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Defining "The Color Line" in North Dakota’s History

8/20/2015:

The famous leader of the early civil rights movement in the US, W.E.B. DuBois said: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line."

The divisions in America that came from slavery continued long after human bondage ended with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The color line dividing black and white was present in North Dakota underneath the surface appearance of total social equality, as early boosters of Dakota publicized the idea that all immigrants and ethnic groups would be welcomed.

For instance, regarding African-Americans, the Bismarck Tribune, in 1882, before statehood, publicly proclaimed: “There is no color line in this region. A man, no matter what his color, or previous condition of servitude, has the undisputed right here to take the free lands of Dakota, and work as hard as he sees fit, and make all the money he can. No one will deny him this privilege. A man is not sized up by his color in the Bismarck region, but by his worth.”

The state Constitution of 1889 agreed, stating: “Every citizen . . . shall be free to obtain employment wherever possible,” and anyone “maliciously interfering or hindering in any way a citizen from obtaining” employment would be “guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Officially, there was not discrimination, but unofficially, the color line limited African-Americans to certain jobs and neighborhoods.

The color line became visible in an article in the Grand Forks Herald on this date in 1908, showing how some businesses discriminated against certain customers.

“In a large share of the restaurants, negroes are given to understand that they are not wanted as patrons” in Grand Forks, where the color line was “drawn rather closely.”

Although there were no exclusionary signs on doors, an African-American could be discouraged from returning to a restaurant if the owner ordered the cook to put heaps of red pepper in his food – so much pepper that the meal became inedible. Another way was avoid printed menus and then charge a high price for the meal. And some restaurant-owners would pretend a customer was not there, and the person would “realize what he was up against” and leave.

Real life for North Dakota’s African-Americans often called for using what was known as “black wisdom,” knowing when to protest or when to endure unfair treatment while waiting decades for 1960s-era civil-rights advancements.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department.

Sources: “Negroes Object To Red Pepper,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, August 20, 1908, p. 8.

“Drawing The Color Line,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, August 22, 1908, p. 4.

“Approved By The Tribune,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, August 26, 1908, p. 4.

R.M. Tuttle, Proceedings and Debates of the First Constitutional Convention of North Dakota (Bismarck: Tribune State Printers, 1889).

W.E.B. DuBois, "Worlds of Color," Foreign Affairs 20, (April, 1925): 423, in Herbert Aptheker, Writings by W.E.B. DuBois in Periodicals Edited by Others