Saturday, January 9, 2021

Status Deprivation, Violence, and the Epiphany Insurrection


            This is the term paper I wrote for my fall class in African American Literature I, which covered books and poetry written by black writers from pre-revolutionary times to 1912.

            I hadn’t planned on making it a post, but since the insurrection in the Capitol on January 6, it seems to have become relevant in that many in the Republican opposition seem to believe the BLM protests of last summer were somehow equivalent to or possibly worse than the nightmare we all watched on Epiphany.

            The BLM protests were in response to perceived police violence. I don't know of ANYONE who condoned the violence and the self-serving looting that followed (and it should be noted much of that violence was carried out by Proud Boys and their followers, like Kyle Rittenhouse). The January 6 riot was instigated by a Huey Long-like demagogue who is upset with the fact that a majority of Americans rejected him. Note here--voters rejected HIM, not his party. He has fabricated lies that support his position, sold those lies like he sold Trump steaks and Trump College degrees to the gullible and the deranged. He played with matches around dynamite, and he got an explosion.
            I never thought Donald Trump was too bright, but I certainly thought he was smarter than this. He could have played his victimhood into a movement that would have had influence for years. Instead, he's shot his wad. As far as 2024 goes, yeah, he "coulda been a contendah," but now he's just an old has-been who may survive until Inauguration Day without being impeached and removed or declared incompetent under the 25th Amendment, but none of the previous presidents will ever invite him to participate in any reindeer games.

            And as he and his family attempt a re-entry into polite society, they will learn quickly the meaning of NOCD.
            It will be very interesting to see how his obituary reads, and how he's treated in history books will be fascinating.

            In the meantime, here’s my term paper, but first a note on B. C. Franklin’s autobiography. B. C. Franklin, the father of famed historian John Hope Franklin, became a prominent attorney in Tulsa. During his lifetime a park was named for him. He moved in both black and white circles. He may have pulled some punches when describing the Greenwood riot of 1921.

Status Deprivation and Violence

            The idea for this paper came to me as I was reading an opinion piece by Leonard Pitts in the October 15, 2020 Kansas City Star. In that piece Pitts discusses Joseph Morrison, one of the men recently arrested for plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Pitts is responding to a Huffington Post article that includes a photo of Morrison’s ramshackle yard strewn with junk and on which are parked two trucks which “appear drivable,” although one has damage to a side panel. The ambience is further enhanced by two flags, one of which is the Confederate flag, drooping from poles. The Huffington Post article asks the question, “Can we acknowledge that maybe economic circumstances play a role in radicalizing people?” and concludes that, in the face of skyrocketing job losses, “of course we’re going to see violence.”  The author of the Huffington Post article, Walker Bragman, also points out that while people are willing to point to economic conditions as a driving factor when it comes to violence in the inner city, “when it comes to militancy in rural America, they refuse to entertain a similar explanation.” Pitts replies that inner city violence results from having too little, living too close, and enduring too much, and it almost always stems from arguments, drug trade disputes, and small-time street crime and asks, “But when have you ever seen an inner-city gang conspire to overthrow a government?” Pitts contrasts urban violence, often a violence of survival, often a violence of tragic stupidity, with Morrison’s violence, which Pitts says is a violence of cultural entitlement, of the perceived loss of power and rank. He then goes on to say, “One of the things white people do not understand about white people is how deep that resentment, that fear of demotion, go.” He goes on to say, “But poverty did not cause the bitterness or the violence. Rather, they stem from a conviction that, by dint of color or culture, one deserves the final and decisive word.” Pitts’ point is we frequently give the white poor sympathy they don’t deserve. I’m going to focus on the cultural entitlement and perceived loss of power and rank, or what William Tuttle expressed as “status deprivation” in his 1970 Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919.      

            Leading up to World War I a labor shortage drew an estimated 450,000 southern blacks north. The war ended in 1918; in 1919 the country went through one its periodic paranoid episodes, the main target being communists that time, but blacks became collateral damage. As Tuttle writes, “the most highly susceptible objects of prejudice in America were its black men and women, not because they were radicals, but because they threatened the accommodative race system of white superordination and black subordination.” During the war, blacks competed with whites for jobs and housing, among other things. “The employment of a new black worker in a shop or the arrival of a black family on a block only heightened anxieties of status deprivation.”  The desire of blacks to get ahead clashed with whites’ determination to “reaffirm the black people’s prewar status on the bottom rung of the nation’s racial and economic ladder.” Lynchings and race riots were a big part of the summer of 1919, and one of the worst of the race riots that summer was in Chicago, but I’m going to leave 1919 because I want to look at status deprivation and the violence that resulted from it in much of the literature we’ve read this semester.

