War brought destruction across the South. Governmental and private buildings, communication systems, the economy, and transportation infrastructure were all debilitated. “[Richmond, Va. Crippled locomotive, Richmond & Petersburg Railroad depot],” c. 1865. / Library of Congress.
WARNING: EXTREMELY GRAPHIC CONTENT APPEARS AT THE END OF THIS TRANSCRIPT SHOWING LYNCHINGS.
Introduction: The Reconstruction Era
“I know the nigger. The employer must have some sort of punishment. I don’t care what it is, if you’ll let me tie him down by the thumbs, or keep him on bread and water, that will do. All I want is just to have it so that when I get the niggers onto my place, and the work has begun, they can’t sit down and look me square in the face and do nothing.”
Mississippi planter to a Freedman’s Bureau official. The language is what the language is. “Let me find some way or give me some way that I can punish these people so they’ll do the work that I need them to do.” We can see in this quote how politics, labor, and free will are intertwined. These are the themes for this week, this week being beginning of the second week of lectures, although we’re meeting on Friday. We’ll be looking at the way politics, and labor, and free will are in the mix, as it were, throughout this particular era. We’re moving this week from the very end of the Civil War, 1865 to about 1877. Well, at least for this lecture, excuse me, the period known as Reconstruction. Now when thinking about Reconstruction, the general attempt by the Union or by the United States to bring the Union back together, when we think about Reconstruction, it’s really important to understand that we’re talking about an evolving set of ideas, an evolving set of political strategies. Now I’m simplifying things when I say it, there’s no doubt about it, but there is a real element of improvisation during this era, an experimentation as the country, at the federal level to the most local level, is trying to figure out how to heal the wounds of division.
Chronology of the Reconstruction Era
Reconstruction timeline / Research Guides, Creative Commons
I want to map out for you the basic chronology of this era and then we’ll be, I’ll be moving forward in this chronology and then working backwards again back to 1865. So November of 1864, Lincoln’s reelected. By April of 1865 he’s assassinated. Before he dies, however, and after his reelection, he starts working on plans to complete emancipation. He had already made the proclamation, the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1863, but he was concerned that after the war there might be attempts to see or to interpret the Emancipation Proclamation as merely a wartime resolution and not something permanent. And for Lincoln the die has been cast now. He’s gotta find a way to make emancipation permanent. And so he starts working with Congress and other individuals for the passage of what would become the Thirteenth Amendment for the Constitution–to the Constitution. The first of three so-called Reconstruction Amendments.
The Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery. Again, making sure that the Emancipation Proclamation is more than just a wartime measure, that it would emancipate those people who are legally still kept as slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation. So looking directly at this slide, you’re going to see Lincoln’s assassinated in 1865. Excuse me. At the end of 1865, The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery is passed. You enter into phase of Presidential Reconstruction followed by Radical Reconstruction. Then you have the two other Reconstruction Amendments, the Fourteenth, establishing the lines of citizenship and guaranteeing due process, the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote that would not be mitigated based on your race or previous inservitude, and by 1877, withdrawal of Northern troops, the end of the Reconstruction. I want you to get this down in your notes so you understand the chronology that I’ll be going back over for the rest of this particular lecture.
So Lincoln’s reelected, he’s building a plan, advocating a plan that would turn into the Thirteenth Amendment, calling for a complete end of slavery in the United States. Things aren’t looking good for the South. It seems that the North is going to win the Civil War. Even before Lincoln’s assassinated, he seems pretty certain that’s going to be the case. And so several central questions, now that the tide has turned in this way, simply have to be addressed. And these are the questions that are really the–I’ll be spending the lecture addressing. And the questions might seem kind of strange to you, but as you’ll see, they’re rather relevant to the ways in which whites and blacks are responding to this new era in U.S. history.
“What does one do with blacks now they’ve been emancipated? How will they be controlled?” I use that language very intentionally. “Who will do the work and how will the South survive the upheaval?” What I want to do–this is an incredibly complicated era, and I’ve always been struggling with the right way to tell this story. What I want to do for the rest of the lecture is tell the narrative mainly from a standpoint of high politics, electoral, formal processes and legislatures, for instance, and then I want to go back over the same time period looking at the social history, what’s sort of happening on the ground. So it’s giving you the heads up, we’ll be looping back over–going back to 1865 and starting over in a sense, looking at these different narratives to address these questions. “What do you do with blacks, how are they going to be controlled, who will do the work, and will the South survive the upheaval?”
A Narrative Account of the Reconstruction Era
From The Union in Peril before, during, and after the Civil War, 1850-1877, by Blaze Shaw
Now before Lincoln is killed, he starts trying very aggressively to figure out the best way to reunite the country after the war. He proposes a ten percent plan. It’s called “The Ten Percent Plan.” And it is a–the elements of the plan involve a pardon to all Southerners, except for Confederate leaders, they could not be excused. A pardon would be given to all Southerners who took an oath of loyalty to the Union and supported emancipation. Once ten percent of a state population, we’re talking white males, once ten percent of the state population agrees to this idea, signs this loyalty oath, a new government could be formed. Anti-slavery activists, Congressional radicals, people are just staunch supporters of the Union efforts saying, “This is way too lenient, we have spilled too much blood just to say if ten percent of the South goes along with this plan, everything will be forgiven.” The plan goes nowhere, and Lincoln is assassinated.
Andrew Johnson takes office and develops a plan and a series of measures that taken together are capturing what we call “Presidential Reconstruction.” The basic terms of Presidential Reconstruction say that a general pardon is given to the white South, except for Confederate leaders, just like Lincoln’s plan, but Johnson’s is different. He says, “We will pardon everyone except for Confederate leaders and wealthy planters.” Johnson was a man of the people, coming from farming roots, working very hard, and saw that moneyed land-owners, plantation-owners, were a real source of many of the problems in the South. So the pardon to the white South, except for Confederate leaders and wealthy planters, required the end of slavery, and then it would let the South set up it’s own governments. And the thinking was that the white yeoman farmers–since the white planters, the wealthy planters, would not be allowed to be the leaders, that white yeoman farmers, people working sort of hand-to-mouth and scraping by, they would be the one who would take control of these governments and restructure the society more along sort of I would say agrarian class sympathetic lines.
Plan moves forward, and Johnson could not have been more wrong about what would happen. He thought that there would be a new egalitarian ethos in the South, and what happened is that once the whites take over office, they begin to answer the set of questions I posed at the beginning of the class, in terms of what to do with blacks, with a rather curious set of answers. They enacted the so-called “Black Codes.” I’m going to skip over the Black Codes for the moment, save that for the social history part of the lecture. But they enact the Black Codes. The answer under Johnson that the white governments in the South provide does not look a whole bunch better than slavery for many African Americans.
