Turn of the Century American South

Hoeing sugar cane - overseer on the mule

Black women and men hoe sugar cane in Louisiana

At the turn of the twentieth century, when Clifton Johnson traveled south, black Americans had been free for nearly forty years. It was, however, an “emancipation without freedom,” as Howard Zinn called it. After the brief honeymoon period of early Reconstruction, which even saw a handful of black men in Congress, many former slaves found themselves in similar conditions as before, working for white people as sharecroppers, domestic servants, and laborers. As Clifton Johnson explained in Highways and Byways of the South, “as a business proposition the crop-mortgage system [sharecropping] was better than slavery” for the white landowners. This, combined with lack of education, sparse landownership, the violence of white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and segregationist Jim Crow laws, meant that most former slaves and their descendants labored under systemic inequality.

A path in the black section of town

A path in the black section of the village

Black Americans generated different responses to their continued dire oppression. Booker T. Washington was the black leader that whites found most palatable. By emphasizing agriculture and trades, Washington's educational system sought to prove that black Southerners would make useful citizens. He constantly told Southern whites that ex-slaves held no grudge or resentment against their former masters. Whites accepted Washington and his ideas because his seeming disinterest in politics did not threaten their power. Others, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, saw Washington as being somewhat complicit in blacks' continued disenfranchisement and oppression. Du Bois thought that blacks must be politically active in order to obtain for themselves true liberty.