My intent in this post is to assemble a timeline or a list of race-related riots within the North American experience to broaden the reader’s understanding of just how complicated race relations have always been in American history. As responsible citizens and residents of North America, we must not be ignorant of our inception. What normally escapes us is that too often many of these cases of civil unrest and chaotic outbursts captured within American history were race-related. From nativist extremism to anti-abolition bloodlust to nationalist militia rage, White Americans have been on the push to oust any if not all ‘other’ non-white persons from their prized promised land of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The presence of Indigenous tribes, the rise of abolitionist sentiments, the emancipation of black slaves, black people being afforded the right to American citizenship, the push for black suffrage, the waves of Irish immigrants to the American North and of Chinese immigrants to the American West, the push for anti-lynching policies in the South, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements were all impetus for a white majority to elicit violence and instigate deadly riots to combat their perceived loss of power and white supremacy in the land. No other nation in modern history has instigated as many race-related riots as the United States of America. The second nation on the list does not even come close.
I do not want you, my dear reader, to succumb to the ideologically romanticized and politically charged fallacy that former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump were or are catalysts of the disintegration of race relations within the United States of America. In fact, Barack Obama’s rise to power as the first black president of the United States simply reignited racist sentiments that lay dormant for decades. And Donald Trump’s dog-whistling in support of white nationalists is customary for someone whose father, Fred Trump, was arrested at a Ku-Klux Klan riot in the 1920s. I cannot imagine that Fred Trump’s Klan ideologies would have ceased to influence his family just one generation later. Donald’s rhetoric concerning immigrants is evidence enough.
What we must understand is that race riots are not isolated events that occur randomly as a result of alleged crimes committed by black people against white people. They’re not small pockets of violence as a result of Irish Catholics emigrating to the United States. We cannot even perceive white violence as reciprocatory because in most cases, as you will see below, white violence and race riots occur as a result of Whiteness (with a capital W) losing its power, influence, dominance, and prevalence over non-white groups. The equalization of power and influence between the races is seen as a threat to White Americans.
We cannot judge the American experience from the lens of race riots alone. The American gestalt is brighter and more hopeful than its original sin but we mustn’t ignore the prevalence of this sin and its seemingly perpetual grip on white Americans to this day. No. We mustn’t forget the lives lost at the hands of race rioters. It is our prerogative as integrated Americans in the 21st century to keep their history and unfortunate loss of income, loss of property, loss of community, loss of dignity, loss of life, and their unfortunate American experience fresh on our conscience.
Race riots are part of the American tradition. They’re part of the American narrative. They’re indivisible from the American experience in the past, present, and future.
Race riots are innate to the American experience.
Race Riots: An American Heritage
“Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper…”
Race Riots Part I – 1800s
The United States of America in the 1800s is visited by 37 major race riots in just 75 years. That’s almost two race-riots a year. What precedes this rise in violent behavior, fear of national financial instability, and national unrest in the United States of America is a war, or rather, a revolutionary war that takes place a few hundred miles south of the Floridian coast in the Caribbean island of Haiti.
January 1, 1804: Slaves in the Caribbean Island of Haiti Revolt Against Colonial France and Win
Haiti’s revolt becomes the first and only successful slave insurrection in the Americas.
Haitian president/general and former slave, Jean-Jacques Dessalines orders the massacre of 3,000-5,000 French nationals and French Creole nationals who were suspected of conspiring with the French.
News of Haiti’s successful revolution scurried up the channels of a pro-slavery America. Bloodshed, carnage, and pogroms are to become the prescribed method by which Americans deal with people of color for the next one hundred and sixty years as a means to suppress any slave led insurrection, abolitionist sentiments, push for manumission, emancipation, and civil rights for people of color. The call to end slavery would be a call to disrupt the American economy. Sadly, slavery was far too lucrative, too pervasive, and socially accepted a business structure that its extinction from the American mind, the American culture, was inconceivable. Blood would be drawn to keep it afloat and even more blood would be shed to sink it once and for all.
I will call this coming era in American history the American Standard to Invalidate and Nullify Intelligent Negro Expansion. In short, the ASININE era.
Hardscrabble Riots, Providence, Rhode Island – 1824
It’s October 18 and we find ourselves in the now-forgotten and unmarked town of Hardscrabble, previously located in the heart of what today we know as Providence, Rhode Island. Hardscrabble is an integrated society made up of free, albeit very poor blacks who make a living as craftsmen and tradesmen. Pleasures abound in its brothels, dancehalls, and bars. Irish seamen and sailors are welcomed partakers of the bacchanalia easily found within its rough and tough thoroughfares.
An altercation breaks out over the issue of the right of passage, or rather, the right of precedence over who gets to walk over a sidewalk and who has to get out of the way. Being the age of the ASININE it was too great a sin for a black man to not step out of a white man’s path. Whether Hardscrabble’s muddy streets were covered with snow or just muddy and wet we don’t know. But the issue is that a black man said, ‘Not today, Washington.’ Here didn’t really say this but it’s my guesstimation here. And this caused a nasty skirmish to ensue and the offended party, the white party, mustered a mob of racist rioters to destroy the black-owned town.
One witness, Jesse Sweet1, I doubt he was sweet at all, said about forty law-abiding citizens made it their prerogative to tear Hardscrabble’s houses down with axes, at first, and then push their walls into the ground to prove a point. An estimated one thousand spectators made their sunkissed faces present for the spectacle, local police, and town council members were present as well. They witnessed the riot and did nothing about it.
Spears2, a local contemporary, said that Hardscrabble was a ‘hamlet’ where blacks emigrated so as to ‘avoid all intercourse’ with ‘hostile’ white Americans. He states that when the mob set its sights on the town, its black citizens who are counted as ‘unoffending and unsuspecting,’ ‘were engaged in convivial sports and rural games.’
The offended mob tore through twenty homes and carried off whatever Hardscrabble’s black residents had left in their possession and sold these items at an auction in Pawtucket.
Some rioters were charged3, none were indicted, witnesses were blind for the day and prosecutors dropped their charges. No one died as a result of this Hardscrabble pillaging but many free black residents lost their homes, safety, security, and possible means of income since they were ousted from the town and the town itself razed to the ground.
Irish Race Riots, Cincinnati, Ohio – 1829
In the years 1804 and 1807 the state of Ohio passed Black Laws4 that prohibited black people from voting, they could not attend public schools because education was only feasible and made available for whites. They could not serve on juries, join any militia groups, or testify in court against white people. These laws stated that in order for a black person to find work and be hired in the state of Ohio they had to produce their certificate of freedom. Not just this but any black person emigrating to the state of Ohio as a free man, not as a runaway slave because runaways would be turned back to his or her master, had to post a bond of $500 as a guarantee that they would be law-abiding citizens.
If you were black you paid. Either with bond or blood, you paid.
Racist sentiments toward black Americans were already disgraceful but they became even more deplorable when Irish immigrants flooded the state of Ohio in search of work. Because the Irish were deemed second-class citizens or rather, second-class whites, they could not rise to the same level in society as whites who descended from white Americans of English ancestry. Therefore, they had to compete with free blacks for work and wages.
Irish immigrants were ostracized by white locals but they found common ground with white Americans in their distaste for negroes.
Because the state of Ohio was working its hardest to expel free blacks from its state, black leaders sought to relocate members of their community to Wilberforce, Ontario. As they waited for permission to emigrate to Canada the Cincinnati Daily Gazette5 released a notice that the city would make life even more unbearable for black people within thirty days.
The message was clear. If you’re black and you reside in or around Cincinnati, your days are numbered. Black people were informed that they would leave out of their own volition or be made to leave.
The BlackPast6 website gives us insight into just how unforgiving white Ohioans and Irish immigrants were toward black Americans.
“James Charles Brown appealed for three additional months before enforcement was to begin, and placed notices in the Gazette informing the white population of the progress of the Wilberforce emigration. Nevertheless, from the night of August 15 through August 22, white mobs estimated at up to 300 people rioted in the Fourth Ward, where the majority of the city’s 2,250 African Americans lived. The mob destroyed businesses, burned residences and other structures, and assaulted Black residents. Initially city police did not intervene but eventually both white rioters and Black residents were arrested.”
This city and state-sanctioned pogrom would incentivize the black community to start the National Colored Conventions which “made Canadian migration one of its primary goals.”
This was the first of many race riots to take place in the state of Ohio.
Snow Town Riots, Providence, Rhode Island – 1831
The race riot of Snow Town is the germination of the racist sentiments that flourished in the now-forgotten town of Hardscrabble. Snowtown was a sister city to Hardscrabble and it is evident that the rioters who were unable to participate in the ASININE disruption of the black community in the previous town managed to rise up and shed blood in Snow Town.
David Brussat of the Architecture Here and Now7 provides us with a snippet from the happenings of the Snow Town race riot.
“The Snowtown riots, on Sept. 21-24, 1831, were sparked by a saloon brawl. A white sailor was shot by a black; a mob then sacked houses on Olney’s Lane [that is, Hardscrabble]. The next day, it pulled down more houses. On the third day, the militia maintained calm. On the fourth, a thousand rioters crossed the Moshassuck to attack Snowtown, almost overwhelming the 140 members of the First Light Infantry. After rioters ignored warnings from the sheriff and Gov. Lemuel Arnold, the militia fired first into the air, with no effect, and then into the mob, killing four whites.”
The citizens of Providence, Rhode Island, with the providence of torch, ax, hammer, club, sickle, and scythe, manage to providentially erase two towns from the map in seven years.
The festive and unassuming town of Hardscrabble was razed to the ground because one white man was too salty to walk around a black man on a sidewalk. “Excuse me, sir, may I walk around you? That way we don’t bump into each other. Why thank you. Cheerio!” Crisis averted.
Perpetrators were excused and seven years later, they and their neighbors, possibly, went off to raze the town of Snow Town because a white man was shot by a black in a bar fight.
Rioters were so indignant over the fact that one of theirs was shot and harmed that they kept their riotous destruction in motion for the next four days straight. The mob grew to over one thousand participants who were only stopped by a local militia that began firing live munitions into the crowd. The sheriff read the Riot Act to the mob. This edict afforded him the right to shoot them if they did not stop rioting.
Some were heard taunting the sheriff, “Fire and be damned.”8
The sheriff and his militia fired their weapons into the crowd, killing some, injuring others, as the crowd sobered from their bloodlust at the smell of gun powder, the sight of blood, and the screams and groans of their fellow rioters who had been shot. They dispersed soon after.
Hardscrabble, Snow Town, and the once budding black community in both towns were all gone.
Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion, 1831
“Washington, who with our fathers purchased our freedom by blood and violence, are lauded as patterns of patriotism and Christianity. Nat Turner, and his associates, who endeavored to work out their own salvation from an oppression incomparably more grievous and unjust than our fathers endured, were treated as rebels, and murderous assassins, and were ruthlessly hung, or shot like wolves, and their memory is corrupt.” – William Lloyd Garrison, Liberator (February 13, 1836)9
Nat Turner was Django before Django met the infamous dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz. Born a slave in 1800, Nat served multiple masters in his short thirty years of life. He was blessed with the opportunity to learn to read and write, which, considering the atmosphere in Virginia, was frowned upon. Nat would have premonitions or revelations of things that had occurred prior to his birth and these unexplained phenomena led his fellow slaves to conclude that he was graced by God’s Spirit with the gift of prophecy.
He would grow to become a preacher who would take great command of his oratory and ministerial skills.
“My grand mother, who was very religious, and to whom I was much attached my master, who belonged to the church, and other religious persons who visited the house, and whom I often saw at prayers, noticing the singularity of my manners, I suppose, and my uncommon intelligence for a child, remarked I had too much sense to be raised, and if I was, I would never be of any service to any one as a slave–To a mind like mine, restless, inquisitive and observant of every thing that was passing, it is easy to suppose that religion was the subject to which it would be directed, and although this subject principally occupied my thoughts–there was nothing that I saw or heard of to which my attention was not directed–The manner in which I learned to read and write, not only had great influence on my own mind, as I acquired it with the most perfect ease, so much so, that I have no recollection whatever of learning the alphabet–but to the astonishment of the family, one day, when a book was shewn me to keep me from crying, I began spelling the names of different objects–this was a source of wonder to all in the neighborhood, particularly the blacks–and this learning was constantly improved at all opportunities.” – Nat Turner10
Minister Turner managed to escape one of his plantations, successfully evading discovery and arrest for thirty days. But after some time he decided to return to the plantation he had absconded from, out of his own free will. His fellow slaves were shocked that one, he managed to escape, two, he managed to remain free for as long as he did, and that three, he was foolish enough to show his black face back at the plantation after escaping.
But Turner said he had received several revelations from the Divine. He believed there was a greater plan for his life here on earth that needed to happen. His calling was greater than just an escape to a free state.
“But the reason of my return was, that the Spirit appeared to me and said I had my wishes directed to the things of this world, and not to the kingdom of Heaven, and that I should return to the service of my earthly master– ‘For he who knoweth his Master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes, and thus, have I chastened you.’ And the negroes found fault, and murmured against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world. And about this time I had a vision–and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened–the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams–and I heard a voice saying, ‘Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.’ […] And by signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work–and until the first sign appeared, I should conceal it from the knowledge of men–And on the appearance of the sign, (the eclipse of the sun last February) I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons.” – Nat Turner11
And sure enough, roughly around two in the morning of August 22, 1831, Nat Turner and a small group of slaves armed with farming tools; axes, hatches, and knives, raided Southhampton County, Virginia.
The insurrection was in full swing, with Nat at the helm, guiding his group of fighters from one house to another, killing slave owners and their families in their sleep. This occurred for miles in every direction where Nat could recall the residence of a plantation. Once the sun shone over the horizon Nat had freed upwards of forty fighting men and managed to kill well over sixty white people in their revolt in search of retribution and freedom.
In his confession, he goes into great detail as to which plantation family member he or his fellow brothers managed to kill. Some were taken by the sword, he even alludes to how a sword he wielded in the massacre was too dull of a weapon to kill his victim so a friend had to finish her off with an ax. Others were decapitated, some shot, others stabbed and on the night went. Every plantation that suffered a raid would give up new fighters to join Nat in his violent insurrection.
They eventually met a local militia that managed to prepare itself for the rebellion and there Nat lost several of his horses. His fighting men are struct by live munitions, and others scatter into the field for shelter. Nat manages to escape this skirmish and hides out in a cave he dug for himself near a different plantation. He remained there all day and at night he would venture out for water and return to safety before daybreak. Misfortune visits Nat when a plantation dog got a whiff of a junk of meat he had hidden in his cave. The dog later returns to the same dugout with other slaves who find Nat hiding. They run to betray this great titan and a disgraced southerner by the name Benjamin Phipps apprehends Turner at gunpoint.
Nat Turner is captured on October 30, 1831. He is tried, hanged, drawn, and quartered on November 11, 1831. Not only do they not give him a fair trial to be tried by a jury of his peers but they also hang him, possibly not long enough for him to die, they stretch his body over planks or with ropes tied to his arms and legs and stretched out by horses. He is decapitated and his limps torn or severed from his body. Punishment for criminals guilty of treason.
His band of raiders, or better understood today as his band of liberators were also tried, hanged, and mutilated. Thousands of innocent black souls died as reprisals from angry white slave owners and their overseers were meted against them without cause.
The state of Virginia had played with the idea of limited or full emancipation for blacks before Turner’s insurrection but because of this massacre the state and other southern states enacted harsher laws and policies to further entrap, mistreat, and demean slaves. Slaves were legally prohibited from learning how to read and write, and they were also prohibited from gathering in groups for fears of their planning another insurrection. Slave patrols became a thing as a newer form of ‘police’ patrols were formed to monitor and chastise, sorry, to brutalize slaves at a moment’s notice. Any and all things to squash any future uprisings.
Nat Turner’s insurrection was the largest, bloodiest, deadliest, and more feared insurrection of its kind in the United States of America (leaving out the insurrection of the Confederate States of America from 1861-1865). And unfortunately, Nat Turner’s insurrection failed. His revolution was not as organized or as backed as was that of Haiti.
It was, looking back now, perhaps a good or acceptable thing for Nat Turner’s insurrection to fail because more racist rapists, lynchers, brutes, beasts, traitors, and slave drivers and slave traders with their slave dogs were killed in the Civil War than Nat Turner could have ever imagined.
What Nat Turner did, unfortunately, was seen as an evil thing for a great deal of time until historians began to look at the conditions black Americans were forced to live under of which one only had the rightful, moral, ethical, and possibly, religious duty to set about setting themselves free.
Had Turner succeeded, yes, he would have been praised as George Washington was. Turner was but the product of his environment. The brutish behavior he exhibited was not inherent to him because of his race but it was the very brutality he was forced to live under as a black man in the American South.
We must acknowledge that what Nat Turner did was morally questionable, possibly evil. And should that be the case then everything Europeans accomplished through the Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, and the Monroe Doctrine was infinitesimally more depraved and evil than the sixty lives Turner and his band of insurrectionists took. Europeans razed millions on the basis of racial superiority, not self-defense or for want of freedom.
Farren/Tappen Anti-Abolitionist Riot, 1834
Our uncouth generation tarries to understand just how pervasive racism was in the United States of America. We normally look back and believe that racism was limited to the American Deep South. You know, images of slave traders whipping slaves onto wagons, separating husbands and wives, children from their parents, siccing negro dogs on rebellious slaves who fought against their enslavement. But reality paints us a different picture. Racism was endemic to this nation from the mouth of the Mississipi River to the densely populated streets of New York City.
“In July of 1834, several riots broke out, primarily incited by those – such as James Watson Webb, editor of the Courier and Enquirer; and William Leete Stone, secretary of the New York Colonization Society and editor of the Commerical Advertiser – opposed to the abolitionist activities of Arthur and Lewis Tappan, brothers involved with the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Association.”12
An interesting fact or two about James Watson Webb is that this pro-slavery sadist was once a member of the affluent Whig party but he later joined the Republican party and at president Abraham Lincoln’s directive was sent to Brazil as a diplomat during the Civil War. The man had prominence, wealth, influence through his paper and later through his participation in Lincoln’s party. Still, through all this, he managed to incite violence in the name of white supremacy and still get a seat at Lincoln’s table of power.13
Lindsey Turley, Director of Collections from the Museum of the City of New York add this regarding the riot.
“In the days leading up to July 11th, the events of which are depicted in the map above, anti-abolitionist activities erupted throughout the city. On July 7th, anti-abolitionists descended on the Chatham Street Chapel, where a celebration in honor of the seventh anniversary of the emancipation of New York’s Slaves was planned. Three separate riots broke out on July 9th: The Chatham Street Chapel was once again a target; Lewis Tappan’s Rose Street Home was demolished; and four thousand people stormed the Bowery Theater, where a benefit was underway for George Farren, the playhouse’s British stage manager, a man known for his anti-Yankee sentiments. Over the next two days Arthur Tappan’s Pearl Street Store was pelted with stones; rioters stormed the Laight Street Church, where the Reverend, Dr. Cox had preached in favor of church integration; and later a group broke into Cox’s home on Charlton Street. Numerous other episodes of violence occurred, culminating in the swearing in by Mayor Lawrence of 1,000 volunteer constables, the deployment of the New York First Division, and all-night patrols by Calvary Squadrons. By Tuesday, July 15th, the riots had been suppressed.”14
This riot began as an integrated group of abolitionists rented the Chathan Street Chapel to celebrate their workings and efforts to bring about the end of slavery in the United States. Led by a black minister and in the presence of Lewis and Arthur Tappen, both abolitionists, the service was underway when another group, the New York Sacred Music Society interrupted the gathering claiming that they had rented the place out and demanded the integrated abolitionist group leave at once. As a result, a fracas ensued, the white crowd ousted the church congregants under the weight and force of lead pipes and fists.
Racist and fake-news advocate James Watson Webb and his newspaper Courier and Enquirer blamed the black church members for the riot.
“Webb’s paper predictably lied again when he described the event as a ‘Negro riot,’ owing to ‘Arthur Tappan’s mad impertinence.’”15
These rioters were so enraged by Arthur Tappen’s participation in abolitionist sentiments that they followed him home and pelted his home with rocks. Tappen managed to find refuge in his house just before the violent mob began vandalizing his property.
The mob was unsatisfied with the terror it struck in the hearts of these church members so it set off to disrupt a theatre run by an English-born man who had previously made jokes about the Yankees.
“Yet this was just the beginning. The next night a huge mob of gang members broke down the door of the Chatham Street Chapel, and while they held an impromptu meeting inside, W.W. Wilder yelled, ‘To the Bowery Theater!’
