Jim Crow Restored in Florida

The Warren Court in 1953

The Warren Court in 1953

If a man burst into your house, seized your belongings, and carried them off for his own enjoyment, you would call him a thief. He not only took things you had from you, but denied you the future enjoyment of them. We have laws against this sort of thing. Everyone would expect some kind of punishment to ensue. If a man seized your child and beat him or her so severely that it caused brain damage, so the child might never be the same again and never able to do all the things that we once dreamed, we would call the perpetrator more than a thief. He stole not just things, not just future pleasures, but a life. The child might live and there may still be happy times and sad times. I will not argue that a life fully ended beats a life disabled; people must make those choices for themselves. But if not for that beating, the child could have grown into a healthier, more successful adult. A monstrous crime like this should make the news. We should hear about the man’s history of mental illness, real or imagined. We should look forward to hearing that he will spend decades in prison. Someone would make a joke about rape. Others would argue that through his crime he had exited the species and concerns about human rights no longer applied. Whatever the guards and fellow prisoners wanted to do, we should look on with delight. We should cheer the execution of righteous violence against the embodiment of evil.

Perhaps the small crime of stealing one life cannot excite. I have known people for whom that sufficed, but people known to a history blogger do not constitute a representative sample of Americans. Imagine that a group of people broke the skulls and wounded the brains of hundreds of children. Imagine they did this for years on end, putting their victims in the thousands. Coming up on fourteen years ago, Americans responded to this scale of misdeed with enthusiastic vengeance against not merely the guilty, but against anybody who so much as looked like them. We accomplished even the remarkable feat of attacking an unrelated country in response. Patriotic commercials hit the airwaves. On the internet, everyone posted cartoons of an eagle calmly sharpening its talons. A general told us that we had no responsibility to reconcile the guilty to their god, only to arrange the meeting. A decade later, we did.

I don’t think we should admire the lust for vengeance, but I can understand it as well as anybody. When pricked, we bleed. When wronged, we revenge. Few things unfetter the more vicious side of our nature than the heady drug of righteousness. This does not make us a singularly evil people any more than it makes us singularly virtuous. Humans of all nations feel the same impulses and struggle to contain them or release them as much as we do. But if Americans have not earned a reputation as a singularly forgiving, restrained people, then the world has judged us unfairly.

Consider that in 2007, the Pinellas County School Board voted to re-segregate its schools. As various Supreme Court decisions have left Brown vs. Board of Ed. with only slightly more weight as precedent than Dred Scott, they could do this. John Roberts told the nation that year that integration schools constituted a racist offense as great as segregating them. When the Pinellas Board voted to re-segregate, it knew precisely what would happen. It promised that all manner of aid would go to predominantly black schools so that they could remain equal while becoming separate. It would all work out.

The aid never arrived. Instead, according to the Tampa Bay Times:

In just eight years, Pinellas County School Board members turned five schools in the county’s black neighborhoods into some of the worst in Florida.

[…]

Then — as black children started failing at outrageous rates, as overstressed teachers walked off the job, as middle class families fled en masse — the board stood by and did nothing.

Today thousands of children are paying the price, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.

They are trapped at Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — five neighborhood elementary schools that the board has transformed into failure factories.

Every year, they turn out a staggering number of children who don’t know the basics.

Eight in 10 fail reading, according to state standardized test scores. Nine in 10 fail math.

Ranked by the state Department of Education, Melrose is the worst elementary school in Florida. Fairmount Park is No. 2. Maximo is No. 10. Lakewood is No. 12. Campbell Park is No. 15.

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

The board turned average, middle of the road high schools into conspicuous failure. It took from the children consigned to them whatever futures they might have enjoyed with better conditions, conditions entirely within the Board’s reach to deliver, and made failures of them. The Board took from them education, the ability to improve themselves, chances for a better life. It took these just as surely as if it had gone around with a van to every home in the district, rounded up all the black children, and dispensed lobotomies. Pinellas might not have had the of best schools before, but it had at least average ones. The Board chose to make them worse. The bureaucrat’s pen can do the work of the billy club, bomb, and gun far more efficiently and no less destructively.

The reporters spent years investigating, reading thousands of documents. They checked Pinellas against other districts and learned that the Board had manufactured literally the worst place in Florida to commit the egregious crime of attending public school while black. They found:

Ninety-five percent of black students tested at the schools are failing reading or math, making the black neighborhoods in southern Pinellas County the most concentrated site of academic failure in all of Florida.

