As we get closer and closer to the present these events are more difficult to write about. It’s one thing to discuss the craziness of Burr and Jackson – it’s another thing to talk about Ferguson, Missouri – which I eventually will. Since I mentioned it – I’ll give you a little preview of what I’m planning to write about. Today is about the post-civil war era in the south. It includes some really awful stuff. Mobs of white people doing things that nobody can defend. After that happy subject I’d like to talk about the music that came out of the South. America was seen as a cultural wasteland by Europe for the first 150 years of our existence. Jazz changed that completely. Today the U.S. is the main producer of all forms of entertainment – it might seem obvious now – but it wasn’t always that way. The Civil Rights museum deserves its own post. Then Katrina and whether New Orleans was worth saving – then Ferguson and what “Black Lives Matter” really means – and then, because I want to end on a positive note, a post about the beauty of the South and some interesting interactions that I had with Southerners.
But before we get to the sweet tea – we have to drink the bitter tea of Jim Crow. Warning – there is a very disturbing picture that includes the charred remains of a lynching victim at the end of this post – so, you might not want to read past the part about Kendra’s grandma if that would be disturbing to you. There is also use of the “N” word when quoting a political leader.
Camp Ford was in Tyler, Texas. First it was to train confederate soldiers – as battles started moving west they brought prisoners of war. By July 1864 it peaked at 5,000 prisoners – more than any other camp west of the Mississippi. The townsfolk were nervous about such a large group of Union men from the beginning. After the first large group of 800 prisoners was brought to Camp Ford – there was a panic that they might break free because of the lack of defenses. After that a large stockade was built to keep them contained.
What happened next was just a preview of how cruelly White folks in the south could be when they no longer felt like they had firm control of the Black population. After a few fires had started in town – some Northerners who were new to town were blamed. As would happen many times in the south over the next 100 years – this relatively small provocation would bring great violence down on anyone who was suspected of being aligned against the status quo. Hundreds of Blacks were tortured – supposedly to find out information about a Northern plot that everyone was sure that these fires proved was occurring. When they had no information to give – on the non-existent plot – they were killed. Many of them were burned at the stake. Apparently these executions were attended by many of the townsfolk – as if it were reason for celebration. These are the kinds of stories that scare me about the South.
As I said – this was only the beginning. In May, 1866 in Memphis there was a much larger riot. It started as a confrontation between white police officers and Black soldiers. The soldiers were awaiting being released from their duty and having a good time in town. The police officers – mostly Irish who were competing with Blacks for jobs in town – didn’t like any Blacks, especially those in official looking uniforms. There had been several confrontations between these two groups. The police had tried to embarrass the Black soldiers – even attempting to arrest some of their wives at one event as prostitutes. The elite of the city apparently took advantage of this naturally occurring animosity. Several rumors were planted in the Irish population that the Blacks were arming themselves and planned to take revenge. So, the Irish – along with many other Whites decided to take action themselves.
After yet another confrontation a mob formed after a speech by a local official who said – “everyone of the citizens should get arms, organize and go through the Negro districts,” and that he “was in favor of killing every God damned nigger”…”We are not prepared now, but let us prepare and clean out every damned son of a bitch of a nigger out of town…”Boys, I want you to go ahead and kill every damned one of the nigger race and burn up the cradle.” It was no longer about confronting the Black soldiers – it was about an attempted genocide. The word “holocaust” comes from Greek – holo meaning whole and caust meaning burnt. Over the next 24 hours “46 blacks and 2 whites were killed (one wounded himself and the other was apparently killed by other whites), 75 persons injured (mostly black), over 100 persons robbed, 5 black women raped, and 91 homes (89 held by blacks, one held by a white and one by an inter-racial couple), 4 black churches and 12 black schools burned.” (Ryan, The Memphis Riots of 1866).
