The South Is "an armed camp."
In the three months since Reese began his slavery investigation, the guilt of every defendant called to court had in one manner or another been established. He'd won the personal attention and support of the U.S. attorney general and of President Roosevelt himself. Indeed, a new position had just been created in his office to oversee an even more expansive attack on slavery. Reese believed history, and the power of the nation, were with him. Even rabidly anti-black, white supremacist politicians and newspapers such as the Montgomery Advertiser initially reacted with embarrassment to the peonage charges that so suddenly burst into the public eye.
In truth, the mistrial in the case of Fletcher Turner marked an ominous reversal. Resentment to the exposure of the new slavery was growing. Other voices, defiant and rancorous, began to rise.
On the Saturday before Turner's surprise guilty plea, Alabama secretary of state Heflin spoke to an annual reunion of Confederate veterans in the town of Luverne, issuing a ringing endorsement of how men such as Pace and Turner had nobly returned black workers to their proper position as slaves and attacking Reese and Judge Jones as willing to sacrifice the honor of southern whites in return for advancement under President Roosevelt. They were nest foulers and "nigger lovers," cried supporters of the accused. Heflin and his allies said any man who did not defy them deserved all the contempt of the white South.
Reese and Heflin traded charges through the newspapers—the U.S. attorney asserting that Heflin deceitfully mischaracterized the facts of the case; Heflin, annealing his coarse racism in the language of the U.S. Constitution, retorted that Judge Jones was usurping the American ideals of trials by jury. 1
While the Turner trial was under way, a frenzied mob in Scottsboro, Alabama, gunned down the town sheriff in front of his family as he refused to turn over a black teenager who had allegedly "attempted criminal assault" on a nineteen-year-old white girl. Once the sheriff was dead, the black man was seized from his cell and hanged from a telegraph pole that night.
Midway through the trial, a lawyer in Dothan, Alabama, telegraphed Reese to report that a client, Enoch Patterson, was being held in peonage by the town's chief of police. Obviously, no local system of justice was available to defend Patterson. "I have no redress here for his wrongs," the lawyer wrote. "I know of no way to get justice for him but to submit the matter to you."2 Similar charges flowed into his office, so numerous and substantial that Reese—already frenzied with the duties of the trial and other indictments—could barely manage to send acknowledgments of the information, much less open investigations.
In Georgia, allegations surfaced in the court of Judge Emory Speer, in the cotton-dense version of that state's Black Belt, that the family of state representative Edward McRee, one of the most prominent in the state, was operating a slave plantation even more expansive and brutal than anything alleged in Tallapoosa County.
Across the nation, the spring and summer of 1903 marked a venomous turn in relations between blacks and whites. A pall was descending on black America, like nothing experienced since the darkest hours of antebellum slavery. If anything, the poisoned atmosphere and accelerating disintegration of the structure of civil society more resembled to blacks a time two centuries earlier, when white slave traders and their corrupted indigenous allies descended without explanation upon the villages of West Africa to plunder the native population. For at least the next four decades, especially on the backcountry roads and rural rail lines of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, no black person living outside the explicit protection of whites could again feel fully secure.
The plummeting position of black Americans was driven by the convergence of transforming currents in American life. In the years of abolitionist fervor before and after the Civil War, northern whites who pushed for full citizenship for black freedmen operated under naive assumptions. Many believed that once schools and wages were extended to liberated slaves, they could be quickly and fully assimilated into U.S. society. In the span of half a generation, they imagined the nation's eleven million African Americans learning to read and write and becoming dark-skinned versions of the yeoman white farmers fanning across the western prairies.
Human slaves had been freed many times before—from the Israelites, to the Romans, to Africans in the vast British Empire as recently as 1834. But no society in human history had attempted to instantly transform a vast and entrenched slave class into immediate full and equal citizenship. The cost of educating freed slaves and their children came to seem unbearably enormous, even to their purported friends. Their expectations of compensation radically altered the economics of southern agriculture. And even among the most ardent abolitionists, few white Americans in any region were truly prepared to accept black men and women, with their seemingly inexplicable dialects, mannerisms, and supposedly narrow skills, as true social equals.
