How Black Citizenship Was Won, and Lost

The post-Civil War Reconstruction era — which saw the dramatic expansion of rights for African-Americans, followed by their violent rollback — is one of the most poorly understood periods in American history.

It’s also increasingly invoked as a touchstone for understanding our current moment. The election of Donald J. Trump has been seen as driven by a similar white backlash, in this case to America’s first black president. And growing charges of voter suppression in the run-up to the midterm elections have prompted, for many observers, a similar sense of déjà vu.

And that was before President Trump, in an interview this week, called for limitations on birthright citizenship, which was written into the Constitution in 1868 via the 14th Amendment, one of the era’s signal achievements.

“Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow,” an exhibition about Reconstruction and its aftermath at the New-York Historical Society through March 3, doesn’t draw explicit parallels to today’s politics. But perhaps it doesn’t have to.

“The struggle over who has the right to citizenship and who belongs has been at the heart of American life over centuries,” Marci Reaven, vice president of history exhibitions at the museum, said on a recent afternoon.

“This was a period that had incredible strides forward in equality for everyone,” Ms. Reaven, who curated the exhibition with Lily Wong, assistant curator, continued. “But it was also a story of incredible strides backwards.”

Reconstruction can be a challenging story to tell, given how it cuts against deeply held American ideas about steady moral progress. It can also seem like a very abstract story, dominated by Constitutional amendments, legal battles and court decisions.

The exhibition, which fills three small upstairs galleries here, covers the legal and political landmarks, but it also includes poignant artifacts that show how ordinary people fought the battle for — and against — racial equality on the ground, in what Ms. Reaven called “a constant push and pull.”

The sense of dueling agendas and perspectives is established in the first case in the exhibition, which juxtaposes two schoolbooks from 1864, in the waning days of the Civil War.

“The Gospel of Slavery: A Primer of Freedom,” published in the North, features ringing couplets decrying the evils of bondage. “The First Dixie Reader,” from North Carolina, is open to a story of Uncle Ned, an enslaved man who runs away to the North but returns, disillusioned. (“Uncle Ned was a good old darkey, and loved his master well,” it reads.)

The children who read these books, Ms. Wong noted, “would grow up to be the people who lived through this whole period.”

The first part of the exhibition highlights the many ways ordinary African-Americans laid claim to the full rights of citizenship in the years after the war, not just by voting and running for office, but also by building churches, schools and business.

Some items, like an 1874 marriage certificate for Augustus Johnson and Malinda Murphy of Spencerport, N.Y., are disarmingly ordinary. (Under slavery, formal marriages of enslaved people were not legally recognized.)

Others may bring visitors up short, like a set of shackles presented with the initially puzzling date of 1866.

They had been used to keep Mary Horn, a 17-year-old, in captivity in Georgia even after the 13th amendment abolished slavery in late 1865, and were removed, the label says, by a Union Army marshal who had been summoned by her fiancé. (The marshal promptly married the couple.)

Black Americans’ exercising the rights of citizenship, the show makes clear, also prompted immediate and furious pushback. A robe from the first Ku Klux Klan, dating from around 1866, is shown alongside a neat handwritten note to Davie Jeems, a black Republican who was elected sheriff in Lincoln County, Ga., in 1868, suggesting he switch to the Democratic Party, or else.

And the pushback wasn’t limited to the South. A ballot from Ohio’s 1867 governor’s race shows the rooster, a symbol of the Democratic Party, crowing the slogan “No Negro Equality!” — the kind of “blatant message,” a wall text reads, that “appealed to many white voters and led to significant gains for the party in the North.”

Reconstruction formally ended in 1877, when most federal troops were withdrawn from the South as part of the compromise that put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House, and white supremacist Democrats gained control of state governments.

But the rollback of interracial democracy and the creation of Jim Crow, the show emphasizes, arrived not with any single stroke from above, but through many actions at all levels over decades.

The show covers well-known legal landmarks like the Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which declared that “separate but equal” was constitutional.

It also explores lesser-known extralegal ones, like the 1898 coup against the interracial government in Wilmington, N.C., where armed white Democratic mobs burned down the town’s black newspaper, killed black and white Republican supporters, and installed one of their own as mayor. (“No investigation follows,” the wall text dryly notes, and two years later the state’s constitution was revised to disenfranchise blacks.)

Jim Crow was hardly an all-Southern affair. It was publishers in New York City and other northern cities, the show notes, who took the lead in creating and disseminating racist images, songs and stories depicting African-Americans as bumbling fools, which hardened over time into more vicious stereotypes.

