Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Live at America’s Town Hall
On May 7, host Jeffrey Rosen sat down with Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to celebrate the opening of the National Constitution Center’s new permanent exhibit – ‘Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality.’ The exhibit is America’s first devoted to exploring how constitutional clashes over slavery set the stage for the Civil War, and how the nation transformed the Constitution after the war with the addition of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Professor Gates discussed the new exhibit in addition to his PBS series about Reconstruction and two new books—Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow and a young adult book Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow. Gates told the story of the advancements of Reconstruction and the Reconstruction Amendments, how those advancements were thwarted by Jim Crow laws like poll taxes, vagrancy laws, and the rise of hate groups, how the Civil Rights Movement fought against that backlash, and how we are still dealing with many of these issues and challenges today.
If you enjoy this episode, please listen and subscribe to our companion podcast Live at America's Town Hall—live constitutional conversations held here at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and across America—on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. An Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has authored, co-authored, and created numerous books and documentary films, including his newest book Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow and the PBS series Reconstruction: America After the Civil War.
Jeffrey Rosen is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Constitution Center, the only institution in America chartered by Congress “to disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a nonpartisan basis.”
Our Interactive Constitution is the leading digital resource about the debates and text behind the greatest vision of human freedom in history, the U.S. Constitution. Here, scholars from across the legal and philosophical spectrum interact with each other to explore the meaning of each provision of our founding document.
This episode was engineered by Jackie McDermott and David Stotz, and produced by Jackie McDermott and the Town Hall team of the National Constitution Center – Tanaya Tauber, Madison Poulter, and Lana Ulrich.
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Jackie McDermott: [00:00:00] Hi, We The People listeners. I'm Jackie McDermott, the producer of We The People. Today we're giving you a sneak peak of next week's episode of our companion podcast, Live At America's Town Hall, live constitutional conversations held here at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and across America. On Tuesday, We The People host Jeffrey Rosen sat down with Professor Henry Louis Gates for a conversation about his new series and two new books about Reconstruction. They also celebrated the opening of the National Constitution Center's new exhibit, Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality.
If you enjoyed this conversation, please listen and subscribe to Live At America's Town Hall on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen, and join us back here next week for our regular weekly show of constitutional debate here on We The People. Enjoy the show.
Jeffrey Rosen: [00:01:01] I'm Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, and welcome to We The People, a weekly show of constitutional debate. The National Constitution Center is a nonpartisan nonprofit chartered by Congress to increase awareness and understanding of the constitution among the American people. Dear We The People friends, this week, which is the week of May 6th, the National Constitution Center opened the first permanent gallery in America devoted to exploring the constitutional legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction. It's called Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality, and it tells the story of how the equality promise in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence was thwarted in the original constitution, resurrected by Lincoln and Frederick Douglass at Gettysburg and finally enshrined in the post-Civil War amendments to the constitution, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. It is a thrilling experience.
Please come to Philadelphia if you're able, and see it. It includes the flag that flew over Independence Hall in 1861 when Lincoln gave his famous speech saying he'd rather be assassinated on the spot than abandon the principles of the declaration. It includes Dred Scott's freedom petition, Frederick Douglass's inkwell, John Brown's pike, as well as interactives that allow you to explore the evolving texts of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, so you see that the original 13th amendment contained an equal protection clause. The original 14th amendment in an early draft would've protected political rights and an early draft of the 15th amendment would've forbade discrimination on the basis of education or property. It's such an exciting learning experience and I can't wait to share it with you if you're able to come to Philadelphia.
On Tuesday, May 7th, I sat down with Professor Henry Louis Gates for a conversation about Reconstruction and its evisceration in the period that Professor Gates calls Redemption. Professor Gates is the host of the phenomenal new PBS series, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. He's the author of the phenomenal new book, Stony The Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy and the Rise of Jim Crow, and our conversation was so electric that I wanted to share it with you this week to inspire you to learn even more about Reconstruction. Please enjoy Henry Louis Gates on Reconstruction and Redemption.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome upstairs at the National Constitution Center. You heard the passion of Professor Gates downstairs and of all of our colleagues, so we're just going to jump right into this conversation.
Henry Louis Gates: [00:03:58] I want to correct one thing that you said. You said that every school child in Philadelphia should see this exhibition. Every school child in America should see this exhibition.
