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Emancipation and Race 91 Chapter Four Reconstruction Emancipation and Race R. Blakeslee Gilpin In March 1913, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote a public letter to the soon-tobe -inaugurated twenty-eighth president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. The election of 1912 represented the capstone of Southern Redemption and a symbolic deliverance from Reconstruction for Democrats in the former Confederacy. Du Bois witheringly explained to a man well aware that “for the first time since the emancipation of slaves the government of this nation . . . [passes] into the hands of the party which a half century ago fought desperately to keep black men as real estate in the eyes of the law.”1 As he cataloged postbellum outrages, Du Bois coupled the nation ’s failed promises with the inextinguishable hopes of African Americans. “We want to be treated as men,” he explained, “We want to vote. We want our children educated. We want lynching stopped. We want no longer to be herded as cattle on street cars and railroads. We want the right to earn a living, to own our own property and to spend our income unhindered and uncursed.”2 “It will take more than general good will on your part,” Du Bois explained , “to foil the wide conspiracy to make Negroes known to their fellow Americans not as flesh and blood but as beasts of fiction .”3 Unfortunately, Wilson was as deluded by those fictions as any American. Just two years after his inauguration, Wilson’s friend Thomas Dixon, the immensely popular North Carolinian novelist, 91 r. blakeslee gilpin 92 convinced the president to screen the first film ever shown in the White House, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). The film was an adaptation of Dixon’s virulently racist and pathologically inaccurate trilogy about Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan. Dixon ’s novels and Griffith’s film depicted barbaric blacks let loose on the South after the Civil War and focused on the insatiable and depraved political and sexual appetites of emancipated slaves. These fictional black antagonists were obsessed with taking over southern politics and forcing “themselves upon white women.”4 The heroes who rescued the nation from this interracial nightmare and mockery of democratic politics were the hooded nightriders of the Klan. Wilson physically embraced both Dixon and Griffith when the screening ended. “It is like writing history with lightning,” the president reportedly remarked, “my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”5 Wilson’s reaction underscores one of the most harrowing aspects of Reconstruction historiography: its radical partisanship. By 1935, after Du Bois had survived what historian Vernon Burton has called “the nadir of race relations in America,” Du Bois published his flawed jewel, Black Reconstruction.6 With a heavy hand on the Marxist tiller, Du Bois called attention to Americans’ refusal to recognize blacks as human beings. As during his struggles to steer the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in more radical directions, Du Bois made impassioned pleas about the nation’s persistent (and often conscious) misunderstanding of its history (in this case the years 1865–1877) and the explicitly racist consequences that came as a result. Apart from a few well-intentioned accounts in the 1890s, southerners and southern sympathizers quickly dominated Reconstruction historiography with racist condemnations of these chaotic years. From the fringe of the Left came little-read or unappreciated (inside or outside the academy) attempts to catalog the terrorist violence and black political advancements that followed emancipation.7 Mainstream interpretations migrated from narratives of Reconstruction as a wrongheaded misadventure to a tragic debacle imposed by an overreaching and corrupt federal govern- Emancipation and Race 93 ment. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction certainly fit the marginalized leftist mold, but the book did more than celebrate the brief and unprecedented experiment in progressive government or reveal the ways the federal government failed to deliver on the human and democratic advances of the Civil War. More presciently, Du Bois exposed how American historians had, in the words of his biographer, David Levering Lewis, “congealed racist interpretations of Reconstruction in the popular mind as solidly as had D. W. Griffith’s film.”8 Du Bois trenchantly described the field of Reconstruction history as “devastated by passion and belief.” “Sheer necessity,” he explained, required his work to serve as “an arraignment of American historians and an indictment of their ideals.” Why had the historical profession systematically ignored the many black triumphs and countless white...


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