It’s been a while since I posted. I took a class last semester titled “Race and Violence in 19th Century Literature.” It was the most difficult class I’ve ever taken (and that covers a lot of years) both in terms of the amount of work involved and the psychological effect of the violence involved. I was in a group that took on Rape and Lynching. Among other things, we had to go back to primary sources, including newspapers of the day, for coverage of the lynchings. The final product was a PowerPoint presentation. I’d never used PowerPoint, but I managed to learn, so that was a good thing. As for the amount of work involved, that was not really a problem. With Covid restrictions, there wasn’t much going on anyway. But the violence! I knew Blacks had been lynched. But I didn’t have a concept of what that involved. In many cases the lynchings happened without a trial, without any evidence, were announced in advance, special trains were run to the events, spectators often numbered in the thousands, and most horrifying to me, souvenirs of the event were sold to those attending.
At the end of the semester, I resolved to read some mindless brain candy to get this and other images out of my mind. I highly recommend Carl Hiaasen's Squeeze Me if you're in need of some really good satire. In the class I was introduced to Albion Tourgee, a white carpetbagger who settled in North Carolina and witnessed Reconstruction first-hand. He definitely deserves to be read today when the Reconstruction era is being revised to suit whatever biases non-historians want taught in public schools.
At any rate, the following is my term paper. Enjoy.
Status Deprivation and Violence
Colonel Comfort Servosse: Sir,--You hev got to leeve this county, and the quicker you do it the better fer you ain't safe here, nor any other miserable Yankee! You come here to put n- over white folks, sayin as how they should vote and set on juries and sware away white folks rites as much as they damn please. You are backin up this notion by sellin of em land and horses and mules, till they are gittin so big in their boots they cant rest. You've been warned that sech things wont be born but you jes go on ez if thar want nobody else on arth. Now, we've jes made up our minds not to stan it enny longer. We'be been and larned yer damn n- better manners that to be a ridin hossback when white folks is walkin. The regulators here met, and decided thet no n- shant be allowed to own no hoss nor run no crop on his own account herearter. And no n- worshippin Yankee spy thet encourages them in their insolense shel live in the county. Now, sir, we gives you three days to git away. Ef you're here when that time's over, the buzzards will hev a bait thats been right scarce since the war was over. You may think wes foolin. Other people hez made thet mistake to ther sorrer. Ef you don't want to size a coffin jest yet you better git a ticket thet will take you towards the North Star jes ez far ez the roads been cut out.
By order of
The Capting of the Regulators
This was the anonymous note Albion W. Tourgee’s protagonist, Comfort Servosse, found on his doorknob the morning after some “disguised ruffians” had invaded the freedmen’s settlement Servosse had established on some surplus property. The freedmen had proven themselves capable of planting and harvesting crops, making a profit, buying horses, mules, and paying off their houses. They were becoming self-sufficient, and that was an outrage to those who considered Black people good only for menial work. The ruffians had beaten and outraged some of the residents, stolen two horses, and cut and mangled other horses.
Black people prospering, and especially Black people becoming more prosperous than white people was not going to be tolerated. No Black person was to ride a horse when there were white men walking.
In his 1944 An American Dilemma, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal wrote, “The South gives indication of being afraid of the Negro. I do not mean physical fear. It is not a matter of cowardice or bravery; it is something deeper and more fundamental. It is a fear of losing grip upon the world. It is an unconscious fear of changing status.” Anxiety about changing status, sometimes voiced today as “the great replacement,” is still being experienced and is by no means limited to the South.
I’m going to focus on that anxiety and the violence that results when a formerly dominant segment of society anticipates threats to its cultural entitlement and fears a loss of power and rank, or what William Tuttle called “status deprivation” in his 1970 Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919. Status deprivation is the perception that a person or a class, race, or group of people has moved above its station, or done better than the aggrieved party believes that person or group has a “right” to. Those who see people they consider inferior doing better than their self-appointed betters become resentful. I’ll come back to A Fool’s Errand, which is full of status deprivation, later, but first I want to look at an example from antebellum literature.
In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when George Harris’ master learns that George has invented a hemp cleaning machine and is held in high regard by the man George is hired out to, he takes George home and gives him the dirtiest and most menial jobs he can find. The master and his son drown George’s dog. George’s offense was he was intelligent and appreciated, and George’s master resents the high regard George has earned in his employment. He’s determined to keep George “in his place.” Further, George’s master only sees that he has invented a machine that will save work. “O yes! –a machine for saving work, is it? He’d invent that, I’ll be bound; let a n- alone for that any time. They are all labor saving machines themselves, every one of ‘em.” George’s master has no appreciation for making work easier—he does not work and has little regard for those who do.
