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History of the American South in the Gilded Age

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The pace of industrialization and westward expansion in the latter part of the nineteenth century suggested that the United States had reached a new golden age. However, the nation still faced many problems, including the distance between people’s dreams of wealth and the reality of their sometimes difficult lives. This period during the late nineteenth century is often called the Gilded Age, implying that under the glittery, or gilded, surface of prosperity lurked troubling issues, including poverty, unemployment, and corruption. Racial inequality was a persistent problem during the Gilded Age. African Americans, other minorities, and women struggled in a losing battle as they sought to gain equality. Following the Civil War, during the Reconstruction southern states passed laws that separated blacks and whites. These laws were known as Jim Crow laws. In 1896 the Supreme court upheld segregation with its ruling in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. The court ruled that segregation was legal as long as “separate but equal” facilities for both races were provided.

However, the facilities for blacks were almost always inferior. During the same time states passed laws such as poll taxes and literacy tests that stripped blacks of the right to vote.n spite of these setbacks, African Americans had some hope for a brighter future. Booker T. Washington, born a slave and built the Tuskegee Institute. It was a college that taught African Americans useful skills and became an important symbol of black self-help.Journalist Ida B. Wells led a crusade against lynching which brought public attention to the problem and made Americans more empathic to the harsh and unlawful act committed against them in the South. Mexican Americans struggled to maintain their lands in the Southwest. Prominent whites prodded the federal government to grant them land that was pledged to Mexicans who lived in the Southwest before it was part of the United States.Federal courts tended to side with the whites when Mexican Americans pressed their cases in court to protect their land.Mexicans Americans used warlike tactics to protect their lands. For example, Las Gorras Blancas, or the White Caps would wear Masks and sabotage railroad lines and cut holes in fences to protest the displacement of Mexican Americans.

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Asian immigrants, especially the Chinese, faced constant discrimination. Western states enacted laws that prohibited the Chinese from working at certain jobs. Mobs of white workers terrorized Chinese migrants claiming that they were taking jobs from white people. In 1882, the federal government temporarily banned further immigration for 10 years with the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1902 the government made the ban permanent. As cities grew politicians gained power by providing jobs or patronage and services in exchange for political support. Graft, or bribery and corruption touched all aspects of public life.On the national level the tariff, or tax on imported goods, divided the political parties. Republicans supported high protective tariffs and Democrats supported lower duties.Following the assassination of President James Garfield by a disgruntled former federal employee, the Democrats supported the Pendleton Act, which created a civil service system for the federal government. This meant that people who wanted to work for the government were required to pass an exam.They were granted a job based on their performance on the exam, and not by who they knew in or supported in government. In the last decades of the 1880s, a massive political insurgency developed called Populism. It grew out of frustration that many Americans felt toward the federal government. Farmers in particular were very angry.

They had migrated West knowing they would have to work hard in difficult conditions. But the expected life to improve and that their children would be better off. Farmers faced several interrelated problems.The prices paid for their main crops corn, wheat, and cotton- declined. At the same time farmers began accumulating debt. Declining prices made it harder to repay the debts. Farmers were too productive. They purchased new equipment that made it easier to produce large crops, but then when all farmers brought these huge crops to market the prices paid for them were lower, because their was too much supply. In effect, the more they produced they less money they made.Following the Civil War farmers came together to address their problems. First farmers in the Midwest banded together in the Grange movement. In the South and the Plains they established the Farmers Alliance. These organizations sought to lower shipping and storage rates, either through government regulation of the railroads or by using grain elevators, or both. Members of the Framers’ Alliance in the South and West, soon formed the People’s Party, or the Populist Party.

During the election of 1896, the Populists hoped to gain the support of industrial workers. The economy had taken a turn for the worse and many were unemployed. William Jennings Bryan was the Populist candidate for President. He crisscrossed the country championing the cause of the American farmer and denouncing the monetary policies of the Republicans, namely the gold standard.


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