This is a paper I wrote for my fall 2019 political science class. It's the first paper I ever submitted that got a grade of 100. I think that was generous, but I'll take it!
CHANGING VALUES, CHANGING HISTORY
THE EMPTY CARTOUCHE
I was in Egypt earlier this year and was surprised that it was such a police state that those of us on the tour were encouraged not to go out on our own. We had armed guards and a police escort, so I guess those precautions were necessary. Add to that the fact we were forbidden to discuss American politics with our fellow travelers, and it was a long trip. After all, how interested can one be in strangers’ pets, children, and so on? At any rate I had time to do a lot of thinking while away from the good ol’ US of A.
On many of our stops at Egypt’s temples we were shown walls of hieroglyphs with blank cartouches. A cartouche is an oval that encloses a group of hieroglyphs that typically represents the name and title of a monarch (or pharaoh). If a monarch fell out of favor, that pharaoh’s name was simply chiseled out of the cartouche. The monarch’s accomplishments are still shown, but the name of the one who accomplished those feats is typically lost to history.
A few of these erasures failed because the pharaohs were so notorious. One was Queen Hatshepsut who donned a fake beard and ruled as a king over the wishes of her son, who got the chisels moving when she died. Another was Amenhotep IV who attempted to institute a monotheistic religion much to the chagrin of the priests of the various old gods whose livelihoods he threatened.
It occurred to me similar erasures, revisions, and mythmaking are constantly going on in the modern world. My first inclination was to consider the removal of statues venerating Confederates, the move to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from a building at Princeton because of Wilson’s racist actions as a president, and so on a form of erasure. These kinds of erasures seemed to me to be akin to Stalin’s constant revisions and erasures (both by execution and then by an early form of Photoshopping), but then it occurred to me more subtle acts of erasures and revisions are constantly going on.
One example is the insistence that the United States was created as a Christian nation. Although this is demonstrably false, a movement arose in the 1950s to revise history. Kevin M. Kruse says in his 2015 One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America that under President Dwight Eisenhower the first National Prayer Breakfast took place in 1954, “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and “In God We Trust” was declared the country’s motto and added to paper currency. There was even a proposal that the Constitution be amended to declare, “The Nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Saviour [sic] and Ruler of nations through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God.” It turned out that was pushing the envelope a tad far. Another amendment was proposed to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling in Engel v. Vitale (1962) that voluntary prayer in public schools violated the First Amendment prohibition of a state establishment of religion. Had it not been for Rep. Emmanuel Celler, who helped derail that amendment in the Judiciary committee, this amendment may well have come to embarrassing fruition.
While that would be an interesting rabbit hole to go down, I’ve decided on another one:
slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, “Redemption,” and some of their legacies.
THE LOST CAUSE
Almost immediately after the Civil War ended, a form of amnesia descended on both the North and the South. An estimated 3.9 million slaves, or more than 10% of the population of the country at the time, were freed, and both North and South were at a loss as to how to deal with the former slaves.
In their 1942 Economic History of the United States, Ernest L. Bogart and Donald L. Kemmerer note that when Russia freed 23 million serfs just four years before the end of our Civil War each was given a parcel of the land they had tilled. Susan Nieman in her 2019 Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil writes that in 1865 at a meeting with twenty former slaves in Savannah attended by General William T. Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the freedmen requested enough land to support their families and to live away from white people. As a result, Special Field Order No. 15 was issued granting families “not more than 40 acres of tillable ground.” It didn’t last. The plan, which had also proposed that the freedmen be given the Army’s surplus mules, was parodied as “40 acres and a mule.” The land that had been distributed was taken back and given to its former owners. Nieman notes that while this land was being taken back, the government was giving land in the west to those, many of whom were immigrants, who would settle it under the Homestead Act.
Bogart and Kemmerer quote Frederick Douglass as saying, “[Emancipation] left freedmen in a bad condition. It made him free and henceforth he must make his own way in the world. Yet he had none of the conditions of self-preservation or self-protection. He was free from the individual master, but the slave of society. He had neither money, property, nor friends. He was free from the old plantation, but he had nothing but the dusty road under his feet… . He was turned loose, naked, hungry, and destitute to the open sky.”
Bogart and Kemmerer point out it was difficult to introduce the wage system in the south because neither the planters nor the freedmen were accustomed to money-wages services for which bare subsistence had formerly been given. They further say blacks after Emancipation considered any form of labor a kind of badge of slavery and considered idleness the greatest blessing of liberty. Freedmen left the plantations in large numbers and moved to towns and worked only when they were in need of money. Bogart and Kemmerer continue to explain and rationalize the actions of planters desperately in need of labor. They advanced rations, withheld payments until crops were in, and even then they may not pay the wages due. “In other cases they tried to restore a kind of servitude by means of apprenticeship, vagrancy, and poor laws under which wandering Negroes could be arrested and sentenced to hard labor on a neighboring plantation.”
Strangely, this practice was made possible by the very amendment that freed the slaves, which states:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Slavery was outlawed, but if someone could be convicted of a crime, that person could effectively become a slave.
Neiman writes that convict labor was not just for plantations. Southern businesses took advantage of convict labor to depress wages for free workers, break early strikes, and suppress the drive for unionization in the South. A fictional example of convict labor being used off the plantation is Scarlett O’Hara’s leasing convicts to work in her lumber mill in Gone with the Wind (1939)
According to Eric Foner in his 1988 Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, Chinese laborers were being imported to work on the transcontinental railroad. Some plantation owners considered importing Chinese laborers to do the field work slaves used to do and drive down wages for the former slaves. According to Elizabeth Wien in an August 25, 2019 New York Times book review, some planters actually followed through on this until 1882 when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Bogart and Kemmerer were writing in 1942 as economists and offer no moral judgements, but we can see that the south, once dependent on a slave economy, refused to give up its dependence on a low (or no) wage economy. Ira Katznelson writes in his 2005 When Affirmative Action Was White: The Untold Story of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America that this principle continued into the New Deal era. I think it could be argued that to some extent it still continues.
The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were passed between 1865 and 1870, giving black Americans suffrage and equal protection under the law. Former male slaves could now vote, own property, receive an education, legally marry, sign contracts, file lawsuits, and hold political office. By 1868, 700,000 blacks were registered as voters, fourteen held seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and many held office in state legislatures. Blacks formed their own churches, schools, and organizations. With the help of the Freedman’s bureau, some 200,000 learned to read. Reconstruction was begun to enforce these amendments and bring the South back into the union. Under Reconstruction the first Ku Klux Klan was suppressed in 1871.
In a July 28, 2018 New York Times editorial, Brent Staples says women’s rights advocates were so focused on women’s right to vote that many opposed the Fifteenth Amendment on the grounds that passage of the amendment “would only mean degradation for women at the hands of Negro men.” After the Fifteenth Amendment passed, racism intensified within the movement, and black suffrage groups were discouraged from seeking affiliation with white suffrage groups because that might anger people in the South.
As with any long war, the country suffered from fatigue. Once the war ended, even the victors wanted to move on. As early as 1866 an editor of the Chicago Tribune is quoted by Phillip Leigh in his 2017 Southern Reconstruction as having written the following to Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull:
“You all in Washington must remember that the excitement of the great contest is dying out, and that commercial and industrial enterprises and pursuits are engaging a large share of public attention…people are more mindful of themselves than of any philanthropic scheme that looks to making Sambo a voter, juror and office holder.”
As the country’s attention turned to westward expansion, scandals in the Grant administration, and especially the economic crisis of 1873, its already limited appetite for reform waned. As part of the compromise to settle the contested election of 1876, Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction. Rutherford B. Hayes removed the last troops from the South in 1877.
After Reconstruction ended, the South implemented Jim Crow laws, suppressed voting rights, and many former slaves became sharecroppers, which gave the former slaves all the disadvantages of slavery without the upside of being fed and clothed by their former masters. Further, many still had no education and were at a disadvantage when it came time to calculate their share of earnings and powerless to do anything about it when they were cheated.
After Reconstruction, Northerners generally forgot about the former slaves and hoped the problem would go away. It was easy in the public mind to look back on the antebellum world as a time when things were simpler, chivalry ruled in the South, and so on. The country was ready for what became known as the myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.
The myth began very shortly after the war ended. Caroline E. Janney, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, writing in the Virginia Encyclopedia, traces the term to Edward A. Pollard, an editor of the Richmond Examiner, who published The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates in 1866. Other southern writers followed. The myth included six tenets, according to Ms. Janney. These are:
1. Secession, not slavery, caused the war.
2. African Americans were “faithful slaves,” loyal to their masters and the Confederate cause and unprepared for the responsibilities of freedom.
