Within fifty years, however, most of this progress would be undone.
How did this happen? How did a civil rights triumph turn into a civil rights debacle? Historian Wyatt Wells notes that the threat to Black liberty began with the Compromise of 1877. The electoral college contained some ambiguous ballots after the presidential election of 1876.
In this compromise, which was never written or reliably documented, Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes obtained the presidency, but the Democrats demanded that the Republicans withdraw federal officers from the South - officers who’d been stationed there to ensure civil rights for the African-Americans. Historian Wyatt Wells writes:
Although the Compromise of 1877 terminated Reconstruction, it did not settle the questions of what race relations and politics would look like in the postwar South.
After a decade of Republican influence, “many northern Republicans expected” that the Democrats would allow Blacks to continue voting and holding elected office. Because of the alleged Compromise, the Republicans expected the
Democrats to respect the rights of African Americans, and at least a few of the latter promised to do so. African Americans often voted and, in some areas, held public office. In most southern states, the Republican Party still functioned, electing local officials, state legislators, and the occasional U.S. Representative. In the 1880s a coalition of Republicans and dissident Democrats won state elections in Virginia, and in the 1890s alliances between Republicans and Populists did the same in North Carolina and Louisiana.
For a decade or two after the Compromise of 1877, the Republicans were able to generate some civil rights for the African-Americans. “Nevertheless, during these years,” the security of those rights was beginning to unravel:
Democrats often used fraud and intimidation to eject Republicans from office, and southern states enacted the first Jim Crow statutes. In 1890 a petition from blacks in Oklahoma to President Benjamin Harrison lamented that “[t]he passage of unfair laws affecting elections, labor and the landlord and tenant system, by the legislatures of southern states, has caused widespread unrest and discontent” and “produced a feeling of profound discouragement and utter dismay among Africo-American [sic] voters in the entire country.”
By the turn of the century, Black civil rights would be in full retreat as the Democrats increased their domination of the South. Kentucky, led by Democrat governor J.C.W. Beckham, passed its infamous “Day Law” in 1904, which prohibited students of different races from attending the same schools. Woodrow Wilson’s administration began to segregate federal agencies which had been desegregated and integrated during the 1870s.