Old South Meeting House; WGBH Forum Network; Capitol Men: The First Black Congressmen
I'm pleased to have you here today for a special program. Well here the old South Meeting House we tend to focus on the American Revolution. Today we're going to jump ahead a century to examine another pivotal point in American history reconstruction during this period immediately following the Civil War. The government attempted to reunite north and south and to the right the wrongs of slavery the 13th 14th and 15th Amendment were passed. And this led to the election of 16 Southern black men to Congress. Here with us today is Philip Dray who in his new novel Capital men explores the story of these brave men who attempted to create lasting economic and social reforms in their states. Mr. Jay is an award winning historian whose works have won the John F. Kennedy Book Award as well as a Southern Book Critics Circle Award. Mr. DAY is also a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his novel at the hands of persons unknown. After the lecture I do invite you all down to the shop for a book signing and please help me welcome felt right. Thanks so much for coming out. On this cold day and.
Welcoming me to Boston I'm very glad to be back here at the Old South. I was here a few years ago actually and I want to be careful not to make the same mistake I did then I was here to talk about Benjamin Franklin. And one point I began. Saying something critical about a former minister of the church a man named Thomas prince who in the 1750s declared that Franklin's Lightning rods were causing earthquakes. There was a terrible earthquake in Massachusetts in 1755 and Thomas Prince blamed it on the lighting rods. And I think I was a little bit harsh on him. And just while I was standing right here speaking about him and sort of you know questioning his judgment I felt this terrible pain right at the top of my shoulders which I still feel a little bit to this day. And so I'm going to be a little more respectful. I'm sorry about that. Luckily nothing I don't think we have any old south along is appearing in this new book I'm talking about. As Alisa mentioned the book is not a novel that was there it's really a nonfiction account of.
It's called Capital man it's about the 16 Southern black congressman who served in reconstruction. And of course. I found their trajectory kind of fascinating some of them had been slaves. They came to Congress in sort of the idealistic period of early reconstruction when. Blacks had been given the vote in the south. They were 16 of two approximately 2000 black office holders in the South during Reconstruction and something an awful lot of people know that. You know the former slaves and the course free blacks in the south also embraced. Politics very wholeheartedly and not only as voters but also as a statesman and they serve as judges sheriffs tax collectors there are even a few service foreign ambassadors so they were really part of this incredible time. And of course as you can sort of guess from what the tone of what I'm saying. You know I take the view that reconstruction was actually a very positive period in American history. It's
long been sort of abused by. A very powerful myth that reconstruction was a. Time of federal excess and overreaching that the poor south needed to be left alone. And of course that is eventually what happened the federal government kind of backed away from its commitments to really reconstruct the south it was just too difficult and there was too much resistance to it and a lot of apathy eventually in the north about it as well. But initially it was this incredible surge of interest. You know it was partly. An interest in having the nation reconciled after the Civil War which had been traumatic and also was a part of it was of to punish people were very angry in the South after the Civil War. As you can imagine for a couple of years and so the idea of various laws and constitutional amendments which would sort of put the former Confederacy in his place were things that people. Were. Welcomed really. Among the many kind of pieces of legislation were what were known as the reconstruction acts of 1867 which basically said of the former confederate
states. If you want to get back in the union you have to ratify and go along with this program of reconstruction. Part of it involved having constitutional conventions in those states to basically democratize the states get rid of the kind of old feudal plantation society that had been there before. And part of this involved to having black delegates in these conventions actually voting who were voted in. And so these forums were incredible because they were the first biracial. Forums like this in American history. And you can imagine it was the sort of mutual surprise and revelations of blacks and whites who had only known one another really as slave and master suddenly sitting in a room like this and debating politics and. Economic matters and. Such things. It was a really a major breakthrough. And of course a lot of Northern reporters went down to witness this phenomenon. And were very struck actually by the professionalism of the black delegates many of whom I said had been
slaves and yet they were very engaged in the process that's one of the most like sort of on the song unknown features of the post-slavery era is that. Rather than as kind of. A. Mass of people who were confused and hungry and barefoot and ignorant. There is some truth to that. But there also were a lot of people who are very highly motivated eager to get involved in politics a lot of freed slaves felt. You know they'd been in America a very long time. They felt very loyal to the country. Many had served in the Civil War as soldiers and they not only were they pouring into schools seeking education which was now available. They also got involved in politics and ran for office. And because in a lot of parts of the South there were enormous voting blocs of blacks who outnumbered whites. It was possible to actually elect a black congressman and senators and that's that's where sort of I come in with my story really. Just two quick points before I'll start talking I'll talk a little bit about some of these fellows. Just two quick.