Jeffrey Glossner, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Mississippi, writes on the Humanities and Social Sciences Online website “Elite southerners justified slavery as a social system that elevated all whites above black enslaved laborers. Therefore, the presence of a large class of poor white people in the South created a fundamental problem for the southern ruling class as it sought to shore up slavery in the face of antislavery attacks.” As Clotel author William Wells Brown’s character Rev. Snyder explains to Carlton, the visitor from the North, poor whites lived in squalor because “no white man is respectable in these slave states who works for a living.”
This aversion to work among many in the old guard carried over even after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Edward L. Ayers, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, writes in his 1992 The Promise of the New South that the older generation looked on any sign of industriousness in the youth of the day with alarm. Ayers quotes Henry Waring Ball of Mississippi saying his nephew had “gone to work” after asking his mother to let him help a friend deliver newspapers. “We laugh over it, but if it is an indication of his character, it is not a laughing matter. Few boys at 7 years old would voluntarily hunt up work and become money makers—even at 25 cents a week. I know it would horrify either one of his grandfathers, beyond all measures, but times change and we with them, alas!” (Kids these days!)
The younger generation was equally frustrated with their elders. S. D. Boyd, Jr., of Virginia complained in his diary, “’Come day, go day, God send Sunday’ is more the motto of the free and go easy life of the Boyds.” His parents had not been “reared up to hard work. They had their slaves, their servants, etc., were not accustomed to it in their youth, and hence cannot understand hard business. They take things easy, love to talk, to eat and to sleep but it does not come natural to them to come down to hard work.” They were “a Procrastinating People… a people who do not feel altogether the great business importance of keeping an engagement.” We see this generation gap in A Fool’s Errand when, in Chapter 15, Squire Hyman visits the Servosse home and tells Mrs. Servosse that Jesse, the squire’s son, “is going in to work as if he’d been raised to it all his life.” Jesse came home from the war, and unlike many Southerners, accepted the South’s loss and got on with life. He hired his father’s former slaves and worked beside them in the fields. He was bringing in “two as good crops as we’ve had on the plantation in a long time.” He was working and paying the family’s former slaves a fair wage. The Ku Klux Klan disapproves and whips him, causing him to flee to Indiana. His voting the wrong way was the final straw, but I believe his industriousness and treating his Black employees well were also factors.
Tom Delamere in The Marrow of Tradition is yet another example. He’s given an allowance by his grandfather and runs up dinking and gambling debts. Although he looks down on Lee Ellis, Major Carteret’s editor, he hits him up for small loans, which he forgets to repay. He even borrows from Sandy Campbell, his father’s trusted servant. Eventually he’s hopelessly over his head in debt; even then the thought of getting a job never enters his mind. Instead, he decides to rob Peggy Ochiltree, his intended’s aunt, and frames Sandy Campbell for the crime. Peggy Ochiltree dies during the robbery, and Sandy is very nearly lynched.
Returning to A Fool’s Errand, we see numerous examples of status deprivation. In Chapter 27 we meet Bob Martin, “an industrious and thrifty blacksmith,” who has more business than he can handle and understandably declines more business from Michael Anson and his son because they don’t pay their bills. After all, when he can do work that pays, why do business with people who won’t pay? Bob Martin has done very well, and bought a house and a lot. The Ansons evidently resent having to pay a Black man for work they could in the not-too-distant past have had slaves perform. The Ansons rounded up some Ku Klux Klan help and whipped Bob Martin for being “too dam smart!” In Chapter 28 we find “three colored men” who were “whipped by the KKK… they had been sassy: the true reason is believed to be they were acquiring property, and becoming independent.” In another case, “two colored men were hanged. They were accused of arson; but there was not a particle of evidence of their guilt: indeed, quite the contrary; they were men of good character, industrious, and respectful.” Another, “James Leroy was hanged by the Ku-Klux on Tuesday night… . He was accused of having slandered a white woman. The truth is he was an independent colored man, who could read and write, and was consequently troublesome on election day, by preventing fraud upon his fellows.” In short, these Black men were punished as examples for those who might pose a threat to white supremacy.
