AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)
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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present (2010)
AFAM 162 - Lecture 2 - Dawn of Freedom (continued)
Chapter 1. Introduction and Recap of Last Class [00:00:00]
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Yesterday, Monday’s lecture, we were outlining the expectations of the course conceptually and practically. Conceptually, remember that I started with Frederick Douglass’s– an excerpt from his great speech, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” Told the story about how he had been honored, in a sense, by his abolitionist friends to come to Rochester to speak about the meaning of independence, 4th of July, how he refused to do so, because to proceed in that way for a man who’d been a slave and self-emancipated, represented in so many ways the enslaved population of the United States, that to invite him to speak about liberty and independence was “cruel mockery.” We also talked about the ways in which, going back from Frederick Douglass’s speech in the 1850s, going back to the 1770s with the epitaph on the tombstone, about the ways in which freedom and slavery intertwined, if you’re trying to understand this country’s history, and the way that citizenship and non-citizenship are intertwined. I want to pick up on some of those same themes today, and we are going to be lingering for the most part of this lecture just prior to the start of the Civil War. I’ll offer a few–I mean scant details chronologically about the Civil War, and end up with the New York City draft riots, happening in the midst of the Civil War. And so this lecture is really our jumping off point, from a chronological perspective, for this course. And as you see, by the end of the lecture, some core themes, again that are articulated on Monday, are going to be brought back into focus by the end of this narrative.
Chapter 2. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Poem: “Bury Me in a Free Land” [00:01:48]
So I want to begin today’s lecture with a poem by the journalist, activist, underground railroad host to those slaves escaping towards freedom–She would open her doors to them. Woman’s rights activist, anti-lynching crusader, woman by the name of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. It’s a poem written in 1854, the same moment that Frederick Douglass is castigating his abolitionist friends about their understandings of freedom, and of liberty, and of slavery. The poem is called Bury Me in a Free Land. And I want you to listen. It’s not–I’m not going to say the poem is high art. It’s better than I can do, but it’s not high art, I don’t think. But think about the images that are crafted in this poem. It’s sort of the psychological terror represented in this poem as well. Bury Me in a Free Land.
Chapter 3. The Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act [00:04:30]
Again, 1854. Although the literal start of the Civil War is seven years away, this was an era when it was clear to people like Frederick Douglas and Frances Harper and so many other individuals, free and not free. This is an era of incredible tension in the country, and really the handwriting’s on the wall as the country’s barreling towards its sectional crisis. As early as 1820, the political battles had begun with the Missouri Compromise, an attempt to balance the number of slave states and free states. The Missouri Compromise angered the South because of the way the federal government intervened in this process. You’re going to hear this often in this course. The tension between federal government initiatives and states’ rights initiatives. Who has greater authority, the federal government or the states? Fundamentally important to the post–or to the African American experience, pre- and post-emancipation.
So in 1820 at the Missouri Compromise, balancing free states and slave states, so neither would have an advantage in the federal government when it came to setting policy about labor in particular. Fast forward, 1850, the Compromise of 1850, essentially the same issues as in the Missouri Compromise. It’s relating to territory gained in the Mexican-American War. What part of the United States is going to be free versus what part is going to be–or what states are going to allow slavery. One of the most important texts in US history, novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is published in 1852, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Quite a long time before Oprah’s Book Club, the book sells in numbers that are astonishing. Three hundred thousand copies of this text are put into print, and eventually, over a million copies are sold. This is in 1852. It’s–the numbers are sort of incomparable to today. The importance of the book is that it galvanizes through this sort of very romantic and treacley novel. It reads very–it’s an interesting read in our contemporary ears. But it galvanizes so much of Northern opinion about slavery and, frankly, helps pull this country apart, looking backwards.
