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“The proposition to put Negroes on a footing of political equality with white men is repugnant to the sense of the American people. They will never consent to share the profound title of ‘American citizen’ with an inferior and abject race.” — Theophilus C. Callicot, New York State Assemblyman from Kings County, 1860

philip dray capitol menIt wasn’t planned this way but the arrival of historian Philip Dray’s Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through The Lives of the First Black Congressmen (Houghton Mifflin) couldn’t have come at a more interesting time. While there’s much about Barack Obama that anarchists, anti-Death Penalty activists, anti-imperialists, Marxists, situationists, socialists, syndicalists and others on the principled Left should be wary of, the probable election America’s first half-black President will be a remarkable event thirty-six years after Brooklyn’s own Shirley Chisholm (the first black woman elected to Congress) made her exciting, guerilla run for the office— ready or not! And for all that Obama frustratingly isn’t, he remains only the third black U.S. Senator since Reconstruction. Even then—when Senators were still chosen by state legislatures— there were but two: Hiram Rhodes Revels (1870-1871) and Blanche Bruce (1875-1881), both Republicans from Mississippi.

shirley!The number of black Congressmen— Senators or Representatives— from the North during this period was precisely zero, by the way. Should this surprise you, look again at the works of Brooklyn’s all-purpose cipher and ersatz egalitarian, Walt Whitman, and see what he thought about black people. A few poetic flourishes aside, Uncle Walt had little cause to protest the words of Theophilus C. Callicot and others like them, so he didn’t. In fact, Whitman, wasn’t even an abolitionist; rather he was a Free Soil advocate, i.e. he was against the expansion of slavery in the West, a significant difference. If you’re curious what black people in Brooklyn themselves thought of this, you better ask someone else: Whitman “transcended” race mostly by ignoring it. For more, see David S. Reynolds sympathetic yet critical Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (1995) and Bed-Stuy native Craig Steven Wilder’s understandably less patient A Covenant With Color: Race And Social Power in Brooklyn (2000).

shirleyI mention this before talking about Dray’s new book because of the common misperception that Reconstruction was a Southern issue and that its “failure”—which belief was long accepted by many— was some sort of vindication of the North’s ethical superiority. It was no such thing. Rather, the impermanence of the advances following the 1870 ratification of the 15th Amendment giving black men the right to vote was America’s failure. Further, despite national indifference and hostility, Reconstruction  was indisputably the triumph, in one way or another, of every black man who voted, every black elected official and the people of all ethnicities and ranks who supported them. Capitol Men doesn’t shirk the terrors of Reconstruction for black Southerners— especially in the form of the Ku Klux Klan and other deadly mobs— but its detailed telling of the ambitions, struggles and achievements of those Reconstruction brought to power is an inspirational thing. Appropriately, Capitol Men is also a pleasure to read, with no small credit due the teller and his 50,000 pairs of scarlet pantaloons, a striking figure which refers to the mooted uniform needs, in 1862, of Union Army units to be comprised of liberated Confederate slaves.

dray in dyker heightsBut who is Philip Dray that our collective pantalooned past is any of his business? To some, he’s best known as a musician and No Wave luminary, first with Information (recently  reformed to open for a likewise one-time-only resurrection of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks), then as a co-founder, with his Information bandmate, Chris Nelson, of the still active The Scene Is Now. Somewhere in there, Dray was also a part-time member of Mofungo (for whom Village Voice food writer Robert Sietsema played primitive bass and designed many provocative flyers) and the writing partner of Seth Cagin. Together Dray and Cagin authored three books: Born To Be Wild: Hollywood and the Sixties Generation (1984); We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi (1988); and  Between Earth and Sky: How CFCs Changed Our Lives and Endangered The Ozone Layer (1993).

electric warriorDray then went solo, debuting with Pulitzer Prize finalist At The Hands of Persons Unknown (2002), a history of lynching in America, and following it up with his comic masterpiece, Stealing God’s Thunder (2004), a study of Benjamin Franklin the scientist, particularly his work with electricity. Dray’s mordant yet warm hearted sense of humor is also evident in his popular contribution to New York Calling (2007), “I’m A Renter,” an episodic autobiography from the cold glam rock nights of his native Minnesota through the lost freedoms of 1980s Manhattan to a secret location on the Northside of Williamsburg, where he resides to this day.