Jeffrey Rosen: [00:04:08] Here, here. Absolutely right.
Henry Louis Gates: [00:04:09] This is the most amazing exhibition about Reconstruction that I've ever seen. I learned things on our tour that ... I had never seen the different drafts of the three Reconstruction amendments, so thank you and thanks, members of the board and all the people who support this marvelous center for making this education possible, because we never really have dealt with the issues raised by Reconstruction.
Jeffrey Rosen: [00:04:36] Thank you so much for that. I learned so much from that interactive, too. I'll ask you what you learned but also what you want Americans to know about those Reconstruction amendments themselves, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
Henry Louis Gates: [00:04:49] Well, one of the most interesting things ... The 13th Amendment, of course, abolished slavery. December 6th, 1865. Most people know it now because of Ava DuVernay's documentary who didn't know it before, because we were raised to think the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery and of course it didn't. Historians think maybe half a million formerly enslaved people were able to get behind union lines and therefore gain their freedom before the end of the Civil War, but the institution of slavery was only abolished by the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The 14th, as you said so eloquently, the Equal Protection Clause, and birthright citizenship. You ever wonder where birthright citizenship came from?
Charles Sumner and his colleagues were trying to figure out what is the status of these people who had been property for a quarter of a millennium, a quarter of a millennium, and they came up with birthright citizenship, which was brilliant actually. And then, finally ... That's 1868, and then finally the ratification of the 15th amendment which effectively gave black men the right to vote. It said that race could not be used to prevent or prohibit any American from voting.
But what's very curious about the 15th Amendment is that Black people in the South who had been formerly enslaved and free in the 10 of the 11 confederate states got the right to vote three years before. This is a surprise ... It was a surprise to me when I started doing research for what became our series and it's a surprise, I think, for most of you, that if you were a former slave or had been free in the South, it was one of the four Reconstruction amendments that gave Black men the right to vote, and that was what we call the first freedom summer. The freedom summer of 1867 when 80.5% of all eligible Black men in 10 of the 11 confederate states registered to vote.
But here's the kicker. You know how we demonize the South as opposed to the North and we have a fantasy that there was no racism in the North? If you were free, I descend from three sets of free Negroes as we would have said and as they would have called themselves. Two sets were free by the outbreak of the American Revolution. The third set on my father ... on my mother's side ... The third set, my father's mother's side were free in 1823. They lived 30 miles from where I was born. I have a tremendous amount of stability in my family. It's now in West Virginia but it was in Virginia at that time.
And my fourth great grandfather, John Redman, actually fought in the American Revolution. Because of him ... He was a free Negro. Because of him, my brother, Dr. Paul Gates and I are members of the Sons of the American Revolution. Go figure, you know? Not exactly a predominantly Black organization, you know what I'm talking about? So, hold this in mind. West Virginia becomes a state. It joins the Union in the middle of the Civil War. It becomes a state June 20th, 1863, and they had ... my free Negro ancestors had cousins just across the border around Winchester, Virginia. Those cousins who had been enslaved got the right to vote three years before my free ancestors got the right to vote because in the North, Black men could only vote in the five New England states and in the state of New York if you satisfied a $250 property requirement.
Isn't that amazing? That is so shocking but it is true. And even when West Virginia became a state, they refused to give Black men in West Virginia ... There ain't that many Black men in West Virginia today, so, you know, we're only talking about a handful of people, but they refused to give them the right to vote. So it was those four Reconstruction acts that really laid the groundwork for citizenship and for the right to vote.
Now, I first studied Reconstruction ... I didn't study it at all in high school, in Piedmont, West Virginia, but I studied it at Yale. My sophomore year I took a two semester survey course, introduction to Afro-American history. Oliver, where are you? We were Afro-Americans at that time. You remember that, right? The professor, William McFeeley, who went on to get a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Ulysses S. Grant, had us read W. E. B. Du Bois's book, Black Reconstruction, published in 1935, and it was radical because it challenged the Dunning School of historians at Columbia University and they were part and parcel of the mythology of Reconstruction being a dismal failure and an embarrassment to the history of American democracy.