The Republicans in Congress, people who’ve been staunch anti-slavery advocates, are horrified at Johnson’s plan. Lincoln’s was way too lenient, Johnson’s was stricter, but it didn’t change the social order, as it turns out. And so Congress, the Republicans in Congress, they now control the Congress, sets about fighting Johnson at every turn. Johnson has a plan, Congress overrules it. Johnson vetoes Congress’s decision, Congress beats back the veto. I mean, the government is just locked in this battle at the federal level on all manner of issues. During this period of federal inside battling, I suppose one could call it, Republican-controlled Congress pushes through the first Civil Rights Act in 1866, it pushes through the Fourteenth Amendment delineating the terms of citizenship and due process. Due process is something you’ll be hearing–being incredibly important for freedom struggles as we move forward in this class. And threatened–the Congress threatens South’s representation in Congress if blacks were denied the right to vote.
President Andrew Johnson / Library of Congress
Southern states, seeing the handwriting on the wall about the fact that Republican-controlled Congress, which is a Northern Congress, sees these terms and just rejects them. Congress gets tough and ushers in a series of reforms that become known as “Radical Reconstruction” or “Congressional Reconstruction,” they are the same thing. Congressional Reconstruction and Radical Reconstruction.
So Johnson has a chance to make a difference in Reconstruction. From 1865, with Lincoln’s assassination, to 1867, that two years of experimentation. Congress says, “Forget about it, we’re taking control here,”–through sheer numbers–and enters the longest phase of Reconstruction, Congressional Radical Reconstruction, from 1867 to 1877. And it is a radical change. Under this new Reconstruction plan, the South is divided into five military districts. These districts are controlled by Northern and Republican governments. There is quite literally a military occupation of the South by federal troops.
Congress pushes through the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, guaranteeing blacks, and this is black males, please understand, guaranteeing them the right to vote. If you’d been a slave, it doesn’t matter. If you’re black, it doesn’t matter. You have the right to vote. After this amendment passes, you start seeing a period in the eras of different Reconstructions, of incredible positive change for many African Americans–not all, but many. And that change often comes through–you can mark it by the dramatic increase–well, increasing from zero to anything is dramatic, I suppose, but the dramatic increase of blacks holding office. You start seeing black men holding office at the local level, being elected to maybe a town council let’s say, in some places being located the local sheriff, which is really quite astonishing, through state governments and into the federal government. In Congress, and in the House of Representatives, and in the Senate.
The change in representation that there are blacks in government at all levels is astonishing on many levels. What is even more astonishing, I’ll repeat this fact in about ten weeks or eleven weeks, is that the number of black elected officials in the federal government, House of Representatives and Senate, blossoms during this era, at the end of Reconstruction, which I’ll start talking about in the next lecture, that those numbers start to evaporate, and the numbers do not return as far as federal representation of blacks coming from the Southern states. It does not return until Bill Clinton is elected President. This is a radical change, and it is so radical it could not be sustained, as we’ll see. But for the moment, in 1870 through 1877, at the level of politics, electoral politics, it seems there is a real opportunity for change as far as representation–the local, the state, the federal level. All of these changes, federal occupation–military occupation of the South, setting very aggressive terms about how the Southern governments could be reformed and readmitted to the Union, having blacks hold elected office, all of these changes tear at the social fabric of the South.
What I want to do for the next bit is to start looking at these changes sort of on the ground. Trying to help us understand the ways in which things had shifted fundamentally for whites and African Americans at the moment of the end of the Civil War. Now as I eluded earlier to the question “What are you going to do with blacks?”–The central question of the era is what one does with blacks springs out of the fact that freedom meant different things to different people.
Freedom meant liberation for blacks, and that part is obvious certainly. For whites, at that moment of liberation, those who had slaves from small, you know, small slaveholding households, two or three slaves to plantations, it means an immediate loss of labor. For blacks and whites it means an immediate sense of profound instability in the social fabric. In a very curious way, it means for blacks in more dangerous situations–dangerous moment.
Slaves’ bodies had value, literal value. You were property. If you did something–if someone thinks you did something wrong, black person offends a white person’s sensibilities, and a white person decides to strike me, hit me, hurt my body or something, that white person has damaged property that belongs to somebody else and they had to make restitution. After the end of the Civil War, black bodies were, from a financial standpoint, they had no value. Now I remember actually making this statement during a public lecture at a library during a series of lectures in San Diego and someone got very upset with me. Everybody has value. I mean yes, everybody does have value, but I’m talking of literal dollars and cents. Black bodies don’t have value after the moment, the end of slavery, and you can do what you want to with them. Freedom, you can’t discount it’s important for African Americans, the moment of liberation. But profound instability you can’t ignore either.
Now since the Southern economy is devastated after the war, during the war and after the war, since there’s the loss of labor that is profound, white planters want a quick return to plantation labor, you gotta get crops in from the field. And they understood that we don’t have slaves anymore, but there’s gotta be a way to get gang labor reorganized, have an overseer. At the same time black–white planters want this, blacks who have been working on these plantations for example, they’ve gotta find a way to put food on their table, but they want to have economic autonomy, be it land ownership. They want to have their own farms. White farm-owners want blacks to sign labor contracts to commit themselves to work on the farms. Blacks reject this saying they expect the federal government to help them out. They expect the federal government to redistribute land. So you have these really intense conflicting expectations that are directly related to conflicting senses of what freedom meant. And if you look at some of these items on the screen here, I’ll start talking about them, you’ll start seeing where these expectations come from and why they would be so conflicted and complicated.
1865: The Establishment of Black Codes
Black Codes / Troy Nielsen, Twitter
Now we’re back in 1865. Johnson is the president and he wants to see the Southern economy back on track and wants blacks back to work immediately. The question is how to do it. He allows Southern governments to reestablish themselves under Presidential Reconstruction guidelines, and once they do, a lot of these white governments start answering the question what to do with blacks and establish Black Codes. Now Black Codes were a series of state-level laws aimed at answering the question what to do with this newly freed population. There was one–there wasn’t a single set of Black Codes, they ranged broadly. Some are more strict than others, but they are just taken together a series of legal concepts that are seeking to create a new labor system that essentially put blacks back to work.
Now you look at the codes, you’ll see they authorize blacks to acquire property, something blacks certainly wanted. It authorized blacks to marry, something they were not allowed to do when they were slaves. It authorized blacks to make contracts, sue and be sued, testify in court against other blacks, mind you. All of these things are essentially brand new, so the Black Codes on the surface, at first glance, seemed to be a way of trying to give blacks some citizenship rights they didn’t have before. But look a little more closely, you’ll also see many other guidelines that make it clear that the Black Codes are about labor stabilization.
