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  • Urban Emancipation: Popular Politics in Reconstruction Mobile, 1860-1890
  • Louis S. Gerteis
Urban Emancipation: Popular Politics in Reconstruction Mobile, 1860-1890. By Michael W. Fitzgerald. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. Pp 301. $67.50 cloth, $24.95 paper.)

A grainy photograph adorns the cover of this engaging history of Reconstruction politics in Mobile: three men sit in a horse-drawn wagon; three men stand behind the wagon; on the wagon's side panel appears the word "Creole"; behind the wagon, a two-story brick building bears the word "Creole" on its cornice. The photograph is an image of the Mobile Creole Fire Company, an organization indicative of the privileged status of Creoles in Mobile's civil society. Treaty protections, writes Michael Fitzgerald (referring to the 1819 treaty between the United States and Spain), extended to Creoles "civil equality in all respects save suffrage" (12). By the 1850s, Creoles enjoyed access to tax supported schools. Creole fairs supported the Confederate cause during the Civil War. Creole status remained high after the war: the fire company building shown in the cover photograph had been built in 1869. In Mobile's Reconstruction politics, Creoles maintained their traditional alliance with white people.

The story of social stratification that lay behind the image of the Creole Fire Company underscores a central point in Fitzgerald's work: class divisions and factional politics undermined efforts to create a unified Republican party in Mobile and paved the way for the "Redemption" movement mounted by white Democrats. In the end, Mobile succumbed to violent white supremacist rule: in the early decades of the twentieth century, the number of lynchings in Mobile County nearly led the state of Alabama. Nevertheless, in the three decades studied by Fitzgerald, the politics of the city changed dramatically.

First came the trauma of war. The Union blockade put the Mobile economy into a tailspin that continued into the postwar era. Fleeing economic privation, nearly a third of the city's white population left Mobile. At the same time, rural blacks fleeing racial repression moved to the city and increased the black population by sixty five percent. Although white Republican leaders and military authorities attempted to arrest black vagrants and return them to the countryside, black soldiers stationed in the city viewed themselves as the protectors of the freedmen and resisted arbitrary arrests and intimidation by whites.

In a dramatic display of solidarity, Mobile's black population rallied on July 4, 1865. Their march down Royal Street began at the old Alabama Medical College (founded in 1858), now a black school. Two regiments of black troops led the procession. Groups of black tradesmen and members of benevolent [End Page 117] societies followed carrying their distinctive banners. Encouraged by taunts and harassment initiated by white Union troops, white civilians attempted to break up the rally. As black soldiers fought back, the rally's leaders brought the planned celebration to an early end and avoided a full-scale riot.

Navigating with some success through this dangerous social terrain, moderate Republicans mediated between the aspirations of black freedmen and the embittered reactions of former Confederates. Freedmen celebrated the transformation of the Medical College into a school for black children. Led by the school's antebellum dean, the prominent physician and racial typologist Josiah Nott, white people fought tenaciously to have the school restored to its prewar status. When Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner O. O. Howard came to Mobile to assess the controversy, Nott threatened that he would "rather see the building burned down than have it used for Colored children" (47). Howard supported the black school—as did the American Missionary Association—and it became the centerpiece of African American pride in Mobile.

White Unionists ("scalawags" and "carpetbaggers" in the language of the Redeemers) led the moderate Republican coalition by forming an alliance with former free blacks. Over time, however, the coalition did not do enough to appeal to the mass of freedmen or to the black leadership. Union League leader, Thomas Conway, illustrated the problem. During the war, Conway had administered a repressive Federal labor program in Louisiana. In Reconstruction Mobile, he continued to stress the importance of white control. As Fitzgerald deftly...


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