Because of the length of this interview, it will run in parts. Conducted largely while traipsing amid the vine covered headstones of Acacia and Bayside cemeteries in Ozone Park, Queens, we begin our conversation there.

Brian Berger: The Civil War is an industry unto itself yet the issues and achievements of its aftermath, i.e. Reconstruction, are relatively little known. What was it about the period that drew you to this subject?

bury me not in baysidePhilip Dray: I was drawn to Reconstruction initially through my earlier book We Are Not Afraid, which was about the 1964 Klan-police murders in Mississippi of civil rights workers Andy Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner.The Mississippi civil rights movement of the 1960s had cleverly staged a “Freedom Vote” of disenfranchised blacks by using a long-forgotten state law, hatched during Reconstruction (1865-1877), that allowed for disenfranchised former Confederates to vote separately in the hope of eventually having their votes counted. It was a form of protest updated for a new and totally different cause.

More important, the federal prosecution of the lynch mob that had killed the three young men won convictions in 1967 using anti-Klan criminal statutes dating from Reconstruction. These laws were like valuables stashed away and neglected in the nation’s attic, but were still on the books and proved adaptable in allowing the feds to go after Southern hooligans in the 1960 (few Southern states would even investigate race-related violence, let alone prosecute it.) The Mississippi case in fact was the first conviction of a lynch mob since Reconstruction.

So I came away curious about this remote era that appeared both politically turbulent and idealistic, and the legacy it had bequeathed America in terms of Constitutional amendments, legislation, writing generally, and the rise of blacks as a political class.

The particular approach I took with this book was inspired by the image that appears on the cover. I happened upon the image, and read that prints of it had hung in black homes in the South well into the 20th century, yet few people today know who these men were. I think I recall searching online for a book about them, found there was none, and sort of moved on from there, wondering if I should write such a book.

tarpon springs, flaOf course the interesting thing about Reconstruction once you look into it is that its “history” has been one of the longest-running lies and misrepresentations in all US history. For decades Southerners (as well as the country at large) bought into the myth that Reconstruction had been an example of federal hubris and excess run amuck, the wayward attempt by the victorious North to punish the South for the Civil War, and in doing so to trample over what was sometimes called “the Southern Way of Life.” This, naturally, was code for the white domination of blacks, who, at least momentarily in Reconstruction, had managed to engage with American society. What ended Reconstruction was the South’s insistence that blacks relinquish the rights they had gained or sought – such as voting, better conditions of labor, education, the potential to own land, the securing of equal rights in public accommodations on trains and in hotels and theaters – and the North’s willingness to go along in the interest of national reconciliation. The negative spin on Reconstruction persisted even among scholars for a shameful number of years, really until the mid-20th century.

It’s worth mentioning that most of us today would not feel too terribly alien if we were plunked down in the midst of Reconstruction, and I suppose that’s also part of its “distant mirror” attraction for me. The period saw an effort to define and shape the modern American nation, and many of the burning issues of that time – newly powerful corporations, official cronyism and corruption, concerns about voting rights, the status of black people, and the waves of arriving immigrants, even terrorism (in the form of the Ku Klux Klan) would be familiar to us.

robert smallsBrian: Capitol Men begins with the story of Robert Smalls (1839-1915): a South Carolina slave— with free relatives nearby—who commandeers a boat to freedom and becomes a Union war hero in the process. Later, he’s a multi-term Congressman from South Carolina.

I think it still surprises people to realize there were some free blacks in the South, just as the importance of slavery in the north— in New York especially— is likewise forgotten. At the same time, very few people North or South considered blacks as equals. How did this dynamic— of reductionism on the one hand and inherited prejudice the other— effect the popular perception of Reconstruction and when did that start to change?