Moreover, Charles Darwin's still new theory of evolution was threading through American culture with unintended sinister repercussions. Before the publication of Darwin's landmark On the Origin of Species in 1859, virtually all Americans viewed the presumed higher and lower racial order of whites, blacks, and native Indian tribes as mandated by God. But the nearly ubiquitous acceptance of Christianity by American blacks—at the active encouragement of whites—also clearly established the essential humanity of slaves. Christianity said slaves—despite their legal categorization as chattel—and their owners were indisputably members of the same race. Regardless of the violence used by whites against slaves, there was a loose consensus, even in the South, that whites and blacks were linked in their humanity and that God demanded some measure of moral consideration and compassion for all. Northern opposition to slavery before the Civil War was deeply rooted in this religious precept.
But swirling concepts of evolution upended those traditions. Dehumanizing interpretations of the racial order were unleashed—driven and defined not just by skin color but by ever more refined concepts of blood. A new conceit of multiple, distinct human species emerged. The Indian wars of the 1870s solidified a growing sense of genetically propelled white superiority and of raw violence as an appropriate method of protecting white political supremacy and racial purity. Thousands of Civil War soldiers who had been introduced to battle in a morally complex war of racial liberation were later immersed on the Great Plains in the simple absolutism of the pure, racially motivated violence that would haunt the twentieth century.
Popular American culture embraced the western conflicts as proof of white superiority—spawning hundreds of novels and short stories that extolled the extermination of Indian populations as the inexorable march of white progress and eminent domain. William "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Wild West Show became a pageant of white supremacist rhetoric, drawing tens of millions of American and European spectators in the 1880s and 1890s.
A whole new genre of fiction extolling the antebellum South and an idealized view of slavery became immensely popular. Joel Chandler Harris's books filled with stories of contented slaves and kindly masters—first serialized in the Atlanta Constitution—sold in enormous volumes in the North. The most sensational book in all regions of the country remained The Leopard's Spots, a southern romance by a former preacher named Thomas Dixon Jr.
Published in New York by Doubleday Page & Co. the previous year, the novel was built around the quest of Confederate colonel Charles Gas-ton to attain love and glory as he swept away black political participation in Reconstruction-era North Carolina. Underscoring his repudiation of past depictions of cruel antebellum slavery, Dixon co-opted for his characters many of the names of the infamous Simon Legree and other key figures in Harriet Beecher Stowe's prewar abolitionist bible, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Yet in Dixon's rendering, the brutal southern slave masters were kindly; former slaves risen to power in Reconstruction were a gruesome plague upon whites and themselves. Late in the novel, Gaston gives his own blood for a transfusion to a girl raped by a black man. After her death, a relief from a life marked as despoiled, the father refuses to have his daughter placed in a grave dug by a black man. Confederate veterans at the funeral rally to dig a new one.
In the novel, a black man accused of the crime is tied to a pine tree, doused with oil, and burned to death. Dixon writes of Gaston pondering how "the insolence of a class of young negro men was becoming more and more intolerable."3 Gaston "was fast being overwhelmed with the conviction that sooner or later we must squarely face the fact that two such races, counting millions in numbers, can not live together under a democracy…. Amalgamation simply meant Africanisation. The big nostrils, flat nose, massive jaw, protruding lip and kinky hair will register their animal marks over the proudest intellect and the rarest beauty of any other race. The rule that had no exception was that one drop of Negro blood makes a negro." The book's initial printing of fifteen thousand was immediately consumed. Soon more than a million copies had been purchased. Dixon instantly became one of the most widely read writers of the first decades of the century.
