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Posts Tagged ‘African-American’

Reconstructing the American Tradition of Domestic Terrorism


African American men, women, and children outside of church

African American men, women, and children outside of church, 1899. Compiled by W.E.B. Du Bois (Photo: Library of Congress)

Yesterday’s horrific murder of nine people worshipping at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church replayed a central theme in American history. It is the question, fought for centuries with both words and weapons: to whom does this country belong?

The alleged gunman, twenty-one year old white man Dylann Roof, killed six women and three men, including pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina state senator. A witness to the shooting reported that the killer said: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

That a white terrorist murdered an African American politician and African American bystanders in a black church, using language straight out of Reconstruction, is not an accident. It reflects the vital intersection of American politics, race, and religion since 1866.

In the wake of the Civil War, white southern Democrats initially refused to face the reality that they would have to share any sort of economic, political, or social power with their former slaves. With the encouragement of President Andrew Johnson, who had taken over from the slain President Lincoln during Congress’s long summer recess, white legislatures in the South ratified the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, but then promptly set about recreating the conditions of servitude. In most states, black people could not congregate, had to sign year long work contracts, and could be arrested on charges of “vagrancy,” fined, and then bound to whoever paid their fine. Nowhere could a black person testify in court against a white person, so nowhere could a black American claim the protection of the law against theft, rape, or murder.

When Congress reconvened in December 1865, congressmen refused to return their black wartime allies to quasi-slavery under the very men who had spent four years trying to destroy the Union. They put forward the Fourteenth Amendment to give black men a civic identity that would give them legal rights as a condition for the readmission of the southern states to the Union. When southern whites retorted that they would rather remain under military rule than submit to black equality, northern congressmen passed the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867, which called for new southern state constitutional conventions to rewrite state constitutions providing for black civic rights before the states could be readmitted to the Union. Crucially, the Military Reconstruction Act permitted African American men to vote.

White southern Democrats recoiled at the idea of sharing political rights with black men. But African Americans and white southern Republicans, who had supported the Union during the war, recognized the power of their position. Republicans across the South began to organize black voters. One of their most common venues for political organization was among the very powerful black churches, especially the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and many of the early leading black politicians were clergymen.

At first, white Democrats stood against the political awakening of southern African Americans by simply refusing to enroll voters. This prompted Congress to put the military in charge of voter registration. When both white and black Republicans registered to vote and elected moderate constitutional conventions, white Democrats organized a new force to stop their political opponents from taking over their states: the Ku Klux Klan. Before the 1868 elections, members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered at least a thousand African Americans and their white allies. In South Carolina, they killed African American clergyman and state legislator B. F. Randolph at a train depot in broad daylight.

Congress stood against Klan terrorism with an 1871 law making their political intimidation a federal offense, a distinction that enabled President Grant to stop the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan by imposing martial law in parts of the South and by having federal courts, rather than local courts, try offenders. For the next twenty years, white southerners controlled black political voices by finding ways either to work with black voters or to silence them. This was imperative, they insisted, for black voters were only interested in social welfare legislation that would cost tax dollars and thus “corrupt” the American government.

In 1889, the threat of a new Republican administration to mount a federal defense of black voting brought a new construction to the idea of the corruption of government. A new generation of white Democrats worried far less about political than about social issues. They insisted that black men must not vote because if they voted, they would take local political offices. This would give them patronage power, for in the nineteenth century, local positions depended on the goodwill of local politicians. Black men would, for example, become school principals. There, they would use their power to hire teachers to force young innocent white girls to have sex with them in exchange for jobs. This political exchange very quickly turned to the idea that black political power meant widespread rape. By the early twentieth century, lynching black men was almost a civic duty for white citizens: only by purging the government of black voices could the nation be made safe.

When Roof said: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,” he was echoing the fear of black political power laid down in the aftermath of the Civil War, when white American men had to face the reality that this nation is, in fact, made up of far more women and people of color than it is of white men. That fact inspired terror – and terrorism – among white men in the late nineteenth century. It did so again after 1954, when Brown v. Board warned white Americans that they would again have to share their country with African Americans. Then, as in the late nineteenth century, white Americans turned to terrorism against black political voices as, for example, when four Ku Klux Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and murdered four little girls.

Yesterday, it seems, our history echoed again.

