Georgians Light a Candle: A Civil Rights Summit, 1906
That's Not a Typo.
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To stand up thus in our own defense, we must earn a decent living. We must work hard. We must buy land and homes. We must encourage Negro business men. And at the same time we must agitate, complain, protest, and keep protesting against the invasion of our manhood rights; we must besiege the legislature, carry our cases to the courts and above all organize these million brothers of ours into one great fist which shall never cease to pound at the gates of Opportunity until they fly open.
— Signed by the Georgia Equal Rights Convention Organizing Committee, and approved by two hundred delegates from throughout the state, in Macon, GA, February 14, 1906.
Yes, you read it right. That's 1906. Not 1960, or 1966. This is not a typo.
The Church in Macon
Take a look at the picture above. This is Steward Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Macon, Georgia. This is how it appears today. It doesn’t attract much attention from people passing, even tourists who wander off the I-75. Why? How to put this . . . There are a fair number of churches in Macon. Two hundred to be exact. Most of which look kind of like this. Which is why you probably didn’t do more than glance at it, either.
Unlike the big ugly modern hospital buildings across the street, however, the church has been here for a very long time.
The original building opened its doors to worshippers shortly after the Civil War, in the heady days of Reconstruction, when slavery was ended, and a new day was dawning for Black folk in Georgia, including those who had never been enslaved. Two years later, it burned down in a suspicious fire. This was also an ugly metaphor for what was about to become of all those postwar high hopes.
Below, another photo of the second church building, which was rebuilt on the ashes of the first. As you can see, it hasn’t changed much.
Nothing, as you drive by today, tells you any of this. Without history, it's just another of the two hundred churches in Macon.
And except when the parking lot is filled for services, Steward Chapel AME Church is, like most churches (except maybe the kind with coffee bars) pretty quiet.
But on February 13, 1906, this church is the center of hope for Black people in Georgia, at a time when hope is almost all that is left.
The Call to Meet
Macon is bang in the middle of Georgia. Even today, it’s a great location for state conferences, and the city now has a big convention center.
But there are no conference centers in Macon in 1906. If there were, Black people would not be welcome to hold meetings in them.
In 1906, then, Steward AME Church (its original name) is to host a meeting to which every Black community in Georgia has been invited to send delegates. People have received a call to action, endorsed by hundreds of respected state and local leaders. It is headlined, A CALL TO THE COLORED MEN & WOMEN OF GEORGIA TO MEET AND CONFER WITH ONE ANOTHER AS TO THE FUTURE.
Now the delegates are on their way, from all over the state: From Savannah to Atlanta, from the little town of Royston, in the north, near the Tennessee border, to rural McIntosh County, in the south, not far from Florida. These are middle-class citizens who have the respect of their neighbors. They come by train, horse-drawn buggy, and on foot. Those who arrive a day early stay the night with local families: No Macon hotels, from what I have been able to discover, accommodate Black visitors in 1906.
That's one of the many reasons this meeting is being held.
The Future. That’s why they’re here. It's long past time to talk about a now undeniable fact: The future has been stolen from them.
The question? How to win it back.
Fighting for the Future
After the Civil War, after the abolition of slavery, the future for Black Georgians shone bright. Now, though, in 1906, they must wonder: How could everyone have been so naive to think that power would be surrendered so easily? Sure, the War and freedom had crushed the slaveowners. But there were bound to be whites who pushed back hard, or new people who came to take the slaveowners’ place: The War hasn't crushed people’s impulses to dominate, to control, to profit. And if you want an actual date for when things went wrong, those impulses came roaring back into action in 1877. The New Jerusalem of Reconstruction only lasted twelve years.
That’s because in 1877, northern whites and southern whites “compromised” over a contested presidential election result, one too close to call. The North got the presidency, in the person of Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. The elite white South got a guarantee that they were back in the driver's seat in states like Georgia.
The Black South? They got worse than nothing.