The reason for their attack on the Bowery Theater was because it’s manager and British actor George P. Farren, another avowed abolitionist, had recently said of the pro-slavery crowd, ‘Damn the Yankees; they are a damn set of jackasses and fit to be gulled. Farren had also just fired an American actor, and as a result, anti-abolitionists had posted handbills detailing Farren’s actions all around New York City.”16
An estimated four thousand rioters broke into Farren’s theatre in hopes of lynching the Brit publicly. Once police arrived they managed to force much of the crowd out of the theatre with billy clubs. The mob, undeterred, and unable to find the Englishmen set their sights back on Arthur Tappen’s house. Luckily for Tappen, he and his family managed to escape before the crowd arrived. They destroyed his home, burning everything inside except a painting of George Washington. From there the mob set off for the Five Points neighborhood where they raped black citizens, mutilated Englishmen, and sailors, and set more fires all because of a scheduling conflict.
Granted, the violence was race-fueled. It’s America.
The army was eventually called in to subdue the mob.
Rumors had spread to incite the mob to commit more acts of terror because rioters had heard that the abolitionist groups in the city of New York City had planned to promote interracial marriages between freed black dandies and white women. This was such a no-no that the American Anti-Slavery Society had to submit an updated report, or rather, a disclaimer to the city to remind them that their purpose was to abolish slavery, not bring about equality between whites and blacks.
“AMERICAN ANTI-SLAVERY SOCIETY: DISCLAIMER.
The undersigned, in behalf of the Executive Committee of the ‘American Anti-Slavery Society’ and of other leading friends of the cause, now absent from the city, beg the attention of their fellow-citizens to the following disclaimer:
1. We entirely disclaim any desire to promote or encourage intermarriages between white and coloured persons.
2. We disclaim and entirely disapprove the language of a handbill recently circulated in this city, the tendency of which is thought to be to excite resistance to the laws. Our principle is, that even hard laws are to be submitted to by all men, until they can by peaceable means be altered.
We disclaim, as we have already done, any intention to dissolve the Union, or to violate the constitution and laws of the country, or to ask of Congress any act transcending their constitutional powers, which the abolition of slavery by Congress in any state would plainly do.
July 12, 1834
The Noyes Academy Demolition, 1835
The year is 1835 and certain gentle souls have set it upon their hearts to build an integrated academy in which whites and blacks are welcome to partake in its higher learning opportunities. Canaan, New Hampshire is home to the oldest church in the state, Newington Meeting House (1717), Dartmouth College (1769), and the Franklin Pierce Homestead (1804), a house belonging to the fourteenth president of the United States of America.
Charles Kimball, a lawyer, partnered with a small community in Canaan to erect an institution named the Noyes Academy, which allowed and promoted integration. This enraged white pro-slavery locals who saw the idea as preposterous. The local news covered the events in detail, alluding even to the possibility of a salacious undertaking between the likes of white women and black men within the school.
“Since the establishment of the school, it has been no uncommon spectacle to witness colored gentlemen walking arm in arm with what ought to be respectable white females. And that respectable people opposed to the school, as well as others, have been invited to parties where the colored portion of the school were also invited guests.
It is said that one of the principal agitators of the slave question in this state, George Kimball, Esq., and his family, sit at table with a half dozen colored people, while a white girl attends upon them as servant.” – The New Hampshire Patriot in June of 183518
Imagine the grievances, the horror, the terror of a white woman walking arm in arm with a colored gentleman. To the gallows!
That a white lawyer would host integrated parties and sit at the table with colored people. Fasten to ropes!
To imagine that at an integrated party where whites and blacks share the same table, amuse one another as equals, and, gasp, that a white girl would serve black men? Executioner, pull the lever and let their bodies plummet to the lowest pit of hell!
That’s the exact kind of mindset Canaan residents held toward free blacks, intelligent blacks, educated blacks, soon-to-be educated blacks, and the people who dared befriend them and help them out of their state of dejection. It is our ASININE friend raising its miserable head once more and this time in the North.
Locals erect signs outside the town that read “Nigger Town” to deride its residents and perhaps discourage travelers from venturing into the despised city.
The presence of the Noyes Academy is such an object of distaste for the town that certain locals, some named, Ben Porter and Jacob Trussell muster an angry crowd and make a beeline for the school. Their destruction of the building is interrupted by a certain Dr. Timothy Dalton, a town magistrate, who locks himself in the academy and through a window begins to name some of the agitators and aggressors. This stalls their mania for some time before the two named radicals make their way to the local town meeting, or rather, the local governing body to produce a claim against the devilish integrated institution.
Being this the United States of America, the local governing body then declares Noyes Academy an unlawful building, and locals come together to remove the building from their town.
No, I’m serious.
Five hundred men literally removed the building from its foundation with the help of ninety to one hundred oxen, the exact number depends on the source but regardless, mission accomplished. They dragged the school for miles, tearing ropes, through sweat, cursing, yelling and hooping, shouting and drinking, and yes, possibly yelling threats at whoever dared stop them.
The building eventually came to a stop outside of town where it was considered uninhabitable because, well, the town deemed it so.
Black students had all but disappeared from Canaan when news broke that their presence was a nuisance to locals and their continued desire to learn, simply learn, was considered an act of aggression against local whites.
The building was eventually set ablaze by locals, no one was ever charged with arson, and no one dared raise a finger to put the fire out. For a building such as this to exist, to persist, to stand was inconceivable. Blacks and whites learning together? Blacks learning period? Blacks and whites attending parties arm in arm? White girls tending to the requests of black men? No. Gather as many oxen from the surrounding counties as you can and bring them here. We’re ousting these negroes from our town by force.
Strange is that some of the students of Noyes Academy are none other than renowned African-American Episcopalian priest Alexander Crummell. At his side, the first black man to ever give a sermon to Congress in 1865, Henry Highland Garnet.
Jacob Trussell, one of the agitators that petitioned the destruction of the Noyes Academy wrote up a speech at its removal and disintegration. It read:
“The abolitionist monster that ascended out of the bottomless pit, is sent headlong to perdition, and the mourners go about the streets. To you, gentlemen, who have assisted in attaining the glorious victory, I present you hearty and sincere thanks.”19
And strange is that Henry Highland Garnet, in his part-speech part-sermon delivered at Congress spoke these words just thirty years later titled, Let The Monster Perish:
“With all the moral attributes of God on our side, cheered as we are by the voices of universal human nature–in view of the best interests of the present and future generations–animated with the noble desire to furnish the nations of the earth with a worthy example, let the verdict of death which has been brought in against slavery by the Thirty-eighth Congress be affirmed and executed by the people. Let the gigantic monster perish. Yes, perish now and perish forever!”20
The town of Canaan never repented of its egregious crime against an innocent institution like Noyes Academy. They never repaid their founders. Never apologized to those whose livelihoods they destroy. Whose education they wiped out. It wasn’t as if black pupils could just up and leave to the next town through which they could be educated, you know. They could not request a transfer of credits for the continuation of their education. Jacob Trussell never apologized for calling Noyes Academy and its founders monsters.
But Ben Porter did. Henry Highland Garnet visited Canaan later in his life and delivered a sermon at a local church, where, after his sermon, Ben Porter apologized for being one of the main agitators and destructive forces behind the firebombing of the Noyes Academy.21
They towed a building outside of a town and wiped it from New Hampshire’s landscape. That’s a dedicated bunch.
The Cincinnati Riots, 1836
Cincinnati’s second race riot in just seven years is the result of James G. Birney’s anti-slavery newspaper, The Philanthropist22. What was once a printing press became the focus of an angry mob bent on destroying attorney Birney’s work and with hopes that this violent show of force would drive him out of town. His printing press was sacked twice, first on July 12 and later on July 30 when James refused to stop his newspaper syndicate from condemning the peculiar institution of slavery.
James G. Birney was born on February 4, 1792, in the wonderful whiskey-producing state of Kentucky. His rise to the abolitionist movement began with infamy as he would initially participate in the slave-owning business. In 1816 he married his first wife he received several slaves as a wedding gift.
What few know, as I learned while researching this riot, is that James ran for the office of president of the United States of America in 1840 against William Henry Harrison of the Whig Party (which would become the anti-slavery Republican party) and Martin Van Buren of the Democratic Party. Obviously, we understand today that the democratic party of antiquity was very much pro-slavery and slave-trading. James ran on the Liberty Party, an abolitionist party. It’s no surprise that in 1840 James only managed to win 6,797 votes, an embarrassing 0.31% of the voting population.
In 1835 James moved his family to Cincinnati where he began his newspaper company, The Philanthropist, challenging the morality of slavery, calling for its abolition, the manumission or freedom of blacks, and their equal treatment with whites in society. His paper was so caustic to the white slave-owning mind that it began facing calls to cease and desist all operations so as not to incite the violent nature of a disgruntled pro-slavery citizenry. White Ohioans and Irish immigrants faced continued disadvantages as freed blacks would cross into the state for work and livelihood, albeit under the most disgusting circumstances as blacks had to pay the state of Ohio $500 prior to moving there and also produce the signature of two white men stating they were free and not runaways before being authorized to live in the state. This, of course, not to speak of the continued harassment they endured once there.
Not only were white Ohioans angry with the emigration of blacks into their state but now they had to compete with the Irish for work and the Irish had to compete with the blacks. Add insult to slave-owning injury, here comes a Kentukyan lawyer with his The Philanthropist paper calling for the freedom of every black slave, condemning whites who own slaves, and demanding blacks be treated as well and as honorably as whites. Not even the Irish received such promotive work and acceptance from nativists but here the blacks were honored as equals to whites by James G. Birney.
It isn’t hard to understand why this riot took place as James’ rhetoric called for the inconceivable and blasphemous act of reconciliation between the black race and the white race. James, in an 1834 letter to the Kentucky Colonization Society demanded slave-owners “go before their slaves and beg forgiveness for their trespasses against the laws of God and human decency and count on their humanity.”
Ohio History Central23 encapsulates what happens to James’ printing press:
“On January 22, 1836, a group of white Cincinnatians urged the city government to prohibit Birney from publishing his paper. Birney was undaunted. To prevent Birney from printing, a mob of white Cincinnatians destroyed the newspaper’s printing press on July 12, 1836. Undeterred, Birney remained in Cincinnati and continued to publish his newspaper. The mob returned on July 30, 1836, and destroyed the printing press again. Birney resumed publication of The Philanthropist in September 1836, and he continued to publish it in Cincinnati, until October of 1843.”
University of Virginia’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture24 website depicts the first assault on The Philanthropist, which took place on July 12 in a detailed format [bold font added by me for emphasis]:
“At midnight a band of men, amounting to thirty or forty in number, including those who stood as sentries at different points on the street, made an assault on the premises of Mr. Pugh, the printer, scaled a high wall by which the lot was enclosed, and with the aid of a ladder and plank mounted the roof of the press-office. They then made their way through a window on the roof into the room below—intimidated into silence, by threats of bodily violence, a boy who was asleep there—covered his head with the bed-clothes to prevent him from seeing who were the perpetrators—tore up the paper that was prepared for that week’s No. of the Philanthropist, as well as a large part of the impression of an omitted No. that had not yet been mailed—destroyed the ink—dismantled the press, and carried away many of its principal parts. Whilst the depredation was going on within doors, a watch of the confederates was stationed in the street, near the door of Mr. Pugh’s dwelling house, to prevent him from giving the alarm. A remarkable feature in the transaction is this—notwithstanding so long time (nearly or quite two hours) was occupied in doing the mischief, and that Mr. Pugh’s premises lie on one of the principal streets of the city, and that the noise and confusion made by the rioters were loud enough to wake many of Mr. P’s neighbors (who were mysteriously admonished to be quiet)—still, no interference was offered by the night-watch of the city. to prevent the outrage. Whilst this circumstance must strike every one as remarkable, it has been said in explanation of it, that the watchmen generally were paying particular attention to another quarter of the city where it was expected a disturbance would take place. Although the names of the actors in this scene have not been sufficiently ascertained to authorize their publication—yet, there is reason to believe, that some of the leaders were persons of wealth and reputed respectability, who would never, before this, have been suspected of having been engaged in such a transaction. The work was done, as it is supposed, by their dependants and hirelings. Three or the operatives came from Covington, on the Kentucky side of the river.”
And regarding the July 30 assault it continues:
“On Saturday night, July 30, very soon after dark, a concourse of citizens assembled at the corner of Main and Seventh streets, in this city, and upon a short consultation, broke open the printing office of the Philanthropist, the abolition paper, scattered the type into the streets, tore down the presses, and completely dismantled the office. It was owned by A. Pugh, a peaceable and orderly printer, who published the Philanthropist for the Anti-Slavery Society of Ohio. From the printing office the crowd went to the house of A. Pugh, where they supposed there were other printing materials, but found none, nor offered any violence. Then to the Messrs. Donaldsons’, where ladies only were at home. The residence of Mr. Birney, the editor, was then visited, no person was at home but a youth, upon whose explanations, the house was left undisturbed. A shout was raised for Dr. Colby’s, and the concourse returned to Main street, proposing to pile up the contents of the office in the street, and make a bonfire of them. Joseph Graham mounted the pile, and advised against burning it, lest the houses near might take fire. A portion of the press was then dragged down Main street, broken up and thrown into the river. The Exchange was then visited and refreshments taken. After which the concourse again went up Main street to about opposite the Gazette Office. Some suggestions were hinted that it should be demolished, but the hint was overruled. An attack was then made on the residence of some blacks, in Church alley; two guns were fired upon the assailants, and they recoiled. It was supposed that one man was wounded, but that was not the case. It was some time before a rally could be again made, several voices declaring they did not wish to endanger themselves. A second attempt was made, the houses were found empty, and their interior contents destroyed.—It was now about midnight, when the party parading down Main street, was addressed by the Mayor, who had been a silent spectator of the destruction of the printing office. He told them they might as well now disperse. A dispersion to a considerable extent followed: but various other disturbances took place through the night, of the magnitude and particulars of which we are not advised.
The following, taken down by a gentleman who was present, has been furnished as an accurate report of the Mayor’s speech.
“Gentlemen.—It is now late at night, and time we were all in bed—by continuing longer, you will disturb tile citizens, or deprive them of their rest, besides robbing yourselves of rest. No doubt, it is your intention to punish the guilty, and leave the innocent. But if you continue longer, you are in danger of punishing the innocent with the guilty, which I am convinced no one in Cincinnati would wish to do. We have done enough for one night. [“three cheers for the Mayor”] The abolitionists themselves, must be convinced themselves by this time, what the public sentiment is, and that it will not do any longer to disregard, or set it at naught. [three cheers again] As you cannot punish the guilty without endangering the innocent, I advise you all to go home. [cries of home! home! from the crowd drowned the balance of his harangue.]
From the Cincinnati Gazette of August 4th.”
The nation that favored freedom of speech was very much oppressive toward speech that threatened their way of life. Many Ohioans relied on business between slave-favoring states and ‘free’ states to maintain a steady stream of revenue from cross-state commerce. And it’s saddening to see just how violent and persistent this wave of violence could be just to oust and destroy the idea that slavery could be abolished. The twice ransacked The Philanthropist paper would rise from the ashes, literally, twice and James’ work would continue, changing the hearts and minds of Americans until the start of the Civil War, which, in turn, was the result of freed states wanting to end the nefarious institution of slavery in the country.
The Murder of Abolitionist Elijah Loveloy, 1837
The murder of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy shifted anti-abolitionist sentiments in the north to more favorable conversations on the subject which would, in turn, lead to a push for national emancipation. We mustn’t be ignorant of how prevalent racist hostilities were in America as a whole, as some believe violent racist attacks were limited to the Deep South. This, unfortunately, is another tale of just how virulent race wars and race riots were in attempting to quash equal rights for blacks in the United States of America as Elijah Lovejoy was murdered by race rioters as far north as Alton, Illinois.
Elijah Parish Lovejoy was born on November 9, 1802, in Albion, Maine. Aside from having one of the coolest names on the planet; seriously, his last name is Lovejoy, who wouldn’t love a man whose name is Lovejoy? One cannot find a more animated name, unless, that is, your name is Hitler Mussolini and you’re the General Director of the Civil Police of Goais (Brazil).25 Anywho, Elijah became an accomplished minister, graduating from Waterville College (now Colby), as a valedictorian and a poet. He followed in his father’s footsteps in becoming a minister but spent little time on the pulpit because his revivalist sentiments pushed him to further the human and civil rights of his fellow man and quicken the minds of those who saw slavery as a right to power and fortune instead of as a mundane and evil institution.
In 1832, Elijah joined a newspaper, The St. Louis Observer, that sought to educate its readers on religious and moral aspects of life, namely, the menace of slavery. He was recruited as its editor and made it his goal to elucidate the barbarity of this peculiar institution in hopes of swaying public opinion enough to promote the emancipation of all slaves in America.
Some of Lovejoy’s words of contrition, petition, and condemnation:
“I have opened my mouth for the dumb. I have plead the cause of the poor and oppressed. I have maintained the rights of humanity and of nature…. by the grace of God I will not, I will not forsake my principles…. The cry of the oppressed has entered, not only into my ears, but into my soul so that while I live I cannot hold my peace.”26
“Alas! What bitter mockery is this. We assemble to thank God for our own freedom, and to eat and drink with joy and gladness of heart, while our feet are on the necks of nearly three millions of our fellow men. Not all our shouts of self-congratulation can drown their groans. Even the very flag of freedom that waves over their heads is formed from materials cultivated by slaves, on a soil moistened with their blood drawn from them by the whip of a republican taskmaster.”27
“Abolitionists believe that, as all men are born free, so all who are now held as slaves in this country were born free, and that they are slaves now is the sin, not of those who introduced the race into this country, but of those, and those alone, who now hold them and have held them in slavery from their birth.”28
And when Lovejoy was threatened with censure by future Senator Thomas Hart Benton (democrat) and his posse, who believed that freedom of speech was accessible to all Americans except those who dared challenge the peculiar institution of slavery, his rebuttal was:
“I have sworn eternal opposition to slavery, and by the blessing of God I will never turn back. But, Gentlemen, as long as I am an American citizen, and as long as American blood runs in these veins, I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write, to publish whatever I please on any subject. If the laws of my country fail to protect me I appeal to God, and with him I cheerfully rest my cause. I can die at my post, but I cannot desert it.”29
It easy to see how such invective could cultivate a spirit of hostility against Elijah Lovejoy and his abolitionist friends, who included Edward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This rhetoric was so successful in instigating the conversation on emancipation that Lovejoy began to face threats of violence against his life, his family, and his press, The St. Louis Observer.
Elijah sought to move his family away from this hostile environment and settled 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of St. Louis in Alton, Illinois where he could continue his work without the threat of harm or death.
Caryn E. Neumann of The First Amendment Encyclopedia describes what happened next:
“On July 4, 1837, the newspaper called for an anti-slavery meeting in Alton to consider establishing a state branch of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The society formed on Oct. 26. At this point, citizens began openly discussing violence as a response to Lovejoy’s activism. His press was destroyed three times by mobs. With the last attack, Lovejoy decided to arm himself. When the fourth press arrived from Ohio, Lovejoy and a group of armed supporters confronted a mob intent on destroying the machine. Shots were fired and Lovejoy fell dead.”30
The Library of Congress relates how the enraged and inebriated mob was so excited to bring Elijah’s writings to the ground that as soon as his papers made their way off a steamboat they raided the warehouse in which the paper was housed. It shows just how prepared this crowd was, how premeditated this crime was before the abolitionist paper ever made its way off the boat and onto the streets.
“No sooner was the new press offloaded from the steamboat Missouri Fulton than a drunken mob formed and tried to set fire to the warehouse where it was stored. When Lovejoy ran out to push away a would-be-arsonist, he was shot.”31
The state of Illinois and the surrounding press were silent on Lovejoy’s murder. Silent on the violent racist mob. Silent on the would-be arson. Abolition was such a nascent idea that it was conceived as intrusive and un-American, possibly a threat to the very capital that made the country the financial superpower of its day. Thankfully, however, one lesser-known member of the Illinois House of Representatives named Abraham Lincoln spoke up about this unfortunate event.
“Whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last.”32
Elijah Lovejoy’s martyrdom sparked a broader conversation on the efficacy and necessity of the First Amendment (freedom of speech or expression) and also gave rise, in blood, the Northern push for abolition because until then much of the North and the overwhelming majority of the South had seen slavery as much a necessity to the nation’s economy as the North profited from the cotton industry. The South accepted it as a divine institution whereas the North saw it as an inconvenience, albeit, a lucrative one. As racism was rampant in the nation as a whole, it was difficult to enlighten the minds of some to push for the eradication of such a nefarious institution but Lovejoy’s blood was the seed in the ground of this conversation and a catalyst for Lincoln’s push for emancipation.