Caviar It's one thing I should say is that the. The Northern Republicans the radicals led in part by actually a senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner was one of the leading Republican radicals and he'd been a big abolitionist of course he's very well known of here still. But. Part of their. Program was not totally idealistic In other words. They knew that with the first slaves B There were four million freed slaves in the south. And now that these people could be counted in terms of the representation in Congress for the southern states that meant that the white southerners would even have a larger. Representation in Congress than they already did. And so it was it was imperative that the Northern Republicans enfranchise the southern blacks of that they themselves could vote theoretically for the Republican Party the party of Lincoln the party of emancipation. Otherwise it would be just more of the same from the pre-war era where the South tended to dominate in Congress. So there wasn't wasn't all totally altruistic on the part of Congress to do
this. Secondly there was one a group of people who were not very happy about. The vote be extended to black men and that was the Northern women. You know the women's movement dated back to the 1840s and women and the abolition movement had been very closely aligned for many years you know Frederick Douglass was a big advocate of. Suffrage for women dating back to the late 1840s course in reconstruction what happened is the abolition movement split and it was decided that it was more important to give black. People the vote. And that meant that white women who had welcomed the idea of reconstruction to them was they thought hey that's fantastic reconstruction Absolutely. Let's reconstruct including giving women the vote. But they were told that no that's too much to ask for at this point. Just wait it will be your turn will come in another generation or so of course it really took another 60 years. But at the time it caused a terrible divorce if you will. Between. A lot of the. Sort of traditional abolitionists and the
women's and their end of it and it never really was healed. But anyway this is just to emphasize that period of time was a very progressive very hopeful for black politicians you know it's funny because as I go around talking about this book a lot of people say to me Well what would these politicians of the mid 19th century think about President Obama being elected. And I think they expect me to say oh my God they would fall down on their knees and think hallelujah this finally happened. I think they would say why this takes on. Because to them. That was the Obama moment for them. In other words they felt that. OK we've been legitimize now we're part of the political system and we've been recognized we have considerable experience to bring which is very true because a lot of issues black people especially in the South knew the grip of these issues much better than the white people do. And when they stood up in these parliamentary sessions you know that phrase about speaking truth to power. They had a lot of eloquence and
forward momentum because when they spoke it was evident they knew what they were talking about when you talk about land use or. You know whether or not various rivers should be damned or how the money should be spent for education. A lot of the black reasoning was actually very persuasive and they even had a thing a phrase they use then called the they would say the African cadences after member this time in history a lot of white Americans had never really spoken to a black person as an equal. Before it had always been in some context of servant master. And so when these men would get up and speak in kind of the rhythms which we know of course from Martin Luther King Jr. sort of we associated with the black church that type of eloquence and rhythmic speaking was was new to White years and it was kind of a revelation it was written a lot about like in Harvard's weekly about this sort of unique power of black speech making. You know he let me jump ahead then to talk about some of these men who I just talked about in my book and then we think that these will hopefully lead us to some of the issues and we can turn it over to
questions as soon as we can because that's always the best part anyway. I start my book with a man named Robert Smalls who was known as the boat thief. He was a congressman for many years from South Carolina and he earned his nickname during the Civil War had been a slave in Charleston South Carolina workers the civil war began. And he. Got the idea to steal the Can he was of a slave on a confederate transport ship and the white crew and officers even though they weren't supposed to were in the habit of leaving the ship at night to go enjoy the night life in Charleston and leave the ship in the hands of Robert Smalls and the other slaves. Robert Smalls got the idea that why don't they just take the boat and so he practiced imitating the captain's. Gestures and the way he walked and the captain luckily had left his heels in the practice of leaving his house onboard. And so Robert Smalls practiced walking up and down the the deck with his hat on because they knew that they would have to steal the boat to get out of the harbor they'd
have to sort of give some hand signs to the sentry at Fort Sumpter. This type of thing. And so they did this and of course it was a very risky thing to do because they all would have been killed if they had been caught to. The whole idea of it would you know slave insurrections basically. And they came out in the harbor in early dawn. They came to the sentry post on Fort Sumter and Robert Smalls managed to imitate the captains or it gave the high sign to the sentry. Soon as they got clear instead of turning. To cling to the coast which the Confederate ships were all supposed to do because there was a Navy Federal Navy blockade just off shore blockaded the harbor even though they had succeeded in. Conquering Charles Robert Smalls and his slave crew turn the boat out to sea and gave the boat went out and met a union. Ship and turned the boat over and it was an incredible phenomenon because you know that time early this was spring of 1862. The North had not enjoyed a lot of military success and so Robert Smalls a slave became really one of the first military heroes in the Civil War