About the Author

Heather Cox Richardson

Historian. Author. Professor. Budding Curmudgeon. Heather Cox Richardson studies the contrast between image and reality in America, especially in politics.

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“Ask Forgiveness from Dessalines:” Debating Haitian Independence on the Eve of Occupation

March 13, 2015   African American Intellectual History Society

William Pickens

This is the third entry in a series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. The previous post can be found here.

1903 was a demanding year for Pierre Nord Alexis. After seizing the Haitian presidency in a coup, the octogenarian politician had to plan a grand party. Haiti would celebrate one hundred years of independence in 1904, an extraordinary feat given the attempts made by the United States and Western Europe to diminish Haitian sovereignty in the preceding decades. The commemoration of the Haitian Revolution and the subsequent efforts made to sustain its gains thus had to be remarkable. It had to be worthy of Toussaint Louverture, of Jean Jacques Dessalines.

Alexis established a National Association for the Centennial to ensure that it was. Among its other tasks, the Association staged a competition for the composition of a national anthem. The winner was La Dessalinienne. In January 1904, hundreds of thousands of celebrants flocked to the new Palais du Centenaire in Gonaïves while thousands of their compatriots heard the official introduction of the new anthem in Port-au-Prince. As the ode to the fathers of Haitian independence rang out among the descendants of former slaves, government authorities christened the Place des Héroes de l’Indépendence and unveiled monuments to the nation’s most cherished heroes including Louverture and Dessalines. Surely, the celebration organizers must have thought, these ancestors would be proud. 

Others were not so certain. In particular, Rosalvo Bobo questioned why his compatriots were celebrating at a time when the corruption of the Haitian state threatened to undermine national progress. “Centennial of our freedom,” he scoffed.

 No. Centennial of blacks enslaving blacks. Centennial of our follies, of our turpitudes, and, amidst unceasing pretensions, of our systematic retrogression. Centennial of our fraternal hatreds, and of our triple weakness: moral, social, and political. Our Centennial amidst murders in our towns and countryside. Centennial of our vices, of our political crimes. Centennial of everything that could be most hateful inside the breast of men. Centennial of the ruin of a country by misery and filth. Centennial of humiliation and, perhaps, the definitive degradation of the black race, by its Haitian representatives.[1]

Bobo was severe in his critique. But he did not offer it without aim or purpose. The Haitian intellectual sought to recover the prosperity of the recent past, which was evidenced, in part, by the sizable contingents of Germans, Syrians, and other foreign businessmen who pursued commercial ties with Haitian elites and flocked to Haitian cities. His remarks, then, were a call for reform akin to the jeremiads that flourished among his African American contemporaries who demanded improvements in their communities or in the broader U.S. society. To that end, Bobo urged Haitians “to ask forgiveness from Dessalines, from Toussaint” and “work to emerge from the stupor of an entire century.” If they did, he promised that

1904 will not be a celebration of nothing at all, but the first year of the existence of a gathering of brave black people working modestly and with dignity to be a people. And the tiny republic of Haiti will be able to be a huge thing to all of Europe! And the old continent will be able to take notice, in the year 2004, of the first centennial of the GREAT FREEDOM of the HAITIAN PEOPLE![2]

Yale student William Pickens was less sanguine about the prospects of Haitian independence. In February 1903, the son of former slaves entered the annual “Ten Eyck Prize” oratorical competition at his university. His oration was about Haiti. Pickens first argued that Haiti commanded the attention of Americans because its history shed light “upon the much-mooted questions which involve the welfare of the whole southern section of our country.” He proceeded to elucidate his version of that history. Pickens asserted that the success of the Haitian Revolution was illusory. “With the gain of absolute independence,” he maintained, “the uncivilized horde gained the most efficient weapon of self-destruction” and “destroyed every trace and hope of internal civilization.” In Pickens’s reckoning, they relapsed “into a savagery and cannibalism comparable to any state of their African ancestry.”[3]

This was no call for internal reform. It was a plea for occupation. The future NAACP field secretary surmised that “the savage and the child to rise to higher things must feel the power of a stronger hand.” Haitians, in other words, needed to submit themselves to American civilization. In fact, Pickens assumed that U.S. policymakers were uniquely suited to undertake a benevolent intervention in Haiti because they were “schooled as no other in the problems of the negro race.” He insisted that Haitians would accrue numerous benefits from the proposed foreign intervention because “under American institutions the blacks as a race have reached the highest plane of civilization of which the negro’s history has record—a fact sometimes obscured by the remonstrance against injustice and oppression.” For Pickens, flattering influential whites and critiquing the purported failures of black self-government in Haiti thus became a convenient means of validating his own success while making a case for the inclusion of African Americans in U.S. politics and public life.[4]