3. The Confederacy was defeated militarily only because of the Union’s overwhelming advantages in men and resources.
4. Confederate soldiers were heroic and saintly.
5. The most heroic and saintly of all Confederates was Robert E. Lee.
6. Southern women were loyal to the Confederate cause and sanctified by the sacrifice of their loved ones.
To those tenets should be added that the martyred Abraham Lincoln was a saintly man of the people, and, had he lived, he would never have imposed a harsh Reconstruction on the defeated South.
In 1907, Columbia University Professor William A. Dunning, who headed a historiographical school of thought on Reconstruction that came to bear his name, published Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865-1877.
Foner describes the Dunning School at Columbia (where Foner taught until his 2018 retirement) as a group of young southern scholars who gathered at Columbia to study the Reconstruction era under the scholarship of Dunning and John W. Burgess. Blacks, their mentors taught, were children incapable of appreciating freedom and granting them suffrage was “a monstrous thing.”
The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction, edited by John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery (2013) (with a forward by Foner) is a nuanced and in my opinion a much-needed study of the Dunning School and helped me understand a little better where Dunning and his students were coming from. This is certainly not to exonerate them, but to put them in context. Smith writes in the introduction that most writers of the period 1875-1910 were influenced by notions of laissez-faire capitalism and Anglo-Saxonism and commonly condemned Reconstruction as an evil. He quotes Vernon L. Wharton (1907-1964) as saying that the school “merely gave elaborate and expert documentation to a story already generally accepted.” Dunning and his students, according to Smith, documented and propagated the “tragic” Reconstruction rather than creating it.
Dunning studied under John W. Burgess, whom Stephen W. McKinley calls the “Godfather” of the Dunning School. Burgess (1844-1931) was born in Tennessee to a Unionist slaveholder originally from Rhode Island. He joined the Union Army in 1862. He left the South in 1862 and moved to Amherst, Mass., where he had friends. He was introduced to Hegelianism at Amherst College and encountered Tacitus’ Germania, which led to his “subsequent worship of all things German,” to create and justify national hierarchies. Tacitus would also inspire Hitler, which I’m only throwing in as a historical note, not an ad hominem attack on Burgess. Burgess moved to Columbia in 1876 where Dunning studied under him. As Shepherd W. McKinley says, the two worked closely for more than thirty years, their relationship evolving from teacher-student to older mentor-younger colleague to equals and competitors and finally to fading elder-rising star.
Smith cautions that the Dunning school was not a monolith and that students expressed a variety of ideas. James Wilford Garner (1871-1938), for example, bluntly stated that the real cause of the civil war was the perpetuation and extension of slavery. On the other hand, Walter Lynwood Fleming (1874-1932), whom Dunning termed not “any too much reconstructed himself,” wrote an 800-page book on Reconstruction in Alabama in which, among other things, he celebrated the accomplishments of the Klan.
John Grégoire de Roulhac Hamilton (1878-1961) was a scion of a very wealthy family that remained wealthy, although less so, after the Civil War. He was also quite racist and gained the nickname “Ransack” for his habit of traveling the south at his own expense and convincing people to give him their Civil War primary sources which he used to build the Southern Historical Society (SHS). Although he remained a racist and expressed disdain for the intellectual powers of black scholars, he personally saw to it John Hope Franklin was given access to the SHS archives in defiance of state Jim Crow laws in effect at the time.
Paul Leland Haworth (1876-1936) was an Indiana Quaker who became something of an outcast among the Dunningites. J. Vincent Lowery says he is rarely mentioned in connection with the group even though he completed his dissertation under Dunning in 1906. Haworth had a more favorable view of Reconstruction and blamed southern whites, not blacks, for the “Negro problem.” He wrote The Hayes-Tilden Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 (1906) in which he considered that the outcome was probably the correct one inasmuch as in disputed South Carolina voters were suppressed and “in an absolutely free and fair election the state would have gone Republican by from five to fifteen thousand.” His book was generally ignored, receiving only one disparaging review in the American Historical Review and a scathing write-up by Henry Watterson of the Louisville Courier-Journal questioning Hayworth’s objectivity. Watterson had participated in the Wormley Conference (which settled the election) as an ardent Tilden supporter, so his own objectivity is certainly open to question. Haworth taught for a year at Bryn Mawr, became a member of the Progressive party, and ran unsuccessfully for a state office in 1912. In 1915 he published America in Ferment offering a Progressive diagnosis of the times. While sympathizing with the plight of blacks and continuing to attack Jim Crow laws and the failure of Southerners to uphold the “separate but equal standard,” Haworth retained the Anglo-Saxon centrist view of the world and advocated immigration restrictions to prevent “race suicide.”
Fred Arthur Bailey’s chapter on Charles W. Ramsdell (1877-1942) is mostly interesting for its discussion of the textbook battles in Texas. (Which continue to this day, as I’ll discuss later and as Eric Foner discusses in a 2010 essay reprinted in Battles for Freedom; the Texas texts are still whitewashing history in several senses of the word.) Ramsdell was from the Texas Hill Country near Austin and after Columbia wound up at the University of Texas, which was notoriously frugal with salaries. Ramsdell needed to augment his income, so he coauthored a history to compete in the lucrative Texas textbook market. The book was eventually approved.
By the 1890s southern aristocrats had crippled Reconstruction but faced a challenge from a threatening alliance of small farmers, both white and black, who were discontented with the southern oligarchy. Southern aristocrats responded by linking class stratification and white supremacy, emphasizing fears of black domination. Populists were defeated in the elections of 1896, and legislatures quickly passed laws to avoid a recurrence. As Rogers and Hammerstein would later term it, southerners had “to be carefully taught.” Southern legislatures passed uniform textbook laws with Texas leading the way in 1897. One Texas leader in 1915 declared, “Strict censorship is the thing that will bring the honest truth.” When a professor at Roanoke College in Virginia was found to be using Henry William Elson’s 1904 History of the United States of America, the professor resigned and the book was purged from universities throughout the south. Bailey writes offending passages were said to portray sexual indiscretions of masters with their female slaves, termed the conflict a slaveholders’ war, and praised Lincoln.
I have a 1912 reprint of Elson’s book. (You never know when these things will come in handy.) I was only able to find the following about sexual indiscretions:
“One feature of [slavery] that brought it general condemnation was the miscegenation of the two races. The northern Abolitionists doubtless had an exaggerated notion of the prevalence of this evil, nor did they take into account of the fact it was not wholly due to slavery. It is a racial evil not confined to America nor to modern times. By the better class of slaveholders it was never considered respectable.”
I suspect the real reason for the objection to this text is Elson’s insistence, repeatedly and in no uncertain terms, that slavery caused the war. Among his arguments:
“Some say the war arose from the different interpretations of the Constitution on the question of state sovereignty, miscalled states rights. But what caused this difference of interpretation? Slavery… . Others say secession caused the war. Very true; but what caused secession? Slavery.”
Elson was simply not buying the “Lost Cause” myth.
William Watson Davis (1884-1960) was born in Florida in comfortable circumstances to a family that had been slaveholders for generations. Unlike most Dunningites, Davis stated unequivocally slavery was the cause of the Civil War going so far as to say, “The stupidest man realized the essential point in the great social issue of the war.” Davis did not minimize the violence against blacks during Reconstruction, but he also did not condemn it. Somewhat ironically in 1910 this member of the Dunning School wound up at the University of Kansas in that former bastion of abolitionism, Lawrence, where he taught until he retired in 1954.
William Harris Bragg’s chapter on C. Mildred Thompson (1881-1975) is possibly the most interesting not only because Thompson was anomalous but because Bragg discusses the Dunning School’s fall from grace as well as a possible revision to the revisionism. Thompson was a native of Atlanta who went to Vassar in 1899 and then studied at Columbia beginning in 1906 at a time when Columbia was not fully coeducational. When Thompson earned her PhD, she was one of only 543 to hold that degree, and only 10% of those were women. While doing graduate work at Columbia, Thompson was teaching at Vassar, where she supported integration and where she would remain until 1948. She became close friends with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and supported the New Deal. In her 1915 Reconstruction in Georgia Thompson wrote that Reconstruction brought Georgia a wider democratization of society and that the “greatest constructive achievement of the Civil War was the establishment of the negro [sic] in freedom” although the Republicans had “failed to establish him in permanent equality… either in political rights or social privileges.” She wrote favorably of some of the black politicians of the Reconstruction era. She questioned granting black suffrage as having “extended and intensified the racial antagonism a hundredfold.”
