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“His complexion is hybrid; his hair ditto; his mouth disproportionately large, as compared with his stomach; his neck short; but his head round, compact, and betokening a solid understanding.” — Herman Melville,  from “The ‘Gees”

pulitzer finalistBefore continuing our interview with Philip Dray, author of Capitol Men, I’d like to make clear the above is satire. The story, or sketch, was first published, without attribution, in the March 1856 issue Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Amazingly, Cornell University— alma mater of Jewish Brooklyn-native, Leo Frank (1906), infamously lynched in Georgia in 1915; the great photographer Frederick Sommer (1927); songwriter Thomas Pynchon (1959); and the Cuban-Irish pride of Linden Boulevard, Richard Farina (1962)— has archived Harper’s from 1850-1899, so it’s possible to read “The ‘Gees” in its original form, if so inclined. Walt Whitman did not write any such satires, because he actually believed in the “scientific racism” Melville was mocking but the Whitman Myth would rather not recall that and numerous other discomfiting facts about the shaggy bard, alas. Dray, of course, wrote about Leo Frank in At The Hands of Persons Unknown, and a still staggering number of other victims of mob violence, most of whom were black.

leo frank’s ripAs noted in Part One of this interview, David S. Reynolds’ Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography is a good place to learn about the real Uncle Walt, the one whose private beliefs and public evasions, in part, made a book like Capitol Men both so necessary and so long in coming. Likewise, I must again draw attention to A Covenant With Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn by Craig Steven Wilder, now a Professor of History at MIT. The last time I had looked, Wilder was at Dartmouth, oddly enough, an institution which makes a surprise appearance in “The ‘Gees.”

Brian Berger:  As forgotten as the events and achievements of Reconstruction became, one remained notorious: the Ku Klux Klan. It seems one of the terrible ironies of history that emancipation unleashed these forces also. Aside from my renewed outrage, I was somewhat surprised the Klan could operate so freely— I thought the freedmen’s value as cheap labor was significant enough that their general welfare would concern the gentry. I’m thinking too of the paternalism of sharecropping, not to suggest it was benign like Southern myth sometimes pretends but that there was some security there, just as the maltreatment of slaves was— if nothing else— bad business.

not a welcome sightPhilip Dray: That’s a very good question about the Klan being allowed to run amuck.  The answer is difficult because the Klan and its imitators were spread widely over the South, and local circumstances often varied.  To generalize, they were often most active in areas not where there were large plantations but where whites and blacks competed as small farmers; the best comparison would be in South Carolina, where the more affluent lowcountry by the ocean with its vast rice plantations and busy port at Charleston was far less hard hit by Klan violence than the more hardscrabble upcountry, the interior of the state around Spartanburg and York County.  The Sea Islands, which were dominated by blacks, were also relatively Klan-free.  There are recorded instances of whites seeking federal help in protecting black neighbors and tenants from the Klan, but another important thing to bear in mind is how insidious and well-peopled the Klan was, how novel a form of terrorism they represented with their disguises and midnight raids, and how this confounded anyone who tried to intervene.  As is well-documented, they were thoroughly intimidating to local law enforcement and other civic leaders, who living in a Klan-infested environment were more than likely to play along, actively join the Klan, or at least keep their heads down.  For one thing, even moderate whites on some level tended to agree with the motivating premise of Klan activity, as much as they might utter a tsk tsk once in awhile.  If you were a white Republican residing in an isolated rural Southern village in the 1870s, with the nearest federal troops miles away, you would have to be very brave or suicidal to stick your neck out.

Where you did see mainstream whites finally object to mistreatment of blacks was in the post-Klan era, say 1874-79, when efforts by Red Shirts and White Liners to dislodge blacks from specific areas finally led to the big planters and the more moderate editorial writers warning that scaring off the source of cheap, reliable labor was a mistake. That’s where you get into the Wade Hampton/Red Shirt split in South Carolina.  A Hampton/Red Shirt alliance had driven Reconstruction from the state, but afterwards as governor Hampton became upset that the Red Shirts were insatiable in their eagerness to obliterate blacks as voters and to treat them like hell.  The Red Shirt response was to finaworse than slavery?gle to send Hampton off to the US Senate, where he would be out of the way.

