The Massacre of Black Sharecroppers That Led the Supreme Court to Curb the Racial Disparities of the Justice System
White Arkansans, fearful of what would happen if African-Americans organized, took violent action, but it was the victims who ended up standing trial
By Francine Uenuma
The sharecroppers who gathered at a small church in Elaine, Arkansas, in the late hours of September 30, 1919, knew the risk they were taking. Upset about unfair low wages, they enlisted the help of a prominent white attorney from Little Rock, Ulysses Bratton, to come to Elaine to press for a fairer share in the profits of their labor. Each season, landowners came around demanding obscene percentages of the profits, without ever presenting the sharecroppers detailed accounting and trapping them with supposed debts.
“There was very little recourse for African-American tenant farmers against this exploitation; instead there was an unwritten law that no African-American could leave until his or her debt was paid off,” writes Megan Ming Francis in Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State. Organizers hoped Bratton’s presence would bring more pressure to bear through the courts. Aware of the dangers – the atmosphere was tense after racially motivated violence in the area – some of the farmers were armed with rifles.
At around 11 p.m. that night, a group of local white men, some of whom may have been affiliated with local law enforcement, fired shots into the church. The shots were returned, and in the chaos, one white man was killed. Word spread rapidly about the death. Rumors arose that the sharecroppers, who had formally joined a union known as the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA) were leading an organized “insurrection” against the white residents of Phillips County.
Governor Charles Brough called for 500 soldiers from nearby Camp Pike to, as the Arkansas Democrat reported on Oct 2, “round up” the “heavily armed negroes.” The troops were “under order to shoot to kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately.” They went well beyond that, banding together with local vigilantes and killing at least 200 African-Americans (estimates run much higher but there was never a full accounting). And the killing was indiscriminate—men, women and children unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity were slaughtered. Amidst the violence, five whites died, but for those deaths, someone would have to be held accountable.
Out of this tragedy, known as the Elaine massacre, and its subsequent prosecution, would come a Supreme Court decision that would upend years of court-sanctioned injustice against African-Americans and would secure the right of due process for defendants placed in impossible circumstances.
Despite its impact, little about the carnage in Elaine was unique during the summer of 1919. It was part of a period of vicious reprisals against African-American veterans returning home from World War I. Many whites believed that these veterans (including Robert Hill, who co-founded PFHUA) posed a threat as they claimed greater recognition for their rights at home. Even though they served in large numbers, black soldiers “realized over the course of the war and in the immediate aftermath that their achievement and their success actually provoked more rage and more vitriol than if they had utterly failed,” says Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history at Duke University and author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I.
In the days after the bloodshed in Elaine, local media coverage continued to fan the flames daily, reporting sensational stories of an organized plot against whites. A seven-man committee formed to investigate the killings. Their conclusions all too predictable: the following week they issued a statement in the Arkansas Democrat declaring the gathering in Elaine a “deliberately planned insurrection if the negroes against the whites” led by the PFHUA, whose founders used “ignorance and superstition of a race of children for monetary gains.”
The paper claimed every individual who joined was under the understanding that “ultimately he would be called upon to kill white people.” A week later, they would congratulate themselves on the whole episode and their ability to restore order confidently claiming that not one slain African-American was innocent. “The real secret of Phillips county’s success…” the newspaper boasted, is that “the Southerner knows the negro through several generations of experience.”
To counter this accepted narrative, Walter White, a member of the NAACP whose appearance enabled him to blend in with white residents, snuck into Phillips County by posing as a reporter. In subsequent articles, he claimed that “careful examination…does not reveal the ‘dastardly’ plot which has been charged” and that indeed the PFHUA had no designs on an uprising. He pointed out that the disparity in death toll alone belied the accepted version of events. With African-Americans making up a significant majority of local residents, “it appears that the fatalities would have been differently proportioned if a well-planned murder plot had existed among the Negroes,” he wrote in The Nation. The NAACP also pointed out in their publication The Crisis that in the prevailing climate of unchecked lynchings and mob violence against African-Americans, “none would be fool enough” to do so. The black press picked up the story and other papers began to integrate White’s counter-narrative into their accounts, galvanizing support for the defendants.
The courts were another matter altogether. Dozens of African-Americans became defendants in hastily convened murder trials that used incriminating testimony coerced through torture, and 12 men were sentenced to death. Jury deliberations lasted just moments. The verdicts were a foregone conclusion – it was clear that had they not been slated for execution by the court, they mob would have done so even sooner.
“You had 12 black men who were clearly charged with murder in a system that was absolutely corrupt at the time – you had mob influence, you had witness tampering, you had a jury that was all-white, you had almost certainly judicial bias, you had the pressure of knowing that if you were a juror in this case that you would almost certainly not be able to live in that town…if you decided anything other than a conviction,” says Michael Curry, an attorney and chair of the NAACP Advocacy and Policy Committee. No white residents were tried for any crime.
The outcome, at least initially, echoed an unyielding trend demonstrated by many a mob lynching: for African-American defendants, accusation and conviction were interchangeable.