on the union side and there were a lithograph struck of him. He was very much celebrated. And. Even sort of more significantly they brought him to Washington. There was a debate going on at that time about whether or not black men should be allowed to enlist in the Union Army. You know Lincoln and various other. Authorities in Washington were sort of making it up as they went along. But what to do if you know for a long time emancipation was not a certain thing. Lincoln thought the former slaves would have to be sent abroad. There were no biracial societies anywhere in the world and the idea that America would be one seemed. Kind of fabulous. And so Lincoln had this idea that a place like Haiti or maybe some country in Central America would be paid by the United States to accept the slaves who with them emigrate there. So there is all these policies were kind of in process and it under discussion among them was this idea that the large number of black slaves coming into the Union lines many of whom were eager to fight for
the cause be allowed to do so. It's a Robert Smalls example he came to Washington and met with President Lincoln. Everybody wanted to hear this incredible story of how he had done this incredible thing and obviously his own resourcefulness in doing it and his courage and that of his crew was itself one of the best arguments that black men be allowed to join the Union army and so Smalls ended up having this very sort of important. Role. In resolving that issue. Black men were allowed to enlist. One hundred and eighty thousand served in the Union Army and 40000 lost their lives the highest. How much higher proportion than white soldiers. So. This also then of course played. Sort of set the stage for black men being given the vote. So the idea that they had earned it by serving so generously and courageously in the civil. War. Another man to talk about was Hiram Revels who was literally the first. Black congressman he was a
senator from Mississippi. You know in those days they didn't elect senators popularly they were appointed by the legislature not till 1913 were senators elected by the popular vote. And so revels I revelled I always think of him as kind of the Jackie Robinson of his day because he was going to be the first black congressman and the Republican Party wanted to make sure they had someone who could withstand whatever abuse or criticism he might run into. And so they selected him he was an older man administer a very even very intelligent sort of a very remote you know even on a very even keel. And it was decided he would be a good person to kind of break the ice so to speak. His appointment was not only very dramatic because of his color but he was taking Jefferson Davis's seat in the Senate. You know Jefferson Davis had been the senator from Mississippi prior to the Civil War. He was of course later the president of the Confederacy and he'd kind of stormed out of Congress in 1861 basically saying
something like the next time you hear from me it'll be the end of my sword point kind of you know very defiant. And so now in early reconstruction Jefferson Davis was sitting in a federal prison and here comes Hiram rebels a black minister to take his seat in Congress and so is very wonderful public relations really for the Republican Party and. All eyes were kind of on this event was a little bit like Y2K there were these rumors that like the ceiling would collapse of the chandelier his would start chattering at such an epochal event. But of course nothing like that happened if he. Was sworn in and it was really sort of anti-climactic. Another man we're talking about is Robert Brown Elliot. Eliot was kind of a. He was actually sort of the most Obama like of all the people in this generation in that you sort of mysterious No one is quite sure where he was from he claimed to various times who have lived in England. He claimed
he'd been in the Civil War there were no records of it. He somehow got away with it just because he was so eloquent and intelligent he worked as a lawyer in Charleston. And made his way to Congress. The thing about him that was remarkable to people is that he was unlike a lot of the other congressmen who were appeared to be of mixed ancestry racial ancestry. Robert Brown Elliot was very black they called him the African. And so he kind of intimidated white Southerners in a way that the others didn't because there was no question that he they couldn't make up any kind of excuse or explain away his his intelligence and eloquence. And Eliot he's most famous for. You know. Among the ELISA mentioned a lot of the legislation and the constitutional amendments that were put in place to kind of further citizenship and the franchise and various protections for blacks voting for what they called the capstone of reconstruction was to be something called the Civil Rights Act which would get down to the very nitty gritty. And that was to enforce equal rights in
the daily lives of Americans in their words on writing on a train staying in a hotel eating in a restaurant going to the opera. And this of all the things I was the mean black elected officials was a large turnoff to the white south. But the idea of having. To actually share what they called public accommodations with former slaves was just way over the top and it actually. Helped to generate a lot of resistance in the south to not only the Civil Rights Act but to reconstruction overall. So Robert Brown Elliot is famous for giving a speech in Congress where he took on in a debate a man named Alexander Stephens who was the former vice president of the Confederacy. And by now an old man who just got up and kind of recited all the old emotional passwords of slavery why. You know. Black people really enjoyed being slaves because they could fend for themselves and so on and so on and why not leave the South alone because we have good relations down there that type of thing. And of course Robert Brown Elliot completely decimated him.
