by Roberta Harold
“…history is literally present in all that we do.” 1
What African-Americans have known forever is now becoming crystal-clear to the rest of us: a lot of people, and their descendants, never really got over the loss of their slaves. Or at least of the benefits and privileges that a slave-based economy and society brought their way.
I’m not merely singling out Southerners: as history makes clear, a large proportion of Northern (and, for that matter, British) manufacturing and brokerage wealth was tied up in slave-produced goods — cotton and tobacco, to name only the most obvious. Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, nearly beaten to death by a South Carolina Congressman on the floor of the U.S. Senate for his anti-slavery views, spoke of the “unhallowed union … between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.”
Case in point: an examination of the antebellum history of New York City reveals a large and organized movement of a thousand or more of its “Cotton Whig” merchant princes to try to keep anti-slavery forces from jeopardizing their business relationships with Southern planters.2 Only when the southern states made the first moves by seceding did these businessmen rally round the cause of the Union forces, recognizing the threat that outright secession posed to their enterprises. Eventually, most of them got behind the Union’s evolving anti-slavery agenda as well.
The surrender of the Confederate armies at Appomattox and Bennett Place brought formal hostilities to an end. The Freedmen’s Bureau set out to help displaced plantation workers — upwards of four million slaves freed by the War — obtain the education and resources they would need for self-sufficiency. Three Constitutional amendments formally abolished slavery, established the right of citizenship by birth, universal manhood suffrage, and “equal protection” of the law.
But the history of Reconstruction and its aftermath is a history of broken promises. Take the very beginning: at the Grand Review of the Union’s victorious troops in the streets of Washington a month after Lincoln’s assassination, there wasn’t a soldier from any of the nearly 200,000 USCT (United States Colored Troops) in sight, despite their crucial role in turning the tide of the war. Those same troops had had to wait a year and a half or more to be accorded the same pay as white soldiers, and all of their commissioned officers were required to be white. Many initially endured the mockery and scorn of the white Union regiments they fought beside — until those taunts were silenced in the face of their courage and self-sacrifice in battle, as in the heroic charge of the 54th Massachusetts regiment at Fort Wagner depicted (more or less accurately) in the 1989 film “Glory.”
The Freedmen’s Bureau was underfunded, understaffed and under-mandated. Northern manufacturers felt as strong an interest as many Southerners in re-establishing the plantation operations that kept cotton, tobacco and other raw materials flowing towards Northern factories. The Union’s military occupiers, unsure of what to do with and for the freed slaves, anxious about the possibilities for civil disorder, all but forced many of them back into plantation labor, albeit for wages.
The land the former slaves had worked, and which many had hoped to farm as free people, was given back for the most part to its original owners in the spirit of white reconciliation promoted by President Andrew Johnson and his allies.3 The Freedmen’s Bureau was abolished in 1872, due in great part to Southern white pressure, and with the brokered presidential election of 1876, Reconstruction formally came to an end.
Perhaps worst of all, the former slave-owning interests came back in force to re-establish white hegemony and ensure that freed black people, if no longer legally enslaveable, were kept powerless. Douglas Blackmon’s excellent 2008 history, Slavery by Another Name4, sets forth the results of his meticulous research on the systematic disenfranchisement and deprivation of other fundamental rights for black people during the “Jim Crow” era in the former slave states.
Most ominously, white violence in the post-Civil War period, exemplified by the Ku Klux Klan, enforced racist ideology, culminating in a culture that condoned and even celebrated the lynching of black Americans and others judged to have committed crimes against white hegemony. Lynching of black people in the South peaked, not in the immediate post-war period, but in the 1890s, and persisted into the 20th century, coincident with the rise of the Lost Cause ideology.
Promulgated widely by former Confederate officers and memorial associations, the Lost Cause elevated Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson to near divinity, portrayed Southern soldiers as noble defenders of an honorable set of traditions, and characterized slaves as for the most part happy and contented until set adrift without the mental capacity and skills to handle the freedom brought by Emancipation.
