New book ponders long-lasting effects of Reconstruction

If social media has a redeeming quality, it may be the ability to learn the unvarnished truth regarding the true feelings of others.

Within the past month I’ve come across numerous comments in the middle of Facebook conversations that were startlingly narrow-minded, yet because they singled out a group deemed OK to bash, no one uttered a peep.

The first came in early July, amid debates concerning the South’s ongoing educational deficiencies, specifically the overall low ranking many Southern states register on nationalized tests. Within a short time, the cause was identified solely as “Jim Crow.” Finally, one individual, located in the Northeast, stated bluntly, “I hate Southern white males.”

A second conversation dealt with the threat of radical Islam within the US. One individual countered that he had been to Islamic countries and that the Deep South, for example, was “way scarier” than Indonesia “in his experience.”

This individual lives on the West Coast, so it’s difficult to determine whether he’s ever set foot in the “Deep South.” I also understand that as a relatively tall, fit white guy, I may have an easier time than a black man or woman in the South. Still many blacks I speak with in the South – but by no means all – say that while issues certainly remain related to racism, they’re not specific to the South.

But unfortunately many of the South’s biggest detractors appear to have little to no actual experience with the South of today. It is certainly not perfect, but it’s vastly different from what it was 50 years ago, and it is a far friendly place, at least in my own experience, than New England, New York, much of the West Coast and the major Midwestern cities.

Still, the image persists, at least if one goes by the New York Times, Slate or other Northeastern-centric media outlets, that whites in the South are largely bigots, rural regions are populated almost exclusively by extras from Deliverance and blacks and other minorities live in constant fear, with some whites eagerly awaiting the return of “Judge Lynch.”

My experience has been largely the opposite: Whether on the West Coast, or the East Coast north of Richmond, no one will so much look at you when you pass them on the street, never mind say hello. Down South it’s unusual if you don’t wave when passing someone on a country road, whether you know them or not.

I can’t imagine standing to cross a street with someone in a Southern town and not saying hello and asking how they were doing, or vice versa. And anyone who knows me will tell you I am an introvert’s introvert.

While I may be a hermit in the making, my mother didn’t raise me to be rude. When I talk with strangers it’s not out of simple duty; I do have a genuine wish that their day goes well.

So why does a significant percentage of those outside the South feel white males in Dixie are a bunch of ignorant knuckle-draggers who keep white sheets and hoods in our closets?

A recently released book by Philip Leigh called Southern Reconstruction concludes that no small part of the problem is the result of Reconstruction, the period following the War Between the States.

However, Leigh doesn’t limit the term “reconstruction” to the 1865-1877 period that is generally used to designate the post-war era but expands it to include the decades afterward, when the former Confederate states lagged far behind most of the rest of the nation, stricken with higher rates of poverty, lower lifespans, poorer diets and reduced access to health care.

Leigh’s superb work points out that many of today’s mainstream historians focus solely on white racism in the South as the reason for Reconstruction’s failure, and that Reconstruction’s failure greatly aided the spread of white Southern racism.

Yet, as progressives like to point out, hate is a learned behavior. In other words, the racism that blacks experienced during Reconstruction and Jim Crow didn’t materialize out of nowhere – and it was different from that which existed during slavery. There was a root cause, and like many root causes, it was financial.

“The harmful effects of Reconstruction were more substantial, multiracial, and protracted than commonly understood, with poverty being among the most devastating,” Leigh writes.

Stereotypes play a role in how we see Reconstruction today: “Although Southern poverty and cotton culture is commonly associated with blacks, in 1940, whites made up two-thirds of the region’s farmers who either rented their lands or were sharecroppers,” Leigh writes. “According to a 1938 presidential economic report, about half of Southern white farmers were sharecroppers ‘living under economic conditions almost identical to those of Negro sharecroppers.’”

Unfortunately, post-Civil War Republicans were more interested in holding and building on political gains than actual advocating for black civil rights.

Even though blacks represented less than 2 percent of the population in the Northern states, compared to 40 percent in the Confederate states, most white Northerners wanted blacks concentrated in the South. Some white Northerners were concerned with increased competition for jobs if freed slaves moved North, while others likely were motivated by a dislike for people different from themselves, much as they disliked foreigners just off the boat from Europe or Asia.

Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, Salmon Chase, thought emancipation would motivate Northern blacks to move to the South. In 1862, when blacks comprised less than 1 percent of the Illinois population, the state’s soldiers voted 3 to 1 to deny the blacks the right to vote, and Massachusetts and Illinois each refused to resettle contrabands (slaves behind Union lines) in their states during the war, according to Leigh.

Reconstruction was probably doomed to failure given the corruption that took place immediately following the war. Budgets in Southern states mushroomed, even if residents rarely got anywhere near their money’s worth as politicos, some Northerners who’d moved South after the war and others opportunists from the region, lined their pockets in many states.