To be sure, the shortcomings of this attempt to prove the “Americanness” of African Americans were apparent to some of his peers. John Edward Bruce was one of the countless Americans who learned of Pickens’s essay as it became the subject of newspaper headlines and gossip throughout the entire United States. He was less than pleased with it. In a column appearing in an April 1903 edition of The Colored American, the activist editor better known as Bruce Grit argued that the Yale student mistook “the temper of the Haitians” when he assumed that they “ought to submit to a benevolent assimilation.” The testimony of Haitians proved his point. Bruce quoted at length a Haitian resident of New York who was “greatly astonished” that an African American would vilify a country that had “maintained a Negro government . . . without the aid or consent of any outside nation” for a century. “I am very sorry,” the Haitian confidant told Bruce, “to see that Hayti is a subject of criticism even by the Negroes of this country, seeing that they have so much of their own trouble to mind.” How could a child of former slaves—a product of the Jim Crow South—not see that “in putting down our people he has equally spoken against the people of his own race in this country?”[5]

The salient question raised by Bruce and his Haitian friend was explicit. But their greatest concerns were more indirect. As the 58th United States Congress debated a resolution to annex Haiti, the two men expressed bewilderment over why Pickens would treat his subject with such callous indifference. How could he contribute to prevailing discourses about black inferiority? How could he not realize that white Americans were waiting for an excuse to take control of Haitian political, social, and economic life? How could he fail to see that U.S. imperialism in Haiti would have the same effect as Jim Crow in the United States? In sum, how could Pickens treat occupation as an academic question when it was a looming reality for those Haitians who foreigners disregarded as incapable of self-government?

Next month: “Ten Million Black People . . . are Watching:” Ambivalence at the Outset of the U.S. Occupation

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The Idea of the Black Intellectual

mums312-b010-i006-001When I first began to teach a class titled Black Intellectual Thought, I wanted to broaden the classic definition of a black intellectual for undergraduates who tended to think of black intellectuals as a small stratum of African Americans who were literate and who had access to mechanisms for publication. I first used William M. Banks’ vivid and engaging text, Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life.1 Black Intellectuals adeptly narrates a history of important black thinkers within changing contexts of slavery, race, and modernization, but it also emphasizes a narrow understanding of black intellectualism. I found myself sometimes working against this text to get students to think about the patterns, changes and complexities of black thought expressed in different contexts by people that did not fit a definition of the black intellectual as an elite. I found that I was more interested in teaching students about black intellectualism as an historically constructed category than I was interested in introducing important individuals. The briefest and most cursory review of current African American intellectual history across time periods illustrates that scholars are thinking as much about what an intellectual was and is as much as they are writing about what intellectuals have done and are doing.2

Beyond being introduced to important black thinkers, I wanted students to think more about what makes black intellectual work black. Jonathan Scott Holloway provides one answer to this question when he describes the twentieth-century “black intellectual ‘crisis cannon’ ” being defined by “the fact that writing about black intellectuals almost always revolves around a crisis of the moment or the crisis of living in a world where many believe the words ‘black’ and ‘intellectual’ are mutually exclusive.”3 Holloway further explained the importance of understanding how the category of the black intellectual is both an analytical lens and an historical creation.