Piece by piece, the fragile gains were dismantled. The vote, guaranteed by the US Constitution? New state laws restricted voting, making it impossible for almost all Black Georgians to cast votes in state and local elections. Black legislators? Gone. Black jurors? Gone. Once that was settled, it was all downhill. With democracy ended, Black people’s access to everything else was open to attack: Parks. Railroad cars. Restaurants. Hotels. Schools.
The name given to all these new laws and rules was Jim Crow. The name is from Jump Jim Crow, a song mocking Black people, performed by a white man in blackface. It’s apt, because the point isn’t just to control: it is to degrade. It is to humiliate. When you sit in the back of the street car, you will be forced to move if a white person needs a seat, even if you’re an old woman carrying a cane and a heavy load, and the other passenger is an athletic teenage boy. You will be ordered (rudely) to get up.
This isn’t just separation.
This is something altogether more sinister. It's a war on your sense of self-worth.
The Atlanta Compromise
In 1895, Alabama educator and former slave Booker T. Washington, principal and founder of the Tuskegee Institute, leads a group of Black Southern leaders in meeting with white Southern leaders. Washington will strike a deal on behalf of people who were not consulted, but who will go along with whatever’s decided, because what choice is there?
Washington announces his deal at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition, a huge exhibition, like a World’s Fair, held in the city’s central Piedmont Park (Brits, an aside: The park was designed by an Englishman, Bruce Forsyth’s great-grandad. I kid you not.)
The deal Washington and company strike: Black people won’t fight Jim Crow. They will accept the way things are. They will not seek social interaction with whites. In exchange, they will be provided with a very basic education, reading, writing, arithmetic, and vocational training from an early age. There will be no humanities education for Black kids: No art. No literature. No history. They can grow up to be public school teachers in segregated schools. But what will they teach? Nothing but the basics. Education that inspires will have to come from elsewhere.
Libraries maybe? Libraries for Black people are underfunded, if they exist at all. In 1902, super-rich Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie opens a library in Atlanta, aimed at working people. It’s for whites only. Three years later, after Atlanta’s more outspoken Black leaders complain, he opens a second library for Black citizens, because libraries must be segregated in Georgia. In most parts of Georgia, Black readers (kids included) are out of luck.
The most privileged Black leaders in Georgia have educational options for their own children. But they scramble to find ways to help other Black people learn and rise, often for the very best reasons. But they also are all too aware that they will be judged by the connection in their skins to the poorest, least educated Black folk. Despite not having meaningful education available to them, less privileged Black people learn from the Atlanta Compromise that they, too, can nonetheless earn success through hard work in humble jobs and small businesses. In theory.
This is Washington’s bargain. And he and his supporters, known to others as The Tuskegee Machine, are ruthless in keeping Black voices in line. His motives are honorable, and for the common good. But he can destroy careers and reputations. People are afraid to go against him.
The very next year after the Atlanta Compromise speech, all the humiliations and injustices of two decades of growing segregation are given the force of federal law by the Supreme Court. In the Plessy V. Ferguson decision, the Court declares that Black and white people may be given separate public accommodations, like schools and trains, so long as these are equal.
To steal a line from British author George Orwell, whose birth lies seven years in the future, the Court ignores the fact that, under such laws, some people are bound to be more equal than others.
Things Get Worse
It doesn’t take long before people start to discover that you can’t just rely on an agreement like the Atlanta Compromise, and expect fairness to flow. Black people who are successful, Black people who work hard, any Black person, it turns out, can be accused of anything, and imprisoned for a long time, even murdered, without a fair trial. It’s poor Black people who are most vulnerable, but even if you are middle class, you still can’t be 100% sure you are safe.
And then there is the epidemic of violence against Black people, because everyone knows that no white people will ever be held accountable by all-white juries and judges. Lynching is a story for another day. I don’t want to write about it, because once you read about it, like me, you can never unread it. It is unspeakable. It is, nonetheless, a story I will tell. Or perhaps not. Perhaps I will just let you read what historians have already written. But you should know about it, not just from textbooks, which don’t even start to explain. We all should.
