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Setting the Stage

In the aftermath of the Civil War, black and white southerners struggled to renegotiate their roles in a society fundamentally changed by the abolition of slavery. African Americans looked for ways to enjoy their newfound freedom, assert their independence, and exercise their rights as American citizens. In 1869, the 15th amendment gave African-American men the right to vote. During and after Reconstruction, a certain number of blacks were even elected to political office or received political appointments. Most African Americans were Republicans, because that was the party of Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves. Most elite white southerners--many of whom had owned slaves--were Democrats, while poorer whites gravitated towards smaller third parties broadly known as the Populists. During the 1890s, a political movement called Fusion attempted to unite the third parties with African Americans in the Republican Party.

White Democrats fought vigorously to destroy the Fusion movement, largely because people were beginning to unite across racial lines. Many feared that interracial partnership would lead to the end of white supremacy. To help preserve their position, white lawmakers began passing segregation laws, often called "Jim Crow" laws. This system has been defined by "the practice of legal and extralegal racial discrimination against African Americans"¹ and would curtail many of the freedoms which African Americans experienced following the Civil War. With the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, it became legal to create separate public facilities for African Americans, ranging from transportation to schools. While some unofficial segregation had already been in practice, this was the beginning of segregation by law. Many whites also sought to strip African-American men of the franchise, or the right to vote, like they did in North Carolina in 1900 when the state passed an amendment to the state constitution adding a literacy requirement to be eligible for voting.

Many southern blacks would not stand for this kind of treatment and refused to be seen as second-class, unequal citizens. Members of the small but rapidly growing black middle class took responsibility for the leadership and encouragement of the African-American people. "The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men,"² wrote African-American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903. "The Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people."³

These so-called "Talented Tenth" took pride in their accomplishments, which became evident through their homes and possessions, photographs they took of their families, and in their public actions. They believed very strongly in education as the key to African-American advancement. The Pope family of Raleigh, NC was part of this middle-class African-American movement and wanted to set an example of success for other African Americans to follow.

¹Quoted in Charles D. Lowery and John F. Marsalek, eds. Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights: From Emancipation to the Present (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992), p. 281.
² W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Talented Tenth," in
The Negro Problem (New York: James Pott & Company, 1903), p. 33.
³ Ibid., p. 75.



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