And Du Bois took on the Dudding school, and Eric Foner, the chief consultant to our series, is ... It's so ironic that he is our leading Reconstruction historian at Columbia University. It's almost as if ... I think he's about to publish his tenth book on Reconstruction on the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments which will be out in September. I think it's a personal mission for him to refute the terribly racist claims made by the Dunning school, his own predecessors in the history department at Columbia, and set the record straight. So McFeeley had us read Du Bois's book, Black Reconstruction, and then a book by Rayford Logan.
Now, most of you haven't heard of Rayford Logan, but Rayford Logan was the third or the fourth black man to get a PhD in history from Harvard. One time he was engaged to Letitia Gates who happens to be my great aunt, so I'm very biased about Rayford Logan, but he wrote a book called The Betrayal of the Negro, and it's about the period immediately following Reconstruction. Reconstruction, people argue about it, but generally accepted dates, 1865 to 1877. So Du Bois's book ends in 1877. Logan's book begins in 1877, and that is the period of the rollback to Reconstruction.
It takes a while to roll it back because Black men had an enormous amount of power. Black people were in the majority, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana. Almost in the majority, Florida, Alabama and Georgia. Florida, Alabama and Georgia. So there were 16 Black men elected to Congress between 1870 and 1877 including two United States senators. In South Carolina the speaker of the house, secretary of state, one of the great moments in the film, I go to Jim Clyburn's office and he has all the Reconstruction congressmen on his wall, and he could do a whole Black history lesson.
But systematically, step by step, the redemptionists, the former confederates, wrote “the South indeed rose again,” and they disenfranchised those Black men and they did it in such a clever way. What are you going to? 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments are ratified, right? So you can't get rid of them, but you could go around, and starting in 1890 was something called the Mississippi Plan. There were state constitutions which then unfolded over the next 16 years in each of the former confederate states and that's when they established poll taxes, literacy tests, comprehension tests that only a law professor could possibly understand.
You want to know how dramatically effective these state constitutional conventions were? Louisiana, one of the majority black states. In 1898, before their state constitutional convention, had 130,000 Black men registered to vote. The new constitution was ratified in 1898. By 1904 that number of 130,000 Black men registered to vote had been reduced to 1,342. There were 2,000 Black men elected to office according to Eric Foner during the Reconstruction period. The last Reconstruction congressman, George Henry White, bids farewell to the Congress in 1901 and there wouldn't be another Black man elected to the Congress until 1929 when Oscar De Priest from Chicago is elected to Congress. How is he elected to Congress? Because all those Black people took part in the great migration, went from Mississippi and particularly to Chicago, went from Mississippi and the other Southern states, north, and because of the 15th Amendment, they had the right to vote, and so they vote a Northerner in to the Congress.
So, my introduction to Reconstruction was coterminous with an introduction to its rollback, and that's why we made a four hour series. The first two hours are about Reconstruction, the great heights that Black people achieved just out of slavery, and this great moment when Lincoln's desire for a new birth of freedom was realized. Our first experiment with interracial democracy, and it was greeted by the rise of white supremacy. I said that the 13th was ratified December 6th, 1865. Ku Klux Klan was invented December, 1865. There were eight pogroms or massacres, major, between 1866 and 1876, starting in Memphis and in Hamburg, South Carolina in 1876.
So this was not an untroubled period. The Ku Klux Klan hearings, and all these volumes are online now and you could read them ... That's the closest that we've come in this country to a truth and reconciliation commission, when Grant sent troops to suppress the Ku Klux Klan, and they ask all these Black people who had been victimized by the Ku Klux Klan because they had been trying to vote. Women were raped. Black men were lynched. They were beaten. They were threatened. They were even bribed or there were offers of bribe to keep them from voting because they had so much power.
I think that the manifestation, the expression of all that power, not only scared the daylights out of the former South as you might expect, right? But I don't think the North was ready for all that Black power either, because the North was complicitous with the rollback of Reconstruction. Certainly you could see signs by 1872. 1873 is the first Great Depression in the United States. It's called the panic now. It's called the panic of 1873, but until the Great Depression starting in 1929, it was called the Great Depression.
They were looking around saying, “Do we really need to protect these slaves? Aren't they free? Can't they stand on their own feet?” How are you going to enslave people for a quarter of a millennium? 250 years they expect them to stand on their own feet after a mere 12 years, but that's exactly what happened. The Hayes Tilden Compromise, presidential election, 1876 was deadlocked. In 1877, the compromise ... One of the agreements of the compromise was federal troops would be ... The few remaining federal troops protecting Black people's right to vote would be withdrawn and Black people would be on their own.
