Black Americans between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement

The state of African-Americans between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement is something we don’t hear a lot of from most histories, so I had a few questions I’d like to ask.

  1. During this period, were AAs responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime as they are today, or was the crime rate more in line with the average?
  2. Was there any economic progress being made, in comparison with the post-'60s emergence of a small but growing black middle class?
  3. Was the average black family more intact than it is today, or was the single-mother model just as prevalent?

Thanks in advance for your responses.

I don’t have time to look up detailed cites for each of the statistics you’ve asked about, but just to give a general answer. You’ve identified three trends, one good and two bad–the emergence of a black middle class, increasing crime, and unstable families. All three trends were by-products of African-American urbanization, and tended to accelerate as urbanization accelerated, with the migration of black people to the North during the two world wars and after the mechanization of Southern agriculture.

This is the hardest question to answer–I wouldn’t trust any statistics from the early part of the period, since discriminatory reporting and enforcement were so pervasive. I think it’s safe to say that poor black neighborhoods in Northern cities have always had a significant crime problem, but it became worse in recent decades because of trend #3.

Yes, even before 1960, a black middle and even upper class had begun to emerge, especially in cities. (It was hard to escape poverty share-cropping.) It wasn’t as large as it later became, because so many businesses and professions were segregated. But some African Americans were able to build careers serving each other–as doctors, lawyers, ministers, teachers, and so forth–and build businesses in areas like mortuary service and cosmetics where white people were at an inherent disadvantage.

Single-parent families were more prevalent in the black community, but to nowhere near the extent today. One cite for exploring this is the controversial Moynihan Report of 1965. It cites a black illegitimacy rate of 17% versus a white rate of 2% in 1940, growing to 24% and 3% respectively by 1963. (Today it’s about 70%.) The Moynihan Report doesn’t cite statistics from before 1940, but I believe the disparity between the two races was even smaller at earlier times.

Damn!!! Did not know that, if true.

What histories are you not reading? This is probably the single most covered topic in modern histories.


  1. During this period, were AAs responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime as they are today, or was the crime rate more in line with the average?


This is a loaded question. There’s no question that black crime rates are higher, but there is also no question that crime rates for the poor as a whole are higher. There is also little doubt that today, as yesterday, blacks were disproportionally singled out for arrest and incarceration. See this interesting article, The Truth About Black Crime, by R Jeneen Jones.

Economic progress was certainly deliberately quashed by whites, especially in the south. Yet, there was an odd effect. Because so many white professionals would not accept black clients, a small but distinguished group of black doctors, lawyers, dentists, scientists, teachers, and other professionals were produced by the historically black colleges and had important roles to play even in the south during this period. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s showed what could happen when blacks were allowed a more even field on which to compete.

Already answered. But note that the rise of the single-parent household is prevalent among all groups today, and is also stronger in poorer areas overall. Certainly the increased incarceration of young black males (disproportional drug arrests is a factor, see the above cited article) can take much of the blame, but the trend is little different than that of other parts of our society, since the stigma of illegitimacy has all but vanished. It’s hard to say how many marriages in the past were for show rather than stability. In fact, given that most states have raised the minimum age of marriage (girls as young as 12 could marry with court consent in several states: obviously a post facto measure to ensure a marriage on paper existed at the time of the baby’s birth) it could be argued that all such statistics from the past are tainted by the extreme measures taken to produce sham marriages.


  1. During this period, were AAs responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime as they are today, or was the crime rate more in line with the average?

My dad (who was white) told me of him witnessing a black man taken from the county jail and lynched during the 30’s. His crime, having sex with a white woman.

My mom (who was Mexican) told me that she had to go to the theater that served both blacks and Mexicans because it was a crime for them to sit foot in the white theater unless they were cleaning up.

I wouldn’t trust any crime statistics from before the 1970’s and even those and later statistics are racially biased as noted above.

In the new issue of Newsweek, read since I posted, the point is made that teenage pregnancy is down for all groups and that the number of black children in poverty has declined in the last 15 years. Even trends don’t last forever.

Author: Packard, Jerrold M.
Title: American nightmare : the history of Jim Crow / Jerrold M. Packard.
Edition: 1st ed.
Publisher: New York : St. Martin’s Press, 2002.

