Color line (racism)

The term color line was originally used as a reference to the racial segregation that existed in the United States after the abolition of slavery. An article by Frederick Douglass titled "The Color Line" was published in the North American Review in 1881. The phrase gained fame after W. E. B. Du Bois’ repeated use of it in his book The Souls of Black Folk.

Origin of the phrase

It is difficult to find an exact origin of the phrase "the color line". In 1881 Frederick Douglass published an article with that title in the North American Review. However, the phrase appeared frequently in newspapers before that date with specific reference to divisions between blacks and whites. For example, the July 7, 1869, issue of the Richmond Virginia Dispatch described a "color line" running between two candidates for governor. Most uses of the term in the 1870s were in newspapers from former slave states and dealt with elections. A search of Newspapers.com indicates the phrase appeared in newspapers with increasing frequency from 1873 on.

At the First Pan-African Conference in London in July 1900, the delegates adopted an "Address to the Nations of the World", drafted by Du Bois and to which he was a signatory, that contained the sentence: "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the colour-line".[1]

Three years later, in his 1903 book, Du Bois used the phrase first in his introduction, titled "The Forethought", writing: "This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of color line". The phrase occurs again in the book's second essay, "Of the Dawn of Freedom", at both its beginning and its end. At the outset of the essay, Du Bois writes: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea". At the end of the essay, Du Bois truncates his statement to: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line", the more frequently quoted version of the sentiment.[2]

Ample nuance exists among the three versions of Du Bois’ prediction, as within a very short amount of text Du Bois provides the reader with three incarnations of the thought. Some of the difference may be the result of the original serialization of the work, as parts of The Souls of Black Folk were originally serialized, many in The Atlantic Monthly. The first reference draws the reader in with a direct reference, while the second goes so far as to identify all of the areas in the world where Du Bois believed the color-line was "the problem of the twentieth century". All imply, whether directly or passively, that the color-line extends outside the bounds of the United States.