The usual excuses come at this point. People who insist they are not white supremacists will say that black Americans have a culture problem, the fashionable way to say that they’re just inferior to whites. Or they have a poverty problem, which somehow adheres to their skin color through means beyond our understanding. Who knows how these things work? Not the school board:

“This is a nationwide thing, not just us. You hear school districts everywhere talking about this,” said Peggy O’Shea, who also voted for the plan in 2007. “It’s an issue that’s everywhere, unfortunately.”

“We only talk about it in black schools,” she added, “but we resegregated white schools as well.”

It all sounds plausible enough if one cannot bear the burden of thought. Just how do cause and effect work? By what strange alchemy could one connect isolating black children and depriving them of the resources necessary for them to get an adequate education lead to their failure to do so? The white kids left and the test scores went into the sewer. We can’t explain it. Nor can we explain why the white schools do better. These things just happen. Then comes the meaningful silence that we must fill with the unspoken truth: the black kids can’t do better because their nature makes them into the inferiors of whites.
But the Times burdened itself with facts and committed an act of journalism:

All of this is a recent phenomenon. By December 2007, when the board ended integration, black students at the schools had posted gains on standardized tests in three of the four previous years. None of the schools was ranked lower than a C. Today, all the schools have F ratings.

School districts everywhere don’t manage worst in state performance. That takes a rarefied gift. One has to work hard at it. Fortunately, the Pinellas Board had that kind of effort in them. Animated by the best American can-do spirit

After reshaping the schools, the district funded four of them erratically. Some years they got less money per student than other schools, including those in more affluent parts of the county. In 2009, the year after resegregation, at least 50 elementary schools got more money per student than Campbell Park.

One can’t say that they did not know how to do well, since the Board did better until 2007. Nor can one say that they lacked examples of how to do well elsewhere from which they could have learned, had they curiously forgotten the art:

Other districts with higher passing rates are doing far more to aid black students, including creating special offices to target minority achievement, tracking black students’ progress in real time and offering big bonuses to attract quality teachers to high-minority schools. Pinellas does none of those things.

This does not happen accidentally. This does not arise from ignorance or indifference. The Board knew precisely what course they chose, what it would accomplish, and have stood in the way of all attempts to undo it. As Board member Carol Cook had it:

“We’ve looked at just about everything we can and put things in place,” said Carol Cook, who also voted for resegregation in 2007. “I think we’re on the right track.”

Roof's victims, via the BBC

Dylann Roof’s victims, via the BBC

She means every word of that. They set out to plunder the lives of black children and have had a rousing success at it. They have not made mistakes; they have achieved goals. It would not do to admit that, just as it doesn’t do to hoist the Confederate battle flag, don the white hood, and go off a-lynching. Nobody wants to look like Dylann Roof when one can reach his ends without such gauche accoutrements. Better to play ignorant:

Linda Lerner, who voted for the plan that resegregated the district in 2007, blamed the schools’ problems on “the cycle of poverty,” not on actions by the School Board.

Lerner has may not have learned that the connection between poverty and skin color did not arise naturally, but rather people like her created it deliberately. We could blame her schools for that. Or she could have learned the connection, correctly understood her traditions, and carried them on happily. Florida has places where poverty, however constructed, and violence, however encouraged, impede education. But those places do better than Pinellas. Once more, the Times had facts:

In St. Petersburg, the crime rate is 12 percent lower than in Orlando, 15 percent lower than in Daytona Beach and 21 percent lower than in Panama City.

The poverty rate among blacks in Pinellas is 32 percent, compared to 33 percent in Escambia County, 35 percent in Alachua County and 36 percent in Volusia County.

Yet the black neighborhoods in Pinellas are home to schools that are doing far worse than schools in any of those places.

At West Jacksonville Elementary — in a neighborhood so violent it’s nicknamed Lil’ Baghdad — black students are passing reading at twice the rate as at Fairmount Park.

In Palm Beach County, at Belle Glade Elementary — in one of Florida’s poorest places — black children are passing reading at three times the rate as at Melrose.

[…]

There were 1,664 regular elementary schools tested in Florida in 2014. Students at 1,650 of those schools passed reading at higher rates than children in Pinellas County’s five most segregated schools.

