Sunday, August 26, 2012

Timothy B. Tyson on Ruthless Suppression of Black Vote in 1890s: Past as Present

In Blood Done Sign My Name (NY: Crown, 2004), Timothy B. Tyson rehearses the history of how African-American citizens of Wilmington, North Carolina, were placed back into a state of virtual slavery in the latter half of the 1890s, following the brief window of opportunity that had opened for freed slaves after the Civil War--a window of opportunity in which they held the vote and political office.  As he notes, Wilmington was North Carolina's largest city by the 1890s, and it was also a center of African-American economic and political power with a black majority (p. 271).

In North Carolina (as in many parts of the South at this period) white Populists and African-American Republicans had created a Fusion alliance that permitted the two groups to dominate the state politically into the 1890s (p. 272).  In response, white Democrats committed to white supremacy began a campaign of overt violence to drive black voters from the polls and regain control of the political process.  Tyson notes that in Wilmington, Col. Alfred Waddell, who was soon to become the state's governor, stated the night before the 1898 election,

Go to the polls tomorrow, and if you find the negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks (as cited, ibid.)

This led to a Democratic victory in the 1898 elections, which was followed by an armed insurrection of white business leaders and workers in Wilmington (pp. 272-3).  Led by Col. Waddell and Hugh McCrae, the band of armed white vigilantes set fire to the office of the black-owned newspaper The Daily Record and then marched into a black neighborhood, where a bloodbath ensued. No one knows precisely how many black citizens were shot in cold blood; estimates vary widely, though the oral tradition in the black community speaks of more than 300 African Americans killed.

The insurrection culminated in a reign of terror in which black citizens were denied the vote for half a century, and were absolutely barred from office.  The actions of the white-supremacist Democrats of Wilmington were lauded throughout the United States by newspapers, political leaders, and church leaders.  In Wilmington, Rev. Peyton H. Hoge, pastor of First Presbyterian church, announced, "We have taken a city.  To God be the praise" (as cited, p. 274).  

As Tyson also notes, though he spent a good part of his childhood and teen years living in Wilmington, he knew nothing of this history, nor was it taught in any North Carolina school he ever attended.  It was entirely obliterated from the historical record of the state, insofar as that record was transmitted in schools, sermons, newspaper articles, and so forth.  The armed insurrection of a white minority that slaughtered black citizens and shut down their access to the polls was treated as if it had never happened, though the effects of that rebellion--the barring from the polls and political life--lasted for half a century after these events took place.

For me, it is impossible to read Tyson's account of what happened all over the American South in the 1890s without thinking of how the current party of white supremacy, the Republican party, has actively worked during the period leading up to the 2012 election to suppress the votes of African-American and Latino citizens, and has boasted of doing so.  It is impossible for me to read histories of what happened all over the American South in the 1890s, including in my home state of Arkansas*--the savage suppression of the black vote and the ruthless destruction of the alliance made by white Populists with black citizens that promised much good--without thinking quite specifically of the tactics now being employed by the Republican party in the U.S.

What happened in the 1890s can happen again, if we permit it to happen.  If we allow those who have a vested interest in obliterating our sense of history (and for me, this includes the memory that my great-grandfather Lindsey was a Populist leader in northwest Louisiana and an active member of a farmers' union) to tell us that all this ancient history is best forgotten.  Just move along, let us higher beings manage things, and everything will be okay from now on . . . . Forget about that dusty, troubled old past.  Let us and our wealth make the future bright for everyone.

Just trust us.

As Tyson writes,

. . . [W]hy dredge this stuff up?  Why linger on the past, which we cannot change?  We must move toward a brighter future and leave all that horror behind.  It's true that we must make a new world.  But we can't make it out of whole cloth.  We have to weave the future from the fabric of the past, from the patterns of aspiration and belonging--and broken dreams and anguished rejections--that have made us.  What the advocates of our dangerous and deepening social amnesia don't understand is how deeply the past holds the future in its grip--even, and perhaps especially, when it remains unacknowledged.  We are runaway slaves from our own past, and only by turning to face the hounds can we find our freedom beyond them (p. 307).

These words drive deep into my heart, my conscience, as I watch the political events now unfolding in my country in 2012, and as I consider the choice of the leader of my Catholic church in the U.S. to attend the national convention of a party that has been working strenuously to bar minority voters from the polls in the coming elections.  The choice of the leader of my Catholic church to attend this party's convention and offer a final blessing for the meeting and its candidates . . . . 