Bragg writes that Kenneth Stampp’s 1965 The Era of Reconstruction “probably marked the beginning of the end of the Dunningites as a respectable school of historiography within the university.” Stampp conceded the individual Dunningites’ state studies remained valuable for factual detail, but the conclusions were by and large “anti-Negro and anti-radical.” With Eric Foner’s 1988 Reconstruction, the academic repudiation of the Dunningites neared completion. Bragg writes that the 2010 The Great Task Remaining Before Us: Reconstruction as America’s Continuing Civil War, a collection of Reconstruction essays edited by Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, neither mentions nor includes any of the work of Dunning or his students. But there appears to be a revision to the revision. In 2012 Adam Fairclough, a British historian of the American civil rights movement, wrote a qualified defense of the Dunning School as well as their assertion that the “grant of black suffrage” had been a mistake. Bragg, writing in 2013, says, “It remains to be seen whether Fairclough’s argument represents an interesting footnote to post-Civil War historiography or the thin edge of a wedge that might shatter a quarter century of Reconstruction orthodoxy.”
In his section in the book on Dunning, James S. Humphreys says Dunning was busy teaching, mentoring his graduate students, and was in demand socially both in New York and Washington and wonders when Dunning found time to write. He notes that Dunning relied on his students’ works for Reconstruction: Political and Economic, which allowed him to complete the book quickly and may have made him more partisan against Radical Reconstruction. (Shepherd W. McKinley quotes Philip R. Muller as saying the book is “flawed” and that Dunning wrote the book quickly and from secondary sources and also notes he relied heavily on his students’ dissertations.) Smith writes in the introduction that in 1909 Dunning and W. E. B. DuBois appeared at a session of the American Historical Association with Dunning. DuBois took issue with much of the Dunning School’s teachings (while acknowledging corruption among some black politicians and admitting many ex-slaves were ignorant and easily deceived), pointing out that former slaves learned quickly, acted responsibly, and received pitifully little support from the U. S. government. According to Smith, Dunning spoke of DuBois’ presentation in high terms.
Unfortunately for Dunning’s reputation, that rushed project was, and in some circles remains, influential and will forever be what he is remembered for. Dunning’s portrayal of Reconstruction would prevail for much of the Twentieth Century. It was the only view of Reconstruction I was exposed to until I was taking some graduate courses at Ohio State in the 1970s. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is still a mark in the floor of the classroom where my jaw dropped when I first learned another viewpoint existed.
Bragg writes that the last reissue of Reconstruction: Political and Economic was in 1962. I have a copy of that edition. It contains a cover blurb by Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Donald saying, “[E]ven though many of its viewpoints are now controverted by modern historians, it remains the point of departure for all recent scholarship in the field.” A blurb by another Pulitzer Prize winner, Allan Nevins, concludes, “[The book] should be read at the beginning of all study of the period, and reread at the end.” From its first publication in 1907 academia was sold. A few examples of Dunning’s impact on textbooks follow:
In 1930 Eliot Morrison and Henry Steele Commager wrote in their widely-used textbook, Growth of the American Republic, “As for Sambo, whose wrongs moved abolitionists to tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its peculiar institution.”
The Literature of the South, by Richard Croom Beatty, et. al., published in 1952 by the textbook publisher, Scott Foresman Company, describes the post-war years as follows:
“With national politics in the hands of vindictive and often unscrupulous men, Reconstruction measures were such as to rub salt into the still sensitive wounds made by the Civil War…
“Corruption in the South was so bad that the Ku Klux Klan was organized, under such leaders as Nathan Bedford Forrest, to fight radical Reconstruction policies and to reestablish white supremacy.
“Beginning in 1874, however, a number of occurrences brought about a healthier national attitude toward the South. [Radicals] were defeated at the polls; the Supreme Court, following the election returns, reversed opinions issued a few years earlier and abolished the legal basis for Reconstruction policies. One of the first acts of the newly elected Congress was to relinquish control of the Southern racial problems.”
John D. Hicks, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, writes in his The American Nation: A History of the United States from 1865 to the Present, Third Edition, a college textbook published by Houghton Mifflin in 1955, “The reconstruction of the South was badly done. After the death of Lincoln, the government of the United States fell into the hands of crass and cruel men who scrupled at nothing in the achievement of their ends. Andrew Johnson, a Southerner who comprehended the problems of the South, was first swept out of power, then out of office, and with General Grant as an ineffective front the Radicals in Congress had their way.”
With academia on board, the Dunning message would get to the masses with the help of a new and effective medium, cinema.
In 1915 D. W. Griffith produced The Birth of a Nation, a technical masterpiece describing the events leading to the Civil War, the war itself, Reconstruction, and how Southerners reacted to Reconstruction.
The film is almost as much an anti-war film as it is historical (or ahistorical, depending on one’s viewpoint). It was released in February 1915, almost seven months after what would become World War I began in Europe, and perhaps D. W. Griffith foresaw that the U. S. would have to decide whether to enter the war and was registering his opposition to our doing so.
The film came out fifty years after the Civil War ended, which was well within living memory at the time. For reference, 1968 is the roughly the same distance from 2019 as 1865 was to 1915, and the events of 1968—the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy as well as the Chicago Democratic National Convention to name a few—are still fresh and hotly debated today. So it was in 1915 with the Civil War and Reconstruction.
The film depicts some of the fears of the time—that blacks’ becoming too powerful would lead to political chaos, that blacks would disenfranchise whites, and that white women would not be safe—probably the worst and most politically effective fear possible, and one that would be used to justify thousands of lynchings for decades to come.
In response to the indignities heaped upon the South, the hero comes up with the idea that becomes the Ku Klux Klan and brings back the “good old days” including disenfranchising blacks at gunpoint.
D. W. Griffith was born ten years after the end of the Civil War to a father who had been a Confederate colonel in that war. According to Dick Lehr in his 2014 The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War, Griffith idolized his father, who died when Griffith was ten as a result, according to Griffith, of a Civil War wound. Lehr posits the death was actually the result of too much food and bourbon. Griffith’s family was plunged into reduced circumstances when it was learned his father had three mortgages on his property to cover gambling and other debts. The land was lost, and Griffith’s mother moved to Louisville and attempted to earn a living running a boarding house. Griffith blamed his family’s poverty on the loss of his father, and his father’s death on the war. This was not going to be an objective film.
Griffith makes use of slides quoting Woodrow Wilson, who was president at the time and who had thus far “kept us out of war.”
The quotes from Wilson’s 1902 History of the American People demonstrate Wilson also suffered from the national amnesia:
“Adventurers swarmed out of the North as much the enemies of the one race as of the other, to cozen, beguile, and use the negroes [sic]… . In the villages the negroes [sic] were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority except as insolences
“…The policy of the Congressional leaders … wrought a veritable overthrow of Civilization in the South… in their determination to put the White South under the heel of the Black South.
“They were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South to protect the Southern Country.”
The ellipses are Griffith’s.
Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, died in August 1914, and the White House was in mourning when the film came out. Wilson, who felt he could not be seen watching a movie in public, allowed a special screening of the film at the White House and is reported to have pronounced it “…like writing history with lightening. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Some sources claim this quote is fake news, but it is consistent with Wilson’s actions as president.
Wilson was born in Virginia in 1856 and grew up in Georgia. In his 2013 biography, Wilson, A. Scott Berg says Wilson’s formative years during and after the Civil War shaped his views on race and his presidency.
Wilson’s views and his actions on race sparked protests at Princeton in 2016, where he was once president, seeking to remove his name from a building named after him.
According to Nieman, The Birth of a Nation was the highest grossing film until Gone with the Wind (1939).
The Birth of a Nation inspired William Joseph Simmons, an Atlanta physician and ne’er-do-well, to form a fraternal group that would, with the help of some experienced public relations people, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke, become the resurgent Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. This KKK was so influential that, according to Linda Gordon’s 2017 The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, it became a national political force. It had the most members north of the Mason-Dixon line, especially in Ohio and Indiana, where most of the state government was under its thumb.
The resurgent Klan, of course, was opposed to blacks (many Confederate memorials, including the controversial 1924 Charlottesville statue of Robert E. Lee, were erected during the brief reign of the new Klan), but it was equally opposed to Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.
It would be comforting to think the Klan was comprised of ignorant rural rednecks, but in fact it had a surprising number of urban members. Gordon cites historian Kenneth T. Jackson’s findings that 50% of Klan members were urbanites and 32% lived in the country’s larger cities.
Several Klan members were elected to Congress. One of them was Washington Representative Albert Johnson, who, with Pennsylvania Senator David Reed, sponsored the Johnson-Reed Act, also known as the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited immigration by assigning quotas based on the ethnicity of those already in the US in 1890 and excluded all Asians including South Asians. Such restrictions were the result of prejudice against the more recent immigrants, many of whom were from southern and eastern Europe and many of whom were Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Jews. The restrictions were justified by the “scientific racism” espoused by Columbia- and Yale-educated attorney Madison Grant in his 1916 The Passing of the Great Race.