Another best-selling novelist of the romanticized South, Thomas Nelson Page, became one of the country's most influential voices on race relations. Asserting that blacks constituted the vast majority of rapists and criminals in the United States, and that the overwhelming preponderance of blacks remained "ignorant" and "immoral," Page warned that the continued coexistence of the races was likely impossible. "After 40 years in which money and care have been given unstintedly to uplift them …the Negro race has not advanced at all," Page declared. Blacks are "a vast sluggish mass of uncooled lava over a section of the country, burying some sections and affecting the whole. It is apparently harmless, but beneath its surface smolder fires which may at any time burst forth unexpectedly and spread desolation."4
Few white Americans expressed disagreement. Southern whites cheered news in April 1903 that the New York public school system ordered the removal from its reading lists of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Echoing Dixon, New York public school libraries superintendent Cland G. Leland said Stowe's depiction of antebellum slavery "does not belong to today but to an unhappy period of our country's history, the memory of which it is not well to revive in our children."5
White Americans across the country were adopting a dramatically revised version of the racial strife of the nineteenth century—a mythology in which the Civil War had sufficiently ameliorated the injuries of slavery to blacks and that during the ensuing decades southern whites heaped assistance and opportunity upon former slaves to no avail. The new version of events declared that African Americans—being fundamentally inferior and incorrigible—were in the new century a burden on the nation rather than victims of its past.6
A widely disseminated treatise on blacks published in 1901 concluded that cohabitation in the same society by whites and free blacks would forever be cursed by the immutably brutish aspects of African character. "The chief and overpowering element in his makeup is an imperious sexual impulse which, aroused at the slightest incentive, sweeps aside all restraints in the pursuit of physical gratification."7
The Montgomery Advertiser reported with obvious satisfaction on a declaration of thanks issued by the "colored people of Richmond" to a white education conference for all that it had done for African Americans. While inviting attendees of the meeting to attend First African Baptist Church while in the city, the declaration assured whites, "The negroes of Richmond have always been able to live in peace and harmony with the white race. The same kindly feeling which coursed in the veins of the ‘mammy’ and body servant of bygone days exists today"8 White southerners clung to any fragment of such obeisance as demonstration that their racial conduct was a corrective measure aimed at bringing African Americans back to their natural posture toward whites—not an eruption of supremacist venality.
A young white chambermaid at the English Hotel in Indianapolis, Indiana, named Louise Hadley became a brief cause célèbre in May 1903, hailed in the North and the South, after she refused to make up a bed that had been occupied by Booker T Washington. After being fired from her job, Hadley issued a public statement: "For a white girl to clean up the rooms occupied by a negro … is a disgrace," she wrote. "I have always felt that the negro was not far above the brute." Committees formed in Georgia, Alabama, and Texas raised several thousand dollars in contributions to Hadley. "We admire this young woman's discrimination and think she took exactly the right action," beamed the Dadeville Spot Cash.9
When Boston leaders publicly discussed a proposal to transport large numbers of southern blacks to New England's declining farm regions, southerners sputtered with skepticism. "We could well spare a few thousand ‘crap shooters’ and banjo pickers from the South," one Alabama letter writer responded on the pages of the Advertiser. "The only negroes who will probably agree to go will be those with whom it would be a mercy not only for the whites, but the negro of the South, to part," said the Chattanooga Times."Since the mulatto Crispus Attucks led the phlegmatic Bostonians in their revolt against the British troops, dark skins have been popular up there," sneered the Montgomery Advertiser. "Such a movement might be good for the South. It would probably rid our section of a good many negroes who are worse than useless here…It would give those far-sighted philanthropists a chance to learn by actual contact and experience something of the race problem about which they prate so much." The Advertiser editorialized on the need for African Americans to be "fixed" through hard labor.10
In the barely veiled racist invective of the day, the Columbus (Georgia) Enquirer-Sun said it doubted the movement would amount to anything until watermelon season was over.11