In 1854, you have the Kansas-Nebraska Act, that wipes out the Missouri Compromise of thirty-four years earlier and starts a bloody war, essentially a civil war within Kansas about whether we’re going to have slave territories–slave states or free states in these areas. Out of the battles in Kansas, the Republican Party emerges. It didn’t exist before. And it would become the party that was most sympathetic to the African American experience–African Americans’ interests in becoming free and having citizenship rights. It becomes the party with which blacks would affiliate until nineteen–the mid-1930s. Now this takes us up to around 1857. Again, I’m fast forwarding through a lot of history here, just to get to some of the main themes of this lecture. So the country is being ripped apart through a variety of federal and state legal battles about where people can be free and where they cannot, what states can support slavery, recognize it as being legal.
During all these battles, a court case is winding through the system, a legal case, and it’s finally decided in 1857 by the Supreme Court, Scott v. Sanders, more famously, the Dred Scott case. Now it’s a complicated case, which I’ll reduce to its simplest forms. It’s a complicated case that revolves around travel, essentially. North of the line thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes related to the Missouri Compromise and the battles in Kansas and Nebraska, north of that line, the country is–these are free states. South of the line, you’re in slave holding territories. Dred Scott lives on both sides of this line. He’s a slave. Sorry if I didn’t make that part clear. He’s a slave and lives with his master and his mistress on both sides of this line, on and off over the course of much of his life. And for much of a decade, he’s living in free territory. When his master dies in 1846, Scott sues for his freedom on the ground that he had been living in free territory.
“You can’t own me,I’ve been living in a place that doesn’t recognize that status.” So he sues in court. The courts go back and forth until the Supreme Court issues the final decision in 1857. Eleven years have transpired since the original suit. And in the course of these cases–these decisions going back and forth, Dred Scott and his family, if you can imagine, have been emancipated, re-enslaved, emancipated, re-enslaved, depending on the court’s decision. He’s living a life in a terrible–I mean a limbo that we really can’t imagine. Well the Supreme Court weighs in and solves the matter once and for all. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney writes a decision that is quite notable. He says that Scott should remain a slave, that by virtue of his slavery, he is not a citizen of the United States, and so could not bring suit in a federal court in the first place. He wipes out the whole process. “You were never a citizen, because you were a slave. You didn’t have the right to sue.”
Moreover, Taney says, that as a slave, he was personal property, and personal property can never become free. We think of personal property as inanimate objects. Certainly African American slaves were not inanimate, but for Taney it didn’t matter. That’s a gray area, I mean if you could call it a gray area, that for Taney, that was a gray area that was really reduced to something simple: They were personal property; they could not become free. Adding insult to injury–I mean the decision gets just better and better from the standpoint of raising one’s bile–Taney makes plain his opinion of blacks. “They were,” he offered, and this is a quote, “so far inferior that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” “They were so far inferior that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” So in one decision, he eliminates even the chance, from a legal standpoint, that you could sue if you had been a slave. He says that’s not even a possibility. Furthermore, you’re property and you weren’t free ever, and now we shouldn’t even respect you anyway, because you’re so far inferior.
Taney’s decision, building upon the legislative battles of the previous thirty-seven years at that point, building upon the tension that’s exacerbated, I suppose, might be the right word, with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Taney’s decision helps move the country closer to Civil War because it infuriates anti slavery advocates. On so many levels of his decision, he has made the wrong choice, philosophically, ethically and legally, according to anti-slavery advocates. The new Republican Party which was opposed to the expansion of slavery–now notice, it’s the expansion, not wiping it all out. Things take time. The Republican Party, which is opposed to the expansion of slavery, criticized the decision.
There’s a postscript to this. In 1857, we don’t want to lose sight of Dred Scott himself. Scott’s mistress, his master’s widowed–widow, Dred Scott’s mistress remarries and gives Scott and his family their freedom. Now why she couldn’t do this eleven years earlier is a mystery that, you know, only she could answer, I suppose. But she gives him and his family their final freedom. And if you remember the epitaph from Monday, I mean the painful, bitter irony of the whole process, just like John Jack. Not long after he buys his freedom, he dies. One year after Dred Scott finally gets his freedom, an eleven year battle in the legal system, one year later he dies from tuberculosis. It’s a bitter coda to a life of struggle.