Remember the Ladies, February 13, 1906
I don’t know who all the people are who take their seats in the body of Steward AME Church today, February 13, 1906. Two hundred delegates, representing every Congressional district in Georgia. All the delegates are men.
Do they bring their wives along? Do the women leaders who signed the original call to the meeting turn up, or did their participation end when they licked the last stamp? Is Miss L.C. Laney, president of Haines School in Augusta, content to stay home? Did Mrs. E.D. Latimer of Statesboro, who signed the the Call in her own right, take the train with Mr. E.D. Latimer from Statesboro? How about Mrs. Catharine Kinnebrew, or Mrs. Laura Adams, or any of the six women who signed in Royston? I have no idea whether any them are present in Macon, the nineteen women I counted who signed the call. Maybe all of them are here. Maybe none.
But I can tell you that the only people who will vote on the resolutions tomorrow, on February 14, 1906, will be men. Women, no matter their color, do not have final votes on important matters in 1906.
Look, don’t accuse me of having a bee in my bonnet, okay? The Call went out to men AND WOMEN. I didn’t start this.
So. The official organizers are sitting on the altar, and all are men . .
Ya know . .. I can’t let this go. It’s impossible for me to believe that most of the actual organizing, writing, visiting, and (definitely) envelope stuffing, wasn’t done by women. Or that an efficient woman who did such organizing and was a big deal in her community would be asked to sign the Call, but then told to stay home from the actual meeting. Or that any man would be brave enough to tell her to.
But I don’t want to push this point too far. This is the age of Manliness, of Manly Men, in America (and in Britain). Manliness, and how segregation violates it, is a big theme of this time. Like it or not, there are reasons that Black women might want to put men up on that platform in 1906.
And regardless . . . Things are changing in this brand new century. Here's a sign, from three thousand miles away: Days after our meeting in Macon, in this time of great inequality, hundreds of women, poor, rich, and middle-class, will walk shoulder to shoulder through London, in Britain’s first ever women’s march. In groups of twenty, they will meet their Members of Parliament, representatives who do not represent them, the voteless. And, from now on, these new “militant” suffragists, or suffragettes as they are soon called. will not ask politely for the vote. They will demand it. When they don’t get it, they start breaking store windows. They have had enough.
But at this moment, the people in faraway Steward A.M.E. Church in Macon, Georgia, believe they have even more pressing matters to deal with than income inequality, or women’s rights.
Meet The Professor
Many eyes in the church are fixed on the day’s top celebrity sitting up there on the platform. He’s instantly recognizable by his neatly waxed mustache. It gives him a rakish look. Interestingly, he modeled it on the elaborate whiskers of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm. Yes, that Kaiser Wilhelm, the one from World War I.
The mustachioed man in Macon today is the most famous Georgian in the world in 1906. Not that he's from Georgia. He's from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, he is partly of Dutch descent, and speaks in an aristocratic New England accent. He just lives in Georgia for now. He's known in London and Paris. Most white Georgians have never heard of him. One look at him, however, and they would be outraged, offended, or amused that he should be given such honor and recognition: He’s a Black man, of course.
His name is William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, although you may know him better as W.E.B. Du Bois, pronounced to rhyme with dew and voice.
Yes, I know, your eyes just glazed over. Maybe you’re a Brit and never heard of him. Maybe you’re suddenly back at the Black History Month program in high school. Maybe you figure that Booker T. Washington is due on stage any moment now to complete the double act. Bear with me.
No, Washington isn't here, at least not in person. His followers are, mind you. His spy, Rev. Charles T Walker, is in the church. But the man himself is elsewhere. And his physical absence allows certain things to happen, certain discussions to be held. That, and the fact that those present are well aware that the Atlanta Compromise is failing, or at least it is for them. Not all of them are willing to say this where Booker T. Washington’s network might hear them. But they’re thinking it. W.E.B. Du Bois, with the confidence of a Yankee from a free Black family, has already started criticizing Washington in print. He’s ready to take on the Tuskegee Machine.
So, where were we? Oh, yes. Steward A.M.E. Church, Macon. February 13, 1906.
