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For a hundred years after the end of the Civil War, a quarter of all Americans lived under a system of legalized segregation called Jim Crow. Together with its rigidly enforced canon of racial "etiquette," these rules governed nearly every aspect of life—and outlined draconian punishments for infractions.
The purpose of Jim Crow was to keep African Americans subjugated at a level as close as possible to their former slave status. Exceeding even South Africa's notorious apartheid in the humiliation, degradation, and suffering it brought, Jim Crow left scars on the American psyche that are still felt today. American Nightmare examines and explains Jim Crow from its beginnings to its end: how it came into being, how it was lived, how it was justified, and how, at long last, it was overcome only a few short decades ago. Most importantly, this book reveals how a nation founded on principles of equality and freedom came to enact as law a pervasive system of inequality and virtual slavery.
Although America has finally consigned Jim Crow to the historical graveyard, Jerrold Packard shows why it is important that this scourge—and an understanding of how it happened—remain alive in the nation's collective memory.
"This book takes a broad, scholarly, but still readable look at Jim Crow—the system of laws and customs that confined blacks to second-class citizenship post-slavery and pre-civil rights." –Philadelphia Inquirer
"This is a clear, concise historical narrative of a draconian reality . . . Packard carefully places these facts in a firm historical context. Even when the material is familiar, he weaves it into a sturdy and often shocking American tapestry." –Publishers Weekly
"A 'must read' . . . Mr. Packard's book is a very powerful and unsettling story of our nation's century-long 'pogrom' by vengeful white Southerners against their black neighbors. Reading these pages, one is reminded just how brutal and widespread white supremacy was in the South, especially in Mississippi and Alabama." –Washington Times
"Credible and poignant history." –Kirkus Reviews
"This is an important documentation of an oft-forgotten piece of our history; an even-handed, well-crafted relating of Jim Crow's tragic southern reign, and his none-too-soon dethronement." – Jim Fraiser, Author of Mississippi River Country Tales and a former Assistant Attorney General, Mississippi Civil Litigation Division
STARTING FROM THE VERY BEGINNING
We can, of course, little more than hypothesize how our racial passions first began to overtake us, how humankind’s obsession to embrace the similar and despise the different got stuck in our communal psyche, and why, most pertinent to this book, white people have seemingly forever assumed an innate superiority over black people. As to the latter, right through at least the last couple of millennia white dominance has been ascribed by white-skinned societies to God as his—or nature’s—plan, and that has seemed to many such ascribers to make it a righteous thing. Some have held that the power of white over black is simply the natural order, a kind of instinctive reality of the way human beings should relate to one another. Many have been convinced that the low station of humans whose skin is other than white is a universal reality, a postulate sensible men and women shouldn’t challenge. The rationales have been legion, primordial, and heartfelt.
But racial ordering of white over color is neither natural or providential—the will of “providence” or of “God”—nor outside the remedy of reason. The creation of color-based caste was accomplished in lucid steps by groups more powerful than their prey, for reasons both social and economic. Its survival has been nurtured over numberless generations by, among others, Christian and Muslim clerics and slavers, by historians and the learned of science, and by ordinary people whose purses have grown through its perpetuation.
Complicating any account of racial prejudice is the hurdle we face in precisely defining the meaning of “race” itself. Assuming, as much of science does, that we all descended from the same progenitors, the same set of monkeys or of first parents of whatever genus or species, where did our differences in skin shade and eye shape and hair texture and lip size come from? What exactly constitute the degree marks on the scale of race? Why have human beings doggedly used the superficial construct of race as, second only to gender, the most important separator within our common humanity? Why in the United States did race become caste, as it had in many other cultures, and why has it consumed America’s national consciousness to an almost bottomless degree since Europeans’ earliest contacts with this land?
It is useful, unsurprisingly, to look for answers at humankind’s beginnings. Or, at least, at one of the two concepts of what constitutes the beginnings, which is to say the biblical version. The Bible story varies in its details according to whose Bible you’re taking it from, or which theologians or politicians supervised or commanded a particular interpretation or translation of the original writings. But the following should serve as a reasonable condensation of early Judeo-Christian theological ideas on how racial division began. Central to all versions is a character named Noah, the tenth patriarch in direct descent from Adam, and of whom it is written that his family, and his family alone, survived the Great Deluge That Cleansed Man of His Sins.
The biblical legend of Noah has it that he fathered three sons, whom he called Shem, Japheth, and Ham. Shem, the eldest and accorded a sort of tannish skin, became the ancestor of Abraham, from whom Shem is separated by eight generations. Abraham is regarded as the father of the Semitic world, from which sprang the historically consequential tribe called the Jews. Largely undisputed is what later happened to these Jews, which was to lose their ancestral lands and then suffer two millennia of Diaspora, or dispersement, a history culminating a mere half century ago in both the Jews’ greatest calamity and their greatest triumph, in that order.
Japheth, the middle boy and lightest of skin shade, became father to the generations that eventually settled in the “Isles of the Gentiles”— interpreted by scholars of these matters as Europe—and which people became the prototypical Caucasians, or “whites.” Japheth’s and his progeny’s fates have excited relatively few theological emotions. But central to the story of Jim Crow is the legend of Ham, which has stirred a great many emotions.