So Dred Scott dies in 1858. Steadying–Continuing this March, 1859, John Brown, former principal of a seminary where Frances Harper, whose poem I read to you earlier, the principal of the seminary where Frances Harper worked, becomes an evangelizing zealot against–or for anti-slavery causes. Slavery is inhumane. It’s unholy, according to John Brown, and he recognizes–or he believes the way to solve this problem, since the legal process isn’t working, since the process of moral suasion isn’t working, is to get guns. John Brown organizes a band of armed abolitionists, black and white men, and their plan is to storm the arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. John Brown invites Frederick Douglass. “You’re such an important leader for African Americans. You need to join us in this battle.” And Douglass says–I mean, I wasn’t there for the conversation, but–“John, you’re crazy.” And he may have been a bit, well, visionary I suppose is another word for crazy in sometimes. He forms a group, John Brown does, and they begin their raid. Doesn’t last very long. Robert E. Lee, general in the United States army, not yet a traitor, quickly defeats John Brown and his associates. Brown is wounded in the battle and he’s captured, and in short order, he’s convicted of treason, and he’s ultimately hanged.
Between the time of the raid, or when he’s caught that is, and his hanging, there’s a trial. And during that trial, John Brown becomes seen as a messianic hero to many people. Frances Harper, again, has a note sent to John Brown when he’s in prison that reads in part, and I’m quoting from it here,
Brown himself fanned the flames of celebrity during the trial with long soliloquies, all to no avail. He’s going to be hung. Some of his last famous–his famous last words. He declares, “I believe that to have interfered as I have done on behalf of this despised poor, I did no wrong, but right.” To the end, he was quite certain his path, armed resistance, was the solution to a country that could not figure itself out on this issue, whether it be a slave holding country, non-slave holding country or some strange mix.
Chapter 4. Abraham Lincoln and Slavery [00:18:01]
John Brown’s raid in 1860, Abraham Lincoln’s elected in 1860. Simplifying a complicated story, but essentially, the South has no electoral presence in the election, and it felt that the Union was doomed, and Southern states begin to secede. April of 1861, the Civil War starts. Lincoln wants to preserve the Union at all costs, and tries from the very start to lure the South back in with a plan of compensated emancipation. Essentially, “We’ll pay for your slaves. You emancipate them, we give you some money.” Many people in the North balk at this idea. This is crazy. And the South completely refuses. Lincoln tries to develop a colonization plan to move blacks to Latin America. Now this is part of a longer tradition. Lincoln didn’t just create an idea of like solving the race problem by getting rid of the race. This has been going back to this point through colonization societies, thirty, forty, fifty years, and then in terms of individual ideas, much longer. But Lincoln thinks, “Well this is a solution. We’ve got a problem with slaves. Slaves were black in this country.” There’s also Native American slaves, but a much smaller population. “We’ll just move them.” That plan doesn’t work out either.
Now Lincoln has an evolutionary viewpoint when it comes to slavery, in terms of its role in society, pragmatically, how it affected the Union, the sustainability of the Union, or the possibility of reconciliation of the Union. He doesn’t support slavery, but he could not find a way to eliminate it, and try to preserve or reconcile the Union. Political and pragmatic pressures finally force his hand. Congress had already begun to chip away at slavery by refusing to allow captured slaves to be returned to their bonded status. And with just a little over a year after the Civil War begins, Lincoln essentially throws up his hands. He goes, “There’s really no–there’s no way to solve this problem,” and decides that emancipation is going to be the solution. How are we going to do it? What’s it going to look like?
By the end of the year, he’s drawn up the plans and enunciated the policy and on January 1st , 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation takes effect. Now the proclamation is a fascinating document. It’s compromised, as most political things are. It’s a manifestation of compromise and it declares that the slave population in any state that’s still in rebellion against the United States on January 1863–slave populations in those states that are in rebellion against the federal government, against the United States, at that moment would become free. Now what does this mean? It means, curiously, not much in a practical sense.
