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INTRODUCTION S Farah Jasmine Griffin Can Anything Beat White? A Black Family’s Letters only offered us a glimpse into the life of a nineteenth-century African American family that would more than warrant its publication. So rare are letters from African Americans, particularly from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that their very existence signals a significant historical find. That the letters document relationships between a family that produced a critically acclaimed author, Ann Petry, warrants even more interest. That the members of the James family were in and of themselves exceptionally interesting individuals whose lives could fill the pages of a number of novels also makes their correspondence valuable. While the letters and Elisabeth Petry’s compelling narrative certainly succeed in painting a portrait of a unique family and in providing a context for the emergence of its most well-known member, it also offers us a great deal more. For this book lends insight into a very important moment in the history of the United States through the eyes of ordinary people who are participating in and affected by important historical events. The era documented by this correspondence—1891 to 1910—was a time of tremendous growth and change as the United States became an industrial nation. Cities experienced great growth and factories emerged on the landscape. Entrepreneurs and industrialists like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Guggenheim, and Carnegie came into power and wealth, and ix with the creation of Sugar, Beef, Steel, and Oil Trusts, came the birth of the labor movement. Finally, it was the age of the railroad. Americans became more mobile over vast territories, and members of the James family were no exception to this. Railroad trips took them up and down the East Coast as well as through and across the growing nation. Significantly, this was also a period of increased nationalism. Having recently emerged from the Civil War and Reconstruction, the young nation sought unity through patriotism. The period witnessed the birth of organizations like the Sons of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the American Revolution. But this sense of national unity and patriotism came at a cost. For black Americans, the time would become known famously as “the nadir” of black history. In a book titled The Betrayal of the Negro, historian Rayford Logan used the term to describe the period between the end of Reconstruction (1877) and the beginning of World War I (1917). The 1890s were perhaps the lowest point of the nadir. The hope of Reconstruction with its promises of black citizenship, education, and land-ownership was replaced by despair as black people were systematically disenfranchised and dispossessed. With the demise of the Populist Movement in 1896 (which for a time had united poor white farmers with southern blacks), the South succeeded in disenfranchising blacks. Southern white elites were able to use the ideology of white supremacy and the fear of blacks to convince poor whites that their best interest lay in abandoning blacks and affiliating themselves with the program of privileged whites. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and a number of other inventions were used to keep black voters from the polls. By 1898 southern states amended their constitutions so that blacks were disenfranchised throughout the entire region. Although African Americans in the North were able to exercise their right to vote, they were relegated to segregated housing and often denied access to opportunity. The James family appears to have been unique in this regard: they were neither southern nor did they find themselves stuck in racially segregated and/or impoverished communities . Nonetheless the conditions that affected the majority of African Americans still had an impact upon them. This is especially evident x Introduction when we look to the extralegal means used to help ensure and maintain white rule throughout the nation, but especially in the South. Race riots occurred throughout the South where white mobs sought to destroy black communities and instill fear and control. The two bloodiest took place in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898 and Atlanta, Georgia, in 1906. Both riots were connected to elections and false reporting in white newspapers. Though occurring in the South, the riots had national, even international, implications. While W. E. B. Du Bois would write and publish the poem “A Litany of Atlanta,” less famous black people would describe details of the event in their correspondence to each other. Bertha James Lane received a letter from her friend, Birdie Ford, who witnessed the riots firsthand. In a letter...


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