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.

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.

Now, Washington was almost certainly visiting the house on some kind of assignation. The location, now a tony Central Park West corner, was then a seedy district frequented by men in search of a “good time.” However, the beating was clearly beyond any conception of civility, especially since testimony showed that the “sweetheart” account was almost certainly a lie (and the assailant turned out to have deserted his actual wife and child). Crucially, the Crisis issue describes an America in which Ulriches were not just occasional troglodytes but were everywhere and ran the show.

Charles Russell, another NAACP co-founder, describes listening to white men on a train talking about how so many black men were shot in the wake of the Galveston, Texas, flood for no particular reason, with one saying, “It was too good a chance to kill niggers, and the boys couldn’t let it go by” — upon which the other men simply nodded, as if the man had said something about it being a pleasant day.

Russell allows that there are plenty of Southerners who don’t feel this way, but that still, “it is certainly the feeling of those that make the laws and direct the government.” So — in April 1911, being black didn’t mean how whites quietly felt “out there.” It was right there, in your face, and coming even from the Oval Office.

The Crisis recounts President William Howard Taft, the kindly looking fat man in photos, telling a black audience in Atlanta not to hang around in saloons “wasting time,” after which Theodore Roosevelt warns them that getting “conceited” is “the very worst thing that could happen to you!”

Du Bois thunders in his editorial against blacks of the period who, so shockingly to us now, urged looking on the bright side. Despite “the rise here and there of Southern white friends of the black men, it is a dangerous falsehood to overlook the tireless and daily assaults of enemies of humanity,” he wrote. I sense that today, many consider it our job to continually heed that advice.

I am naive enough to suppose that the assaults today are less than “tireless and daily,” however — and I salute Du Bois and King and Ida Wells, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Bayard Rustin and so many others for making it that way. I know that racism exists, and I write about it — while always imagining how the old-timers would see it if they talked to a black person today who was grumbling that racism is still a grinding daily burden for us.

Du Bois had to tell his readers not to forget the worst. I hope we don’t forget the best.

John McWhorter is a frequent contributor to The Root.

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