            I define status deprivation as 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. (For example, expect a major outbreak of status deprivation should Kamala Harris ever become president.)

            In our readings for this class, it’s possible we could attribute the actions of Mr. Trappe in Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative to status deprivation, but I believe he is more interested in making money, and his making sure no one escapes their status as a slave is a byproduct.

            The first definite examples of status deprivation we encounter are in Ida B. Wells’ Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and The Red Record. 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, one of which was Rentiesville, where, for a while, Buck Colbert (B.C.) Franklin lived and where his son, John Hope Franklin, was born. I’ll come back to B.C. Franklin later.

            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.

            Another example of status deprivation-inspired violence Wells gives is “An Indiana Case,” in which Allen Butler, a wealthy black man, 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.

            In Pauline E. Hopkins’ Contending Forces, we encounter Charles and Grace Montfort, who, in response to Great Britain’s impending abolition of slavery, leave Bermuda for South Carolina, bringing with them their wealth, seven hundred slaves, and two sons. Bill Sampson, talking to Hank Davis, says upon first seeing Grace Montfort, “thet ar female’s got a black streak in her somewhar.” Hank Davis is rebuffed when he applies to be Charles Montfort’s overseer and vows revenge. Anson Pollock befriends Charles Montfort, who purchased his plantation from Pollock. Grace rebuffs Pollock’s advances, which infuriates him, especially because of the rumors of her “black blood.” When Pollock sees the Montforts’ sons building play houses with golden eagle coins and it becomes known that Montfort plans to free his slaves, Pollock gets Bill to round up a “committee” with the intent to, as Bill Sampson tells Hank Davis, “git all thet money, all them purty trinkets, and fine furniture,” not to mention the seven hundred slaves. Anson Pollock wants only Grace Montfort and her two children. The deed is done. Grace commits suicide after being whipped and raped. The two children become slaves. At least part of the justification for the committee’s action was Grace’s rumored “black blood.” She and her family had risen above their station.

            Later in Contending Forces we are introduced to the American Colored League, which is debating what action, if any, to take after yet another lynching is reported in the South. Hopkins’ character, the Hon. Herbert Clapp, is, as Hopkins writes in her preface, modeled on William J. Northen, a former governor of Georgia and a white supremacist, and Clapp’s speech is based on what Northen actually said at the Congregational Club at Tremont Temple in Boston on May 22, 1899. Clapp advises no action on the lynching, and he states that blacks who stay out of politics in the south have no trouble there. Clapp gives an example of “the death of a highly respected Negro in Georgia” who never dabbled in politics and whose “death was deplored by white and black alike.” Dr. Arthur Lewis, representing the views of Booker T. Washington, agrees with Clapp and advises things will get better with southerners “if we give them time and do not hurry them.”

            After hearing these assurances that as long as blacks steer clear of politics and wait for their rights they will be just fine in the South, Luke Sawyer arises and tells the story of his father, who kept a large store in a little town in Louisiana. His father did well in business and steered clear of politics because he feared meddling in politics might be “an excuse for his destruction.” When Luke was ten years old, a white man opened a business like his father’s on the same street. Luke’s father’s business continued to prosper while the white man’s business was on the brink of failure. Luke’s father began receiving threats, and he was trying to gather his property to leave town, but evidently not quickly enough. One night a gang broke into the Sawyer house, lynched his father, fatally raped his mother and sister, and murdered his baby brothers. He survived only by running to the woods, where he was rescued by a black planter named Beaubean.

            While this story may have been lifted from Ida B. Wells’ story of her friends’ grocery store in Southern Horrors, it does serve the purpose of demonstrating that any progress made by blacks would likely stoke status deprivation in whites, even if blacks were to abstain from political activity.

            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’ 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 fa├žade. 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 1897 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.

            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 an avalanche is not as easy to stop as it is to start. As Chesnutt writes, and as we learn still 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 his 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.

            James Weldon Johnson, in his Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, touches on status deprivation when he observes that black people who strive to better their physical and social surroundings in accordance with their financial and intellectual progress annoy whites who see these efforts somehow as black’s doing these things for the sole purpose of “spiting the white folks,” which should be counterintuitive but sadly is not. 

