Race Relations in the Urban South: 1865-1890 - Book Review

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Race Relations in the Urban South: 1865-1890 by Howard N. Rabinowitz

This article was originally published on Videri.org and is republished here with their permission.

Race Relations in the Urban South traces the origins of segregation and the conceit of “separate but equal.” Rabinowitz finds that the influx of emancipated slaves into southern cities created new frictions among white Democrats, white Republicans, and newly-freed blacks. Segregation offered an uneasy compromise between the three parties. White Democrats sought new ways to control blacks instead of slavery. Republicans strove to balance their appeal to white voters with a degree of support for blacks. Burgeoning black communities looked for whatever social and political gains they could find, and many viewed separation as an improvement over exclusion. “Separate but equal,” however, offered much more in theory than practice, and, by the end of the nineteenth century, most of what blacks gained during Reconstruction had been reversed.

The Thirteenth Amendment may have abolished slavery, but it did not erase the culture of white supremacy that justified it. White southerners commonly believed that black men and women had needed slavery to make them civilized. As large numbers of freed slaves migrated to southern cities, in which antebellum blacks had been scarce, whites look for different ways to keep them in check. A chief method was a legal system that held whites and blacks to different standards, even when the race was not an explicit criterion of the law.

Rabinowitz argues that “a higher percentage [of blacks] were arrested and convicted of crimes and their sentences were more severe than those of whites charged with comparable offenses.” Vagrancy laws primarily targeted the large numbers of unemployed urban blacks in the years immediately following the Civil War. The Black Codes, many of which did not specifically mention race, regulated African-American life in the South in ways that ranged from prohibiting interracial marriage to barring blacks from selling liquor or owning firearms.

Blacks in southern cities also faced harsh geographic and economic discrimination, as they were primarily confined to the poorest sections of cities. City councils would manipulate building codes to prevent specific types of homes from being built in certain areas. Tenements and lower quality homes were permitted in black areas, whereas sturdier houses were erected in white areas. Black neighborhoods also lacked streetlights, sewer systems, and basic sanitation, which made inhabitants more vulnerable to illness and health problems.

Relegating blacks to the bottom of the economy also insured they would not be able to afford to live among whites. Rabinowitz finds that “the great mass of blacks were mired in low-paying, irregular, and low-status positions known as ‘negro jobs.’” Whites excluded blacks from skilled labor because they did not want economic competition. Organized labor offered no help, either, because unions were afraid of alienating white workers. Economic poverty does not give a complete picture of the origins of segregation.

Rabinowitz finds that middle-class and even wealthy blacks, though relatively few, formed an essential part of the postbellum order. For segregation to be effective, blacks needed a parallel system of commerce and finance. Whites supported the development of black banks, insurance companies, and merchants, so long as they did not threaten white businesses.

Still, the development of a small black upper and middle class enabled blacks to invest in their community, although this modest economic power was never enough to leverage real political gains. However, this parallel system reveals Rabinowitz’s most startling observation of the “separate but equal” construct: many blacks welcomed segregation because they viewed it as an improvement over slavery.

To be clear, Rabinowitz finds no evidence that blacks were content with Jim Crow. Some progress, though, was better than none, and a nominally separate but equal society offered more than the regime of exclusion that had defined slavery. “The professed policy of separate but equal,” Rabinowitz argues, “had the benefit of minimizing white hostility while still presenting the blacks with a significant improvement over their treatment at the hands of earlier administrations.” Segregation did not put blacks on equal footing with whites, but it did create spaces that bore less scrutiny. Black neighborhoods, for example, “brought together large numbers of negroes in areas that whites could not easily control.” Blacks under the “separate but equal” regime nonetheless suffered daily indignity and discrimination.

While most specific segregation laws were not passed until after 1890, “de facto segregation generally prevailed.” Streetcar owners in Nashville, for example, opted to provide segregated cars. Many hotels, theaters, and restaurants excluded blacks altogether, and staking rinks billed themselves as establishments for “ladies” and “gentlemen.” After the passage of the 1875 Civil Rights Act, blacks were able to challenge these practices with some success, but none of these gains were profound. Violent attacks by lynch mobs or individual whites generally went unpunished and, though Rabinowitz finds that the former did not often occur in the first quarter century of the antebellum, the threat of this form of retribution was still a potent tool for controlling blacks.

Rabinowitz argues that, though demeaning and cruel, the hollow promise of “separate but equal” was the most that blacks could practically hope for in the first twenty-five years after the Civil War. “Given the opposition of southern whites, it seems unlikely that the Republicans, even if they had wanted to, could have forced integration on the South.” Despite the misgivings of many southern Republicans, and fierce resistance from Democrats, the military and the Freedman’s Bureau managed to enforce black suffrage in 1868. As a result, some cities elected black officials for the first time and blacks were also appointed to positions of patronage, but such gains were short-lived. One of the reasons for the victory of the Redeemers was that Republicans would only go so far in supporting blacks for fear of alienating white voters. A prime example of this pattern was white republicans lackluster support of the 1875 Civil Rights Act. On occasion, disillusioned blacks even cast protest votes for Democrats to remind Republicans that they should not be taken for granted.

From the outset, Democrats looked for ways to limit blacks’ access to the ballot box. As long as the North or a robust Republican party maintained a presence, the Redeemers’ success could only be partial, but their efforts were tireless. Long before the end of Reconstruction, Redeemers sought to disenfranchise blacks through a “mixture of fraud, intimidation, and, most important, legislative manipulation.” Democrats at polling places frequently stuffed ballot boxes and disregarded republican ballots. White employers often threatened to fire black employees if they did not vote Democratic. But legislative manipulation was the most effective means of disenfranchising black voters.

Redeemer-controlled state legislatures devised a seemingly endless list of strategies. The white primary became a staple of Southern states, as did gerrymandering. In 1870, Georgia switched to a ward system that ensured white voting blocs would always outnumber that of blacks. Montgomery, Alabama convinced state legislators to reduce the boundaries of the city so that the black neighborhoods on the edge of town were no longer eligible to participate in local elections. Poll taxes, separate lines, and ballot boxes, and complicated voting procedures were also part of the strategy to disenfranchise black voters. Rabinowitz concludes that “the disenfranchisement of the last decade of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth century was the logical culmination of white thinking since the onset of Reconstruction.”

Rabinowitz’s principal finding in Race Relations in the Urban South is that the seeds of Jim Crow had been planted before the ink of the thirteenth amendment was dry. The legal mechanisms of Reconstruction did nothing to diminish a deeply entrenched culture of white supremacy. Republicans in the South found that they could only offer limited support to blacks without alienating white voters. Still, for many blacks, segregation offered more opportunities than slavery, and the few blacks who grew comfortable in the late 19th century exploited these small advantages to invest in their communities. In the end, though, Reconstruction left blacks with weak protection while offering the Redeemers a series of shrinking hurdles.

Check out other great articles at Videri.org.

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