In a sort of beautiful speech which somewhat resembled Obama's speech in Philadelphia which he's already famous for work. Robert Brown Elliot basically said look you know we're Americans too and we're very loyal to this country and we may as well get together and kind of address these problems head on instead of using all these kind of code words. All this emotion which is really kind of falls. Then he moved on a sort of cold biblical scripture and compare black and white Americans to the story of Ruth. You know the kind of weather that go astray we will go kind of thing and very successful and powerful oration and he also like Smalls before he became a common national hero overnight they struck this is sort of the. They're in that age sort of comparable to having your. Picture on the cover of People magazine or something I suppose would be a beautiful chroma lithograph was struck of rock of Elliot making the speech in Congress. And sold and he went on tour kind of repeating parts of the speech and he was he and the moment were kind of greatly heralded.
Thanks in part to the Civil Rights Act was passed. Unfortunately you know like a lot of things and we see this too. It's easy to pass beautiful laws and resolutions and regulations as a whole nother thing to enforce them. And that's really what happened of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 it couldn't be enforced. The courts were not in very interested in pursuing it even where there were. Cases brought. People would come complaining why was not allowed in the movie theater the theater whatever. Actually unfortunate what came out of that whole period was a policy that we call separate. We know it's separate but equal. Which eventually became sort of the reigning racial doctrine of the country from of the next century. And the idea being that OK well if the law's going to mandate that there has to be equality in these public accommodations will say we'll counter that by saying well but they can be separate and of course by doing that everybody knows that the separate accommodations are not really equal. It's kind of a.
Euphemism a way to segregation Jim Crow segregation essentially. So Robert Brown Elliot. Nonetheless when it was well regarded as a very famous orator of his day also talk about PBS pinch back was probably one of the most colorful of the capital men. He was a riverboat gambler. And. But also very very good looking man very sharp. And in Louisiana. You know New Orleans is kind of flash and style. We're actually kind of winning to people. And he wrote a beautiful civil rights statue for the state of Louisiana that actually was an acted and hear it for about half a century. And he was very popular with with folks down there both black and white actually he became lieutenant governor. Of. Louisiana. He engaged in what they call The Great Train race which was a kind of a good example of reconstruction and sort of high jinks and corruption pinch back the black lieutenant governor found himself at a Republican gathering in New York and he found that the white Republican governor of
Louisiana Warmoth Henry Warmoth was also there. Well in the 19th century if the governor was out of the state lieutenant governor could actually access the sort of mechanisms of government in a state and change the laws and you know issue executive orders and this kind of thing. So pinch back he wanted to change some election laws to favor his faction more so he decided he made a dinner date with the governor the white governor in New York. But then. Rahm got out of the hotel and went to the train station and headed back to New Orleans to get back there while the governor stayed in New York waiting for dinner so he could get back and start altering these laws. Well course in those days it took a long time to get from New York to New Orleans you know to take about six or eight different trains change in Cincinnati that kind of thing. The white governor finally got wind of this plan and headed off in pursuit. And so the newspapers picked up on this as a valid it was you know that was an age that loved racing of any kind whether steamboat races were a big deal horse racing. So the idea of these two politicians