If you’re in South Carolina, you own slaves. Your state had seceded from the union. Lincoln says on January 1863, “You don’t own those slaves anymore.” Well, if you’re in South Carolina, you don’t care what Lincoln says. You still own your slaves. In Maryland though, which sided with the Union, if I had a plantation that owned slaves and I was in Maryland, my state is not in rebellion against the U.S., I still own my slaves. Now slavery in Maryland is different from slavery in South Carolina on the level of type of slavery and also scale of it. So in terms of literally freeing people, the Emancipation Proclamation doesn’t. It is still one of the most important documents in the history of the United States, because when you think of politics, there’s the literal effects and there’s the philosophical or cultural, symbolic effects. You think of the Emancipation Proclamation in that way, it is an astonishing document. The Civil War, the debates go on to this day. The Civil War, was it a war about slavery? Was it a war about just different economic systems? Was it a war about political philosophy? And people still argue themselves blue in the face. But what is clear is that at the moment of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War does become about slavery. Even if you were fighting it for some other reason, the stakes are very real, that if the North wins, if the Union wins, slavery will be abolished from the United States.
Chapter 5. New York City, the Irish and the Freed Slaves [00:23:42]
Now let’s head towards these last sort of 20 minutes of the lecture. We’re going to stick North for a while here. Now the war is about slavery, at least in this sort of cultural politics of the moment. It’s a miserable war. The South and the North are beating themselves up to a pulp certainly, and Lincoln faces a problem. The Union troops face a problem. They don’t have enough people. And as we head through the winter of 1863, Lincoln decides he has to try to find a way to raise the number of troops that are available to fight in these wars–in this war, and you had the Conscription Acts being passed, and they’re going to take effect in March of 1863. And what the Conscription Acts say is that there’s mandatory military service for men who are between age twenty and forty-five unless–and there always seems to be an unless when it comes to conscription–unless they happen to have three hundred dollars on them. If you had three hundred dollars, you could buy yourself an exemption. It’s a long history of that in this country, and many other places. The history is still with us today. Political leaders bought their exemption. It’s called–you know it’s called, “Daddy’s a powerful political figure. I will not go to war.”
Conscription Acts of March 1863 said if you were between twenty and forty-five, and you were a man, you had to serve, unless you could find three hundred dollars. Well, three hundred dollars is a huge sum of money, 1863, so no surprise the wealthy gave their money, and they were exempt. Most of the country wasn’t wealthy. This was a way to raise troops and also raise money. They needed both. There was an unintended effect. I don’t think you would have been a surprise, but it was an unintended effect. It exacerbated class tensions within the country, within the Union, I should say. So as you’re heading into spring of 1863, the battle is still going on. Young men are dying left and right. The war, what is this war about really? Who is it for? It’s about emancipating these black slaves. And you head into March and you had these Conscription Acts taking place. “Now I have no choice but to go.” Then you head into the summer and these tensions, wondering what the war is about, not having the resources to get out of risking one’s life, for something you’re not sure if you even believe in. Class tensions exacerbated. In New York City, all of these different tensions combine and essentially combust.
What’s going on in New York in particular? In addition to those things I just mentioned, in New York, there are labor tensions. Really dramatic labor tensions. The Irish immigrant population treated horribly for quite some time. The Irish control the docks. The Irish are already struggling with local blacks for that bottom rung on the ladder. Who’s going to have a chance to get a purchase on that bottom rung and to start to pull themselves up? And the Irish dock workers control this–these important ports in New York City. Horrible, dirty, messy, dangerous job, but we’re not going to let blacks take this job. So there’s tensions in labor ranks in terms of who can actually be the laborer to start to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There is a fear adding to this labor tension, has an ethnic and racial aspect to it–there’s a fear now that since January of 1863, since Lincoln freed the slaves, these slaves are going to end up in New York City. How they’re going to get there is, you know, another issue, but there’s going to be a fear–there’s a fear of a flood of emancipated blacks coming up to New York to find work. And let’s face it, these folks had nothing. They’ll take any job, was the expectation. And so the Irish dock workers felt even further antagonized by the fact of job insecurity and the fact that this other, these black folks, were going to take their jobs.