The darkest-skinned of the three brothers, Ham was his family’s habitual troublemaker. As accounted in Genesis, this youngest son badly irked his father when Ham expressed to his brothers contempt for Noah for having gotten drunk and fallen asleep, naked, on the ground, symbolic of moral lapse on Noah’s part. But as patriarch, Noah resented both his son’s impertinence and the inference of wrongdoing. During this episode Shem and Japheth threw a rug over their father and thereby preserved his dignity, and he thus gave them his blessing—and more important, he gave it to their descendants as well. But for Ham’s disrespect, Noah put on him and his descendants a curse, one unto perpetuity, and further declared that Ham’s descendants would forever be the servants of the descendants of Shem and Japheth.
Though Genesis doesn’t specifically say it was Ham who ended up in Africa and thereby fathered that empty continent’s peoples, generations of Jews living in the early first millennium encouraged this scenario until it became an oral tradition, one that over generations hardened into literal “truth.” Thus the “accursed” Ham and the “accursed” generations that flowed from Ham’s seed became the blacks of Africa, “facts” taken up over the ensuing centuries as a biblical, and thus an unimpeachable, truth. In short, it morphed into a theological justification for European domination over black Africans.
None of Noah’s story is based on empirical historical evidence, even though much or all of it was, at least until the twentieth century, still widely believed, particularly by conservatively observant Christians and Jews. But throughout modern Western societies whites have willingly, indeed eagerly, adopted religious mythology as the moral grounding for their beliefs in white superiority and its corresponding certainty of black inferiority, including the foundations for racism in America’s early political and social development. What lends substance in social terms to this phe nomenon is that such biblical inventions are intimately connected with notions of afterlife and salvation and thus for many outweighed a moral cosmology based more on reason and scientifically observable experience.
Societies that developed apart from the West’s Jewish-Christian model created their own versions of where everything came from, many of which accounts are as fanciful as the stories found in the Bible. And pertinent to the point of this book, like their Western counterparts they have generally involved some kind of divine social ordering, separating the “good” insiders from the “bad” outsiders. The Han Chinese, for example, wrote of blond and green-eyed people-creatures who looked like the monkeys that had supposedly spawned them; included was an explanation for the lowness of non-Chinese borderlanders based on the notion that they were the progeny of interbreeding between dogs and men. The brown-skinned peoples of South Asia came up with Hinduism, whose practitioners came to espouse a sort of mega-Jim Crow caste component still practiced in Indian society today. In a more realistic approach, Islam distinguished between fellow monotheists—Jews and Christians, who generally look pretty much like Muslims and whom Muslims were directed by the Koran to respect—and the barbarian polytheists, who usually looked conspicuously different and whom True Believers in Allah were permitted to deal with as circumstances warranted.
What in scientific terms actually accounts for the differences in mankind’s vari-hued and vari-sculpted physiognomies has long been pretty much understood, though the timing and many of the details of the deviations are either fuzzy or debatable, especially that which constitutes the point in time when prehumans morphed into modern humans—though the latter issue is as much philosophical as it is scientific. One body of thought has it that creatures definable as humankind kicked off at some point a couple of million years ago when what had hitherto unarguably been animals began to pick up bits of stone to serve as extensions of their paws and slowly found to their undoubted astonishment that those bits were unexpectedly useful as weapons and tools. Another school places the crossover point with the beginning of speech, taken to mean discrete wordlike utterances as opposed to simple grunts of alarm or murmurs of satisfaction. Still others set the beginning of true thinking humanship at the point where protohumanoids’ forefingers could be made to precisely oppose their thumbs, a milestone that marked a revolutionary change in dexterity by enabling the earliest humans to accomplish what animals couldn’t. One notion seems as valid as the other, and none seems nonsensical, and in any case, whichever or whatever happened, it most certainly didn’t happen overnight.
But the issue of race, a matter of extraordinary weight to humankind throughout history and the issue upon which Jim Crow turns, is something that would seem to be entirely extraneous to our origins as sentient human beings. We—meaning we human beings—possess obvious differences in our individual physical appearances. But if race as we today use the term posits a large enough degree of substantive dissimilarity between humans to rightly justify all the grief it has caused over the centuries, then the notions of its importance simply don’t logically hang together.
Though many religious conservatives continue in their opposition to the scientific theory of evolution, the combined consensus of scientists and academics is virtually unanimous in their stand that man—what we regard as a human being as opposed to merely an advanced ape—sprang from a single point of origination. No credible physical evidence points to a shift from primate to man as having happened at more than one point on the planet, which multiple originations would provide the only logical support for a theory that different groups of contemporary humans (which is to say, different races) descended from unrelated forebears. All but surely, one and only one species of creatures became the ancestors of every human being now living. If another humanlike species did emerge in a separate jump from mere animalship, that group did not, evidently, survive. What’s more, massive and mounting evidence verified by carbon dating of bones places the animal-to-people transformation in what is now Africa, specifically in the Great Rift Valley of the central eastern part of that continent. In the ultimate sense, one supposes that makes us all “African” in origin—African-American or African-Chechen or African-Japanese. Go back in your lineage far enough, and eventually you’re going to get to your African ancestors. Which is not, however, to say those ancestors are necessarily going to have looked like modern sub-Saharan Africans, today’s black Africans.