It is beautiful and yet daunting to know that Lovejoy pushed for abolition well knowing that this honorable cause could cost him his life. He was undeterred in life and even in death, his will was not bent.
“I have counted the cost, and stand prepared freely to offer up my all in the service of God. Yes, sir, I am fully aware of all the sacrifice I make, in here pledging myself to continue this contest to the last…. Sir I dare not flee away from Alton…It is because I fear God that lam not afraid of all who oppose me in this city. No, sir, the contest has commenced here; and here it must be finished. Before God and you all, I here pledge myself to continue it, if need be, till death. If I fall, my grave shall be made in Alton.”33
Pennsylvania Hall, 1838
Pennsylvania Hall was a beacon of hope for early nineteenth-century abolitionists. Until this hall was built there was no safe and stable place in which anti-slavery orators and associates could rent out for the purpose of furthering the cause of manumission and civil rights. Public buildings, churches, and other private institutions refused to house or rent their locations out to persons who dared challenge the institution of slavery. In 1837 a group of abolitionists set off to raise enough funds to build their own monument in which they could house idealists, progressives, civil rights activists, and freedom fighters. A reminder is needed that the hostility and harassment abolitionists experienced in the north was not at the hands of Deep South slave traders but from proslavery Northerners.
Celia Caust-Ellenbogen of the Pennsylvania Hall Association delves into just how much money abolitionists were able to raise for the construction of this building.
“Pennsylvania Hall, as they decided to name it, would be luxuriously appointed with four offices, a small lecture room, two committee rooms, and a large auditorium with three galleries (Brown 127). To cover the $40,000 of building costs, the Board of Managers sold 2,000 shares for $20 each, in cash or trade.”34
So the reader does not allow this value to escape their understanding I’ll address it further. $40,000 in 1837-1838 would ideally add up to just over $1.1 million USD in 2021. That’s no small feat.
Beverly C. Tomek of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia helps us understand that the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society “played a large role in raising funds to build the hall, collecting roughly $40,000 within a year.”35
Not only was the acquisition of funds secured by women but it was done so expeditiously.
Its grand opening was slated for May 14, 1838, with high hopes of great speakers lined up to give some of the more vibrant talks and denunciations of slavery from its many rooms. Preceding this grand event and at its leadership were several associations that sprouted over the northeast and later came together to form larger antislavery associations. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) (which was formed with the help of members from the states of New York, Delaware, and New Jersey), the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society (PASS), and lastly the Pennsylvania Female Antislavery Society (PFASS) which is mentioned above concerning the funding for this great building, came together to host this grand event.
Their goal was an opening that would start with a four-day abolitionist convention where famed and renowned speakers would share their thoughts slavery and civil rights. Participants included but were not limited to the Grimke sisters, Angelina (nee Grimke) Weld, her sister Sarah Grimke, Arnold Buffum, Lewis C. Gunn, Charles C. Burleigh, and William Lloyd Garrison. Daniel Neall Jr. believes that about 3,000 people attended the events that took place in Pennsylvania Hall.
Regarding the events that happened on May 16, 1838, Neal explains that it was one of “the most satisfactory [nights] of my life.”36
At Pennsylvania Hall whites and blacks mixed and mingled, as men and women of varied races came and went without fear of one another, behaving as decent persons would when of the same mind toward a shared goal: emancipation. The imagery of white women entertaining and familiarizing themselves with black men and vice versa incensed white northerners.
The PAS, PASS, and PFASS societies were in favor of gradual manumission whereas the institution of the Pennsylvania Hall and the likes of William Lloyd Garrison were in favor of immediate emancipation for all slaves. These extremists were called Immediatists or Garrisonians because they preferred to end slavery by any and all means as soon as possible. William Lloyd Garrison, an editor for the famous anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, had once sided with Nat Turner who incited a violent slave insurrection years prior as a sign that slaves ought to do anything possible to help themselves out of bondage. This rhetoric made Northerners uneasy and their Southern neighbors ferment genocidal thoughts toward free blacks and their white coconspirators. The presence of the newly built and packed to standing room Pennsylvania Hall, which, by all accounts, was racially integrated, was a blasphemous sight to a proslavery and segregationist North.
On the third day of the convention, Pennsylvania Hall representatives had reached out to local authorities for help, as their building and events had faced continual and undeterred harassment at the hands of proslavery Northerners. Some events were interrupted by the sound of bricks crashing through windows, a sign of greater trouble ahead. Mayor John Swift (1790-1873) offered little help to their cause by claiming that they were the instigators in this situation, not the agitators who harassed them.
“There are always two sides to a question–public opinion makes mobs and ninety-nine out of a hundred of those with whom I conversed are against you.”37
Pennsylvania Hall representatives reluctantly handed the keys to their building to the mayor so he could ‘protect’ it from angry rioters and that night, upon its closure, the mayor visited the building and asked, unsuccessfully so, that those who had congregated outside the building to vandalize it be dispersed. After a few soft-spoken words that held no authority nor any weight to sway the masses, he stepped away and allowed the crowd to have their way with the hall.
Beverly C. Tomek recounts what happened next:
“Resistance to the hall and what it symbolized emerged immediately, and ended with one of Philadelphia’s most famous acts of riot and destruction. As the abolitionists gathered, onlookers–already resentful of the abolitionists whom they blamed for the growing black population in the city and the resulting job competition–spread rumors of racial “amalgamation” and inappropriate behavior at the hall.
Crowds formed around the building immediately upon its opening, and on the third day of the conference, when women inside the hall began to speak about the horrors of slavery, before an audience that included black and white men and women, the crowd outside began to throw bricks through the windows. Despite half-hearted efforts by Mayor John Swift (1790-1873) to disperse the crowd, the attack escalated on May 17, 1838. A group later identified as dock workers broke down the doors, allowing a diverse white mob to enter the hall and set a number of fires, fueling them by the gas that was piped in for lighting. Sheriff John G. Watmough (1793-1861) gathered about a dozen of the troublemakers, but was prevented by the crowd from maintaining custody. By the end of the night Pennsylvania Hall was a smoldering shell.”38
The Women and the American Story recount what led up to this riot from the perspective of South Carolina abolitionist Angelina (nee Grimke) Weld:
“Angelina was due to speak to the convention on Wednesday, May 16. By then, a noisy antiabolitionist mob had gathered outside the building. Several times as she addressed the audience, shouts interrupted her, and rocks were hurled through the windows. This mob of Northern whites was incensed about abolition itself and because black abolitionists were present at the meeting. Insults and stones flew again when black women and white women left the building arm in arm. On Thursday, after the mayor cancelled the convention to restore quiet, the crowd broke into the empty building and torched it. Firefighters allowed the structure to burn to the ground as they hosed down nearby buildings instead.
Angelina Grimke Weld continued to write against slavery. In 1836, when Congress resolved not to read any more antislavery petitions, she and Sarah placed their names at the top of a petition against this decision. But after the fire at Pennsylvania Hall, Angelina Grimke Weld never spoke against slavery in public again.”39
No one was ever arrested for the crimes of intimidation, suppression of free speech, criminal mischief, vandalism, arson, or terrorism. Those who were apprehended on-site were wrestled out of the hands of local police officers by the mob and rushed back to freedom, delivered once again from the hands of Justice and into the hands of Whiteness. Some estimate that spectators numbered anywhere between 12,000-15,000. No one helped. The fire department spent more time dousing nearby houses and buildings with water than they did the fire consuming the hall. Their intentions made clear by where their attention landed. Let the nigger lover’s building burn. But keep Mr. Pinkersmith’s haberdashery establishment unscathed! We might need new socks once we’re done here. Of the $40,000 that was invested in the construction of Pennsylvania Hall the city’s Board of Directors approved its financiers receive back only $33,000, of which they only saw $27,943.82 years later.
Pennsylvania Hall was supposed to become a beacon of hope and progress, a place where men and women of all walks of life, race, and status could come together and participate in something redemptive. Theirs was the purpose of the American spirit of Liberty, Freedom, and the Pursuit of Happiness. White men and black women walked in and out, arm in arm, as did black men and white women. Women would speak, confidently so, as men sat and listened and learned. This was a place where the seeds of women’s suffrage germinated, where women could voice their hearts and intellect without fear of repercussion.
This Pennsylvania Hall lasted all but four days and after the fourth, all that stood was a shell of its former glory.
Its inauguration began on May 14, 1838, and its pulverization on May 18, 1838.
It stood for four days.
There is no Pennsylvania Hall in the state of Pennsylvania today, only a landmark by which we remember it. A very small landmark. The Pennsylvania Hall in all its glory stood no more than two blocks north of Independence Hall, where the United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and adopted. The victors that day were not the abolitionists, no, they lost their meeting hall. The champions of this riot, this arsonist’s club gathering, were the members of the ASININE society.
Theirs is the land and theirs is the right to do whatever they want to whomever they want so long as they remain in power.
The Cincinnati Riots, 1841
This is our third race riot in Cincinnati, Ohio in just twelve years. Black Codes are still active in the state, forcing free black Americans who wish to migrate into the state to produce documentation that elaborately demonstrates to authorities that they are not runaways. These documents have to be witnessed by two land-owning white men to be valid. And before given the chance to enter the state to work and live as free men, black Americans would have to cough up hundreds of dollars to qualify. No other group had to pay a fee just to enter and live in the state of Ohio. Irish immigrants continue to stream into the state of Ohio in search of work. For some time, they and free black Americans live in close proximity, striving for the same American dream, equally disdained by Americans of English, German, and Dutch descent. Catholics, Irish, blacks, and native Americans all in the same bubble of disgrace in the eyes of Ohioans. But as the economy lingers and job vacancies decrease thus increasing the competition for work, Irish immigrants begin to find common ground with native white Ohioans in their shared disgust for black people, who, according to the Irish, wanted to take their jobs away.
Commerce between the state of Ohio and Kentucky relied heavily on the capital produced by the slave trade. The steady stream of runaway blacks who entered the state ‘illegally’ with the help of the Underground Railroad and with the preposterous works of abolitionists did nothing but increase hostilities in the state toward anyone who wasn’t, as they understood, American patriots.
In September of 1841, locals were fed up with the presence of many free black Americans who lived and worked in their own area of Cinncinati, far away from the communes and residences of white Americans. But this wasn’t enough for the city that had instigated two riots previously. First in 1829 at the hands of Irish immigrants and later in 1836 where rioters destroyed the pro-abolition newspaper run by James G. Birney, The Philanthropist.
Discontent with their inability to rid their city of Native Americans, free black Americans, Irish immigrants, and the bestial presence of abolitionists, Cincinnatians sought to rage against the black community with a coordinated assault on black-owned property and businesses. The onslaught was initiated on the basis of hatred, distrust, racial superiority, nativism, and pro-slavery sentiments which only fueled the flames of those joining the ensuing mob.
Were it not for the valiant effort of a free black man named, Major James Wilkerson, the black community and its citizens would have all died in a bloody massacre. Major was a former slave who purchased his own freedom, taught himself to read and write in secret, and later became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
Abolitionist John Mercer Langston recounts the events of the first night of that godawful assault on the black community of Cincinnati in his book, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capital; Or, The First and Only Negro Representative in Congress from the Old Dominion:
“After the first sudden surprising attack, the colored people, measurably prepared for such occurrence by reason of the condition of public feeling manifested latterly, as already described, certainly in their expectations of it, aroused themselves, seized any means of defence within their reach, and with manliness and courage, met their assailants. One of their number, Major Wilkerson, was made their leader; and never did a man exhibit on the field of danger greater coolness, skill and bravery, than this champion of his people’s cause. A negro himself, he fought in self-defence, and to maintain his own rights as well as those of the people whom he led. They had full confidence in his ability, sincerity, courage and devotion, and were ready to follow him even to death. […] All night the fight continued. Many of the white attacking party were carried directly from the fight to the grave; and not a few of the colored men fell in gallant manner, in the struggle which they made in their own defence.”40
One can imagine the gruesome scene of an encroaching militia falling upon an American city. Torches, swords, bayonets, and musket rifles on the ready. Coordinated assaults, the predation of American souls, the torching of homes and business. Something that was seen no more than twenty-nine years prior when the British torched the US Capitol in the War of 1812. But here, it is not the British in their red coats, nor their Canadian subjugates, nor the co-belligerent French fighting for land in the Americas. No. Here, it is not Tecumesh’s last stand. What we witness is but the vengeful force of white Americans toward free unthreatening black Americans.
This skirmish is thwarted for the night, these attacks dispeled for the time being with the help of the brave Major James Wilkerson. What would have seemed like the end of an unprovoked attack was merely the beginning of a battle as the mob, after facing an unbending force of armed and coordinated black Americans, rushed to the river side docks where, upon their undeterred and unchallenged efforts, commandeered a cannon.
Yes. This sounds extreme but to the American mind of former time this was a necessary step to thwart the black uprising in Cincinnati. For whites to lose a battle to free blacks was reminiscent of a Nat Turner insurrection. Many had set their minds on the scientific racism of the age that believed blacks were born to be servile and not intellectually or militarily effective creatures. They could not lead no more than they could read or write and if they managed to transcribe some spoken word it would be no match for the intellectual prowess of the white race. So they thought. In their minds, a black military victory was inconceivable but this black victory proves them wrong. To better their odds, or perhaps, to equalize the odds, the white rioters lay siege on the black community and raze it to the ground with the help of cannon fire. Using scrap metal as ammunition they lay the black town to waste.
What’s sadder yet is that this second assault took place after the mayor of Cincinnati had demanded every black man in the city be arrested for inciting the riot. Not rioters with cannons but the free black Americans defending their homes, businesses, and their family.
Anna-Lisa Cox, an award-winning historian and Research Associate at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture captures what happened next:
“And when these attacks occurred, whether in Cincinnati or dozens of cities across the Midwest, they were rarely condemned. The white perpetrators were rarely punished. Black communities, still reeling from the loss of property and life faced further injustice including the loss of what rights they had once held. In Cincinnati, after Wilkerson and his men managed to successfully safeguard their homes and families from white attackers that night in September 1841, the mayor ordered that all Black men in the city be thrown into jail, if they weren’t shot first.
Wilkerson managed to survive this incident, but had to keep his involvement in his community’s defense a secret. He remained in Cincinnati where he continued his work in the struggle for freedom, as an Underground Railroad operative, as well as supporting the work of other Black men and women to assist freedom seekers.”41
The Cinnicinati newspaper managed to cover this race riot on the third page of their weekly issue with only two sentences. The first sentence carrying a false narrative of an incursion on the part of the abolitionists, where, in reality, there was none and the second sentence alluding to the successful destruction of an anti-slavery newspaper entity. The free blacks and their recalcitrant white abolition favoring friends had lost, yet again. The black Americans in the ghettos were killed if not arrested and their white friends in the press were run out of town. Freedom of livelihood robbed on one side of the coin for black Americans and freedom of speech censured for whites Americans on the other.
Cincinnati had won yet another battle in the war for an uninterrupted white hegemony.
The Lombard Street Riot, 1842
This race riot takes us back to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where, no more than four years earlier, the city had come together to firebomb the abolitionist building, Pennsylvania Hall. The destruction of that monumental building had done little to suppress the rage of pro-slavery Philadelphians as we will see their disdain for free black Americans and their friendly white Garriosonian friends still very much alive in the Lombard Street riot.
On August 1, 1842, the free African American community of Philadelphia had made it their prerogative to celebrate Jamaican Emancipation Day. This being the eighth anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the West Indies or, as we call them today, the Caribbean Islands.
You can imagine the sentiments of black Americans strolling through the streets of Philadelphia, dreaming, aspiring, and hoping for the day where they would celebrate their national emancipation. Unfortunately, emancipation would not become an edict of the American mind until 1863, and the last group of enslaved Americans would not be set free until June 19, 1865.
These celebrations in the heart of Philadelphia shared in the bittersweetness of freedom around the world but captivity in the land of the free. Those nearest to freedom approached it in manacles and chains, unable to deliver themselves from the bonds of slavery while their fellow countrymen celebrated Independence Day only a few weeks prior.
As the 1,000 person parade moves along Philadelphian streets it reaches a crossing between Lombard Street and Fourth Street, where, unbeknownst to participants, a group of disgruntled Irish immigrants was waiting for them.
What we seldom discuss in history class is that Irish immigrants fought for jobs, income, living conditions, and freedoms the same way black Americans did. Both communities struggled with poverty and social disdain. African Americans because they were black and the Irish because they were Catholic, poor, and not of English, German, or Dutch descent. For a great deal of time, the Irish were seen as equal to black Americans by the ruling ethnic group and this would later fuel hatred for black Americans in the Irish communities. Where they could have found common ground to fight for the same liberties the Irish found common ground with white Americans to hate black Americans.
These Irish immigrants had fled their native lands for the shores of the American plain in hopes of finding religious freedom, economic stability, and accessibility to the American dream. Unfortunately, Irish immigrants would be ostracized from the moment they reached American ports and seen as unwelcome bottom-feeding immigrants who wanted nothing more than to bring in their religious system to usurp the American one, take American jobs, stifle the economy, and ruin the pure American gene pool through cross-ethnic marriages. They would be relegated to the same slums where black Americans lived and made to fight for the same menial jobs that black Americans were glad and grateful to have.
This thunderous demonstration through Lombard Street only incensed a hatred already present in the Irish mind. When the black paraders reached Fourth Street a mob consisting of Irish parade gazers began to harass them. Harassment led to threats and threats led to fists and a brawl ensued.
The Philadelphia Inquirer captures what happens next:
“As the parade neared Mother Bethel Church on Fourth Street, an Irish mob attacked the marchers, beating many and looting African American homes in the area. The marchers retaliated, prompting the Irish mob to burn down the Second African Presbyterian Church and Smith’s Hall on Lombard Street, which had been a hub for abolitionists following the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall in the riots of 1838.
After the initial damage, the Irish rioters headed west toward the home of Robert Purvis, a prominent and outspoken African American leader, who sat on the steps of his house, armed and ready. Ultimately, his home was spared by the intervention of a Catholic priest.
Finally, on the third day of violence, local militia were called to subdue the riots.
In 2005, a historical marker was erected at Sixth and Lombard Streets to remember the riot of 1842.”42
And Melissa Mandell of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania writes about just how virulent race fuel violence was in the Northern states in her article on the Lombard Street Riots Site:
“During the riots of 1842, the mob burned down the Second African Presbyterian Church and Smith’s Hall on Lombard Street, which had been the site of abolition lectures since abolitionist hub Pennsylvania Hall was destroyed in the riots of 1838.”43
It wouldn’t be a disservice on my part to postulate that some of the rioters present in the Lombard Street riot were present at the Pennsylvania Hall burning four years prior. Seeing as how the violent sentiments in Philadelphia had not subsided over the span of four years is just a reminder of how much of the hatred toward the black American community, especially the free black American community was endemic to the American mind.
Today we can walk down Lombard Street where a marker is set to remind us that in the beautiful and now affluent Society Hill community there was once a three-day race-based riot that required the presence and force of a local militia to bring the uproar to a stop. Had it not been for this militia and the bravery of a Catholic cleric to dissuade the might and anger of this riotous crowd we can safely assume that the complete eradication of the black community in Philadelphia was just days away.
Witnessing the black community thrive in any area other than under the bonds of slavery was an eye-sore to Northerners. Their propinquity to white communities, their audacity in making Pennsylvania their new home as free Americans, their drive for a more prosperous life, their pursuit of religious freedom and social acceptance were all thwarted by the malignant tumor of racism.
The Muncy Abolition Riot, 1842
The Muncy Abolition Riot takes place in Muncy, Pennsylvania. This Pennsylvanian town was established in 1797 by Quakers and is now situated in Lycoming County, no more than 72 miles away from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Yes, that Scranton. This race riot gained traction in 1842 as the spike in abolitionist literature began to disseminate throughout the northern colonies thus inciting various incidents of backlash from Americans in the North who profited from the slave trade in the Deep South.
In April of 1842, Enos Hawley, a Quaker by faith tradition and abolitionist by moral aptitude invited a fellow abolitionist speaker into town. Unfortunately, this speaker’s name is now lost in history. He was encouraged to deliver an anti-slavery speech in Muncy. Enos had scheduled this event to take place in a local school building, wherein the speaker could speak freely and plainly to the townsfolk who shared his views. As the guest speaker took to the stage to speak against the horrors of slavery and upon this note several pro-slavery and pro-slave trade townspeople began to grunt and groan at the recitation.
The Luminary explains what happens next.