Poverty doesn’t explain Pinellas’ problems. One hundred eighty-four elementary schools are as poor or poorer than Pinellas’ worst schools. All but seven outperformed the Pinellas schools in reading and math.

If Pinellas managed typical performance for a Florida school in similar circumstances, then the Board might evade some of the blame. They could paint themselves plausibly as victims of larger trends outside their control. But Pinellas’ achievements in excellence beat those of places that have it worse.

The rate of failure in the five elementary schools is unlike anything that occurs elsewhere in Florida.

The Board could see a light at the end of the tunnel if they wanted to. They could undo all they have done. They need only want to. But why should they? Carol Cook said she thought the district on the right track. She knew the numbers when she said it. She heard the complaints from parents. She could see how other districts did. None of those things mattered to her, or the rest of the board, because they had the opposite goals from other districts. They wanted not to help black students improve, but rather to ensure their failure. The designed a program to achieve that and it has worked. Where we see defeat, they celebrate victory. They have stolen the futures available to black children and put them in the hands of white children in accord with the American Dream:

“They won’t even consider what other school boards have done,” said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. “They refuse to accept that there are people who are doing things better.”

In the Board’s eyes, other districts have not done better but rather worse. No one can beat Pinellas’ performance. For this, for pillaging the youth of their county, we do not damn the Board. We do not have cartoons of the eagle sharpening its talons for them, no matter how many lives they destroyed. We forgive them the children taken away from all they could have achieved. No angry mobs gather at their doorsteps. No burning crosses adorn their lawns. The nation does not cry out for vengeance. We do not speak of scheduling meetings with their god. It takes a remarkably broad-minded nation to suffer such crimes.

This magnanimity ought to serve as a beacon in a dark world. Americans forgive. We have a great nation and when it does wrong, we forgive it. We always forgive it because we consider it ourselves. The Pinellas School Board, like the other segregationists and like the slaveholders before them, we see as part of ourselves. Forgiveness always comes easy in such cases. When the people do our actual bidding, instead of what we tell ourselves we have bid them to do, we don’t even feel it necessary to consider such things. Why forgive the absence of a wrong?

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

If black Americans suffer, then why would we deem that wrong? We belong to Club White, from which we have forever excluded them. Therefore the most horrific wrongs done unto them at best amount to an idle curiosity. We might feel a pang of conscience here or there, like we do for the victims of a natural disaster somewhere across an ocean. More often we know, even if we do not admit it, that we have not heard the miseries of the victims of hurricanes and floods, but the victims of our own designs. We have black America right where we want it. If we call ourselves innocent, then we mean not that we have not done these things but rather that we count them no crimes. They express what we honestly understand as our virtues, not our vices. Vices belong to other people, warmed in the light of different suns. Those children of lesser gods cannot help themselves, so we must subject them to discipline. If a few, a few hundred, a few thousand, or a few million suffer for it, so much the better. They serve as an example to others. These creatures, which we begrudgingly call people, simply must learn their place.

As a slaveholder told Frederick Law Olmstead a century and a half ago:

After “strokes had ceased” and “choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard,” Olmstead asked if it was “necessary to punish her so severely.’ … ‘O yes sir,” answered the lasher, laughing at the Yankee’s innocence. Northerners ‘have no idea how lazy these niggers are …”They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”

We tell ourselves that we have consigned these things to the past. America, born perfect, became better still. We made slavery past tense, even if half the country fought a bloody war to save it, fought another to undo its abolition, and then fought again to preserve its newer forms of subjugation. We keep telling ourselves that even as those new forms shift ever so slightly and continue along, almost unimpeded. We continue on, free from the burden of any facts, pretending that we have won one battle even we we pop the corks on the champagne to celebrate victory in another. We have only ourselves to congratulate.

I do not propose that we should turn the panoply of racial violence against the members of the Panellas School Board. No one should steal their property or their children. No one should terrorize them. No one should take from them the basics that human decency insists we grant to everyone. We need not end them to end this. But so long as we let it continue, we make ourselves accessories in their crimes. When we learn of things like this, everyone declares them not of America. We live in some different country. If our mail still reaches us at addresses in this one, if we vote in its elections, if we insist on using the same name as that strange place where all the virtues we pretend to count as vices live, then civility demands no one call the assertion into question. We have another, better country and we keep it that way by keeping the wrong sorts of people out. We made black and white so we would know which people deserved admission and which had to live in rude shacks down the hill.