So when and how did humankind become so varied in its physiognomy? One, perhaps obtuse, observation might be made at the outset. Actually, we’re not really quite so different as might be supposed. Of course, the bookends of human appearances are, on the face of it, pretty far apart. Look at the differences between a five-foot-two, blond, blueeyed contestant in the Miss Sweden contest and a four-hundred-pound African-Hawaiian-Japanese sumo champion. One’s short and petite, the other’s a high mountain; one is about as light-skinned as we get, and the other’s skin might be a kind of burnished mahogany. But just about all the other differences are environmental, internal and external sex and procreative organs the main exceptions. Miss Stockholm and the wrestler are perfectly capable of producing a healthy child, they stand a one-in-three chance of sharing the same blood type, and their organs line up identically with every other woman and man, respectively, in the world.
It takes a very long time for differences that are environmental—things that happen to us because of where, or how, we live—to evolve into genetic differences, the kind we’re born with. We have family traits such as resemblances in behavior or appearance (the famous Hapsburg jaw, for example), but in generational terms these tend to fade in and out fairly soon. Yet slowly and for reasons that must have had to do, at least in part, with adapting to the climate or to different levels of physical exertions, early humans in their African home began to look increasingly like we do today. Although lots of other species died out for various reasons—think of the dinosaurs—these first humans instead multiplied and got stronger and increasingly able to master their environment. And after an aeon or two, some of them began to migrate, eventually going ever farther away from Africa. A million or so years ago, the first great human emigration began when these now fully upright beings moved northward, into the Eurasian landmass. By one or two hundred thousand years ago they had covered vast parts of the planet, many having done so by routes and land bridges that have since changed or disappeared in the earth’s continuous process of remaking itself via continental drift and altering sea levels.
As groups of migrating humans settled into their various domiciles on the planet, they became subject to new or different natural forces. Those who remained in Africa’s equatorial regions experienced the greatest amount of direct sunlight, and over time their environmentally darkened skin became genetically darkened skin. Other groups, farther north or south from the most direct rays of sunlight, experienced the process in reverse, possibly to better produce vitamin D from less direct sunlight. Secondary racial characteristics also began to set in. Eastern Asians, for instance, developed—for reasons unknown to us—their own characteristic eyelid fold.
But what no group anywhere developed was a body mechanism that would cause any of the migratory and physically changing populations to become creatures that were genetically unequal or noninterbreedable. Instead, humankind everywhere shared everyone else’s genetic composition. The vast majority of the bits and pieces making up a human being remained identical, including the brain and its potential abilities. Skin color, hair consistency, nose shape, lip size, height, weight—these variable characteristics are in the overall cosmos of the body the merest of incidentals. Yet what we today term “race” attaches to them a mountain of importance.
For as long as we’ve recorded human actions, the signs have been unmistakable that individuals and societies have judged each other on how closely or how differently one resembled the other. And because members of a community have for all sorts of reasons required the trust of one another to function successfully, it’s difficult to see how things might have been otherwise. The opposite side of the same coin means that it’s natural to be wary of others who don’t speak, act, or believe like you—and, perhaps most of all, who don’t look like you.
Only a few hundred years ago the most powerful white-skinned descendants of the Rift Valley prototypes, adventurous people from the Northern Hemisphere who called themselves by such terms as Frenchmen and Englishmen and Spaniards, happened to find what was for them a new hemisphere, one they called the Western Hemisphere because they sailed west to get to it. Unsurprisingly, these Europeans brought their peculiarly homegrown outlook with them, an outlook we could classify as subgroup Hispanic in the southern part of the “new” hemisphere, and—primarily—as subgroup Anglo in the northern part.
Though highly politically contentious with each other, the European subgroups comfortingly shared each other’s whiteness and secondary bodily characteristics. Though the skin complexion range differentiating the European tribes was considerable between, say, the relatively light Scandinavians and relatively dark Iberians, this generally did not in the overall European outlook make the latter any the less “white” than the former. Almost all sneered at almost all the others in matters having to do with cultural differences—politics, religion, language, ambitions—and went to war over these subjects on a lethally repetitious schedule. But in their sense of a shared “racial” pedigree, Europeans have been deeply allied since the beginning of the notion of “Europe.” Europeans of all stock existed inside their own self-defined Pale, while the physical characteristics distinguishing non-Europeans placed them irredeemably outside the boundaries of this Pale of race.
On the plus side of the balance sheet for today’s Americans, the social beliefs of the subgroup Anglos, the men and women who sculpted a new nation out of the aboriginal-inhabited eastern seaboard of North America, were in many ways far ahead of their time. The constitution written by the political leaders of the new United States contained notions of such progressiveness that still today many of the world’s nations have not adopted like ideas: the worth of the individual, the notion of government serving that individual rather than the other way around, the spectacularly bounteous guarantees involving political representation and jurisprudence and religious freedom—all were taken to heights that very few peoples had ever before seen. But as to these Founding Fathers’ belief that the state of “whiteness” created by their God represented the highest form of humanity—well, there is little reason to think that the George Washingtons and Thomas Jeffersons and Patrick Henrys would have been, in spite of their intelligence, anything but men of their place and time. And the place and time of which they were a part accepted white supremacy without so much as any really serious twitter of doubt. The institution of slavery that they accepted—at bottom an outgrowth of their racial beliefs—meant profit and national growth, and so they justified such institution, and the majority of the American community fell in line with their justifications.