The Supreme Court was complicitous. 1876, the Cruikshank decision and the death now ... Scholars argue about when Reconstruction was over. Black people basically had a funeral in a big church in Washington, 1883, right after the Supreme Court said that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which established equality, social equality as it was called then. Black people could ride in streetcars and stay in hotels and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Supreme Court said that was unconstitutional, and Frederick Douglass, Blanche K. Bruce, a former United States senator, John Mercer Langston, Richard T. Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard, all gathered in the church and the church was packed just like this. Langston spoke and they just said, “How could the country do this to us? How could they abandon us? How could they throw us to the wolves in the way that they have done?”
Du Bois said famously, if you want to think about the rise and fall of Black freedom, “The slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun and then moved back toward slavery again,” and that is the history of the rise and fall of Reconstruction.
Jeffrey Rosen: [00:19:15] Thank you for the most succinct, riveting and incredibly moving account of the rise and fall of Reconstruction I've heard. You have in the book the funeral that African Americans held for slavery after the Civil War and then to think that another funeral was held for Reconstruction after the Civil Rights decision is stunning. You have this picture in the book of the first colored senators and representatives in New York and then evisceration and what's so incredible about what you just said was how central the right to vote was. Now I understand why Frederick Douglass said that the right to vote was the most important of the group because African Americans were a majority in so many states and why the evisceration of the right to vote was the core of redemption. Tell us more about how the racist redemption-based backlash eviscerated the right to vote through Supreme Court decisions, through terrorist violence and through discriminatory laws like poll taxes and literacy tests.
Henry Louis Gates: [00:20:12] Oh, sure. But could you do me a favor? Could you hold up that-
Jeffrey Rosen: [00:20:15] Yeah, the picture. It's amazing.
Henry Louis Gates: [00:20:15] Lithograph. This Lithograph-
Jeffrey Rosen: [00:20:17] It's so moving.
Henry Louis Gates: [00:20:18] Is from 1872. I don't know if they could-
Jeffrey Rosen: [00:20:21] (crosstalk)
Henry Louis Gates: [00:20:21] (crosstalk)
Jeffrey Rosen: [00:20:21] In the back, maybe you can't quite (crosstalk)
Henry Louis Gates: [00:20:22] But it's famous. It's called “the first colored senator and the US representatives.” And do you know that during the Depression, the Federal Writers Project sent writers to interview former slaves? People obviously who would have been very, very young by the end of the Civil War are still alive in the 1930s, and in these very small ... Often they were former homes occupied by slaves on plantations, right? They found grease covered, faded copies of that 1812 lithograph. You know how the way the people ... You go to a Black home, there's Jesus and Martin Luther King? Now there's Jesus, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama, you know? They had that lithograph, and I've studied the history of that lithograph. Three of those men were born free and we tend to forget, and one was English.
Robert Brown Elliott was born free in Liverpool. There was so much action, so much excitement about Reconstruction that Elliott shows up in Boston. He's part of the British Navy. Born free in Liverpool, educated. He's part of the British Navy, shows up in Boston, hears about all this opportunity in South Carolina, goes to South Carolina. Richard Harvey Cain had been moved by the AME church from New York to revitalize Mother Emmanuel and you all know Mother Emmanuel because that's where the nine martyrs were so horribly murdered that day. Richard Harvey Cain, great entrepreneur, starts a Black newspaper and hires Elliott to work for him and then Elliott runs for the state legislature and then for the Congress.
When Richard Greener graduates from Harvard in 1870, endless opportunities. Does he go to New York? Does he go to Boston? Stay in Boston? Does he go to Philadelphia? No, he goes to Charleston, South Carolina, because that's where the action was. We can't imagine it today. You can't imagine how much promise and energy and optimism ... Think about it. Think about what that was like if you had been enslaved up to 1865. Endless arising, then boom, within 12 years, all gone. It's just horrible to contemplate. I was born in 1950. I often think ... Oliver, I'm sure you do too ... What it would have been like to be Black with the same capacities that we have now. You wouldn't have gone to Oxford. I wouldn't have gone to Cambridge. I wouldn't have gone to Yale. Where were you in undergraduate? At Lincoln. Oh, the historically black Lincoln University. Right on, my brother.