Nonetheless, the NAACP launched a series of appeals and challenges that would inch their way through Arkansas state courts and then federal courts for the next three years, an arduous series of hard-fought victories and discouraging setbacks that echoed previous attempts at legal redress for black citizens. “It’s a learning process for the NAACP,” says Lentz-Smith. “[There is] a sense of how to do it and who to draw on and what sort of arguments to make.” The cases of six of the men would be sent for retrial over a technicality, while the other six defendants – including named plaintiff Frank Moore – had their cases argued before the United States Supreme Court. The NAACP’s legal strategy hinged on the claim that the defendants’ 14th Amendment right to due process had been violated.
In February 1923, by a 6-2 margin, the Court agreed. Citing the all-white jury, lack of opportunity to testify, confessions under torture, denial of change of venue and the pressure of the mob, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority that “if the case is that the whole proceeding is a mask – that counsel, jury and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible wave of public passion,” then it was the duty of the Supreme Court to intervene as guarantor of the petitioners’ constitutional rights where the state of Arkansas had failed.
The verdict marked a drastic departure from the Court’s longstanding hands-off approach to the injustices happening in places like Elaine. “This was a seismic shift in how our Supreme Court was recognizing the rights of African-Americans,” says Curry. After a long history of having little recourse in courts, Moore vs. Dempsey (the defendant was the keeper of the Arkansas State Penitentiary) preceded further legal gains where federal courts would weigh in on high-profile due process cases involving black defendants, including Powell vs. Alabama in 1932, which addressed all-white juries, and Brown vs. Mississippi in 1936, which ruled on confessions extracted under torture.
Moore vs. Dempsey provided momentum for early civil rights lawyers and paved the way for later victories in the ’50s and ’60s. According to Lentz, “when we narrate the black freedom struggle in the 20th century, we actually need to shift our timeline and the pins we put on the timeline for the moments of significant breakthrough and accomplishments.” Despite Moore vs. Dempsey being relatively obscure, “if the U.S. civil rights movement is understood as an effort to secure the full social, political, and legal rights of citizenship, then 1923 marks a significant event,” writes Francis.
The ruling also carried broad-ranging implications for all citizens in terms of federal intervention in contested criminal cases. “The recognition that the state had violated the procedural due process, and the federal courts actually weighing in on that was huge,” says Curry. “There was a deference that was being paid to state criminal proceedings, then this sort of broke that protection that existed for states.”
The sharecroppers that had gathered in Elaine had a simple goal: to secure a share in the profits gained from their work. But the series of injustices the events of that night unleashed would – through several years of tenacious effort – end up before the nation’s highest court and show that the longstanding tradition of declaring African-Americans guilty absent constitutional guarantees would no longer go unchallenged.
Slave auction block, Green Hill Plantation, Campbell County, Virginia, Historic American Buildings Survey – Public Domain
Many Americans watched as Joe Biden marked his Inauguration Day celebration with a brief presentation before the statue of Abraham Lincoln, invoking the Civil War as an historical moment when the nation triumphed over deep division.
When recalling Lincoln, many New Yorkers may remember the famous speech he gave at Cooper Institute (aka Cooper Union) in February 1860 calling to limit the extension – but not the end – of slavery. It was a critical campaign speech that helped him secure the Republican Party nomination for President. In November, he was elected, and, in December, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union.
Unfortunately, few American – and likely very few New Yorkers – will recall that Lincoln’s speech was strongly attacked by city business leaders and the Democratic Party, many assailing him with the racist slogan, “Black Republican.” More important, Lincoln’s election sparked a strong movement in the city, led by Mayor Fernando Wood, to join the South and secede from the Union.
This is one of the many important historical stories retold in an informative new book by Jonathan Daniel Wells, The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War (Bold Type Books). Slavery was formally abolished in New York State in 1827, but the slave trade lived on in the city until the Civil War. Wells argues that the slave trade persisted in New York City in the decades before the Civil War because it was the capital of the Southern slave economy.
The city’s business community of major banks, insurance companies and shipping industry financed and facilitated the cotton trade. Many of the leaders of this community played a decisive role in city social life and politics, including control over the powerful Democratic Party. Together, they backed the authority of the Constitution’s “Fugitive Slave Clause” – and later Fugitive Slave Acts (1793 and 1850) — guaranteeing slavery. Equally critical, city police, leading lawyers and judges (state and federal), with the support of the growing Irish immigrant community, colluded with organized slave “kidnappers.”
The slave trade functioned in two complementary ways. First, northern free Blacks — including young children — as well as self-emancipated former slaves who fled to New York from the slave states lived in fear of being kidnapped by organize slave catchers (often city police officers) and transported south into slavery. Second, “slaver” ships regularly stopped in New York harbor with numerous African slaves hidden on board as cargo to be sold as part of a lucrative, if illegal, business.
In pre-Civil War New York, the police were underpaid and made money through accepting bribes as well as by securing lucrative rewards from seizing and sending alleged “fugitive” Black people to the South or a fee for the sale of a captured free Black person into slavery. Because the courts were run by the Democrats, graft and corruption were accepted judicial procedures. Any Black person could be seized — walking on the street, working on the docks, at home in the middle of the night and even kids on their way to school – and accused of being an allegedly run-away slave. Most judges were notorious racists who thought little of Black people and were eager to go along with police charges.
The city’s powerful pro-slavery movement based its support for Southern slavery and slave kidnapping on the Constitution’s “Fugitive Slave Clause” (i.e., Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3). It stipulated that “no person held to service or labor” would be released from bondage in the event they escaped to a free state, thus requiring northern free cities like New York to return the self-emancipated to their southern enslavers.