The Europeans who settled their newly “discovered” hemisphere faced their first problem with the people whom they found had already taken possession of these lands, the “Indians” who had beaten them to this side of the globe. The Europeans’ sense of discovery and even of ownership was deeply felt, despite that thousands of years before Europeans found their “new” world, the “new” world had, of course, already been found. Nonetheless, the newcomers inevitably claimed as their own every square inch of what they had stumbled onto. Equally deeply felt was their reluctance to share it with those already here, especially since those already here were dark-skinned human beings who knew nothing of European deities and displayed little appreciation for or inclination to learn of such things. In this situation, the certainty of their own religious beliefs, combined with greed and hubris, gave the Europeans all the moral justification they needed to simply overwhelm the indigenous Americans. This or that group of European settlers would occasionally make a halfhearted stab at “civilizing” the natives, which is to say Christianizing them, but most Europeans found that simply isolating or murdering them represented the most efficient ways of dealing with what they viewed as an obstacle. And because their Judeo-Christian belief system regarded the people who were already here as “heathens” or “savages,” their white-oriented consciences were little, if at all, troubled.
At the time white-skinned settlers found themselves encountering native Americans, the relationship between Europeans and black Africans—the latter the descendants of those who had remained in the Rift Valley and the continent surrounding it—hadn’t been much of a problem for either group. Oddly, before the Europeans had left their own shores to come to the new world, comparatively little sense of white supremacy over black Africans had existed in Europe. Europeans were largely physically separated from black Africans and, in any event, long preoccupied instead with other concerns, many of which involved the developing of Western civilization for good and bad. Among the latter was their anti-Semitism, a prejudice motivated by distaste for what they considered a false faith and the belief that Jews were responsible for murdering their Christian God. Secondly, they had engaged in a centuries-long series of wars called the crusades, bloodletting aimed at regaining control over what Christians considered “their” religious sites and which bloodletting would, probably more to the point, push back or at least stop the Islamic tide threatening Christian Europe’s political integrity.
The ancient institution of slavery is likely the deepest foundation for modern Western views on racial ordering, and thereby to the Jim Crow practices that came into a substantial existence in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. Forms of enslavement of humans of every skin color had long existed in virtually every major social group on earth, the practice of chattel ownership of humans (the equivalent of what was called slavery in America) or of keeping men and women in involuntary labor bondage (what was called peonage, or serfdom, in places such as Russia) having existed for at least five millennia, a span that far antedates any current religion except perhaps primitive Judaism. From classical times up through the mid-nineteenth century, white Europeans-most numerously Russians and Greeks and inhabitants of the Balkans—were kidnapped or captured in battle and taken to be sold in slave markets scattered over North Africa and the Middle East. Asians, too, practiced slavery on a massive scale, from India, through China and Japan, and into the Pacific islands, one Asian group often taking into bondage humans from another Asian group and sometimes even from within their own extended communities.
But no continent has been so exhaustively victimized by slavery as has Africa, particularly that part below the Sahara and commonly known as black Africa. Long after Christian and Islamic societies had become too powerful to themselves be seriously victimized by slavery, they in turn became the principal tormentors, the slave capturers. The tribal societies of black Africa were rarely strong enough to defend themselves from these powerful outsiders and, over the last half millennium, have been bled in three directions: about 11 million of these people have since 1500 been captured for the transatlantic trade—to North and South America and the Caribbean; at the same time slavers seized another 14 million or so for the largely Muslim markets of the Middle East; and finally, unknowable but vast numbers of blacks were enslaved in Africa itself, by other tribes and by European colonists for use in their African colonies.
For the three centuries prior to 1800 the flow of black slaves to the Western Hemisphere exceeded by roughly four times the concomitant white immigrant flow westward across the Atlantic. When the first blacks arrived in the Western Hemisphere, the color of their skin was not yet an innate mark of slave caste, something it would, however, quickly become. The main reason that a large proportion of blacks did come to be seen purely as involuntary and “natural” laborers was in large part due to their inability to resist or defend themselves (in itself not caused by an intellectual deficiency but a result of the disorientation of being violently uprooted from the familiar surrounds of their own civilization) and to their status as non-Christians. Secondly, slavers quickly realized their prey’s extraordinary value as a relatively easy-to-obtain commodity. And by the fact of distance from familiar surrounds, Africans became grossly disoriented by their new existence in the Americas, contributing to a docility the whites who purchased them found helpful in controlling their chattels, the wresting of the riches America possessed almost in glut requiring just such trouble-free labor for its extraction. By comparison, native “Indian” populations were by virtue of their familiarity with local conditions far better prepared—especially in North America—to resist European control than were the enslaved Africans.
Thus the purchase of slaves almost everywhere in the New World came to represent the simple couplet of white European owners and black African captives. For these Europeans, slavery was a racial phenomenon: as whites came to a religious and moral understanding that enslavement of other whites was somehow degrading to the meaning of whiteness, their concept of the fundamental quality of slavery became entirely one of blackness, with blacks perforce excluded from white notions of common human brotherhood lest whites’ consciences suffer from the cruelty of the system they were so assiduously constructing. Montesquieu summed up the conundrum of racial slavery with biting irony: “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures [black men] to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian.” And as a consequence blacks came to stand for one thing above all else: slavery. Before very much time was to pass, general beliefs about blackness would be shaped by the need to defend the institution of slavery, with blacks being viewed by whites as “natural” slaves and, a step further along this line of reasoning, all persons with any amount of black ancestry as being themselves not partially white but instead solely black.