Ida B. Wells’ Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and The Red Record are also stuffed with examples of violence precipitated by status deprivation. I’m also going to draw on Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice, a 1989 documentary available on Kanopy. Eric Foner was one of many participants in the documentary’s production. In 1889 Will Stewart, Calvin McDowell, and Thomas Moss, all of whom were friends of Wells, opened a grocery store near a white grocer in Memphis. The store did well, especially with black shoppers. In 1892 the three grocers were lynched. The white grocer complained he had lost many black customers to the new store. How dare those Blacks be successful a mere 24 years after having been slaves?
The Black community of Memphis was stunned. In Southern Horrors, Wells urges economic action, saying, “The appeal to the white man’s pocket has ever been more effectual than all the appeals ever made to his conscience.” She told the Black people of Memphis they did not have to put up with lynchings and suggested they move to areas such as Kansas and the newly-opened Oklahoma Territory. Six thousand of them did, which hurt many white businesses. Many ministers took their entire congregations with them. All-Black towns were sprouting up in Kansas and the Oklahoma Territory. Sadly, when Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Jim Crow laws were adopted.
Wells also urged Black people in Memphis to boycott the newly-installed trolley system. Six months after the lynchings, the secretary and treasurer of the city railroad company came to Wells at her paper, The Free Press to ask for help getting Blacks to use the system. They believed Blacks were avoiding the trolley because they were afraid of electricity. Evidently the possibility that Blacks would actually take any action in response to these murders was beyond white comprehension. Wells advised her readers to keep up the pressure. Shortly after this, while Wells was in Philadelphia, the offices of the Free Press were destroyed and she was advised not to return to Memphis.
In “An Indiana Case,” Wells writes of Allen Butler, a wealthy Black man, who was lynched because the mob could not reach his jailed son, who had been in a consensual relationship with a white servant employed by Butler. Here we have a man who triggered status deprivation by being wealthy and having a white servant. I hate to dwell on the obvious, but if a white man’s son had been involved with a Black servant, consensual or otherwise, that would have been considered par for the course.
The entire Wilmington massacre, which inspired Charles W. Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition, was the result of status deprivation. Many books have been written about the populist movement in the 1890s, among them Lawrence Goodwyn’s 1978 The Populist Moment and Michael Kazin’s 1995 The Populist Persuasion, which was revised and updated in 2017 to reflect recent events. It’s difficult to describe that movement adequately in a short paper, but I’m going to attempt a coherent summary. After the Civil War a period of industrialization began, which concentrated wealth and economic power. Those with this increasingly concentrated power used it to drive commodity prices down and costs, including the costs of shipping goods by rail, up. The only way for farmers to keep farming was to borrow money. The era was one of deflation, so the value of money was also going up. Farmers were repaying loans, plus interest, in dollars that were increasingly worth more than those they had borrowed. It was becoming impossible for farmers to break even, much less have money to live on. Farmers were trapped in a cycle of borrowing from which many could not recover. Thomas E. Watson, a populist politician, in his 1892 The Negro Question in the South points out that both black and poor whites were suffering and suggested that they unite politically in order to further their mutual interests. Although Watson emphatically does not advocate social equality between the races, he gives us a realistic snapshot of the times when he describes how Northern leaders could cry “Southern outrage” and win the “unanimous vote from the colored people” and Southern politicians could cry “Negro domination” and “drive into solid phalanx every white man in all the Southern states” in order to keep people voting against their interests. He says both parties “have constructed as perfect a ‘slot machine’ as the world ever saw. Drop the old, worn nickel of the party slogan into the slot, and the machine does the rest.” He proposed a new party—the People’s Party—to represent the interests of the poor and the farmers. As a result of the times, a Fusionist movement formed and was most successful in North Carolina.
According to David Zucchino in his 2020 Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, by 1898 the Fusionist ticket in Wilmington had resulted in three (of ten) black aldermen, ten (of twenty-six) policemen, black health inspectors, a black superintendent of streets, and many black postmasters and magistrates. That same year a field representative for the American Baptist Publication Society called Wilmington “the freest town for a negro in the country.” Moving on to Wellington, Chesnutt’s fictional Wilmington, Dr. Miller, the town’s black doctor, expresses his pride in his city when he says to his former professor, “If our race had made as much progress everywhere as they have made in Wellington, the problem would be well on the way toward solution.”