Now as I said before, the Irish, many of them are brand new to this country. They’re scrambling to secure their own place as citizens in this country. Looked down upon, treated terribly by other groups. And they believed, aside from wanting to keep these jobs, that their claim to citizenship rested in part at least upon the fact that they were not black. This is a very important point. It’s not that it’s just about a job, but about belonging. Irish treated–like there’d be signs in the stores, “No Irish or dogs allowed in.” Blacks already weren’t allowed in. No Irish or dogs. The Irish were treated horribly, and so they realized, as long as they are not like “that person,” “those people,”–that person, those people being black. Having been emancipated, whether they were actually ever a slave or not, they are–they are tarred in a sense with that same label, from an enslaved people. People who weren’t citizens in many people’s minds. The Irish workers say, “Well, at least I’m not that, so I’m moving up the ladder.”
So you take emancipation, you take the Conscription Acts, which are certainly affecting the Irish more than any other population in New York City, you take the fear of emancipated blacks coming up and taking jobs away from the Irish dock workers, and it makes it plain that the Irish now feel incredibly compromised. Everything they had fought for might be in danger of slipping away. Their freedom, as I mentioned when talking about John Jack and citizens of Concord in 1773, Irish workers’ freedom was incumbent upon blacks’ slavery. They’re intertwined. Now we’re into July of 1863, after setting all this stage.
On July 11th, a first lottery is held for conscription. So we’ve had this plan, now we’re going to make it real. And within two days, mayhem ensues. Now New York is a port city. So aside from having the dock workers unloading material goods and products, or loading them onto these ships, you have troops that are being rallied from different places in the Northeast that are coming down to New York City, or they’re leaving from New York to head further south into the military battles, into military stages, scenes. And so there’s all this tension around the military being there. And now, with the Conscription Acts really becoming–well becoming real, people are going to be forced to don the uniform.
Several days of rioting begin. The military command–commandant of the region, anything embodying military, or suggesting police control, is targeted. So the commandant is sought out. Soldiers are sought out, police are sought out. They’re targeted by these gangs, largely ethnic gangs, largely Irish gangs. They’re the ones who felt most at threat. And these gangs also targeted blacks. The call went out from the commandant, “We need more troops.” Now it takes a couple of days, during 1863, to get people there. After a few days, military troops are brought in to the city to restore calm. When the dust has settled, as many as a thousand people are dead during these riots.
Anybody from New York City? There’s got to be a couple of people here. Well, think of these places: on the West Side, Twenty-Seventh and Seventh Avenue, West Thirty-Third Street, Thirty-Seventh and Seventh Avenue. On the East Side, Thirty-Fourth and East River–a very specific street–address, One Hundred Forty-Seven East Twenty-Eighth Street. All of these sites that you have–you’ve walked around them, I know you have, these are sites of lynchings in New York City. We’re not talking about gangs throwing rocks and beating each other up. We are talking about lynchings, in addition to that as well, I should say. In total, eleven people are lynched during the several days of riots. A few examples: Joseph Reed, separated from his mother and grandmother, he’s beaten to death. He’s seven years old. William Williams, a sailor, assaulted by the longshoremen, the dock workers, when he asked for directions, not knowing this riot is happening. Someone picks up a cobblestone, hurls the stone at him. Someone else stabs him. The crowd cheers, and they start chanting–And I’m sorry to use the language always. You’ll be hearing it several different times in the course, but this is just the history of it all–start chanting, “Don’t hire niggers! Don’t hire niggers!” Labor and class all intertwined, certainly citizenship as well.