Now I’m lumping all of these things together here. Some state codes required all blacks to have an annual proof of one year labor contracts. Basically you had to sign up saying, “I’m going to work this plot of land at this plantation, I’m going to work in this shop for the next year, and I won’t leave.” If you leave the job, you sign that contract, you leave the job before the year is up, you will lose all wages that you had earned up to that point. And you might be subject to arrest by a white citizen. And notice, I’m not talking about the white Chief of Police or Deputy, be arrested by a white person walking down the street who says, “You know, you’re not working the way you should be working. You clearly should be on that labor contract, and what are you doing here?”
Some Black Codes would say that blacks couldn’t steal labor or else they risked a five hundred dollar fine, I mean a ridiculous amount of money. Now stealing labor, that could be interpreted as not working hard enough. Or that could be interpreted as when you’re working this plot of land, saving a little bit of that part for yourself. Not maximizing the return on the investment, essentially, that white property-owners had made. If you steal labor you could be fined five hundred dollars. In other states blacks were forbidden to rent land in urban areas. The notion was if you have them closer to a city, you might have critical masses developing of African Americans who are property owners, or at least renters. They might be able to develop their own economic opportunities through informal networks, essentially allowing blacks to rent property in towns gave them too much autonomy, the fear was.
Black Codes forced black women back on farms. This way they would not be seen in public spaces. This was all for the good of the woman, this is for the black women, they should really be in their natural habitat. This would’ve been the language of the day, by the way. Black Codes regulated sexual behavior. You could not dress a certain way, you could not be out at a certain hour. Black Codes would address vagrancy, idleness, rude gestures, mischief, preaching the Gospel without a license and so on. I mean, incredibly vague. If you’re just kinda hanging out, you could be in violation of a Black Code. If you’re up to no good, being mischievous, violation of a Black Code. And all of these could lead to fines or involuntary plantation labor.
Black Codes forced apprenticeships on black minors–black young people, not miners, minors. They would have to work without wages. It’s mainly orphans or children of poor parents. Many of the Black Codes said that they could–blacks could not hunt or own weapons. This is a very important limitation, because in the rural South, you shot your food. But the idea was, “If we start giving blacks guns, they may not shoot food, they may shoot us.” So blacks can’t hunt or own weapons. So you take all these things together, and again, I’ve lumped many different state’s Black Codes here, it’s clear that while everyone wants the Southern economy back on track, I mean everybody does, there’s no rational way of justifying doing it via the Black Codes. And so fairly soon after their being established, sometimes in less than a year, these Black Codes are declared illegal and are eliminated. So we’re talking about a very–a brief moment in time. This sort of underscores the notion of we’re at a period of improvisation and experimentation, “We’ll try this until we’re told it doesn’t work any longer.”
Sharecropping: A New Labor System
For black Georgians in particular, this labor system was a major obstacle to being fully able to realize and enjoy the social and political rights granted to whites / From New Georgia Encyclopedia
In the place of the Black Codes, a new labor system develops. This one was much more focused–much more explicitly focused upon labor instead of all the morality issues that you see in the Black Codes. And this new labor system, that becomes incredibly successful for what it was, is called sharecropping. Sharecropping revolves around credit. The whites own the land, the tools, the seed, but they didn’t own the labor. That’s what blacks controlled. So blacks could use the land, the tools, and the seed, but they did not get paid in cash. Instead they would rent the white’s property and their tools, etcetera. And in order to get the seed, they’d have to go to the company store for their purchases. And the store would be sort of like Durfee’s, you know, exorbitantly priced.
So, you know, if a bag of seed on the market–I’m making up the numbers here, might have cost one dollar, at the company store maybe it’s three, three credits, three units, or something like that. So sharecroppers would pay for their food, their seed, etcetera with their shares, their portions of the crop that they were growing and later harvesting for the landowner. At the end of the year when the crop in question, let’s just say it’s cotton, which it would’ve been for a tremendous amount of the system, when the cotton is taken to market, the cotton that black sharecroppers had planted and harvested, they would not be able to go to market with the cotton crop. The landowner would go there, or his business manager, and he’d sell the cotton at the market rate. Then he would come back and make a declaration of how much he was able to get for this, settle the accounts privately with the landowner, and the landowner and labor then settled their accounts. And then a funny thing happened.
Almost inevitably, at the end of the year, after the planting cycle, when the crop came–was sent to market–and they came back with the money for it, they looked at the balances, and blacks owed money to the sharecropper, Every year. Let’s just say, again making up numbers, that if I’m a sharecropper and I spent a thousand dollars at the company store to buy all the–rent the equipment or buy the seeds or whatnot for my plot of land, I get this amazing crop, it goes off to market, come back, and the guy said “You know what? I was only able to get nine hundred dollars.” I now owe a hundred dollars to the landowner. What this meant was I’m stuck, because it is illegal to skip out on your debts. So the sharecroppers are required to go back to work for the same person in an attempt to eliminate the debt. So you have another–and the cycle just keeps repeating itself, you never get out of debt, you’re always working the land. What this meant is that, you know, maybe you aren’t being whipped by an overseer, but you are in perpetual servitude, as far as your labor and debt is concerned, to the landowner. You can’t escape it. Sharecropping works like a charm. It really begins in earnest in the mid-1860s or the later 1860s, it is still popular in the South through the 1940s. Only with systematic mechanization of farms do you have sharecroppers being relieved of that particular economic cycle.
The Freedmen’s Bureau
A Bureau agent stands between armed groups of whites and Freedmen in this 1868 picture from Harper’s Weekly / Library of Congress
So white attempts to answer the question of what one could do to get blacks back to work, revolved around various attempts, whether it’s through the Black Codes or the sharecropping system, they revolved around various attempts to get–to recreate slavery, but with a different name and a slightly different nature. As I mentioned before, black–I mean, thinking about freedom from the black’s perspective also meant labor instability. This is why the Black Codes are so Draconian, this is why there’s such emphasis on you can’t escape debt. This was a way to control blacks. Now remember, blacks had expectations too after the Civil War was over. They wanted their freedom, they got their freedom in the literal sense, there’s no doubt about that. But there were also expectations about land ownership, that they would have land they could work themselves, and there were expectations the federal government would be the entity to help blacks navigate their arrival to full citizenship rights and property ownership. And these expectations grow out of The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, and out of Field Order Fifteen.