Once the states were “redeemed,” a term which meant that Democrats effectively ousted Republicans for control, often by dubious means, the first goal of the new administration was to reduce the cost of operating state government, Leigh said, adding that segregation and disfranchisement of blacks didn’t begin to pick up steam until Populists were elected in the 1890s.

Leigh writes that white Southerners resented the financial burden associated with educating ex-slaves. Given that abolition was a national policy, many felt that the federal government should at least partly assist with the effort. Southern states were already poor to begin with and ultimately slashed education spending for both races.

There was certainly unequal treatment before the law and a general animus toward blacks in the South, particularly in the late 19th century and early 20th century. But Leigh argues that efforts to raise the South were hindered by the economic serfdom it was held in by northeastern economic interests.

He cites as an example the artificially high costs imposed on Southern steel by Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie, who created the U.S. Steel monopoly, recognized that the South, specifically the steel industry around the Birmingham, Ala., area, represented the biggest threat to his Pennsylvania operation.

By 1895, he had bought up the major Southern steel mills and imposed discriminatory pricing on Southern production.

“Thereafter,” Leigh writes, “steel from the company’s Alabama’s mills included an incremental markup … of $3 per ton over the Pittsburgh quote.” In addition, “buyers of Birmingham steel were required to pay freight from Birmingham plus a phantom charge as if the shipments originated in Pittsburgh.”

By the time the Federal Trade Commission got around to investigating the matter, during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, it was discovered that Birmingham’s steel costs were the lowest in the country and 26 percent below those of Pittsburgh.

For 80 years, the South suffered from burdensome tariffs and monopolistic rate charges, costs that kept wages down, stymied progress and contributed greatly to the poverty that helped create dissention between races.

But Reconstruction and the decades that followed it remain little understood among much of the population. In secondary schools, if it’s taught at all, it’s narrowly defined as a period when Southern whites sought to not only disfranchise blacks, but essentially place them back in the fetters of slavery.

White Southerners weren’t blameless but there was plenty of criticism to be leveled at others, as well.

As our nation currently tangles with the ghosts of the past, perhaps we would do well to seek out the reasons why the South has struggled economically and educationally for much of the past 150 years.

The reason, as Phil Leigh demonstrates clearly in Southern Reconstruction, isn’t simply that Southern whites didn’t like Southern blacks. History is rarely that evident.

(Top: Sharecroppers pick cotton in Arkansas in 1938.)

How the tyranny of the petty minded can infect a society

Coleman_Livingston_Blease

Like most US states, South Carolina has elected some bad governors over the years. Pitchfork Ben Tillman, an avowed racist and demagogue who did a great deal to divide the state in the late 19th century, is currently getting some much-needed scrutiny, but one of his protegés, Cole Blease, never fails to amaze when his career is analyzed.

Blease was a self-proclaimed pro-lynching, anti-black education politician who was cut from the same cloth as Tillman. He was elected to the state’s highest office in 1910 through his ability “to play on race, religion and class prejudices,” appealing especially to South Carolina’s farmers and mill workers, according to Ernest Lander’s work, “A History of South Carolina 1865-1960.”

Blease acquired such a bad reputation that he was said to represent the worst aspects of Jim Crow and Ben Tillman, a noxious combination if there ever was one. Blease, for example, is said to have once buried the severed finger of a lynched black man in the South Carolina gubernatorial garden in Columbia.

He was not only doggedly political, but arrogant about it, as well.

In early February 1911, less than a month after taking office, Blease stated publicly that he wouldn’t appoint anyone but friends to public office if he could help it.

The matter came to a head after a judge elected in Richland County, where Columbia is located, did not qualify in time to take office immediately, and a short-term intermediary was needed.

The Richland County Bar Association endorsed Duncan J. Ray as a special judge, and Ira B. Jones, chief justice the SC Supreme Court, wrote the governor recommending and requesting the appointment of Ray, adding that this was “the course prescribed by the law, as the statute governing special judges says they shall be appointed by the governor upon the recommendation of Supreme Court,” according to an article in the Feb. 9, 1911, edition of the Bamberg Herald.

“However, the governor had already taken the bit in his teeth and appointed F.J. Caldwell, of Newberry, to preside, and when the Chief Justice wrote him recommending Mr. Ray, he replied that he would not appoint anybody but his friends to public office,” the paper added.

Blease made no apologies for injecting politics directly into the judiciary system.

“My friends,” he said, “are to receive some consideration from this administration. I do not expect to appoint my enemies to office upon the recommendation of anybody unless it be that I cannot find a friend who is competent and worthy of the position.”

