe to enroll their children. Hopi families that complied with the government's order and sent their children to school were deemed “Friendlies,” while those who refused were branded “Hostiles.” When most parents refused to part with their children voluntarily, the government resorted to force, sending soldiers to round up children and send them to Keams Canyon.
At the same time, tensions were rising regarding the limited land that the government had allotted to Indian tribes. In October 1894, fifty Hopi returned to plant on land that had traditionally belonged to their tribe. The U.S. government, claiming to act in defense of the rights of Friendlies, responded by ordering troops to arrest the Hopi leaders. Justifying the order for military involvement, one government official wrote that “[t]he Friendlies must be protected in their rights and encouraged to continue in the Washington way. . .”
On January 3, 1895, nineteen leaders from the Hopi tribe were imprisoned on Alcatraz Island, a prison in the San Francisco Bay. They were charged with sedition for opposing the U.S. government's program of forced education and assimilation. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that “[n]ineteen murderous-looking Apache Indians” had been arrested and taken to Alcatraz, “because they would not let their children go to school.” The paper added that they “have not hardship aside from the fact that they have been rudely snatched from the bosom of their families and are prisoners and prisoners they shall stay until they have learned to appreciate the advantage of education.” The Hopi leaders were imprisoned in the wooden cells of Alcatraz for nearly one year.
January 12th, 1896
Interracial Couple Lynched in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana
On the night of January 12, 1896, a mob of twenty men gathered around the home of Patrick and Charlotte “Lottie” Morris in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, and set it ablaze. Mr. Morris, a white railroad hand, and his wife, a black woman, had garnered the ill will of the community “on account of their difference in color” as well as their operation of a gathering place and hotel for black people.
The mob first attempted to burn down the Morris’ home at 11:00 that night, but Mr. Morris discovered the fire and extinguished it. By midnight, the mob set a fire that could not be controlled. When the couple attempted to escape the flames through the front door of their home they were met with a barrage of gunfire. Mrs. Morris was shot and killed at the doorstep while Mr. Morris was maimed by a shot to his leg.
The Morris’ twelve-year-old son witnessed the events and escaped through the back door of the home. As the boy ran for safety, the mob shot into the darkness after him but missed. Patrick Morris Jr. spent the night hiding underneath a nearby home in the neighborhood.
The next morning, community members found that much of the Morris’s home had been destroyed by the fire. Mr. and Mrs. Morris’s charred remains were found on their bed inside the home. A coroner’s examination revealed that one of the bodies had been decapitated, though it was unclear whether this act was carried out before or after death. Charlotte Morris was sixty-eight years old and Patrick Morris was fifty-eight years old.
April 13th, 1896
Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Plessy v. Ferguson
In 1890, Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act, which mandated that railroad companies provide separate passenger cars for black and white travelers. The Comite des Citoyens (“Committee of Citizens”), a New Orleans group of free black men who employed civil disobedience to challenge segregation laws, orchestrated Homer A. Plessy’s arrest for boarding a “whites-only” passenger car. Mr. Plessy, a black man with a very light complexion, appealed his conviction to the United States Supreme Court. On April 13, 1896, the Court heard Plessy's argument that the Louisiana segregation law violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, which abolished slavery and established equal protection of the laws.
On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court released a 7-1 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, holding that state-mandated segregation in intrastate travel was constitutional, as long as the separate accommodations were equal. Justice Henry Brown wrote the majority opinion, which held that the Louisiana law did not violate the Thirteenth or Fourteenth Amendment because it did not interfere with an individual’s personal freedom or liberties. He claimed the Court could uphold the notion that all people are equal before the law in political and civil rights but could not override social inferiority based upon the distinction of race.
Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented, writing that the Louisiana law was in direct violation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments' promise of protection of all civil rights related to freedom and citizenship. Justice Harlan specified that the law was a blatant attempt to infringe upon the civil rights of African Americans and that the Court inappropriately yielded to public sentiment at the expense of constitutional safeguards. He predicted the Court’s decision would lead to racial confrontation.
Plessy v. Ferguson legally sanctioned racial segregation by establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine as national law. Public services and accommodations were segregated for decades, until the Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 overruled the application of “separate but equal” in public education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited it in public accommodations.
November 10th, 1898
Whites Mobs Expel Integrated City Government in Wilmington, North Carolina
The only acknowledged coup d’etat in United States history occurred on November 10, 1898, when mobs of armed white supremacists descended on city hall in Wilmington, North Carolina, and forced both black and white elected officials to resign. Two days earlier, the City of Wilmington had held elections and voted in a biracial government, to the dismay of white groups known as “Red Shirts” who had tried to intimidate black voters.
The insurrection was the apex of frustration among white Southern Democrats in North Carolina who had lost governing power to an interracial Republican Party in 1894. As they planned to forcibly regain power in the state, Southern Democrats projected their commitment to white supremacy and trumpeted their conviction that white women were endangered by free black men. The mobs’ takeover of the local government was the culmination of two days of post-election rioting, in which armed whites destroyed black businesses and killed dozens of black residents.
The white supremacist mobs were led by Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, who declared in an election speech that he would “choke the current of the Cape Fear River” with black bodies. Among the businesses destroyed in the riot was a black newspaper led by Alex Manly, whose writing openly denounced the lynching of black men accused of having relationships with white women. The exact number of black people killed in the riot is unknown, but some estimates are as high as 100. President William McKinley declined to intervene or provide assistance to Wilmington’s black residents; the mobs, permitted to seize political control of the city, appointed Colonel Waddell as Wilmington’s new mayor.