Black historians at the OAH risked the charge of presentism to show the links between racial violence in 1917 and Black Lives Matter today

Historians in the News
tags: Black History, OAH, Black lives matter



Thumbnail Image - By Jamelle Bouie, CC BY 2.0

... While police brutality may be something shocking to mainstream America, it is something very familiar to black memories. Ancestors, both living and dead, have circulated stories of state violence for centuries.  Perhaps the rest of America is finally ready to listen.

One bold group of scholars at the OAH arrived in New Orleans outraged enough to explore these visceral links between the black past and the black present. The stated aim of their panel, chaired by Chad Williams of Brandeis University, was to connect the “Race Wars of 1917” (that exploded in both East St. Louis and Houston a hundred years ago) to the Ferguson Uprising, the death of Sandra Bland, and the anti-black violence of the present. The deeper purpose, however, was in fact a much larger critique of academic epistemologies that so often curtail explorations of black pain and rage. Lesser historians might have cowered at the charge of ‘presentism.’  But these scholars had had enough.

Tyina Steptoe from the University of Arizona led the way. Steptoe recounted the brutal actions and racist language of the Houston Police Department as they drug, battered, terrorized, and publicly humiliated a nightgown-clad Sara Travers in 1917.  Black male soldiers, invoking a patriarchal language of protection, mobilized and fought back against the police. By the time the dust settled four black soldiers and at least a dozen other Houstonians had been killed.  The U.S. military would subsequently court marshal and execute sixteen black soldiers involved in the uprising and incarcerate approximately sixty more for life.  The government would have executed ten more black soldiers had it not been for the intervention of President Woodrow Wilson who commuted these ten sentences from a death at the gallows to a life behind bars.

While much of this story was previously covered in Freedom Struggles by co-panelist and discussant Adriane Lentz-Smith, Steptoe offered new evidence indicating that black women like Travers (and Bland) were neither passive recipients of black male protection nor the helpless victims of white male violence.  Just as Keisha Blain and Ashley Farmer have shown in other contexts, Steptoe found black women in Houston actively organizing against white supremacy even as black women at large were so often marginalized within the very movements that they helped initiate and sustain.   In the end, Steptoe identified the real crime that united the stories of both Bland and Travers across time—both were deemed ‘uppity’ black women by their white male captors who tried to discipline these non-conforming black women through the power of state violence.

Providing a top-down supplement to Steptoe’s thick description on the ground, Eric Yellin from the University of Richmond detailed the Wilson Administration’s reaction to the racial violence of 1917.   While the Houston unrest was more akin to a modern urban uprising (with black residents defending themselves and fighting back against racial injustice), East St. Louis was more of an old-fashion nineteenth century ‘race riot.’ White residents took up arms, terrorized, and burned black communities after years of intense black migration, labor competition, and, in this case, the mere rumor of interracial sexuality.   Observers compared the carnage in East St. Louis to the American Civil War, and, in an oft repeated connection to colonialism abroad, to the Belgian Congo.  For Yellin, Wilson’s anemic response (that involved meeting with black leaders but refusing to prosecute white perpetrators) was part of the de-racialization of the Progressive Movement at large.  All told Yellin found that the narratives silencing black pain and erasing the racist origins of the year’s violence were part of the long trend, initiated by Progressivism, towards today’s color blind racism.  While Progressives tried to be…well…progressive, as it related to race, they ended up creating a system of ignoring race and racism as a strange means of addressing it.

Adriane Lentz-Smith, in bringing the panel’s themes together, agreed that the long history of colorblind racism, as mapped by both Yellin and elsewhere by Ibram X. Kendi, is a ripe explanatory site for the modern racism pervading the #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter sentiments.  More memorably, however, Lentz-Smith offered a telling personal narrative about one of her mentors, Cornel West. ...



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