Ta-Nehisi Coates summarized the myth-making in a recent Atlantic article: “For over a century, Hollywood has churned out well-executed, slickly produced epics which advanced the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War. These are true ‘alternative histories,’ built on ‘alternative facts,’ assembled to depict the Confederacy as a wonderland of virtuous damsels and gallant knights, instead of the sprawling kleptocratic police state it actually was.”5 Remember Gone with the Wind?
It was in the heyday of the Lost Cause period that many of the statues to Confederate leaders and military officers went up all over the South, and even found their way into the halls of Congress: a dozen such statues were sent by Southern states to Statuary Hall in the Capitol between 1909 and the early 1930s.6 Sentimental newsreels chronicled the poignant 50th and 75th reunions of the survivors of Gettysburg, old soldiers united now in their common heroism and in the nobility of the respective causes for which they fought.7 Not a single black veteran was included in these and other celebrations of soldierly camaraderie.
The brutal repression of African-Americans in the rural South resulted in the first Great Migration to the North between 1916 and 1930, “one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements in history,” as Nicholas Lemann characterized it.8 Woodrow Wilson, justly discredited as an active racist despite his many other enlightened accomplishments, re-established segregation in the U.S. Civil Service and systematically deprived African-Americans of many of the leadership positions they had obtained there.9 And even our beloved state capital in Vermont hosted a KKK rally in 1927.10
We like to think we’ve come a long way since all that, in the wake of the civil rights movement and the adoption of formal U.S. laws and policies against racial discrimination in the days of JFK and LBJ. White supremacism, for a while and in public, became “The Hate that Dare Not Speak its Name,” to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. And at least on the civic and economic level there have been substantial gains for many descendants of America’s enslaved people. But the numbers on poverty, incarceration, capital punishment, police violence, and the continued yawning gap between white and black household incomes and other indicators of health and well-being speak volumes. There are damn few of us white people, I’d venture to say, who’d gladly exchange their identity for a black one.
Overt racism and white supremacist ideology never went away; they just went underground. U.S. Presidents and political leaders from FDR on, if not as courageous and enlightened as the likes of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, were at least for the most part men of decency and good will. The conspicuous exception was, not surprisingly, Richard Nixon with his “Southern Strategy” of mobilizing racist white “Dixiecrat” voters to turn Republican and using the “War on Drugs” to criminalize black people and anti-war protesters.11 But in that period, for the most part, it was hard to be out in public as a bigot.
Until now. Charlottesville is a slap in the face and a wake-up call (though, as someone said in its wake, one which has been ringing since about 1640; it’s just that we’ve kept hitting the snooze button.)
When we have a President who, as though refusing to condemn racist and supremacist ideology weren’t bad enough, equates it with the views and ideals of those who’ve struggled and bled and died in the fight against it, it feels like a massive backwards slide. It feels as if it’s empowering that kind of hatred. And he’s not alone in blame. I can’t forget Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s vow that his top priority would be to ensure that our newly elected first black President would be a “one-term president”12 and, more recently, his relentless Captain Ahab-like attack on what had become known as Obamacare, with no constructive plan to replace it.
But here’s the good part: I think it’s finally dawning on us that in some very real respects the Civil War is not over and, worse yet, it wasn’t a clear victory for the good guys. Our history since 1865 has been one long and painful struggle towards “a more perfect union” and “a new birth of freedom.” As the events of the last weeks have made clear, we’ve still got a long, hard way to go.
1 James Baldwin, “Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes,” in Ebony, 1966
2 See, for example, Philip S. Foner’s Business and Slavery: The New York Merchants and the Irrepressible Conflict (University of North Carolina Press, 1941) and Thomas H. O’Connor’s Lords of the Loom: The Cotton Whigs and the Coming of the Civil War (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968)
3 See David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2001) and Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction, Harper Perennial, 1990
4 See Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (Random House, 2008) and Rayford W. Logan, The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson (DaCapo Press, 1965)
5 Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Lost Cause Rides Again,” in The Atlantic, August 4, 2017
6 Gillian Brockell, “How Statues of Robert E. Lee and Other Confederates Got into the U.S. Capitol,” Washington Post, August 17, 2017
8 Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
9 See, for instance, Dick Lehr’s “The Racist Legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” in The Atlantic, November 27, 2015
11 Dan Baum’s report of his interview with former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman in 1994: https://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/