The Bureau has established, The Field Order’s enunciated, Black Codes enacted, all at the same moment, so these are overlapping narratives. Expectations about land, access to it, grows from Union General Sherman’s seemingly apocalyptic march to the Sea, in which he burned his way through and across the South, and while doing so issued the famous Field Order Fifteen, which declared that in part–declared in part that coastal land between Charleston, South Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida was from this point on for blacks. If Congress had accepted this promise, or acted upon this promise, excuse me, it would’ve given over land to roughly about two hundred thousand African Americans. The Field Order, declared in 1865, doesn’t redistribute land, but there is the expectation that the government is going to do so through the likes of violence perhaps, with General Sherman, or through an orderly attempt at giving assistance, and that’s through the Bureau of Freed Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, more often known as the Freedmen’s Bureau.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was established in March, 1865. It takes a while to get itself up and running. It’s organized under the General–the Union General Otis O. Howard–that’s why Howard University’s named after this man, he gave his land to the university. The Freedmen’s Bureau had the task of providing food, shelter, and medical aid for the destitute. That’s blacks as well as whites. It had the duty of providing education for freed people. To say that there was an educational system for blacks is ludicrous up to this moment in time. It’s also kinda ludicrous after the fact, but they were working on it. The Freedmen’s Bureau establishes free labor arrangements in former plantation areas. Essentially it’s charged with trying to help blacks develop an economic system where they could sign to do work and contract, but they had freedom in doing so. And the Freedmen’s Bureau is charged with securing justice for blacks in legal proceedings.
The Freedmen’s Bureau record on this front is mixed at best. You know from Field Order Fifteen that it’s the potential of returning or giving all this land to blacks doesn’t really happen. Freedmen’s Bureau, they’re talking about, you know, famous “Forty Acres and a Mule” ideology. The Freedmen’s Bureau is in control of, at one point, eight hundred and fifty thousand acres of property, that instead of being transferred to poor whites and to blacks, is transferred back to the original property owners. So these white planters lost their land in the war, and after some sorting out, they got their land right back. The notion of establishing wage labor contracts, that blacks are not going to be working for a year like in the sharecropping system that would’ve developed, but they would be paid wages, doesn’t work. So the Freedmen’s Bureau doesn’t distribute land like it promised it would, fails in establishing wage labor contracts. But it does do something really remarkable in that it starts establishing schools. Now again, these schools would not be on par with white schools, not by a long shot. But again, when you start from zero, any change is a radical change. So from 1865, the moment it was founded, to 1869, three thousand new schools for blacks, these are shacks essentially, are established.
So the Freedmen’s Bureau seems to at least on one level be doing something right, making a real change. But by 1872, it’s gone as well. It collapses. So it leaves us with a mixed record. The record of Radical Reconstruction, in fact, for much of the 1870s is mixed. The North is growing increasingly weary of Southern intransigents, incredible resistance to these kinds of changes. Southerners are tired of the Northern presence and were angry at having new state constitutions written under Republican-controlled governments that, as far as white Southerners were concerned, gave away way too much in terms of the rights and citizenships to black men. This period of sorting out, of radical changes at the electoral level that are highly positive for African Americans, there’s no debating that, that are of mixed success on the ground for the great majority of African Americans–but clearly it’s better to be free than slave, despite all the dangers that are incumbent with it.
It is a period of incredible stress, and resentment, and of different ways in which whites try to assert control. “What are we going to do with these blacks? Whose going to control them?” One of the first answers was the establishment of The KKK, The Ku Klux Klan, established in Tennessee in 1866. You didn’t need the Klan prior to emancipation, but as far as many whites were concerned, you needed something like the Klan after. Klan members would go after white Northerners who were holding elected office, would threaten them with assassination and assassinate some of them, would go after, you know, Jews and Catholics, and certainly went after blacks as well. Klan forms in 1866, but remember this is a period of military presence from the North and the South, and under General Grant, the Klan is wiped out within two years. For a while. But even though the Klan is wiped out, you can see through this era, 1865 to 1877, rising tides of resentment, chaffing by white Southerners, rising tides of–I guess one might just say impatience by black Americans in “When are we going to have real change?” And real change did come, but not in the way that African Americans had hoped.
In 1876, it’s the Presidential election, the two men left standing are Samuel Tilden, the Democrat, and Rutherford B. Hayes, Republican. Tilden wins the popular vote, but not– the electoral vote was unclear because the results from the Southern states were so contested. Sounds like recent history in fact. A compromise though is reached, that Hayes, the Republican, would secure the Presidency, but only if he promised to withdraw federal troops from the North–excuse me, from the South–end the military occupation, let the Southern states all come back into the Union. Hayes accepts the deal–the North again was exhausted by all the struggle. And with this famous compromise of 1877, Reconstruction ends.
Now with the end of Reconstruction, we get a new period of American life generally referred to as “Redemption.” When the white South shall rise again, they will redeem themselves. And I’ll be talking about Redemption in the next lecture. But I want to turn now from a moment of high politics–or discussion of high politics and a discussion of social history, sort of life on the ground, to take a moment to look at some other types of–some primary sources that helps us understand what I’ll just call “the Political Culture” of the moment.
Very famous image, “What miscegenation is. What we are to expect now that Mr. Lincoln is reelected.” Talking 1864 now. I mentioned in the first lecture, you know, nation states declaring their cultures, and the ideologies, and their myths on their currency. Well, you can see it as well in political posters, certainly political cartoons. And this is a–represents a kind of theme we’re going to see a fair amount in this course. Just like the currency of exalted white womanhood. And in this case, a caricature, a very dark-skinned caricature of an African American man. Caricature as being of black males, as you probably already know and will certainly know more, very alive and well during this period and certainly even to today in different ways, something we’ll talk about later on in the course. But a broadside talking about “This is what we’re going to expect now that Lincoln’s been reelected. All hope’s been lost. White women and black men will connect in this sort of way.”
Now this one I think is interesting ’cause often the notion is that black men are assaulting white women, but in this case, you have–her arm is wrapped around, not in seeming protest. Be that as it may, the notion of black and white mingling in this sort of way was a profound threat. This is 1864. Now I talked about the Freedmen’s Bureau and the work that it was assigned to do. It’s there to establish wage labor contracts, and try to help navigate land redistribution, it seemed at first, and try to help provide basic assistance and education to African Americans. Well, on the political campaigns in 1866, after the Freedmen’s Bureau has been established, you start seeing representations–again another very famous poster. Representations of what Reconstruction actually means, the Freedmen’s Bureau, or what–excuse me, the Freedmen’s Bureau means. “The Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency to keep the Negro in idleness at the expense of the white man, twice vetoes by The President and made a law by Congress. Support Congress and you support the negro, sustain the President and you protect the white man.”
Another caricature of an African American in tatters, ’cause he doesn’t really need to be dressed so he doesn’t really care, barefoot, idle, happy as can be. The white man looking on, working very hard, trying to earn his keep, do the right thing. Now, aside from this being a very famous poster, sort of capturing the sentiment or resentment about the Freedmen’s Bureau being there to assist the lazy African American, this is also important to highlight the ways in which these narratives appear in surprising places and ways, or at least, ways that we today might think are surprising.
