Access Type

Online access to this book is only available to eligible users.



Download Full Text (12.5 MB)


The Civil War and Reconstruction were characterized by two lasting legacies—the failure to bring racial harmony to the South and the failure to foster reconciliation between the North and South. The nation was left with a festering race problem, as a white-dominated society and political structure debated the +proper role for blacks. At the national level, both sides harbored bitter feelings toward the other, which often resulted in clashes among congressmen that inflamed, rather than solved, the race problem. No Congress expended more energy debating this issue than the Fifty-First, or “Billion Dollar,” Congress of 1889-1891. The Congress debated several controversial solutions, provoking discussion far beyond the halls of government and shaping the course of race relations for twentieth-century America.

Legislating Racism proposes that these congressional debates actually created a climate for the first truly frank national discussion of racial issues in the United States. In an historic moment of unusual honesty and openness, a majority of congressmen, newspaper editors, magazine contributors, and the American public came to admit their racial prejudice against not only blacks, but all minority races. If the majority of white Americans—not just those in the South—harbored racist sentiments, many wondered whether Americans should simply accept racism as the American way. Thomas Adams Upchurch contends that the Fifty-First Congress, in trying to solve the race problem, in fact began the process of making racism socially and politically acceptable for a whole generation, inadvertently giving birth to the Jim Crow era of American history.

Thomas Adams Upchurch is assistant professor of History at East Georgia College in Statesboro.

"This important book analyzes one year in the U.S. Congress, a moment that Upchurch convincingly argues constituted a key missed opportunity in American race relations. . . . Upchurch succeeds with good writing, thorough contextualization, and insightful interpretation."—American Historical Review

"This insightful study is clearly written and carefully documented. . . . Highly recommended."—Choice

"Casts the rise of Jim Crow in a broader context of racial ill-feeling toward African Americans, native Americans, and Chinese immigrants, all of whom suffered at the hands of the ‘Billion Dollar’ Congress."—Dennis C. Dickerson, Vanderbilt University

"Scholars have long attempted to contract a convincing explanation for how and why the promise of freedom and equality for African Americans implicit in the three Reconstruction amendments were so tragically broken. . . . Upchurch shifts the focus by reexamining a hitherto noted, but not intensively examined episode in that story, the Fifty-First Congress and the Federal Elections Bill."—Journal of American History

"Upchurch adds thoroughgoing depth to our understanding of why and how the North and West capitulated to racism as the South moved to formalize another system of racial control during the 1890s."—Journal of Southern History

"Deserves serious attention from historians of Reconstruction, southern history, and African American studies, not only for its meticulous treatment of the subject and its shrewd observations about the interactions between national and state politics over black disfranchisement in 1890, but also especially for its perceptive analysis of the 'peculiar' political psychology of white America in the age of Jim Crow."—North Carolina Historical Review

"Upchurch adds some valuable new detail to our understanding of the congressional debates of this Congress and provides a helpful discussion of southern reaction to this attempt to revisit reconstruction."—South Carolina Historical Magazine

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






United States Congess, Racism, Civil rights, African Americans


United States History

Legislating Racism: The Billion Dollar Congress and the Birth of Jim Crow
Read Sample Off-campus Download