both of whom seem to be a little bit corrupt racing one another by train cross country to seize control of this state government was just irresistible to people. Unfortunate for Fishback Warmoth had greater clout with the rail road executives and he devised this plan where he. Went back who was ahead got into Canton Mississippi. Someone came to him and said there's a telegraph waiting for you in the telegraph office. So Pinchbeck got off. And went into the telegraph office and somebody locked him in there. So then his train. Left for New Orleans without him and a contract was standing on the platform about four or five hours later when Warmoth his train came in and picked him up and they kind of had that. Apparently they. You know had a laugh over it. I mean they both recognized one another's. Being kind of you know underhanded to begin with just because that was sort of typical of the times that anybody you know. As much as we have you know corruption is obviously as we all know still very much with us in American politics and really
always has been there. Reconstruction is kind of infamous for it because a lot of it was more flagrant outfield the people counting out bills right on the floor of State Legislatures. You know paying each other's bill at the tobacco shop and that kind of thing and at one point the governor of South Carolina had the legislature pass a special. Law just to pay his bill at the racetrack. So this doctor he owed several thousand dollars on a special appropriation was made at this kind of stuff went on all the time. Joseph Rainey is also fascinating. Congressman in that he took on the Ku Klux Klan. And you know one of the important things about these men was that they didn't have a lot of seniority in Congress but they were very persuasive again mostly because they could speak from their own experience. And. When the Ku Klux Klan acted up in the south in the late 1860s basically preying on black voting they wanted to intimidate blacks they wouldn't vote. It was very effective of course because you can imagine life in were of the rural South. There was very there
was no protection from local law enforcement. Your only hope was maybe the federal Kerrison that was 100 miles away that really wasn't gonna help you much at midnight when the Klan showed up at your doorstep. So the Klan was very effective. And there were. There were moves in the Congress to pass what were known as the enforcement acts one of which is now and still is the Ku Klux Klan attack. Basically these are federal laws to protect black voting from vigilantes like the vote's clan something like Joseph Rainey given a barber in the South before the war he was known as being very very good conversationalist because of his his occupation supposedly had the gift of gab but he would come to Congress and say you know when there was some doubt you know in those days before before news photography there was a lot of doubt about whether the Ku Klux Klan whether it was exaggerated a lot of Northern congressmen and of course a lot of Southern governors cast doubt on it they said oh this is a lot of. Anxiety on the part of these freed slaves they're superstitious all these stories of people
wearing disguises that it's just a bunch of hooey. But someone like Joseph Rainey would come to Congress and say well they just I just saw the Klan a few days ago and they threaten to kill me in South Carolina or wherever he was in Alabama maybe. And so that kind of test he gave some very compelling testimony about the Klan. And of course. That was really opening a can of worms of a problem that really would never go away. What ultimately helped contribute to the collapse of reconstruction was the threat of violence essentially In other words even once the Klan was washed by Gen.. But President Grant has declared martial law and arrested leaders. The South can white south continue to pursue what they called Redemption. In other words the restoration of white and the violence level just would sort of persist. There were several attempts because you know Grant was known as the military victor of the Civil War and the love for that. But he also was criticized as being someone who had a one track mind which was basically to destroy things and
sort of be like a Julius Caesar type figure and he was very sensitive to that criticism and so he didn't want to send He didn't like the idea of sending federal troops into the south. And. You know. In lieu of that there wasn't really much that could be done. The few attempts that made to have. Black southerners actually stand up militarily to these white vigilante forces in the south prove. Disastrous for the blacks just because they didn't have the arms the experience. You know there were literally these battles where you had people with hoes and rakes and things like that standing up against men with guns and cannon and things like that and so it was a there were several kind of really horrible massacres that occurred which pretty much scotched the idea of. Southern blacks themselves kind of fending off this white resistance. Let me just I want to I don't I don't want to go too long because I think we should just have some questions I'll just lastly talk about. The you know. The.