Of course you were. We would not have had those opportunities, and I could imagine the heartbreak. When you read the speeches made that day at that church in 1883 and then Douglass went to Lincoln Hall three days later and made another speech separately about the betrayal of the Negro, and you ask why would they do this? Well, what remained the leading export from the United States through the 1930s? Cotton. Somebody had to pick that cotton, and you were moving from an economy where labor was free, ostensibly, right? As performed by slaves, and it needed to be replaced to maximize profits with a form of what? Neo-slavery. So, sharecropping. Debt peonage. Vagrancy laws. You saw three black men, four black men on the street, they could be arrested, put on the chain gang.
You know all those images of chain gangs, that's where they all come from. Between 1889 and 1930 or so, 3,700 Black men are lynched in the name of ... Many, many, not all, but many accused of rape. Raping white women, right? Both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington pointed out that nobody was virtually accused of raping a White woman during the Civil War in the South when the masters were away fighting and the male slaves were back on the plantation. Think about that. Isn't that curious? Lynching was a trope that was invented as part of a larger white supremacist rhetorical superstructure.
One of the fascinating things that I figured out when we were making the series and particularly when I was writing the book was this was the time of America's first social media war. It was a battle between these confected images of Black people as thieves, liars, venal, deracinated Sambo art, we call it, and this book is full of ... Every chapter is followed by a visual essay comprised of these horrible images which we all have seen. It's called memorabilia now, but black skin, thick red lips, wide, white eyes with black pupils and wild hair, and these were Black men stealing chickens. Black people eating watermelons. Black people, male and female in every exaggerated, humiliating forb through which you can represent a human being. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of these images are produced after the fall of reconstruction and particularly in the 1890s.
Why in the 1890s? Technological accident. Chromolithography is invented earlier in the century but it becomes cheap in the 1890s so that you can widely distribute for color images in advertisements, trade cards, postcards, posters on games. So it was possible for a middle class White family from the time your alarm clock went off, because these images were everywhere ... You'd hit an alarm clock and you'd see Sambo staring at you on the alarm clock. You put your feet down in bedroom slippers and there would be a Sambo or Aunt Jemima figure staring up that had been embroidered into your bedroom slipper. You go to have breakfast and your tea cozy was a Sambo image. Your egg cups had Sambo images on them. You would go to work and you come home, one of the favorite parlor games, 10 Little Niggers. That was one of the favorite parlor games in America at that time.
Everywhere a White person saw an image of a Black person, it was of a Sambo. It was of this racist caricature. The whole point was to create a subliminal hypnotic effect so that when you ... My colleague, now departed, Barbara Johnson, who's a genius, once defined a stereotype as an already read text. Think about how brilliant that is. An already read text. What does that mean? I can look at you. You're black. I don't see you, I see Sambo. I see Aunt Jemima. I know exactly who you are because the society has confected an image superimposed on who you really are, and you are forced to live up to or down to, however you might want to put it, that racist image of yourself.
So what did Black people do? They fought back with their own concept called the new Negro. The talented (inaudible) , the educated Black people say, “All right, well, we can't win this war. Maybe what you're saying is true about the uneducated Black people, but we are educated, refined.” The concept starts in about 1890. I wrote the book and said it started in 1894 and a scholar wrote to me last week and said, “No, no, it started in 1877 and I got the essay,” so I said, “Okay, now it starts in 1877.”
But the point is they fought back this concept of Sambo with the concept of the new Negro, and the new Negro was everything that the so-called old Negro or Sambo or Uncle Tom wasn't. Du Bois even globalized the new Negro. W. E. B. Du Bois, first Black man to get a PhD from Harvard in history. The Paris World's Fair, it's called the Paris Exposition in 1900, Du Bois curated the Negro exhibit and he took 363 photographs of Black people, many of whom were not even visibly Black because he wanted to show the genetic diversity of the African American community and they're all, of course, upper class Black people because he's trying to defeat this racist image that had been created by the redemptionist movement with the rise of white supremacy.