The popular sentiments used to justify the violence appeared to correspond with the work of a generation of American physicians and scientists—in the North and the South—who busily translated or mistranslated the elementary evolutionary principles outlined by Darwin into crude explanations for why blacks should be returned to a "mild form of slavery," as one delegate to a Virginia constitutional convention phrased it. At a meeting of the state medical association in Georgia, one physician presented a paper that purported to document the close similarities between a long list of black features—skin, mouth, lips, chin, hair, nose, nostrils, ears, and navel—and those of the horse, cow, dog, and other barnyard animals. From that claimed evidence, Dr. E. C. Ferguson extrapolated that the "negro is monkey-like; has no sympathy for his fellow-man; has no regard for the truth, and when the truth would answer his purpose the best, he will lie. He is without gratitude or appreciation of anything done for him; is a natural born thief,—will steal anything, no matter how worthless. He has no morals. Turpitude is his ideal of all that pertains to life. His progeny are not provided for at home and are allowed to roam at large without restraint, and seek subsistence as best they can, growing up like any animal."12
The new science of anthropology embraced the notion that quantifiable characteristics of whites, blacks, and Indians—such as brain size— demonstrated the clear physical and intellectual superiority of whites. In May 1903, as Warren Reese's Alabama investigation got under way, the Atlantic Monthly magazine published a long tract titled "The Mulatto Factor ," written by an erudite planter in Greenville, Mississippi, Alfred H. Stone, arguing that the presence of mixed-race blacks—with superior intelligence and leadership skills derived from traces of white blood—was the cause of current race turmoil.
New exhibits on primitive peoples made the American Museum of Natural History in New York City a scientific temple to the inevitability of white dominion over nonwhite races. The institution was emerging as a hotbed of the embryonic concepts of eugenics and "racial hygiene" that would eventually lead to unimaginable violence later in the twentieth century.
The St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 featured an exhibit of live pygmies, transported from the Belgian Congo—then reaching a gruesome apogee of colonial slavery under King Leopold strikingly similar to that emerging in the U.S. South. After the fair, one of the pygmies, Ota Benga, appeared briefly as an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, before transferring to the monkey house at the Bronx Zoological Park—initially sharing a cage with an orangutan named Bohong. After several years as a freak curiosity in the United States, Benga killed himself in 1916.13
The same year that Benga appeared at Central Park West, the Carnegie Institution funded the establishment of the Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, New York. The center eventually became the Eugenics Records Office and the leading scientific advocate of notions of racial superiority and inferiority. With broad support from the federal government, prominent jurists, and scientists at major universities, researchers there pursued a decades-long, but scientifically flawed, project to collect data on the inherited characteristics of Americans. (For the next four decades, the work of the Eugenics Records Office and its leaders was the backbone of a highly successful campaign to promote sterilization for "feebleminded" and other ostensibly inferior genetic stock, strict laws against racial intermarriage, and stringent limits on the immigration of Jews and southern Europeans to the United States.)
Amid that swelling wave of public sentiment, shared by the simplest and most advanced white Americans, the moral implications of the Civil War faltered. More than thirty-five years had passed since the end of the conflict, long enough that the grief and anger associated with individual deaths and disasters had muted. Aging Union veterans of the Civil War were declining as a national voting bloc. In place of the war's fading emotional resonance, a cult of reunion and reconciliation among whites in all regions arose, embraced by leaders of all national parties who had grown weary of the "bloody shirt"—a euphemism for demagogic political tactics designed to stir regional emotions.
There was a palpable sense that northerners were no longer willing to risk renewed violence to enforce a thinly supported victor's justice on the South. All demands for southern acquiescence to guilt for the war were dissolving. A generation of post-Civil War southerners—like Pace, McRee, and their contemporaries—were approaching middle age. They were anxious to redeem their fathers who fought and died in southern regiments and the skill of the officers who led them from the tarnish of defeat, the scandal of treason, and the perceived amorality of slavery. Southerners—and growing numbers of northern whites—gravitated to a new interpretation of the rebellion, one that abandoned any depiction of the war as a defeated insurrection and instead permitted open reverence for southern "qualities" of battlefield ferocity and social chivalry, and for specific acts of Confederate heroism to be incorporated into collective American history.