In 1793, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act that added more enforcement teeth to the original Clause, explicitly stating that owners of enslaved people and their “agents” had the right to search for escapees within the borders of free states. Henry Clay promoted what was known as the “Compromise of 1850” that strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act to forestall growing talk of Southern secession. The revised act compelled citizens to assist in the capture of runaways and denied escaped people the right to a jury trial, among other actions. The new act was met by fierce resistance in many anti-slavery states, including upstate New York. The new act was adopted as the Underground Railroad reached its peak as many self-emancipated former slaves fled to Canada to escape U.S. jurisdiction.
The author grounds much of his narrative around the life of David Ruggles, a courageous Black abolitionists and journalist. He was born in Connecticut in 1810 when the spirit of the Revolution still glowed. At age 16, he moved to New York and became an abolitionist activist. He was a prolific contributor to newspapers, including his own paper Mirror of Liberty, published numerous pamphlets and contributed to abolitionist papers like The Liberator. He named “The New York Kidnapping Club” and published a list those he believed participated in kidnappings. Going further, he boarded ships in the harbor in search of Black captives or for signs of participants in the illegal slave trade. He also hosted the wedding of Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray at his New York home after they fled Maryland.
Ruggles helped forge the Underground Railroad, thus assisting self-liberated fugitives to safety in the north or to freedom in Canada. He was joined by a small but activist antislavery community that included Horace Dresser, Arthur Tappan, Charles B. Ray and Elizabeth Jennings. He ran a bookstore and was physically attacked, his store burned; he was hounded by the police and even briefly jailed. Sadly, by his 30s, he was nearly blind and moved to Massachusetts.
In 1837, Ruggles helped found the New York Committee of Vigilance, a biracial organization opposed to the kidnapping of innocent Black residents as well as self-liberated former slaves. The abolitionists were a small but activities community that regularly protested when a Black person was kidnapped and petitioned for jury trials in the cases of those arrested as fugitives. Not unlike today’s supporters of Black Lives Matter, Black and white activists in pre-Civil War New York claimed that law enforcement was mostly little more than legalized racism.
The Kidnapping Club reminds readers that New York was a pro-slavery city even as the nation was engulfed in the Civil War. Wells recounts how the city’s leadership joined with the growing movement in the South to promote secession. While the South seceded and New York (white) citizen voted against Lincoln’s election, the city remained part of the Union.
However, built-up anti-abolitionist sentiments exploded in the 1865 Draft Riot that saw Union soldier from the recent Battle of Gettysburg march on the city to suppress the uprising in which the Negro Orphan Asylum burned, numerous churches destroyed and about 100 people died, many of them Blacks.
Without acknowledging the racial conditions of New York during pre-Civil War era, especially the horrors inflicted by the “kidnapping club” and the role of the police and judiciary, one cannot fully understand – nor can society truly address – the complaints raised by the Black Lives Matter movement today. Racial oppression and suffering leave a deep and enduring scar that only true social change can remedy.
Our genetic make-up is the result of history. Historical events that influenced the patterns of migration and mating among our ancestors are reflected in our DNA — in our genetic relationships with each other and in our genetic risks for disease. This means that, to understand how genes affect our biology, geneticists often find it important to tease out how historical drivers of demographic change shaped present-day genetics.
Understanding the connection between history and DNA is especially important for African Americans, because slavery and discrimination caused profound and relatively rapid demographic change. A new study now offers a very broad look at African-American genetic history and shows how the DNA of present-day African Americans reflects their troubled history.
Slavery and its aftermath had a direct impact on two critical demographic factors that are especially important in genetics: migration and sex. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was a forced migration that carried nearly 400,000 Africans over to the colonies and, later, the United States. Once in North America, African slaves and their descendants mixed with whites of European ancestry, usually because enslaved black women were raped and exploited by white men. And, more recently, what’s known as the Great Migration dramatically re-shaped African-American demographics in the 20th century. Between 1915 and 1970, six million blacks left the South and settled in the Northern, Midwestern, and Western states, in hope of finding opportunities for a better life.
How this turbulent history shaped the genes of African Americans has been unclear because, until recently, most genetic studies have focused either on populations from different geographical regions around the world, or on Americans with European ancestry. Fortunately, African Americans are now being included in these studies on a larger scale, and several long-term studies have collected genetic data on thousands of African Americans, representing all areas of the country. In a recently published study, a team of researchers at McGill University in Montreal turned to this data to take a broad look at the genetic history of African Americans.
AFRICAN AMERICANS WITH A HIGHER FRACTION OF EUROPEAN ANCESTRY, WHO OFTEN HAVE LIGHTER SKIN, HAD BETTER SOCIAL OPPORTUNITIES AND WERE THUS IN A BETTER POSITION TO MIGRATE TO NORTHERN AND WESTERN STATES.
The researchers focused on nearly 4,000 African Americans who participated in two important studies, both sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. The Health and Retirement Study consists of older volunteers sampled from urban and rural areas across the U.S., while the Southern Community Cohort Study focuses on African Americans in the South, particularly areas that have a disproportionately high burden of disease. Together, these two studies are among the largest sources of genetic data on African Americans. Importantly, they represent a geographically broad sampling of the African-American population, which is critical for outlining the patterns of genetic history.