“Unfortunately, the greeting the two men received from some angry townspeople when they showed up at a schoolhouse in April of that year for the anticipated speech was not a welcome one.
More than a dozen men pelted the schoolhouse with rocks and other objects, damaging the building and injuring Hawley and the speaker. The two then were chased by the mob to Hawley’s house at Main and High Streets where they continued to be assaulted with eggs.”44
One would think that the rule of law would come to Hawley and his respectable guests’ rescue but that was not the case. A society built upon law, order, and structure served only those who benefited from a racialized caste system. Dissenters and abolitionists were perceived as enemies of the state. Initially in a social paradigm and lastly, in the eyes of the law.
“Eighteen rioters eventually were charged and then put on trial in September of that year. Thirteen of the 18 members were convicted, but only after going back and forth among the jurors.
One member of the jury, Abraham Updegraff later described the secret deliberations, noting how an initial ballot came back 11 for acquittal and one for guilty.
Updegraff, reportedly an abolitionist, later convinced other jurors to reconsider their ballots for acquittal. Eventually the jury reached a decision to convict.
However, in a rather unusual move, Gov. David Rittenhouse Porter stepped forward just days after the trial, making a decision to annul the convictions.”45
Philadelphia Nativist Riots, 1844
Nineteenth-century Philadelphia was a cesspool of racial animus that swelled with the uninvited advent of racially integrated abolitionist groups and their anti-slavery newspaper mills. Hostilities toward these morally upright groups were present years earlier with the razing of Pennsylvania Hall in 1838, the Lombard Street riot of 1842, and the Muncy Abolition riot of 1842. The city of brotherly love was only willing to extend unconditional affection toward white, American-born, pro-slavery men and women of the Protestant tradition.
This riot or this series of riots took place on May 6, 1844, and its ensuring encore on July 5, 1844. Two deadly riots in the same town were separated by no more than 59 days of pseudo-peace between them.
In 1844 the city of Philadelphia succumbed to yet another series of civil unrest, this time, against the societally disgraced Irish-Catholic immigrants who had settled in town. Protestant white Americans had for years debated ousting and excising Catholic whites and Irish people from America due to irrational fears of Romanism. Because Catholicism was seen as an intrusive and supposedly repressive religion and Irish immigrants were considered the blacks of Europe; filthy, uncouth, and unwanted, it was only a matter of time before nativist entities routed their numbers to push for another violent skirmish between the races.
Adding to this complex issue was the topic of which Bible students were allowed to read in public schools. Until Engel v. Vitale on June 25, 1962, and Abington School District v. Schempp on June 17, 1963, school-sponsored prayers and bible reading were allowed and esteemed in public schools. Both acts were considered unconstitutional after 1963 because the state did not subscribe to a particular faith nor would it allow its public entities to do so in this newly enlightened democratic society.
But in 1844, students were still allowed to learn about Christianity through the eyes of European and now, American scholars, read the King James Version of the Bible; a 1611 English translation of the Aramaic, Greek, and Hebraic scriptures. In 1842, however, white American protestants formed the American Protestant Association to ban the use of another bible translation or religious literature from their way into public schools. This was done in hopes of combating Romanism and protecting American children in the public education system from Catholic dogmas and traditions, which at the time, were seen as encroachments upon American liberties.
The issues of nativism, immigration, and inter-faith religious animus were amplified by the presence and persistence of a peculiar cleric, Bishop Francis Kenrick. Bishop Kenrick petitioned public schools to allow the use of a second bible. The King James Version was used by Protestant Christians and school teachers in their vocations but Kenrich asked that the Catholic bible, or rather, the Douay–Rheims Bible be added to the list of religious materials students could study.
This would be the last straw for anti-Catholic Americans, but more so for the bellicose nativist Donald Trump Jr. of the 19th century, Lewis C. Levin, who roused the local nativist crowd and ushered them into the Irish community of Philadelphia to help liquefy the city of Irish Catholics and undesirables; people not born in America, First Nations indigenous peoples, black Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, Irish, Catholics, and etc.
Brendan Spiegel of Narratively, a multi-award-winning story and history-telling platform, comments on the degraded persona of Lewis C. Levin and this deadly riot in The Donald Trump of the 1840s.
“On a stormy Monday afternoon in the spring of 1844, a stout, well-built, 35-year-old Philadelphia newspaper editor ascended a makeshift podium assembled from a stack of packing boxes. Surrounded by some three thousand of his fervent supporters – butchers, grocers, carpenters and craftsman, many armed for this occasion – Lewis Charles Levin had come to the main market in Philly’s heavily Irish-Catholic neighborhood of Kensington. He was there to rail against the rising tide of Catholic immigrants taking jobs from proud Pennsylvania-born Protestants, and the resulting “consequence upon American liberty” he vowed would surely come of admitting even more foreigners.”46
And regarding Levin’s subjective morality, he states:
“While Levin was widely pinpointed for inciting the violence, in the days to come the charismatic speaker accepted not a hint of blame. In a heated defense, he asserted that his followers had nothing but peaceful intentions until “an armed body of ferocious foreigners” assaulted them. He greatly exaggerated the number of dead on his side, blamed his rivals in the press, and insisted a wide-ranging conspiracy was the real impetus behind the clash, while providing no real evidence to back-up the existence of such a conspiracy.”47
What slips our notice is that this same Lewis Levin acquired such a reputation that he went on to form a political party called the American Republican Party, which promoted anti-immigration laws, anti-Catholic laws, and outright nativist hysteria. Levin’s anti-immigrant rabble-rousing violence was such a socially acceptable norm that he and his fellow patriots would later form the dangerous insurrectionist group, Know-Nothings. This group would terrorize immigrants, Catholics, black Americans, and abolitionists throughout the 1850s. Their modus operandi was so effective that it spread from Philadelphia to new and thriving chapters in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Baltimore, Washington D.C., New York, and New Orleans.
Zachary M. Schrag of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia recounts the first riot of May 6 onward.
“The first serious violence broke out three days later. On May 6, the nativists reassembled in Kensington, provoking another fight, during which a young nativist named George Shiffler (1825-44) was fatally shot. By day’s end, a second man—apparently a bystander—was dead, and several more nativists were wounded, two mortally. The next day, the First Brigade of the Pennsylvania Militia, commanded by Brigadier General George Cadwalader (1806-79), responded to the sheriff’s call for help. The troops faced little direct resistance, but they proved unable to stop people from starting new fires. On May 8, mobs gutted several private dwellings (including Hugh Clark’s house), a Catholic seminary, and two Catholic churches: St. Michael’s at Second Street and Master and St. Augustine’s at Fourth and Vine. Only a flood of new forces—including citizen posses, city police, militia companies arriving from other cities, and U.S. army and navy troops—ended the violence by May 10.”48
And the second one in July.
“On Sunday, July 7, the crowd reassembled, and this time it armed itself with cannon. Egged on by nativist speakers, the crowd forced the militia to surrender the church and its prisoners. Cadwalader returned to Southwark about sunset at the head of a column and tried to clear the area around the church. When the crowd attacked the militia with bricks, stones, and bottles, the militia fired on them, killing at least two and wounding more. Starting around 9pm, the crowd counterattacked. For the next four hours, rioters and militia battled in the streets of Southwark, with both sides firing cannon. By morning, four militiamen and probably a dozen rioters were dead, along with many more wounded. Southwark’s aldermen negotiated the militia’s withdrawal from their district, but thousands of militia troops from other parts of the state arrived to patrol the City of Philadelphia.”49
Sandy Hingston of City Life, a subdivision of Phillymag recounts the delusory aftermath of this deadly riot in her 2015 article, Bullets and Bigots: Remember Philadelphia’s 1844 Anti-Catholic Riots.
“In the wake of the fighting, Philadelphia consolidated its outlying suburbs into the city proper, and standing police forces were established. Bishop Kenrick gave up fighting over which Bible to read in schools, instead creating the city’s Catholic school system — the first in the nation. He began construction of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, eventually became the Archbishop of Baltimore, wrote his own translation of the Douai Bible, and died in July of 1863 after reading an account of the terrible carnage at the Battle of Gettysburg.”50
The Christiana Riot, Christiana Resistance, Christiana Tragedy, or Christiana Incident, 1851
The Christiana Revolt, as I prefer to label it, is the natural consequence of successful abolitionist movements, run-away slaves standing up for themselves, and the first of many pushbacks against the immoral Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1851.
On September 11, 1851, a slave owner named Edward Gorsuch (unrelated to the Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch) crossed the Mason-Dixon Line (a border that dictated the separation between free states and slave states) to recapture some of his runaway slaves.
The lucrative practice of slave catching was pervasive throughout the American Deep South and went without much challenge in the Free North as ambivalent Northern whites sought to distance themselves legal consequences from wealthy Southern slave-owning aristocrats who could take individuals found aiding and abetting fugitives to court for interfering with legal and lawful practice slave catching.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and its reformed version in 1851 made it possible for bounty hunters to cross into the Free States in search of runaway property, namely, Black Americans, with intentions of placing them in chains and then transporting them back to their rightful owners in the South. Anyone who dared impede this process or gave shelter to runaway slaves ran a risk of being on the wrong side of the law.
“SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct or hinder such claimant, his agent or attorney in so seizing or arresting such fugitive from labour, or shall rescue such fugitive from such claimant, his agent or attorney when so arrested pursuant to the authority herein given or declared; or shall harbor or conceal such person after notice that he or she was a fugitive from labour, as aforesaid, shall, for either of the said offences, forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars. Which penalty may be recovered by and for the benefit of such claimant, by action of debt, in any court proper to try the same; saving moreover to the person claiming such labour or service, his right of action for or on account of the said injuries or either of them.
APPROVED, February 12, 1793.”51
“7. And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them, from arresting such a fugitive from service or labor, either with or without process as aforesaid, or shall rescue, or attempt to rescue, such fugitive from service or labor, from the custody of such claimant, his or her agent or attorney, or other person or persons lawfully assisting as aforesaid, when so arrested, pursuant to the authority herein given and declared; or shall aid, abet, or assist such person so owing service or labor as aforesaid, directly or indirectly, to escape from such claimant, his agent or attorney, or other person or persons legally authorized as aforesaid; or shall harbor or conceal such fugitive, so as to prevent the
discovery and arrest of such person, after notice or knowledge of the fact that such person was a fugitive from service or labor as aforesaid, shall, for either of said offences, be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months, by indictment and conviction before the District Court of the United States for the district in which such may have been committed, or before the proper court of criminal jurisdiction, if committed within any one of the organized Territories of the United States; and shall moreover forfeit and pay, by way of civil damages to the party injured by such illegal conduct, the sum of one thousand dollars for each fugitive so lost as aforesaid, to be recovered by action of debt, in any of the District or Territorial Courts aforesaid, within whose jurisdiction the said offence may
have been committed.
APPROVED, September 18, 1850.”52
Edward Gorsuch, a native of Baltimore, Maryland, left his home armed with weapons and warrants granted him by a local court, under the protection of local and federal laws, to reach Christiana, Pennsylvania to seek and seize his runaway slaves. This remote and forgotten Pennsylvanian town is no more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Philadelphia where several anti-abolition and nativist race riots had taken place years prior. A phenomenon not unknown to Southern plantation autocrats who wanted nothing to do with Northern incursion and abolitionist shenanigans, so that they could continue their peculiar business without interference or interruption.
The Digital Scholarship Lab of the University of Richmond recounts the initial consequences of Edward Gorsuch and his bounty hunter party arriving at the location in which they believed his runaway slaves had found shelter and refuge.
“The slave owner Edward Gorsuch traveled to Pennsylvania, along with several men, two of whom were federal marshals, to retrieve six of his slaves that had escaped from his plantation years earlier. Gorsuch planned to confront William Parker, the owner of a tenant house, about harboring his fugitive slaves. An altercation between the two groups of people developed and Gorsuch was killed during the dispute, while several others were seriously wounded.”53
William Parker, a runaway slave whose home Edward Gorsuch attempted to raid recounts this incident in detail in his 1866 report, Freedman’s Story, later published in two parts in The Atlantic. Parker gives us the names of the persons involved in the raid, “The party then consisted of Kline, Edward Gorsuch, Dickinson Gorsuch, his son, Joshua M. Gorsuch, his nephew, Dr. Thomas Pierce, Nicholas T. Hutchings, and Nathan Nelson.”54
And also who the warrants were made for, namely, “George Hammond, Joshua Hammond, Nelson Ford, and Noah Buley.”55 These runaway slaves had found refuge in Parker’s residence until they could purchase their freedom or find safe passage further north or into Canada.
Before reaching William Parker’s residence, Gorsuch’s raiding party stopped, momentarily to safeguard their weapons and consider their method of attack that would merit them the most successful recapture of runaway slaves without injury, loss of life, and property.
“The guide led them by a circuitous route, until they reached the Valley Road, near the house of William Parker, the writer of the annexed narrative, which was their point of destination. They halted in a lane near by, ate some crackers and cheese, examined the condition of their fire-arms, and consulted upon the plan of attack.”56
William Parker then details what transpires in front of and later inside his residence.
“It was not yet daybreak when the party approached the house. They made demand for the slaves, and threatened to burn the house and shoot the occupants, if they would not surrender. At this time, the number of besiegers seems to have been increased, and as many as fifteen are said to have been near the house. About daybreak, when they were advancing a second or third time, they saw a negro coming out, whom Mr. Gorsuch thought he recognized as one of his slaves. Kline [H. H. Kline, a deputy United States Marshal] pursued him with a revolver in his hand, and stumbled over the bars near the house. Some of the company came up before Kline, and found the door open. They entered, and Kline, following, called for the owner, ordered all to come down, and said he had two warrants for the arrest of Nelson Ford and Joshua Hammond. He was answered that there were no such men in the house. Kline, followed by Mr. Gorsuch, attempted to go up stairs. They were prevented from ascending by what appears to have been an ordinary fish gig. Some of the witnesses described it as ‘like a pitchfork with blunt prongs,’ and others were at a loss what to call this, the first weapon used in the contest. An axe was next thrown down, but hit no one.”57
It is interesting to note that William Parker, alongside his fellow residents and refugees, sought nothing more than to barricade themselves inside Parker’s residence for safekeeping and protection. Having perhaps previously set up blockades within the home in case of this very incident taking place, as a means to dissuade kidnappers from progressing in their venture, this was not an act of aggression. Parker’s approach was one of a frightened resident attempting to keep himself, his family, friends, guests, and property free from harassment and unlawful seizures.
This, however, did not discourage the slave catchers presently inside William Parker’s home and the armed mini-militia waiting outside.
“Mr. Gorsuch and others then went outside to talk with the negroes at the window. Just at this time Kline fired his pistol up stairs. The warrants were then read outside the house, and demand made upon the landlord. No answer was heard. After a short interval, Kline proposed to withdraw his men, but Mr. Gorsuch refused, and said he would not leave the ground until he had made the arrests. Kline then in a loud voice ordered some one to go to the sheriff and bring a hundred men, thinking, as he afterwards said, this would intimidate them. The threat appears to have had some effect, for the negroes asked time to consider. The party outside agreed to give fifteen minutes.
Having no reason to believe he was acting under legal authority, when Kline approached and demanded assistance in making the arrests, Hanway made no answer. Kline then handed him the warrants, which Hanway examined, saw they appeared genuine, and returned.
The negroes then rushed up, some armed with guns, some with corn-cutters, staves, or clubs, others with stones or whatever weapon chance offered. Hanway and Lewis in vain endeavored to restrain them.
Kline leaped the fence, passed through the standing grain in the field, and for a few moments was out of sight. Mr. Gorsuch refused to leave the spot, saying his ‘property was there, and he would have it or perish in the attempt.’ The rest of his party endeavored to retreat when they heard the Marshal calling to them, but they were too late; the negroes rushed up, and the firing began. How many times each party fired, it is impossible to tell. […] Dickinson Gorsuch was with his father near the house. They were both wounded; the father mortally. Dickinson escaped down the lane, where he was met by Kline, who had returned from the woods at the end of the field. Kline rendered him assistance, and went towards Penningtonville for a physician. On his way be met Joshua M. Gorsuch, who was also wounded and delirious. Kline led him over to Penningtonville and placed him on the upward train from Philadelphia. Before this time several persons living in the neighborhood had arrived at Parker’s house. Lewis Cooper found Dickinson Gorsuch in the place where Kline had left him, attended by Joseph Scarlett. He placed him in his dearborn, and carried him to the house of Levi Pownall, where he remained till he had sufficiently recovered to return home. Mr. Cooper then returned to Parker’s, placed the body of Mr. Edward Gorsuch in the same dearborn, and carried it to Christiana.
Thus ended an occurrence which was the theme of conversation throughout the land. Not more than two hours elapsed from the time demand was first made at Parker’s house until the dead body of Edward Gorsuch was carried to Christiana. In that brief time the blood of strangers had been spilled in a sudden affray, an unfortunate man had been killed, and two others badly wounded.”58
Edward Gorsuch led a party of slave catchers, family members, and federal officials 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of his home in Baltimore to seize and return to their supposedly rightful place of existence, persons considered fugitives of the law, namely, four former slaves, into his possession. In the end, Edward Gorsuch died in front of William Parker’s house, where he was either shot, stabbed, hacked, clubbed, or beaten to death at the hands of frightened and later emboldened runaway slaves and their heroic neighbors.
Gorsuch was mortally wounded, his son was wounded, his nephew was wounded and was later found to be under a spell, a delirium, either due to shell shock, sepsis from his injuries, or a combination of both. The raiding party disbanded and fled the scene in search of medical help for the wounded, first, and later, in search of military assistance to hold members of William Parker’s residence accountable for killing a man for going about obtaining that which was legally his, namely, Black Americans.
William Parker had interfered with a federally protected confiscation of property and had in light of this incident, allegedly committed a federal crime.
Professor Beverly C. Tomek, Ph. D, Associate Provost for Curriculum and Student Achievement at the University of Houston-Victoria and former history instructor at Wharton County Junior College, captures the humanity behind the Christiana Revolt by relaying to us how a racially integrated militia helped protect William Parker and the refugees in his home from Southern slave catchers.
“Five whites and thirty-three blacks were charged with interfering with the Fugitive Slave Law, an infraction that carried a charge of treason.”59
It is heartwarming to know that white Northerners came to Parker’s defense. It is sad, however, to know that the only reason why white Northerners would have been near Parker’s home is either because they were either impoverished whites or social outcasts who had nowhere else to live.
Unfortunately for William Parker, he, alongside other guests at his house at the time of this incident, would be charged with treason for impeding federal officials from performing their lawful duties and attempted murder against the same.
The four fugitives Edward Gorsuch initially sought to apprehend were nowhere to be found by the time authority caught up with and arrested Parker.
The Digital Lab from the University of Richmond explains the legal and national ramifications of the Christiana Revolt further:
“The Christiana Riot put enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act to a different test. The act produced division and heated debate across the nation.
Part of the problem in enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act stemmed from the North not agreeing with it. James McPherson stated the concern of the Fugitive Slave Act in Battle Cry of Freedom, ‘It seemed only a matter of time before real blood would be shed.” Protestors from the South sent out the warning “unless the Christiana rioters are hung, we leave you. If you fail in this simple act of justice, the bonds will be dissolved.’
The opening statement by John W. Ashmead at the Christiana Riot trial clearly explained that Gorsuch was within the law and depicts the aggressive acts that was taken against an innocent man, ‘…within the jurisdiction of this Court, the defendant, with a great number of persons, armed and arrayed in a war-like manner, with guns, swords and other weapons, assembled and traitorously combined to oppose and prevent by intimidation…and arrayed himself in a warlike manner against the said United States.’ The statement clearly tried to place William Parker as being anti-American. The slave owning South wanted to immediately pin William Parker as enemy of the United States.
Parker’s defense attorney Theodore Cuyler argued that his defendant did not commit treason, because he did not try to levy a war against the United States. Next Cuyler sarcastically commented on the magnitude of the event, ‘Did you hear it? That three harmless, non-resisting Quakers, and eight-and-thirty wretched, miserable, penniless negroes, armed with corn-cutters, clubs, and a few muskets, and headed by a miller, in a felt hat, without a coat, without arms, and mounted on a sorrel nag, levied war against the United States.’ Cuyler made his point that if treason is defined as levying war against the United States, then how can a group of just a few people with inadequate resources possibly wage a war against the United States.
