New Books Force Consideration of Reconstruction's End from Black PerspectiveHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Reconstruction, African American history, political history
Eric Herschthal is an assistant professor of history at the University of Utah and author of The Science of Abolition: How Slaveholders Became the Enemies of Progress.
In 1885, 14 years after white vigilantes stormed their homestead, Hannah and Samuel Tutson, both formerly enslaved, were living in St. Johns, Florida, a small town near the state’s northeastern coast. Hannah was now in her mid-fifties, her husband, Samuel, in his mid-sixties, and two of their three children, 20-year-old S.L. and 15-year-old Mary, still lived with them. Apart from these bare facts, the record is silent on how, or even if, the Tutson family managed to rebuild their lives in the wake of the attack.
Did they sell their 160-acre plot of land, or did they decide to simply leave it behind and prioritize making it out of the area alive? Did their youngest daughter, Mary, suffer from an irreversible disability—brain damage, paralyzed limbs—from the way the attackers threw her 10-month-old body across the room? And how did Hannah and Samuel’s marriage fare after they each witnessed the other subjected to appalling violence? Did they even discuss the sexual assault she endured at the hands of their white assailants? Did they talk about how the vigilantes mercilessly whipped him after they tied him to a tree? Or was it too difficult even to speak about that night, with too great a risk of reopening the wound?
The Tutsons’ experience of extrajudicial racial terrorism in the aftermath of slavery was not unique. In the century between Reconstruction and the civil rights movements, tens of thousands of Southern Black men, women, and children—the exact number is unknown—were shot, bludgeoned, gang-raped, and hanged from trees, nearly all by posses of white men trying to reimpose something like the racial and economic order that existed under slavery. Few of the perpetrators were convicted or even tried, and the fact that we know anything at all about what happened to survivors like Hannah and Samuel Tutson comes from their willingness to testify before an only occasionally receptive federal government.
Historians call this period the Jim Crow era—when, after Reconstruction, racial apartheid was imposed in the South and reinforced by extralegal anti-Black violence that came to be known as “lynchings”—and the focus tends to be on the motivations of the white perpetrators, the spectacle of the lynching itself, the failure of local and federal officials to intervene, and how it challenges the general narratives we tell ourselves about racial progress, freedom, and democracy. But two new books ask us to shift our attention away from gruesome details of individual attacks and the political culture that enabled them, and instead focus on what it meant for the survivors—how a century of anti-Black violence affected its victims and the generations of Black families and communities that lived in its wake.
Kidada E. Williams’s wrenching and urgent new book, I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction, examines the initial wave of racial terrorism that engulfed the South in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Williams, a prominent historian of racial violence who teaches at Wayne State University, mostly draws on two well-known sources: the thousands of survivor testimonies collected by the federal government in 1871 as part of the “Klan hearings”—a federal investigation into the crimes committed by the recently formed Ku Klux Klan—as well as the 1930s Works Progress Administration interviews, an attempt by FDR’s administration to collect the oral histories of slavery’s aging survivors. Rather than mine these documents in the way historians typically do—for the leads they give us into the limits of Reconstruction and the motives of the aggressors—Williams instead pays attention to what historians “have often rushed past”: the stories that survivors told about what these terrorist raids did to their families, their communities, and their efforts to build independent lives after emancipation.
Like Williams’s I Saw Death Coming, Mari N. Crabtree’s My Soul Is A Witness: The Traumatic Afterlife of Lynching is less interested in the perpetrators than in the survivors. Crabtree, a professor of African American Studies at the College of Charleston, focuses on the ways survivors of post-emancipation lynchings passed down their stories through multiple generations—if they did so at all. Relying on oral histories recorded decades ago, and several she conducted herself, as well as novels, paintings, sculptures, and lyrics of Black artists, Crabtree demonstrates the multigenerational impacts a lynching could have on a family, while also detailing the many strategies Black families and communities used to work through the trauma.
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