Erudite, distinguished, and very intimidating, socially and intellectually, Dr. Du Bois (don’t even think of calling him Will unless you are a very close friend, and he doesn’t have many of those, because he is busy) is not someone who suffers fools gladly. And we're all fools compared with him.
He earned a PhD at the University of Berlin, where he seldom left his books and papers long enough to make human contact. And then, as if that weren’t enough achievement, he returned to the States, and got another doctorate, this time at Harvard, becoming Harvard's first Black PhD.
An aside: Years later, another Black Harvard doctoral candidate, a cheerful young historian from Oklahoma named John Hope Franklin, spots Dr. Du Bois taking a solitary lunch. Introduces himself as a Harvard man. Points out that his parents named him for Du Bois's old friend John Hope (who was also in Steward AME Church that day in 1906).
The Great Man is clearly not charmed. Poor Franklin wants to shrivel up and die. He is not asked to join Professor Du Bois at lunch.
Back to 1906. Dr. Du Bois has done a great deal of work. Work is almost all he does. Books. Papers. Lectures. And he is a public intellectual, trying to bring academic thinking and ideas to the real world, in practical form. Six years ago, he curated a popular photo exhibit in Paris about African-American life, telling portraits of Black Georgians as individuals, and showing how Black people in Georgia are perfectly ordinary people living normal lives. This is a very different message than French people in 1900 get from official U.S. sources about The Negro (as millions are called, reduced to a single imaginary person).
W. E. B. Du Bois is a free-born Northerner. He wants full citizenship for all Black people, and real education. Higher education, in his view, should be limited to the top ten percent of Black folk, however that gets decided. He’s elitist, just saying. He has no time for Booker T. Washington, his compromise, his trading of modest economic gain for full American citizenship. And as far as Georgia is concerned, Du Bois’s feelings are deeply personal.
Atlanta, 1899: The Professor’s Family
Will and Nina Du Bois with Burghardt, 1897. Placed at the center of the photo, the baby represents his importance to his parents. At a time when masculinity was constantly emphasized in the US and Britain, there are so many ways to interpret this lovely photo. What do you think?
W. E. B. Du Bois is a professor at Atlanta University, the first of several colleges for Black people in the city that have been founded in a rush since the Civil War ended. They won’t only educate their students: Their students will go out and educate others. That’s how education really works, like a good virus.
These Atlanta colleges don’t share Booker T. Washington’s commitment to practical training. They are all about liberal arts.
Atlanta University hired Dr. Du Bois at the end of his one-year appointment at the University of Pennsylvania, called “Penn”, an Ivy League school in Philadelphia that is not segregated (which is not to say that Penn or Philly are perfect, but still.) Moving to Atlanta, this is the first time his wife, Nina, has ever lived in the South. She is appalled.
They live in a cramped apartment in a boys’ dorm. That makes no sense, until we understand that only on campus do Will and Nina feel safe from the cruelty and humiliation of segregation in Atlanta, Georgia.
Burghardt, their Massachusetts-born baby, is now 18 months old, and the apple of his father's eye. He charms his way through Will's armor. But within months of arriving in Atlanta, Burghardt has become desperately ill.
The Strangling Angel of Children: The Race for a Vaccine, 1899
Diphtheria is a cruel and frighteningly common disease in 1899. It has been called the “strangling angel of children”. Scientists are trying to find a cure for this and other horrific ailments of an age in which more and more people cram together in cities, and new diseases run rampant.
Nine years before Baby Burghardt gets sick, Emil Behring in Germany and Shibasaburo Kitasato in Japan published together in 1890 on their work to find vaccines for diphtheria (Behring) and tetanus (Kitasato).
But a diphtheria shot won’t become available for decades: In England in the 1930s, diphtheria is still the third leading cause of death for kids.
After ten days of struggle, the baby’s condition takes a turn for the worse. Will frantically tries to find a physician in the night. But he can’t reach the two or three Black doctors in Atlanta. No white doctors will treat a Black baby, no matter who the father is. Burghardt doesn’t make it. Nina is devastated.