Northerners also had their own appetite for nostalgic antebellum fantasies. The exhibition reproduces an advertisement for “Black America,” an 1895 extravaganza staged in Brooklyn featuring 500 men, women and children from the South enacting a cheerful, cruelty-free version of plantation life, complete with singing, dancing and cotton picking (but no white masters).

The show chronicles the many ways African-American organizers, activists and artists resisted Jim Crow, even after electoral politics were closed to them. And a section on the post-Civil War growth of the prison system prompts associations with today’s analogy of mass incarceration as “the new Jim Crow,” raising questions about the way its legacy lingers, even 50 years after the civil rights movement dismantled Jim Crow as a formal legal system.

As for today’s debates over immigration and citizenship, Ms. Reaven said she hoped the show demonstrated that everyone has a role to play in deciding the outcome.

“It’s the decisions that people make every day that make up what the present and the future are,” she said.


Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow

Through March 3 at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, Manhattan; 212-872-3400, nyhistory.org.

Source link

more recommended stories

  • Supreme Court Blocks Two Rulings Striking Down Voting Maps

    WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on.

  • Barr Got More Power to Review the Russia Inquiry. Here’s What We Know About Its Origins.

    WASHINGTON — President Trump has given.

  • Edited Pelosi Video vs. the Original: A Side-by-Side Comparison – Video

    Channels & Shows Home Search U.S..

  • Jay Inslee Is Running on Climate Change. The Issue Is Catching On, So Why Isn’t He?

    RAYMOND, N.H. — For years, climate.

  • News Quiz: Test Your Knowledge of the Week’s Headlines

    Did you stay up to date.

  • On Politics: The Trade War Is Here to Stay

    Good Friday morning. Here are some.

  • Hope Hicks Left the White House. Now She Must Decide Whether to Talk to Congress.

    A White House spokesman did not.

  • 2020 Democrats Join McDonald’s Workers Striking Over Wages and Harassment

    As McDonald’s held its annual shareholder.

  • Sanders’s Education Plan Renews Debate Over Charter Schools and Segregation

    When Senator Bernie Sanders delivered a.

  • Trump Administration to Announce Farm Aid to Ease Pain of Trade War

    He reached out to Canadian and.

  • Pentagon to Build Temporary Shelter for 7,500 Migrant Adults Facing Deportation

    WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said on.

  • On Politics: Trump Blows Up Meeting With Democrats

    • New York State lawmakers approved.

  • U.S. Yet to Find Evidence of New Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

    WASHINGTON — The United States has.

  • Michael Avenatti Is Charged With Stealing Nearly $300,000 From Stormy Daniels

    Federal prosecutors on Wednesday charged the.

  • Trump’s Battles: Today’s State of Play

    congress and the presidency As Democrats.

  • Gillibrand Proposes Huge Investments in Maternal Health, Child Care and Education

    Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential campaign on.

  • On Politics: Trump May Impose Limits on Chinese Maker of Surveillance Tech

    Good Wednesday morning. Here are some.

  • Anita Hill Worries Female 2020 Candidates Are ‘Not Being Taken Seriously’

    Mr. Biden spoke with Ms. Hill.

  • U.S. Says Syria’s President May Be Using Chemical Weapons Again

    WASHINGTON — The State Department said.

  • Kentucky Has a Primary Election Today. Here’s What to Watch.

    Voters in Kentucky are choosing their.

  • ‘Our Subpoenas Are Not Optional,’ Nadler Warns McGahn – Video

    By REUTERS | May. 21, 2019.

  • As McGahn Prepares to Defy Subpoena, Democrats’ Anger Swells

    WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee.

  • Lawmakers Break Ramadan Fast on Capitol Hill

    WASHINGTON — As the House’s day.

  • Fox News Welcomes Pete Buttigieg. Trump and ‘Fox & Friends’ Aren’t Pleased.

    Mr. Hume added, “Oh, and covering.

  • Impeachment Appeal Pushes Justin Amash From G.O.P. Gadfly to Insurgent

    Calls to the congressman’s cellphone and.

  • Student Debt Facts: The Average College Senior Owes $29,000

    On Sunday, Robert F. Smith, a.

  • Google Restricts Huawei’s Access to Android After Trump Order

    LONDON — The Chinese technology giant.

  • Google Restricts Huawei’s Access to Android After Trump Order

    LONDON — The Chinese technology giant.

  • On Politics: Trump and Kushner Raised Flags at Deutsche Bank

    • In an analysis, Peter Baker.

  • Social Media Pollution, a Huge Problem in the Last Election, Could Be Worse in 2020

    It’s unlikely you have heard of.

  • Trump and the Four-Letter Presidency

    He has either coarsened the public.

  • Trump to Open Middle East Peace Drive With Economic Conference

    WASHINGTON — The White House announced.