We did not have to do this; no law of nature demanded it. Nor did we start this way. We chose our path beside the Chesapeake long ago and we have made ourselves its faithful inheritors. The brute facts dictate we could do otherwise. We could do it tomorrow just as we could have done it today and all the yesterdays sailing upstream on whip-cut rivers of blood and screams of agony across a continent, over the ocean, and through the centuries. We could do it, but confessing that means confessing also the harder truth: We have for all that time in a multitude of ways chosen to stay our course. We have chosen to call plunder right and justice wrong. We have not made a nation that celebrates civil rights martyrs and cherishes their legacy, but rather the nation that killed them.

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A deeper understanding of white supremacy

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

I suspect that if one asked most white Americans what the word “racism” meant, they would say that racism entails hatred. People fear and loathe a racial other. From this, it follows that they both personally mistreat the objects of their scorn and accept and support similar mistreatment practiced by others. From the hatred, all else flows. However deeply one understands the vacuity of racial categories, people clearly built up identities around fitting in one and hating people in the other. We learn in school, from the media, and well-meaning people in our lives that we should condemn such hatreds because, at least in part, no one has any control over what category they end up in. We have the parents we do who had the parents they did, all the way back. Hating someone for their choice of biological parents seems perverse and absurd, as no one has any such choice.

A few years ago, I would have told you the same. I think what I sketch out here describes the general, well-intentioned white moderate-to-liberal understanding of racism. It casts racism as an attitude and feeling, with attendant theories, about something called race. Consequently, a generous application of tolerance and empathy could cure it all. Bring a white racist into a black community. Talk to the people. Look at their kids. They have all the same hopes and dreams anybody else does. They have struggles, but so do the rest of us. The scales fall away from the racist’s eyes. The Grinch hears the Whos singing and his heart grows ten sizes, breaking the x-ray machine.

It works in fiction. Maybe sometimes it works in real life too, but I think that this narrative relies on the idea that the notion that people adopt the hatreds they do out of some irrational reason. They have real empathy for people different from themselves, but have found ways to redirect or suppress it. Fundamentally fragile, those rationalizations collapse at once on contact with the facts. Compassion prevails because ultimately we understand that people hate for bad reasons and good thoughts can chase out the bad.

What if they don’t? The enslaver could walk around the plantation every single day and see the enslaved at work. At a whipping, the enslaver could hear the screams of pain and pleas for mercy. An enslaver might hear the same screams in his bedroom, or see the terror in the eyes of his victim. It would take no effort at all to likewise see the meager joys that slaves struggled for at the margins of the system, that they loved and hated, dreamed and feared the same as any person. These mysteries require no initiation to learn, but rather would pour in through every sense the human body possesses. Enslavers could tell themselves lies; they might even believe them. But they could not miss the essential humanity of their prey.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

On the contrary, understanding that humanity and exploiting it put slave “wenches” into white beds and more and more bales of cotton in the barn. Because slaves could think ahead and understand cause and effect as well as any free person, their fear and pain could be turned on them in ways that would never have worked for non-human livestock. You cannot threaten a horse with being sold down the river. It has no language to understand the threat. If you beat a cow it will not produce more milk. But you can terrorize people. You can wage a war against them. They can understand the threats and connect the pain to specific behaviors. They can read the cotton scale and know if they came in light and what beating would come if they did. An enslaver profits not despite his lack of empathy, but because of it. The mistreatment comes not from a lack of understanding, but arises out of a deep understanding of the slave’s humanity. One who could not effectively terrorize would not profit as one who did have such talents.

From the perspective of the enslaver, most everything done to the slave makes good sense. Every whipping serves a rational purpose. A whipped slave will learn to mind and not abscond, fearing whipping more than remaining. The more terrible the punishment, the more deeply one learns the lesson. Each drop of blood becomes a drop of profit. Mistreatment can arise out of hatred; hatred will sustain it. But the interest in profits and advantage, financial or otherwise, remains. As long as they exist, someone will seek them. We all feel our own pain rather more keenly than that of others, after all. Things we would never accept become the smallest levies upon others. Rationalizations will follow, but rationalization must always come after the decision. We do not seek to justify what we have rejected, but only things we have done and imagine ourselves doing.