The researchers first looked at what fraction of African Americans’ genetic ancestry could be traced back to Africa. Not surprisingly, the data shows that, for most African Americans, the majority of their DNA comes from African ancestors. The results also show that essentially all African Americans have some European ancestry ancestry as well. The genetic mix of African and European DNA, however, follows a striking geographical trend: African Americans living in Southern states have more African DNA (83 percent) than those living in other areas of the country (80 percent). Conversely, African Americans outside the South have a larger fraction of European DNA. Even within the South, this trend holds: Blacks in Florida and South Carolina have more African DNA than those living in Kentucky and Virginia.
One explanation for this geographical bias could be that interracial marriages have been less frequent in Southern states. But this explanation appears to be wrong. The McGill researchers found that most of the European DNA among blacks today probably entered the African-American gene pool long before the Civil War, when the vast majority of blacks in the U.S. were slaves living in the South. The genetic patterns observed by the researchers suggest that, for at least a century before the Civil War, there was ongoing admixture between blacks and whites. After slavery ended, this interracial mixing dropped off steeply.
The implication of these findings won’t be surprising to anyone: Widespread sexual exploitation of slaves before the Civil War strongly influenced the genetic make-up of essentially all African Americans alive today.
But this poses a puzzle: If African Americans can trace most of their European ancestry to an era when America’s black population was overwhelmingly confined to the South, why is it that African Americans now living outside the South have more European DNA?
The researchers propose an interesting answer. They argue that the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South was genetically biased: African Americans with a higher fraction of European ancestry, who often have lighter skin, had better social opportunities and were thus in a better position to migrate to northern and Western states. Though it will take further evidence to show this definitively, the McGill researchers’ results imply that, even after the end of slavery, discrimination that varied with shades of skin color continued to influence the genetic history of African Americans.
Do these genetic findings matter to anyone other than historians and genealogists? The answers is yes — studies of genetic history like this one are important because they help explain why blacks and whites often have different genetic risk factors for the same diseases. African Americans are disproportionately affected by many common diseases, and while much of this is due to poverty and limited access to good health care, genetics plays a role as well. If African Americans are to fully benefit from modern health care, where diagnoses and treatments are increasingly tailored to a patient’s DNA, it is critical that we understand African Americans’ genetic history, and how it contributes to their health today. In other words, we need to understand not just the cultural and economic legacies of slavery and discrimination, but the genetic legacy as well.
Praise came fast, and then the backlash, especially against the claim that the nation’s true founding should be dated not to the 1776 American Revolution but to 1619, when the first group of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans arrived in North America and were sold to Jamestown settlers. The editors and authors of 1619 are working in the cockpit of Trumpism, with racism and inequality renascent, so their dark take on US history is understandable. But here’s Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 writing near the top of the mountain. Liberalism was seemingly triumphant, on the cusp of passing historic civil rights legislation. If ever there was a moment to put forward an optimistic view of US history—of a country about to fulfill its “promissory note” of equality—this was it. Still, King feels compelled to point out the “broader dimensions of the evil” of US history, of its “myth” of equality:
Our nation was born in genocide, when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population.
Expectedly, much of the criticism of The 1619 Project comes from political conservatives. But a group of liberal historians reacted harshly as well, among them Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, who, along with four other esteemed scholars—James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes—sent a letter to the Times demanding a retraction of the claim, made by Hannah-Jones, that “one of the primary” causes of the American Revolution was that colonists “wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Wood, Oakes, McPherson, and Bynum also gave extended, critical interviews about the project covering a wide range of topics: colonial history, the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s views on race, Thomas Jefferson’s late-in-life turn toward pro-Southern extremism, the relationship of ideas to politics and economics, and the links between capitalism and slavery. Wood and Oakes, especially, objected to Hannah-Jones’s argument that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery, and Wilentz, in a comment to The Atlantic, took exception to her remark that African Americans fought for their rights “largely alone.”
Striking is what was not discussed, and that’s what King noted in 1963: indigenous subjugation. The historians mentioned above said not a word, either in their collective letter or in their extensive interviews, about the dispossession of native peoples, the destruction of their societies, and their deportation west.
The omission is odd. For whether their criticism was motivated by a desire to defend a Whiggish narrative of liberal progress (Wilentz’s position) or insist on a stronger focus on political economy (Oakes’s concern), indigenous subjugation is key to understanding the history here being debated. Imperial expansion west over stolen Indian land shaped the American Revolution’s relationship to slavery. Expansion west drove the dynamism of the United States economy. And expansion west ignited slavery’s vast and rapid postrevolutionary growth, and allowed for its endurance, long past its abolition in every other country in the Americas (save for Brazil and Cuba), accounting for its deep and lasting imprint on US political culture, economics, and institutions.
American revolutionaries might have argued over slavery, and what place unfree labor would have in a republic founded on the ideal of liberty. But there was one thing that nearly all agreed on: the right to move west. British Americans, before their break with London, chafed at what was called the “Proclamation Line.” Running along the crest of the Alleghenies, the demarcation was made by the British Crown after its 1763 victory in the Seven Years’ War against France, as an effort to sequester white settlers on the Atlantic Coast. With British subjects already moving through the mountain passes, the policy became a major source of resentment against colonial rule. Settlers—the “overflowing Scum of the Empire,” as a British governor described the drifters and squatters who rushed down the Mississippi Valley—wanted land, which brought them into deadly conflict with Native Americans. In 1763, for instance, the Scotch-Irish Paxton Boys rampaged through Pennsylvania, murdering over a dozen Conestoga, scalping their victims, mutilating their corpses, and breaking up their communities (Dwight D. Eisenhower’s great-great-great grandfather, Hans Eisenhauer, was a Pennsylvania Indian killer during this time).