In 1877. When President Hayes was basically selected for office there was a controversial election. In late 1876. It was similar to our election in 2000 Bush vs. Gore where it really sort of could go either way it just depended on who controls the final electoral votes. And even Florida was also involved in this. As well. It's it was Florida South Carolina and Louisiana. And. What happened at that point is the white resistance in the South was so powerful. That you actually had dual legislatures and governors in those states they call them dual houses because no one could agree who had actually won the election. So they actually could have like a. A group in a building like this and then down the street at a tavern you have the. Democrats. They'd have their legislature. And in South Carolina you actually have a situation where they literally occupy the same building like this where the Republicans are on one side and the Democrats on the other and they have two of everything two governors two speakers two sergeants of arms and everything
that one side to the other side would have to do it as well. Just to kind of keep it all. Equal. And it was a ridiculous situation and it was sort of a deadlock which was broken finally in the the the Great Compromise of 1877 where. The publicans agree if Hayes got to be president they would end reconstruction basically pulling the troops out of the south and also extending financial help to those like railroads to build. A. Transcontinental railroad across the south which never really happened but. Maybe we should just leave it off there. There's a lot in there somewhere you could talk about. But I wonder if you want to open up to questions that maybe we can get out some of these. Things. The question was about the Freedmen's Bureau which was created actually. While the in March 6th 1865 I believe the Freedmen's Bureau was a a large store really an incredible. Incredible. Institution it was really the first large social welfare agency in American history that really sort of something we would more identify with the
20th century. But its purpose was to sort of help the freed slaves of which there were four million resettle. Negotiate contracts where you know the idea of working for wages was due. To them and so. The Freedmen's Bureau helped negotiate work contracts between the former masters and former slaves. It was a very positive. Agency and did a lot of good things also to sort of public health kind of efforts. As the gentleman mentioned though it ran into trouble mostly but just because the South resisted it. They. You know. The Northern Republicans people like Charles Sumner wanted to become a cabinet post. They thought the Freedmen's Bureau should become a permanent that obviously the resettlement and other racial issue issues involving the freed slaves would you know he was he was prophetic in saying they're going to go on for many decades so therefore we should make the Freedmen's Bureau an institution have a cabinet have its head be sit on the president's cabinet which of course was a very good idea and unfortunately it was not followed. What happened is by about
1867 or so there'd been so much backlash against the Freedmen's Bureau. In the south. Part of the problem was that it was part of the Army it was affiliated with the U.K. with the Federal army just for some bureaucratic reason they had never succeeded in establishing it as an independent. Agency. And so the fact that it was sort of had a military overtone and a lot of the. Officers of the Freedman's Bureau were former union federal officers from the service military service. So of course that had a very. Tainted. Kind of feeling to the white southerners it was you know such a vile still very volatile town. And you know there are a lot of even black soldiers who serve Union soldiers who then serve the Freedmen's Bureau. So all in all the previous year became sort of too much of a hot potato. It was sort of undesired of the South. And like a lot of things in reconstruction it was just sort of beaten down by white resistance. And then a kind of Northern You know. After the initial sort of feeling of victory in the civil
war a kind of eagerness to punish the south. And also this idealism about helping to do something for the freed slaves. It was all sort of downhill slowly from there as he went along people just like we see today you get you get engaged with a public issue whether it's the war in Iraq or something like that or fighting AIDS but within a year two years tension starts to wonder if the solution doesn't arrive something seems too complex. You begin you get fed up with it and people get impatient and that's kind of what happened with reconstruction. The South and the South knew that they knew that if they just kept kind of chipping away that eventually over time the North would just lose interest in it. And even you saw this in the Supreme Court as well which did a lot of the reconstruction legislation. By saying eventually one does a famous call where at one point in the 1870s of. One of the justices said. There has to come a time when these people meaning the slaves stop being the quote special favorites of the law. There was there was a kind of the idea that what we've done we've done enough already. These
we've we've. Given these people their citizenship the right to vote. We can't micromanage their lives in the south and they're going to have to fend for themselves it's what they're for. Let's move on. And indeed there were other problems that the country by that time between large numbers of European immigrants flooding in labor conflicts in places like Boston and other northern cities concerned about corruption which was rampant and also a large trusts you know large big business that had never types of big corporate entities it had never existed before the Civil War. Kind of flexing their muscles. These things began to concern people more than the fate of the freedman of the South. And so. There was a kind of this slow slow. Sort. Sort of. Dwindling away of interest even in Boston which of course had been a great you know Faneuil Hall and all this had been a great center of support for of course it had been the home of the abolition. And it's interesting because you know the abolitionists as a group. After the Civil War. I'm aside from the issue about the women being
upset the abolitionists many of them fought also about the issue of well how much how long do we stay with this issue. A lot of them right after the Civil War said OK our work is done. We won it's over. And a lot of them said whoa wait a minute you can't just leave these people just because they're free. You can't just leave them. Who's going to have a kid for the night. And so we have to stay with them till they're citizens of course then that happened with the 14th Amendment and then it was. Well hold on a second you can't leave them now until they have the vote. Then they'll be secure and so on and on it went in a lot of the extent of the number of. Ardent abolitionists who really would not let go like Wendell Phillips as a man Bostonian a credible fellow. Who really stuck with it a very long time he was one of them who just kept arguing with others who would drop to the sub drop away and say no you can't you can't let let it go now because we're the ones who have the vision of where this needs to go and we need to stick with it. But eventually even. In Boston I mean I'm sad to say like even Faneuil Hall you know by the late 1870s Faneuil Hall was the site of