But at the beginning of the African-American presence in what would become the United States, the nightmare of black-on-white racism still stood a bit over the horizon. In August 1619 blacks arrived in Anglosettled North America, some twenty African men tucked in the cargo of a Dutch man-of-war that landed at Jamestown, in the colony called Virginia. Their journey to America hadn’t been voluntary. Though their precise provenance within Africa isn’t known, they were certainly seized somewhere on that continent and were then likely bought in barter by one of the tribes along the so-called Slave Coast, probably in exchange for trinkets or rum, and finally sold for export. The Dutch captain who transported them westward offered these twenty men to the first white Virginians he happened on to, settlers badly in need of labor to keep their crops healthy and thus their families fed.
Though the practical status of these Africans was as slaves, this initial American transaction in human cargo actually specified that they were to legally be held only as indentured servants, the same sort of contractual labor arrangement that then bound many whites to service in the New World. Indentureship signified that the bindees’ services were, in theory at least, freely sold to their masters for a specified period, at the end of which the contract would expire and the bindees would go free. Indentureship did not mean that settlers actually owned the physical bodies of those bound to them. But because there was no end date on the contract of indentureship for these Africans, for them the difference between slave status and ordinary servitude was, in practical terms, largely moot. Tragically, such mootness would set a prophetic precedent.
More captured Africans soon joined this first group, and over their initial half-century in America the status of blacks brought on a succession of slave ships (carriers that were far more often owned by Northerners than they were by Southerners) sank from a watery uncertainty to a barbarous legality. In the first place, blacks quickly came to be distinguished from any other kind of indentured servant. Within five years of the first Jamestown deal, the colony’s courts began to lay the legal groundwork irreversibly transforming Africans from indentured servants into chattels pure and simple. Finally, in 1670, a Virginia court decreed the status of non-Christian African men and women coming to America “shall be as slaves for their entire lives,” and the line between blackness and slavery essentially disappeared in white estimation. Further legal refinements in Virginia rendered immaterial the morally delicate matter of black Christianity wherever or however long before acquired, which further cut off blacks from white consideration as fellow human beings. Other colonies, including those in the North, soon adopted much the same legal stance.
Importantly, none others but black Africans would meet this fate—slave status was never applied to any nonblacks whatsoever. Indentured whites could have their terms of labor extended for failure to perform or for legal infractions, but there was never a question of regarding such persons as chattels. Most remarkably, no serious attempt would ever be made at enslaving indigenous Americans—what the colonists called Indians in perpetuation of the early explorers’ belief they had found India and the natives must therefore be Indian—nor was any effort ever made to even declare them “eligible” for slave status. In any case, the prospect of enslaving people who still enjoyed a high degree of martial prowess could hardly have been attractive to the European settlers. Though Indians were often nearly as dark-skinned as Africans, they placed on the social color scale as merely “brown.” Slavery thus attained an ironclad synchronicity with blackness and Africanness.
At the same time the nascent legal system was fixing its position on slavery, the wider white lay society was setting the black man’s social status. The primary tenet of such status held that no black could under any circumstances be the social equal of any white. One reason was that the white upper classes wished to keep the white lower classes content in their own varying degrees of lowness and deduced this goal would best be served by giving such lower white orders something over which they themselves could claim superiority, namely all black human beings. From this initial simple logic would eventually spring an entire universe ordering black-white relations.
By the second decade of the eighteenth century, the South Carolina colony’s government had decreed a thirty-five-section “Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Slaves,” a document setting into law that a child of one slave parent would always be, regardless of the race or status of the other parent, a slave as well. The act further required slave owners to keep weapons “in the most private and least-frequented room of the house” on payment of a three-pound fine if one was caught in violation, which violation was regarded as more easily facilitating deadly mischief on the part of slaves. For slaves committing any act of larceny, the legislators of South Carolina gave the slave owner the right to punish his slaves in virtually any way he saw fit, all the way up to and including the actual murder of his miscreant chattel.1 Though all colonies ordained slave codes, it was the Southern colonies—most heavily populated with Africans—that from the beginning most intricately regulated these measures of black control.
Thus by the time the Revolutionary War victory allowed the transfiguration of Britain’s American colonies into a union of American states, blackness of skin indisputably represented the new nation’s lowest social condition. Though the Founding Fathers with their “all men being created equal” rhetoric might conceivably have forestalled such a tragedy, they didn’t. Instead they chose to placate by now long-standing white views regarding blackness and, probably more important, the labor needs of the Southern states as well as the social sensibilities that had already achieved a standing as the South’s “heritage.” Being black was thereby confirmed as being low, lower even than the condition of white criminals, since those affected by a racial stigma could never escape such a blemish by serving out a mere sentence of incarceration. Black skin automatically made a human being’s status lower than that of a white murderer on, for example, the logic that the worst punishment any court could inflict never took away the freedom of the murderer’s child—as it did the child of a slave. In a sense blackness was held as a state lower even than that of a draft horse, toward which creature cruelty could and fairly often did represent a punishable offense. Finally, blacks weren’t even held as whole beings for census purposes: to count the number of inhabitants in forming congressional districts, the new nation’s constitution specified that a slave would represent merely 60 percent of a person.