Not just material interests drove settlers west. The United States was founded on the idea that the ability to move wasn’t just a natural right but a condition of all other natural rights, a guarantor of many different kinds of virtue. Franklin provided an early political economy: Unlike in Europe, “labour will never be cheap” as long as farmers can continue moving west. James Madison offered a political theory: “Extend the sphere,” he said, and you’ll dilute factionalism and mitigate economic conflict. And Jefferson, two years before his draft of the Declaration of Indepedence, presented a moral history: Our “Saxon ancestors,” Jefferson wrote, “left their native wilds and woods in the North of Europe” and “possessed themselves of the Island of Britain.” As they did so, no German prince presumed to claim “superiority” over them. By what law, then, did the Crown presume to stop colonists from settling “the wilds of America”?
The American Revolution answered: none at all. The new nation came into the world doubling its size. The treaty recognizing the independence of the original 13 colonies ceded to them the territory between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi. The United States then proceeded to move swiftly—as if weightless, as the Mexican diplomat and writer Octavio Paz put it—across the West.
What would have happened if the United States had stayed confined, either east of the Alleghenies or of the Mississippi? What if the new nation hadn’t used its full federal apparatus to cleanse its eastern lands of Native Americans? Counterfactuals are a mug’s game, which historians anyway like to play (even if many consider them an invalid form of historical reasoning). Economists, though, have no problem with asking “What if?” The Berkeley economist Bradford DeLong isolated some variables and built a model that suggested that a “little America…penned behind the Appalachians would probably have seen its living standards and productivity levels not growing at 1% per year from 1760 to 1860 but shrinking.” Wages, as a result, would have been lower than they actually were, which would have decreased European migration somewhat but not much, considering the direness of rural life in Europe.
The history of chattel slavery would have been different in “little America.” With large numbers of immigrants working for lower wages, in a more constricted economy, fights over the moral meaning of labor, free and slave, which the historians who criticize The 1619 Project make much of, might have come to a head earlier. Or maybe not. For without taken indigenous land to expand into (land that was used as collateral for loans to finance buying more slaves and building more plantation, which in turn contributed to the growth of the cotton, real estate, finance, and insurance industries), slavery probably wouldn’t have transformed into the even larger monstrosity that it did become. Many Northerners and Southerners, Gordon Wood says, sounding wistful, as if he wishes he were living in little America, “thought slavery was on its last legs and that it would naturally die away.” And maybe the racism forged in a rump slavery would itself be a rump, and wouldn’t have had the lasting impact that it did.
But “big America” is what we got, thanks to a “national policy to wipe out its indigenous population,” as King noted in 1963. The United States flew over the continent like a whirligig, with not one “removal” but hundreds of removals, not one Trail of Tears, but many, with massacre after massacre, until Native Americans were reduced. This expansion—the acquisition of Florida, the Louisiana Purchase, Jackson’s Indian removal, the incorporation into the union of Texas, founded as a slaver’s utopia, and Oregon, founded as a white supremacist arcadia, and the taking of a third of Mexico—delayed a political reckoning with slavery, even as it provided the conditions for the robust progression of slavery. By the 1850s, chattel slavery had, in big America, insinuated itself into national life, into politics, law, philosophy, medicine, the new science of mental health, culture, city planning, and of course economics, in ways that, as The 1619 Project argues, last till today. It was during the Jacksonian period of imperial expansion, Indian removal, and the fast growth of slavery that a minimalist interpretation of the Constitution’s regulatory and fiscal power, and a maximalist interpretation of its war power, took shape—an interpretation that to a large degree remains regnant.
Indian removal opened the floodgates, allowing, as one legal theorist would describe the Age of Jackson, “an irresistible tide of Caucasian democracy” to wash over the land. King Cotton extended its dominion through the South, creating great wealth, along with greater forms of racial domination over both enslaved and free blacks. At the same time, Native Americans were driven west, and the white settlers and planters who got their land experienced something equally unprecedented: an extraordinary degree of power and popular sovereignty. Never before in history could so many white men consider themselves so free. Jacksonian settlers moved across the frontier, continuing to win a greater liberty by putting down people of color, and then continuing to define their liberty in opposition to the people of color they put down.
The 1846 war on Mexico deepened the associations of white skin with supremacy, dark skin with subjugation, and expansion with freedom. The nation’s elites “placed their most restless and desperate citizens upon the throat of Mexico,” as the historian Paul Foos described the looting, civilian murder, and terror that US troops—comprised of state militia volunteers and Army regulars—inflicted on Mexicans. Mexico put up more of a fight than the US politicians who plumped for the war said it would. As fighting dragged on for nearly two years, US soldiers committed crimes on Mexicans so terrible that, as General Winfield Scott, commander of US forces, said, they made “heaven weep.” The war was fought in an extremely decentralized manner, with officers’ barely exercising control over their troops, who experienced the violence they committed on Mexicans and Native Americans—“the repetition of the most heinous offenses, murder, rapine, robbery, and rape,” as one US newspaper described them—as a form of liberty.
