Today It’s Critical Race Theory. 200 Years Ago It Was Abolitionist LiteratureHistorians in the News
tags: abolition, censorship, culture wars, abolitionists, critical race theory
There have been many contributions to help make sense of the Republican obsession with critical race theory, a framework developed some 40 years ago to analyze the ways racism is endemic to our laws and policies. Conservatives have decided it’s a domestic threat, and, as of this writing, 11 states have already banned teaching it in public schools. But perhaps the best explanation for the hysteria is in a journal entry written on April 7, 1829, by a schoolteacher named Susan Nye Hutchison, who lived in Augusta, Georgia, and whose diaries illuminate a quarter century of life before the Civil War. “Great fear begins to be prevalent that the negroes are about to rise,” Hutchison wrote.
Georgians had experienced a spate of fires, as rumors of insurrection made the citizens of Augusta both negro- and pyro-phobic. Four days before Hutchison’s entry, another “terrible fire” burned about a third of the city, according to a contemporary news article. Estimated damages totaled half a million dollars, with nearly 350 homes destroyed. Hysteria ensued, and enslaved Black people were blamed, rounded up, and tried without evidence.
Months later, a pamphlet named the Appeal, David Walker’s polemic against slavery, emerged in the South. “My object is, if possible,” Walker, a free Black man, wrote, “to awaken in the breasts of my afflicted, degraded and slumbering brethren, a spirit of inquiry and investigation respecting our miseries and wretchedness.”
Southern politicians viewed Walker’s Appeal and its repudiation of their values as “incendiary,” a pyrotechnic of another kind. When Walker’s treatise reached his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, magistrate James McKee issued a warning to Gov. John Owen:
The dissemination of Walker’s pamphlet…[proves] beyond a doubt that a systematic attempt is making by some reckless persons at the North to sow sedition among the slaves [of] the South, and that this pamphlet is intended and well calculated to prepare the minds of the slave population for any measure, however desperate, that they may propose for accomplishing their emancipation…unless some measures are taken to counteract this design in time, I fear the consequences may be serious to the extreme.
North Carolina quickly passed two laws aimed at stemming slave rebellions by repressing the spread of abolitionist literature. An Act to Prevent the Circulation of Seditious Publications made it a felony to import and distribute “any written or printed pamphlet or paper…the evident tendency whereof would be to excite insurrection, conspiracy or resistance.” A second law banned “the teaching of slaves to read and write,” saying it “has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion to the manifest injury of the citizens of this State.”
Walker’s Appeal also led to Georgia’s December 1829 anti-literacy law, which made circulating insurrectionary texts punishable by death. Virginia, Missouri, and others followed. As a Missouri state archive website puts it, the bans were deemed necessary because “an uneducated black population made white citizens feel more secure against both abolitionists and slave uprisings.”
“This is a terrorist assault in our country, and rioting cannot be tolerated,” Ted Cruz said last year as citizens rebelled against police murder. Republicans had little scripture to demonize protests against the public torture and execution of George Floyd, so they deferred their anti-rebellion rhetoric into new laws against looting, property damage, and even protesting, suggesting that failing to do so would bring a conflagration that would consume the country. “These people are violent, domestic extremists,” Marco Rubio said. “They hate the police, they hate the government, and they want this country to fall apart…some of them want a second civil war.”
Anti-protest bills were an opening salvo against the Black Lives Matter rebellions, but there would be another volley. As demonstrators and their allies picked up How to Be an Antiracist, White Fragility, and other books—which helped them articulate demands to dismantle white supremacy, to rebel against state-sanctioned murder, to call for defunding police and obliterating qualified immunity—Republicans turned to locking down these texts and the ideas they carry.
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