Phil: In a sense, what the North’s victory in the Civil War and federal efforts at establishing equal rights for blacks revealed was the wide gap that existed between what most whites thought of black people and how diverse and multi-faceted was the actual experience of blacks. It’s important to bear in mind that even midway through the Civil War most people, including President Lincoln, did not believe the four million slaves, if freed, could remain in the US. On the other hand, you had a broad galaxy of black lives – from chattel slaves to free blacks – and we’d see those differences come to the fore in Reconstruction when blacks were given the chance to enter public life. For one thing, Southern whites had allowed the black church to thrive, believing that it helped blacks accommodate themselves to the harsher aspects of their existence, but what they missed was that the church was a source of black literacy and even intellectual ferment.

savvy fairThey also underestimated the basic political savvy of even those held in bondage. As I cite in Capitol Men, whites both North and South were overwhelmingly surprised – and ultimately displeased – by the sophistication and political skills of those they had so recently viewed as sub-human. In the initial stages of Reconstruction, many Southern whites adopted what was known as the attitude of “masterly inactivity,” the confidence that if they stood back and allowed the North and its new black darlings to attempt governance, the failure would be so convincing, white authority would swiftly be restored. When this did not occur, of course, the whites turned to far more aggressive measures.

Robert Smalls can serve as an example of how singular an individual black’s experience could be. He was technically a slave, but his father was likely his owner, and as a boy he was treated fairly well and eventually sent to Charleston at the request of his slave mother. There he worked independently, earning his own living and giving part of his wages to his owner. Although he was illiterate, he was socially adept with whites, and trustworthy enough to be left in charge of a Confederate transport ship that he piloted. During the war he served the Union with distinction, his bravery and ingenuity more than once saving his life. Later, as a rising political star in South Carolina, he was known for his generosity to his former white owners and to whites generally. He built a vast system of black patronage in his native Sea Islands. Ashamed of his inability to read, he hired private tutors to gain the education he’d been denied.

Brian: The Capitol Men are all exceptional by definition; is there any way to generalize their relationship with the Freedmen Bureau (1865-1869), the government agency whose mission it was to assist newly manumitted blacks to establish themselves as full American citizens?

Phil: Technically the Bureau had been terminated by the time the black Congressmen came to Washington, although as the US government’s civilian relief and labor agency in the South right after the war, the coordinating agency for so much good stuff like education and public health, it had a high profile and most blacks engaged in politics or public life had some connection to it, often as teachers. Politically, one could say that the Bureau, as well as the Union League, served as a kind of bridge from slavery to citizenship for the freedmen and black leaders alike.

big daddyBrian: Richard “Daddy” Cain (1825-1887) was a charismatic, remarkable figure even in the company of the other Capitol Men. I don’t want to make too much of his being a Pastor at the Bridge Street A.M.E. church here in Brooklyn since he was peripatetic but that did strike me, especially with Henry Ward Beecher— the rock star of preachers—here then too at Plymouth Church. Is there any way to generalize Northern or even New York sentiment during Reconstruction? There were, I will note to our readers, no corresponding northern black Congressmen.

Phil: There were no blacks elected to Congress from Northern states until Oscar DePriest of Illinois in 1928. Something like 95% of all blacks in America in the mid-19th century lived in the South; it was there that they were able to amass large voting blocs to boost or leverage their leaders into Congress. “Peripatetic” is the key word in your question. The Civil War saw a great deal of movement, South to North, and back, as people of means or brains worked to balance allegiance to home with the need to avoid prejudice and persecution. Free blacks like Cain had always been viewed with contempt by white Southerners, and the harsh reality of the war in the South didn’t make their lives easier. Cain I believe was born in Virginia, educated in Ohio, and then was assigned a pastorate in New York. When he came to South Carolina after the war he was denounced as a carpetbagger, despite his Southern origins. Others, like Blanche Bruce and Hiram Revels, were also much on the move during the war, Revels from Indiana to Maryland to Missouri, Bruce from Virginia to Kansas, then to Ohio, finally to Mississippi. As my book suggests, the advent of Reconstruction and the opening of political and professional opportunities for blacks who were relatively educated and world-wise, such as P.B.S. Pinchback, Bruce, Revels, Cain, et al, served as a kind of siren song, drawing talented black men and women, the latter working as teachers or missionaries. Of course, many whites also poured into the region, looking to help and/or profit from the rebuilding of the region.

beecher pulpitBeecher was a major abolitionist but would prove a disappointment in Reconstruction, one of the first prominent Northern voices to fall in with the hype that blacks had overstepped their capabilities by becoming voters and elected officials, and that blacks generally must sink or swim on their own rather than look to federal support.