One final note on this is that the overall clout of the wealthy planters was much reduced after the war.  They were often put on the defensive for selling parcels of land to blacks.  So this no doubt contributed to the ease with which the Klan operated – obviously such white yeoman violence against slaves on such a scale would not have been accepted pre-war.

Brian: The Supreme Court’s Cruikshank decision— the end of the attempts to prosecute at least some of those responsible for the Colfax Massacre— seems so ridiculously wrong it’s hard to fathom. Looking at it today, does it seem defensible in any way or was  it really an emotional/instinctive attempt to maintain racial status quo of the time?

Phil: It was one of those Supreme Court rulings, such as Dred Scott (1857), Plessy v Ferguson (1896) and Civil Rights Cases (1883), among several others of the 19th century, that were simply bad (from our perspective), made by courts willing to parse language in such a way that suited their purpose in gutting the protections Congress had tried to establish in the Enforcement Acts and the 14th amendment and assorted civil rights bills.  These decisions were guided by justices’ frustration with the idea of the federal government’s being responsible for blacks, and with the expansion of federal powers and what were derided as federal police powers that had characterized Reconstruction generally. In their day these rulings were often criticized only by marginalized liberal voices, such as the North American Review or occasionally the Times.  For the most part the country tended to agree that the Congressional offerings of Reconstruction had gone too far. Similarly, legislation proposed in Congress in the late 19th century to improve public education in the South was hooted down (out of fear it would bring integration in classrooms), as was a bill to better protect minority voting.  Both of course would have been welcome changes, of course.

Flash forward to 1954 and you have the strong negative reaction in the South to Brown v Board of Ed, resistance that sparked the formation of the Citizens Councils and overall saw the region dig in its heels for the civil rights movement they feared lay ahead

thaddeus stevensBrian: Besides the Capitol Men themselves one of the most compelling figures you write about is Thaddeus Stevens, who was not only a voice for Emancipation but that rare advocate for equality as well. What do you think of Stevens and who were his greatest allies and foes?

Phil: Stevens is an amazing figure.  Probably one of the scariest-looking pols in US history.  He actually was suspected in his hometown of Lancaster PA of having murdered an indigent black woman, presumably because she was some jilted lover or vice-versa.  He did cohabit with another black woman for the rest of his life, and left her his estate.  As for his politics he was one vengeful SOB, thought the South deserved a complete makeover, that the planter class belonged in Hell, etc.  He was certainly on the opposite side of someone like Andrew Johnson, who saw the Civil War as a misunderstanding between siblings that, when over, just required some TLC; Stevens saw it as an act of treason and wanted its perpetrators scorched, while giving land to the freedmen.  Stevens of course led the impeachment of Johnson in 1868.  My sense of Stevens is that he was valued as someone willing to stake out bold, radical positions, but that most of the time he was left hanging, as others more moderate than he were actually in control.

Brian: A lot of people might not be aware of the overlap between the post-war civil rights era and the suffrage movement, specifically as it concerned the 15th Amendment. I daresay you needn’t be a cynic to see that there are still schisms/conflicts between those who are more concerned with race than gender or vice-versa. Is this an accurate observation and, if so, how did it manifest in the next century’s myriad civil rights struggles? Can it be extended to the contentious Obama v. Clinton battle?

constitutional lawPhil: A good question.   As you know, the women’s suffrage movement had backed abolition wholeheartedly, and was angry when the postwar laws and amendments extended rights to black men only.  The women had hoped – and I think this was likely true of many people and is largely forgotten – that Reconstruction would mean a far broader renovation of American society than black empowerment alone.  At the time the male reformers basically told the women to wait their turn, that the nation could only countenance black suffrage for the time being.  There was some ugly backlash, as women pointed out that barefoot, illiterate “Sambo’ was getting the vote before “the daughters of Jeall the people!fferson and Madison, etc.”  The women were urged to have faith that their turn would come soon, but it took another half-century (1920).  As for the race/gender thing, and Obama/Clinton, I guess one could say that race has always cut a deeper groove than women’s rights, although I’m a little unsure where the zeitgeist or demand for a black or a woman candidate leaves off and the personal traits and appeal of these individuals takes over.  Also, part of Obama’s appeal seems to me to be that he’s sort of a composite of different races and backgrounds.

