In 1905, a group of prominent black intellectuals led by WEB Du Bois gathered in Erie, Ontario, near Niagara Falls, to form an organization demanding the civil and political rights of African Americans. With its comparatively aggressive approach to combating racial discrimination and segregation, the Niagara Movement served as a precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the civil rights movement.
Niagara Movement Foundation
At the turn of the 20th century, the promises of the 14th and 15th Amendments – the civil rights of African Americans – were woefully insufficient. Reconstruction had failed and the Supreme Court sanctioned Jim Crow’s segregationist policies by Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896).
In this context of widespread racial discrimination and segregation, Booker T. Washington became one of the most influential black leaders of the time. He argued that black people should progress by learning skills such as farming and carpentry, rather than seeking legal and political means to progress as a group. “We will not act for political or social equality,” Washington said in 1895, in a speech known as the Atlanta Compromise. “Living separately, while working together, the two races will determine the future of our beloved South.”
In 1905, Du Bois, then a professor at the University of Atlanta, and William Monroe Trotter, founder of the activist newspaper the Boston goalie, appealed to a select group of black men who opposed Washington’s accommodating stance. In response to their call, 29 men from 14 states gathered in Buffalo, New York that summer. The group then crossed the border to Canada, meeting at the Erie Beach Hotel in Ontario, near Niagara Falls, July 11-14, 1905.
Historians have long speculated that Du Bois’s group chose the Erie Beach reunion site after being denied accommodation in Buffalo due to racial discrimination. But more recent research by local academics found that Buffalo hotel managers were in fact complying with anti-discrimination laws of the time, making that explanation unlikely. According to Du Bois’s own writings at the time, the group was looking for a “quiet place outside of town near the water where we can be alone, hold conferences together” and have access to leisure; the Erie Beach hotel apparently met these requirements.
Objectives and growth of the movement
At their initial meeting, the founding members of the Niagara Movement adopted a constitution and bylaws and drafted a “Declaration of Principles” which enshrines the group in the fight for political and social equality of African Americans. “We refuse to leave the impression that the Negro American consents to inferiority, is subjected to oppression and apologizes in the face of insults,” the statement read in part. “Persistent manly unrest is the path to freedom, and towards this goal the Niagara Movement has begun and calls for the cooperation of all men of all races.
In 1906, the Niagara Movement had 170 members in 34 states. In August, the organization held its first public meeting in Harpers Ferry, Va., On the Storer College campus. Its members chose the site of the meeting for its historical significance as the site of John Brown’s anti-slavery raid in 1959; Storer was also founded as a Baptist school with the mission of educating former slaves.
Despite some success at the state level, including pressure against the legalization of separate railroad cars in Massachusetts, the Niagara movement failed to gain much national momentum. The group suffered from limited financial resources and determined opposition from Washington and its supporters, as well as an internal disagreement between Du Bois and Trotter over whether to admit women. Trotter, who was against women joining the movement, left in 1908 to found his own organization, the Negro-American Political League.
End of the Niagara movement and founding of the NAACP
Although a 1907 meeting at Faneuil Hall in Boston drew up to 800 members, support for the Niagara movement soon began to wane. Then, following a major race riot in Springfield, Ill. In August 1908, Du Bois joined with other leading activists, including Mary White Ovington, in calling for a new organization of defense of civil rights with black and white members.
The result was the NAACP, founded in February 1909 in New York City. Although the Niagara Movement held its final meeting in 1908, and formally dissolved in 1911, the majority of its members would continue to fight for the civil and political rights of African Americans with the NAACP.
READ MORE: Milestones in Black History: A Timeline
Christensen, Stephanie, Niagara Movement (1905-1909). BlackPast.org. December 16, 2007.
Manly, Howard, “Before the NAACP, the Niagara Movement fought for equal rights, human brotherhood.” Bay State Banner. September 14, 2011.
Van Ness, Cynthia, “Buffalo Hotels and the Niagara Movement: New Evidence Refutes an Old Legend. Heritage of Western New York. Flight. 13 n ° 4, winter 2011.
Niagara Declaration of Principles, 1905. Yale Macmillan Center, Yale University.