The most consequential change in the status of the African-American was the eventual near-total confinement of slave status to the Southern states. In the first decades of American independence, Northern slavery died a comparatively quick death, even though slavery had played a major part in the North’s economy in the decades before the Revolution; as an example, out of New York City’s total population at that time of seven thousand blacks, nearly a quarter were slaves, many of whom had been purchased on Wall Street’s trading block. The institution retreated southward and remained there less because of North vs. South morals than because slaves simply weren’t needed in the North: an economy that relied far more on factories than on farms required talents more grounded in skill and formal education than in mere strength. It thus was relatively easy, in an intellectual sense, for Northerners to indulge their region’s growing moral unease with the principle of humans owning other humans and to put a legal end to the practice.
In the South, a single overriding factor made for an entirely different reality. In an age when the vast majority of cloth was woven from either relatively cheap cotton or relatively expensive wool, the importance of the former is self-evident. Cotton production represented the South’s economic glory. But the ingredient that the growing of cotton required in greater quantity than any other was labor. And uneducated, unskilled labor was the best kind because anyone smart enough to do almost anything else wouldn’t pick the stuff. So that meant slaves, people conveniently bereft of education and the ambition education produces because to educate them was illegal, and besides, as chattels, they were unfree to choose to do anything else.
So long as slavery as a legal conception existed in America, this “peculiar institution,” as it was famously called, morally preoccupied people both for it and against it, while the other and less obvious issues regarding African-Americans and their association with European-Americans remained in relative shadow. But many such ancillary issues and considerations existed, even in the North.
After slavery settled southward, blacks carried many special and often deadly burdens. Not merely in the South but in every one of the Northern states as well, the fact of a black skin more often than not meant its possessor got the tailings of whatever resources America had to give—or Americans had to take. Blackness meant poverty, want of education, social ostracism, degradation, and early death from malnutrition and disease and lack of medical care. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring the return of escaped slaves to their owners, it meant that if a slave did manage to make it to the North, he or she could legally be handed back to a Southern master. That some seventy-five thousand slaves did achieve lasting freedom through escapes to the Northern states and to Canada represents almost as much a miracle as it does plain testament to the human yearning for freedom.
Though slavery became in very large part a Southern institution after the North legally abandoned it, responsibility for the condition extended throughout the entire American establishment, both during the colonial era and after the colonies achieved independence from Great Britain. Not only did America’s Founding Fathers—its historical icons—own slaves, so, too, did ordinary businessmen in all parts of the country long profit from the slave trade through ownership of shares in slave-trading companies. When the young nation’s plutocrats were writing the Constitution, these men could have stopped slavery then and there. But the political and economic price was too high. What the authors merely did instead do was write a constitution by whose provisions slavery could, and of course would, someday be ended. But never in America’s early decades, not even in the North, did the melting-pot myth apply to persons of African heritage: the vaunted national cauldron only made room for whites of different ethnicities. Blacks were the enemy of all and, ironically, eventually a common nemesis that served to draw the white tribes closer together. In the event however, it was the South’s adherence to slavery that settled the most tragic part of the nation’s destiny, leading to internecine war as well as to a drawn-out postbellum racial nightmare from which America has still not healed itself.
By 1860 the United States had become two almost distinct nations: in the South a largely one-crop agrarian society with little immigration to invigorate its economy, no expansion room, almost no real cities, and little education to strengthen the masses of white people; and elsewhere, in the North and West, an industrialized people rich in railroads and metropolises, a society that, if often only grudgingly, welcomed shiploads of immigrants to work its factories, the possessor of a vast frontier it considered its own, and a community in which education was available to almost anyone who sought it. And overarching all these fundamental differences was the presence of slavery in the southern half of the nation and its prohibition in the northern—the Northern states having liberated their slaves shortly after the Revolution, even though most withheld equality from them, including the vote. The path that was pointing the nation’s way to insoluble conflict and to the early deaths of six hundred thousand of its young men could have been altered but for the last element. That element—slavery—proved intractable to anything so plain as mere reason.
Casting the dilemma in stone was the economic reality that slavery was no inconsequential thing to the South. The region’s 4 million slaves had by 1860 become indispensable to maintaining the cotton empire the Southern states had made of themselves. Where at the turn of the eighteenth century many thought the “peculiar institution” would, even below the Mason and Dixon Line, eventually die a natural death, a clever invention of a Massachusetts inventor named Eli Whitney changed any such prognosis. The device Mr. Whitney called his “gin” transformed what had been merely a region’s lucrative cotton growing into a true culture unto itself. The gin—a device that efficiently performed the hard work of separating the cotton plant’s seeds from its fiber—appeared just as the world’s appetite for cotton seemed bottomless. All that was needed by the South to make its crop easy to pick and itself rich was an abundance of cheap labor to work the notoriously difficult-to-pick plant. From $5 million gained from cotton exports in 1810 (7 percent of the world’s cotton exports at that time) when the gin had first been used, by 1860 the Southern states were exporting cotton worth $191 million, fully 57 percent of the world’s total production. Any humanitarian talk of abolishing the labor system that made this wealth possible had by 1860 long since ceased. Not only did the South have some $2 billion in equity invested in its human chattels, many of the region’s influential spokesmen earnestly believed the South’s economy would collapse without this slave-based agriculture.
