Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.

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Separate & Unequal

Bil Johnson
Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.


So 1865 to 1900 was a period of vast change. There are several concepts we really need to focus on in this episode.

The first is reconstruction. What was the reality? What was the intent? What really happened?

The second is the Supreme Court. Supreme Court had tremendous impact on the social, cultural, political events of the second half of that Century. Then finally, business. How did business and monopolies like the Railroads come to dominate this period of time? So those are the three things; reconstructions, Supreme Court, business are three items that we really want to pay attention to in this episode. Let’s go.

So reconstruction, sometimes called radical reconstruction. This is the period following the civil war when the republicans, the Lincoln republicans take over. There were certain ideals of this period and certain realities. The ideals were that we had freed the African Americans in the south and all over the country and they should be taken care of. The realities of course were somewhat different.

There was some very significant legislation during this period of time and I really want you to pay attention to this. You need to learn these. They’re called the Civil Rights Amendments. Sometimes called he Civil War Amendments, but they’re really civil rights amendments.

The 13th amendment abolishes slavery. The United States finally says we will not tolerate slavery. It is abolished from this country. It no longer is allowed to exist legally.

The 14th amendment guarantees civil rights to all Americans.

Now there’s an irony here of course because, women can’t vote yet, and we’ve got a hundred more years before the various liberation movements for women and gay people really emerge in this country. But for its time, it guaranteed the rights to all Americans. One of the interesting things you’ll see as we talk about this further though, is how that gets interpreted and how it gets twisted a little bit.

Then finally, the 15th amendment which provides voting rights to African Americans. Now again we’re talking African American men at the moment, but what a huge step this is. Now we know this is the ideal. The Radical Reconstruction Congress of the late 1860s passes these three amendments; abolishing slavery, guaranteeing civil rights, and providing voting rights.

One of the things we know happens and we’ll examine in a later episode, is that the South in particular, but states in general, find ways to dance around these law. And pretty much deny black people their rights, not just in the late 19th Century, but really through the first half of the 20th Century.

One of the key things to recognize always about the way our government works, is laws can be passed. But if they’re not enforced, it doesn’t make any sense to the people they’re supposed to be protecting. So that’s a key thing to keep in mind.

Now along those lines, I mentioned in a previous episode that the Supreme Court in the early part of the 19th Century was very activist and really strengthened the federal the government. In the second half of the 19th Century, the court does a kind of an about phase, and definitely goes about protecting business and property, before it’s protecting individual rights. It also doesn’t really recognize the power of the federal government to protect individual rights. So these civil rights amendments really go by the boards, because the court doesn’t enforce them.

In fact, the 14th amendment is used to protect corporations.

Corporations if you know the Latin word corporis which means the body. Corporations are considered individuals in our society. It’s an interesting kind of legal twist. So corporations as individuals, started to claim that they had civil rights that were protected by the 14th amendment. And in fact between 1865 and 1900, over 200 decisions are made protecting corporations and basically protecting monopolies, protecting business and protecting property over individuals, when fewer than 20 cases are used to protect the rights of African Americans. And that really shows you where the Supreme Court is in the late 19th Century.

It’s really capped off in 1896. I’m going to put here randomly, but it’s an important date. Because the Supreme Court case Plessy versus Ferguson, if you haven’t heard of it, you really need to learn it. You need to know it, because it’s a land mark case. It is the case that says, separate but equal is okay. Separate but equal is the law of the land. Plessy versus Ferguson is the case that has tremendous repercussions, because it basically says the federal government is backing up on these amendments. It’s conceding that, if in fact African-American people in particular have what’s considered equal facilities, then they can be separated from white people. We get the emergence of really very two different societies. And we know in fact over time, that separate does not mean equal, even though the facilities may be considered the same.

So the 1896 decision of Plessy versus Ferguson is the capstone to that 1865 to 1900 period for the Supreme Court, and its movement toward protecting corporation, moving away from federal power and in fact eviscerating the civil rights amendment that the Radical Congress had passed after the civil war.

What we have to be really clear about and remember is that the late 19th Century is about acquiring wealth. It’s about business, business, more business. It’s about Rockefeller. It’s about Carnegie. It’s about Vanderbilt. The real question that you need to think about, and that you need to challenge yourself to answer is, are they Robber barons, or are they Captains of Industry? This is the real cracks of the late 19th Century problem. Because on the one hand, they’re acquiring huge amounts of wealth. They’re spending it on themselves. They’re taking advantage of their workers. At the same time, they’re accelerating technology and invention. Edison and Bell probably wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for these Captains of Industry or Robber Barons.

It’s a real rollercoaster in a lot of ways. It’s kind of like the ocean. There are great tides that come ion and then great recessions, great recesses. And the challenge as we look at there's this period spawning the 20th Century, is for you to think about what are the connections? And what can you predict that the Robber Barons of Captains of Industry, what predictions can you make as far as their effects on the 20th Century? And even longer than that right up into our time, and how can you make those connections when it comes to the document based question or the free response essays?

So if you go to the bonus materials you’ll some places that will lead you to some answer. But for the most part, you’ve got to look for that yourself. As I keep telling you have some fun with history.

The second half of the 19th Century saw reconstruction fail, the court moved to the right, and more and more rights were given to business than individuals.

This changed the entire landscape of the country and set up the 20th Century rollercoaster. In the next episode, we’re going to get on that rollercoaster and have some fun with history.

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