AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present
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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present
AFAM 162 - Lecture 4 - Reconstruction (continued)
Chapter 1. Billie Holliday Song: Strange Fruit [00:00:00]
Professor Jonathan Holloway: I’m going to start playing a song. This lecture is taking us from 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. But we will–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 18–end of Reconstruction to the end of the 19th century. And with that, I want–I want to play 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. And if I can figure it out while you’re listening to it, I’ll get the lyrics up on the screen as well.
[Billie Holiday] And now I’d like to sing a tune. It was written especially for me. It’s titled Strange Fruit. I really hope you like it. <>
Chapter 2. From Reconstruction to the Rise of Redemption [00:03:35]
Professor Jonathan Holloway: Many of you, some of you, I don’t know, might recognize this as one of Billie Holiday’s, the great blues singer, one of her, her most famous pieces, wrote by–not by her, 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.
Now you’ll recall from the last lecture how 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.
Chapter 3. Forces used to Eliminate the Black Vote [00:08:47]
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.
Professor Holloway: What was certainly unintended–bless you–is that poor whites, and there were a lot of them, and blacks, who were almost, almost by default poor during this era–we’re talking into the 18–going 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,
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.
Chapter 4. Lynching: The Ultimate Form of Racial Harassment [00:22:07]
Now when all this kinds of–these kinds of harassments fail, if they weren’t successful, if they, if they–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.
Bless you. That was a very cute sneeze by the way.
Professor Holloway: 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,
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.
Now I said that lynching is the–seen as the, 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.
Chapter 5. Images of Lynching [00:40:04]
Ten years ago–in fact, gosh, exactly ten years ago–small gallery in New York City, the Roth Horowitz Gallery, assembles 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. Now I’m going to show this, this slideshow. It runs on its own, and at the end of the slideshow, the screen goes black, class is dismissed.
[Slide show starts]
And I’ll have side comments to where the handwriting might be a little bit illegible. There were before and after images.
[New Slide] Same man you just saw, his head impaled, his burned head, impaled on the stake. The handwriting would be put there by the photographer, so it could be identified when he sold it in the store.
[New Slide] Litchfield, Kentucky. September Twenty-Six, 1913, and what would appear to be sort of a town center.
[New Slide] Studio shots. And you would have individuals, as you’ll see, in the background. You can see them [gestures up] directly above my hand.
[New Slide] This is actually a series of images you’re going to see here. And you’ll see the physical assault on the body prior to the actual terminal event.
[New Slide] Body’s been whipped. He’s been whipped. His back has been gouged and speared. And one very curious thing about the studio photography is that
[New Slide] they would cover up the victim’s genitals, despite showing all of this, to be proper.
[New Slide] This is the same studio from another image. Several images–several slides ago. She was lynched next to her son.
[New Slide] It’s the back of a postcard. “The answer of the Anglo-Saxon race to black brutes who would attack the womanhood of the South.” Here’s the answer.
[New Slide] That’s the front of the postcard.
[New Slide] Another postcard. “This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with the cross over it. Your son, Joe.”
[New Slide] Again, for propriety’s sake, a cloth around the midsection.
[New Slide] Festival lynching, you can–people brought dates, they brought their children. You can tell by the apparel, this is a more recent vintage, not
[New Slide] back in 1911 or ‘12. Lynchings were of course being burned at the stake.
[New Slide] And they’re still fairly contemporary. And class is dismissed.
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