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Race and political division during American Reconstruction [excerpt]

Despite succeeding in reuniting the nation after the Civil War, American Reconstruction saw little social and political cohesion. Division—between North and South, black and white, Democrat and Republican—remained unmistakable across the nation.

In the following excerpt from Reconstruction: A Concise History,  Allen C. Guelzo delves into the complicated nature of race and politics during this divisive time in American history.

It was not Republican factionalism alone that crippled the Reconstruction regimes. The freedpeople themselves were any­thing but a political monolith, and they wasted political energy on internecine quarrels as vigorously as white Republicans had. The first fault line was the reluctance of Southern blacks to accept white Republican leadership as unquestioningly as whites had expected. Northern white schoolteachers found that Southern blacks did not want whites to run either their politics or their schools.

The teachers from the American Missionary Association who descended on the occupied Port Royal Sound to educate and uplift the freedpeople discovered, as Austa Malinda French noted, that “nothing is more evident to those who actually know the Colored, than that while they respect, value, and revere, the good, they want little companionship with the whites.” Lawrence S. Berry, a freed slave turned journalist, urged his readers to “forget our sable complexion” and close ranks with progressive whites. But, as one Freedmen’s Bureau agent dis­covered, “their long experience of slavery has made them so distrust­ful of all whites, that on many plantations they persist still in giving credit only to the rumors set afloat by people of their own color, and believe that the officers who have addressed them are rebels in dis­guise.” Moreover, the freedpeople resented the paternalistic tenden­cies of well-intentioned whites, especially when assistance calcified into orders and sympathy into control. When Georgia’s short-lived Republican legislature tried to ban the admission of black state legislators, black Methodist leader Henry McNeal Turner frankly said, “My colored friends, the white men are not to be trusted. They will betray you.” And Hiram Revels, the first black US senator to be elected from Mississippi, denounced white Adelbert Ames and white Mississippi Republicans as “notoriously corrupt and dishon­est,” and actually applauded the downfall of Adelbert Ames as a tri­umph over “corruption, theft, and embezzlement.”

But just as divisive were the fault lines that separated blacks from blacks. A racial hierarchy that bestowed privilege along a carefully graded spectrum of color had long existed in the black South. “There is in the Southern States a great amount of prejudice in regards to color,” the African American abolitionist and novelist William Wells Brown admitted in 1867, “even among the negroes themselves. The nearer the negro or mulatto approaches to the white, the more he seems to feel his superiority over those of a darker hue.”

The freedpeople resented the paternalistic tenden­cies of well-intentioned whites.

Louisiana’s politics were more than sufficiently twisted by white factionalism, and made even worse by rivalries among factions led by Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback (one-quarter black, and married to a white woman), Oscar James Dunn (born a slave, to a slave mother and a free black carpenter), and Caesar Carpentier Antoine (a one-time business partner of Pinchback’s, his father was a free gens du couleur and his mother was West Indian). In postwar Savannah, Aaron Bradley mounted a political smear campaign against his rival for a seat in Congress, Richard White, a mixed-race Union army vet­eran from Ohio. White, sneered Bradley, was a “hybrid” who did not deserve the support of true African Americans. “What color will he represent himself?” asked Bradley, who then answered his own question: “The greasy color.”

Even Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany sparred, with Douglass (himself biracial) bitterly criticiz­ing Delany’s black racial purism for “going about the same length in favor of blacks, as the whites have done in favor of the doctrine of white superiority.” Delany was right to assert African Americans’ “need for dignity and self-respect,” but not, Douglass warned, to point where “he stands up so straight that he leans back a little” and ends up in a version of black racial triumphalism little different from white supremacy. Douglass also parted company with John Mercer Langston, despite Langston’s agreement that “this is no more a white man’s country and government than it is the country and govern­ment of the black man. . . . It is the country and government of the American people.” Nevertheless, Douglass accused Langston of “mad political ambition.”

A racial hierarchy that bestowed privilege along a carefully graded spectrum of color had long existed in the black South.

These interracial feuds were a key factor in the most singular absence in black Reconstruction in the South: namely, the lack of a single commanding leader who could bind together the disparate threads of African American identity into a single movement. Slavery was certainly no useful training- ground for the game of politics, and the marginalized experience of free Northern blacks did not pres­ent much more in the ways of practical opportunities for honing political savvy. Given that only Louisiana and South Carolina had developed any substantial prewar populations of blacks who were property owners, business proprietors, and skilled craftsmen, the likeliest quarter from which such leadership could have developed was the Northern black community— but even then, few Northern blacks made the attempt. And no wonder; it was doubtful if Southern blacks would feel obliged to follow Northern leadership, a reluc­tance the National Conference of Colored Men demonstrated when it debated a resolution “That we pay no heed to such men as Fred. Douglass and his accomplices, for the simple reason that they are well-to-do Northern men who will not travel out of their way to ben­efit the suffering Southern Negro.”

And it was certain that Southern whites would make aggressive Northern blacks a target of choice. “Write as you please, but never go south, or killed you most assur­edly will be,” warned Julia Griffiths Crofts, Douglass’s British friend and supporter. “You are, in many respects, a marked man.” So, when Douglass was invited to set up a newspaper in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1866, he politely declined: “It is not my duty to court violence or martyrdom or to act in any manner which can be construed into a spirit of bravado. . . . I think it wise to remain where I am, at least until the public mind of the South shall attain a more healthy tone than at present.”

Featured image credit: American Flag Usa by DWilliams. CC0 via Pixabay.

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