The National Origins Act, a part of the Johnson-Reed Act, did not address Mexicans, who were needed as fruit workers and in manufacturing jobs. According to Allyson Hobbes in her 2014 A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, Chinese immigrants used false paperwork to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act and enter the United States as Mexicans at the Mexican border at least as early as 1907. There’s no reason to believe it stopped in 1907.
America entered the war that Griffith opposed. Because of a need to mobilize and gear up for war production, jobs that were previously held by white males opened up to women and blacks. During World War I, between 300,000 and 500,000 blacks left the South for northern urban jobs. Between 750,000 and one million blacks followed in the 1920s. While these black migrants encountered hardship and discrimination in the North, their lives were greatly improved over those they had lived in the Jim Crow South.
Housing in the North was from the start of the Great Migration a major problem for blacks, who were effectively contained in small overcrowded and poorly maintained areas of the cities they migrated to. Chicago’s South Side, where an infamous 1919 riot took place, is one example. According to Richard Rothstein in his 2017 The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, in 1897 white property owners in the Woodlawn neighborhood “declared war” on blacks, driving them out of the area with threats of violence, unimpeded by public authority. In 1907 the Hyde Park Improvement Protective Club organized boycotts of merchants who sold to blacks and offered to buy out the homes of blacks who lived in the area. When such methods did not work, whites resorted to bombings and other extralegal means which were conducted against not only blacks who attempted to rent or buy housing in white areas, but also against realtors who were involved with renting or selling homes outside the black belt to blacks. From 1917 to 1921 there were 58 fire bombings of homes in white border areas blacks had moved into with no arrests or prosecutions despite the deaths of two blacks. Thirty of these 58 bombings took place in the spring of 1919 just before the summer riot. Over the years blacks were forced into crowded conditions in an area of declining housing stock. Whites perceived blacks as a threat to property values in part based on the dilapidated and overcrowded housing blacks occupied on the south side, which had become dilapidated and overcrowded because so many blacks were forced into and contained in a small area and because landlords had little incentive to maintain property that would rent at high prices regardless of condition.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1917 invalidated a racial zoning ordinance in Louisville, Kentucky. Shortly after this decision the Chicago Real Estate Board reaffirmed a need to found property owners’ associations.
Because of housing discrimination black areas became self-contained and to a degree self-sustaining. Ministers, undertakers, bankers, barbers and in time lawyers and doctors had a ready-made client base. Some of these areas became quite successful and attracted the envy of less successful white neighbors. One example of this was the Tulsa, Oklahoma district of Greenwood, which in 1921 was destroyed by a white mob on the pretext that a white woman had been molested by a black man. (According to an article about the riot in the October 5, 2018 New York Times, the man most likely tripped and accidentally stepped on the woman’s foot; charges against him were later dropped.)
By the time Gone with the Wind came along the Lost Cause myth was received wisdom. The North had witnessed more than twenty years of the Great Migration, and racism was pervasive throughout the country.
When the film premiered in December 1939, the country had been in the Great Depression for nearly ten years. The dry west had been through the Dust Bowl. War had just broken out in Europe. People longed for a simpler time. The introduction to the film addresses both the Lost Cause myth and the longing for a simpler time:
“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South..
“Here in this pretty World Gallantry took its last bow.
“Here was the last to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave..
“Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered.
“A Civilization gone with the wind.”
The film is a four hour long cinematic masterpiece and remains the highest grossing film ever when adjusted for inflation.
And once again a high profit paean to the Lost Cause came on the eve of war and the resulting changes that would impact the nation for years to come.
A second Great Migration began about 1940 as demand for defense workers increased. And once again blacks were treated as second class citizens. Black defense workers, who were among the 1.2 million southern blacks who joined the Great Migration during the war, were provided with substandard segregated housing. Rothstein compares “officially and explicitly segregated” public housing built for defense workers in Richmond, California during World War II. Housing for blacks was built haphazardly and close to railroad tracks. Housing for whites was built inland, close to white residential areas, and some was sturdily constructed and permanent.
At the end of the war white soldiers returned home and some took advantage of the GI Bill of Rights, which enabled them to buy homes with no down payment, which led to a housing boom, and go to school, but black ex-GIs were more often than not denied these rights.
According to Rothstein, the postwar housing boom was largely financed by VA and FHA loans, and in order to qualify for that financing, subdivisions were not only encouraged, but required to include covenants restricting the subdivisions to “Caucasians.” In 1959, a man in Berkley, California bought a house financed by FHA and was not able to move into the house immediately. He let a black teacher rent the house until he could move in. As a result he was advised he’d lost his participation in the FHA insurance program and that he’d never again be able to obtain a government-backed mortgage, even though this was eleven years after the Supreme Court had declared such discrimination unlawful in Shelley v. Kraemer.
The GI Bill did not have smooth sailing through Congress. In order to get the bill passed it needed the support of Mississippi congressman John Rankin, whom Edward Humes in his 2006 Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream, describes as a racist and a thug. But he was a powerful racist and thug. The bill made it through Congress with provisions that allowed local control of loans. In Rankin’s state of Mississippi, where half the population was black, in the summer of 1947 three thousand VA loans were made, of which two went to black veterans.
Other writers have also termed Rankin a thug. Katznelson quotes Rankin as saying, in opposition to a 1940 anti-lynching bill (ellipses are Katznelson’s):
“Remember that southern Democrats now have the balance of power in both Houses of Congress. By your conduct you may make it impossible for us to support many of your important committee assignments, and other positions to which you aspire… You Democrats, who are pushing this vicious measure are destroying your usefulness here… The Republicans would be delighted to see you cut President Roosevelt’s throat politically, and are therefore voting with you on this vicious measure… They know if he signs it, it will ruin him in the Southern states; and if he vetoes it, they can get the benefit of the Negro votes this vicious measure would inflict in the North.”
Rankin and his cohorts had used their power to restrict Social Security, aid to the indigent, unemployment benefits, and the Fair Labor Standards Act to whites by not applying these programs and requirements to agricultural and domestic workers and by insisting on local control. According to Katznelson, during World War I money provided to families of soldiers had put money in the pockets of black women and children who then had the nerve not to take on menial household work or go into the fields. Rankin was not going to see a repeat of that situation!
Hume also tells the story of Monte Posey, a black veteran who had been accepted at the University of Illinois. His VA counselor told him he recommended against his getting funds for his education and suggested he sign up for a trade. When Posey questioned the decision, his counselor told him, “Look around. There are no opportunities for college educated Negroes. You’ll be wasting your time.” Posey persisted, got his education, and eventually became an investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
THE MOVE TO THE SUBURBS
In their introduction to The New Suburban History (2006), editors Kevin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue assert “[i]n the still developing history of the postwar United States, suburbs belong at center stage.”
That may be an overstatement, but the postwar suburban boom definitely changed the living conditions, attitudes, and eventual net worth of millions of almost exclusively white former renters and homeowners in congested cities.
Andrew Weise, associate professor of history at San Diego State University, takes exception to the “almost exclusively white” stereotype in his 2004 Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century, claiming “historians have done a better job excluding African Americans from the suburbs than even white suburbanites.” While he makes some good points about the separate and often better than equal suburbs in the south, especially in the Atlanta area, and wealthy black enclaves such as the Addisleigh Park neighborhood of St. Alban’s in New York’s borough of Queens, which was featured in Ebony as a “suburban Sugar Hill” and was home to such celebrities as Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Campanella, Billie Holiday, Jackie Robinson, and Count Basie, he also includes areas such as Detroit’s Eight Mile-Wyoming and Chagrin Falls Park, just east of Cleveland, which were areas that included a few nice homes but were largely small plots with space for crops and even livestock on which people had built their own homes often with scrap lumber. In 1941 FHA infamously required a developer to erect a half mile long wall six feet high to separate a new (white) subdivision from the Eight Mile-Wyoming neighborhood. Even including such areas as these and some similar areas on Long Island, which originated as homes for servants, and Pacoima, in the Los Angeles area, which in 1957 offered VA financing to black buyers, Weise admits African Americans never comprised more than 5% of the U. S. suburban population before 1960. While a few communities, including Shaker Heights, Ohio, as described in Created Equal: A Social and Political History of the United States (2003) by Jacquelin Jones, et al, welcomed black home buyers, Richard Polenberg describes the number of black suburbanites in the 1950s as “infinitesimal” in his 1980 One Nation Divisible: Class, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States Since 1938. I’m always open to revisionism, but I’m going with the consensus on this one. White suburbanites were quite proficient at exclusion.
