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Reform and empire: The British and *American transnational search for the rights of black people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Thomas E Smith, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Late nineteenth century modernity forced reformers in Great Britain and the United States to embrace a new sense of immediacy in their strategies. These new strategies, however, rarely extended to black people who were often subject to violence and discrimination in the period of high imperialism. Instead, when most reformers discussed the problems black people faced all they could offer were traditional promises of religious-based protections or "uplift." The violence of lynching in the 1890s forced reformers to address the problems of white supremacy in a direct fashion, while promoting an understanding of the connection between the plight of African peoples in the British Empire and the American South. ^ The response to the widely publicized lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas, on February 1, 1893, and the campaigns of the anti-lynching reformer Ida B. Wells introduced a discourse about political rights for black people and augmented traditional appeals to protections based on equality before God. This dissertation investigates how various metropolitan reformers---including Fabians, Positivists, and liberal humanists---not only discussed lynching, but also approached the issues of race and empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Meanwhile, a group of transnational black people---with African-American John E. Bruce at the center---began to form their own line of protest within this broader discourse. Culminating at the London Pan-African Conference of 1900, they constructed a call for immediate rights due to black people as subjects of the British Empire and as citizens of the United States. This appeal informed their transnational social movement that continued to shift the discussion away from passive protectionism and "uplift" strategies toward a more active voice of political empowerment that began to de-legitimize the colonial venture as untenable in post-emancipated societies. This activism laid the groundwork for later, more formalized, human rights discourse and informed subsequent calls for decolonization.^

Subject Area

History, Black|History, European|History, United States|History, Modern

Recommended Citation

Smith, Thomas E, "Reform and empire: The British and *American transnational search for the rights of black people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries" (2007). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3243738.