- De-centring the South:America's Nationwide White Supremacist Order After Reconstruction*
Writing in the New York Freeman on 28 May 1887, ten years after the end of Reconstruction, T. Thomas Fortune called for a national Afro-American League to fight rising racial injustice in the Southern states of the USA. Fortune castigated lynching, the suppression of black voting rights, inequities in school funding, chain gangs, the 'tyranny' of segregated railroads and the denial of equal rights and equal access to public and private accommodations.1 One of the period's most prominent African American leaders, Fortune had wide experience of America's race problem. Born a slave in Florida in 1856, Fortune lived in Delaware and Washington DC after the Civil War before returning to Florida. He then left the South for good in 1879 and moved to New York, where he edited a series of influential African American newspapers. At the Afro-American League's first meeting Fortune called on the delegates, mostly from the Northern and Western states, to stand 'as representatives of 8 million freedmen, who know our rights and have the courage to defend them'. Thus, African Americans beyond the South would, on behalf of their Southern counterparts, 'face the enemy and fight inch by inch for every right he denies us'.2
Yet just over a decade later, Fortune found himself fighting racial oppression, 'inch by inch', much closer to home. In 1900 a race riot devastated New York city's Tenderloin district. Following a spate of assaults, mob violence broke out late on the night of 15 August. The New York Times reported that a crowd of a thousand people 'started to clean the streets of [End Page 213] Negroes . . .Every car passing up ordown Eighth Avenue between the hours of 8 and 11 was stopped by the crowd and every negro on board was dragged out, hustled about, and beaten until he was able to break away'.3 Some shouted 'lynch the nigger'.4 One man tied a clothes line to a lamp-post, looking for someone to lynch. The largely Irish police force often treated black victims with contempt and encouraged the mob.5 Frank Moss, who collected the testimony of eighty victims, concluded that 'it was the night sticks of the police that sent a stream of bleeding colored men to the hospital'.6 No records were kept of how many people were injured. But despite the fact that most black victims stayed at home, 'afraid to trust themselves to the mercy of the crowds on the streets while on the way to a police station or hospital', the emergency staff of three New York hospitals worked through the night to treat cracked skulls. With Moss and other New Yorkers, Fortune organized a Citizens' Protective League, which fought, unsuccessfully, to persuade the mayor to bring rioters and complicit policemen to justice.7
Fortune's experience of racial injustice outside the South was by no means unique.8 In this article we contend that Southern white supremacy was constructed in conjunction with, rather than in opposition to, developments in the rest of the country after Reconstruction. In the national government, federal officials did not just acquiesce in the Southern counter-revolution but promoted a nationwide order of white supremacy. At the grass roots in the North and West, there were not only isolated instances of racism, but a systematic and effective drive to establish white supremacy that mirrored developments in the South. Considering the relatively small number of black Americans in Northern and Western cities teeming with immigrants, [End Page 214] the prominence of specifically anti-black behaviour is remarkable.9
Scholars have long recognized a general retreat from Reconstruction's egalitarian ideals about race across many aspects of American life during the late nineteenth century, from Supreme Court rulings upholding segregation and presidential attitudes that abdicated responsibility on the question of racial equality, to rising racism in popular and intellectual culture.10 Yet the South is treated as exceptional, a section apart. Invariably, the national downturn in race relations is presented as the backdrop to the 'betrayal of the negro' and the reversal of Reconstruction...