The dropping of the atomic bomb ended the war with Japan in August, 1945, much sooner than anyone had thought possible. Troops were rapidly demobilized, going from 12 million in 1945 to 3 million in 1946 and to between 1.2 and 1.5 million in 1947. As Kenneth T. Jackson says in his 1985 Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, “In truth, the United States was no better prepared for peace than it had been for war when the German Wehrmacht crossed the Polish frontier in the predawn hours of September 1, 1939.”
According to Jackson, six million families were doubling up with families or friends by 1947. Another 500,000 were living in Quonset huts or temporary quarters. In Chicago 250 former trolley cars were sold as homes. In New York City a couple set up housekeeping for two days in a department store window hoping to generate enough publicity to find an apartment. In Omaha someone advertised a “big ice box,” 7 X 17 feet that “could be fixed up to live in.” In North Dakota surplus grain bins were turned into apartments. Joseph G. Goulden in his 1976 The Best Years: 1945-1950, reports ex-GIs at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Missouri asked President Truman to give them fuselages from surplus B-29, B-24, and B-12 bombers for conversion into living quarters.
The government acted by underwriting a vast new construction program responding to a need for five million new homes. Congress regularly approved billions of dollars’ worth of additional mortgage insurance for FHA. Even more important was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, which created a Veterans Administration mortgage program similar to that of FHA. VA supported the view that 16 million World War II GIs should return to civilian life with a home of their own.
Single family housing starts were 114,000 in 1944, 937,000 in 1946, 1,183,000 in 1948, and 1,692,000 in 1950—an all-time high. (2017 housing starts were estimated to be 1,219,000.)
The story of Levittown, New York is a familiar one. Briefly, from Crabgrass, Jackson relates how the Levitts, who had built upper middle-class housing before the war, got a government contract to build 2,350 war workers’ homes in Norfolk, Virginia, and from that experience learned how to build homes on a production line basis. After the war, the Levitts assembled 4,000 acres of what had been potato farms in Hempstead. Eventually these potato farms would yield 17,400 homes.
The war had thrown people together who otherwise might never have gotten to know one another, say, an ethnic Italian or Greek, or a person of a different religion. Ethnics became white.
As I mentioned above, during the 1920s new immigrants had been subject to the wrath of the resurgent KKK, which was opposed to immigrants a well as blacks, Catholics, and Jews.
By the 1940s this anti-immigrant virulence was still fresh in the minds of those who had borne the brunt of it, though the Klan of the 1920s had all but disappeared. As a result of the war, in which these immigrants and especially their offspring participated, ethnic immigrants merged into society and, with the exception of Jews in some areas (Leawood, Kansas being an example), were now considered “white.” They qualified for VA and FHA loans and took part in the migration to the new subdivisions.
According to David R. Roediger in his 2005 Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White, home ownership had been historically more important to immigrants than to native-born whites. A WPA study in Chicago in 1939 found 21.7% of native-born whites owned homes while 41.3% of foreign-born did, including 50% of Lithuanians and Poles and about 40% of Italians. According to Roediger, new immigrants did not buy into the American Dream of home ownership—they helped create it.
When it came to integrating their neighborhoods racially, the nouveaux whites joined the opposition. As Thomas J. Sugrue in his 1996 The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit says, no single ethnic group dominated most neighborhood associations. “Officers of the Greater Detroit Homeowners’ Association, Unit No. 2, in a blue-collar northwest Detroit neighborhood, included a veritable United Nations of ethnic names, among them Benzing, Bonaventura, Francisco, Kopicko, Sloan, Clanahan, Klebba, Beardsley, Twomey, and Barr.”
In the 1950s 1.2 million people per year to migrated to the suburbs. By 1960 the suburban and urban populations were equal at 60 million each. By 1970 suburbanites outnumbered urbanites.
The government was selective about who and what kind of housing would qualify for FHA and VA financing. Until 1966 FHA approval for mortgage insurance depended upon the mortgagor's credit rating, the soundness of the physical property, and the stability of the neighborhood in which the property was located. (In 1966 the stability of the neighborhood requirement was removed; Jackson writes, “Ironically, the primary effect of the change was to make it easier for white families to finance their escape from areas experiencing racial change.”) Until the middle 1950s FHA underwriting manuals encouraged developers to put racial restrictions on their developments to protect the “character” of their properties. Richard Rothstein says FHA and subsequently VA demanded racial covenants in subdivisions where the agencies sponsored construction loans.
Developers used FHA and VA as a shield not to sell to black buyers. While developers might say they’d like to sell to black buyers, they could portray the situation as beyond their control. William Levitt is reported to have said, “We can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two.” Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen in their 2000 Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened report Levitt wrote that when a black assistant district attorney moved next to him in Brooklyn, he feared a diminution in values if “too many” moved in, so he “picked up and moved out,” leading to his living and building in the suburbs. He had little interest in solving a racial problem. Further, according to Rosalind Rosenberg in her Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century (1992), FHA would not approve mortgage funds for female-headed families.
The people welcome in the suburbs were pretty much white couples with young children. Baxandall and Ewen give an example of a couple who divorced. The wife found her neighbors, especially the husbands, hostile when she remained in Levittown.
It should be noted the government’s funding of housing did not have to go overwhelmingly to the construction of private homes. Baxandall and Ewen relate that in 1945 Republican Senator Robert Taft (not a bleeding-heart liberal), Senator Allen Ellender (a southern Democrat), and Senator Robert Wagner (a Democrat from New York) introduced the Taft Ellender Wagner Act, which provided for 500,000 public housing units to be built over the next fourteen years. In 1946 Republicans won both houses of Congress, and hearings were held on the issue of public housing in 1947. The Joint Committee Study and Investigation of Housing was presided over by the just-elected Senator Joseph McCarthy. Honing skills he would put to use later in his career, Sen. McCarthy used inquisitor and sledge hammer techniques to declare public housing a breeding ground for communists. He succeeded in stymying public housing funding.
According to Thomas Sugrue, in his 1996 The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, in Detroit blacks were initially constrained to the area called Black Bottom. Paradise Valley, the business district of Black Bottom, got its name from early participants in the Great Migration who were seeking better conditions in industrial Detroit than they had endured in the rural south. As Sugrue writes, “The name was a reflection of the hope of black newcomers to the city, and an ironic comment on hopes still unmet.”
From the 1920s to the 1950s, Detroit’s black population went from 41,000 to 300,000, and Black Bottom was one of the very few areas open to blacks. As the Great Migration continued, more and more people were shoehorned into Black Bottom’s deteriorating housing stock, much of which dated to the 1860s and 1870s and was owned by absentee landlords who, had little incentive to maintain properties that would rent at any price.
As in Chicago, early efforts to integrate neighborhoods outside the boundaries of Detroit’s Black Bottom were met with violence. Even after Shelley, realtors, lenders, developers, homeowners (including at times middle class black homeowners), and local governments resisted integration.
The postwar job situation in Detroit was similarly skewed against blacks. During the war, jobs opened up because of the shortage of labor. At the national level, the United Auto Workers (UAW) was on the cutting edge of the civil rights movement. The UAW funded the NAACP, CORE, and other black organizations. The UAW also sponsored conferences on civil rights, backed open housing campaigns, and advocated for integrated housing projects. This was advantageous to the union because when blacks had been barred from the labor force, they were frequently hired as strike breakers. Now that they could join the union, the UAW had a better bargaining position. On the local level, however, it was frequently a different story. The organizational structure of the UAW permitted discrimination, and UAW leaders were reluctant to interfere, fearing rebellion from the segregated skilled trades workers among others, and the auto companies left hiring decisions to often racist local plant managers.
After the war, with millions of GIs returning home, demand for black labor decreased, and if a black worker was fortunate enough to be hired, he (or possibly but not likely she) would be given, in Sugrue’s words, the meanest and dirtiest jobs.
Also, after the war, in an effort to weaken unions, industry began a program of deindustrialization and decentralization. Sugrue traces deindustrialization to 1949 when Ford accelerated plastics production in its Rouge plant. Production was accelerated from 650 pieces per day to 870. Those who could not keep up were let go.