Though slavery profited the North as well as the South, many Northerners were becoming decreasingly sanguine about the morality of the institution that underpinned these enormous profits. By mid-nineteenth century, Northern unease had tightly coalesced around men and women calling themselves abolitionists, a few of whom were inordinately eloquent and a few others of whom harbored violent intentions in their laudable common desire to end slavery in America. As the Northerners’ protestations against slavery grew ever less temperate in the face of what they viewed as unwarrantable Southern iniquity, white Southerners grew correspondingly more defensive about what they held as their honest and legal way of life. The ethical and learned institutions of the South—the churches and academies—had long since built a moral defense of slavery that absolved the region’s practices and practitioners from wrongdoing. When the national constitution was written in the late 1700s, the writers had frankly admitted slavery was an evil, albeit necessary and probably inescapable given the country’s economic and social realities at the time. But a century later the white South baldly characterized slavery as a gift to the black man. Didn’t both God and Reason, they explained, declare the Negro inferior to the White Man, and wasn’t the Black Man thus fulfilling his proper even though lesser station in life by serving a superior class that was at the same time providentially providing him with work and shelter and protection and, could it not be concluded, even bestowing a positive benevolence on such black vassals?
By the 1850s no middle ground seemed possible in the controversy. Pushing almost every other issue straight off the map, slavery increasingly preoccupied the nation—at least its Northern states—in those last antebellum years. In describing the engrossing effect it had on the American people, Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton used the analogy of a biblical plague: “You could not look upon the table but there were frogs. You could not sit down at the banquet table but there were frogs. We could see nothing, touch nothing, have no measures proposed, without having this pestilence thrust before us.”
Compromises, such as that forged in 1820 and named for the state of Missouri, were with supreme and heroic efforts worked out, arrangements that provided for one territory to come into the union where slavery was forever outlawed while another territory would retain its people’s right to vote as to whether to permit the institution within its borders. When such measures seemed to give needed time to cool overheated tempers, Congress would upset the status quo with something like the Fugitive Slave Act, a law requiring captured runaway slaves who had reached the North to be returned to the South—and the palliatives would implode. As would, soon, the nation.
The man in whose name the rock of slavery rolled up against the hard place of legal resolution was Dred Scott, a slave. The immediate issue in Scott’s colossally important—and colossally complicated—case was the freedom of one black man, while the obviously larger question was the spread of slavery into the territories. But likely the deepest theme was the moral worth of the African in America and the attendant inability of the law to resolve the conundrum of slavery itself.
The man at the center of one of America’s most rancorous legal tempests was in reality the docile instrument of other and far more consequential plaintiffs in the case that nonetheless turned the humble plaintiff himself into a historical symbol. A slave from Virginia whose master had in the 1840s taken him into the state of Illinois and the then territory of Wisconsin—locations both free of slavery—and then brought him to slaveholding Missouri, Scott sued his owner in the latter state’s courts with the intent to be declared a free man on account of his earlier entry into free territory. The real plaintiff—the abolition-minded owner—utilized the black man in hopes of obtaining a precedent-setting court decision that would grant Scott his freedom, though, ironically, he could himself have freed his human property simply by signing a document of manumission. After years butting through the Missouri courts, tribunals that consistently ruled against Scott, in 1856 the case reached the Supreme Court. Its significance to the issue of slavery was by now widely recognized in both North and South, the entire nation hanging on the court’s decision. That decision, delivered by Chief Justice Roger Taney of Maryland, a slave state, stunned the nation and made war over the issue of slavery nearly inevitable.
What the court said was complex, but it boiled down to simple political dynamite. As to Dred Scott’s status as a slave or not, the justices ruled Missouri law governed the issue from the moment Scott’s owner returned his property to that state, and since Missouri courts had already clearly stated that Scott was in fact a slave and not a free citizen, Scott was thus disbarred from suing. Taney added in a legal aside famous for its moral brutality that Scott himself possessed no “rights which the white man was bound to respect.” This decision alone would have legally satisfied the case as it was brought before the court. But Taney went on to remark that the framers of the Constitution meant, even if they hadn’t precisely spelled it out, that Negroes were persons of an inferior order, despite Jefferson’s famous dictum that “all men are created equal,” and therefore weren’t due the right of citizens to sue in a federal court. This factor in itself barred Scott from suing his owner or anyone else in a federal court.
But then the real bombshell exploded. Though not a part of the suit, Chief Justice Taney personally believed the rapidly growing country needed a decision on the larger issue of the spread of slavery as more states joined the Union. Here the court said that Scott’s physically being in a slave state or a free state was in itself immaterial, the reason for such immateriality arising from its finding that the Missouri Compromise, an act of Congress, was itself unconstitutional because it impinged upon a citizen’s right to hold property—including slaves—wherever such citizens wished. In short, Taney ruled that Congress had no right to exclude slavery from any territory, leading to the legally inescapable conclusion that, as the laws then stood, slavery could spread anywhere in the nation; conceivably, it could even return to the Northern states where state legislatures had decades earlier made the practice illegal. In fine, the court decided that only a constitutional amendment, not merely an act of Congress, could outlaw slavery. And such act is precisely what it eventually took, together with four years of war, to end the peculiar institution.