For my final example I’m going to stray from our class’ readings and move forward a decade or so. In 1896 the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that races could be kept separate “but equal.” This translated into housing discrimination. Because of this 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.

I’ve chosen to spend some time on the Greenwood riot because while I was researching John Hope Franklin, I discovered his father, B. C. Franklin (1879-1960), defended victims of the riot when the city of Tulsa attempted to prevent their replacing their homes and businesses. That led me to Franklin’s autobiography, My Life and an Era, which was edited by his son, John Hope Franklin and John Hope’s son, John Whittington Franklin and published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1997.

Franklin was born in Indian Territory (his father was a Chickasaw freedman and his mother was one-quarter Cherokee and had grown up as Cherokee) and was in Tulsa at the time of the riot. Many sources claim Greenwood was the wealthiest or one of the wealthiest black areas in the country. Franklin doesn’t go there, but he does say that at one time Tulsa had been integrated, but by 1921 Tulsa was one of the most segregated cities in America. He blames two very wealthy black real estate developers who came to Tulsa “a few years before statehood” and bought thirty or forty acres of land, plotted and surveyed it, and “put [it] upon the market to be sold to Negroes only.” He says developers of “other races” purchased adjoining land and followed suit. Oklahoma became a state in 1907, so exactly when this happened is difficult to establish, but Greenwood would have been an area of homes and businesses no more than twenty years old.

Franklin was in Tulsa to establish his law business in preparation for a move from Rentiesville, Oklahoma, the all-black community I mentioned above, which is not far from Tulsa. The day the riot started, May 31, 1921, he was in the courthouse and overheard some conversations but didn’t think much of them. When he got to his lodgings his landlady told him she’d heard some rumors of trouble brewing. He went into the streets and saw one white man and one black man, both of whom claimed to have fought in the recent war, telling people they needed to burn some houses in the white areas of town to disburse the riot and get the state to call in troops to control the violence. Franklin says he (Franklin) addressed the crowd and got them to disburse. He says the white man told him, “This sort of battle is as much mine as it is yours. A great mob is forming, and you are at a disadvantage you can never overcome in an open fight.”

Franklin tried to call the sheriff, but telephone wires had been cut. He tried to get to the sheriff’s office, but he was immediately arrested and taken to a detention camp. He says homes were being looted and planes were flying overhead dropping explosives on the buildings. The book has before and after photos of the area, and they resemble before and after photos of Dresden in 1945 on a smaller scale. He writes “only two” prominent black men were killed. Subsequent estimates put the number of blacks killed as high as 300, and possible sites of mass graves are now being explored. One site containing eleven bodies has recently been unearthed.      

According to an article about the riot in the October 5, 2018 New York Times, a black man most likely tripped and accidentally stepped on the woman’s foot in a crowded elevator; charges against him were later dropped. Franklin’s story is essentially the same (and was possibly the unattributed source for the Times article). He says the woman slapped the man, and a reporter looking for a scoop was on the elevator. Voila! Fake news.

As if the destruction of their community and the loss of everything were not enough (Franklin’s savings, clothing, and law books were incinerated along with his rooming house), insurance companies, citing clauses in their contracts denying payment for losses incurred in “riots, civil commotion and the like” refused payment. In addition, the city attempted to impose a requirement that replacement buildings be fireproof. Franklin formed a partnership with some other attorneys and successfully argued against this requirement, citing the due process clause.  

Franklin writes that no “responsible white resident of the city” was involved, meaning, I suppose, the riot was carried out by poor whites. Which I suppose is possible. Franklin was there; I wasn’t even born at the time, but it’s difficult for me to envision poor whites having access to airplanes, and “responsible whites” were certainly involved in making it difficult to rebuild.

As we can see from these examples, when black people do well, they threaten the status of whites who have not done as well. I think we can, without too much of a stretch of the imagination, see examples of this in recent history. In 2009, a mere ninety years after Red Summer, Barak Obama became president of the United States. Many of us were elated and congratulated ourselves on how far the country had evolved. Yet there was an undercurrent of status deprivation that Donald Trump was able to tap into. Obama did not deserve to be president. He was not born in the United States. He is Muslim. He is the “other.” And Trump convinced enough of those who believe, as Leonard Pitts says, “by dint of color or culture, one deserves the final and decisive word” to cobble together an Electoral College victory in 2016, and he came very close to pulling it off again this year.