Deindustrialization was especially rough on black workers in part because of seniority rules. Many black workers who had been hired during the labor shortage years of World War II did not have the seniority to keep their jobs when layoffs came. It was also difficult for workers, especially older workers, to transfer skills that were becoming obsolete to new jobs. At the same time, younger workers were encountering a labor market that had no entry jobs for them. Companies decentralized, wooed by areas with an abundance of cheap land, lower costs, lower non-union labor rates, and lower taxes. Some of the decentralization was encouraged by the government as a civil defense measure, and the Interstate Highway System, sold as a means of evacuating cities in the event of war, enabled decentralization. Companies began in the 1950s to replace workers with automated technology. Workers who relied on public transportation were out of luck. Some workers moved, but few black workers were willing to move to the predominantly white rural areas, small towns, and especially to the southern towns gaining from deindustrialization, leaving the city of Detroit hollowed out with a diminishing tax base as industry left, its population mostly black (currently it’s more than 80% black), and those who remained dealing with high perpetual unemployment (which Sugrue terms deproletarianization), and a city with an infrastructure it could no longer maintain.
While Shelley v. Kraemer opened housing opportunities to blacks who had previously been denied access to housing outside limited areas, it also inspired panic among white homeowners who saw their ability to control the race of people in their neighborhoods vanish. Realtors, black and white, were able to translate the eagerness of blacks to escape their old neighborhoods and whites not to live near blacks into profits. Realtors would either sell to or pretend to be selling to blacks in formerly all-white neighborhoods. They would then solicit business from nearby homeowners, many of whom were anxious to sell before it was “too late.” Often realtors would buy homes themselves at below market prices and sell them to black buyers at a premium. Often the home was financed by a land contract (at 25% interest, according to Sherry Lamb Shirmer in her 2002 A City Divided, which is about Kansas City), which meant the deed would not be in the buyers’ names until the house was paid for, and if one payment was missed, the house and all equity was at risk.
Black homeowners moving to formerly white areas would then be saddled with high interest loans on overpriced property. They would take in boarders, maintenance would be deferred, and in many ways, they’d be in the same circumstances they thought they’d left behind—in a nicer home, perhaps, but usually in a majority black neighborhood once again. Possibly worse, such circumstances would provide confirmation bias to whites who believed integration inevitably led to slums. Sugrue quotes one Detroit city official as saying “the ghetto crept outward block by block.” Sugrue says that a block that had been all white would become predominantly black just a few years after the first black family moved in.
I’m going to take a short detour to Chicago for a couple of paragraphs because that’s where Lorraine Hansberry set her 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, which was the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. The film is about the Younger family who eventually leave their kitchenette apartment with a bathroom shared with other tenants on Chicago’s south side for suburban Clybourne Park.
As the family is packing for the move, they receive a visit from Karl Lindner, who represents the Clybourne Park Improvement Association to deal with “special community problems” and wants to buy their house for more than they paid for it in order to avoid “certain incidents” (such as fires, bricks thrown through windows, etc.). The Youngers decline his offer and move.
While we hope things work out well for the Youngers in their new home, the ending is ambiguous. We’ll come back to Clybourne Park later.
Lorraine Hansberry was writing from experience. From Princeton professor Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (2018), in 1937 Carl Hansberry, Ms. Hansberry’s father, decided to challenge racial segregation and bought a building in Woodlawn, a neighborhood with a racial covenant.
The family moved in and encountered the wrath of neighbors and endured the mob scenes that usually resulted from integration in those days. The Woodlawn Property Owners Association filed a claim in circuit court to have the Hansberrys evicted, and they were. For three years Carl Hansberry pursued his claim, and the case wound up in the Supreme Court, which in Hansberry v. Lee (1940) found in her father’s favor on very narrow grounds. The real life Hansberrys and the fictional Youngers were desperate to leave their old neighborhood behind.
Those who could not afford to escape Detroit’s Lower East Side or Chicago’s south side no longer had middle class examples living near them. Blacks on the upper end of the economic scale, for example, those who moved into the Boston Edison and Arden Park neighborhoods as well as those who moved to more middle-class enclaves, put their old lives behind them and took pains to distance themselves from the poorer blacks they left behind. Blacks were becoming segregated by class.
As the Kerner Commission would conclude in 1968, in the postwar years America moved further toward two societies. Our government heaped benefits on white suburbanites, from low to no down payment financing insured by the government, to tax deductions for the low interest paid on mortgages, to building freeways to enable suburbanites to get from city to ‘burb with relative ease (often displacing without compensation residents of black neighborhoods, Detroit’s Black Bottom among them, to build these freeways).
Black urban America, on the other hand, faced a hollowing out as its middle class, black and white, left and as industries deindustrialized, automated, and abandoned central cities for greener pastures (sometimes literally). Our government not only did not discourage this, it encouraged and enabled it.
Since the postwar era the trajectory of white suburbanites has been generally upward. Rothstein, writing in 2017, says that the Long Island Levittown Cape model that sold for $7,990 in 1949 now sells for $350,000 without having been remodeled. A quick check on Google shows the median price in Levittown is now $469,000. West coast price increases are even more extreme. The $15,000 suburban San Francisco Bay Area home John McPartland describes in his 1957 No Down Payment would now fetch an easy $2 million, and I don’t even want to think about how much the $35,000 home in Hillsborough he describes would cost now. That opportunity to build wealth was denied to blacks. The trajectory of urban blacks has been the reverse. Sugrue writes that the poorest third of Detroit’s black population in 1950 and 1960 was even poorer in 1970 and 1980.
In an article in the February 2019 Reason magazine Rothstein makes the case that the postwar housing shortage was a missed opportunity. He writes, “Had the [Public Works Administration] and FHA acted in a lawful manner, some bigoted white families might have refused to live in public projects or purchase suburban homes. But the housing shortage was so severe that for any family that refused, many were waiting to take its place. Had federal agencies performed in a nondiscriminatory fashion, the landscapes of our metropolitan areas would be much more diverse than they are now.”
Alas, they didn’t.
THE LOST CAUSE MEETS THE CIVIL RIGHTS ERA
The Lost Cause and its legacies of Jim Crow, housing discrimination, and the other detritus of racism became the accepted norm for most of society until the Civil Rights era.
From 1945 through the mid-1960s political leaders, pundits, and some academics imagined the United States to be a “consensus society.” I don’t buy it.
It seems to me what we call a “consensus society” reflected a population whose view of itself was a conformity coerced by a fear of appearing different or thinking differently in an era of a fear of “the other.” If one were to express an opinion or take action too far outside the mainstream, one ran the risk of being labeled a communist. Labeling opponents “communists” worked well for such politicians as Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon. For a good part of the postwar years, those who disagreed with the mainstream found it best to get along by going along.
The immediate postwar years saw an immense change in American society. Because most of the veterans helped by the GI Bill were white and male, veterans would generally only encounter other white veterans in their classrooms, and because government financing for the new housing developments usually required that they be restricted to whites, that’s who lived next door. The postwar world, for whites, was pretty homogenous, making it unlikely one would encounter alternate viewpoints or get too far out of line.
Many of those educated under the GI Bill would move into the corporate world where they would have little if any autonomy. Elaine Tyler May in her 1988 Homeward Bound, which describes postwar domestic containment so well, shows that it applied to men as well as their homebound wives. She writes, “In the face of the highly organized world of work that stripped men of their autonomy, fatherhood could be a source of meaning and creativity. Presumably nowhere else was it easier for a man to be his own boss than in fatherhood.”
While jobs at the time were somewhat secure (certainly relative to today) and even came with benefits and a pension (I suspect that term will have to be explained to history students in the not too distant future), Dad really needed that job, so he’d be unlikely to step too far out of line at work.
The “consensus society” myth was reinforced by television, which kept people at home and fed them visions of how life was presumably being lived by other white suburbanites. Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, etc. all provided examples of ideal suburban life (if not the actual lives of those being portrayed, especially by Ozzie and Harriet). While a few bones were thrown to urban blue-collar workers, The Honeymooners among them, even Gertrude Berg moved The Goldbergs from the Bronx to the ‘burbs to reflect the new norm.
In her Epilogue, May says, “When many baby boomers were still infants, however, domestic containment began to crumble under its own weight. Gradually in the early 1960s, an increasing number of white middle-class Americans began to question the private therapeutic approach to solving social problems.” In discussing The Feminine Mystique, May says, “It was as if someone was finally willing to say that the emperor had no clothes; soon a chorus joined in support.” That was true of the whole “consensus.”
The seeds were being sown that would make this “consensus” unenforceable. Public school children of the 1950s and 1960s (I was one) were born after World War II, the “good war.” Our fathers had either fought in the war or they (and often our mothers as well) had jobs that supported the war effort. Those of us who were white grew up in unprecedented prosperity in segregated subdivisions and suburbs and attended segregated public schools and churches. My only contact with black people was at that unintentionally subversive activity—church camp, and, like the National Brotherhood Week so ably skewered by Tom Lehrer in his 1965 song by the same name, that was only one week a year. When we were taught history at all (and in my high school, history was considered so unimportant that most of us were subjected to television classes in the auditorium with no chance to interact with the teacher), we were taught a sanitized version that at best ended with World War II. We were taught our country was always right, and we believed that. We were taught to respect authority, and we did. We were laughably naïve. We were set up for disillusionment, and when we discovered some of what we had been taught was either incomplete or false, we questioned everything. Elizabeth Warren and I were in the same graduating class, and I would say she is a prime example of someone who discovered that “consensus” was built on a foundation of bullshit and that the emperor indeed had no clothes.