Northern and New York sentiment is tough to generalize. As you know, many New York hotels and theaters were segregated during the 19th century; in fact some of the first civil rights cases under the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which promised equality in public accommodations, were brought in New York City. Northern locales were a bit of a hodgepodge in terms of segregation ordinances related to schools, streetcars, hotels, etc.

As for feelings about Reconstruction, there was a honeymoon period in early Reconstruction when the North tended to be willing to allow reforms to go forward, but patience ran out as the South impeded these steps and it began to appear that Reconstruction itself was stalling the much-desired reconciliation of the nation. There’s a great observation by another historian that the North had enough moral grit to prosecute the Civil War, but not enough to see through the more complex challenge of Reconstruction. That’s it, in a nutshell. After the ratification in 1870 of the 15th amendment, giving blacks suffrage rights, many Northerners felt that Reconstruction’s work was done, and looked forward to moving on. Blacks had been the nation’s darlings now for years, and other issues— labor conflict, runaway immigration levels from Europe, corporate misbehavior and official corruption, even the Indian wars out west— begged for attention.

Brian: What do you make out of President Andrew Johnson? Was he just a too simple man is very complex time, i.e. he couldn’t adapt to even the idea of black equality, not that he was unique in that, from Walt Whitman— who actually worked in the Johnson administration— on down.

after LincolnPhil: I’m probably too hard on Johnson in the book. You’re right that he had the misfortune of being the wrong man for the job, and the public may have hated anyone who was not Lincoln at that stage. Unlike some of the big champions of Reconstruction like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, who were Northerners, Johnson came from Tennessee (the Unionist half) and probably felt he had a more realistic view of how easy it would be to insert four million freed slaves into American society. He was OK with emancipation but that was about it. Otherwise he thought that the planter class deserved a good butt-smacking but should probably be restored its authority; that the white yeoman class of the South should gain in power; and that the blacks should remain a cheap, landless, laboring peasantry with minimal rights, indeed that they were capable and deserving of little else. Of course this was out of step with the Republican bent of the postwar era, and because Johnson was no Barack Obama, i.e. he was disinclined to compromise, and was prone to take offense and lash out when challenged, etc., he was a poor successor to the genial intellect of a Lincoln.

Brian: What was the relationship between the Capitol Men and American’s two most famous blacks intellectuals, first their contemporary, Frederick Douglasss (1818-1895), and later W.E.B. Dubois (1868-1963)?

booker tPhil: We should probably include Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) in that mix. Douglass was the Capitol Men’s greatest cheerleader, warmly covering their activities in his newspaper, the aptly named New National Era. Douglass was in a way the century’s most eloquent and consistent personification of the whole emancipationist ethos – turning from abolitionist to recruiter of black fighters during the war; advocating for the postwar amendments that granted freedom, citizenship, and suffrage to the freedmen; arguing with blacks who wished to migrate out of the South, insisting they remain and defend their rights; and ultimately becoming the chief public mourner for the gutted Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had promised equality in daily life. He even put his personal funds up to try and help save the Freedman’s Savings Bank before it failed, one of the signal disappointments of Reconstruction.

Du Bois is of course a later figure. His strongest connection to Reconstruction is likely his book, Black Reconstruction, which was published in 1935 and was the first scholarly shot across the bow of “accepted” Reconstruction historiography. In its day it was not much noticed or appreciated, but was later hailed as a genius work of much-needed revision. Du Bois wrote sympathetically of the Capitol Men and black politicians generally; they certainly would have been superb examples of his famous theory of a “Talented Tenth,” that the whole race would benefit from the guidance and example of the “best men.”

Washington was interesting in that, while he celebrated the accomplishments of black leaders and politicians, he became known for his great “Atlanta Compromise” speech of 1895 at the Atlanta Cotton Exposition, where he exhorted blacks to “set your buckets down where they are,” i.e. remain in the South, distinguish yourselves as workers, and give up for the time being the increasingly painful struggle for greater civil rights. Washington’s message was a 180 degree switch from that of Douglass, who died that same year, but it was enormously popular with whites. With Douglass’s passing Washington became the nation’s leading black figure, a prominence he would enjoy at least until about 1910, when Du Bois and the newly founded NAACP, which resuscitated the old bi-racial, abolitionist, Frederick Douglass themes of growth through demand and advocacy.

 Continued in… Part II

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