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  • Rethinking Black Urban Politics in the 1880s: The Case of William Gaston in Post-Reconstruction Alabama
  • Stephen R. Robinson (bio)

Over the last decade, important new studies have emerged examining black politics in the post–emancipation South. These have focused mainly on the Reconstruction era, and understandably so. The period of Radical Reconstruction in the late 1860s to mid-1870s saw African Americans active in southern politics at an unprecedented level. While black political participation deteriorated sharply after Redemption, it did not disappear completely, and manifested often in the form of various biracial coalitions like the Readjusters in Virginia (ending in 1883) and the Republican–Populist fusion in North Carolina in 1894. That being said, the 1880s, as a distinct decade, has been overlooked to some extent by the literature, and when mentioned, they usually feature as either a postscript to earlier political struggles or are skirted over as a prelude to the turbulent 1890s.1

This article will thus focus on the 1880s, demonstrating that in pockets of the urban South, black political participation in the public sphere continued throughout the 1880s and into the 1890s. By way of illustration, the career of William Gaston will be explored to reveal [End Page 3] how black post–Reconstruction politics functioned in Huntsville, Alabama. William Gaston was a clergyman of the generation before Booker T. Washington, he served in the Union Army during the Civil War and became a local Republican politician during Reconstruction. His career reveals that political activism in the public sphere was still possible beyond Redemption, despite the continued fracturing of the Republican Party in Alabama. The divisions within the party increased over the course of the 1880s causing the state party to split along racial lines. A key objective for the “black-and-tan” wing, led by William J. Stevens well into 1890s, was proper recognition by the national party. Gaston differed from the other established black Republicans in that he put less significance on political patronage as an end in itself. Political participation for him meant voting, petitioning, and pursuing racial uplift through education. His increasing disengagement with Republican Party politics by the early 1890s came at a time when discussion of civil and political rights in the public sphere was becoming more limited, reflected (and, arguably, reinforced) by the politics pursued by black leaders like Booker T. Washington and William Hooper Councill.

Gaston’s career also illustrates the significance of newspapers to black urban politics in the 1880s. He used the pages of the Huntsville Gazette, the local black newspaper, as a platform for his views and spoke to a wider audience with it than the one he addressed from his pulpit. Yet his letters retained the cadence of a sermon, and Gaston’s use of language demonstrates the way in which black preachers were local leaders: not only in the work they did in their respective communities, but also in how they articulated the thoughts and feelings of those unable to make themselves heard. Indeed, the significance of the black preacher to the wider African American community had its origins in slavery, and the church became one of the few platforms [End Page 4] available for local black leaders.2

Gaston was born in Huntsville as a mixed–race slave in either 1830 or 1835. How he became a preacher is unknown, however Huntsville did have a well–established African–American religious community by the time of the Civil War. As early as 1820 a black Baptist church existed in the city: the African Huntsville Baptist Church. The next year it was admitted to the white Flint River Primitive Baptist Association of North Alabama. The church had a freeborn African American, William Harris, as its pastor, with a membership of seventy-six. By 1840 this figure had increased to 265. A slave named Lewis led another church, the African Cottonfort Church. The city’s black slaves therefore had a degree of independence in their church life, and black preachers held considerable influence over their congregations. This led Huntsville’s white civic leaders to regard the black church as a potential threat to white control, and they became more defensive over the “peculiar institution...