The beginnings of Jim Crow America in the database “African Americans and Jim Crow”

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was an abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher, public speaker, writer, and one of the first African American women to have a novel (“Iola Leroy”) published in the United States.

With the database “African Americans and Jim Crow: Repression and Protest, 1883-1922” the Library offers access to the burst of African American literary creativity that followed victory over the Southern Confederacy and slavery. Many of the works produced by the extraordinary Black educators and writers who emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were critically acclaimed in their time and continue to resonate because the issues that they raised more than a century ago remain unresolved.

The more than 1,000 fully-searchable printed works in the database provide critical insight into African American culture — eyewitness accounts of African American life; relationships between African Americans and peoples of other nations; race in literature; and official reports on the changing status of African Americans after Reconstruction.

The Jim Crow era began with the 1883 Supreme Court decision in the ironically named “Civil Rights Cases.” The decision essentially overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and declared that the federal government could not prevent discrimination on the basis of race. Significant gains for Blacks in the South during Reconstruction were systematically stripped away through repressive laws and murderous insurrections.

One of the works in the database, Charles W. Chestnutt’s novel “Marrow of Tradition” (1901), tells of events surrounding a white mob’s overthrow of a legitimately elected biracial government. To readers of the time, the novel’s fictional seat of government (the Southern town of Wellington) was an obvious reference to Wilmington, NC where white vigilantes staged a bloody insurrection known as The Wilmington Massacre in 1898. Chestnutt (1858-1832), who garnered praise from white critics for “The Conjure Woman” (1899), a collection of plantation stories in which he cleverly subverted traditional Black stereotypes, was condemned as “bitter” for directly confronting white supremacy. As with other literary figures in the database, Chestnutt was being pressured, in the words of poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906), to “wear the mask that grins and lies …”

The rich source of historical and literary material in the database — curated from the Library Company of Philadelphia’s acclaimed collection of African Americana — offers new research opportunities for students and faculty: fresh topics for term papers, group study, and oral presentations, and multiple paths for classroom study. Features such as “Suggested Searches” invite researchers at all levels to drill into the content by topic, time period, theme, or subject matter:

  • African American Women Writers
  • Separate but Equal
  • Theorizing the Origins of Race
  • Minstrel Shows and Satire
  • Race Relations and Southern States
  • White Supremacy Movements and Groups
  • Back-to-Africa Movement
  • Suffrage/Right to Vote
  • Lynching
  • African Methodist Episcopal Church
  • Baptist Associations
  • Early histories of Reconstruction
  • Southern culture and the role of African Americans
  • Founding and growth of African American colleges
  • Perspectives of Civil War narratives
  • Portrayal of African Americans in the Arts
  • Paths to Emancipation through literature and biographies

You can find “African Americans and Jim Crow: Repression and Protest, 1883-1922” in the Library A-Z Databases list.

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