It was true in art, it was true in novels, it was true in folklore. Even if you read Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus tales, and Joel Chandler Harris did a lot to preserve traditional Black folktale. Sometimes, though, he'll put words in Uncle Remus's mouth like, “Our people don't need the right to vote” or “We don't need all that education. That's a real mistake, a waste of energy.” It was true in the social sciences and it was true with racial science. You all know about the science of eugenics. Louis Agassiz. You know those horrible daguerreotypes that he made and a person who claims that they are descendant is suing Harvard for using those, but Agassiz, who was a professor of zoology, was a stone cold racist, man. I mean, that was the only way that you could put it.
So all these discourses were united. Science, social science, art, literature, politics, in order to put that genie back in the lamp. The genie of Black freedom. The genie of Black masculinity. The genie of the power of the vote, and it was devastatingly effective.
Jeffrey Rosen: [00:31:25] Could it have been otherwise? If the courts had ruled differently, if the election had come out the other way, if the compromise of 1876 hadn't happened? Could it have come out otherwise? What were the grounds of hope and tell us about the title of the book as well and the song that inspired it.
Henry Louis Gates: [00:31:43] One time I asked ... I'm on the board of the Aspen Institute and Madeleine Albright and Condi Rice are both on the board. So it was about the time when President Obama was opening up Cuba ... That door was open about five minutes and then it was shut again. My wife happens to be a Cuban citizen, and (inaudible) so I'm very partial to Cuba and now I can go as a family member, so nobody can stop me. I just check the family (inaudible) everything's cool. So I asked Madeleine and Walter Isaacson gave me the first question. So they were debating whatever they were debating. I asked them, “Which is more important in terms of ...” And I used Cuba as an example because it was contemporary. Giving people a right to vote or giving them economic freedom, right?
Predictably as you might imagine, Condi said, “One person, one vote first. Don't open up Cuba unless everyone can vote.” Madeleine said, “Economic opportunity. Economic independence. You give them that, the middle class will rise and sooner or later they will demand their rights.” Of course we can see this in China now and a couple other places where capitalism's ... I went to China in 1993. There were a billion bicycles. I went back 10 years later and there were a billion BMWs, you know? I'm like, “Whoa.” And I couldn't breathe either. It was like being in a time machine going back to London in Dickens' time. It rained. I went, “Oh, that's the sky,” you know? Environmental controls had not yet been implemented.
Why do I raise that? Because I used to wonder ... Remember that Booker T. Washington speech I cited downstairs when he said economics is more important than politics? We are willing to forego the right to vote if we can develop economically. We could be indispensable to the society. If a person, a tradesman or tradeswoman, a craftsman, craftswoman, is indispensable, then no one would ... Why would you discriminate against a brick mason in Philadelphia or locksmith or whatever it might be? But that was Booker T. Washington, but he was opposed to Frederick Douglass who said the most important thing was the right to vote.
So I used to, and I teach ... I love teaching. That's my day job, and I taught a course on Reconstruction and redemption. My PhD's in English so I teach in the English department and the department African American Studies. So this is about the concept of the new Negro leading up to the Harlem Renaissance which was in the 1920s originally called the New Negro Renaissance. So I asked the students to play with this. Give me a scenario where Booker T. Washington's not an Uncle Tom selling out Frederick Douglass or the race. Make the case for Booker T. Washington, and a lot of people do. They'll say, “Look at China,” right? If Black people had developed economically ...
But what Washington was training people for was not really going to put them in leading strong positions within a soon to be 20th century economy. He was training them more for a 19th century model of industry and trade. And many of the lynchings, many of the lynchings, though they were ostensibly in the name of a Black man attempting to rape or raping a White woman, when Ida B. Wells started investigating them in 1892 and then other people investigating including Walter White in the 1920s, it turned out it was economic competition. Ida B. Wells's best friend had a grocery store, a market, and across the street was a White man's. Kids were playing marbles, Black and White kids. They got into a fight. It led to this huge conflagration and the guy who was jealous of the Black man essentially ignited the community in Memphis to lynch the man who ... Very well educated man who had started that store with a couple of his partners.
That example repeated itself throughout the South at the heart of these so-called lynchings. So could economics ... If Black people had gotten 40 acres and a mule, right? You all know about 40 acres and a mule. Spike Lee's production company is called 40 Acres And A Mule. That would've been a radical transformation in property ownership without a doubt. The concept was that big plantations would be divided up into 40 acre plots given to the former slaves, and it actually was tried. You could read a book by Willie Lee Rose called Rehearsal for Reconstruction when in the Georgia Sea Islands which were liberated by the Union Army early in the war, there were plantations that were divided up and Black people were given parcels of land to develop.
