- Book Notes
Virtue of Cain: From Slave to Senator—Biography of Lawrence Cain. By Kevin M. Cherry Sr. Foreword by Orville Vernon Burton. (Takoma Park, Md.: Rocky Pond Press, 2019. Pp. xiv, 212. Paper, $15.99, ISBN 978-0-9992406-3-2; cloth, $22.00, ISBN 978-0-9992406-5-6.)
In Virtue of Cain: From Slave to Senator—Biography of Lawrence Cain, Kevin M. Cherry Sr. brings to light one of the many African American political leaders of the Reconstruction era. Lawrence Cain was born in slavery in Edgefield County, South Carolina, around 1844, and it is likely that his father was also his owner. After the outbreak of the Civil War, he went with the son of his then owner to be the owner’s body servant at the front. Returning to Edgefield after the war, Cain and other newly emancipated men began to build a new community.
Cherry demonstrates how local white opinions of Cain evolved as he became politically active. While the white community supported his educational work, they opposed him when he entered the political world. After the passage of a new state constitution in 1868, Cain was elected to represent Edgefield in the state house of representatives and, in 1872, to a term in the state senate. He also attended law school and graduated while a legislator. The book examines the violent end of Reconstruction in Edgefield, using many contemporary news-paper sources and congressional testimony to describe how white conservatives overthrew the state’s Republican government. Cain lived only a few years after the end of Reconstruction, dying of tuberculosis in 1884.
Cherry is Cain’s great-great-grandson. Cherry grew up in New Jersey and had no idea that his ancestor was an African American politician. Part of the book is the story of the generations that passed between migrating to the North and gradually forgetting their African American roots. A foreword by Orville Vernon Burton places the book in the historiography of Reconstruction. This book will be valuable for classroom use, as it provides details about Reconstruction as it unfolded in one of South Carolina’s more violent communities, and it brings to life a political leader whose efforts have otherwise been lost. [R. Phillip Stone II, Wofford College]
A Story of Jewish Experience in Mississippi. By Leon Waldoff. North American Jewish Studies. (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2019. Pp. xii, 205. Paper, $26.95, ISBN 978-1-61811-889-9; cloth, $90.00, ISBN 978-1-61811-888-2.)
This book could be described as a memoir-plus. Leon Waldoff grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the 1940s and 1950s. He set out to write about how his Russian-Jewish immigrant parents built a life for themselves there, but he soon expanded his scope to encompass the local Jewish community and, by extension, small-town southern Jewish life in the first half of the twentieth century.
A retired English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Waldoff proves to be a fine historian. He tracks down a broad range of primary sources to flesh out details and makes use of the literature on southern Jews to provide a larger context. The book reads like a journey of discovery, as Waldoff uncovers the backstory of dimly remembered events, people, and family lore, while allowing his characters to be heard in their own voices as much as possible.
His tale is not only well told, but it also adds detail and nuance to important subjects in the historiography of southern Jewry. For example, letters that his father wrote as a young man, quoted liberally, offer significant insight into the personal motivations (and not just the structural factors) that led some young Jews to immigrate to the South.
Most fascinating is Waldoff’s ground-level view of the Hattiesburg Jewish community’s relation to the civil rights movement, especially his reflections on Rabbi Charles Mantinband, well known for his outspoken support for civil rights despite the misgivings of his congregants. Through Waldoff’s eyes readers also get to see the rabbi guide a young teenager struggling with religious questions. By interposing tales from his personal background...