meetings of people getting up and saying enough already with reconstruction we've reconstructed enough and. It was almost you know it was like heresy in a way that in that place of all places sort of like the. Cradle of the abolition. Really. That there'd be this. Expression. Of. Dissatisfaction. Right. The question was about how these men and reconstruction I guess generally sort of the black figures in reconstruction and specifically these politicians how they would have been remembered. Unfortunately the record on that's a bit spotty because one thing you have to realize is that reconstruction itself was for about a hundred years seen as a very distasteful period in American history and the white Southerners. Actually use some of the same language that Israel has used about the Holocaust basically like never again. You will never again will never again allow. Blacks to gain the kind of political clout that they did during Reconstruction that was such a horrible thing like a nightmare to them even though that was very exaggerated they never blacks
never have that much control. But because of that. There was a kind of a. Indifference would be a kind word toward those black. Men who had been. Involved were treated as always called thieves scoundrels princes Robert Brown Elliot who I talked about a minute ago who was. Incredibly heroic and very much lauded at one time. You know when he died of malaria about 10 years later in a penniless in a boarding house the newspapers in the South said another thief gone to his account. The hatred against these men is so severe and so to answer your question there was never much dog I'd suspect even that some of their papers were actually probably destroyed. It's very hard to find information on them and only very recently some places. Louisiana. And South Carolina for instance. Are there like public parks named for them. Robert Smalls in South Carolina is one of the exceptions in that he came from the sea islands of South Carolina which are kind of
a world unto themselves. And it was so totally black that he was able to kind of create a power base for himself there. And he held on well of the 20th century they called him the king of Buford the for it is now the capital. So some of them did better than others and are more remembered. But yes you're absolutely right it's a good point they you know history works in strange ways some people. In reconstruction unfortunately suffers from. This long. A myth that I think even. Persist very much to this day in terms of people's sense of what it what it really was and kind of the impression that we get from films like The Birth Of A Nation. Which we're all familiar with which you know she depicted reconstruction as this time of. Sort of corrupt. Black politicians and. Sort of sexual deviance you know this type of very unfriendly characterization in the course of our most popular films ever made. I mean one of the reason I got interested in writing this book was actually had to do with the imagery of it. In other words I was familiar with the Thomas Nast cartoons of Southern black men in
legislatures of the south of which there were many. You know sitting at their desks with their with bare feet eating fried chicken and drinking whiskey avoiding And this is kind of the popular image of it. And yet the image that's on the cover of my book when I saw that which is a lithograph of the period I thought well who are these these very distinguished looking statesman. They're not at all like that. So the difference it was the difference between that popular caricature and what appeared to me to be a genuine portrait of these men that kind of. Triggered my curiosity. I can't really claim to be a question was about whether when did the tradition of thinking about reconstruction occur in other words. I'm saying that it suffered a kind of a myth for many many years which was promulgated not just by like an educated people or just the popular press but even. Professors at Ivy League universities it was Columbia University it was famous for producing historians who wrote about reconstruction as this horrible light of terrible
example of federal overreaching that we should never repeat. And her question was When did this begin to change. It took a very long time. It wasn't till 1935 the debt should be two boys published a book called Black reconstruction. In which he kind of reversed a lot of these these myths. It was very typical of that you know it's very typical of black history in America generally is that. Black history is a son. It contradicts all the history that's the standard history. And this was no exception. But it wasn't his book was not you know it was it was. Noticed but it was not especially influential in its day and really wasn't excuse me until the 1960s when we had our own civil rights movement which by the way is called the second reconstruction because it was built on a lot of those laws that kind of. Boilerplate of laws and amendments that were put into place during Reconstruction and then sort of let. Go. I like that I always refer to them as like being put up in the nations of how thick they were put in the attic in a trunk and they're forgotten. But
when. The mid 20th century came around the Justice Department civil rights workers and various other people. Went up there and. Got this all truck out opened it and kind of dusted it off and what they found was that a lot of these laws were still very good. For instance the first lynch mob to be convicted of. A lynching in the south in the 1960s were only convicted because the feds Justice Department found the old Ku Klux Klan. He 270 and said well if the state of Mississippi is not going to go after these people we're going to use this old Ku Klux Klan law it was for it turned out to be perfectly a ploy and it worked. They convicted a lynch mob it was in 1987 it was first a lynch mob to be convicted since Reconstruction. So and you saw that was kind of that was rich. You saw that writ large in a lot of things during the mid 20th century you saw the citizenship voting. You know a lot of the Civil Rights Movement of course a lot of it had to do with public accommodation sitting at a lunch counter or riding on a bus and that resulted of course the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was basically the Civil Rights Act of 86 with Evony 5 except this
time it was taken more seriously but it took nine. That 90 years span for it to come back again. In a way that would be have a little. More. Traction and the same thing with these criminal laws too that I referred to and also voting in other words the voting rights 15th Amendment was still there. But blacks have stopped voting in the South basically for about 1890 until around 1960. A lot of places in the south the civil rights workers who went in there some some African-Americans had never even heard of voting. They didn't know what it was. Because voting there the disenfranchisement of the black population the south had been so thorough and so basically all this that's that's why I was called second reconstruction because it was just animating a lot of these laws and amendments that were already in place. And to our nation's credit had never been totally destroyed they'd been like beat up and roughed up and because I said sort of like. Put away. But they were still vile. So anyway it it really is if that is a question took a very long time really and it's still going on.