As a result of the trial, none of the people being prosecuted were found guilty of committing treason against the United States. The jury expressed their disapproval of the murders and riot, but acquitted the men involved.”60
Professor Beverly C. Tomek also adds:
“To some, these men were simply carrying out the promise of American freedom, but to others they were murderers who disregarded the nation’s laws. In the end, the prosecution failed to gain treason convictions, but public opinion remained split.”61
The Christiana Revolt sparked further schisms within the American conscience over the humanity and personhood of Black Americans as pro-slavery Southerners saw Black Americans protecting themselves against lawful kidnappers as murderers beasts deserving of imprisonment and execution; pro-slavery Northerners were embittered by this acquittal and sought to conspire against free Black Americans to maintain a healthy line of enterprise and business with pro-slavery Southerns; and anti-slavery Northerners viewed free Black Americans and their Underground Railroad as a continual nuisance to their day-to-day operations, neither siding entirely with free Black Americans nor with pro-slavery Southerners on the matter of slave catching.
A gradual move toward abolition was as equally painful a process for the nation as slavery itself.
Free Black Americans and their compassionate white Northern friends, were, once again, viewed as the scourge on American society because these immediatists, these abolitionists, sought to destroy the fabric of American capital, namely, the direct and indirect capital derived from slavery.
This revolt brought the country one step closer to what would eventually evolve into the inevitable American Civil War.
William Parker would eventually meet one of the most famous intellectuals and abolitionist voices of his time, the prophet and genius, Frederick Douglass.
“Still, the ASC’s hosting of these famous visitors in 1851 probably helped to forge links across the border for the abolitionist cause. Opportunities to make use of these connections were presented in the fall of that year, after two spectacularly unsuccessful attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. In September, William Parker, the hero of the Christiana Rebellion in Pennsylvania, arrived at Douglass’ home in Rochester, and was sent on (via Kingston, Canada West) to Toronto. There, Parker reported that the ASC had supplied him with some aid, and Dr. Willis had provided a loan and a letter of introduction to the Reverend William King in Buxton. In October, Samuel Ringgold Ward, under indictment for his role in the Jerry Rescue, arrived in Toronto with letters of introduction from Samuel May. For the next two years, Ward served as an agent of the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society and its most important activist.”62
It is helpful to know that history accurately portrays William Parker as a hero of the Christiana Rebellion and not as a traitor of American interests and ideals.
Parker, alongside his family, would relocate to Toronto, Canada, where they would spend the remainder of their lives fighting to abolish slavery in America. Until then, he would fight to protect the infrastructure of the Underground Railroad, making sure its travelers found elsewhere the freedoms and liberties initially granted only to white Americans.
Cincinnati Riots, 1855
The Cincinnati riot of 1855 would not have been possible without the cancerous militant insurgency that plagued American politics and shaped the way disgruntled Americans would handle political opposition for decades to come. The Know-Nothing secret society sought to avenge white Protestant American sentiments by intimidating immigrant groups away from polling stations and violently overturning elections they deemed unfair and unAmerican. The Know-Nothing group was to America then what the Taliban is to Afghanistan today. Radical religious misfits who only cared for violence, tribalism, and hatred for immigrants, Catholic Christians, and Black Americans. They presumed their ideology was socially acceptable for the betterment of a singular white and pure American identity.
Lorraine Boissoneault writing for the Smithsonian Magazine gives us a better understanding of how xenophobic sentiments made their way from mundane life in the field to the halls of politics and media with the help of Know-Nothing extremists.
“Like Fight Club, there were rules about joining the secret society known as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner (OSSB). An initiation rite called ‘Seeing Sam.’ The memorization of passwords and hand signs. A solemn pledge never to betray the order. A pureblooded pedigree of Protestant Anglo-Saxon stock and the rejection of all Catholics. And above all, members of the secret society weren’t allowed to talk about the secret society. If asked anything by outsiders, they would respond with, ‘I know nothing.’”63
Likened to present-day “America First” ideologues and their respective anti-foreigner propagandist news stations, the Know-Nothing party was hyper-violent and resistant to change. Seeking to demonize foreigners, Catholic Christians, German and Irish immigrants, and Black Americans for cultural and political gain. This select group of white Americans saw themselves as pure-blooded privileged peoples whose behavior toward outsiders was justified by the merit of their birthplace, namely, naturalization as American citizens by birth.
“So went the rules of this secret fraternity that rose to prominence in 1853 and transformed into the powerful political party known as the Know Nothings. At its height in the 1850s, the Know Nothing party, originally called the American Party, included more than 100 elected congressmen, eight governors, a controlling share of half-a-dozen state legislatures from Massachusetts to California, and thousands of local politicians. Party members supported deportation of foreign beggars and criminals; a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants; mandatory Bible reading in schools; and the elimination of all Catholics from public office. They wanted to restore their vision of what America should look like with temperance, Protestantism, self-reliance, with American nationality and work ethic enshrined as the nation’s highest values.”64
The Know-Nothing entity were not the progenitors of nativism or nationalist ideologies, but the Know-Nothing movement proved dangerous and influential, in a local, congressional, federal sense.
And from the 1850s onward, in the United States of America, immigrants, Catholic Christians, and Black Americans would fall victim to multiple violent and deadly Know-Nothing riots.
From 1840 to 1860, the United States Bureau of the Census witnessed a noticeable spike in immigrant groups entering the country, some seeking refuge from political or religious persecution, others with aspirations of earning a piece of the American Dream pie, and others yet, as possible misfits, outcasts, and criminals seeking a new life in distant lands. These immigrants came primarily from Europe, most of them leaving the shores and plains of England, France (most of which ended up in Louisiana), Germany, and Ireland for safer pastures on US shores. Unfortunately, these immigrants were met with nearly as equal disdain from the white Americans as the disdain given to free or enslaved Black Americans at the time.
The presence of new and unknown languages, different political views, different religious doctrines, and cultural customs frightened the already suspicious white American commoner who viewed immigration as an encroachment on their idea of American society. And what further animated the animosity of some was the new competition for low-paying jobs. Immigrants, most of them impoverished, sought any form of work they could find, usually for the lowest wages available just to get by. This pooling of jobs, which were initially ‘okay’ paying jobs for white Americans, were then given to immigrants who were willing to do the same work, if not work longer hours, for less.
Irish immigrants were so disliked by their English contemporaries back home and their new white American neighbors that many of them ended up finding residence and refuge in Black communities where they would have integrated workspaces and interracial relations with free Black Americans. The Irish were initially likened to Black Americans until they found a sanctuary in white American social circles by molesting and killing Black Americans, to reinforce the social expectations of the racial hegemony of the time.
As the German population of Cincinnati swelled, German immigrants would construct gyms, churches, cathedrals, businesses, and schools, and then become part of the voting population with enough influence to push for political power. The nativist Know-Nothing party saw them as a threat to the fabric of Cincinnati and American society.
On one particular day in April of 1855, these sentiments came to a head as James D. Taylor, a Know-Nothing politician, ran and eventually lost the race for mayor of Cincinnati to Democratic candidate James J. Faran. Taylor ran a populist campaign but his political influence was stymied by the German-backed Democratic candidate.
The Internet Public Library recounts the riot:
“Nativists and German immigrants clashed as James Taylor a man running for mayor in 1855 completely ran his campaign on anti-immigration and nativism through the Know-nothing party. A mob descended on Over-the-Rhine, the German neighborhood in Cincinnati, in an attempt to just as had been done with the black population less than 15 years before. Nativists were worried about the German immigrant voters due to their number and power during voting. Election day came and the Germans constructed a barricade across Vine Street and fired cannons at the approaching mob. The mob destroyed ballots and killed several men to not succeed as the Democratic candidate still won the election. The riot was demonized in ways no Cincinnati riot was before, and the reputation of the city was in ruins.”65
In Essays on American Antebellum Politics, 1840-1860, Volume 10, William E. Gienapp, Thomas B. Alexander, Michal F. Holt, Stephen E. Maizlish, and Joel H. Silbey consider the media coverage that followed the riot:
“The Enquirer announced that it could ‘find no language capable of expressing our indignation [concerning the riot and threats to voting rights]… Words could but faintly translate the abhorrence we feel that the ark of our safety, the very covenant of our freedom, should be ruthlessly seized by sacrilegious hands, and destroyed before our very eyes.’ In Columbus the Statesman received the news of the Cincinnati disruption with equal satisfaction. Blaming ‘the reckless, midnight, oath bound order’ for the riot, the paper asked sarcastically, ‘Has the Protestant religion to so low a condition that it requires such means to give it character and support?’”66
The author of this section, of the essay, Stephen E. Maizlish, then gives a conclusive description of the prevalent nativist Know-Nothing sentiment that ate away at American liberal ideals of liberty, freedom, and progress.
“Neither the Protestant religion nor the Know-Nothing order had grown weak. The antiforeign riot was not a sign of the movement’s desperation, but rather an indication of its arrogant self-confidence. Such outbreaks were natural outgrowths of the heightening atmosphere of hostility to the foreign born.”67
Nativism proved time and again that no immigrant population was safe from harassment and violence, even when these new and innocuous groups wandered the plains of American in search of nothing but housing, work, and the freedom and liberties they were often refused back home.
Sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, 1856
The Sacking of Lawrence can also be known as the First Sacking of Lawrence because this little-known township was named after American businessman and abolitionist, Amos Adams Lawrence. It was founded in 1854, just two years before this initial incident. It was eventually sacked a second time and nearly wiped from the map by a Confederate guerrilla named William Clarke Quantrill and his mobsters in 1863.
As the American republic spread westward of the original thirteen colonies and their respective pro-slavery states to the South, the topic of whether slavery should also dominate the midwestern horizon remained a topic of great dispute. Northern states wanted to limit the reach of pro-slavery states and slavery-favoring states wanted to further their enterprise westward until they reached the Pacific Ocean.
The state of Kansas sat dab smack in the middle of this conundrum between free states and slave states. The ensuing waves of violence that would unfold in the state would be known as the “Bleeding Kansas” era where belligerent parties on both sides of this issue fought to preserve the freedom of Black Americans whereas the other side sought to terrorize anyone who attempted to thwart Southern states’ rights.
Violence, however, began far away from Lawrence, Kansas as the first blows were dealt by South Carolina congressman Preston Brook’s as he beat abolitionist Republican senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts close to death with a cane in the Senate Chamber of Washington, DC. Fellow senators watched in horror as the egregious act of violence unfolded before them. None of them dared interfere for fear of becoming the next victims of the crazed pro-slavery congressman. Senator Charles Sumner was beaten so badly he fell in and out of consciousness as his attacker relentlessly beat at him with his cane.
This incident burned through American media sources in the days to follow as Northern states saw the act as unprovoked violence and Southern states saw the act as a stand against Northern aggression and an attempt to suppress the South’s peculiar institution and sap it of its economic success.
The beating happened a day or two before the Lawrence, Kansas incident.
News of this beating reached a little-known white abolitionist named John Brown of Torrington, Connecticut. Brown was so infuriated by the unashamed Southern aggression into Free-States in their attempt to further this egregious institution that he sought to take matters into his own hands to end the spread of slavery in America by any means possible.
Fergus M. Bordewich, writing for the Smithsonian Magazine, covers John Brown’s heroic efforts to dispel pro-slavery ruffians from the Free-State during its “Bleeding Kansas” wars.
“In May 1856, pro-slavery raiders sacked Lawrence, Kansas, in an orgy of burning and looting. Almost simultaneously, Brown learned that Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, the most outspoken abolitionist in the U.S. Senate, had been beaten senseless on the floor of the chamber by a cane-wielding congressman from South Carolina. Brown raged at the North’s apparent helplessness. Advised to act with restraint, he retorted, “Caution, caution, sir. I am eternally tired of hearing the word caution. It is nothing but the word of cowardice.” A party of Free-Staters led by Brown dragged five pro-slavery men out of their isolated cabins on eastern Kansas’ Pottawatomie Creek and hacked them to death with cutlasses. The horrific nature of the murders disturbed even abolitionists. Brown was unrepentant. “God is my judge,” he laconically replied when asked to account for his actions. Though he was a wanted man who hid out for a time, Brown eluded capture in the anarchic conditions that pervaded Kansas. Indeed, almost no one—pro-slavery or antislavery—was ever arraigned in a court for killings that took place during the guerrilla war there.”68
Lawrence, Kansas, had developed a reputation for housing anti-slavery hotels and societies, hoping to quell the spread of slavery by disseminating intellectual abolitionist materials published through its media arm stationed in the same town. But pro-slavery troublemakers, mostly agitators from Missouri, would travel across state lines to harass the town in hopes of driving abolitionists away for good, clearing the town to ensure slavery’s survival in the midwest.
Residents of the small township decided to use their hotels and newspaper publishing centers as defensive militia strongholds, stacked with ammunition, canons, and rifles, in hopes of depressing any attacks on the town by belligerent Southern instigators.
Matthew E. Stanley, of Albany State University, relays what incensed Southern agitators into razing the city to the ground in his summary of this event, called, First Sack of Lawrence:
“On May 11, federal marshal I. B. Donaldson issued a proclamation asking territorial citizens to aid him in serving warrants in Lawrence against the extralegal Free-State legislature. Donaldson was joined by at least a half dozen proslavery militia units, including the Douglas County Militia, the Kickapoo Rangers, and the Missouri Platte County Rifles, and peacefully made his arrests. Yet in response to Donaldson’s mobilization and the findings of a territorial grand jury that antislavery forces in Lawrence were militarizing, Sheriff Jones assembled roughly 750 men to enter the town, disarm its citizens, and destroy its antislavery institutions.
On May 21, Jones’s men placed cannon on nearby Mount Oread, sealed off all possible escape routes, and approached the town. With their leaders under arrest, the citizens of Lawrence offered no resistance. Rather than chaotic and irrationally violent, the proslavery attack was calculated and political. Donaldson made his headquarters in the residence of Dr. Charles Robinson, an antislavery leader and future first governor of the state of Kansas who was then under arrest at Lecompton. The proslavery force next targeted both of Lawrence’s antislavery newspapers, including raising a banner with “Southern Rights” inscribed on one side and “South Carolina” on the other atop the printing office of the Herald of Freedom. The printing presses of both the Herald and The Kansas Free-State were then thrown into the Kansas River. The Free-State Hotel, which the proslavery grand jury claimed was in fact a military fortress, next drew the ire of the mob. Built by the Emigrant Aid Society, the stone hotel was blown up, ransacked, and burned. Attackers also directed violence and robbery against the homes of prominent abolitionists. The crowd then dispersed, with most returning to Missouri. For all its destruction, the incident produced only one casualty, a proslavery man who was killed by a falling brick.”69
It is quite impressive to note that the hostility that unraveled at the sacking of Lawrence did not draw bloodshed nor loss of life, except that one Southern agitator died as a result of a freak accident where a brick fell upon his head.
USHistory.org informs us of the national fallout from the Sacking of Lawrence and how this one event changed the way abolitionist Republicans viewed Southern aggression tactics and expansion efforts, finally bringing to the table the consideration to stop slavery once and for all.
“The attack inflamed almost everyone. Republicans introduced bills to bring Kansas into the Union under the free state government, while Democrats introduced bills to bring in Kansas as a slave state. Neither party alone could get the votes necessary to win. To increase readership, Republican newspapers exploited the situation in Kansas. Their attack galvanized the northern states like nothing before. It went beyond passing pro-slavery laws. The Sack of Lawrence was a direct act of violent aggression by slave-owning southern ‘Fire Eaters.’”70
Although only one soul perished as a result of a freak accident in this first terror attack on Lawrence, Kansas, we must not forget that nine years after this riot a band of Confederate ruffians led by William Clarke Quantrill, rebels dressed as soldiers, members of the treasonous state known as the Confederacy, would once again lay their shadows over Lawrence and this time, they would kill over 164 civilians, losing 40 of their ruffian rebel army men in the process.
This second wave of violence against the town would be etched into history as the “Lawrence Massacre.”
Know-Nothing Riot, Baltimore, 1856
The extremist anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-Catholic movement known as the Know-Nothing’s or politically as the American Party had its seed sprout in Baltimore in 1856. Protestant Anglo-Saxon hatred toward outsiders and people considered “other” was so ubiquitous within American society that it was nearly impossible to quell the spread of violence that permeated through political campaigns from state to state.
This time, we find the no-good Know-Nothing insurgency in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 8, 1856, where the same ideologues and their disciples terrorize local governing bodies and officials, raising hell to intimidate anyone and possibly kill them if they dare alter the demographic of American society.
Here is a minor recap of the Know-Nothing Riot of Baltimore as captured by The History Machine, a division of the University of Richmond.
“In the weeks leading up to Election Day in the city of Baltimore, tensions ran high among the Know Nothings and the ever growing Irish Catholic Democrats. Tensions culminated in Baltimore when the race for the municipal elections sparked riots between the warring clubs of the city. Many people were killed and wounded as insurgents fought on the streets with muskets, swivels, pistols and all manners of weapons (The Daily Picayune, Oct 9, pg. 4).’ The governor sent for the city militia to settle the fighting on Election Day and in the end, the American party emerged victorious. The riot in Baltimore highlights the fact that Americans in 1856 did not exclusively discriminate against blacks, but also fellow whites. American Protestants were extremely anti-foreigner not to mention anti-Catholic and did not welcome the hoards of Europeans, specifically the Irish and the Germans, that migrated en masse to the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century. Through this riot, the modern day student can see that hierarchies in the United States of the era were not solely based upon race.”71
Know-Nothing race riot sentiments spread their violence-ridden tentacles into different social, financial, racial, religious, and political spheres. Anyone different from the status quo, the ruling class, the hegemony in power, was automatically seen as a lower class, deserving of derision and violence should they ever to will themselves out of a place of subservience.
Know-Nothing Riot, Washington D.C., 1857
1857 was an interesting year, to say the least. Interesting in the sense that it was riddled with multiple violent uprisings that spanned from Pittsburg to San Francisco as the Know-Nothing ideologues sought to wreak havoc on the demographically evolving American society by disrupting one election process at a time. Irish immigrants flooded the Eastern coast, French outcasts found themselves swamped in the hottest riverside hostels of New Orleans, Louisiana, and Chinese immigrants sought the American dream in the sunshine state of California. The influx of immigrants of a different race, color, creed, and faith, enraged nativist ruffians as they burned down voting centers and chased them away from polling centers.
First off, the year began with the culmination of the Dred Scott v. Sandford case where the United States Supreme Court decided that Black Americans living in free states were not privileged to legal counsel nor citizenship because they were not people but property.
“Dred Scott was a slave in Missouri. From 1833 to 1843, he resided in Illinois (a free state) and in the Louisiana Territory, where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. After returning to Missouri, Scott filed suit in Missouri court for his freedom, claiming that his residence in free territory made him a free man. After losing, Scott brought a new suit in federal court. Scott’s master maintained that no “negro” or descendant of slaves could be a citizen in the sense of Article III of the Constitution.”72
The newly elected 15th president of the United States of America, James Buchanan (1857-1861), delivers his inaugural speech, mentioning the controversial yet timely topic of slavery in passing only. His ambivalence toward emancipation was lauded by Southern states’ representatives and criticized by abolitionists in the North.
“What a happy conception, then, was it for Congress to apply this, that the will of the majority shall govern, to the settlement of the question of domestic slavery in the Territories. Congress is neither to legislate slavery into any Territory or State nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate institutions in their own way, subject only to the United States.”73
Summarily, president Buchanan did not want to federalize the issue, leaving the peculiar institution of slavery, its perpetuation or cessation, in the hands of individual states. This, as you will surmise, was the Deep South’s dream come true. Buchanan was a hero for plantation tycoons who banked on politicians who promoted the idea of each states’ right to determine whether it would enslave or emancipate its Black population.
Second, the infamous street gangs of New York City, namely, the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys waged war against each other and unassuming passersby in the Five Points slums of the Big Apple. The Dead Rabbits, consisting mostly of Irish immigrants and Catholic impoverished misfits waged an all-out war against the higher class wealthy but morally compromised nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-Irish, and anti-Catholic Bowery Boys. This nativist gang riot and street battle cost eight lives and some sources estimate that well over one hundred participants and uninvolved civilians were injured. The actual number of casualties is lost to history as gang members lifted the corpses of their fellow combatants from the streets to avoid identification. The Dead Rabbits riot would later become the source material for Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film, Gangs of New York.
And lastly, on Election Day of the same year, Know-Nothing ruffians stormed the election polling center of Washington D.C. to prevent newly naturalized citizens from voting for their next mayor. The American Party sought to disrupt this election because the new wave of voters were first-generation immigrants from nations they deemed unworthy of the American dream.
Catholic voters and voters of different national backgrounds found themselves at the end of clubs and fists every time they attempted to vote their conscience as newly naturalized United States citizens. What is baffling is just how prevalent nativist sentiments were in the United States of America and just how far these disgruntled ‘native’ Protestant Anglo-Saxons would go to keep things ‘the way they have always been.’
