Désirée's Baby Historical and Social Context
by Kate Chopin

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Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

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Post-Civil War Southern Society

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the U.S. government embarked on a plan called Reconstruction to rebuild the South and reunite the nation. Reconstruction lasted from 1865 to 1877. During Reconstruction, the southern states set up new governments and revised their constitutions. All of the former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union by 1870, but many northern Republicans objected to the efforts made by the legislatures of southern states to restrict the freedoms of African Americans. Reconstruction governments, however, founded new social programs and organizations, such as public school systems. Southern states also spent a great deal of money repairing their infrastructure—railroads, bridges, and public buildings—which had been destroyed during the war.

At first, African Americans were optimistic about their futures. In 1866, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which extended equal citizenship to African Americans, and a few years later, passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed that the right to vote could not be denied because of race. African Americans took an active part in government, serving as delegates at state constitutional conventions and in Reconstruction legislatures.

Despite this greater equality, as early as 1866, southern states began passing Black Codes, which were laws that greatly limited the freedom of African Americans. Many African Americans were also still tied to the land through the system of sharecropping, by which a sharecropper worked a parcel of land in return for a share of the crop. Under this system, most African-American sharecroppers (as well as white sharecroppers) remained in poverty. African Americans had few economic opportunities to better their lives. Many were also threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, which opposed African Americans obtaining civil rights and used violence to discourage them. By the late 1800s, many African Americans felt the New South was beginning to look very much like the Old South. As Democrats regained control of southern state governments, they began to overturn the Reconstruction reforms. For instance, they devised methods of keeping African Americans from voting by implementing poll taxes and literacy tests. Southern states also passed Jim Crow laws, which called for the segregation of African Americans. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that the standard of ‘‘separate but equal’’ facilities did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment—a ruling that would stand until 1954. In response to such prohibitory measures, African Americans built their own social institutions and adopted different approaches to fighting discrimination. In his Atlanta Compromise speech of 1895, Booker T. Washington spoke of peaceful coexistence and his belief that African Americans and whites should cooperate for economic progress. His views that African Americans should concentrate on economic advancement, and not protest discrimination, angered other African Americans, who believed that African Americans should protest unfair treatment. Ida Wells-Barnett and W. E. B. DuBois brought attention to racial prejudice. Wells-Barnett urged African Americans to leave the South for the North, where there was less discrimination and violence perpetrated against African Americans.

The American Economy

The American economy was undergoing significant changes toward the end of the nineteenth century. A mining boom in gold and silver drew many Americans out west, and others chose to settle in the Great Plains, where they could find inexpensive land and rich soil for farming. The second industrial revolution, which began in the late 1800s, led to a period of explosive growth in U.S. manufacturing. By the mid-1900s, the United States was the world's industrial leader. Big business grew, as did the number of new factories. Many of the immigrants who were increasingly coming to the United States in the late 1800s were hired to...

(The entire section is 1,928 words.)