Brian: President Grant seems a mostly well-intentioned bumbler who is, nonetheless, pretty overmatched by the job of the Presidency. At the same time, there’s something to be said for his stolidity— better less-than-inspired than a total fuck up. What are the most notable successes and failures of Grant and how would you compare him to the other General-turned-President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would also preside over important Civil Rights issues?

general grantPhil:  I have a soft spot for Grant, maybe because I’m a fan of his war memoirs, which make such great reading.  He was everything people complained about— a boozer, a taker-of-gifts, a guy who liked talking horses more than politics— but, although hardly consistent, he did basically support Reconstruction and expanded civil rights. As Frederick Douglass said in defending why blacks should stick with Grant, “He is the raft, everything else is the sea,” or something like that.  One hang-up for Grant was that he didn’t want to re-ignite the Civil War; he was sensitive to charges that he was a man of violence, an “American Caesar,” so he tended to be less gung-ho where physical confrontation or the use of US troops was involved down South.

jfk & ike, 1961There are some similarities with Ike, although Ike did not preside over nearly as turbulent an era as Reconstruction.  I don’t believe Ike approved of Brown v Board of Ed, but then he did send federal troops into Little Rock, the first time troops were sent to police the South since the 1870s.  Truman was really the big breakout guy on civil rights, desegregating the military, etc.  Then when Lyndon Johnson was added to JFK’s ticket, people worried that he was a redneck, but of course he wound up leading the greatest expansion of civil rights laws in 100 years.  So maybe it’s more the times than the man.

Brian: The story of P.B.S. Pinchback, taking place as much of it does in Louisiana, brings to the fore the issue of mixed-race heritage & its attendant taxonomy of quadroons, octaroons, etc. In what ways do we see the darkness of skin and “purity” of African heritage effect Capitol Men? Do we have any sense of whether their constituents viewed the different Capitol Men in certain ways based on their particular racial mix or did they recognize their commonality foremost?

robert brown elliottPhil: It was their mixed racial heritage that had in many cases given the Capitol Men their leg up on opportunity in the postwar South.  Pinchback, Bruce, Smalls, and others certainly benefited from having not been reared as field hands.  They had social intercourse with whites, perhaps a white parent in the picture, could read, and/or had been educated.  The fact that whites also were more at ease around mixed race politicians was seen when Robert Brown Elliott of South Carolina came to prominence; his undiluted “African” features made his strident words even more unsettling to whites.  Of course it could cut both ways.  The Exoduster movement of the late 1870s saw black sharecroppers and others of modest means speak out against those light-skinned black politicians who disapproved of the Exodus, “educated tomcats” who’d let authority go to their heads and lost touch with the common folk.  And even a beloved figure like Robert Smalls was accused late in life by his own black constituents of excluding “African-looking” blacks from his patronage network in the Sea Islands.

Brian: As frustration with and anger towards the (Radical) Republicans grows, do the opponents of Reconstruction point out the pervasive inequities of the northern states or— Stevens and a few others aside— is racial equality hardly an issue, North or South?

philip dray capitol menPhil:  Yes, of course.  Any publicized act of racial intolerance in the North was seized on by Southerners as evidence of Northern hypocrisy.  This was true in Reconstruction as well as in the modern era.  In the 1870s and 1880s Southerners made much of the fact that West Point was having trouble getting white cadets to accept black cadets; later any Northern lynching was pointed to as evidence that “red blood runs hot” everywhere, i.e. black men’s social transgressions drive whites North OR South to the same sort of response; and during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s Southern whites eagerly seized on the Harlem race riots of 1964 as a signal that the nation’s reforming urge should begin at home.  It’s interesting that from Reconstruction onward, New York City— its crime, slums, corruption, immorality, etc.— was often held up in debate by Southerners as the antithesis of a quiet, decent, law-abiding Southern community.

To Be Continued!

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