Black History Timeline: 1880–1889

During the 1880s, Black Americans were denied many of the liberties they should have enjoyed as U.S. citizens by legislators, law enforcement officers, and White citizens who felt Black people should not be allowed to exercise basic human rights like voting and having equal access to public institutions.

However, this era also saw many civil rights activists pushing for equality. As laws were created on the federal and local levels to disenfranchise Black people and deny them access to many resources and amenities, people like Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells were working to expose injustices against Black Americans, establish institutes for educating Black students, and fight for recognition in a number of industries.

Supreme Court Judge William Strong portrait
Supreme Court Judge William Strong, who handed down the ruling in Strauder v. West Virginia that prohibiting Black Americans from serving as jurors was unconstitutional.

Library of Congress / Getty Images


March 1: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that Black Americans cannot be excluded from a jury because of their race in Strauder v. West Virginia. This case questions the constitutionality of a West Virginia law that prohibits Black citizens from being jurors and finds this law to be in violation of the 14th Amendment. Taylor Strauder, the defendant in this case being tried for murder, brought his case to federal court after having been heard by an all-White jury and demanding an impartial panel. The ruling handed down by Justice William Strong is significant because it allows for racial diversity in juries, but it does not guarantee that defendants will be heard by a jury in which they see their own race represented or their community's racial composition reflected. Nonetheless, Strauder v. West Virginia signals a step in the right direction toward equality in criminal court proceedings. Strauder is ultimately discharged because his original indictment was made unconstitutionally.

Three old buildings in a field
The Tuskegee Institute consisted of a few buildings on an abandoned farm, purchased on a loan from James Marshall, shortly after being founded in 1881.

Bettmann / Getty Images


First Railroad Segregation Law Passed: The Tennessee State Legislature votes to segregate railroad passenger cars and passes a law requiring railroad companies to provide separate cars of equal quality for Black and White passengers. Many consider this to be the first Jim Crow law enacted. The Republican-dominated legislature that passes this statute consists of only four Black members. This 1881 train segregation law is seen as an improvement over a discriminatory law passed in 1875. This legislation released public service providers from any obligation to serve all patrons, allowing them to decide for themselves who they would and would not serve. Of course, this meant many hotels, trains, and restaurants were turning away Black patrons. At the time this railroad segregation law is passed, Black lawmakers are working to get this 1875 legislation overturned. In the coming years, Black passengers continue to experience poor treatment on trains and struggle to prove that their accommodations are not equivalent to those of White passengers.

April 11: Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, two White women from Massachusetts, establish Spelman College in the basement of Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. They call their school the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary. This is the first institution for Black women in the United States. Their initial classes are comprised of only 11 women and many have never been formally educated before. Multiple Baptist churches and organizations in New England support Packard and Giles in their mission to teach Black women and girls about academic subjects, Christianity, and various domestic arts. The school grows rapidly and the founders buy land for a larger campus in 1882 and rename the school Spelman Seminary in honor of donor John D. Rockefeller's wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller.

July 4: Dr. Booker T. Washington becomes president of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Dr. Washington receives $2,000 to fund this from the state of Alabama under legislation that appropriates money for the salaries of Black educators who will go on to work in the state. George Campbell, Lewis Adams, and M.B. Swanson are instrumental in helping to organize and establish the institution, a normal school called the Tuskegee State Normal School before becoming a university, and ensuring that it not only meets the requirements of the charter it is founded on but that it also meets the needs of the Tuskegee community. Thirty students make up the first cohort and they attend classes in an old church. Dr. Washington is an effective administrator and manages to raise enough money for the school to purchase property and a building shortly after opening. In 1892, the institute receives authorization to privatize and is no longer regulated by the state of Alabama or overseen by a Board of Commissioners.

George Washington Williams
Portrait of George Washington Williams, author of History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880.

Bettmann / Getty Images


'History of the Negro Race in America' Published: George Washington Williams publishes "History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880." This is one of the first publications about Black history and culture and it is the first book Williams writes. His scholarship is groundbreaking because no one before him has performed in-depth and objective research into the ways Black people have contributed to society. Until now, historians have largely left out people of color in their studies, and academia has treated Black people as inferior and unimportant. Most critics respect Williams' book. Slowly, more scholars pursue Black studies and help to legitimize the field.

