- The Risen Phoenix: Black Politics in the Post–Civil War South by Luis-Alejandro Dinnella-Borrego
Luis-Alejandro Dinnella-Borrego has returned attention to a somewhat neglected topic of postwar African American politics. Against the historiographical trend now a few decades strong of exploring grassroots organizations and activism, Dinnella-Borrego's The Risen Phoenix: Black Politics in the Post–Civil War South focuses on six black congressmen and their congressional records. In seven chronologically arranged chapters, the book charts how these congressmen shifted their tactics and rhetoric as the prospects of civil rights and interracial democracy waxed and waned between roughly 1865 and 1900. Throughout, Dinnella-Borrego argues that, despite the holdover of Dunningesque interpretations of African American politicians during Reconstruction, these six congressmen were neither out of touch with their constituents nor ineffective in their offices.
The featured congressmen are Robert Smalls, South Carolina; John Mercer Langston, Virginia; James Thomas Rapier, Alabama; Josiah Thomas Walls, Florida; John Roy Lynch, Mississippi, and George Henry White, North Carolina. By exploring such a regionally diverse cast, Dinnella-Borrego shows both the broad similarities in national black political leadership and the unique circumstances of state politics in which these men operated. Langston's success in Virginia politics in the wake of the Readjuster movement (elected in 1888) and White's 1896 election [End Page 100] in North Carolina during the Populist movement, for instance, both demonstrate the challenges southern Republican parties faced after Redemption while revealing the differing coalitions produced by such tumult. This is a useful perspective and should make this book work well in undergraduate or even high school classrooms, where an instructor can excerpt sections that allow for comparison.
But, while exploring the contexts of state elections is a valuable contribution, the most interesting parts of the book detail the debates and maneuvers African American politicians pursued in the U.S. Congress. In one such instance, Dinnella-Borrego recounts how Josiah Thomas Walls, in a quid pro quo exchange, supported the 1872 Amnesty Act removing political disability from ex-Confederates in return for more stringent civil rights protections for former slaves. Similarly, in the early 1890s, Langston proposed a constitutional amendment calling for literacy tests as a basis of voter qualification. Sensing a shift toward widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans, Langston suggested that literacy tests should be under federal oversight and apply equally to white and black voters; he further attempted to couple state representation in the U.S. House to the total number of literacy-qualified voters, hoping to spur southern states to invest in public education. Though both Walls and Langston failed in their attempts to appease white conservatives while strengthening the position of their black constituents, their tactics, in Dinnella-Borrego's analysis, "reflect black congressmen's understanding of the necessity of compromise" (8).
Indeed, by drawing much of his evidence from congressional records, national African American newspapers, and the personal papers of congressmen, Dinnella-Borrego provides a needed counterpart to the local, grassroots focus of scholars such as Michael W. Fitzgerald, Tera W. Hunter, and Steven Hahn. Yet neither the bottom-up nor top-down view fully captures the contradictions, divisions, and creative forces that make postwar black politics such a fascinating and important part of U.S. history, and Dinnella-Borrego does, at times, lose sight of the ordinary freedpeople who formed the congressmen's constituencies. While perhaps unavoidable when writing a history of political elites, this oversight creates the implicit understanding that because they were elected, these congressmen "successfully articulated and represented the interests of the black community" (14). Beyond electoral success, evidence linking congressmen to the views and goals of their constituents is often unclear. When examining Walls's calls for U.S. intervention in Cuba during the Ten Years' War, for instance, Dinnella-Borrego states that "newly freed slaves joined in expressing deep interest in the plight of blacks in Cuba," yet the statement lacks citation, leaving one to wonder whether Walls's impassioned rhetoric...