The Colored Orphanage, a very large building there to take care of abandoned children, the crowd sees this place as a site of threat–I guess you’d say it’s threat, but something given to blacks that the Irish didn’t have the benefit of. And they decide they’re going to set the orphanage on fire. Thankfully, word gets to the orphanage in time, and they were able to escape out the back as the building is torched. So the Colored Orphanage is burned to the ground. One story is particularly illustrative, not a happy story of course. On the third day of riots, Abraham Franklin, a disabled black coachman, and his sister Henrietta, were pulled out of their boarding room. Now there’s one thing I forgot to mention that’s important, thinking about this particular setting. Blacks and Irish were sort of–were at each others’ throats through this process, but they’re living in the same areas. They’re interacting all the time, and that’s what makes this story that much more horrific in a sense.
Many Irish–I don’t want to paint entire groups–many Irish and blacks got along perfectly fine, and certainly commingled in every way that you can imagine that way being used, happily, passionately, or angrily, you name it. But they were living in the–these were their own neighborhoods. Abraham Franklin and his sister Henrietta are pulled out of their boarding room. Henrietta is beaten while Abraham is hanged. Federal troops, who are now coming into the city trying to quell the riot as it moves to different places, federal troops arrive, and they cut down his body. It’s too late to save his life. Troops break up the crowd and then disperse, heading off to another flashpoint. The rioting crowd re-hangs the body, and they start chanting. Just as you had William Williams being murdered to chants of “Don’t hire niggers,” inflammatory declaration, in Abraham Franklin’s case, you have chants coming out from the crowd, inflammatory in a different way. They re-hang his body to chants of “Jeff Davis! Jeff Davis” What does this mean? They’re praising the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
So you have Irish workers, living with other African Americans certainly, feeling threatened that their citizenship is at stake, deciding to take our their threat, and feeling they might be conscripted into the military, likely would be. They decide to take out their anxiety, fears, and anger on the Colored Orphanage, on seven year old boys, on sailors, on disabled black coachmen. And they’re going to honor the idea of keeping people out of unions. “Don’t hire niggers.” And they’re going to honor, curiously, the presidency of the Confederacy–president of the Confederacy. So Abraham Franklin is hung, body cut down. He’s re-hung–re-hanged, excuse me–and then later on, after the crowd disperses to do something else, somewhere else, a sixteen-year old Irish butcher cuts down Franklin. Maybe his body will finally be put to rest. No, in fact the butcher decides to drag his body through the streets as a trophy, in so doing, I claim, marking his own claim to citizenship on the dead body of a black–of a crippled black man.
Now what’s the point of all this narrative? The point of this is that we can see in the crucible of the Civil War a very clear picture of what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be American. A foundational question for this class, as I mentioned in Monday’s lecture. Douglass questioned the sanctity of July 4th, that great cultural marker of freedom. “Why would you bring me here, representing a people who only know slavery?” Harper, the poet and journalist, activist, makes clear how blind people were to the psychological anguish of slavery, children being torn from their mothers’ breasts. The Dred Scott case is explicitly about who could be a citizen of the United States. Taney didn’t think any slave could be a citizen. They’re too inferior and they’re property.
The political turns made out of necessity, and this is very important, made out of necessity in the Civil War, made it absolutely plain to people like Abraham Lincoln, who starts to decide to change these policies; made it absolutely plain that citizenship was going to be linked to freedom, and that freedom was linked to race. The connection is certainly there in terms of social, cultural forums. It’s there in political forums. It is tangible. As soon as he signs in to being the Emancipation Proclamation, and in the fallout through the Conscription Acts and the New York City draft riots, it is real. Citizenship is linked to freedom; freedom is linked to race. The tensions between all of these linkages are made really quite perfectly clear by those people who are rioting in New York City. And, I really think, made abundantly clear when Abraham Franklin was dragged through the streets of New York by his genitals. Thank you very much. I’ll see you on Friday.
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