This is a campaign ad, not in Alabama, not in Mississippi, but in Pennsylvania. It’s an ad sort of regarding an election in 1866 pitting John Geary, Republican, against Hiester Clymer for the governorship of Pennsylvania. Clymer’s saying, the Democrat, is saying, “If you support Geary, you’re supporting this. Black idleness.” From the same campaign–and this is dramatic I think, pretty dramatic as well, but you see the notion of caricature and ideals of white beauty but in a different sort of way in the same campaign, another broadside. Pretty direct here. Clymer’s platform is for the white man. Geary’s platform is for the Negro. Read the platforms. Again, if you’re supporting Geary, represented here by the grotesque representation of a black male, if you’re representing Geary, you’re representing all of those things that are wrong about excess, idleness, illiteracy, sexual aggression, all of these things that are associated with black male, especially in this case, black male behavior. If you support Clymer, you support someone whose educated, whose refined, whose disciplined.
So we go from this image, which is sort of a grotesquery, very busy, lots of different texts and representations, to this one that’s cleaner as it were, more upfront about his representations, to in 1868–these are typical, these are not exceptional advertisements. In 1868 in the Presidential–Democratic Presidential Primary–New York Governor Horatio Seymour who was the Governor of the state during the New York City draft riots and who did not pursue the draft rioters, the Irish who burned parts of the city and attacked and killed people and attacked the military, he didn’t punish them, which–and he’s a Republican now, and people thought that he was a traitor to the Union army—or to the Union–in support of the Confederacy.
Anyway, New York Governor Horatio Seymour is running with Francis Blair from Missouri for the Democratic nomination. And they announce their ticket, couldn’t be more simple. Our motto, “This is a white man’s country, let white men rule.” So you see a range of images here that have been popularly distributed. Pennsylvania race for Governor, Presidential primary, again a northern Governor, in this case represented on the Presidential part of the ticket. A language, a visual language, and sometimes just flat-out words of course, making it clear that this era of transition is not an easy one, that there’s intransigents in all different corners and all different regions from different perspectives.
And if you’re thinking I’m over-reading these things, let me just show this last image that sends a message to Northerners who are coming down to save the South, take over the South, occupy the South–carpetbaggers, people who would load up their things in a bag from the North, come down to the South and set up a government, set up a business and take advantage of Southern resources, certainly a lot of them did. The South had an answer for these people, and you would see posters up on, you know, plastered onto a tree or a wall that would simply say this.
This is the nature of this visual conversation, if you will, of this moment in time, a period of tremendous sorting out, a period it seems of incredible possibility and hope, as far as the elected realm is concerned for African Americans, a period much more complicated on the ground for African Americans and for poor whites certainly, a period of growing or sustaining intransigents by white elected officials in the South, and a period where white elected officials in the North aren’t quite certain about this whole period, this whole idea of trying to reconstruct the Union along these terms.
Billie Holliday Song: Strange Fruit
We will be finishing here with the end of Reconstruction, 1877, canvassing an array of events that actually go up to the, well to the present day in certain ways, but in a recorded way, in an official way, until the 1960s. So from a phenomenological standpoint, we’re talking about a large period of time. From a literal standpoint, for this lecture, we’re really talking about the end of Reconstruction to the end of the 19th century. Above is a piece of music that’s actually from the era of the Great Depression, but it’s in reference to the time period we’re talking about right now – Strange Fruit, by Billie Holliday.
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
From Reconstruction to the Rise of Redemption
A cartoon threatening that the KKK will lynch scalawags (left) and carpetbaggers (right) on March 4, 1869, the day President Grant takes office. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Independent Monitor, September 1, 1868. A full-scale scholarly history analyzes the cartoonː Guy W. Hubbs, Searching for Freedom after the Civil War: Klansman, Carpetbagger, Scalawag, and Freedman (2015) / Wikimedia Commons
You might recognize this as one of Billie Holiday’s, the great blues singer, most famous pieces, written by (not for), but becomes one of her signature pieces for much of her career, Strange Fruit. Well, I don’t think it needs elaboration in terms of interpretative potential of those lyrics. It’s a song about lynching, and violence, and the Southern nature of it, the scent of Magnolia trees and such.
I talked about the massive cultural shift that Southerners had to endure under Reconstruction government. White Southerners very notions of freedom, the very notions of labor, who’s to do the work, and of politics, who’s running their states, all these were turned upside down in the most fundamental ways. Though remember as well, at–nearing, nearing the end of the 1870s, the North is exhausted by Southern intransigence. South is digging–is continuing digging–to keep its heels dug in, and a deal is brokered, and a presidential dispute, a presidential election, that essentially withdraws Northern troops, Federal troops, from the South, ends Reconstruction, and then gives the chance to–for the South to reorganize itself fully within the Union.
Historians refer to this moment, this era that begins at that moment, as “the Rise of Redemption.” So you have Reconstruction followed by Redemption. Now Redemption in this is a word that needs to be understood, understood as a fully complicated and loaded phrase. Who’s feeling redeemed, and redeemed on what terms? It’s really important to understand that when I’m talking about Redemption, when most people talk about Redemption, they’re talking about the white South rising up and taking control of what was rightfully theirs. We’re talking about the while male South as well, and we’re talking in different ways about the wealthy South and the poor South, the white poor South, and I’ll, I’ll map this out in the course of today’s lecture. We are not talking about at all a constructive or positive era as far as the African American experience is concerned.
Now during Reconstruction, as I hope I made clear in previous lectures, deep seated anxieties take root among Southern whites about economics, about states’ rights, and this is a very important couple of words here for today’s lecture and for this week’s reading as well. There’s anxiety about economics and states’ rights, but also about manliness and civilization. Manliness and civilization, really critical words. So much of Redemption in this era is about reclaiming–about whites trying to reclaim that which they thought was lost during Reconstruction and that which they thought was under attack. A perfect example of an attempt by, or an articulation by, Southern whites about how they are going to redeem themselves–redeem the South–from the scourge of the Northern presence, is the fact that as soon as the Federal troops leave, essentially, the KKK, which had been wiped out by the military, Northern troops, soon after it was established, the KKK reemerges with a vengeance.
But it’s not the only group being formed in this moment of Redemption. There are other groups. You don’t need to know the names for your–for the purposes of the class, but just know there were other organizations, like the Knights of the White Camellia, the Constitutional Union Guards, the Pale Faces, the White Brotherhood, and the Council of Safety. The last name is kind of interesting, because it’s not one of these sort of grandiose, mythical kind of names, not Council of Safety. Who’s feeling threatened? Under what terms? How will we establish safety? So any number of nativist and racist hate groups that are being formed in this moment of cultural anxiety, I guess is the most polite way to put it, cultural, economic, social anxiety in the white South and a determination to reclaim it on its own terms.