Looking at it this way, the conventional narrative has cause and effect reversed. We did not hate and thus forced black Americans to the bottom of the national totem pole. We hated because we set them there and forbade their advancement. All of this, I imagine, sounds like so much theory. It comports well with political preferences I have expressed before. One could easily sketch an alternative theory of racism. Against the alternative, I offer this account from Alan Taylor’s American Colonies. 

Taylor discusses the Chesapeake in the middle to late 1600s. The colony had no slave code until 1670 and consequently no established baseline as to how one must treat the few African slaves on the ground. Some enslavers saw them as indentured servants, due their freedom after so many years. “More commonly, masters permitted slaves to acquire and manage their own property.” Thus “dozens of early slaves purchased their freedom and obtained the tools, clothing, and land to become common planters.” The state did not forbid or confiscate black gains, so

black freedmen and women could move as they pleased, baptize their children, procure firearms, testify in court, buy and sell property, and even vote. Some black men married white women, which was especially remarkable given their scarcity and high demand as wives for white men. A few black women took white husbands.

These people had names and some of them have survived:

The most successful and conspicuous black freedman, Anthony Johnson, acquired a 250-acre tobacco plantation and at least one slave. With apparent impunity, Johnson boldly spoke his own mind to his white neighbors, telling one meddler: “I know myne owne ground and I will worke when I please and play when I please.” When white neighbors lured away his slave, Johnson went to court, winning damages and the return of his property. That the authorities supported an African against whites and upheld his right to own slaves reveals that slavery and racism had not yet become inseparably intertwined in the Chesapeake. That a black man would own a slave also indicates that getting ahead in planter society was more important to Johnson than any sense of racial solidarity with his fellow Africans in Virginia.

Anthony Johnson may have had more freedom in the Virginia of the 1650s than most black Americans did in the Virginia of the 1950s. He not only escaped slavery, but lived in a society that defended his freedom and rights against the aggression of whites. His grandchildren, living in a rather different cultural milieu with more and more distinctly African slaves, quit Virginia for safer lands.

Studying the history I do rarely fills one with hope. My research interests would not delight dinner parties. Friends have asked me to tell them less, not more. One can get the feeling that white supremacy not only persists, but will and must always prevail. The logic of the system demands it. White self-interest, well aware of the numerous advantages that our skin bestows upon us, will never materially surrender a single one. We have, after all, a proven road to racial equality: school integration. We celebrate its de jure end have rejected its de facto termination at all hazards. Confronted with the stolen property in our hands, we imagine ourselves as hard-working, self-made individuals. Someone else, as we saw in the news reports on post-Katrina New Orleans, does the looting.

When I read Johnson’s story a few years ago, it brought tears to my eyes. I mean that literally; I sat with book in hand and teared up. I don’t admire Johnson’s slaveholding any more than I would a white man’s, but I saw in him proof that we did not have to always do as we have done. We could have done otherwise. We could still do otherwise. Forty years of fighting integration need not continue. No law of nature requires them. The sky does not rain down injustice; we do. It follows that we can stop. If white America really wanted to end the fruitless “discussions on race” and fix whatever problems we imagine exist within “the black community” that we also imagine, we could do it.

But the plunder of lives enriches all those of the right color. We do not all benefit equally, but we all do benefit. Our ancestors arranged the system that we and we, their faithful stewards, maintain it. We accept it as the default, automatic as breathing and so natural we have made it simultaneously invisible enough to take for granted and visible enough for us all to feel it. I have felt it when pulled over, late at night, on suspicion of drunk driving. I actually knew I had a police car behind me and paid too much attention to it in my mirror rather than the white line at the road’s shoulder. It never crossed my mind that the officer would do me harm. He didn’t even ask to see my registration before he let me go. I feel it now and then when my father and I walk into a restaurant near the State Police post and see the uniformed men with guns in abundance. The presence of so many armed men doesn’t thrill me, I have the luxury of fearing a fatal misunderstanding only in the abstract. The police rarely do so much as look twice at us.

Taylor concludes

A dark skin became synonymous with slavery, just as freedom became equated with whiteness. In the eighteenth-century Chesapeake colonies almost all blacks were slaves and almost every slave was black (with the exception of occasional captive Indians). A Virginian remarked, “These two words Negro and Slave had, by custom, grown Homogeneous and Convertible.”