The (Columbia) State newspaper, begun in 1891 as a response to Tillman and his politics, took Blease to task. Continue reading

Beware of those who divide the masses for fun and profit

churches

One sometimes wonders whether certain elements of society would opt to plunge mankind into the Apocalypse rather than have it experience peace and goodwill, as long as the former enabled them to bolster their bottom line by another handful of shekels.

Case in point: media coverage of several church fires in the South over the past few days seems determined to either outright assert or strongly infer white racists are targeting black houses of worship following the dreadful killings on June 17 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

A few recent headlines:

Seventh Black Church Burns In South Since Charleston Church Shooting” – CBS News.

Feds Investigate String of Fires at Black Churches in South” – Time magazine.

Seventh Black Church Goes Up in Flames Following Charleston Massacre” – People magazine.

Fires at Black Churches in the South Raise Hate-Crime Fears” – NBC News.

After Charleston, Black Churches Targeted By Arsonists Across The South” – Think Progress.

This, when the story often can’t even back up the rhetoric.

In the first example above, CBS News pointed out in its lead paragraph that the most recent church fire was not arson, despite a headline that might lead some to believe malicious intent was involved.

“A federal law enforcement source says a fire that destroyed a black church in South Carolina was not the work of an arsonist,” the CBS report begins, referring to a fire at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, SC, about an hour north of Charleston.

While the story adds that the fire is still under investigation, it states that the fire was not intentionally set and was not arson.

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Life experience trumps popular platitudes regarding race

Church

This past Saturday found me looking for a long-vanished church in what was once the town of Helena, SC.

Helena, subsumed years ago by the county seat of Newberry, is a predominantly African-American area with a couple of interesting and decidedly disparate claims to history: It is the birthplace of civil rights activist Frank J. Toland Sr. and, conversely, was where noted racial demagogue Cole Blease served as mayor in the late 19th century before moving on to the South Carolina state legislature, the governor’s office and finally the US Senate.

There are almost no records of Helena Church available on the Internet, and all I had to go on was information found on a genealogy site titled “Newberry County GenWeb SC Cemetery Project,” which lists numerous county cemeteries, along with addresses and GPS coordinates if that data is available.

For the old Helena Church, the information included GPS coordinates and the words “S/A Browns Chapel.” I don’t know what “S/A” refers to, but I am familiar with a Brown Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal church in the Helena area of Newberry, sometimes identified as Browns Chapel.

I have been told of cases of some older white churches abandoning their structures once congregations dwindled to a size that they were no longer a viable house of worship, at which point a black church would take over the building.

Wondering if Brown Chapel was the old Helena Church, or built on the site of the latter, I decided to pay it a visit.

I pulled into the crushed-gravel parking lot about 2 p.m. and saw a couple of cars parked near the church. About 30 feet behind and to the right of the church I noticed an old gravestone standing alone and pulled near it. At the same time, another car with two older black women pulled into the lot.

I got out of my car to take a closer look at the grave marker, and the two women, having parked about 75 feet away, inquired from their car if they could help me. I walked over and explained to them that I was looking for the old Helena Church and asked if I was in the right place.

They immediately asked me my name and requested my identification. Somewhat surprised, I complied.

As they wrote down my name and driver’s license number, the pair, both of whom were in their mid- to late-60s, questioned me about why I was looking around. I told them I was interested in a certain individual, a German immigrant who had died around 1912 and who had been buried in the Helena Church cemetery.

Peering at my driver’s license, they noticed that I was from a town about 20 miles south of the church, and asked why I was in Newberry County. I explained, politely, that I had read old newspaper reports that had said the individual I was searching for had been buried in Helena Church and according to information I’d found on the Internet, I thought that the church may have once been at this location.

They explained to me that Brown Chapel only had graves of black parishioners, but suggested I try another site about a mile away.

I thanked them and as one of the pair handed me back my identification, she replied, “Well, we can’t be too cautious.”

The comment was an apparent reference to the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston earlier this month by a 21-year-old white nut job that claimed nine black lives.

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I thanked them again and returned to my car. Needless to say, I found the experience unsettling.

A quick description of yours truly: Bespectacled white male, 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, 50 years old. I was wearing a t-shirt, nice shorts, dockers shoes and a Santa Clara University baseball cap. I can’t speak for others, but I hardly see myself as a threatening individual.

Were the two women out of line questioning me because I was white? Some would say yes.

Would they have asked for my ID if I were a black male; were they insinuating that given my color I needed to be watched more closely; do they believe there is increased chance of similar white attacks on black churches occurring?

I don’t know. I didn’t feel comfortable asking any of those questions.

There is a segment of society that decries the fact that, according to them, the most segregated hour in America takes place on Sunday morning, during church services. Personally, I’ve always felt that folks should go to whatever church they want, with the understanding that no one should be turned away from a house of worship because of something as arbitrary as skin color or sexual preference.