Decades later, Du Bois wrote:
“In a sense my wife died too. Never after that was she quite the same in her attitude toward life and the world.”
Nina, bereft, blames her husband for bringing their little family to Georgia. But if anything apart from diphtheria has snuffed out little Burghardt's life, it is Jim Crow, not Will.
Will and Nina follow the tiny coffin on foot through Atlanta’s streets, a place they normally try to avoid. They walk behind the horse-drawn cart that carries the body of their first child to the Atlanta train station, from where he will travel with his father to be buried in the caring arms of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. As the well-dressed couple walk in silent mourning, white people turn, and call them “niggers”.
I know. In 2021, I am supposed to write “n word”.
But “n word” is not what they said.
And I will not collaborate with them in hiding this cruelty, this verbal assault, this obscenity, this history, from you.
I am so sorry.
The Meeting, 1906
Rev. William J. White of Augusta is the son of an enslaved woman and a white man. He looks like a white man. In confused European eyes, he is a white man. But in America, he could only “pass for white” if he were go far away and reinvent himself where nobody knows him. He chooses to stay and fight, to identify with his family, friends, neighbors. He is Black. He gives the keynote address that identifies the problems that will form the basis for discussion. Shortly, the delegates will split up into committees. There will be discussions and decisions today. Not just lots of speechifying. There’s no time for that.
But the Georgians present already know what the problems are. These were outlined in the Call to today’s meeting: Taxation without representation, to support whites-only schools and colleges their children cannot attend; trials without Black jurors; a prison system that exploits even the labor of juveniles; Black workers being fired to provide jobs for whites. And so much more, they and their neighbors live with, every day. Jim Crow never takes a holiday.
Rev. White specifically reminds them of the violence and exploitation that denies justice, denies Black Georgians’ birthrights as American citizens. He is referring, as they don’t need to be reminded, to convict leasing, slavery by another name, and the unspeakable horrors of lynching.
What they don’t necessarily agree upon? How to fix these problems.
Most agree with the Call that silence isn’t working:
For long years, we have suffered these things in comparative silence, Our silence is now misconstrued. We are supposed to be content because we complain not, and this is used to mislead the outside world, to the colored Georgian’s disadvantage. Now, let the colored men of the state speak for themselves.
And they do.
When the meeting ends, the 200 delegates vote on a resolution they have crafted with the organizers on the platform. In the end, their resolution is more specific than the Call, or Rev. White’s keynote. It speaks of ordinary working people in the cotton fields of Georgia who ought to enjoy a quiet life according to the Atlanta Compromise. Yet, in everything but name, they have been reduced to virtual slavery through debt and thieving, their earnings stolen from them by greedy white landowners. The delegates point out to those men that their greed may yet destroy Georgia agriculture:
No wonder that farm laborers are going to the North and West, and especially to cities where schools and police protection can be found.
They write of how depressing it is to be denied the same wages, good jobs, and fair treatment that European immigrants receive, how the emotional impact of segregation and injustice make people “not so quick, intelligent, and eager as they might be”. Taxation without representation on their modest earnings? Tyranny. They ask the federal government to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments that granted freedmen citizenship and the vote.
As middle-class people, they also have their own specific complaints:
. . . pay first class railway fares for second class accommodations. We are denied access to first class cars and sleeping cars. We are segregated, mistreated, and harassed in street cars . . . We ask for an abolition of Jim Crow cars on railroads and the substitution of first and second class fares, which would separate men according to condition, and not according to color…
This is not a radical document, you see, not communist. It is very conservative, it is capitalist, in fact, and elitist. But it also recognizes that social distinctions among Black Georgians are lost on most white Georgians:
Since 1885, 260 Georgia negroes have been lynched,
Black men and women are convicted unfairly by all-white juries, and given draconian sentences. Black women are in constant danger of rape by white men, the reverse of what white Georgians choose to believe. But Black Georgian men refuse to be helpless in the face of outrage:
Let us Black men, then, look to the care and protection of our wives and daughters.