[…]

Newly obsessed with racial difference, Chesapeake whites felt more equal despite the growing inequality of their economic circumstances. The new sense of racial solidarity rendered white Virginians indifferent to the continuing concentration of most property and real power in the hands of the planter elite. By increasing the capital requirements for tobacco cultivation, slavery gave competitive advantage to the already wealthy planters, discouraging the smaller planters, who had to rely on the labor of their own families. The more restless and ambitious young commoners moved westward or southward in search of the frontier opportunity to build farms out of the forest.

So went the South and, ultimately, the nation. As long as we imagine an identifiable group that has it much worse, distinctions between those we imagine within our own group seem far more trifling. White Americans rarely received whippings. No one sold our children or forced those children into separate and inferior schools. No one excluded them from the suburbs. On the contrary, the American state helped us and did all in its power to ensure we would have every advantage if not over one another, than over those we imagine not worthy of consideration. Their lack of freedom, then and now, liberates us. We have not had it any other way.

Quitting the Legislature, Part Two

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway quit the Kansas legislature before its first meeting, sending his resignation to Andrew Reeder on June 30. The Herald of Freedom printed that letter on July 14. He began with the reasonable argument that, as a legally elected member, taking his seat would imply that the other members also enjoyed legal election and thus constituted the legitimate authority in the territory. The proslavery legislature’s majority had done nothing of the sort:

It is a fact which has traveled the circuit of the whole civilized world, that this Legislature has been imposed upon the people of Kansas by force of arms. Those who compose it, and those whom they represent, and for whom they act, are alien enemies, who have violently seized the legislative powers of this Territory, and now seek to disguise the tyranny under the form of constitutional enactments. Their Legislature is substantially a provincial council, instituted and ordained by a daring and unscrupulous league in the State of Missouri and other parts of the South, to govern a people whose liberties they have ruthlessly stricken down. This fact has been placed beyond controversy by authentic details of concerted operations, looking to this end, and of overwhelming violence, at the recent elections, unparalleled in all our political history.

One can’t read this and not also think of the liberties that the people of Missouri had struck down in their own borders. Missouri law made black people into slaves. Now Missourians wanted to extend that law to Kansas and so enslave also white Kansans. But that did not mean that the free state men understood themselves as having a common cause with the slaves. The Lawrence convention affirmed the right of Missourians to have slavery untroubled within Missouri.

Very few white Americans anywhere had the ability, even for rhetorical convenience alone, to see themselves as genuinely sharing in the slaves’ plight. Instead, a protest like this appealed to white supremacy. The affront entailed not making people slaves, but making white people slaves. Individual Americans might differ on the former, but only a few extreme proslavery propagandists accepted even the possibility of the latter. White skin made a man free by a law written in blood on Chesapeake tobacco and Carolina rice plantations at the end of the seventeenth century.

Therefore

it would be either fraudulent or pusillanimous in me to respect this as the Legislature of Kansas. I am not willing to do it. — Whatever the timorous or the time-serving may suggest or advise, I shall do nothing of the kind.

One wonders if Conway had in mind the free state men who went to Pawnee and waited until the majority expelled them. Whether he held a grudge against his fellows or not, Conway had more to say about the legislature. He saw fit to

utterly repudiate and reprobate it, as derogatory to the respectability of popular government, and insulting to the virtue and intelligence of the age.

Conway understood that his resignation had consequences reaching beyond his personal virtue and how his presence would lend the Pawnee assembly legitimacy. If he just resigned and went home, he did fairly little. He resolved to do more:

Simply as a citizen and a man, I shall, therefore, yield no submission to this alien legislature. On the contrary, I am ready to set its assumed authority at defiance; and shall be prompt to spurn and trample under my feet its insolent enactments, whenever they conflict with my rights or inclinations.

Doing right by past and present alike

Gentle Readers, you should not miss Ta-Nehisi Coates’ lengthy piece on the history and persistence of white supremacy in the American housing market, its consequences, and what we could do about it if we decided as a nation that we cared enough about those things. He takes as his example how another nation with a horrifying, atrocity-laden history of mistreating some of its citizens made an effort to do right by them.

Reading it reminded me strongly of Jourdan Anderson’s letter answering his former owner. The owner wanted him to come back to the plantation to work and Jourdan agreed, subject to some reasonable conditions:

we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future.