You know I think my book. I didn't mean to when I wrote it I was just more because I was curious I wasn't trying to like break new ground essentially. But of course it's been interesting to me to read a lot of people who. Were are still coming are sort of surprised by some of the information. So if it's still in process room. That's a very that's one of those great what if questions she asked about what if. How might have reconstruction have succeeded. Wow that's one of those million dollar questions. I mean to me what it seemed like and I say this in the book was that I think the country had the moral energy to fight the Civil War sort of barely. But I don't think it had the moral commitment to see through reconstruction it didn't have enough moral commitment given all the distractions and all the resistance that there was. How it could have been different I mean of course one thing that would have been a real failure of course was that the South. You know there were people in the south that called them scallywags southerners who after the Civil War. Were smart enough to recognize yes
the world has changed and. We're just going to be fooling ourselves if we think that we're going to sort of like resist this and what the thing to do is to get involved plane go along with reconstruction and. And that's going to be best really for us in the end. And of course they were right but sadly those people were vilified. And many of them you know it was hard for them to stick with those convictions because they would be they could have a job. Even worse they would be targeted by various groups. And so. Bad in a way it was really one of the SST the most probably if there was any one single tragedy it was that there wasn't better greater moderate leadership in the south. Powerful enough to stand up to the what they called the Straight out the straight outs or the white Southerners who said we want these black people off the voting rolls we want these Yankees out of the site we're done with it. We want to go back we want to rule here. That if someone had been able to stand up to those people and say no that's you're being you're being emotional and foolish and you're really going to plunge us back into another
century. There's going to be a terrible mistake which of course it proved to be because ultimately the South's sort of fixation on race and its perversion of law. And ethics really. Was in an ultimately kind of self crippling as we all know because the South kind of hobbled into the 20th century the sort of broken place where. Sort of filled with hypocrisy and intolerance and from which they're kind of still recovering basically. So yes it would have been that would have been a great gift had there been I don't know who would have taken it when they needed there. They needed their version of. Lincoln Franklin Roosevelt maybe Eleanor Roosevelt you know there was they needed to have a brain trust of moderate voices that somehow could have guided them and that just was not. There maybe it was just one of those things couldn't it. They will thank you very much for coming. Down.
- Old South Meeting House
- WGBH Forum Network
- Contributing Organization
- WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- Philip Dray tells the the epic story of America's reconstruction through the lives of the first black congressmen. After the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which granted black men suffrage, 16 black southerners were elected to the United States Congress. These Capitol men faced a high degree of hostility and scrutiny upon their arrival in Washington, yet actively pursued civil rights and lasting economic and educational reforms. Dray reveals how these men became a source of inspiration for Americans in the years following the Civil War, and how they laid the groundwork for future civil rights legislation.
- Philip Dray tells the the epic story of America's reconstruction through the lives of the first black congressmen.
- Media type
- Moving Image
Speaker2: Dray, Philip
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: dc5dea490180892cfdddc0a833270a74333f8e04 (ArtesiaDAM UOI_ID)
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- Chicago: “Old South Meeting House; WGBH Forum Network; Capitol Men: The First Black Congressmen,” 2009-02-24, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 26, 2024, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-fx73t9dh1s.
- MLA: “Old South Meeting House; WGBH Forum Network; Capitol Men: The First Black Congressmen.” 2009-02-24. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 26, 2024. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-fx73t9dh1s>.
- APA: Old South Meeting House; WGBH Forum Network; Capitol Men: The First Black Congressmen. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-fx73t9dh1s