Sojourner Truth
Portrait of civil rights and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images


October 15: The U.S. Supreme Court declares the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. This decision is made following five court cases that come to be known collectively as the Civil Rights Cases of 1883. The court rules that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 is in violation of the 13th and 14th amendments, which do not grant the federal government power to rule on or correct discriminatory practices taking place in private businesses. Rather, the provisions of the 13th Amendment protect Black citizens from enslavement and the terms of the 14th Amendment only prevent states from denying Black people the privileges of citizenship including due process of law and the right to life, liberty, and property. Voiding the Civil Rights Act of 1875 means that discrimination in private places is no longer illegal and prohibits the federal government from intervening when individuals discriminate against others or businesses choose to segregate. Justice John Marshall Harlan is the only Supreme Court judge who opposes the ruling; he is outnumbered by eight justices.

November 26: Abolitionist and women’s advocate Sojourner Truth dies in her home in Battle Creek, Michigan. She is buried in Oak Hill cemetery. In 2009, the United States Capitol remembers her with a bronze bust, the first sculpture of a Black woman in history, that can be found in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall.

November 3: A fight breaks out in Danville, Virginia, and turns deadly. White rioters kill at least five people and injure many more. This event comes to be known as the Danville Massacre. This massacre is in response to Black people serving on the city council, which many White people feel outraged and threatened by despite the fact that Danville's population is predominantly Black. Tension increases when 28 White men sign a document listing perceived injustices against them, including "misrule of the radical or negro party" and the leasing of market space to Black vendors, and denouncing the Black politicians. This attack is referred to as the Danville Circular. William E. Sims, the chairman of the dominant political party in the town, the Readjuster Party, rejects all claims in this document before the public and calls its authors liars. This creates further unrest and leads a White man, Charles D. Noel, to attack a Black man, Henderson Lawson. Though Noel's precise motives are unclear, that racism is a factor is certain. Lawson and his companion retaliate and leave. When Noel returns for revenge, the fight that ensues turns into a violent riot between White and Black people. Some rioters are armed. The police intervene but are unable or unwilling to quell the riot. Four Black men and one White person are killed in the violence; bystanders give different accounts of what happened. Black people are initially blamed for starting the riot but no arrests or charges are made. A year later, the U.S. Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections weighs in and comes to the agreement that White people instigated the event, again without making any convictions.

Granville T. Woods
Portrait of Granville T. Woods, inventor of the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph and founder of the Woods Railway Telegraphy Company.

Kean Collection / Getty Images


Woods Railway Telegraph Company: Granville T. Woods establishes the Woods Railway Telegraph Company in Columbus, Ohio. Woods’ company manufactures and sells telephone and telegraph equipment. He is motivated to start his own company after years of being discriminated against for his race by the engineering industry and having his ideas stolen throughout his career. Woods is often referred to as "Black Edison," but despite this nickname, Thomas Edison and Woods have a tense relationship. Woods invents many electric, telephone, and telegraph devices over the years and patents the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph in 1887. He sells the rights for this combination telegraph and telephone to the American Bell Telephone Company, owned by Alexander Graham Bell. This angers Edison, who claims that he is the original inventor of the multiplex telegraph and sues Woods twice. After losing the legal battle both times, Edison asks Woods to work for him; Woods declines.

September 23: Judy W. Reed becomes the first Black woman to receive a patent when she registeres her dough roller and kneader invention.

Bishop Samuel David Ferguson
Bishop Samuel David Ferguson.

William Stevens Perry / Wikimedia Commons / CC0


First Black Bishop: At Grace Church in New York City, Episcopal Priest Samuel David Ferguson becomes the first Black bishop of the American House of Bishops when he is consecrated a Bishop in the Church of God. He becomes the Missionary Bishop of Cape Palmas, a region of coastal Liberia. Having spent a portion of his childhood in Liberia, Ferguson welcomes this return and spends much of the rest of his life there. He establishes Cuttington College, later named Cuttington University, in 1889 to educate Liberians about agriculture.


Black Knights of Labor Members: The Knights of Labor grows to between 50,000 and 60,000 Black members. This labor organization founded in 1869 aims to secure additional protections and increased wages for laborers and promotes employee ownership of corporations. This is one of the nation's first national labor movements. The Knights of Labor as an organization does not strictly discriminate against prospective members on the basis of race or gender, so Black people and women are permitted to join. By 1887, approximately 90,000 Knights are Black. However, racial tension grows within the movement. Many Black people outside of this organization are mistrustful of the movement's intentions, worried that the Black members will be exploited and taken advantage of. In some states, Knights assemblies are integrated; in others, primarily in the South, there are separate assemblies for Black and White members. And despite the fact that the labor organization's policy is to accept members of all races, a large portion of White members and numerous local branches refuse to accept and cooperate with Black members. Ultimately, strained race relations and lack of unity destroy the organization, and membership declines rapidly after 1887.