Forces used to Eliminate the Black Vote
Wilmington, N.C. race riot, 1898: Armed rioters in front of the burned-down “Record” press building. / Wikimedia Commons
Now when Republican government’s faded, once the Federal troops left, when they faded in the wake of a resurgent Democratic party, which is a Southern party, this at the end of Reconstruction, a range of tactics start being developed to guarantee the return of white power. So it’s not just that the Federal troops left, the government’s collapsed, whites were all of a sudden in control. It wasn’t that quick and that easy. It was actually dirty and messy. Crops that were owned and tilled by blacks were destroyed. Blacks’ homes, their barns–which is an incredibly important part of the infrastructure in the South–their homes, their barns and other property were destroyed, were burned, as well.
If blacks tried to exercise the right to vote, black men, and go to the election booth, and if it is deemed by someone–how is really immaterial–but deemed that they might be voting Republican, which virtually all blacks were going to do anyway, you might find when you walked up to a voting booth–I might find if I were walking to the voting booth, someone standing outside brandishing a whip, making it very clear that if I voted for anybody but the Democrat, the whip would be used. So there is sort of a scorched earth policy by citizens, white citizens of the South to reclaim what was theirs, to get blacks off the land, to destroy their property. And the people doing this dirty work are quite often members of these local militias like the Klan. Now the Klan’s [coughs], excuse me, the Klans census, its numbers, really hard to peg down at any particular moment, and its popularity ebbs and flows. We’re at a moment, it’s just come back, it’s been destroyed for close to a decade. It’s coming back, it will be around for a while, it will fade out for a while, and we’ll see in a couple of weeks how it comes back very strongly again. But it is sort of always there at some level as a manifestation of cultural and psychological anxiety.
Now remember during Reconstruction, blacks had a tremendous new amount of voting power. I mean they weren’t winning all elected offices, of course, but as they had no representation prior to Reconstruction, any change was a welcome change. When Redemption begins, black voting power is diluted very quickly through a range of tactics. You certainly have people at the polling station with whips. That’s a pretty effective way to stop a black person from voting, but you also have gerrymandering, the reconfiguration of voting districts to eliminate or to mitigate the black vote. Since housing segregation was, was the rule of the land, if you cut a district in a certain way, you can make sure that you cut out black voting numbers to make any real change.
So gerrymandering–which is part of, you know, a long tradition. It’s not just a Southern one, not just against blacks. Gerrymandering is used. Poll taxes are developed. Essentially you need to come to the poll, the registrar, to prove that you had paid taxes on land that you own according to certain guidelines, you know, generation or whatever. Well, blacks didn’t own land, and if it’s about their predecessors, their predecessors didn’t own land. Or, if they had owned land, or if it’s just about maybe just paying, proof of paying taxes, they didn’t have the money to pay it. Very effective ways to mitigate the black vote during this era are grandfather clauses. It’s very simple: if your grandfather voted, you can vote. Well, basically no blacks’ grandfathers had voted. Wipes out the black voting population. And then famously, of course, literacy tests. They’re adjudicated by a registrar under the most sort of random–well, they weren’t random at all, but subjective–that’s what I was looking for–subjective circumstances. So if you could read this section of a state constitution, or if you could recite it from memory, or if you could do anything that suggested you were literate, then you could vote.
Well, although one of the great stories in world history of literacy gain happens during, begins during this era, in terms of blacks becoming a literate population within the course of two generations–hadn’t ever happened before–they weren’t literate yet as a group. So literacy tests would wipe it out. So you take gerrymandering, you take poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and literal violence, or threat of violence, you’re wiping out the black vote. Now it’s important to realize, you’re also wiping out a lot of the poor white vote. This is an unintended–well, it depends on your interpretation–unintended or intended consequence of those who held the reins of power in the white South.
A poll tax receipt from 1895 / National Museum of American History, Smithsonian
What was certainly unintended is that poor whites, and there were a lot of them, and blacks, who almost by default poor during this era–we’re talking into the 1880s–start realizing they actually had a lot in common. They were all hungry. They were all essentially landless. And that the white poor farmer, the poor white farmer had more in common with the poor black farmer than did the white poor farmer did with the white gentry, the political elite. And you have, going into the turn of the century, into the 20th century, the rise of one of the many different articulations of the Populist Party, rise of populism.
Now the history of populism is much more complicated than the one minute I’m going to give it right now. But you have, during the end of the 19th century, a range of different attempts to try to gather some power for poor agrarian classes. And in some places in the South, a curious thing starts happening, that white and black farmers start aligning themselves with each other, start running campaigns–joint tickets, start fighting for the same candidate. Tom Watson, a famous politician from Georgia, actually rises to power, rises to a level of influence, on this notion of, you know, working for agrarian interests. But a funny thing happens, is that it becomes–it starts becoming successful, and there’s a realization by the political elite: “My god, if these poor whites and poor blacks start really working together, we’re in trouble.” Cause the system is not just about racial domination, but it’s also about economic domination.
As a result of the rise in popularity of Populist sentiment, the race card gets played with increasing ferocity. Rhetoric, like you saw in the 1868 campaign poster from a couple of lectures ago, that this is a white man’s country, becomes much more commonplace. That we may have different incomes, we may have different sort of economic security, but by God, we’re all white, and there’s prestige and value in it. And when you have a set of rules or–not rules–a set of social order being bestowed upon the South by the Klan, that’s preying upon racial anxiety, as well as going against Catholics and Jews, but preying on racial anxiety, you start seeing fissures in the Populist sentiment just as quickly as they appeared. And Tom Watson being someone who sort of gathered up the energy of a cross racial alliance quickly becomes a hardcore racist and anti-Semite, so this is a radical shift for him. But there’s this potential unifying moment, based on class lines, evaporates in the face of racial demagoguery.
That’s what this era’s about more than anything else. All these other factors certainly are around that helps define who America is, you know, class differences, differences about possibilities related to your gender. But race is the driving factor for so many issues relating to quality of life and safety. Now getting back to the vote, for example, blacks were voting in new and startling numbers during Reconstruction. Blacks were holding office from the local to the federal level, but because of a series of different mechanisms I talked about, because the rise of playing to racial anxieties becomes much more effective, the black vote’s wiped out. So just a couple of statistics, just to keep, you know, as representative.
In 1896, we’re talking in, in Louisiana, just as one example, over one hundred and thirty thousand blacks are registered to vote in Louisiana, and they are the majority in twenty-six parishes. Black voting representation. Four years later, in just four years, going from over one hundred and thirty thousand blacks, four years later, there are fifty-three hundred blacks on the polls–on the voting rolls, and there are no majority black parishes anywhere. That is an elimination of a voting class, overnight. In one election cycle, or maybe two if it’s a two-year election cycle, you go from a possibility of black representation to zero possibility.