Know-Nothing’s influence began to dwindle in the late 1850s as traction and public interest picked up elsewhere. The new anti-slavery Republican party gained popularity as many Northerners sought to bring an end to the deplorable slave nation in the Deep South. Democrats, on the other hand, fought hard to protect their peculiar institution, namely, slavery. The country was divided as this highly lucrative and immoral business took center stage in American political life. Therefore nativist sentiments took a backseat, albeit, only a second-row backseat on the list of issues Americans were willing to wage local skirmishes over.
The American Party splintered as its many leaders throughout the nation sought personal interests over party interests. Greed and in-fighting would eventually lead to the party’s dissolution.
Washington D.C.’s incumbent mayor, John T. Towers was a staunch member and supporter of the Know-Nothing insurgency but he decided against running for mayor a second time. Another Know-Nothing disciple named Silas H. Hill threw his name in the hat for mayor of Washington D.C. but lost to a multi-party candidate named William B. Magruder.
This might have been the only time three American political parties, namely, the Democrats, the newly formed Republicans, and the outgoing Whigs came together as the Anti-Know-Nothing Party to defeat the infamous and often violent American Party.
Streets of Washington captures the tumultuous and deadly scenes of the Election Day Riot of 1857.
“In 1857, radical conservatives of the ‘Know Nothing’ party in Washington, imbued with contempt for Roman Catholics, mounted an extraordinary attempt to forcibly prevent the naturalized citizens of Washington from voting in local elections. The result was the infamous Election Day Riot on June 1 at a polling station just south of Mount Vernon Square. The New York Times called it “one of the most daring insurrectionary riots of bloodshed and murder that ever disgraced a city.” At least 8 people were killed, mostly by a Marine detachment that was called in to quell the disturbance. While the troublemakers ultimately failed in their attempt to prevent voting by Catholic immigrants, the incident was deeply embarrassing for 19th century Washingtonians and gave them a tangible sense of the tragic consequences of religious intolerance in political affairs.”74
Richard Brownell, writing for the Boundary Stones, Weta’s Local History Website explains how the uproar was so violent that the president of the United States had to take executive action to stop the riot.
“Unrest quickly spread throughout the city as non-native voters and native voters who supported them were set upon and beaten by the gangsters with rocks, knives, and bats. Local police were overwhelmed by the large crowds, and Washington Mayor William Magruder called upon President James Buchanan to restore order.
Buchanan called out a force of 110 Marines to protect polling places throughout the city. The Marines moved throughout the capital, and in some cases, their presence alone was enough to enforce calm in the streets. Much of the fighting took place later in the day when the gangs had mostly dispersed. Some witnesses claimed at the time that the Marines opened fire on a group of Plug Uglies without provocation, killing six men and wounding dozens more.”75
Streets of Washington shine a light on just how far Know-Nothing ruffians would travel to wreak havoc and how long their animosity and hatred for immigrants could last. The same bands that raised hell in Baltimore a year before were now busing from Baltimore to Washington D.C. in droves. Their goal? The destruction of their political opponents.
“That morning members of a gang of pro Know-Nothing Baltimore street toughs known as the Plug Uglies boarded an early train for Washington and were soon on city streets looking for trouble. Afterwards it would be discovered that the Plug Uglies’ train tickets were purchased with a 100-dollar bill that had been obtained at the Metropolitan Bank on 15th Street—but no one ever knew precisely who made the purchase.”76
It is strange how unknown financiers risked infamy just to fund cross-city gang travel to stop democratically elected officials from taking office. Whatever they deemed unfair, unAmerican, and unwanted would be subject to violence.
“The Baltimore Plug Uglies hooked up with two Washington gangs, the Chunkers and the Rip-Raps, to form a formidable mob of at least several dozen rowdies, perhaps many more. By around 9 am they were focusing their harassment on a line of Anti-Know Nothing voters stretching down the street from a polling station opposite the Northern Liberties Market at Mount Vernon Square. After some shoving and pushing that didn’t have much effect, the group departed briefly, returning a short time later in larger numbers and armed to the teeth. “One man was armed with a large blacksmith’s sledge; another with a horse pistol of large dimensions; a third carried a miscellaneous assortment of revolvers, bowie knives, billies, an iron bar; while a fourth carried, besides a side pocket filled with convenient stones, brickbats, &c, a large billet of oak wood of sufficient weight to fell an ox,” The Daily Evening Star reported.”77
Know-Nothing Riot, New Orleans, 1858
The last well-known Know-Nothing riot of the 1850s takes place in the diverse Creole city of New Orleans. As with most groups of like-minded extremism, the more political power the Know-Nothing party lost the more desperate and violent it became. And that was the case in 1858 when Know-Nothing nativists decided to storm the city council building to disrupt yet another election process but were repelled by a local armed militia.
A local militia called the Vigilance Committee rose to the occasion to dispel the insurgency. This committee began as a local effort to stop lawlessness and brigandry bands from terrorizing locals. The recent influx of wealth, jobs, new laborers, and immigrants brought with them unruly types who sought to exploit the growing and under-policed French-speaking citizens of New Orleans. Local law enforcement was not numerous or prepared enough to cope with the spike in crime at the hands of raiders and outlaws as they burned through towns, burglarizing, ravaging, and murdering, without consequence.
Although a Southern state, Louisiana was highly influenced by its previous owner, namely, France, and that influence allowed for an integrated multi-language society to co-exist, with grand Blancs (great or wealthy whites) owning petit Blancs (little, namely poor Irish, German, or French whites) and black Creoles, or rather, free light-skinned black French-speaking people. Light-skinned Black New Orleanians were also able to own or be socially above petit Blancs depending on their financial status and ancestry. The only reason why light-skinned Black people existed within America was that white men, predominantly slave-owning white men would ravage their Black slaves and this process would create socially despised mulattos. Racially mixed children were not entirely free from slavery but were financially stable enough to own Black people or have a better social standing than petit Blancs.
The scene in New Orleans must have been a disastrous one for most Northern states as they allowed for free Black Americans to live and roam about, although most of the North was still very much segregated. In the South, however, integration meant subjugation, and the only group allowed to be at the bottom of the political and financial food chain were Black Americans. New Orleans, initially, in antebellum or pre-Civil War South, was an integrated and less racially unequal sight to see. This disturbed other Southern states.
In Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History: An Encyclopedia, Steven Laurence Danver revisits the Know-Nothing riot in New Orleans, detailing the sequences of events that transpired in New Orleans, as a militia helped protect the city’s democratic transition of power.
“However, the main vigilance committee connected with the Know-Nothing Party was one established in mid-1858 in New Orleans. It was formed by the mayor, Charles M. Waterman, with Captain J. K. Duncan of the U.S. Army as its president. Its stated aim was ‘freeing the city of New Orleans of the well-known and notorious ‘Thugs,’ outlaws, assassins, and murderers who infest it.’ Certainly, there was fear put around by nativists about rising crime from recently arrived Irish and German migrants, and it was felt that there might be an attempt to disrupt municipal elections scheduled for June 7. Five days before the polling, Captain Duncan took his men to Jackson Square in central New Orleans, where they occupied the Cabildo, the seat of the city council and also a major courtroom, securing the place for the elections.”78
The cantankerous and loquacious Know-Nothing gang had made it their goal to instill fear of immigrants and outsiders in the minds of commoners, blaming them for the spike in crime in New Orleans, whether true or not, and then portraying themselves as saviors of the city.
It is customary of populist politicians to use demagogic language to vilify a group or an entity and then use their platform through which they can expunge, impugn, and demonize those groups and entities to then make their platform worthy of attention and influence.
Steven Laurence Danver continues:
“The place was then secured, and when the elections were held, Gerard Smith of the Native American Party, who was supported by the vigilance committee, defeated Pierre G. T. Beauregard. On the evening of the elections, Duncan wrote an open letter to Brigadier General M. Grivot, the adjutant general of Louisiana, informing him that ‘we took up arms which were are about replace in your hands at the urgent request of our fellow citizens, with the object of freeing our city from the public malefactors who have infested it for these three years past,’ from the ‘Camp of the Vigilance Committee, State Arsenal.’ The Vigilance Committee stood down, and on June 21, Stith was sworn in as mayor. Beauregard went on to become a general in the Confederate Army, leading the attack on Fort Sumter and being the victorious general at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861.”79
The local militia had to barricade itself, armed to the teeth, in the city council building just to make sure there was a peaceful transition of power from one mayor to the next.
Know-Nothing politicians, ruffians, outlaws, misfits, and violent agitators would later join the Confederate Army to continue their terroristic acts but now their crimes would be sanctioned by a new nation, the Confederate States of America.
As mentioned by Steven L. Danver, Pierre G. T. Beauregard, who ran for mayor of New Orleans as a Know-Nothing candidate and lost, would later become a general in the Confederate Army and lead the rebels in the attack on Fort Sumter which would be the battle to start the American Civil War.
These radicals were incensed by the presence of immigrants and sought to disrupt the peace by instigating riots and violence, at times killing anyone who got in their way. Know-Nothingism fell to the shadows of common thought because the question of slavery and the viability of a liberal republic that championed freedom from oppression whilst oppressing a large part of its people was crumbling as abolitionist sentiments pervaded national conscience.
Nativists would find an equally problematic cause to support and kill for in the South’s states’ rights, pro-slavery insurgency, the Confederate Army.
1861-1865: The American Civil War
The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861, as Confederate general Pierre G. T. Beauregard led an assault on Union-controlled Fort Sumter, which was located in the Charleston Harbor, Charleston, South Carolina.
This war was fought between two parties, the 20 free Union states to the North and the 11 pro-slavery Confederate states to the South. The war would last four years, with casualties estimated well above 600,000 dead. Historians vary on this number, some, believing the number to be well over 1.5 million dead, wounded, injured, or missing American soldiers and civilians.
Although Lost Cause sympathizers want to envision the cause of the Civil War as an act of Northern industrialist aggression and encroachment upon Southern agriculture, liberties, and freedoms, we mustn’t allow revisionists to distract us from the actual cause and purpose of this war: abolishing chattel slavery in the United States of America.
The argument is often launched by Lost Cause cultists that the eleven Confederate states seceded from the United States of America and initiated the war because of states’ rights. They often stop short of mentioned states’ rights for what. Southern lawyers, politicians, militias, and plantation aristocrats sought nothing more than to protect their peculiar institution of slavery because it was the bedrock of their financial stability and pride. It was also an equally reprehensible method of slavery the world had yet to see, as the methods of transport, enforcement, trade, breeding, and punishment for runaway slaves was so brutal that former pro-slavery nations ended the practice in their respective borders and financed American abolitionists to bring this horrible institution to a ruinous and expeditious end.
Pressure mounted on the United States government as it prided itself as a republic where freedom and liberty were God-given rights but a great part of its population remained under the worst form of subjugation. The world watched on and judged.
The states of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia list their reasons for separating themselves from the United States of America.
“The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.”80
“In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.”81
“The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.”82
“Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”83
“The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.”84
The Civil War, from the South’s perspective, was seen as Northern aggression and federalism at work to disenfranchise Southern whites and infringe upon the Constitutional liberties of Southern states. They wanted to protect their right to, as the state of Texas said, “The servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”
The Confederate States of America wanted nothing more than to promote the perpetual enslavement of Black Americans.
The vice president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander H. Stephens, delivered a well-received speech to Southern state officials in Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861, weeks before the start of the Civil War where he emphasized, once again, the South’s motivation for starting the war.
“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. … Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. … That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.”85
Stephens also relays his sentiments on the social differences between whites and the “negro.”
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. … They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. … With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro.”86
He then relies on the pseudo-theological mindset of the time that justified the enslavement of Africans for the enrichment of white people. This erroneous theological presupposition relied heavily on racism and also the racist pseudo-scientific study of phrenology, which studied the skulls of people of different races and determined that some were meant for intellectual work whereas others were meant for lifelong servitude. You can imagine who dictated the validity of this scientific research and who ended up at the top of the food chain. A Christianized veil of hatred, politicized, infused with cherry pickings from the Bible to suit the greed and malice of a new civilization, whilst exploiting an entire continent of African peoples, was used by people like Alexander H. Stephens to rationalize the immoral practice in perpetuity.
“Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief of the corner” the real “corner-stone” in our new edifice. I have been asked, what of the future? It has been apprehended by some that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we are obliged to, and must triumph.”87
The South’s overt racist antics and fanatic drive to protect their peculiar institution did not acquit the North’s covert racism as then-President Abraham Lincoln shared Alexander H. Stephens’s derision of Black Americans and thought of them as lower-class people, undeserving of the same social status and privileges shared between whites. Although a few of his views changed with time, namely, the naturalization of emancipated Black Americans, his view of their social status within the American narrative remained the same.
On October 15, 1858, Abraham Lincoln penned his thoughts on the matter to the Chicago Daily Press:
“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermingling with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior. I am as much as any other man in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”88
Lincoln would go on to become the president of the United States of America, leading the Union forces against the Confederate rebels. He was despised by Southern aristocrats, plantation tycoons, statesmen, slave-holders and traders, and Confederate soldiers. Although he was known and accepted as the Great Emancipator of Black Americans by many Northerners, Lincoln did not envision a world in which the two or more races could live, move, and experience the American Dream and Constitutional freedoms, equally.
On April 15, 1865, six days after the end of the American Civil War (April 9, 1865), President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by former Confederate spy John Wilkes Booth while sitting and watching a play.
Heather McGhee, the author of The Sum of Us, What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together captures John Wilkes Booth’s hatred for Lincoln shortly before the assassination.
“Anti-Blackness gave citizenship its weight and its worth. Perhaps that helps explain why so many whites reacted to the post-Civil War possibility of Black citizenship not with debate but with murderous violence. John Wilkes Booth made up his mind to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln after he heard him advocate for voting rights for Black men. ‘That means nigger citizenship. That is the last speech he will ever make… By God, I’ll put him through,’ Booth declared. He assassinated Lincoln three days later.”89
Although the Civil War was the culmination of American race rioting, the number of race riots the country would see would only increase in number and violence. The antebellum era of race riots were national attempts to keep Black people docile, servile, and in perpetual subjugation; keep immigrants from naturalization and political influence; and abolitionists and their newspapers at bay or under the bay.
What would happen next, namely, the race riots during the Civil War and the race riots after the Civil War, postbellum, would create in America a world where bloodshed, that of Black Americans, became the way in which white Americans maintained racial hegemony and power over Black Americans.
Previously, Black Americans were seen as brainless animals capable only of menial labor. They were property, not people. But once emancipated, Black Americans were then seen as sex-crazed, violent, muscle-bound, power-hungry criminals bent on destroying the fabric of American society by scandalizing white women and murdering white men. Free Black Americans were a threat to White America. The slaves were now free and whites did everything within their power to disadvantage, if not outright terrorize and murder, countless Black Americans in broad daylight and intimidate and threaten with bodily harm any white Americans who dared help them.
The Civil War had come to an end but the systemic and systematic war on Black Americans had just begun.
The Detroit Race Riot, 1863
Detroit’s 1863 race riot began with a lie, a false accusation of rape against a mix-race man, and ended with the death of innocent black citizens and the destruction of more than thirty black-owned or operated homes and businesses.
Thomas Faulkner, a very light-skinned mulatto who passed as a white man, had been falsely accused and convicted of raping two 9-year old girls; one white and one black. Both would later recant their accusations thus exonerating Faulkner of the crime. But this pattern of false allegations of violent crimes, namely, of the rape of white women and girls by black or white-passing mixed men would become the preferred method of excusable rageful rioting and lynchings for the next one hundred years.
Whether the accusation is true or not is not the case. White Americans sought any reason to dismount fire and fury upon the lowest class within society, well-knowing they would face little to no repercussions for their crimes.
The nation is two years into the bloody whirlwind of the American Civil War and the North is bleeding soldiers battles like the First Bull Run (1861), Shiloh (1862), and Antietam (1862), attempting to put an end to slavery once and for all. White Americans see fathers, brothers, and sons perish in the swamps of the South for a cause many of them deem unworthy, namely, that of the despised and hated Negro, who, according to most Northerners, were not worthy of anything more than their freedom.
National economy faced problematic woes as a result of the war and local Detroiters wanted someone to blame for the ills of society.
Faulkner’s case was exactly what they needed to appease their national anxieties.
Even though Faulkner was in custody and facing undergoing trial, locals sought to overflow the local Black community to murder and pillage the region with utmot prejudice.
Steve Neavling, writing for the Motor City Muckraker explains:
“Faulkner said he was of Spanish-Indian descent and lived with the freedoms of a white man because of his relatively light skin.
Whatever the case, Faulkner was convicted of raping the girl on March 6, 1863. A white, angry mob gathered around City Hall and began to assault black residents.
‘For some Detroiters, the Faulkner trial provided an opportunity to vent their growing frustration with the war, the national conscription law, and racial issues,’ wrote author Tobin T. Buhk in his book, ‘True Crime in the Civil War.’
The Detroit Free Press fanned the flames by blaming black people for the Civil War and suggesting that they can’t be trusted. The competing Detroit Advertiser and Tribune declared, ‘This is a Free Press mob.’
When Faulkner was led out of City Hall by the Detroit Provost Guard to begin serving his life sentence, the mob rushed after Faulkner. The Provost Guard responded by firing a shot into the crowd, killing a white man.
The shooting sent the white mob into a fury. They began throwing stones, bricks and anything else they could find at properties owned by black residents on Beaubien Street. Houses were ransacked and burned to the ground on Lafayette Street. When black residents ran out of burning buildings, they were attacked by the mob.”90
What is revelatory is how many dishonest newspapers like The Detroit Free Press instigated the riot by blaming Black people for the war and other crimes. Publishers and editors might have had their own slant against Black Americans and used their medium of information and influence to incense violence and hatred against this innocuous group of people.
Not much has changed.
Below you will find several accounts written by survivors of this devilish riot. Their heartbreaking stories help us understand just how much disdain and hatred white Detroiters had for Black Americans. What is equally saddening is that many of the rioters were German, Dutch, and Irish immigrants, perhaps using this opportunity to rid themselves of future competitors in the job market. Free Black Americans meant fewer jobs for already ostracized migrants from less prestigious and financially stabled European nations.
White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans had taught white immigrants how to treat the local body of Black Americans and it showed.
White Northerners despised Black Americans, blaming them for white deaths in the Civil War. Irish, German, French, and Dutch immigrants blamed Black Americans for lost wages and income because Black Americans did the same jobs but were paid less. And white Southerners blamed Black Americans for wanting to be something more than just chattel, property.
Here are the survivors, some burned, others cut, others hacked by men wielding axes, others knocked out cold by bricks, others yet, stabbed in the neck, retelling their stories.
“They then approached my door in large numbers, where I stood with my gun, and another friend with an axe, but on seeing us, they fell back. They approached four times determined to enter my door, but I raised my gun at each time and they fell back In the mean time part of the mob passed on down Beaubien street. After the principal part had passed, I rushed up my stairs looking to see what they were doing, and heard the shattering of windows and slashing of boards In a few moments I saw them at Whitney Reynolds, a few doors below Lafayette street Mr. R. is a cooper; had his shop and residence on the same lot, and was the largest colored coopering establishment in the city–employing a number of hands regular.
I could see from the windows men striking with axe, spade, clubs, &c, just as you could see men thrashing wheat A sight the most revolting, to see innocent men, women and children, all without respect to age or sex, being pounded in the most brutal manner.
Sickened with the sight, I sat down in deep solicitude in relation to what the night would bring forth; for to human appearance it seemed as if Satan was loose, and his children were free to do whatever he might direct without fear of the city authority.”91
“Before the house was fired, heard them say: “Let us surround the house and burn the niggers up.” So I thought my mother was burned up! No tongue can describe the feelings of my mind on that occasion; everything that we had were in burning sheets of flame! My husband, mother and other friends were all exposed to murderous assaults from those fiends; and to all human appearance there was not a friend in all the thousands that thronged and gazed upon our ruins. Who can form an idea of a female’s distress, under such circumstances?”92
“The several parts of the house and shop were attacked with indescribable fury! Doors, windows, and every part were under a shower of missiles. Axes, spades, clubs and stones, and whatever they could lay hands on to do mischief with, were freely used. It was heart appalling to see the fury with which they made their attack. No warning was given to the men engaged in their lawful avocations in the shop, till they were set upon in that murderous assault.
The workmen in the shop seemed to defend it from within; as I could see the mob falling back from the door, when they rushed as if they were going to enter. A single shot from a gun seemed to make all retreat. A short time after, I saw the flames rising from the shop. Some wretch had set it on fire!