Cuney Elected Texas Republican Party Chairmen: Norris Wright Cuney is appointed chairman of the Texas Republican Party. This makes him the first Black person to lead a major political party at the state level in the United States. Cuney is also the Texas National Committeeman. He has the support of Black voters, many of whom are Republican, for much of his term, but opposition from the "lily-whites" and Democratic control of Congress lead to his defeat in 1897. He dies this same year.

December 11: The National Colored Farmers' Alliance is founded in Houston County, Texas. This organization teaches members how to improve their farming skills and manage their finances in order to acquire property and repay debt. At this time, Black farmers are taken advantage of by financial institutions, discriminated against by consumers, and prohibited from joining other alliances for farmers. The National Colored Farmers' Alliance strives to give them more agency over their situations. J. J. Shuffer is elected president. The Colored Alliance receives its charter in 1888 and spreads rapidly throughout southern states.


Black Congress Members: No Black representatives serve in the 50th Congress. At the same time, voter intimidation keeps many Black men from participating in the voting process (all women are prohibited from voting).

Segregation of Florida Trains: Florida passes a law requiring all railroads to provide separate passenger cars for Black and White patrons. Many southern states, including Louisiana and Texas, pass similar legislation. Black Americans protest, claiming that the cars designated for Black passengers are inferior to those designated for White passengers and that this segregation violates their constitutional rights.

National Colored Baseball League Founded: The National Colored Baseball League is established. This is the first professional league for Black players. The league begins with eight teams—the Baltimore Lord Baltimores, Cincinnati Browns, Capital City Club, Louisville Fall City, New York Gorhams, Philadelphia Pythians, Pittsburgh Keystones, and the Boston Resolutes. Within two weeks, the National Colored Baseball League cancels games in response to poor attendance.

July 14: American Association and National League owners and managers decide to prohibit Black players from joining professional baseball teams. This unofficial but impenetrable barrier is referred to as the "gentlemen's agreement," and it is partially motivated by the fact that many White professional baseball players refuse to play with and against Black players. Black players already playing for professional teams are permitted to remain, but none are signed on for many years. This ban lasts until 1947 when Jackie Robinson plays for the Brooklyn Dodgers and breaks the color barrier.

Reverend William Washington Browne
Reverend William Washington Browne, founder of the Grand Fountain United Order of the Reformers.

Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC0


March 2: Mississippi passes legislation requiring all railroads to provide separate passenger cars for Black and White passengers. This is found not to be in violation of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, which grants the power to regulate interstate travel to Congress and prohibits racial discrimination because it only affects travel within the state of Mississippi. While accommodations for Black and White passengers are supposed to be equal in quality and availability, Black passengers again complain of lesser comforts and services.

March 2: Reverend William Washington Browne, a formerly enslaved man, establishes the Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain United Order of the Reformers in Richmond, Virginia. This is considered to be the first Black-owned bank chartered in the United States. On October 17, 1888, the Capitol Savings Bank of Washington D.C., opens to the public, becoming the first Black-owned bank in operation. On April 3, 1889, the Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain United Order of the Reformers opens to the public. Both of these banks grant Black Americans access to deposit accounts and other banking products and protection from racially biased exploitative schemes.

Frederick Douglass
U.S. Minister to Haiti Frederick Douglass.

Library of Congress / Getty Images


Florida Poll Tax: Florida institutes the poll tax as a requirement for voting in order to disenfranchise Black men. Many western and southern states, including Texas, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, and others, do the same. These taxes are effective at blocking Black votes because the majority of Black Americans cannot afford to pay them while White Americans who also cannot afford to pay them are largely exempted from the tax through "grandfather clauses." Additional conditions also placed on Black voters in some states include literacy tests and property ownership requirements. The use of poll taxes is deemed permissible under the 14th and 15th amendments through many Supreme Court cases because it does not technically take away the rights of Black citizens to vote—it merely makes it more difficult for them to do so.

June: President Benjamin Harrison appoints Frederick Douglass as U.S. Minister to Haiti. Harrison's decision to facilitate relations with Haiti is motivated by a desire to expand the United States' territory and his choice of Douglass likely due to Douglass's political and diplomatic success and his popularity with many Black people. Despite Douglass's protests, the U.S. government forcefully negotiates for Môle St. Nicolas of Haiti for use as a naval station but fails. Douglass resigns shortly after.

View Article Sources
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Your Citation
Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1880–1889." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Femi. (2023, April 5). Black History Timeline: 1880–1889. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1880–1889." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).