It Really Is Better Now for Blacks

Having a perspective on how badly black people were treated 100 years ago helps us appreciate the racial progress we have made.

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There are those who think that I am naive about racism or that I downplay it. The kinds of people who think so are often themselves accused, from other quarters, of being "stuck in the past," unable to admit that things truly change. Interestingly, I often feel that it's actually I who am stuck in the past.

I mean that I cannot help, at all times, comparing now with what it was like on a daily basis for those who came before us. Take this week, when we are marking the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.. Many remind us that we have come only so far. I, on the other hand, think just as much -- and probably more -- of the fact that we really have come so very far.

Let's go back a hundred years from this exact month. What was it like to be black in April 1911? The handiest way to find out is with the issue of the NAACP's magazine the Crisis (pdf). And it leaves me thinking that if it makes me naive to feel much, much better about things than those people did, then naive I most definitely will stay.

The Crisis of April 1911 had assorted reports of people catching hell for having a drop of "Negro blood" in them and daring to conduct themselves as white. When a woman killed by a streetcar in New Orleans turned out not to be as completely white as she had claimed, her sister was immediately divorced by her husband, and her brother was forced to transfer to an all-black school.

That's the kind of thing that leaves me disappointed at black people today who are angry when a less-than-lily-Caucasian person refrains from "identifying" as black. "Know your history," indeed, such as in the same year, when a Columbia University professor created a news scandal, followed by an injunction from his landlord, because he had hosted a meeting that black people attended. The fact that the black people had drunk from his teacups was considered especially frightful. I drank from some cups at a white Columbia professor's house last week, and nobody cared. It matters.

Then, over the past couple of weeks, we have heard some grim takes on the fact that so many black people have moved back to the South over the past 10 years. Walter Russell Mead blogs that the North was unable to provide us a haven, while the University of Pennsylvania's Thomas Sugrue is unhappy that blacks leaving Detroit are moving to the less tony inner-ring suburbs rather than the opulent ones.

To me, what's significant is that black people can move, period. The Crisis of April 1911, at a time when blacks were starting to be penned into what would later be called inner cities and shot at when they tried to live anywhere else, casually notes that black ghettos are being officially instituted in St. Louis, Mo., and Birmingham, Ala. NAACP co-founder Oswald Villard had tart words for the chin-up message of Booker T. Washington:

"Mr. Washington has gone up and down the country with the approval of white men of all sections, urging the Negro to buy farms and houses. But," Villard continued, "if he buys a fine house on a good street, in Baltimore, the law is hard on his heels." As a matter of fact, it was tomorrow a hundred years ago that Baltimore's mayor signed an ordinance making it illegal for blacks to live in or own businesses in white neighborhoods.

As it happened, it was a hundred years ago yesterday that Washington dismissed W.E.B. Du Bois and the Crisis as "that little gang of crotcheteers on Vesey Street." However, he hadn't had a very good March, and it was because of racist attitudes -- and of a kind that folks hardly needed psychological tests to identify. Our issue of the Crisis tartly noted, "Mr. Booker T. Washington, principal of Tuskegee Institute, while calling at an apartment house in West 63rd Street, New York, was set upon by one of the tenants and several bystanders. Mr. Washington ran, but was severely beaten before the police interfered."

Actually, just one person beat Washington, but badly, with a cane -- and it was a white man, one Charles Ulrich, who was released unpunished because Washington had supposedly said, "Hello, sweetheart" to his wife.

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