In some circles Wellington’s progress was a problem. I suspect because he feared being sued for libel, Chesnutt disguised the identities of the “Big Three” who decided Wellington’s black citizens were doing far too well. According to the Norton Critical Edition of Chesnutt’s book, Major Carteret is a representation of Josephus Daniels (1862-1948), General Belmont is inspired by Alfred Moore Waddell (1834-1912), who became mayor as a result of the coup, and Captain McBane was drawn after Mike Dowling, who organized the Red Shirts, who terrorized the black populace during the riots. I could not find Dowling’s birth and death dates. All three of Chesnutt’s “Big Three” suffer from status deprivation.
Carteret, whose family once owned 90,000 acres and six thousand slaves, came home from the Civil War to an impoverished estate that was lost in foreclosure. He is now wealthy only because he married into wealth. Sadly, it appears he’ll be losing his wife’s money as well, since he is moving money invested in a cotton mill paying a “beggarly” ten percent into a get-rich-quick investment he doesn’t understand. (We learn later that this investment has tied up so much of his wife’s money they’d be hard-pressed to come up with $10,000.) Little Dodie’s health issues aren’t the only problems he’ll be facing. To rub salt into Carteret’s wounds, his family’s old house is now owned by Dr. Miller.
General Belmont is a “man of good family,” a lawyer and politician, “aristocratic by birth and instinct,” and a former slaveowner. Chesnutt says that while Carteret, in serious affairs, desired the approval of his conscience, “even if he had to trick that docile organ into acquiescence,” Belmont permitted no fine scruples to stand in the way of success, although he “was not without a gentleman’s taste for meanness.” In short, Belmont disguised a Machiavellian personality with a civilized façade. I believe Chesnutt incorporated some aspects of John Hill Wheeler (1806-1882), who was known for underhanded dealings as minister to Nicaragua, into the character of Belmont. The Bedford Critical Edition has a footnote referencing an 1893 Nicaraguan coup, but there was no U.S. intervention in that coup, so I like my theory better. Belmont is uneasy with so many of the town’s Black population having positions of authority and wants to return to the days of unquestioned white supremacy.
“Captain” McCabe is from the poor white class, the son of an overseer, and until recently the holder of contracts with the state for its convict labor. Just a quick historical note here. The Thirteenth Amendment’s wording is as follows: “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.” The exception has been called the amendment’s “fig leaf” and has been used to maintain de facto slavery. Convict a vagrant, and voila! you have a slave. McCabe has accumulated a great deal of money but has discovered money alone won’t buy him status. He resents losing his contracts as a result of the Fusion government, and he resents any progress by Blacks, especially those who do well, like Dr. Miller.
The “Big Three” decide to take things into their own hands. Carteret can use the press to influence public opinion, Belmont can use his political network to generate support, and McCabe can organize a band of lowlifes to terrorize Wellington’s Black population.
Carteret begins publishing incendiary editorials that don’t generate much interest among the populace. Meeting six months after the campaign started, the “Big Three” are having little impact on public opinion. Evidently Wellingtonians are not dissatisfied with their Fusionist government. But that would change. In the summer of 1898 Rebecca Latimer Felton, a prominent Georgia gadfly, gave a widely-disseminated speech in response to a series of alleged black-on-white rapes on Georgia farms. In this speech she advocated lynching—"a thousand times a week if necessary”—as a solution to the problem. When Alex Manly, the editor of Wilmington’s black readership Daily Record, read of Felton’s speech, he published a response that gave the historical instigators of the Wilmington riot the match they needed to light the fuel. Josephus Daniels had 300,000 copies printed and distributed throughout the state. In Chesnutt’s Wellington, the “Big Three” sit on Barber’s (the fictional Manley’s) editorial, and when the time is right, they release it. Tom Watson’s “old, worn nickel” was in the slot, and the riot began.
As the “Big Three” are preparing for the riot, they discuss the various people they want to run out of town. Carteret has said he will not condone murder, so exile is the next best thing. Belmont wants Watson, the black lawyer, run out of town because he’s taking business from white lawyers. McBane wants a Black real estate agent on the list because he’s doing so well he’s driving Billy Kitchen, a white real estate agent, to the poorhouse. Barber, the editor who wrote the offending editorial, will have to go, as will all the Republican politicians in office. They discuss Dr. Miller. McBane wants him gone; Belmont says he thinks Miller should stay, and while Carteret would like to see Miller leave, he admits personal reasons are behind that desire. The “Big Three,” while preparing for a coup, are using that coup to rid Wellington of Blacks who have risen above their station and are making life difficult for their white competitors.