In New Orleans a few months later – there was a similar incident. There wasn’t as much damage to Black neighborhoods, but 44 Blacks were killed. Both the New Orleans and Memphis riots gave rise to the “radical reconstructionists” in Congress. They said that these events showed that there needed to be more federal control over the South. That congress needed to guarantee certain rights to the newly freed slaves – including the right to vote. Northerners came South – looking to either help make these changes for the good of the freedmen or simply to make money – they were called “carpetbaggers.” It was kind of a mess. But what was the federal government supposed to do? Let white southerners murder Blacks indiscriminately?
The reaction from the South was brutal. Since their ability to suppress Blacks was limited in many ways – they turned to a new organizations like the Klu Klux Klan and The White League. The main goals of these organizations were to get Republicans (usually “carpetbaggers”) out of office and intimidate Blacks from voting. Violence was the main way that these goals were carried out.
143 years ago yesterday in Colfax, Louisiana (April 13, 1973) a group of White militia, who would eventually become The White League attacked the state militia, which was made up of mostly Black men. The militia was overpowered and eventually surrendered. The group of Whites killed over 100 of these men after they surrendered.
Eventually the Republicans in the North gave in to the Democrats in the South. Much of the reconstruction era had relied on Federal troops and the Freedsmen’s bureau to protect the rights of Blacks. In 1877, the new President Rutherford Hayes, having made a deal with the Southern Democrats, removed all Federal troops from Southern capitals.
Of course, even though the members of these groups claimed they just fighting to keep the North out of their affairs – they immediately turned to making laws which eventually became known as Jim Crow. Laws which made it much more difficult for Blacks to vote. By 1910 in Louisiana only 700 Black men were registered to vote – Black people were a majority in Louisiana. Of course Jim Crow was much more than just about voting – it was about education, access to bathrooms, drinking fountains, hotels, restaurants, transportation, etc . . .
My wife’s grandmother is 96 years old – she was born in Mississippi in 1919. Once we were visiting her in Chicago. Kendra and her aunt went out to get something, which left me alone with her grandmother for about 20 minutes. Of course I took the opportunity to find out what it was like to grow up as a Black person in Mississippi in the 1920’s. She told me how they lived on a farm owned by a White man. Her father was responsible for farming a certain number of acres as a sharecropper – in return he had a small plot of land where he could grow vegetables and keep animals.
Kendra’s grandma said that they canned 365 jars of vegetables per year – so that they knew that whatever happened they wouldn’t ever go hungry. Her father was supposed to receive compensation for what he farmed, but most years the White man gave him nothing. Somehow her father had saved up enough money to buy a plow. After several years he decided that he needed to move his family – he attempted to bring along his plow. The white owner told him that he understood that he had bought it, but that he couldn’t let him take it because the owner needed it. He had no recourse to keep his property. If he had complained to the local sheriff he probably would have been threatened somehow just for asking that his property rights be respected.
My reaction was “so, basically it was still slavery.” Just after that Kendra and her aunt walked in the door. Kendra asked, “so what have you guys been talking about?” Kendra’s grandma said “Ben’s been talking about slavery.” Kendra gave me a stare that said “that’s the last time I leave you alone with my grandma.”
I could write more about the race riots that occurred across the country from the end of the Civil War up to the present day. To be honest though – I’d rather move on to a happier topic. I would encourage you to read about the “Red Summer” of 1919.
I leave you with one last picture, from the city where I live – Omaha, Nebraska. It’s from 1919 during that “Red Summer” where there was an incredible amount of violence across the country. Much of the violence seemed to come from the fact that returning Black soldiers from WWI felt that given their service to the country that they would now be accepted as equal citizens. As before, Whites looked for any reason to show Blacks that they would always occupy the bottom of society. A Black man was accused of raping a White woman. Rather than allowing the courts to decide his guilt – a mob of 10,000 men gathered – took the man, Will Brown, from his cell and lynched him. And then they burned his body. Below is a picture of the white mob gathered around the charred remains of Will Brown. What is most disturbing is how many of them are smiling. As if they have just done a deed that they should be proud of. This picture could have been taken in Memphis in 1866 or from any of the over 4,000 lynchings of Black people estimated to have occurred between the end of the Civil War and 1950. Many times there were pictures like this made – with smiling White men – some of them were even made into postcards.