In Alabama, of one hundred and eighty thousand black men of voting age in 1900, in the wake of all these different kinds of ways of eliminating the black vote, in 1900, of over one hundred and eighty thousand possible black men who’d be eligible voters, only three thousand are registered to vote. Now if you know anything about Alabama, you’ll know there is a large black population in Alabama. There’s real opportunities to have black voting representation if people actually had access to the ballot box. There’s no access. Three thousand people–three thousand men are registered to vote. Registering to vote, you need to understand, is not a matter of filling out a card and just disinterestedly putting it in the mailbox, something like that. No, registering to vote, if you’re a black man, is a matter of life or death, in certain–in many of these places. The possibility of having your home burned down, of getting whipped, getting beaten, and, as we’ll see, getting shot, is very real.
Now when it comes to the vote, you have all these forces trying to wipe it out, but it’s important to take a moment to try to understand the psychology about why it’s so important to wipe it out. We can take a–an example from a famous politician, J. K. Vardaman of Mississippi. Rabid racist. And his view of blacks’ ability and education related to their–how civilized they were–and there’s that word. I’ll start unpacking it later on in the lecture. That they did not have–they were, they were uncivilized, uncivilized, they were not educated enough, they didn’t have the ability to be responsible voters. And Vardaman says, another one of these rather lovely sentiments,
“I am just as opposed to Booker Washington as a voter, with all his Anglo-Saxon reinforcements, as I am to the coconut-headed, chocolate-colored typical little coon who blacks my shoes every morning. Neither is fit to perform the supreme function of citizenship.”
Booker T. Washington, who we’ll be talking about next week. By the late 19th century, the leader of the race; there’s no disputing that fact. Even he, the most powerful black person in the country, according to Vardaman, does not possess the ability to be a responsible voter.
Lynching: The Ultimate Form of Racial Harassment
James K. Vardaman in 1905, Governor of Mississippi, 1913-1919 / Library of Congress
Now when all this kinds of–these kinds of harassments fail, if they weren’t successful, if Vardaman could whip up enough sentiment among the registrars to, like, just find ways to eliminate the black vote. If you had somebody who could pass the literacy test, who somehow could pass, you know, pay a poll tax, who could pass the bar as established by the registrar to prevent him from voting, there was always the ultimate form of what one could only politely call racial harassment, and that’s lynching.
The statistics on lynching are sketchy at best. Historians generally point to the early 1880s as the first moment when reliable records of lynchings first appear. Now it’s important to recognize the timing. I made a comment in a previous lecture about the value of a black body. Lynching is not a phenomenon you see during an era, during–prior to the Civil War. Yeah, there’s always a sample here and there, but as a phenomenon, it’s not there when it comes to slaves, because if you lynched a slave, you lynched somebody’s property. You destroyed–You owed them a lot of money. In its own grotesque way, slavery afforded a level of protection for blacks. It certainly wasn’t there after emancipation. Of course, that is not a defense of slavery, but that is just sort of an economic element to consider in this equation.
During the period of Federal occupation of the South, there was enough military presence to mitigate these–this form of violence. But when the North is gone, when the Federal troops are gone, during the era of Redemption, this is how–one of the ways the South redeems itself. So reliable records about lynching really point to the early 1880s. There were certain lynchings before then, but consistently, we have records pointing to the 1880s. So between 1882 and 1901, you have recorded more than a hundred lynchings a year throughout the nation. Between 1882 and 1968, when, quote “traditional” forms of lynching essentially disappeared–although they are not gone from us, don’t kid yourself about that–over four thou–excuse me over five thousand people died in recorded lynchings. Easily three quarters of them or more were African American. Lynching was not only–Blacks were not the only victims of lynchings. Overwhelmingly, they were the victims of lynchings. But the most important thing to know about these numbers is that these represent recorded lynchings. Historians presume quite safely that numbers were much higher.
Now lynchings were not just about stringing somebody up. There were many different types of lynchings, and this is why it’s easy for us to presume that there are, you know, ones that are very public and recorded, and those that just happened very quietly. No one really knows about it. So you have the most obvious, straightforward form of this kind of violence. Someone is captured, they’re strung up, and either a chair kicked out from underneath of them, a horse run off, whatever. They die by strangulation, by hanging. But you also have lynchings, it wasn’t the majority of them, but they were certainly important to understand the phenomenon of lynching, festival lynches–lynchings. You would have lynchings that are advertised in the local paper, in advance, you know that on Saturday night, we’re lynching Joe Smith in Naches. Enough time for rail companies to sell excursion tickets, advertised in the papers, so you could have a grotesque festival around this–this actual moment of murder.
Lynchings may not have just been–weren’t just getting strung up, but it could be, involve being nailed to a post or a tree and being lit on fire. It might involve being physically–in fact, often involved being physically assaulted and mutilated while you’re conscious, before you’re strung up to a post to be burned, or before you’re actually strung up by a tree. When the lynching was over, especially for the festival lynchings, the abuse to the body wouldn’t end. The body might be chopped down.
As you remember from, in my second lecture, the young Irish butcher dragging a black victim through the streets of New York by his genitals, as a way of sort of declaring his citizenship, I was arguing. Well, body parts were chopped off after lynchings: fingers, toes, genitals, ears are cut off. They are kept as souvenirs, and they are sold as souvenirs. Have a festival lynching in Naches and you might find, three or four days later, in a storefront window, somebody’s knee. W. E. B. Dubois, who we’ll be talking about next week, has this exact experience, of walking by a window and discovering he’s looking at a body part, and realizing that a lynching he’d heard about a week earlier, that was part of that person’s body.
Now I mentioned before, over five thousand people lynched. The great majority of whom were black. But who were the victims?–aside from being black men and white men, also some women, but very few in number, but also some women. Overwhelmingly, the narrative says, these were black men accused of rape.
We have black men accused of rape. That’s the received narrative, that’s the received wisdom, and so the presumption is that there was some justice being exercised here; that this black man raped this white woman, whoever that might be, and therefore deserves to be murdered. He has violated the sanctity of the South. Much of the language of lynching during this era was on such terms; that it was a manly act to protect white womanhood by avenging the rape; that black brutes who were rapists were demonstrating how uncivilized they were. And so again, lynch mobs were being civilized. They’re protecting the bastions of being civilized, of civilized behavior, and protecting their women. Manliness and civilization.
People though, as it turns out, were lynched for a variety of reasons, not just for the accusation of rape. You can sense–you can hear some of these reasons–you can also hear rape, by the way–with a quote from a woman–woman’s rights activist, a very prominent one, named Rebecca Latimer Felton. Once a slave owner–in a family of slave owners. And actually, in a strange way, as such an advocate for women’s rights, she’s actually also advocating for protection of black women, which was unusual. But she was quite convinced that black men were rapists, and they deserved their punishment. Rebecca Felton says here,
“When there is not enough religion in the pulpit to organize a crusade against sin; nor in justice in the court house–nor justice in the court house to promptly punish crime; nor manhood enough in the nation to put a sheltering arm about innocence and virtue, it is lynching [I dropped a word in my own quote here. I’m sorry] it is lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts–if it is lynching [excuse me] to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts, then I say lynch. Lynch a thousand times a week if necessary.”