Georgia's federal judge Emory Speer, overseeing the new slavery cases emerging in southern Georgia, summed up the new conventional history in his 1903 commencement speech to graduates of Atlanta's Emory University. Taking the life of Robert E. Lee as his topic, Judge Speer called for an explicit rehabilitation of the once disgraced Confederate military commander. America, he said, "can no longer afford to question the military and personal honor of Lee and his noble compatriots. America, with all her acknowledged power, cannot fail to appropriate that warlike renown, which gleamed on the bayonets and blazed in the serried volleys of the soldiers of the South."14
The South had nothing to be ashamed of anymore. The myth that the war had been fought over regional patriotism rather than slavery became rooted in American identity. Even slavery itself came to be remembered not as one of the basal crimes of American society, but as a nearly benign anachronism. White Americans arrived at a contradictory but firm view that slavery was a relic of the past that had rightfully expired, but that coerced servitude and behavior was nonetheless the appropriate role in national life for blacks. Whites in the North and the South could be on the same side in this perverse recasting of the war's narrative. That new consensus unleashed typhonic waves across black life.
The blithe testimony of an elderly black man to a Georgia legislative commission inquiring into financial improprieties in that state's convict leasing system illustrated the gratuitous cynicism that steeped the lives of African Americans. In June 1901, the man, named Ephraim Gaither, was being held in a work camp for men arrested and convicted of minor offenses at an isolated location about fifty miles north of Atlanta. Gaither had been arrested on a dubious charge of carrying a concealed weapon. After conviction, he was sold along with 105 other men to a timber-cutting operation controlled by one of Atlanta's most prominent businessmen, Joel Hurt. That month, a sixteen-year-old boy arrived in the camp to serve three months of hard labor for an unspecified misdemeanor he had allegedly committed.
"He was around the yard sorter playing and he started walking off and got to trotting a little bit, playing around there and got behind a pine tree," Gaither recounted calmly, in testimony to the committee of Georgia elected officials. "There was a young fellow, one of the bosses, up in a pine tree and he had his gun and shot at the little negro and shot this side of his face off," Gaither said as he pointed to the left side of his face.
The fellow runs off to the woods about thirty or forty yards and the guards follow him. Then Charley Goodson, he goes and gets the dog and puts on the trail of him and they start off, the dogs are barking the way the negro went off. Directly they came back and I heard one of the guards say that negro he done and goes across the mountain and we can't get him. That is when they come back with the dogs and everything was quiet. That was on Thursday, Thursday evening. They let that negro stay there lying in the woods from Thursday to Thursday and it gets to stinking so bad we couldn't stand it hardly; and we complained about the smell. That day we noticed a bitch, a hound bitch it was going across by the edge of the woods with something in its mouth and we looked and seed that it was the arm of that poor negro that they had killed down there in the woods. The dog had torn the arm off of him and was dragging it down through the edge of the woods with the fingers dragging on the ground. The Bosses took John Williams and two or three others, I don't remember the names now and made him a pine box and went down there and buried him.
Members of the committee responded by grilling Gaither about why he came to the state capitol that day to testify and whether a black man's word could be trusted. "Did any white men see that?" asked one state representative, about the events described by Gaither. Another quizzed Gaither as to whether any white man in Atlanta could vouch for him. Finally he was asked: "You were a bad negro?"
Gaither responded: "No boss, I was no bad negro. They thought I was." No queries were made as to the identities of the boy killed, the camp boss who shot him, or why myriad state regulations governing the treatment of prisoners at the time or the handling of a convict's death were never fulfilled.15 The homicide Gaither described was never investigated.
The harvest of that river of animosity was palpable for thousands of African Americans. A venomous contempt for black life was not just tolerated but increasingly celebrated. On Tybee Island off the coast of Georgia, guards drove a squad of black men arrested by the local sheriff into the surf to bathe. Few could swim. Weighed down by balls and chains, four were swept into the sea. The body of misdemeanant Charles Walker surfaced a day later on the edge of nearby Screven Island.16
When a black man in Henderson, North Carolina, refused to give up his reserved seat in a local theater to a white patron in April 1903, he was forcibly ejected. When he resisted being removed, the black man was shot dead by a policeman.17 White southerners applauded broadly.