The United States won the war, and many veterans returned east, to New England’s manufacturing towns or to New York’s Bowery, their battle-hardened racism working its way into local politics and into organizations that were potentially egalitarian, such as labor associations, and the Free Soil movement. Others went west, into California and up into Oregon. Armed with federally supplied rifles, an ample stock of bullets, and the promise of bounty land, they understood Western settlement to be a sequel to the war they had just won, and the genocide that took place on the Pacific Coast its last, long battle. “A war of extermination,” the first US Anglo governor of California predicted in 1851, “will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinguished.”
Others spread out into the Midwest, into Kansas and Missouri, carrying their blood-soaked entitlement with them. War with Mexico simultaneously delayed and worsened the sectional crisis. In this sense, then, imperial expansionism served as both valve and throttle, with each conflict simultaneously venting the hatreds produced by the last while creating the conditions for the next.
The scholars who criticized The 1619 Project rightly argue that the moral debates, economic conflicts, and complicated politics of the Civil War shouldn’t be easily dismissed. There’s heroism, exercised by people of all colors, to be appreciated, which today might help us climb out of our current abyss. But it’s also important to recognize the way in which imperial expansion, including the ongoing dispossession of Native Americans, allowed the United States to continue its great evasion, its ability to take social conflicts that seemed irresolvable in the here and now and imagine their resolution in the there and then: there beyond the line of settlement, and then when the United States wins the West or opens the China market.
It wasn’t just the localized power of Southern elites that ended radical Reconstruction, the closest this nation came to having an honest reckoning with the consequences of slavery. In the struggle between North and South over the direction of a postbellum nation, access to Western lands played a decisive part. As the historians Boyd Cothran and Ari Kelman write, Northerners and Southerners in the years after the Civil War found “rare common ground” on the need to acquire more ground. They agreed on nearly nothing, only that the “Army should pacify Western tribes.” White Southerners bitterly opposed Reconstruction, and especially the hated Freedmen’s Bureau, but they came together with Northerners “on the subject of Manifest Destiny.”
The overseas frontier—wars and military occupations in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Haiti—acted as a prism, blurring together the color line that existed at home and abroad. Southerners, in each military occupation and prolonged counterinsurgency they fought, could replay the dissonance of the Confederacy again and again. They could fight in the name of the loftiest ideals—liberty, valor, self-sacrifice, camaraderie—while putting down people of color. The body count in the Caribbean and Pacific was high. Hundreds of thousands died through the 1930s, either directly at the hands of US soldiers or from disease, famine, and exposure. Letters from soldiers, first in the 1898 campaign and then later in Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, are notably similar, lightheartedly narrating to family and friends how they would shoot “niggers,” take “nigger scalps,” lynch “niggers,” release “niggers” into the swamp to die, water-torture “niggers,” and use “niggers for target practice.”
As Southerners steadily took the lead in the US military campaigns outward, all the dread, resentment, and hate generated by that campaign “poured back within the frame of the South itself,” as the Southern writer W. J. Cash wrote in his 1941 classic, The Mind of the South, and blended together. Over there, foreign enemies could be called niggers, and over here, domestic enemies—labor, farmer, and civil rights organizers, both people of color and their white allies—could be called subversives and anti-American: Many of the white vigilantes who led the terror campaign against black communities, in places like Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898; Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919 (where veterans, with help from the US Army, slaughtered 237 sharecroppers for trying to organize a union); or the 1921 Tulsa massacre, were veterans.
Rather than atonement and reckoning, the United States offered war and conquest as a way to forge national unity. In fact, war became America’s ideal form of atonement, a way to deal with the past by fleeing forward into the future, by recycling the traumas caused by the last war into new wars.
We are going to need a bigger project, of the kind that Martin Luther King Jr. laid out in 1963. By focusing on the horrors inflicted on Native Americans, by arguing for the unprecedented nature of removal, King was doing more than adding yet another oppressed group to history’s pantheon of victims. Rather, he was reaching for a holistic understanding of how racism is historically reproduced down the generations.
“We elevated” the war against Native Americans “into a noble crusade,” King said, founding our national identity on Indian killing. Imperial expansion became a way of life, one that reinforced deep-seated pathologies and provided mythic justification for a volatile, racialized individualism. Imperial expansion led to alienation, social isolation, free-floating aggression, and fantasies that life was an endless game of cowboys and Indians, played out in all the nation’s endless wars. King, who by this time considered himself a socialist, hoped to build a movement that would achieve the “mass application of equality to jobs, housing, education, and social mobility.” He was acutely aware of the structural barriers to that goal. But he was also attuned to the psychic barriers that blocked full social equality.
Hannah-Jones writes that African Americans mostly “fought back alone.” King said much the same thing when he described nonviolent civil rights activists who faced jeering mobs with an “agonizing loneliness.” King here wasn’t talking about a lack of white allies, or individual isolation. He was talking about the loneliness that comes from fighting for social justice in a nation that is deeply, militantly, antisocial. “There is,” he said, “an individualism that destroys the individual,” that denies the interdependency of existence.