Holloway argued that the establishment of the American Negro Academy in 1897, “marks the birth of the twentieth-century black intellectual tradition.”4 It is the scholarship of twentieth-century black intellectual history that tends to use the term “black intellectual,” whether as methodological tool or as historical construction. Early American and antebellum scholarship, instead of writing specifically about black intellectuals, tends instead to explore patterns of black thought primarily through the analysis of society and culture. For example, Patrick Rael, in his now classic study of antebellum black thought, used the term “black intelligentsia” to highlight the function of class and status in the formation of a cadre of blacks who could influence the American public sphere and their own communities via print.5 In contemporary scholarship, the term itself, “black intellectual,” carries a descriptive and discursive weight that it does not have when applied to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Although it is important to look for and recover more black voices to expand the number of black intellectuals in history, I think it might be more important to further historicize the category of black intellectuals by examining the processes through which blacks have been granted and have seized intellectual authority. In Boston, from 1831 until her disgruntled 1832 departure, the black woman Maria Stewart published a series of pieces and gave several public lectures. At least two times Stewart addressed audiences at the lodge house of black Freemasons in addition to speaking at other Boston venues. Stewart’s biographer, Marilyn Richardson explained that when Stewart gave her speeches, she was acting as one of the earliest American public female speakers.6 Moreover, Stewart spoke within and against a black masculine public sphere that was just beginning to assert itself within and against a broader realm of white authored print and publication. When Stewart left for New York she described her disillusionment at having some Boston blacks challenge her authority to speak. While Stewart did not play an historical role as large as that of her peer and inspiration, David Walker, juxtaposing her with Walker illustrates how positions of intellectual authority were configured to legitimate male public expression at the expense of female spokespersons. To further understand the role of black women as important thinkers who also defined the possibilities and problems of black thought and expression, the historical formations that have created black intellectuals and black intellectualism must be further explored.

Defining black intellectualism historically also reveals the lack of scholarship that understands how changes in American religious history have affected black intellectual traditions. Historians tend to see transformations in black institutional life and the media as forming the basis for black intellectual traditions that are specific to the twentieth-century. While historians of pre-twentieth-century black thought have had to examine religious ideas as fundamental to black intellectual traditions, they have tended to examine religion more for how it informs ideas about black respectability and politics than for how it functioned theologically. I agree with Holloway’s description of the transformation of twentieth-century black intellectual traditions. However, I would add that they faced the unprecedented challenge of having to engage a growing body of secular thought that arose from higher education and that challenged previous traditions of black thought premised upon theological ideas.

Certainly, many African Americans stand out for their expressed insight and their historical impact; however, the idea of an intellectual is not a neutral analytical category that merely functions to illuminate important thinkers and their thoughts. Banks briefly theorized the meaning of the intellectual by differentiating between intellect and intelligence. He posited that intellect refers to the use of an active curiosity to understand the underlying meaning and logic of events and symbols. Furthermore, he described intelligence as reflecting the everyday pragmatism and utilitarianism required for daily function.7 Investigating the historical evolution of black intellectual work reveals how this distinction between intellect and intelligence might obscure rather than clarify change over time. Intellectual history is more important for revealing how ideas have reflected and shaped social identities, like that of the black intellectual, than it is for uncovering new black intellectuals.

  1. William M. Banks, Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life(NewYork: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996. 
  2. For example see, Christopher Cameron, To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent, Ohio:  Kent State University Press, 2014); John Ernest, Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004; Carla L. Peterson, ed. “Doers of the Word,” African American Women Speakers and Writers in the North, 1830-1880 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein, eds. Early African American Print Culture(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Ross Posnock, Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1998); Adolph Reed Jr. and Kenneth W. Warren, eds. Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought(Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2010); and Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, Barbara D. Savage, eds. Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (University of North Carolina Press: 2015). 
  3. Jonathan Scott Holloway, “The Black Intellectual and the ‘Crisis Canon’ in the Twentieth Century,” Black Intellectuals: Commentary and Critiques. Spec issue of The Black Scholar31.1 (Spring 2001): 2-3. 
  4. Holloway, 1. 
  5. Patrick Rael, Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 211. 
  6. Marilyn Richardson, ed. Maria Stewart, America’s First Black Political Writer: Essays and Speeches (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), xiii. 
  7. Banks, xv-xvi. 

    Chernoh Sesay Jr.

    c1_4x5I am an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University.  I earned my Ph.D. in American History from Northwestern University in 2006.  I am currently completing a book manuscript entitled Black Boston and the Making of African-American Freemasonry: Leadership, Religion, and Community In Early America.  This study examines the origins of African American Freemasonry and traces the development of black Freemasonry from its founder, Prince Hall, to the famous antebellum abolitionist and member of the African Lodge, David Walker.  In this treatment, black Freemasonry and it origins in Boston become a prism through which to consider various relationships between interracial and black politics, religion, and leadership.  I am also developing two separate but related research agendas.  I am examining the significance of institutional links connecting various African American religious, fraternal, sororal and educational institutions meant to structure and emphasize certain ways of being black in the antebellum United States.  I am also exploring how different forms of nineteenth and twentieth-century African American historicism were comprised of aligned and competing theological and secular concerns

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