As you can see up top, the middle-class delegates defer to Booker T. Washington with talk of hard work, and buying their own homes. But this turns into a far stronger statement. Look at that phrase at the same time, and the sentences that follow. This is W. E. B. Du Bois’s influence, maybe, possibly, and I am guessing here, his own words. And just look at a few of those words:
agitate, complain, protest, keep protesting, besiege, carry our cases to the courts, organize, one great fist, pound at the gates of Opportunity until they fly open.
These are people driven to the cusp of militancy. People who have had enough. They say they are asking, but can demanding be far behind? And in the context of Georgia in 1906, that’s incredibly courageous.
They end on a note of hope, in words that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will echo in his I Have a A Dream speech before the Lincoln Memorial, more than half a century in the future they hope to reclaim. They write in conclusion:
Brethren of the white race, living together as we do, let us be friends and not enemies. Let us not stir up the darker, fiercer passions. Let us strive together, not as master and slave, but as man and man, equal in the sight of God and in the eye of the law, eager to make this historic state a land of peace, a place of plenty, and an abode of Jesus Christ.
The delegates return home. And, as result of their passion and hard work, nothing happens. White Georgians simply ignore the meeting in Macon, and their resolution.
Seven months later, in September, 1906, thousands of white men riot through the streets of downtown Atlanta, attacking and murdering Black people, pulling them off streetcars, beating them in their places of businesses and in the streets. As soon as he hears the news, Will Du Bois takes the first train back from Alabama, and sits outside the dorm where he lives with Nina and their second child, five year old Yolande, a shotgun perched on his knee.
Three years after the Macon conference, almost to the day, in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded in New York, by men, and, yes, women, black and white. Lead among the founders: W.E.B. Du Bois.
There’s a strong thread that links Steward Chapel AME Church in Macon, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and the end of legal segregation in the United States of America. Happy ever after? Not yet.
Annette Laing, PhD, the Non-Boring Historian, is an independent public historian, who was a tenured professor in the Department of History and a faculty member in the Africana Studies program at Georgia Southern University until 2008. She is author of The Snipesville Chronicles series of historical novels (“Clever and Charming Time-Travel Adventure”—Kirkus) and a presenter. Her Non-Boring History site (established April, 2021) is aimed at busy adults who are curious about the past, aren’t satisfied with what’s written for the public, but find academic history inaccessible, which much of it is. Learn more about Annette and her work: AnnetteLaing.com
This is not, of course, academic history. It’s neither peer-reviewed, nor footnoted. It’s journalism, with a touch of creative writing, but it is as accurate as I can make it. As an academic historian, my fields are Early America and the Atlantic World, and I am happy to hear from fellow academic historians (including graduate students in history) if anything needs correction, or if you wish to draw attention to your own work.
I researched the 1906 Georgia Equal Rights Convention originally for my novel One Way or Another, the fourth book in my Snipesville Chronicles series, which takes my young time travelers to Georgia in 1906, as well as England in 1905. Brandon Clark, who is Black, attends the meeting in Macon, and meets Dr. Du Bois. Although written for Grades 4-8, the book has many adult readers, and it takes a deep dive into Jim Crow Georgia. It’s available in or through public libraries.
W. E. B. Du Bois in Georgia, article in New Georgia Encyclopedia, a program of Georgia Humanities, who are keen to support bringing good history to your community group, if you’re anywhere in state (not just Atlanta or Savannah!) They’re very nice. Tell them Dr. Annette Laing sent you.
You can read for yourself the published proceedings of the Georgia Equal Rights Convention, held in Macon, Georgia, February 13 and 14, 1906, online at the Library of Congress website. The book includes the Call, the President’s Address, and the meeting Address —to clarify, I called it a Resolution, because that’s what it is).
For the context to the Georgia Equal Rights Convention, and on W. E. B> Du Bois, I relied on David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of A Race, 1868-1919. It covers the first part of Du Bois’s long life. It’s massive and detailed. For an academic book, it is readable, but it is big. Very big. 600 pages big. Be warned. Public librarians can help you track it down. If you enjoy that, there’s a very big sequel.
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