*By way of a footnote, a chronology of some salient facts from Arkansas history in the 1890s after the  Agricultural Wheel movement began to cement a strong alliance of white Populists and African Americans (who had been voting and holding office from Reconstruction forward) in the latter half of the 1880s (on the Agricultural Wheel, see Grif Stockley, Ruled by Race [Fayetteville: Univ. of AR Press], p. 110):

Throughout the 1890s: lynchings were on the rise in Arkansas as Jim Crow laws were enacted  to bar black citizens from the polls and return them to quasi-slavery (Stockley, Ruled by Race, p. 126).  Leon F. Litwack indicates that in the 1890s, an average of 139 people were lynched each year in the U.S., the overwhelming majority of these black ("Hellhounds," in James Allen, Hilton Als, John Lewis, and Leon F. Litwack, eds., Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America [Santa Fe: Twin Palms, 2000], p. 12).  Litwack also writes that in the final decade of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th century, two or three black Southerners were hanged, burned at the stake, or quietly murdered every week (ibid., p. 12). 
1891: the Democratic party reasserted control of the Arkansas legislature and began to enact Jim Crow laws (Stockley, Ruled, p. 109).  These included election "reforms" that began to bar black voters from the polls. 
Spring 1891: the legislature enacted the Separate Coach Act modeled on a Mississippi statute, which had been tested in court and declared constitutional, and which required blacks to sit in separate quarters on trains (ibid., p. 120). 
Sept. 1891: in "one of the worst lynchings in Arkansas history," 15 black citizens were killed in Lee County in the Delta, where land remained firmly in the ownership of former plantation owners in counties most of which had black majorities (ibid., pp. 126-7).

24 March 1892: Rev. E. Malcolm Argyle reported in the Christian Recorder (Philadelphia) that there had been at least 8 lynching in Arkansas in the last 30 days, and that 500 black citizens were waiting on the wharves in the city of Pine Bluff for passage out of the estate to escape the reign of terror (as cited, Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, vol. 2 [NY: Citadel, 1970], pp. 793–794).  Argyle reported that in various places in the state, black men had been burned at the stake or strung up on telegraph poles or trees and murdered.  The Little Rock newspaper the Arkansas Gazette reported at the same time that 1,200 black citizens were passing through the north part of the state to Oklahoma to escape the reign of white terror recently unleashed in Arkansas.  Stockley characterizes these events as an "open season on blacks" in Arkansas (Ruled by Race, p. 127). 
Sept. 1892: an initiative for a poll-tax amendment which required payment to approach the polls was passed; many blacks citizens could not vote in the initiative, since the election "reforms" of the previous year that swept the Democrats back into power had already begun excluding people (i.e., blacks, since this stipulation was applied selectively) from voting on the basis of literacy (ibid., p. 125). 
By 1894: the Arkansas Gazette announced that for the first time since blacks had been allowed to vote, there were no longer any black representatives in the Arkansas legislature (ibid.).  The 1891 election "reforms" had succeeded in establishing one-party rule and white supremacy. 
1898: there were racial expulsion in Phillips County in the Delta (ibid., p. 131), where, in 1919, in the worst act of racially fueled violence in Arkansas history, a large (and still unknown) number of black citizens would be massacred at Elaine as planters sought to shut down the last vestiges of the white Populist-black alliance. 
17 March 1899: in Hot Springs, where there continued to be contention over the establishment of one-party rule, an election riot occurred and six men were shot. 
18 March 1899: a black man, "General Duckett," was accused of killing a wealthy planter in Little River County; the Gazette fueled the flames of reaction to this event by writing that a race war had begun to break out, and lynch mobs gathered.   Seven black men were lynched (Stockley, Ruled, p. 131).  On 24 March, the Gazette reported that twenty-three black men had been strung up in thickets in the county, and black citizens were fleeing into Texas to escape the violence (ibid., p. 132).

And no more than Timothy Tyson was taught about the history of Wilmington in the 1890s in his North Carolina schooling was I taught a whit of the preceding history in my Arkansas schools.  My teachers were too busy, most of them (though there were notable exceptions who made a lasting impression on me), transmitting the ludicrous "happy-darkies" myth which had it that slaves were delighted to be enslaved, were well taken care of, and rewarded the masters and mistresses on whom they doted with lifelong loyalty and bursts of song.  What I've learned of the real history of my state and people, I've had to learn through hard labor as a grown man.

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