Here I was compelled to pause, in wild astonishment, and ask myself the question: ‘What is the meaning of all this? What nation of barbarians do those families live in?’”93
“A crowd rushed up to my residence, and commenced their work of destruction in every possible way, with bricks, stones and other destructive missiles, and the torch was soon set to our house. Myself and wife, with one child, now had to make the best of our efforts to escape with our lives.
They rushed after us with demoniac rage, and their curses and yells were terrifying. We would, most certainly, have fallen a prey to them, had not the hands in the Morocco Factory, just in the rear of our lot, called to us to run through there. We took it as a great favor, for no one could tell in what direction to go–all the streets seemed to be filled with the mob.
We wandered all that night in the woods, with nothing to eat, nor covering from the cold, till morning light. With frosted feet and all our property destroyed, did the morning sun rise upon us, as destitute as when we came into the world, with the exception of what we had on, and without a friend to offer us protection, so far as we could learn. Oh, Detroit! Detroit, how hast thou fallen! No power in noonday to defend the helpless women and children from outlaws, till they have fully glutted their hellish appetites on the weak and defenseless. Humanity, where is thy blush!”94
“JOSEPH BOYD, a young man, and an excellent mechanic, was knocked in the head with an axe. After this he was unconscious, and was dragged out of the way of being destroyed by the flames. Officer Sullivan, who appeared the only authorized officer of peace that discharged his duty in the face of the mob, as was known as such. He gave poor Boyd some aid, and after having him taked to a saloon, the mob found out that the innocent victim was there, and they made a rush and dragged him out, though he was unconscious! His head gaping wide from the wounds by the axe, which were sufficient to kill him; and enough was the affliction inflicted upon him to have satisfied the most savage of a heathen tribe, even had he been guilty of some crime! But astonishing to tell, Dutch and Irish fell on him with hellish fury, and with all kinds of missiles; they beat and dragged him back as if determined to end his suffering in the flames, but came to a halt, as if their rage was abated, when they saw no stroke moved him. They considered him dead.
He lived unconscious some thirty odd hours, and died a mangled child of sorrow to appear in the judgement against the inhabitants of this city, whose blood will be required at their hands. And though no Court or Council here may do justice to the sufferers, that Council and tribunal to which we all shall appear, will give to all their due reward!”95
Detroit’s 1863 riot caused such national outrage that the city sought to implement a full-time police force to prevent future like-minded acts of social violence from happening again. Before this riot, Detroit had a limited and scattered number of police officers, some, who helped Black Americans flee from burning buildings or helped drag unconscious souls from the clutches of raving mad mobsters. But many stood idly by and did nothing.
The local administrative body took over a day to dispatch for help, requesting the assistance of a federal body of soldiers to assist in stomping out the riot.
And what is interesting is that many continued to blame the riot, the war along with it, on Black Americans. One unknown author decided to respond to such an ASININE accusation with some common sense.
“It is an inconceivable logic by which a class of men and women have wandered into a path in which they find the unfortunate race, who are deprived of all the rights of mankind, with but few exceptions, and yet on them, those of the more fortunate race, have placed the enormity of this gigantic rebellion.
To hear an ignorant rabble making such assertions, is not at all strange, but when it is found that the ignorant have received from a higher source their instructions, it is wonderful.
That the black man, without civil, political, religious, or social rights, could inaugurate a rebellion, the most terrific the world has ever beheld! A rebellion that has covered hundreds of acres of land with men’s bones, and brought mourning to the hearth stones of millions! A rebellion that has caused the expenditure of millions of dollars, more than all the slaves that have been found in the land would have cost, at an enormous price, if the Government had been moved with sympathy for this race, to have purchased them! And yet, these same slaves and their helpless free brethren have caused the war!
There is neither reason nor truth in such hypothesis, for if the haters of the colored race in the North, and the slave-holders in the South, were to be interrogated this day, to show what word or deed, in what time or place, the colored race done anything that produced the rebellion, they would be speechless!”96
New York City Draft Riots, 1863
The New York City draft riots of 1863 burned through Manhattan for four days, as working-class white New Yorkers vandalized their respective wealthy white communities and then massacred Black Americans with impunity. A collective act on the part of Anglo-Americans and Irish immigrants was to rebellion against Abraham Lincoln’s mandatory conscription orders because it forced white naturalized Northerners to fight for the Union army against the Confederate South in the final push to end slavery in America.
January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared that every soul under bondage in the Unites of America, either through the nefarious system known as chattel slavery or persons forced into indentured servitude were to be set free, without argument. This edict was the first of its kind in the United States of America.
The first group of Black Americans or sub-Saharan Africans to be forced into perpetual bondage walked the shores of Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. And from then on the American federal government and private corporations disconnected from it benefited from the exploitative nature of slavery and its more egregious step-child, chattel slavery under the protection of the law and social understanding until 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was published. Although the document emancipating Black Americans was originally penned and signed by the president in September of 1862, it was not broadcast to the nation until January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation was officially ratified and recognized by every state in the Union on December 6, 1865.
This edict was possible due to the Union’s combined effort to dispel the peculiar institution known as chattel slavery from the Confederate States of America. As thousands upon thousands of white American soldiers waded south to combat the Confederate insurgency, the president saw a need to feed the military with fresh bodies so that the war could be won and won sooner.
Therefore mandatory conscription into the Northern armed forces was implemented and white Americans were required to serve in the army to fight for the total liberation of Black Americans.
The idea of white Americans laying their lives down for Black Americans was inconceivable. Especially because many white Americans, those born in the United States and white German, Dutch, Irish, and French immigrants, did not see Black Americans as people deserving of equal social status, thereby not worth dying for. Racial hatred made it nearly impossible for white Americans of all stripes to stride into war with a clear conscience because many of them despised Black Americans; those enslaved in the South and those who were free and roamed the cities and towns of the North in search of work.
But the federal government did make an exception to the rule, allowing a select portion of very wealthy Northern whites a way out of compulsory conscription. This hierarchy enraged bigoted citizens and recently naturalized white immigrants because their financial woes made them prime candidates for the army whereas upper-class elites evaded bloodshed because they could purchase their ticket out of the war.
The Baruch College, Zicklin School of Business, a branch of the City University of New York revisits the extra layer of resentment white Northern Americans had toward Black Americans throughout the Civil War.
“As the negative sentiment for working class against African-Americans grew, the federal draft law further enflamed their hatred. This draft forced all men between the ages of 20-35 to enlist in the union army. This law applied to all except the African-American population (since they were not considered citizens) and those who could pay the $300 exemption fee.”97
Howard Zinn, an American historian and author of A People’s History of the United States, captures just how antagonistic Northern white Americans had become toward the cause of the Civil War and how they were being forced into participating in the liberation of Black Americans.
“. . . the Conscription Act of 1863 provided that the rich could avoid military service: they could pay $300 or buy a substitute. In the summer of 1863, a ‘Song of the Conscripts’ was circulated by the thousands in New York and other cities. One stanza:
We’re coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more
We leave our homes and firesides with bleeding hearts and sore
Since poverty has been our crime, we bow to thy decree;
We are the poor and have no wealth to purchase liberty.“98
White working-class Americans were forced to leave their jobs, their livelihood, their wives, and family members; beckoned by Abraham Lincoln to leave all that they held near and dear to their hearts to fight for a group of people they despised. What was worse is that Black Americans were not required, by law or compulsion, to conscript because only American citizens were allowed to join the armed forces, and seeing how Black Americans hadn’t yet become citizens, only white Americans were federally required to join.
Racism in the American South prohibited Black Americans from freedom and racism in the American North prohibited Black Americans from fighting for freedom.
Black Americans would fight in the Civil War, fighting for the liberation of their fellow Black brothers and sisters, in Union uniforms, but they were not under the same legal obligation as that of their white neighbors.
This incensed a hatred already present in Northern white communities and on July 13, 1863, the kettle finally blew, its contents melted over the Black community of New York City, pushing them into further disillusionment with the American dream of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Leslie M. Harris, the author of In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863, recounts how the mob, unsatisfied with their initial disturbance, went on to destroy property and establishments that belonged to wealthy white Americans and then the establishments and property of white Americans who were sympathetic toward Black Americans, and finally, the mob ultimately razed to the ground properties and residences that belonged to Black Americans. In each location, the mob would lynch Black Americans wherever they found them.
“The rioters’ targets initially included only military and governmental buildings, symbols of the unfairness of the draft. Mobs attacked only those individuals who interfered with their actions. But by afternoon of the first day, some of the rioters had turned to attacks on black people, and on things symbolic of black political, economic, and social power. Rioters attacked a black fruit vendor and a nine-year-old boy at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street before moving to the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue between Forty-Third and Forty-Fourth Streets. By the spring of 1863, the managers had built a home large enough to house over two hundred children. Financially stable and well-stocked with food, clothing, and other provisions, the four-story orphanage at its location on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street was an imposing symbol of white charity toward blacks and black upward mobility. At 4 P.M. on July 13, ‘the children numbering 233, were quietly seated in their school rooms, playing in the nursery, or reclining on a sick bed in the Hospital when an infuriated mob, consisting of several thousand men, women and children, armed with clubs, brick bats etc. advanced upon the Institution.’ The crowd took as much of the bedding, clothing, food, and other transportable articles as they could and set fire to the building. John Decker, chief engineer of the fire department, was on hand, but firefighters were unable to save the building. The destruction took twenty minutes.
Throughout the week of riots, mobs harassed and sometimes killed blacks and their supporters and destroyed their property. Rioters burned the home of Abby Hopper Gibbons, prison reformer and daughter of abolitionist Isaac Hopper. They also attacked white ‘amalgamationists,’ such as Ann Derrickson and Ann Martin, two women who were married to black men; and Mary Burke, a white prostitute who catered to black men.
An Irish mob then attacked two hundred blacks who were working on the docks, while other rioters went into the streets in search of “all the negro porters, cartmen and laborers . . . they could find. They were routed by the police. But in July 1863, white longshoremen took advantage of the chaos of the Draft Riots to attempt to remove all evidence of a black and interracial social life from area near the docks. White dockworkers attacked and destroyed brothels, dance halls, boarding houses, and tenements that catered to blacks; mobs stripped the clothing off the white owners of these businesses.
Black men and black women were attacked, but the rioters singled out the men for special violence. On the waterfront, they hanged William Jones and then burned his body.
White dock workers also beat and nearly drowned Charles Jackson, and they beat Jeremiah Robinson to death and threw his body in the river. Rioters also made a sport of mutilating the black men’s bodies, sometimes sexually. A group of white men and boys mortally attacked black sailor William Williams—jumping on his chest, plunging a knife into him, smashing his body with stones—while a crowd of men, women, and children watched. None intervened, and when the mob was done with Williams, they cheered, pledging “vengeance on every nigger in New York.
Black men who tried to defend themselves fared no better. The crowds were pitiless. After James Costello shot at and fled from a white attacker, six white men beat, stomped, kicked, and stoned him before hanging him from a lamppost.
When a mob threatened black drugstore owner Philip White in his store at the corner of Gold and Frankfurt Street, his Irish neighbors drove the mob away, for he had often extended them credit. And when rioters invaded Hart’s Alley and became trapped at its dead end, the black and white residents of the alley together leaned out of their windows and poured hot starch on them, driving them from the neighborhood. But such incidents were few compared to the widespread hatred of blacks expressed during and after the riots.”99
Tiffany Martinbrough, a reporter for the Gothamist, revisits the catastrophic conclusion of this four day riot in her article, A Massacre Happened In New York City In The Summer Of 1863, But Nobody Seems To Know About It.
“‘Police estimated that at least one thousand persons were killed or wounded,’ the Times reported. ‘And the committee of county supervisors, appointed to audit property damage claims, had by the end of 1863 approved payments of over a million dollars.’
But Black people received very little, if any, of that money.
‘Black people who lost land, who lost homes, who lost loved ones, they ain’t getting no insurance kickbacks,’ Ware stated. ‘They weren’t taken care of. It’s its own reparations case, the Black people who were kicked out of town or murdered or lost home and property. That’s a whole other conversation about repair that New York needs to take care of at some point in time.’
‘This was done not under the British, or under the Dutch. This is the United States,’ he stressed. ‘During the time with the British and the Dutch, you never quite had this level of scale of massive Black violence and massacre go down for a week. That is a specific American uniqueness out of all the different European powers that ever colonized this land. We are a standout for that level of violence and we don’t even acknowledge it.’”100
CUNY informs us that 4000 Union soldiers had to be called into New York City to disperse and quell the riot. Soldiers who were initially beckoned to fight their fellow countrymen in the Deep South to liberate Black Americans were now asked to fight their neighbors in New York City, in an attempt to stop them from destroying the city and its reputation as a nascent metropolis.
“The draft riots had a detrimental effect on the African-American community in downtown Manhattan. Frightened by the violence and hatred directed at them, many fled the area to live uptown; in an area we now call Harlem.”101
History informs us that the racism that kindled chattel slavery in America and fought to keep it alive in the Deep South was very much present, alive, violent, and active in the American North as white Americans, citizens and immigrants alike, fought with guns, bats, bricks, shards of glass, knives, cutlasses, and more to keep the “Negro,” as they called them, under one or another form of subjugation and social dejection forever.
The End of the Civil War
On April 9, 1865, six days before President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, the routed, defeated, and thoroughly humiliated Confederate general Robert E. Lee hands his unconditional surrender to the Union General, Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, Virginia.
“We, the undersigned Prisoners of War, belonging to the Army of Northern Virginia, having been this day surrendered by General Robert E. Lee, CSA, Commanding said Army, to Lieut. Gen. U. S. Grant, Commanding Armies of United States, do hereby give our solemn parole of honor that we will not hereafter serve in the armies of the Confederate States, or in any military capacity whatever, against the United States of America, or render said to the enemies of the latter, until property exchanged, in such manner as shall be mutually approved by the respective authorities.
Done at Appomattox Court House, Va., this 9th day of April, 1865.”R1
President Abraham Lincoln delivers his final public address in front of the White House on April 11, sharing with the public his sentiments about the end of the war.
“We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart. The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and the surrender of the principal insurgent army, give hope of a righteous and speedy peace whose joyous expression can not be restrained. In the midst of this, however, He from whom all blessings flow, must not be forgotten. A call for a national thanksgiving is being prepared, and will be duly promulgated. Nor must those whose harder part gives us the cause of rejoicing, be overlooked. Their honors must not be parcelled out with others. I myself was near the front, and had the high pleasure of transmitting much of the good news to you; but no part of the honor, for plan or execution, is mine. To Gen. Grant, his skilful officers, and brave men, all belongs.”R2
Although Confederate president Jefferson Davis, vice-president Alexander H. Stephens, and general Robert E. Lee and their band of rebels committed the act of high treason by instigating not only the separation of the Southern states from the Union but also leading the nation into a Civil War, few if any Confederate soldiers were ever charged and convicted of treason.
Abraham Lincoln, to reconcile the two-state nation into a single Union opted instead for grace, forgiveness, and forward politics instead of holding routed, albeit resilient, rebel forces accountable for starting the Civil War.
Andrew Glass, writing for Politico addresses Lincoln’s pardon-focused effort in, All Confederate soldiers gain presidential pardons, Dec. 25, 1868.
“During his presidency, Lincoln issued 64 pardons for war-related offences: 22 for conspiracy, 17 for treason, 12 for rebellion, nine for holding an office under the Confederacy, and four for serving with the rebels.
Under the terms of surrender for the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 10, 1865, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant stipulated that ‘each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.’
On May 5, 1965, the paroles were further extended so that soldiers from the 11 Confederate states, plus West Virginia, would be allowed to return home, but that “all who claim homes in the District of Columbia and in states that never passed the Ordinance of Secession (Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) have forfeited them and can only return thereto by complying with the amnesty proclamation of the president and obtaining special permission from the War Department.”
It is inconceivable to think of any other national figure following Lincoln’s footsteps after such a detrimental war. Although the president achieved what he set out to do, namely, abolish slavery and save the union, he failed to address the cancer that separated it in the first place, racism, and violent white supremacy.
Lincoln might have saved his life had his administration opted for holding the treasonous rebels and their leadership structure accountable. It might have at least postponed his mournful end at the hands of Booth.
The Union’s gratuitous show of mercy would eventually cost the country countless Black American lives. In less than five years after the end of the Civil War, Confederate soldiers— unscathed by the law for their many crimes— formed multiple white supremacist insurgency cells that would terrorize Black Americans in the American Deep South for the next century. Emboldened by a post-war sentiment that turned villains and criminals into heroes and state officials, they created their own white man’s paradise within the reunited United States of America.
The Memphis Massacre, 1866
“On May 1, 1866, the telegraphs in newspaper offices rattle with word that white mobs are marauding through black streets in Memphis. When a white policeman tries to arrest a single black man, and he resists, gangs of whites come together and start to attack African Americans. The ‘race riot’ kills forty-six, and many women are raped. All the victims are black. Union troops take three days to put an end to the so-called Memphis Riots.
If you look at this episode, you may begin to think violence is a white monopoly.
Black people in the South have seen much blood, typically as the people who bleed. Millions of slaves endure routine beatings and rapes. A culture of self-defense could not grow, because to fight back under slavery meant deadly reprisal. Over time, physical violence comes to be regarded as a white prerogative. In the slave days, a black person who strikes a white is often maimed or killed, and when slaves manage to put together a band of guerrillas, the attempt always ends in slaughter.
By contrast, about a million white soldiers come home from the Civil War with advanced degrees in gang violence. Rebel veterans know how to kill people with guns, large and small. They can move a squad in the woods, ambush, stalk, and run raids. At least half of white men younger than forty have seen and done these things.
There is also a flood of guns after the war. Gunmakers like Winchester, Remington, and Colt churn out long guns and revolvers. Guns are supposed to be surrendered with peace, and many rifles are.
The explosion in Memphis in May 1866 is both rage and a backlash. It is the first retaliation against a new world that is trying to be born.”102
Those are the words of Edward Ball, the author of Life of a Klansman. Ball revisits his family’s painful history as he uncovers the truth about a particular family member named Constance Lecorgne, a French Creole born in New Orleans, Louisiana, a slave owner, and later, Confederate Rebel. Constance would return from the war to find his slaves gone, his wealth diminished, his pride shattered, and Black Americans, some whom he had previously owned, roaming the streets of New Orleans free as day.
This Confederate rebel would join a band of malcontent deviants to form local terrorist cells we now know as Klansmen. Although the Ku Klux Klan was officially formed in Pulaski, Tennessee, the state of Louisiana had its faction of French-speaking white supremacists formerly known as the Knights of the Golden Circle in the antebellum South and then as the Knights of the White Camelia postbellum.
Lecorgne would join his local branch of bloodthirsty insurgents to raid, murder, pillage, rape, lynch, and perpetually terrorize free Black Americans and harass their sympathetic white friends, namely, Republicans.
This era, this new world where the hierarchies were subverted from free whites and enslaved blacks to free whites and free blacks could not exist comfortably within the Southern American narrative. Previously, Black Americans were seen as innocuous chattel but now that they were free from the bonds of perpetual slavery, they were seen as brutish monsters who were out to destroy the fabric of white American society.
Black Americans were transformed into criminals deserving of vigilante violence. Their crime? Being free. The aggravating factor behind their criminal conduct? Being free and proximal to white Americans.
What was initially dubbed the American Reconstruction era, a postbellum period where the fractured Union sought to readmit the defeated rebel states into the United States of America ended up becoming an age of terror. What was meant to be the spring of emancipation, naturalization, and voting rights for Black Americans would in turn become the new woefully sinister and resilient Jim Crow era. The Reconstruction effort would succeed in reuniting North and South but it would protect the egregious racial and social division between white Americans and Black Americans for generations to come.
Jim Crow was not a person but a mindset, a cultural and social-political-geographical-theological formation of a defeated body of people who sought to retain their power, honor, wealth, and privilege in the Deep South while exploiting Black Americans in each of these categories, at all costs. Dividing society into ‘whites only’ franchises or ‘separate but equal’ establishments where Black Americans were forced to sit in the back of buses, enter restaurants and entertainment venues through the back door, and ultimately left out of numerous financial and societial advantageous ventures introduced by the federal government in coming years was the agenda of white Americans.
Reparations were paid to former slave masters who found themselves now without the lucre derived from their free labor but Black Americans found themselves homeless, illiterate, and the victims of immoral laws and police brutality. Black men wandering the streets in search of work or walking around without a white man to vouchsafe his business were arrested and charged with vagrancy whereafter he was sent to state or privately owned penitentiaries to work, again, as a slave.