The first chink in the consensus armor for me came when I learned (in college) about the Japanese internment camps. While that was the first scale to drop from my eyes, others were casting off their scales as well. Blacks as well as many white liberals began questioning why all the government benefits should be going to those who increasingly did not need them while southern blacks did not even have protection from lynching, let alone the right to vote. Betty Friedan, according Rosenberg, in 1943 gave up a graduate fellowship for a romance that did not last, married, lost a job because of a pregnancy, and moved to the suburbs where she wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, giving voice to wives’ frustrations with their contained lives. Gays began asking why what they did in the privacy of their own bedrooms should be anyone’s business.
The problem with teaching a whitewashed version of anything, and especially history, is
if one lie is discovered, everything is suspect. As the country, full of students who had been taught all our wars were good and our country right or wrong, sank slowly and surely into the quagmire that would become the war in Vietnam, all pretense of consensus vanished. In that era of civil rights awareness and disillusionment with government, the Lost Cause and Reconstruction as evil were easy targets.
Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877 began to be taught in college classrooms in 1965. The book could be read as the anti-Dunning. While admitting “few revisionists would claim the Dunning interpretation is pure fabrication,” Stampp takes on just about every accusation against Reconstruction Dunning threw at it in his 1907 Reconstruction Political and Economic: 1865-1877 and turns them around. Corruption? Stampp points out there were singularly corrupt Republican machines in control of Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. Further, the thefts of the Democratic Tammany machine in New York surpassed the total of all the thefts in the southern states combined. Additionally, Stampp says many of the Reconstruction state governments were well run and that much of the writing about excessive spending was considerably overstated. He says Republicans ran into race prejudice problems in the North as well as the South. Interestingly, he also says race prejudice was more of an issue with poorer whites than with upper class whites, who of course believed in white supremacy but didn’t make keeping blacks subordinate “the central purpose of their lives,” and “their secure social positions made them less reluctant to grant Negroes equal civil and political rights.” Stampp’s description of Andrew Johnson’s public tirades sound like Trump without Twitter.
He also refutes the alleged venality of those in Congress who supported Reconstruction. He points out many of those, especially Thaddeus Stevens, came of age in the 1830s and 1840s, an era of reform movements. They believed in the doctrine of natural rights and in the equality of all men. It would be naïve to say they were not swayed by political motives or inclined to support business interests in the North (they were Republicans, after all), but Stampp rejects the stereotype of the evil radical intending to keep a heel on the neck of the south.
While Stampp gets the credit for bringing revisionism of the Reconstruction era into the classroom, John Hope Franklin wrote Reconstruction: After the Civil War in 1961, which makes some of the same—in fact, some of the identical points Stampp made four years later. I found Franklin’s book more readable, and he places a great deal of emphasis on economic events that contributed to the end of Reconstruction. Franklin points out that much of the debt Reconstruction governments supposedly saddled the south with was for necessary infrastructure repair and guaranteeing railroad bonds. Stampp mentions Franklin’s book in his bibliographic note section but does not attribute any of his research to Franklin.
One factor in Reconstruction’s ending was northern businessmen began to suffer what we would call civil rights fatigue. They simply tired of hearing about problems in the south as other issues, especially the depression that began in 1873, began to take precedence. Stampp, writing in 1965, concludes by saying that while state-imposed discrimination was an evasion of the supreme law of the land, the odds were in the long run in favor of blacks.
Mark Kurlansky in his 2003 1968: The Year That Rocked the World says the country suffered another bout of civil rights fatigue in 1968. The was followed by the Nixon and Reagan years.
More than fifty years after Stampp’s book came out, while things have gotten better, one has to wonder how long a run Stampp had in mind.
THE RETURN TO THE CITY
When we last discussed the Youngers, they were on their way to their new home in Clybourne Park. So what happened with them? As I mentioned above, Sugrue wrote most blocks in changing neighborhoods went from being all white to predominantly black in three or four years, and that brings us to Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning 2011 play, which I saw at the Unicorn in 2013.
Act One is set in 1959 and tells the Raisin in the Sun story from the perspective of the neighborhood. In Act Two we find ourselves in the same house in 2009. It’s run down from fifty years of neglect and hard use, but the area has turned around. It’s now desirable because it is close to downtown, and a lot of gentrification is happening. We meet Lindsay (and her husband, Steve, who is superfluous to this paper and evidently to Lindsay as well), who live in a distant suburb and who have bought 406 Clybourne Street intending to fix it up, but there is so much wrong with the house they decided to have it torn down and build a bigger house for which an architect has already drawn up plans and construction on a koi pond (!) is underway. This has resulted in their neighbors’ petitioning the landmarks commission to make sure the new house fits in with the neighborhood, which has been designated as historical.
As it turns out, Lena, the representative of the neighborhood, is the great niece of the woman who bought this very house in 1959, and (irony alert!) Lindsay is the daughter of Karl Lindner, the neighborhood representative who tried so hard to keep the Youngers from buying the house fifty years ago.
One of the neighborhood representatives reads from the City Council’s designation of Clybourne Park as a collection of low-rise single-family homes intended to house a community of working-class families. There is concern that the size, and especially the height, of the new home will not fit in with the community. Lindsay points out that communities change. Lena asks about the motivation behind the “long range initiative to change the face of this neighborhood.” Lindsay considers the change to be positive; Lena says there are certain economic interests that are being served by the changes and others that are not. Lena says, “It happens one house at a time.”
The play brings the Raisin story full circle. Karl Lindner did his best to keep the Youngers from moving to Clybourne Park because “a homeowner has a right to have the neighborhood he lives in a certain kind of way and live around people who share a common background.” Fifty years later, Lindsay, Karl Lindner’s daughter, comes up against the great niece of Lena Younger, who would prefer that she not move to Clybourne Park because “a homeowner has a right to have the neighborhood he lives in a certain kind of way and live around people who share a common background.”
After the Youngers moved to Clybourne Park in 1959, the neighborhood, as Sugrue would have predicted, became predominantly black in a few years “one house at a time.” Now long-time residents are concerned that the neighborhood will become gentrified and occupied by wealthy whites, making the neighborhood too expensive for the current residents “one house at a time.” Lindsay believes she is improving the neighborhood. Lena disagrees.
The March 2019 issue of Reason reports that in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood (which during the era of white flight became Puerto Rican, followed by hippies and Yippies and then by gays and is now being gentrified), a couple with a disabled daughter who uses a wheelchair wanted to add a garage with a ramp and elevator to their home. Some neighbors opposed the addition, saying it’s not in keeping with the historic nature of the neighborhood. The president of the neighborhood association wrote that he understood the situation, and he doesn’t mean to be heartless or uncaring, but “this is not the neighborhood for that.”
Cornelius Swart’s 2017 documentary, Priced Out, available on Kanopy, is an interesting take on the impact of gentrification on the Albina section of Portland, Oregon, where long time black residents are being forced to leave their homes by those who are intent on “reviving” the area, which drives up home prices, property taxes, and rent beyond their ability to pay. They’re being driven to distant suburbs, which are now more affordable.
This seems to be a nationwide phenomenon. Certain areas of Kansas City are seeing old homes torn down to make way for newer and larger homes (often shoehorned onto small lots) and existing homes undergoing expensive renovations. The results are higher home values in those areas and higher property taxes that many, especially those in what were low-income neighborhoods, cannot pay. Sad to say, those gentrifying the neighborhoods don’t seem to care. In fact, some want to be rid of their poorer neighbors. In response to a concern expressed on a local blog about tenants displaced by gentrification downtown, one person wrote, “Who gives a damn. I work hard for my money, and I can afford to live [downtown]. I am not going to apologize for yearsnofnhard [sic] work, smart life choices and good decisions. I choose to live downtown because I can. People who work hard and make good life divisions [sic] shouldn’t be forced to now live with those that can’t keep their shit together.” Jeremy LeFaver, a former Missouri State Representative, when asked on “Ruckus,” a local news and talk show on Channel 19, what people who can no longer pay their property tax bills should do, responded compassionately, “What happens to anybody who can’t afford things? They take out a loan, they move… .” Let them eat cake! Taxing entities certainly aren’t going to stem the tide of gentrification, since higher home values add to their revenue.
