Winter 2011

The Two Worlds of Race: A Historical Perspective

Author
John Hope Franklin
Abstract

Franklin's essay traces the practices, policies, and laws that, from colonial times through the mid-1960s moment when he composed his essay, created and sustained the two worlds of race in America. He outlines the history of efforts from that period to alleviate racial distinctions and to foster a “world of equality and complete human fellowship.” Franklin cautions, however, that even certain well-intentioned efforts to extend services, opportunities, and rights to African Americans sometimes reinforced segregation and discrimination. He considers how key historical, legal, political, and social developments from the twentieth century - World War II, the growth of labor unions, the Great Migration, America's ascendancy as a world power, among others - advanced racial equality in America while often intensifying the backlash from opponents to such equality. Still, Franklin concludes optimistically that however strident those opponents may be, they “have been significantly weakened by the very force of the numbers and elements now seeking to eliminate the two worlds of race.”

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN (1915–2009) was a prominent historian and ardent defender of civil rights. His numerous publications include the groundbreaking book From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes (1947), now in its eighth edition. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 1964. The essay reprinted here originally appeared in Dædalus 94 (4) (Fall 1965); that volume was the first of two special issues on “The Negro American.”

Measured by universal standards the history of the United States is indeed brief. But during the brief span of three and one-half centuries of colonial and national history Americans developed traditions and prejudices which created the two worlds of race in modern America. From the time that Africans were brought as indentured servants to the mainland of English America in 1619, the enormous task of rationalizing and justifying the forced labor of peoples on the basis of racial differences was begun; and even after legal slavery was ended, the notion of racial differences persisted as a basis for maintaining segregation and discrimination. At the same time, the effort to establish a more healthy basis for the new world social order was begun, thus launching the continuing battle between the two worlds of race, on the one hand, and the world of equality and complete human fellowship, on the other.

For a century before the American Revolution the status of Negroes in the English colonies had become fixed at a low point that distinguished them from all other persons who had been held in temporary bondage. By the middle of the eighteenth century, laws governing Negroes denied to them certain basic rights that were conceded to others. They were permitted no independence of thought, no opportunity to improve their minds or their talents or to worship freely, no right to marry and enjoy the conventional family relationships, no right to own or dispose of property, and . . .

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