About Fort Pillow

I think that I’ve said here before that, with a few exceptions, I’m not very good about observing anniversaries. Perhaps I should improve on that. I knew that Fort Pillow’s sesquicentennial came and went last weekend and said nothing about it. My reasons at the time involved a considerable investment in 1854, not wanting to break the day to day flow of the narrative, and the fact that I don’t know all that much about the subject itself. But others don’t have those shortcomings and I’ve read some really excellent content that I ought to have shared earlier.

Over at the New York TimesDisunion, you can read a basic overview of events. Confederate troops under the command of former slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked and overwhelmed the garrison of Fort Pillow in western Tennessee. The Union forces holding the fort included a unit of Unionist Tennesseans and freedmen of the United States Colored Troops. They won the fight and

Chaos ensued. With few officers left alive to direct them, some defenders dropped their weapons in surrender, while others scrambled down the steep hillside. But discipline also broke down among the rebels. Forrest’s men had never faced black troops in battle before. In the Confederate mind, opposition from armed black men — in this case, black men who had recently taunted them — was tantamount to a slave insurrection, and few things were likelier to enrage a white Southerner.

“The sight of negro soldiers,” a Confederate witness said, “stirred the bosoms of our soldiers with courageous madness.” Nor was that all: These black men were fighting alongside local white Unionists, whom the rebels despised as “homemade Yankees” and “Tennessee Tories.”

Those Tennessee Tories and latter-day Nat Turners represented an existential threat. Left unchecked, they would flow over the South in a genocidal race war. Fort Pillow rapidly became the most notorious one, but many such massacres involving black soldiers took place during the war and, it must be said, continued after on a smaller scale. Through such violence, and the threat of more, Southern whites successfully instituted Jim Crow laws that would take another century to uproot.

Over at Dead Confederates, Andy Hall has context for the Confederate actions. On the latter count, the massacre of black troops and their white officers actually amounted to Confederate policy. You can read the entire proclamation over there, but two selections:

Sec. 4. That every white person, being a commissioned officer, or acting as such, who, during the present war, shall command nergroes or mulattoes in arms against the Confederate States, or who shall arm, train, organize or prepare negroes or mulattoes for military service against the Confederate States, or who shall voluntarily aid negroes or mulattoes in any military enterprize, attack or conflict in such service, shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection, and shall, if captured, by put to death, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court.

[…]

Sec. 7. All negroes and mulattoes who shall be engaged in war, or be taken in arms against the Confederate States, or shall give aid or comfort to the enemies of the Confederate States, shall, when captured in the Confederate States, be delivered to the authorities of the State or States in which they shall be captured, and dealt with according to the present or future laws of such State or States.

The then-present laws of such states, of course, would mean death for blacks as well as whites.

In a separate post, Andy also has firsthand accounts of the aftermath of the massacre:

All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen. Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter of our unfortunate troops.

And

We then landed at the fort, and I was sent out with a burial party to bury our dead. I found many of the dead lying close along by the water’s edge, where they had evidently sought safety; they could not offer any resistance from the places where they were, in holes and cavities along the banks; most of them had two wounds. I saw several colored soldiers of the Sixth United States Artillery, with their eyes punched out with bayonets; many of them were shot twice and bayonetted also. All those along the bank of the river were colored. The number of the colored near the river was about seventy. Going up into the fort, I saw there bodies partially consumed by fire. Whether burned before or after death I cannot say, anyway, there were several companies of rebels in the fort while these bodies were burning, and they could have pulled them out of the fire had they chosen to do so. One of the wounded negroes told me that “he hadn’t done a thing,” and when the rebels drove our men out of the fort, they (our men) threw away their guns and cried out that they surrendered, but they kept on shooting them down until they had shot all but a few. This is what they all say.

We should not take this as a one-off act. The Confederate soldiers doing the killing understood themselves as engaged in the maintenance of racial control, a tradition that went back as far as slavery in the New World. If a black man could rise up and kill a white, then others might learn that they too could and, being united in rejecting their status as slaves, go off and kill all the whites. How could a white person sleep at night unless he or she knew that the resentful black people all around had the threat of violence to keep them in line?

Incidents like Fort Pillow naturally generate a certain degree of controversy, some legitimate and some from the usual quarters that see Forrest as a folk hero and, though many shrink from saying it, think he gave to the garrison precisely what it deserved. The latter have been with us for a long time. They’re not all gone off into the sunset just yet, despite all the progress we’ve made in the hundred and fifty years since.