James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague and remain committed to the work he began.

Essay 14: How to Teach the Nadir of Race Relations

Recognizing that inaccurate history often subtly promotes continuing white supremacy, the National Education Association (NEA) commissioned these articles and has posted some of them in slightly different form at its website. I thank Harry Lawson and others at NEA for the commission, for editorial suggestions, and for other assistance.

From 1890 to 1940, white Americans went more racist in their thinking than at any other time. We call this the “Nadir of Race Relations.” “Nadir” means low point. During the Nadir, the ideology of most whites — their understanding of the social world — went more and more racist toward African and Native Americans.

Except for discussing Jim Crow in the South, most U.S. history textbooks don’t treat the Nadir. Authors find it hard to fit into their overall storyline of inexorable progress.

A town in Connecticut posted this sign at its city limits, probably around 1950. It is more polite than most sundown town signs, which featured the "N-word," followed by "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On You In _____."

Ask students, “Who was the first black player in organized baseball?” The answer is not Jackie Robinson but perhaps Moses Fleetwood Walker. Then they learn that whites forced African Americans out, as the Nadir set in. Ask, “Who was the first jockey in the National Racing Museum Hall of Fame?” Students discover a fabulous black jockey and also that the Kentucky Derby barred blacks after they won 15 of the first 28 derbies. During the Nadir, in the North as well as the South, whites forced African Americans from skilled occupations like carpentry and unskilled jobs like mail carrier.

Three underlying social processes led to the Nadir. First was U.S. policy toward American Indians. Reconstruction laws requiring equal justice toward African Americans did not apply to Native Americans. As a result, when whites found gold on Indian land in Colorado and Dakota, they took it, leading to the final Plains Indian wars. Second was immigrants. Democrats courted their votes, promising them jobs once they drove African Americans from the wharfs, teamstering, and other positions. Instead of quelling Democratic racism, Republicans got mad at the immigrants, eventually supporting nativism and eugenics. Third was imperialism, an ideology from Europe. We bought into it, took over Hawaii, and attacked our Filipino allies in 1899.

Students can discover America’s increasing racism after 1890 themselves. In the process, they will realize how events of long ago still affect us. For instance, during the Nadir, textbooks started lying about secession. So this is another opportunity to teach “historiography” — the social influences on history — discussed earlier in the essay on Reconstruction. Historiography prompts critical thinking. Students can learn it as early as fifth grade.

Now that many newspapers are on line, students can search one in their state for all articles with “Negro,” characterizing the view of each toward African Americans as positive (+1), neutral (0), or negative (-1). Then they can calculate averages (means) by decade and look for trends.

Students can examine old U.S. history textbooks — online or from your collection — to see how their treatments of John Brown, for example, change over time. Did authors consider him idealistic? crazy?

During the Nadir, segregation increased everywhere, not just in the South. The Index of Dissimilarity, D, measures segregation. It is mathematical but easy; students can apply it to census data for their city over time. It is also clear: 0 means perfectly integrated, while 100 means complete apartheid. In most cities, D increased from about 45 in 1890 to 70 by 1940. Many smaller communities became sundown towns — all-white on purpose.

Cemeteries and colleges became segregated too. For example, after World War I, Harvard still admitted African Americans but no longer let them live in the dormitories. Most colleges have archives, often in the library. High school students can talk with the archivist to learn about race relations over time.

After students document that racism sometimes rose and sometimes fell, they can explore why. In the process they learn that racism is a historical product, not “natural.” So are black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods.

Essential Reading

  • Loewen, Chapter 10, “The Nadir,” in Teaching What Really Happened (NY: Teachers College Press, 2010), suggests other ways to help students see the Nadir for themselves.
  • Loewen, Chapter 11, “Using the Index of Dissimilarity to Determine the Extent of Segregation,” in Social Science in the Courtroom (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1982), shows how to calculate and use D.
  • Leola Bergmann, “The Negro in Iowa,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics, 1969 [1948], 44-45, analyzed the treatment of African Americans in Iowa newspapers from 1865 to 1900. At first, newspapers told of activities and individuals within the Black community. By the 1890s, almost every story about African Americans concerned crime.
  • Loewen, “How To Confirm Sundown Towns,” tells how to use census data, interviews, etc., to determine if a town has a sundown past.