Poor people who were once denied access to the suburbs are now being kicked out of the neighborhoods they once couldn’t leave.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
In January 1989, the late John Conyers introduced HR 40 Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. The number “40” references the short-lived “forty acres and a mule” proposed as reparations in 1865. The bill has been reintroduced every year since. This year in refusing to consider the bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, "I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea. We've tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war and by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president."
If there’s one point I hope I’ve made in this paper, it’s that the damage done by slavery and its consequences did not end 150 years ago. To quote William Faulkner, it’s a past that’s “never dead. It’s not even past.”
In 1989 the idea of reparations seemed far-fetched, but thirty years later, some of the 2020 presidential candidates, Elizabeth Warren among them, have embraced the idea of at least studying reparations.
As I was writing this paper the Princeton Theological Seminary announced it would set aside nearly $28 million for reparations which will be used to make changes to its curriculum, hire more scholars to study the legacy of slavery, and rename campus spaces in honor of prominent African-Americans among other initiatives. This is in spite of the fact that the seminary did not own slaves and that its buildings were not constructed with slave labor. The seminary received financial contributions from southern sources, including slaveowners and congregations with ties to slavery. For a time, a large portion of the seminary's endowment was connected to Southern banks that were financing the expansion of slavery in the Southwest. Several of the seminary's founders and early leaders used slave labor, despite speaking out against slavery and many seminary faculty, board members and alumni were involved in the American Colonization Society, which argued against immediate emancipation and advocated sending formerly enslaved people back to Africa.
On a (yet another) personal note, once I would have subscribed to the Mitch McConnell school on reparations. Thanks to a New York Times book review, I read Rothstein’s book, and it was like learning about the Japanese internment camps and that there was a view of Reconstruction other than that of the Dunning School all over again.
Rothstein proposes that one solution for blacks’ lack of access to the ability to build home equity would be for the government to buy homes in postwar developments like Levittown and sell those homes to blacks for the inflated value of their postwar prices. In Levittown that would mean blacks could buy homes that sell for (in 2017) $350,000 for $75,000.
Another remedy Rothstein proposes would be a ban on zoning ordinances that prevent multifamily housing or that require all single-family homes in a neighborhood to be built on large lots with high minimum requirements for square footage. Such changes would most likely have to occur on a local level; however, in December 2018 Minneapolis ended single family zoning and now allows structures with up to three dwelling units in every neighborhood. Perhaps other cities will follow.
In 1978 California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13 requiring that property owners be taxed based on the prices they paid, rather than the current value of their homes. Perhaps those in gentrifying neighborhoods could start an initiative to enact similar legislation in their areas. (And yes, Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann were right-wing nuts, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day.)
Katznelson says we owe it to ourselves not to forget and suggests that for the lag in entering the Social Security system, the excluded could be identified and they, or their heirs, could be offered one-time grants that would have to be paid into designated retirement funds. For the absence of access to the minimum wage, tax credits to an equivalence of the average loss could be tendered. I would suggest we name these the John Rankin Memorial Reparations or something similar to commemorate the fact that taxpayers in the twenty-first century are paying for his long-ago racist thuggery.
I’m sure that once Congress agrees to look at the case for reparations, other options will appear, and I’m equally sure any proposal will be met by gasps followed by, “But how will we pay for this?” The correct response is: How do we pay for anything? And why does this question never come up when we’re taking some military action? The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan come immediately to mind.
THE EMPTY CARTOUCHE REVISITED
Last fall I wrote a paper in Dr. Merrill’s American History 1914-1945 class that had an off-hand reference to the protests at Princeton demanding the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from a building. I added, “Whether it is reasonable to impose Twenty-First Century views on a president who was a product of the Nineteenth Century is a topic for another paper.” He struck through “paper” and wrote “book.” Maybe some other day.
When I began this paper, I didn’t know where I’d wind up regarding the removal of statues, memorials, etc. that have become offensive.
There are those who argue in favor of their removal. Susan Nieman, whom I mentioned above, is a Jewish American who is a long-time resident of Berlin and writes that Germany’s efforts to atone for the Nazi era include the removal of all symbols of Nazism. She notes that American Nazis took part in the Charlottesville protest against removing a statue of Robert E. Lee, which is essentially her case for removal, although she generously concedes that “not all of those who oppose removal are Nazis.” How’s that for a backhanded ad hominem attack?
Basically, the rationale for removal of what are today considered offensive monuments to a racist era seems to boil down to the fact that they are by today’s standards offensive, and people might be offended. Gosh. Do we have the right not to be offended?
Fortunately, there are other options. I was on a much too short visit to Almaty, Kazakhstan a couple of years ago. A statue of Lenin, which had once occupied a prominent central city location, had been moved to a secluded location in a city park. Perhaps we could learn from the Kazakhs instead of the Germans.
Eric Foner, in a 1999 review of James W. Loewen’s Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, reprinted in Battles for Freedom: the Use and Abuse of American History (2017), concludes, “The point is not that every monument to a slaveholder ought to be dismantled but that existing historical sites must be revised to convey a more complex and honest view of our past, and that statues of black Civil War soldiers, slave rebels, civil rights activists and the like should share space with Confederate generals and Klansmen, all of them part of America’s history.
Foner is the son of Jewish parents and a red diaper baby, so there’s at least one non-Nazi who disagrees with Nieman.
Foner, in an interview the day after Trump’s nomination in 2016 with Richard Kreitner, The Nation’s assistant editor, advocates what he calls a “usable past,” which he says does not mean propaganda. He says a distorted past is not useful and gives the example of the history he was taught in high school—America “was created perfect and has just been getting better ever since.” Kreitner notes that this is what the Cheneys advocate as usable. Foner responds that it really wasn’t because when the 1960s came along it was impossible to reconcile the history we’d been taught with the problems that suddenly became apparent. The past we’d been taught was “a past without black people, without Native Americans.” He says a more accurate and more honest past has been created by several generations of historians and that for those who want social change knowing how social change took place in the past is a very valuable thing. A usable past is a historical consciousness that can enable us to address the problems of today in an intelligent manner.
Rothstein writes that textbooks continue to ignore segregation as much as possible. The 2012 edition of The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21st Century, for example, is a thousand-page volume published by Holt McDougal, which devotes this one sentence to residential segregation in the North: “African Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods.” Rothstein points out this passive sentence gives no clue as to who did the forcing or how it was carried out. But getting a better history of segregation will be a challenge.
I recently watched Scott Thurman’s 2012 documentary, The Revisionaries (available on Kanopy) about the battle to control what’s in textbooks by the Texas Board of Education. The main battle covered is that of creationism versus evolution, which science won (for now), but it also discusses the social sciences battle in which demands were made that publishers insert such gems as the contributions of Phyllis Schlafly, the Moral Majority, the Heritage Foundation, and the NRA to the conservative “revolution” of the 1980s and delete Thomas Jefferson as an influence on the Declaration of Independence because one of the board, Cynthia Dunbar, an attorney and a professor at Liberty University, thinks a “secular humanistic ideology” has clouded interpretations of Jefferson’s work. Dunbar, not surprisingly, insists discussion of the separation of church and state be restricted. Another board member wants President Obama’s middle name (Hussein) inserted wherever he is mentioned in a textbook. Others wanted the “communist influence” on civil rights emphasized. You can’t make this stuff up.
The Texas State Board of Education’s influence is nationwide, since the state buys so many textbooks that publishers recoup the entire cost of producing a textbook from the purchases of that one state, and they are reluctant to publish more than one version of a textbook. Little has changed at the Texas Board of Education since Charles Ramsdell was writing his textbook for a board that believed “strict censorship is the thing that will bring the honest truth.”
But it won’t. It will create the same situation I was in when I left high school all ready to be disillusioned. George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” If we censor the past, how can future generations learn from mistakes to which they are denied access?
To paraphrase Al Smith, I think the cure for history is more history.
In his introduction to The Dunning School, John David Smith advises students should be taught to heed Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s advice that historians “judge men of the past with the same forbearance and charity which we hope they will apply toward us.” Students should also be taught to put things in context. Stanford Professor Sam Wineburg advises, “Judging past actors by present standards wrests them from their own context and subjects them to ways of thinking that we, not they, have developed. Presentism, the act of viewing the past through the lens of the present, is a psychological default state that must be overcome before one achieves mature historical understanding.” Harold Holzer, a Lincoln scholar, advises viewing the past “from the vantage of the twenty-first century… encourages our looking at history from the comparatively enlightened future backward, not from the past forward. And diagnoses from the ever-widening distances unavoidably distort history.”
Arm students with this advice and turn them loose. They need to learn how to think, not what to think.
Put the chisels away.
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