Benjamin Harrison, the Republican president who took office in 1889 after Grover Cleveland, was the grandson of the 9th president, William Henry Harrison. Although his grandfather had been president when he was a child, he did not attend the inauguration and was brought up under modest circumstances. His father was a congressman and a farmer and used most of his income to educate his eight children. Benjamin became a lawyer, and served on the front lines in the Union Army as a colonel during the Civil War.
President Harrison did not believe that the Negro problem should be out on a back burner. He had supported James Garfield’s unsuccessful plan for educational aid for the children of freed slaves. He truly believed that education was the key to making the black and the white population equal in political and economical power. The first time he addressed Congress, he brought up the plight of the Negros and reminded Congress that they were not to blame for their presence in the United States, or for their poverty or for their ignorance. He even reminded them that these conditions were “our shame, not theirs.”
Although the Civil War had ended almost 25 years before he took office, the South was still in terrible shape. Sharecropping began to be used, and at first it seemed like it would be a solution for the three classes that remained in the South: the formerly wealthy landowners, the freed slaves and the poor whites. The plantations that used to be run by slave labor had plenty of land and equipment, but had no cash to pay wages. The former slaves and the whites that didn’t own land needed to survive. Both rejected gang labor on plantations because it typified slavery. Sharecropping meant they worked another person’s land and paid that person with a percentage of their crops. The sharecroppers usually went into debt to buy seeds and other supplies. Economic historians think that this system perpetuated poverty in the South for at least 70 years.
While president, Benjamin Harrison pushed a Federal Elections Bill through Congress. The bill would have allowed the federal government to ensure that elections were fair and that Negros would be guaranteed the right to vote. That right already existed, but Southern Democrats had always found loopholes to prevent Negros from voting. Unfortunately, in the end this bill was defeated in the senate. No other civil rights legislation was attempted until the 1920s. President Harrison often spoke to Congress about civil rights, and in one of those speeches said: “the frequent lynching of colored people is without the excuse . . . that the accused have an undue influence over courts and juries.”
Referring to the second half of the above quote, it showed that President Harrison was against the Southern states having the authority to punish or to not punish infractions against civil rights. But the Southern states continued to interpret civil rights as they saw fit, and the president’s hands were tied. Harrison had little support in Congress and the economy suffered a downturn during his administration. Many citizens in the North and most politicians just wanted to ignore the South. They had other polemic things to deal with. It was during his administration that the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred, the last major confrontation between the federal government and the Native American tribes from the Plains. Between 150 to 300 Natives were killed, and the massacre became a symbol of government repression against the Indians. The first forest reserves were created during Harrison’s administration, and the first antitrust laws were enacted, many tariff rates and laws were adjusted in keeping with the developing country, and there were endless attempts to try to find a compromise between the backing of gold or silver currency, which was an enormous debate at that time. It is not surprising that the North just wanted the defeated South and its problems to go away.
Election time came around again in 1892, and former president Grover Cleveland was re-nominated as a candidate. This time he beat Harrison by a landslide, making him the only president to serve nonconsecutive terms. Benjamin Harrison went home to Indianapolis.
Grover Cleveland took office in 1893, and his second term was not any easier than his first. Just a month into his presidency, the industrial bubble burst and the worst depression the country had ever faced began. Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs, and this was at a time in history when there was no health insurance, unemployment insurance, or any other kind of safety net. An enormous group of unemployed marched into D.C. to protest, but President Cleveland didn’t think the federal government should be responsible for citizens who were unemployed. He had the protesters arrested for trespassing. The debate about which monetary standard to adopt that was left over from Benjamin Harrison’s presidency continued. The industrialists in the Eastern part of the country wanted it to be based on gold, as they controlled the supply. The less affluent parts of the country, such as the West and farmers from all over, advocated a bi-metal system of silver and gold. President Cleveland sided with Wall Street, as he thought the adoption of such a solid base would end the depression. This decision did not win him any popularity. He had to deal with railroad strikes, penniless farmers, unemployable veterans and border disputes with Great Britain, which left him little time to prioritize civil rights and the lack of growth in the South. President Cleveland’s policies were generally unpopular and what little popularity he had went downhill fast. When it came time for the presidential election of 1896, his party dropped his name from the ticket. When he left office he retired in Princeton, New Jersey. He summarized his life on his deathbed in 1908 when he said, “I have tried so hard to do right.”
Naturally, the American public, unhappy with President Cleveland, elected a Republican president to fix the country, another lawyer. The 25th president of the United States was William McKinley and he was the last Civil War veteran to serve as president. During the war, he had served under Major Rutherford Hayes, who later became the 19th president of the United States. He took office in 1897, a year when all of my grandparents had already been born.