Starting around the early 1960s, King began to use the idea of the social frontier to put forward a counter value structure, an alternative to an ideal of freedom forged in centuries of subjugating people of color. African Americans, he said, confronted a reality “as harsh and demanding as that of the pioneer on the untamed frontier.” That harshness forged character and weeded out frivolity; it sharpened “knowledge and discipline…courage and self- sacrifice.” For King, then, nonviolent resistance was more than a tactic. The ability to fight on the “social frontier,” to forge a path through the “wilderness of segregation” without losing oneself to justifiable anger, without giving in to rage or the despair of loneliness, he said, contained the embryo of an alternative society, a way to free the nation from its past, to overcome its cultish adherence to frontier violence and create a beloved, social community.
Then came Vietnam, and King confronted his own agonizing loneliness. First for staying guiltily silent, not wanting to break his productive, for a time, alliance with the Democratic Party. And then, after he spoke out, when he was abandoned by people he thought were his allies and friends.
King started to publicly criticize the war in 1966. His cri de coeur came on April 4, 1967, when he gave his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in Riverside Church in Manhattan, to an overflow crowd of thousands. There, King didn’t just condemn the US war in Southeast Asia. He condemned all of it: the country’s long history of expansion, its “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” and a political culture where “profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people.”
King wasn’t just breaking with the Cold War liberal consensus, which conditioned support for civil rights at home on backing anti-communism abroad. Rather, his protest entailed the refutation of an older, more primal premise. The nation was founded on the idea that expansion was necessary to achieve and protect social progress. Over the centuries, that idea was realized, again and again, through war. Extending the vote to the white working class went in hand with Indian removal; the military defeat of the Confederacy by the Union Army didn’t just end slavery but also marked the beginning of the final pacification of the West, with the conquered frontier continuing as an important basis of Caucasian democracy. Millions of acres were distributed to veterans. By the time African Americans started entering the armed forces in significant numbers, with the war of 1898, there was no more frontier land to hand out. But military service remained one of the country’s most effective mechanisms of social mobility, for African Americans as well as for working-class people in general, with the G.I. Bill of Rights providing education, medical care, and homeownership to veterans. King’s dissent, therefore, signaled a schism in US politics worthy of his namesake.
To “go beyond Vietnam” didn’t just mean splitting from the New Deal coalition by demanding an exit from Southeast Asia. It meant breaking with the devil’s bargain that social progress could be achieved in exchange for support for imperial expansion. King well understood that while war made some progress possible, it also threatened progress, activating the backlashers, revanchists, and racists who run through US history. For all that war turns reform into a transactional arrangement (some suffragists, for instance, traded their support for Woodrow Wilson’s war in exchange for his support for their right to vote, as did some trade unionists for his support for labor rights), and for all that imperial expansion worked as a safety valve (helping to vent extremism outward), it also created the aggressive, security- and order-obsessed political culture that King gave his life fighting against.
King was punished for his dissent. Many of his allies, black and white, abandoned him. Others attacked him. The Washington Post essentially gave King notice that his services would no longer be needed. “He has diminished his usefulness,” its editors said. Meanwhile, the FBI stepped up its campaign of surveillance and harassment against King and his family. This campaign had been running since at least 1962, and not one of King’s white allies of considerable influence—not John Kennedy, not Robert Kennedy, not Lyndon Johnson—ever ordered the bureau to stand down. That’s what it means to “fight alone.”
A prophet outcast, King continued, during the last year of his life, to speak out against the war. He put forth, in a series of sermons and press conferences, a damning analysis. Imperial expansion abroad, he argued, quickened domestic polarization. The “flame throwers in Vietnam fan the flames in our cities,” he said; “the bombs in Vietnam explode at home.” Racists killing brown people abroad became more racist. Opponents of war at home became more militant. Imperial expansion had long served to vent domestic extremism outward. But at some point, the vent would stop working. “There is such a thing as being too late,” King said in his Riverside Church speech, warning that the United States, even if it did try to reverse course, might not be able to steer away from self-destruction. “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.’” King was executed a year to the day after that speech.
In Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men, historian Thomas Foster examines how the conditions of slavery gave rise to sexual violence against enslaved men in the Americas during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Drawing from historical studies of sexual violence against enslaved women, Foster uses a range of sources including early American newspapers, enslavers’ journals, court records, visual art, and abolitionist literature to illuminate how various forms of sexual violence, including physical assault and coerced reproduction, affected enslaved men and their communities. Rethinking Rufus also centers the experience of enslaved men by using testimonies, autobiographies, and interviews to shed light on how they responded to and navigated sexual violence in order to maintain autonomy and independence in their intimate lives. Rethinking Rufus analyzes the “history of the peculiar conditions that enslavement established, nurtured, and expanded that enabled those in power to dominate many enslaved men through sexual violence” (10). In this way, Foster’s study interrogates broader systems of power and domination that led to the sexual abuse of enslaved men.
Rethinking Rufus makes an important intervention into the historiography of slavery in the Americas. Foster uses feminist theories of sexual assault to examine how corporeal punishments functioned as displays of power that constituted sexual violence against enslaved men. Foster builds upon historians such as Daina Ramey Berry, Deborah Gray White, and Jennifer Morgan, who have used gender as an analytic to more fully understand how enslaved women experienced and challenged sexual abuse under enslavement. Foster’s combination of historical methods and feminist theories of sexual assault inform one of Rethinking Rufus’s main arguments, that enslaved men could not consent to sexual activity given their legal status as property and vulnerable position in the social order of slavery.