As Nancy Bentley and Sandra Gunning write in the Bedford Cultural Edition of The Marrow of Tradition, “many historians believe that it was the accumulation of property and civic influence by Wilmington’s African Americans that sparked the greatest anger in the white rioters.”
During the riot, McBane takes an active part, leading his mob against unarmed Blacks. Belmont slinks off to his lair while Carteret witnesses the increasing violence of the mob. Realizing things have gotten out of hand, he tries to stop the riot but is unsuccessful. He realizes too late an avalanche is not as easy to stop as it is to start. As Chesnutt writes, and as the January Capitol insurrection reminds us today, “our boasted civilization is but a thin veneer, which cracks and scales off at the first impact of primal passions.” Frustrated, he washes his hands of the matter and tells himself he is not to blame.
As Ray Stannard Baker wrote about the 1906 Atlanta race riot, “The riot is not over when the shooting stops.” Carteret makes his way home to a new world of his own making. His wife’s beloved Mammy Jane is dead; his servants have deserted his house, leaving little Dodie in a draft, which results in Dodie’s becoming gravely ill. Carteret winds up begging Dr. Miller, whose own child was killed in the riot, to attend to his son. When Miller refuses, Mrs. Carteret begs him, and Miller’s wife tells him he must save the Carteret baby if he can. In keeping with the custom of the times, the ending gives an unconvincing glimmer of hope for a happy ending.
According to Zucchino, twenty-one hundred Black residents fled Wilmington after the riot, and twenty-one citizens, including seven whites, were banished.
In his later years, as Zucchino writes, Josephus Daniels admitted his paper, as the “militant voice of White Supremacy,” was guilty of “sometimes going to extremes in its partisanship” and was “never very careful about winnowing out the stories or running them down.” Nevertheless, he remained proud of his work, boasting that white supremacists had crushed “Negro domination.” He glorified Red Shirt attacks on Black neighborhoods and praised white gunmen for creating a “reign of terror” among Blacks in Wilmington. Chesnutt could not know it in 1901, but Daniels would serve as Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson. Franklin D. Roosevelt was his assistant secretary and would appoint him ambassador to Mexico in 1933, where he served until 1941.
Bentley and Gunning write in their introduction to the Bedford Cultural Edition of The Marrow of Tradition, that well-meaning but misguided white antilynching commentators (including Ray Stannard Baker, quoted above) believed “the brutality exercised by a white mob could only mean that rioters were from the working classes,” but in fact the public declaration issued by the Wilmington rioters makes clear the mob included wealthy and prominent middle-class men.
I had been of the opinion people who participated in these violent events were, for lack of a better term, the dregs of society. Carteret and Belmont incited the violence, but did not take part in it. McCabe relished participating, but in spite of his money, he was white trash. But it seems people of all classes are capable of mob violence, and that brings me to the present day.
When I watched the insurrection on television January 6, I assumed the people involved were people on the margins of society. Jacob Chansley, the shirtless “QAnon Shaman” with the painted face, fur hat, and horns (in my mind the epitome of NOCD) certainly reinforced that opinion. But in an article titled “Fears of White People Losing Out Permeate Capitol Rioters’ Towns, Study Finds” in the April 6, 2021 New York Times, Alan Feuer discusses a study of the rioters conducted by political scientist Robert Pape. Pape found that only ten percent of the rioters were members of established far-right organizations like the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys. The rest were “mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a change in their status in the future.” Many of these people traveled great distances to attend the rally that turned into the mob. He says counties with the most declines in the non-Hispanic white population are most likely to produce insurrectionists. Pape says the current situation has ties back to before the Civil War when the “Know Nothings” formed in response to largely Irish Catholic immigration to the country. He noted also that after the First World War the Ku Klux Klan had a revival prompted in part by the arrival of Italians and the first stirrings of the Great Migration. Pape warns that the 90 percent of the “ordinary” rioters are “part of a still congealing mass movement on the right that has shown itself willing to put ‘violence at its core.’”
Gerald F. Seib, executive Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal, writes in the May 4, 2021 edition, “Americans are moving into a future in a much different country, one that will become majority-minority in about 2045. That will be uncomfortable for many.” Indeed.
In the words of Margo Channing (All About Eve), fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.