That said, after Saturday’s experience, I believe my presence during an AME or CME church service would be met with trepidation. But could I blame a congregation for being anxious if one day, less than a month after the events at Emanuel, an unfamiliar white male showed up at a black church service?

Doesn’t the human body provide protection by sending up internal red flags when something seems amiss?

As I thought about the encounter at Brown Chapel, I realized that both of the women I had talked with were likely born in the late 1940s or early 1950s. They grew up in the segregated South and had to deal with all that went along with that world.

I, on the other hand, was born in California, on the day after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. I’ve lived in the South for many years, but no matter how much I read and how many people I talk with, I would never be able to fully understand the experiences these two older black women went through.

I have trouble understanding how they could be suspicious of me; they might have countered by stating that they had trouble understanding how I couldn’t understand why might be suspicious.

If, as it has been said, we are all products of our environment, and every person we meet, every new adventure we experience and every book we read reshapes us, even if ever so slightly, and makes us the unique beings we are, I can only hope that my manner and disposition left those two lades changed, and for the better.

 

We can’t erase Pitchfork Ben, but we can learn from him

pitchfork ben tillman

For more than a century, Tillman Hall has dominated Winthrop University’s campus.

The three-story building, constructed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, features a combination gabled and hipped roof configuration, projecting bay windows, and is highlighted by a clock tower with an open belfry.

The red-brick edifice was erected in 1894, during South Carolina Gov. Ben Tillman’s reign, and the structure was named for the Palmetto State politician, who would go on to serve in the US Senate, in 1962. Tillman was instrumental in the founding of both Winthrop and Clemson University.

Unfortunately for Winthrop, Tillman’s legacy hasn’t held up well under the scrutiny of history.

A virulent racist who worked not only to codify Jim Crow laws in South Carolina, Tillman personally advocated the lynching of blacks.

So perhaps it’s not unreasonable that a pair of former Winthrop students would like the Rock Hill-based school to consider changing the name of the structure.

However, Winthrop University officials have replied that state law prevents such action.

South Carolina law prohibits changing the name of buildings or monuments named for historic figures, Winthrop Board of Trustees Chairwoman Kathy Bigham wrote to former students Michael Fortune and Richard Davis in a letter this week.

In the letter, Bigham cites a South Carolina law that was passed in 2000 to protect war memorials and historic structures on public property. The law prevents anyone from changing the name of any street, bridge, structure or park that has been “dedicated in memory of, or named for, any historic figure or historic event,” according to the Rock Hill Herald.

Changing the state law requires a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly, the publication added.

Given that it’s difficult to get two-thirds of SC lawmakers to agree on what day of the week it is, it’s unlikely that anyone could gather enough support to rename Tillman Hall.

However, that doesn’t mean that Winthrop can’t use the building’s name as a chance to highlight Pitchfork Ben Tillman’s backwardism or how much damage his views have done to South Carolina over the decades.

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Where does Tillman statue fit in SC’s future?

Ben Tillman Statue

Earlier this month a Charleston writer took out a full-page advertisement in The State, the daily newspaper of Columbia, SC, calling for the removal of a statue of former governor and US senator Ben Tillman from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds.

Will Moredock has long advocated for the removal of the imposing statue of Tillman, an unabashed racist who perhaps more than anyone else in South Carolina came to embody the evils of post-Reconstruction racism.

Pitchfork Ben Tillman never hid his hatred for blacks or his efforts to maintain white supremacy.

“We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting] … we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them,” he said in 1900. “We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”

Tillman’s populist rabble-rousing and first class demagoguery got him elected governor in 1890, turning out the conservative Bourbons, and he was re-elected two years later.

In 1894, he was appointed to the US Senate, where he served until his death in 1918, and he never missed a chance to voice his narrow-minded sentiments.

Tillman is said to have pioneered the use of race to mobilize white voters, and historian James M. McPherson has claimed that Tillman “created the model for two generations of Southern ‘demagogues.’”

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Waller, a true Mississippi rebel, dies at 85

A view held by those outside the South – and no small number within – is that white racism not only dominated life in the region until about roughly 30 years ago, but that it was a predominant factor in the governments which oversaw the states of the former Confederacy.

To be certain, with governors such as George Wallace of Alabama, Orval Faubus of Arkansas and Lester Maddox of Georgia, it’s easy to see how one might reach that conclusion.

But, as with all stereotypes, it would be wrong to imply that all Southern leaders up to and through the Civil Rights movement were unabashed bigots.

Case in point is William “Bill” Waller, the former governor of Mississippi, who died last week in Jackson, Miss., at age 85.

Waller, a Democrat, was elected in 1971 and used his time in office to appoint blacks to administrative boards and commissions for the first time in post-Reconstruction Mississippi, according to the New York Times.

He elevated three historically black colleges to university status, and he abolished the anti-integration Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger described as the “state segregationist spy agency.”

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