A white mob seized an African Methodist Episcopal minister in Lees-burg, Georgia, named Rev. W W Williams that spring after he began to emerge among local blacks in the farm community as an influential leader. White men owned nearly all the area's land and were accustomed to the same conjugal rights with black women on their farms as had existed during antebellum slavery. Rev. Williams began preaching that black women should resist the sexual advances of the dominant white men of the community, wrote Rev. J. E. Sistrunk, in an account of the attack sent to the Department of Justice. "The mob …went upon him without warning and taken him out of the parson aide [parsonage] …and strip[p]ed him naked and one sat upon his h[e]ad and each by turns with a buggy whip, whipped him until his back was raw from head to foot and after whipping him they told him that they whipped him because he was controlling colored women."18
Southerners particularly reveled at gruesome scenes of racial violence that occurred outside their region, affirming the hypocrisy of those Yankee critics who still criticized racial conditions in the former Confederacy. For weeks, carnage continued between blacks and whites in Joplin, Missouri, and Wilmington, Delaware. In April, a thirty-year-old black man named Thomas Gilyard was lynched in Joplin, followed by the reported expulsion of every black in the city19 In May, newspapers closely followed a "race war" in Louisville, Kentucky20
Accounts of mortal clashes between whites and blacks, and the raging mobs that often followed such incidents, littered the pages of newspapers in the first years of the century. "Race War in Mississippi," the Advertiser screamed in May 1903, after blacks and whites near the town of Laurel battled over several days, leaving at least one white farmer and "several negroes" dead. "The enraged white men of the community are still in the saddle searching for the negro who instigated the trouble," the paper reported with dramatic thrill.21
The same month, whites in Indianapolis, Indiana, began meeting to formulate a plan for removing African Americans from the city. Independence Day 1903 stirred extraordinary black and white hostility. In the tiny South Carolina town of Norway, a white farmer's son severely beat four black workers. In retaliation, the father, a one-armed Confederate veteran, was gunned down at his dinner table with a shotgun blast through a window. Local whites seized a black man in retaliation and lynched him. In response, more than two hundred armed blacks surrounded the town on July 4, threatening to burn it to the ground. The state's governor dispatched the South Carolina militia to counterattack.22
In Evansville, Indiana, crowds of blacks and whites battled on July 5 over the fate of a black man accused of killing a white police officer. Whites successfully broke into the city jail, but were driven back by armed blacks. Police charged in to disperse the crowds and spirit away the accused man.
On the same day, a mob of six hundred whites went in search of a black woman in Peoria, Illinois, who was accused of having beaten a white boy. After discovering that the woman already was in jail, the crowd attacked her home, dismantling it to the foundation and throwing all her furniture and belongings into the Illinois River. In Thomasville, Georgia, a street argument between a black man and his wife accelerated into a running gunfight between a white posse and crowds of African Americans.23
The New York Times opined in mid-July 1903 that "respectable negroes" should ban the city's bad ones. "There are in New York thousands of utterly worthless negro desperadoes," the Times wrote, "gamblers when they have money and thieves when they have none, moral lepers and more dangerous than wild animals." The newspaper followed up later in the month with hysterical coverage of racial disturbances in the city. "Negroes Attack Police" blared a headline over an account of a fight that broke out on West 62nd Street after an Irish policeman shoved a "disrespectful" black man on a sidewalk.24
Infuriated by the setbacks suffered by blacks in all regions of the country, W. E. B. DuBois, the rising young sociologist—the first African American Ph.D. graduated by Harvard—wrote that the South "is simply an armed camp for intimidating black folk." The emancipation act that had ended the Civil War had transmogrified into "a race feud," he said. "Not a single Southern legislature stood ready to admit a Negro under any conditions, to the polls; not a single Southern legislature believed free Negro labor was possible without a system of restrictions that took all its freedoms away; there was scarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regard Emancipation as a crime, and its practical nullification as a duty"25