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Middle Class African Americans
(This page was developed by a Berea College student as part of a course on Chesnutt)

Charles W. Chesnutt wrote short stories, novels, essays, poems and reviews during his lifetime. Between 1899-1905, he published two collections of short stories and three novels; however not until the mid-1900's did his writings stay in print. This page provides context for those Chesnutt stories about middle-class African Americans. In particular, "A Matter of Principle" mentions African American congressmen and other politicians. At the climax of this story, a congressman is mistaken for a black bishop. The story focuses on a family eager for their daughter to marry well, which means a man who is both successful and light-skinned. After reading this story, I became interested in the role African Americans played in the political world during Chesnutt's time. This page provides some information on middle-class African Americans and on black congressmen and politicians.

The Freedmen's Bureau played a major role in helping African Americans rise into the middle class.

The Freedmen's Bureau:

  • Set up 4,000 schools
  • Employed 9,000 teachers
  • Taught 250,000 Africans, young and old how to read and write
  • When the Civil War ended, 1 out of 10 Africans could read and write
  • Schools such as Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) and Hampton Institute (Virginia), attracted large numbers of students from the South
  • Churches set up educational committees and often helped to start schools.

Time Line:

1866 - Blacks of mixed ancestry could vote. Efforts to secure the vote were repeatedly voted down until the 15th Amendment was passed.

1883 - A group of blacks started the weekly Plaindealer as the voice of black protest, black business, and black Republicans. This was one of the first organs to substitute "Afro-Americans" for "Negro".

1880-1930 - The promise of $5.00 per day led to a mass migration to Detroit, Michigan. The city's population of 5,000 in 1910 reached 120,000 by 1930. The promise of $5 per day was advertised by handbills and by labor agents sent south by Ford.

1898 - John Merrick, an ex-slave barber, bought the rights to the Royal Knights of King David. He used this to start an Insurance Company. Merrick and several business partners went together to help develop the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association. Mutual was unsuccessful at first, but it grew until it was the largest black-owned business in America.

1900 - 9 out of every 10 black people lived in the South and about 8 of every 10 lived in rural areas.

1900's - In the first decade of the twentieth century, 170,000 blacks migrated from the South.