Author: Logan, Rayford Whittingham, 1897-
Uniform Title: Negro in American life and thought: the nadir, 1877-1901
Title: The betrayal of the Negro, from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson, by Rayford W. Logan.
Edition: New enlarged edition
Publisher: New York, Collier Books [1965]

Author: Kirby, John B., 1938-
Title: Black Americans in the Roosevelt era : liberalism and race / John B. Kirby.
Edition: 1st ed.
Publisher: Knoxville : University of Tennessee Press, c1979.

Author: Redkey, Edwin S.
Title: Black exodus; Black nationalist and back-to-Africa movements, 1890-1910, by Edwin S. Redkey.
Publisher: New Haven, Yale University Press, 1969.

Author: Ellison, Mary.
Title: The Black experience : American blacks since 1865 / [by] Mary Ellison.
Publisher: New York : Barnes & Noble, 1974.

Author: Reimers, David M.
Title: The Black man in America since Reconstruction, edited by David M. Reimers.
Publisher: New York, Crowell [1970]

Author: Factor, Robert L.
Title: The Black response to America; men, ideals, and organization, from Frederick Douglass to the NAACP [by] Robert L. Factor.
Publisher: Reading, Mass., Addison-Wesley Pub. Co. [1970]

Author: Vickery, William Edward.
Title: The economics of the Negro migration, 1900-1960 / William Edward Vickery.
Publisher: New York : Arno Press, 1977.

Title: From slavery to sharecropping : white land and Black labor in the rural South, 1865-1900 / edited with an introduction by Donald G. Nieman.
Publisher: New York : Garland, 1994.

Author: Mungazi, Dickson A.
Title: The journey to the promised land : the African American struggle for development since the Civil War / Dickson A. Mungazi ; foreword by Dione Brooks Taylor.
Publisher: Westport, Conn. : Praeger, 2001.

Author: Sternsher, Bernard, 1925- comp.
Title: The Negro in depression and war; prelude to revolution, 1930-1945, edited with commentary by Bernard Sternsher.
Publisher: Chicago, Quadrangle Books [c1969]

Author: Meier, August, 1923-
Title: Negro thought in America, 1880-1915 : racial ideologies in the age of Booker T. Washington / by August Meier.
Publisher: Ann Arbor, MI : University of Michigan Press, 1966, c1963.

Author: Wesley, Charles H. (Charles Harris), 1891-1987.
Title: The quest for equality; from Civil War to civil rights, by Charles H. Wesley.
Edition: [1st ed.]
Publisher: New York, Publishers Co. [1969]

Title: Racial determinism and the fear of miscegenation post-1900 : race and “The Negro problem” / edited by John David Smith.
Publisher: New York : Garland Pub., 1993.

Author: DeNevi, Don, 1937-
Title: Racism at the turn of the century; documentary perspectives 1870-1910. Editors: Donald P. DeNevi [and] Doris A. Holmes. Introd.: Norvel Smith.
Publisher: San Rafael, Calif., Leswing Press [1973]

Author: Weinstein, Allen,
Title: The segregation era, 1863-1954; a modern reader. Edited by Allen Weinstein and Frank Otto Gatell.
Publisher: New York, Oxford University Press, 1970.

Author: Woodward, C. Vann (Comer Vann), 1908-
Title: The strange career of Jim Crow / C. Vann Woodward ; with a new afterword by William S. McFeely.
Edition: A commemorative edition
Publisher: Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, c2002.

Author: Harris, William Hamilton, 1944-
Title: The harder we run : Black workers since the Civil War / William H. Harris.
Publisher: New York : Oxford University Press, 1982.

Author: Mandle, Jay R.
Title: Not slave, not free : the African American economic experience since the Civil War / Jay R. Mandle.
Publisher: Durham : Duke University Press, 1992.

That one, alas, I can cite.

When I referred to “histories” I was mainly talking about school textbooks; those may make a brief mention of the Harlem Rennaissance but don’t really pick up the thread again until the '60s. Thanks for all the information.

Did a black person steal your rubber duckie, or something? What is your deal?

I’m still very surprised at this, unless you’re close to my age (mid-50s). I would have thought all recent textbooks would have gone out of their way to talk about black history.

To whom are you addressing your question? Could you be more specific?