The person who single handedly rolled back that policy was Andrew Johnson, and Andrew Johnson sent General O. O. Howard, the first head of the Freedman's Bureau and a hero of the Civil War, to those Black people living on those Georgia Sea Islands to tell them, right off South Carolina, that they had to give the land back to the former masters who had enslaved them. That's horrible. That was a horrible thing. So they never had a chance to own land. I think by 1900, 20% of the African Americans in the South owned some kind of land and that was not enough to create an economic base, to create a middle class that would have sufficient economic clout to make a real difference.
But without the ballot, those economic rights could not be protected. So in the debate between Condi and Madeleine, in terms of specifically Black Americans following the Civil War, the most important thing that could've happened to change the fate of interracial democracy in America was protecting the Black man's right to vote and only men could vote of course is why I said Black men, and the people who were trying to roll back the Civil War understood that that was the vulnerable point. If we could take away their right to vote by intimidating them, discouraging them, threatening them, killing them, raping them, and then finally after 1890, taking it back through these, these dubious state conventions, then we could put them back on the plantation. Then we can call them ... They were slaves by another name, and that's what they did.
And not only that. Starting with the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1894, they even published guides to textbooks. Guides to textbooks about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Mildred Lewis Rutherford. I taught her ... Fact check me. It's either Mildred Lewis Rutherford or Mildred Rutherford Lewis. I always get them mixed up, but I taught my graduate course ... Her book called The Measuring Rod had 20 principles and if any book that a librarian was considering purchasing or teacher was considering using in the classroom, if any of those books violated any one of these 20 principles, the order was, “Don't buy it, don't use it, don't teach it.”
You know what was in there? The Civil War was fought to free the slaves. Jefferson Davis, any book that said anything bad about Jefferson Davis, you couldn't do it. That the slaves were mistreated, that they hadn't been happy in their condition. You couldn't do it as a book. Her common core was a lost cause. That was the beginning of the lost cause mythology that culminated, well, in physical form with all those confederate monuments. All those confederate monuments, I mean, not literally every one, were built in the 1890s in the early years of the 20th century. They were the physical manifestation of redemption, of the rise of white supremacy. When I heard about the murders of Mother Emmanuel Church, at first I thought that anybody who would pray with nine Black people including the preacher, and I did the last interview with Reverend Clementa Pinckney, as it turns out, that anybody who would pray with the people on Wednesday at a prayer meeting for an hour and then systematically kill them just had to be purely deranged. That must be an unfortunate, sad act by someone who was suffering from an insane mental condition.
But he was a white supremacist. He knew what he was doing. He picked that church because it was the heart of the Black community in Reconstruction and he was quoted as saying, “They're stealing our women. They're taking up job opportunities. The same kinds of lies and heinous accusations that the Nazis made about Jewish people in the 1930s. That is the logic of white supremacy or the illogic. That's why if it could happen to Black people with the sanctions of the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments so close to the Civil War in which now historians estimate 750,000 Americans died, if it could happen then to us, to our ancestors, it could happen anywhere and it can happen again, and that's why we have to be vigilant. That's why I did this series, just to remind everybody that the rights you think are permanent and inviolable can be snatched away at any time, and those of us who love liberty and justice have to fight to defend those rights.
Jeffrey Rosen: [00:43:09] Today's show was engineered by Jackie McDermott and David Stotts and produced by Jackie McDermott and the Town Hall team of the National Constitution Center. If you enjoyed this conversation, you can hear more like it on our companion podcast, Live at America's Town Hall. That's the audio feed for our live constitutional conversations like the one you just heard held here at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and across America. We hold conversations like this every week and I would love you to subscribe to Live at America's Town Hall so that you can learn from them as much as all of us do. And always remember, dear friends, that the National Constitution Center is a private nonprofit. Exhibits like the Civil War and reconstruction exhibit, as well as educational experiences like our Constitutional Ambassadors program to bring tens of thousands of school kids to the center every year to learn from our phenomenal exhibits and experiences are possible only because of philanthropy and that means the generosity and dedication of people like you from across the country who are inspired by our nonpartisan mission of constitutional education and debate.
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