Through five chapters, Foster examines the multiple forms of sexual violence against enslaved men from a variety of perspectives. The book’s title, Rethinking Rufus, is in reference to the story of Rufus, an enslaved man who was forced to bear children with an enslaved woman named Rose in Texas during the mid-nineteenth century. Foster uses Rose’s interview published by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), where she negatively recounts her sexual experiences with Rufus and describes him as a “bully,” as an example of how sexual violence affected both enslaved men and women. Foster notes that while Rose’s interview documents the trauma of coerced reproduction, a form of sexual violence in which enslavers forced enslaved men and women to bear children in order increase the population of enslaved people, sources that highlight the sufferings of coerced reproduction from the perspective of Rufus are nonexistent. Foster theorizes the absence of a counternarrative by Rufus and many other enslaved men as another type of sexual violation that stemmed from a broader cultural failure to consider men as victims of sexual violence. The repeated absence of narratives from enslaved men that document their experiences with sexual violence propels Foster’s deeper exploration into the conditions of slavery that gave rise to the sexual abuse and exploitation of enslaved men.
Foster begins Rethinking Rufus by examining how enslaved men’s bodies were depicted in Western art and sculptures that were widespread in the visual culture of slavery. Foster argues that enslaved men’s bodies were “symbols of enslaved manhood and sites of violation” that were objectified through a number of cultural forms including art and literature (12). The objectification of enslaved men depicted in paintings often resembled everyday acts of terror including the public inspection of Black men’s genitals, whippings and lashings, and bodily exposure due to lack of adequate clothing. Visual depictions of enslaved men that emphasized their genitalia and sexual prowess gave way to the prevailing myths of Black hypersexuality and the Black male rapist, an archetype that ensured the extralegal protection of white women from Black men who purportedly lacked control over their sexual urges. Foster also argues that while visual depictions of enslaved men’s bodies often highlighted their athleticism, strength, and muscularity, this same imagery eroticized enslaved men’s bodies in ways that fueled the physical abuses and sexual exploitation of enslaved men. Foster notes that these stereotypes found in eighteenth-century visual art contributed to the eventual punishment and national disenfranchisement of Black men.
Rethinking Rufus also sheds light on how enslaved men viewed marriage and family as potential avenues for maintaining independence and autonomy. Foster notes that while the possibility of establishing a household and assuming the role as guardian of the family was severely limited for enslaved men, love affairs and the ability to choose one’s own partner served as a key component for developing models of manhood. Using court records and eighteenth-century newspapers, Foster documents how enslaved men understood the importance of choosing their own partners despite the likely possibility of separation and loss. Because enslaved men and women were frequently sold to different plantations across various regions, enslaved men and women who married and attempted to establish families remained vulnerable to the interference of enslavers through sales and punishments. Foster notes that they often negotiated independence by adhering to the will of masters and mistresses in order to be granted partial autonomy in their intimate lives. Foster’s analysis provides a glimpse into how enslaved men navigated the power dynamics of enslavement in hopes of maintaining autonomy while minimizing the possibility of sexual violence as a punishment.
The latter part of Rethinking Rufus examines the role of reproduction in slavery’s sexual economy, and how sexual violations of enslaved men affected interpersonal relationships between enslaved men and women. To this end, Foster argues that coerced reproduction was a type of sexual assault against Black men in addition to Black women. Using interviews and testimonies from formerly enslaved men, Foster highlights how those who were valued for their reproductive capabilities were often singled out from their communities, relocated to different regions, and forced to couple with multiple women. Men who were forced to procreate were also excused from preforming certain types of labor that enslavers feared could negatively affect their reproductive capabilities. Foster also considers how forms of sexual violence against enslaved men were enacted by both white women and men. Foster’s use of WPA interviews and slave narratives that center the perspectives of Black men illuminates how the separation of enslaved men from their communities for the purpose of reproduction often severed intracommunal relationships that resulted in psychological pain and generational trauma.
In sum, Rethinking Rufus illuminates new dimensions of how sexual violence operated during slavery by incorporating the perspectives of Black men. Rethinking Rufus sheds light on how sexual assault, exploitation, objectification, and coerced reproduction affected enslaved men and their communities. Foster’s gendered analysis of sexual violence opens up new avenues for further research on the interrelatedness between masculinity, reproduction, and slave labor. Rethinking Rufus is a great contribution to the fields of Early American History, Gender Studies, and African American Studies. Rethinking Rufus should be of interest to a wide range of scholars of African American history, the history of American slavery, and the history of sexuality.
“It is painful to write about the shortcomings of the Declaration of Independence. The historic document was officially approved by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776 — a mere two days after the Lee Resolution formally declared the American colonies to be independent of the British Empire. Because the American colonists ultimately prevailed in their revolution against King George III, the document has been immortalized as one of the opening salvos in the ongoing fight for human freedom that continues to this very day. Without this seminal text, every social justice movement that has followed would never have come to pass.Yet despite its overwhelmingly positive impact on history, the Declaration of Independence was also a product of its time — and bears some of the shortcomings of its era, including sexism, racism and prejudice against Native Americans. Here is a look at the events leading up to the creation of that document, as well as involved in its actual signing, which one must inspect for a more rounded look at this period in history: . . .”