President McKinley was very sympathetic to African Americans and appointed a substantial number of them to relatively important offices. But he refused to use federal troops to enforce the 15th Amendment in the Constitution in the South and also refused to return to the Reconstruction methods of the Ulysses S. Grant administrations. Torture, murders, and general violations of civil rights continued in the South, and the North turned a blind eye. During his administration, the Supreme Court again voted on the “separate but equal” issue, and unfortunately it was upheld. To be fair, he was dealing with a fast-growing nation and the problems this growth presented, and as a politician, he probably didn’t want to alienate the white South. Cuban independence, the ensuing Spanish-American War, the annexation of the Republic of Hawaii, the crafting of an “open door policy” to ensure trade with China, sending troops to China to rescue American missionaries who were caught in the Boxer Rebellion, reestablishing trade with China after that incident, and all the other headaches a president has to deal with made it easy for him to overlook the continuing problems of racial prejudice and an inferior economy in the South. During the Spanish-American War, he did, however, intervene and countermand army orders that prevented recruitment of Afro-American soldiers, thus beginning the opportunities for Negros to serve in the military and to study through the military.
President McKinley was re-elected at the end of his first term, and enjoyed a second inauguration in March 1901. His former vice president had conveniently died at the end of his term, and Theodore Roosevelt, former governor of New York was elected as his new vice president. Roosevelt accepted the position of vice president because he thought it would be an excellent way to reach the presidency. Teddy Roosevelt was apparently very good at foreseeing the future.
In September of that same year, President McKinley delivered a speech on the fairgrounds of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York State. His audience was composed of 50,000 people and one of them was an assassin.
The assassin’s name was Leon Czolgosz, and he was born and raised in a blue-collar family in Michigan. His mother died when he was only 10 and he had to work in factories to help out at home. He and his brothers lost their jobs in the economic crash of 1893. It is interesting that he was similar to modern political assassins. He was a loner in school, claimed he was bullied, became a recluse as an adult, never had a relationship with a girl, and had rejected his family’s Catholic religion.
By the time he was 28, he had come to believe that there was great inequality in American society and that the rich became rich by exploiting the poor. He blamed the government and felt he had to take things into his own hands. It wasn’t difficult. After President McKinley gave a speech about American manufacturers to foreign markets, he greeted the public. Czolgosz had purchased a .32 caliber a few days before, and simply waited in line to shake the president’s hand. When his turn came and President McKinley extended his hand, the young radical slapped it aside and shot the president twice at point-blank range. One bullet ricocheted off President McKinley’s coat button, but the other wounded him in the stomach. The gun had been hidden in a handkerchief.
One of the first x-ray machines was being exhibited at the fairgrounds, but for some reason was not used. The doctors were unable to locate the bullet in the president’s stomach, and gangrene began to poison his blood. President McKinley died nine days being shot.
As for Czolgosz, his trial began only 9 days after the president’s death, but he refused to say a word during it. He also refused to talk to the lawyers who were assigned to him. The lawyers tried to use an insanity plea, but he was convicted of first-degree murder on September 24th of the very month the shooting had taken place. He was electrocuted by three jolts, each of 1800 volts, 45 days after his victim’s death. During his autopsy, his brain was found to be normal, and his body in good health, but his genitals were scarred from chancroids, a painful sexually transmitted disease. He was buried on prison grounds, and prison authorities poured sulfuric acid into his coffin, which would have disintegrated his body and clothing within 12 hours at the most. This was done to discourage sale or exhibition of anything about him or his life.
The country was once again united in sorrow, and no one remembered that some of those grieving Americans were white supremacists who were slowly solidifying their prejudices and practices in an economically depressed part of America that most people still didn’t want to pay too much attention to. White people who were not landowners not only competed with the black people for jobs, but they were also discriminated against and called “crackers” or “poor white trash” or “hillbillies” or “rednecks”. They took their anger out on black people, perpetuating a vicious cycle of hate and frustration.
It was 1901 and Theodore Roosevelt was immediately sworn in as president and a new era began. President McKinley was honored by having his image was put on a $500 bill.
I was born near the end of WWII and raised in a small town in New Jersey, just a little more than a 30-minute drive from NYC. It was a wonderful place to be brought up, feeding ducks and canoeing on the river that meandered through the town in the summer, and ice-skating on that same river in the winter.
My two brothers and I were privileged to be raised in a lovely town that was safe to explore on foot, but close enough to NYC to be taken there on day trips to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily B & B circus, museums, Chinatown, street fairs in the spring and Broadway shows as we grew older. But we thought nothing of it.
Later as teens, we would go into NYC to buy a couple of beers (the drinking age in New York State was 18, and 21 in New Jersey) and hang out in Greenwich Village where we saw singers such as Bob Dylan who were on the first rung of the ladder on their way to fame.
The sixties were a time of speaking out and creating change. I decided to do my part by joining the Peace Corps, an innovative cold war program established by John F. Kennedy in 1961. I arrived in Brazil at the end of 1966, and after an adaptation period, was sent to serve in Porto Nacional, in what was Goias at that time. I can’t say I changed the course of the country, especially as I was immediately called upon to teach English in the local high school.
I have been teaching ever since; high schools, college literature, college language pedagogy, financial English and everything in-between. I married a wonderful Brazilian from Rio and we had 3 boys and moved around some, as he was an engineer who worked on hydro dams. Nowadays I am a widow and live in BH with 3 cats, one of which has extraordinary powers, and I have 4 wonderful and uniquely different grandchildren nearby. Thus far, I have had an interesting life, and this new endeavor called a blog should make it even more interesting.