Felton is talking about moral order: if there’s not enough religion in the pulpit to organize a crusade against sin. Talking about legal justice: if we can’t have our criminals be brought to court and tried. And she’s talking about manhood again: if we cannot as a nation protect our women, and if lynching is the way to do it, then by God, lynch a thousand times a week.
Ida B. Wells, photo by Mary Garrity, c.1893 / Wikimedia Commons
Now I said that lynching is seen as the answer for rapists, especially for black male rapists, and that is the received wisdom. But really, what was it? Ida B. Wells, black woman journalist, becomes an incredible civil rights pioneer, one of the founders of the NAACP, not yet organized. Ida B. Wells lives in Memphis, Tennessee, and of course she hears about the scourge of the black male attacking white womanhood and raping women and children. And then she has a horrific experience. One of her friends, a guy named Thomas Moses–Moss, opens up a store, “The People’s Grocery.” He’s a black man. And he creates economic competition for a store owned by whites very close by. And that white owned store was the store that catered to that whole area, white and black customers. And Thomas Moss said, “This is an opportunity. I want to open a store as well.” And the owners of the other store threatened him. “Do not do this. If you do this, you will pay.” And Moss says, “I’m just opening, you know, opening a store.” Well, he paid with his life. He was lynched for opening up the store. He did not lynch anybody. He did not steal from anybody. I guess he stole potential customers, I suppose, but he was lynched.
Wells writes editorials, organizes a boycott, and then in short order had to flee Memphis to save her life, because she was trying to pull back the cover of this lie about the connection between rape and lynching. She would not return to Memphis for fear of her life until the very end of her life. Decades go by. She’s convinced she will be killed if she steps foot back in the city. At that moment when her friend was murdered for opening a store, Ida B. Wells sets out to demonstrate that lynching, claimed as being a way to keep uncivilized blacks down, was actually the perfect manifestation of uncivilized white male behavior, and she starts saying this publicly. She starts writing consistently in ways where she’s deemed–she’s deemed a threat to Southern manhood. And because she also claimed that white women often desired the interracial dalliances where they–where they actually did exist, she had crossed the final line of taboo, that white women might actually desire black men.
She asked, “If the South is so against rape, why aren’t white men lynched?” There’s a long history of certainly white slave owners raping their slaves, having children. And certainly after Emancipation, you know, rape knew no color line really. “So why aren’t white men being lynched?” she wonders. And then she goes off to England on a speaking tour, again on this anti-lynching crusade. And this is where she really becomes a persona non grata in the South. Southern U.S. at the time had a very strong connection to the notions of British civilizationist hierarchies; that the British were the height of civilized society in the world at that point in time, and the South, with their aristocratic traditions, wanted to be very much like the English model in that way.
Ida B. Wells goes over and starts talking about lynching, starts investigating. She goes on these investigations and reports the investigations. And it turns out, as you’ll see in the reading for next week, the accusation of rape isn’t even there in most of the lynchings. So there’s the popular idea that rape leads to lynching, but that’s not even the case in the majority of the situations. Theft, rude behavior, assault, certainly, all of these things lead to people being lynched. And Ida B. Wells tells this to her audiences, women’s audiences and men’s audiences in England, starts talking about the way that Southern white men actually epitomize uncivilized behavior. And you have society in England start sending investigatory groups over to the South, profoundly humiliating to Southern–Southern cities and towns where these groups might appear. The South is enraged at Ida B. Wells and her inappropriate behavior.
Now this is an era–and I’ll speak a little bit more about this next week–an era where the notion of who is the most civilized is really quite important. It may sound kind of strange today, but this was one of the important organizing themes of cultures and societies: having good manners, acting in proper ways. These become dividing lines between who can have access to economic opportunities and who can’t. Who’s civilized? Who’s manly? For many Southerners, it seemed like it wasn’t even a question, it’s beyond debate. Ida B. Wells says, “Not so fast.” Now we’ll work though a little bit more this notion of civilization and manliness, well in section I hope, but certainly in next week’s reading. But with all this talk about lynching and anti-lynching crusades, it was–there’s really an important piece of the puzzle that’s missing. Because the conversations about this can actually seem a little bit antiseptic. Lynching was, and remains, a horribly violent and grotesque act.
Images of Lynching
A small gallery in New York City, the Roth Horowitz Gallery, assembled an exhibit called “Witness: Photographs of Lynchings from the Collection of James Allen,” a white man who collected photographs and postcards of lynching scenes.
This is a curious phenomenon, by the way. I mean, I use “curious” in a fully complicated way. At these festival lynchings especially, you would have photographers present who would take pictures, not for the historical record, but to sell next to the kneecaps and genitals in the storefront window. Studio photography of lynchings. Lynchings would appear–Lynching scenes would appear on postcards and would go through the mail till the postmaster general prohibited it in the 1920s, I believe. Anyway, the Collection of James Allen gathered up a fair amount of these photographs and postcards, and the owners of the Roth Horowitz Gallery’s would put it together. They’re very nervous about it, but they wanted to do it, not from the standpoint of spectacle, which is what their concern was. They didn’t want to spectacularize this violence all over again, but to talk for the historical record. These are-these are horrific images, and the fact that they were carried in the mail openly, the fact that they were sold in the windows, is an important part of our national story that we need to know.
Very controversial exhibit, very small gallery. They moved it soon to the New York State–the New York, excuse me, the New York Historical Society in Manhattan, where there were lines around the block, who were very conflicted about this exhibit, but they still went in. Some people said, “You can’t, you can’t show these things because they’re so horrific.” Others said, “That’s exactly why you have to show them.” Black and white on both sides of that debate, by the way. I want to share with you some of these images. I do not do it to spectacularize these very awful, awful images, but to help you all to bear witness in a way to the violence, and atrocities, and inhumanity–in a clinical sense, the denial of due process for black victims in the era of Southern Redemption.
Now the images you’re going to see cover, chronologically, a broader period of time. We’re not just talking the 1860s, 1870s, ’80s here, ’90s. But, I think you will understand what’s going on.
All images are from the gallery exhibit mentioned above.
Litchfield, Kentucky. September Twenty-Six, 1913, and what would appear to be sort of a town center.
They would cover up the victim’s genitals, despite showing all of this, to be proper.
Other times they wouldn’t cover the midsection to serve as embarrassment
Lynching of L.D. and Laura Nelson
1920 postcard of lynchings in Duluth, Minnesota
1981 lynching of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama