5.3.2. The Midwest, 1865-1900: The Beginnings of Modern Civil Rights

The beginnings of modern civil rights in the Midwest:

  • All Midwestern states repealed the remnants of their black codes at the end of the Civil War.  Several Midwestern states gave black males the right to vote before the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Consitution (ratified in 1870) extended that right to all states.
  • In 1875 Congress, at the urging of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, enacted a federal “accommodations law” prohibiting racial discrimination in restaurants, hotels and other public places.  The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in 1883; in reaction, many Midwestern states enacted their own versions of the accommodations law.


Black laws repealed

Black male suffrage

School segregation

State accommodations law enacted




1878 – segregated schools mandated

1887 – school segregation law abolished





1869 – segregated schools required





No segregation laws





No segregation laws



Black laws never enacted


No segregation laws





No segregation laws





No segregation laws


Key cases:

State ex rel. Garnes v. McCann Ohio, 1871 (21Ohio St. 198); Cory v. Carter Indiana, 1874 (48 Ind. 327)

  • Ohio and Indiana were the slowest states to implement new civil rights laws after the war. In McCann, Ohio's supreme court allowed two school districts to combine in order to take advantage of a law permitting large districts to establish separate schools for black students.  The court said that "[e]quality of rights does not involve the necessity of educating while and colored persons in the same school."  
  • Similarly, in Cory, Indiana's supreme court upheld an 1869 law that required school segregation and held that federal civil rights laws did not require integration.  However, in a later case the court held that the “equal” component of “separate but equal” had teeth:  if black schools did not have the higher grade levels that white schools had, black students who qualified for the higher grades must be allowed to attend white schools.

Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Co. v. Williams – Illinois, 1870 (55 Ill. 185); Chase v. Stephenson – Illinois, 1874 (71 Ill. 383); Baylies v. Curry Illinois, 1889 (21 N.E. 595)

  • Illinois courts supported integration, but only cautiously.  In Williams, which postwar Southern courts cited frequently (but inaccurately) to show that racial discrimination existed in the North, the Illinois supreme court held that a black woman ejected from the parlor car of a train in Chicago was entitled to damages but suggested segregation might be legal if it was necessary to avoid disruption on trains.  In Chase, the court rejected a school district’s attempt to implement segregation by building a new school for black students, but only because the existing building had enough room for all district students.
  • In Baylies, the court took a stronger line when it enforced the state’s accommodations law against a Bloomington theater that attempted to segregate black and white patrons.  Again the court did not explicitly condemn the separate-but-equal doctrine, but it stated that “it would be difficult to employ more comprehensive and sweeping language to abolish all distinctions in accommodations” than the language of the Illinois law.

Clark v. Board of Directors Iowa, 1868 (24 Iowa 266); People ex rel. Workman v. Board of Education of Detroit – Michigan, 1869 (18 Mich. 400); Coger v Northwestern Union Packet Co. Iowa, 1873 (37 Iowa 145); Ferguson v GiesMichigan, 1890 (82 Mich. 358, 46 N.W. 718)

  • Michigan and Iowa took firm stands against segregation shortly after the war.  In Workman, the Michigan supreme court interpreted a state law giving all children “an equal right to attend any school” as prohibiting segregation in the Detroit schools, even though the law also allowed school officials to “classify” students in each district.  In Clark, the Iowa supreme court struck down school segregation in Muscatine, warning that to do otherwise would “sanction a plain violation of the spirit of our laws not only, but would tend to perpetuate the national differences of our people and stimulate a constant strife, if not a war of races.”     
  • In Coger (involving steamboats) and Ferguson (restaurants), the Iowa and Michigan courts also rejected segregation in other public places.  However, the Iowa court inadvertently  revealed that racial paternalism still prevailed even in the most liberal northern states:  it denied that allowing Ms. Coger to sit with white passengers in a steamboat saloon would upset social order, because she "could not have attained any social standing by being permitted to share the treatment awarded to other passengers." 

John T. McCutcheon cartoon, Chicago Tribune, 1904 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

"There is but one construction which will preserve the unity, harmony, and consistency of our [Indiana] state const, and that is, to hold that it was made and adopted by and for the exclusive use and enjoyment of the white race.”-          Justice Samuel Buskirk, in Cory

"We cannot avoid seeing … that the force of [Workman’s] claim depends much, if not entirely, upon the effect to be given to a changed condition of public affairs, and whatever corresponding change that condition may have wrought upon public opinion concerning the treatment of colored persons.” – Justice James Campbell (dissenting), in Workman


“The ground upon which we base this conclusion will be discovered, in the progress of this opinion, to be the absolute equality of all men … .[Racial] prejudice, be it proclaimed to the honor of our people, … is fast giving way to nobler sentiments, and, it is hoped, will soon be entombed with its parent, slavery.”

-Justice Joseph Beck, in Coger