During his childhood the status of African-Americans underwent a profound transformation. The Civil War (1861–65), the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), and the adoption of the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitutionthe Thirteenth (1865), abolishing slavery; the Fourteenth (1868), guaranteeing citizenship and "the equal protection of the laws" to all Americans; and the Fifteenth (1870), forbidding the denial of suffrage on account of raceseemed to mark the beginning of a new era of racial equality. So did the founding of public schools for blacks throughout the South and the election of numerous African-Americans to state and national office during Reconstruction.
But during the 1870s hope for racial progress increasingly turned to disillusionment. African-Americans faced violent resistance from Southern whites and growing indifference and hostility from Northerners intent on restoring sectional harmony. In 1883, the year Chesnutt left Fayetteville and returned to Cleveland, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the landmark 1875 federal civil rights act forbidding racial discrimination in public accommodationsthe culmination of a series of judicial decisions that drastically limited the power of the Reconstruction amendments.
Rise of "Jim Crow"
Worse was to follow. State legislatures ushered in the "Jim Crow" era by passing laws mandating racial segregation while establishing legal standards for distinguishing "white" from "colored" persons. Chesnutt, whose own family exemplified the long history of racial mixing in America, fully comprehended the futility of attempts to mandate racial "purity" and to rigidly determine racial identity, but his perspective was distinctly a minority one.
In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the Supreme Court upheld racial segregation, declaring that if blacks considered enforced separation to be a means of stamping them with "the badge of inferiority," it was "solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it." Regarding this argument, Chesnutt would later comment: "I presume that hanging might be pleasant if a man could only convince himself that it would not be painful, nor disgraceful, nor terminate his earthly career."
Power, Violence and Terror
Terrorism played an essential role in the enforcement of white supremacy at the close of the 19th century. Chesnutt's novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901) is a fictional treatment of the 1898 race riot in Wilmington, North Carolina. In 1894 and 1896 a "Fusion" alliance of Republicans and Populists won a series of electoral victories in North Carolina that resulted in blacks holding a significant number of elected offices and appointed government positions in Wilmington. White supremacists determined to end African-American enfranchisement in the region formed a "White Government Union" that sought to intimidate black voters from going to the polls in the election held on November 8, 1898.
Two days after the election a white mob destroyed the offices of the Wilmington Record, whose African-American editor, Alexander Manly, had publicly criticized the use of false accusations of rape to justify lynching. Widespread violence ensued. An estimated 20 African-Americans were killed by bands of armed white supremacists. Thousands more fled the city, and the existing integrated city government was forcibly overthrown. In 1900 the implementation of discriminatory legislation disenfranchised blacks throughout the state.
In 1910 Chesnutt became a founding member of the NAACP, and continued to speak out against racial violence and discrimination until his death.