With the Dred Scott decision, the nation’s glue of compromise came undone in a giant rending of Northern disgust. If the Supreme Court had meant to lay the issue to rest, its action achieved precisely the opposite result. In late 1858, Abraham Lincoln summed up the outcome of the Dred Scott case perfectly. It meant, according to the politician in his “Housed Divided” speech, that no slave or his descendants, meaning just about every black person in America, could ever be a citizen of any state as the Constitution used the term citizen. Taney would later defend his decision by saying that “the African race in the United States even when free, are everywhere a degraded class, and exercise no political influence. The privileges they are allowed to enjoy, are accorded to them as a matter of kindness and benevolence rather than of right … . They were not looked upon as citizens by the contracting parties who formed the Constitution. They were evidently not supposed to be included by the term ‘citizens.’” From those words to the Civil War was drawn a line as straight as a die.
Though historians heatedly dispute the war’s provenance, make no mistake but that slavery was what the Civil War was about. It was not at its core about tariffs, nor about states’ rights, nor about any other dispute between the then two great groupings of America’s states. Without the issue of slavery, it is inconceivable that such other issues or disputes as existed could ever have led to the tidal flow of blood that was the War Between the States. Yet the man whose person, presence, and policies were the heart of the Civil War famously termed it a struggle not to end slavery but instead to preserve the republic.
Whatever Abraham Lincoln’s personal beliefs regarding slavery or blacks, his wartime statesmanship was aimed not at emancipation or abolishing slavery but at denying success to the Southern states in their attempt to free themselves of membership in the United States. “My paramount objective in this struggle,” he wrote, “is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery.” He made clear, however, that this represented his official view and equally clear that his personal wish was that “all men everywhere could be free,” expressing his belief in public and in private of the evil of “one man owning another.” Yet if early in the war the president could have bought peace for the price of continued slavery, he would have done so without a moment’s hesitation. Even the Emancipation Proclamation—today held by many as the supreme icon of his life—has been misrepresented as something more altruistic than the military necessity that Lincoln considered it.
Though much has been made of the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation was a gradualist measure that neither banned slavery nor even freed slaves in the non-Confederate border states—Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky—where the institution remained legal throughout the war, it did nonetheless represent a death blow to the principle of holding humans as chattels in America. Furthermore, it is unimaginable that slavery could have long endured anywhere in the country after the war ended in victory for the North, even in the nonseceding slave states.
Yet if the Northern emancipationists hoped for a presidential edict that would bestow freedom on the nation’s 4 million slaves, they were deeply disappointed with what Lincoln gave them. In mid-1862, with the war only a little more than a year old and Union forces suffering significant battlefield defeats, Lincoln feared that slaveholding border states that had remained in the Union despite their sympathy with the aims and ideals of the Confederacy would, if pushed too far, join the rebellion. But to undercut a sweeping congressional drive to free slaves that would not only provoke these border states but also harden the seceded states’ resolve to press the war, Lincoln finally acted on the slavery issue in September 1862. Helpfully buoyed by a just-won major victory at Antietam, the president on the twenty-second day of that month signed his Emancipation Proclamation, its terms to take effect the following January 1. Those terms, though, were not nearly as encompassing of black freedom as they have been imagined in the document’s roseate historical afterglow.
In what he called a “fit and necessary war measure,” and while declaring his desire to compensate slave owners for their losses, the president’s executive order freed slaves only in areas “in rebellion against the United States,” leaving in bondage those slaves in the border states and—in a historical oddity—in specific portions of Virginia and Louisiana as well as a few other oddments of territory considered technically not to be in a state of rebellion against the United States. Lincoln had freed slaves (knowing, of course, that his writ could extend only as far as Union armies could back it up), but he had not abolished slavery in America. The president also well understood the order could not withstand constitutional scrutiny, a point of some moment what with Roger Taney of the Dred Scott decision still reigning as chief justice of the United States.
Congress, too, understood the fragility of Lincoln’s decree as well as did its author. In consequence, a groundswell arose to create an amendment to the Constitution to make that document color-blind, to provide that America’s laws would tolerate neither legal recognition of the whiteness or the blackness of its citizens’ skins nor of any hue in between. It became the first—and the last—attempt Congress would make to legally prohibit racial classifications in the Constitution. It failed primarily because the implications of such a notion were plainly too overwhelming even for a Congress resolved on the eradication of slavery. Instead a constitutional amendment—the Thirteenth—that merely abolished slavery passed the Congress some three months before the war’s end and was ratified by the end of that same year. Resolving the slavery issue through the force of arms had cost some six hundred thousand lives, but the enormous price meant the former slave states would remain a part of the United States.
For all its cost, the Civil War gave Americans from Africa and their descendants nothing so provocative or progressive or magnificent as a nation whose laws would in fact be color-blind, nor a nation in which racism and white supremacy might conceivably have been forced to an early death through wiser and stronger postbellum governance. But it did at least enable their release from chattel bondage. They would no longer be owned. It didn’t give them suffrage or compensation, and it left fundamental questions as to the caliber of their citizenship. But it reendowed them with their bodies, with rights, and at last, with some control over their lives.
AMERICAN NIGHTMARE: THE HISTORY OF JIM CROW. Copyright © 2002 by Jerrold M. Packard. All rights reserved.
Posted August 12, 2011
No text was provided for this review.