Poet, author, essayist, social critic, and activist W.E.B. du Bois expressed so accurately the sad reality of the postbellum Black American in his essay, Black Reconstruction in America (1935):
“The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”103
Any Black American who dared ‘overstep’ his social boundaries was dealt with expeditiously by local extemporaneous militias with absolute prejudice and impunity.
The Memphis Massacre was to become the prescribed method by which white Americans suppressed, subjugated, and enforced social norms against Black Americans for the next 102 years.
The New Orleans Massacre, 1866
The New Orleans race riot of 1866 was not a riot but a one-sided bloodbath at the hands of disgruntled former rebel soldiers. Former Confederate soldiers, newly deputized as policemen by Harry T. Hays, Sheriff of New Orleans and former General in the Confederate Army, rained bullets down on Black Americans who peacefully assembled to promote the Black suffrage movement.
This wave of violence, which began in Memphis, Tennessee months earlier found itself bubbling on the shores of Louisiana’s most popular and populous shore, New Orleans. What took place here is now known as the Mechanics’ Institute Massacre and it would signal to America that the South had replaced its fiefdom of rebels for a kingdom of bloodthirsty vigilantes.
Emancipation favoring president Abraham Lincoln is dead for well over a year and his vice president, Confederate sympathizer, and Democrat, Andrew Johnson, has taken over the reins of the nation to lead the reconstruction effort. Although Lincoln and Johnson ran on the same platform for the White House, Johnson was hesitant about the emancipation of Black Americans. He sought to keep the proclamation alive but give state power back to Southern states to do with Black Americans as they saw fit.
The only requirement he exacted upon former Rebels to receive a full pardon for their treasonous rebellion was to vow one, allegiance to the Union; two, to desist from the practice of owning slaves; three, to stop all hostilities toward Union soldiers, and, well, that was about it.
President Lincoln’s successor flooded the former Confederate region with presidential pardons, to make the reconstruction of the nation effortless and fruitful. Imprisoning insurrectionists and rebels would have shattered his goals so he opted for hyper-lenience instead. Therefore his modus operandi was to sweeten the road of national reconciliation between the triumphant Union North and the routed Confederate South.
“I, Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, do proclaim and declare that I hereby grant and assure to all persons of color who have, directly or by implication, participated in the existing rebellion, a free pardon; and that I hereby grant and assure to all white persons who have, directly or indirectly, participated in the existing rebellion, except as hereinafter excepted, a full pardon, but upon the condition, nevertheless, that every such person will, in aid of the emancipation proclamation, the legal validity of which is hereby affirmed, freely and forever disclaim, and will never assert, right or title to slaves, and that every such person will never thereafter own a slave or any interest therein, and will take and subscribe the following oath, (or affirmation:)
‘I, — –,declaring that I do, freely and forever, disclaim, and that I will never assert, right or title to slaves, and that I will never hereafter own a slave, or any interest therein, pursuant to the President’s proclamation of date — day of –, 1865, do solemnly swear (or affirm) in the presence of Almighty God that I will henceforth faithfully protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the union of the States thereunder.’”104
What stings the mind is the thought that ‘persons of color’ may have allegedly helped the rebellion ‘directly or by implication.’ Andrew Johnson of course must not have been aware of the myriad of reasons why people of color would have assisted such a treasonous state. The only logical reason why we would view a Black man or some other minority group assisting the pro-slavery South was for their mere survival and nothing else. Preservation was the only reason why anyone within that world would have placed their lives at stake for the Confederate cause. For Johnson to suggest their need of a pardon is, presently speaking, egregious.
Johnson took his oath of office on April 15, 1865, and as early as December of that same year, many Southern states, Louisiana included, began to implement Black Codes into law and social practice. These codes were enacted by the ruling class to dehumanize free Black Americans and exploit them for free labor. Anyone who refused or was found breaking the ‘law’ was then forced to work the public roads, pay a fine, and suffer ‘corporeal’ punishment. These laws gave former slave owners and plantation moguls the right to instigate terror and violence newly emancipated Black Americans with the supervision and blessing of the law.
“An ordinance relative to the police of negroes recently emancipated within the parish of St. Landry.
Whereas it was formally made the duty of the police to jury to make suitable regulations for the police of slaves within the limits of the parish; and whereas slaves have become emancipated by the action of the ruling powers; and whereas it is necessary for public order, as well as for comfort and correct deportment of said freedmen, that suitable regulations should be established for their government in their changed condition, the following ordinances are adopted, with approval of the United States military authorities commanding in said parish, viz:
Section 1: Be it ordained by the police jury of the parish of St. Landry, That no negro shall be allowed to pass within the limits of said parish without a special permit in writing from his employer. Whoever shall violate this provision shall pay a fine of two dollars and fifty cents, or in default thereof shall be forced to work four days on the public road, or suffer corporeal punishment as provided hereinafter.
Section 2: […] That every negro shall be found absent from the residence of his employer after 10 o’clock at night, without a written permit from his employer, shall pay a fine of five dollars, of in default thereof, shall be compelled to work five days on the public road, or suffer corporeal punishment as hereinafter provided.
Section 3: […] That no negro shall be permitted to rent or keep a house within said parish. Any negro violating this provision shall be immediately ejected and compelled to find an employer; and any person who shall rent, or give the use of any house to any negro, in violation of this section, shall pay a fine of five dollars for each offence.
Section 4: […] That every negro is required to be in the regular service of some white person, of former owner, who shall be held responsible for the conduct of said negro. […] Any negro violating the provisions of this section shall be fined five dollars for each offence, or in default of the payment thereof shall be forced to work five days on the public road, or suffer corporeal punishment as hereinafter provided.
Section 5: […] That no public meetings or congregations of negroes shall be allowed within said parish after sunset. […] Every negro violating the provisions shall be fined five dollars for each offence, or in default of the payment thereof shall be forced to work five days on the public road, or suffer corporeal punishment as hereinafter provided.
Section 6: […] That no negro shall be permitted to preach, exhort, or otherwise declaim to congregations of colored people, […] Any negro violating the provisions of this section shall be fined five dollars for each offence, or in default of the payment thereof shall be forced to work five days on the public road, or suffer corporeal punishment as hereinafter provided.
Section 7: […] That no negro who is not in the military service shall be allowed to carry fire-arms, or any kind of weapons, within the parish […] Any negro violating the provisions of this section shall be fined five dollars for each offence, or in default of the payment thereof shall be forced to work five days on the public road, or suffer corporeal punishment as hereinafter provided.
Section 8: […] That no negro shall sell, barter, or exchange any articles of merchandise or traffic within said parish without the special written permission of his employer, […] Any thus offending shall pay a fine of one dollar for each offence, and suffer the forfeiture of said articles, or in default of the payment thereof shall be forced to work five days on the public road, or suffer corporeal punishment as hereinafter provided.
Section 9: […] That any negro found drunk within the parish shall pay a fine of five dollars for each offence, or in default of the payment thereof shall be forced to work five days on the public road, or suffer corporeal punishment as hereinafter provided.
Section 10: […] That all the foregoing provisions shall apply to negroes of both sexes.
Captain and Assistant Adjutant General”105
And it is under this atmosphere that our next riot, or rather, a massacre takes place.
Although Abraham Lincoln vowed to emancipate Black Americans, he did not yet have in mind or had not yet developed a plan or strategy to naturalize them as citizens of the United States of America. The 14th Amendment, which afforded Black Americans that right was two years from ratification in 1868. And the 15th amendment, which afforded Black Americans voting rights, would not be ratified until 1870.
So Black New Orleanians had formed local civil rights movements with white Republicans to push for Black suffrage, namely, the right to vote. But with the spike in Black Codes, antagonism from local former Confederate officers turned councilmen, mayors, governors, police captains, etc., only stymied the progress emancipated peoples had made until now.
The rise of violent extremist groups like the Knights of the White Camelia, the defacto Ku Klux Klan of New Orleans, and former rebels turned police officers used their social acceptance as a license to terrorize Black Americans with fire bombings, horseback ride-by shootings, and public lynchings. Anything within their power to keep Black Americans from advancing.
The National Park Service relays the terror that took place on July 30, 1866, in its article, “An Absolute Massacre” — The New Orleans Slaughter of July 30, 1866.
“Friction between the Radical Republicans and Conservative Democrats only heightened as convention delegates held a political rally in the city on July 27, and New Orleans Sheriff Harry T. Hays, a former Confederate General, deputized a posse of white officers, many of whom were ex-Confederates, with the purpose of disrupting the coming gathering. The reconvened convention met as planned at 12:00pm on July 30 at the New Orleans Mechanics Institute, with 25 delegates who filed into the building. A growing crowd of opposition waited outside, while approximately 200 unarmed freedmen, mostly veterans, approached the Institute in parade form to display their support. As the Black assembly neared their destination, several bystanders harassed and assaulted them, which ignited several isolated scuffles.
The situation quickly escalated as Sheriff Hays and his recently deputized police force arrived on the scene and began to fire into the crowd, forcing many of the freedmen to seek shelter in the Mechanics Institute, while others were wantonly massacred in the street.”106
Jessica Dorman, director of publications for The Historic New Orleans Collection gives recounts what took place inside the Mechanics’ Institute in her article, “For God’s sake, don’t shoot us!”: Three views of the Mechanics’ Institute massacre.
“And then, drawing from the congressional testimony and countless other primary sources—newspapers, real estate records, court cases, oral histories—Shaik set out to describe the events of July 30, 1866, from the perspective of those who were attacked. Ludger Boguille, the longtime secretary of the Economie, “left home that morning, walking over sidewalks strewn with the golden undersides of magnolia leaves and beneath conclaves of oak trees knotted together by Spanish moss. He passed brown-skinned vendors, workingmen who were pink and sweating under the midsummer sun, people of all colors chatting, while others turned away or gave sidelong looks.” Boguille entered the hall but drifted back outside when the morning’s speeches were postponed. When the shooting began, he could have fled—but instead, he reentered the building. The slaughter defied the laws of God and man.
One victim was a white chaplain who tried to signal surrender by waving a handkerchief on a pole. The chaplain “went as far as the door and was met by a crowd of policemen, 40 or 50 in number, who immediately commenced firing, and there he was shot—about two paces from the door.” Boguille escaped with relatively minor wounds, but only because the mob at the front door was distracted. They had seized the man who exited immediately ahead of Boguille and killed him, instead.
Three to four dozen men, if not more, lay dead. Close to 150 others had been wounded, the vast majority people of color. The blame, opined the New Orleans Bee, fell fully on the victims: ‘reckless and unprincipled organizers of sedition and revolution.’”107
Edward Ball, the author of Life of a Klansman, suspects his Klansman ancestor is present at this massacre.
“I do not know with certainty whether Constant Lecorgne is among the marauders, but I believe he is. […] Yet the newspapers publish no list of killers. There is no honor roll of volunteers who claim to have joined in the attack that historians refer to as the Mechanics’ Institute Riot. And I have no photographs or letters about the day. Still, the preponderant clues say that Constant is in the streets with the other firemen, who help the police kill dozens of black people. I cannot escape the conclusion that the Mechanics’ Institute massacre is a blood baptism for him.”108
The Paluski Race Riot, 1868
What could have been resolved with a couple of rounds of fisticuffs ended up as a mass shooting, where several innocent and uninvolved black men were rounded up in a small establishment and some were shot dead by Klansmen.
Calvin Carter (black) had a business disagreement with Calvin Lamberth (or Lambeth, white) which eventually led to Calvin Carter being run out of Lamberth’s establishment with a kick in the butt.
What further aggravated this situation is that Lamberth had been seeing a black woman named Lucy Reynolds. Carter discovered this and threatened to whip Reynolds for siding with the ruling class, namely, white people.
Sub. Assistant Commissioner Michael Walsh, who wrote a report of this riot to the Freedman’s Bureau, described Reynolds as a “strumpet” or what to us is a promiscuous woman; in other instances, it is the archaic word for a sex worker.
Marc Ariel Robinson, writing for the BlackPast, describes what happens next in his article, Pulaski, Tennessee Race Riot, 1868.
“Another black man, Whitlock Fields, was also present when Carter issued his threat. Lucy Reynolds told Lambeth about the threat, and Lambeth responded by vowing to kill Carter.
At about 9:00 a.m. on January 7, Calvin Lambeth arrived at a grocery store with a blunt weapon, or ‘stick,’ looking for Calvin Carter. John Carter, an African American, owned the store. Not finding Calvin Carter there, Lambeth returned to the store around 1:00 p.m. with three white men. Armed with pistols, the four stood in front of the store until dispersed by Constable (first name unknown) Aymeet. At around 1:30 p.m., Lambeth returned alone, still armed and intending to confront Calvin Carter. Whitlock Fields then called out to Carter, from a neighboring house, warning him of Lambeth’s approach. Lambeth then fired at Fields and Fields fired back, but neither was struck by the pistol exchange.”109
What could have been the end of a minor skirmish where no one got hurt, shot, stabbed, or injured, ended up becoming the catalyst for the Klan to terrorize innocent Black Americans with impunity.
The slightest slight was seen as an act deserving of capital punishment at the hands of local vigilantes.
“Once the firing began, about eighteen white men emerged from their houses, with shotguns and pistons, and joined Lambeth in the street facing the grocery store. Calvin Carter and seven other black men were inside the store. By this point, Police Chief (first name unknown) Malone was on the scene and tried to resolve the disturbance, advising the black men that they would be safe if they would ‘keep quiet.’ Following Malone’s advice, the black men huddled together toward the rear of the store. Next, a white mob that had gathered rushed the store and fired on the huddled men. One victim, Orange Rhodes, was mortally wounded. Three others were severely injured: Calvin Carter, Ben Nelson, and Tom Butler. John Carter and another man was slightly injured.
The eighteen perpetrators included Calvin Lambeth, John Kennedy, James Taylor Jr., Sterling Payne, Robert Moore, Black Richardson, May Ezell, Percy Black, and Ed Black. All were arrested and placed under bonds of $1,500. Sub. Assistant Commissioner Walsh concluded the men were members of the Ku Klux Klan, founded in Pulaski in two years earlier in 1866.”110
Calvin Carter would later die from his injuries.
This form of societal revenge was initiated by the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist cell native to Pulaski, Tennessee, that would become the standard method of dealing with people of color for the next one hundred years.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. A native of Chapel Hill, Tennessee, Nathan would become a millionaire, by today’s standards because of the cotton industry and the brutal enslavement of Black Americans he oversaw to make it possible. His wealth afforded him the privilege to form his own Confederate band of rebels and fund it throughout the war.
He was also responsible for the most well-known Civil War war crime incident that took place at Fort Pillow. Nathan routed Union soldiers and held some 262 of them as prisoners of war. Upon discovering Black men dawning the Union uniform and fighting for the North, Bedford Forrest ordered the men killed.
Once the war came to an end, his murderous streak did not end as he went on to Pulaski to found the murderous Ku Klux Klan in 1865 before distancing himself from them in 1869 once the federal government got involved in Southern affairs to stop Klan terrorism.
The Kirk-Holden War (State of North Carolina vs. Ku Klux Klan), 1870
The Kirk-Holden War was North Carolina’s attempt and failure to suppress the numerous atrocities committed by Ku Klux Klan. The hooded white supremacist terrorist organization had taken it upon itself to wage war against newly emancipated Black Americans, Black Republicans in office, white Republicans who fought for Black Americans’ right to vote at polling centers.
Republican North Carolina governor William Woods Holden declared war on the Klan with the help of former Union colonel and cavalry leader George W. Kirk. Holden was adamant about protecting Black Americans from terror and he knew that Kirk’s history, or rather, his infamy as a Union soldier who struck fear in the hearts of Confederate rebels, would help the state of North Carolina put an end to the gangrenous supremacist growth that paraded the streets and murdered innocent people with impunity.
Governor Holden would ignore writs of habeas corpus and arrest over 100 men suspected of participating in Klan violence within the state of North Carolina. What led him to this ultimatum was the murder of two prominent American men. One was a famous black politician, and the other was a white senator.
Wyatt Outlaw, an African-American Republican, had made a name for himself in the South by establishing black schools, starting churches, and blazing the road for more Black Americans to run for office and transform the image of their world for the better. He mobilized black voters through his participation in the local Union League and helped struggling communities overcome their fear of the Klan. His mission, quite like that of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. discouraged Black Americans from arming themselves for fear of greater reprisals and mass killings at the hands of the Klan. His fervency for the establishment and flourishing of Black suffrage in the state of North Carolina made him a prime target of the Klan.
On February 26, 1870, Outlaw was dragged by the Klan from his home and murdered. They hanged his body outside the city’s capital for all to see, a strong message for other Black Americans who dared disrupt the White Rule of Terror in the state of North Carolina.
The second murder that further incentivized governor Holden to push for the mass incarceration of suspected Klansmen without charges was the killing of Republican Senator John Walter Stephens (white).
Stephens, an agent of the Freedman’s Bureau, had made several enemies in the Democratic Party, particularly within the Klan for his staunch stance against the terrorist organizations’ existence within his native state and because he fought alongside Black Americans; for their right to vote.
On May 21, 1870, while taking notes about day-to-day tasks outside the Caswell County courthouse, Stephen was surrounded by Klansmen and murdered by high-ranking citizens from his constituency.
“This hatred of Stephens by the white Democrats, coupled with the much disliked Congressional reconstruction policies, resulted in Stephens purportedly being tried and found guilty by the Ku Klux Klan. The sentence of death allegedly was carried out by Ku Klux Klan members on May 21, 1870, in the Caswell County Courthouse in Yanceyville. He was stabbed, choked, and left dead or dying on a wood pile in a rear room on the ground floor of the Courthouse. The members of the murder party purportedly were: Ku Klux Klan leader John Green Lea (1843-1935); former Caswell County Sheriff Franklin A. Wiley (c.1825-1888); Captain James Thomas Mitchell (1828-1898); James G. Denny (born 1847); Joseph R. Fowler (born c.1844); James Thomas (Tom) Oliver (1843-1883); Pinkney Kerr (Pink) Morgan (1849-1930); and Dr. Stephen Tribue Richmond, M.D. (1824-1878).”111
Civil War Era NC, a website dedicated to the History Department of North Carolina State University covered the ensuing mess and ultimate failure that would be the Kirk-Holden War.
“Governor Holden and his colleagues organized two regiments of the state militia with William J. Clarke the commander of one and George W. Kirk the commander of the other. Holden recruited both of them; his decision to recruit Kirk was questioned. The selection of Kirk would contribute to his eventual downfall. On June 20, 1870, Kirk’s commission was official, and Kirk began to enlist men. He enlisted a total of 670 men. In Alamance County, the troops occupied the county courthouse. … A week after Caswell County was declared in a state of insurrection, Kirk and his men arrived at the court house in Yanceyville, the one in which John W. Stephens was murdered, and broke up a political riot there. Within a week to two weeks, around one hundred citizens were arrested and awaiting military trials. The lawyers of the prisoners petitioned to Justice Richmond Pearson for a writ of habeas corpus. Justice Pearson issued the writ. … The writ required that the prisoners be brought before him for his decision to ensure they were being held for just cause. Kirk refused the writ because the prisoners were to go before a military tribunal. Of course Holden intervened, informing the judge that Kirk was just following orders. Pearson in his ruling approved Holden’s use of the military but denied his right to suspend habeas corpus. (Wise, 130) Despite Pearson’s ruling, Holden refused to produce the prisoners. This would be a one of the many charges brought against him in his impeachment.”112
North Carolina’s effort to thwart the Klan was itself thwarted by members of the Klan who held positions of power and influence within the state’s political sphere and also because of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant’s hesitance to stomp the Klan from the map, once and for all.
Holden would be impeached and convicted of violating the rights of American citizens for holding many of them behind bars without charge or cause.
No one was ever entirely held responsible for the waves of Klan terrorism that razed the state of North Carolina.
“Holden disbanded the militia in September 1870 and declared the state of insurrection over. The militia Holden organized silenced the Ku Klux Klan, but not until after they had accomplished their goal. The results of the election declared their victory. The Democratic Party and Conservatives gained political power of the state. While the prisoners went home to celebrations and congratulations, militia officers such as Kirk were sought out to be arrested, and they were dismissed. Governor Holden’s fate was sealed though, and the result of the election was the seal. The state Supreme Court ruled that a “Court of Impeachment is the proper tribunal to try abuses of Executive authority.” (Wise 2010, 132) The Democrats had an important victory within their grasp. Holden’s actions in the series of conflicts in the Kirk-Holden War lead to his impeachment.”113
Many presume that what the Klan had accomplished in the state of North Carolina and other Klan-controlled states in the South was an aberration of the South’s way of life. The sad truth is that what happened in North Caroline, in particular, the law siding with and protecting Klansmen after they committed several crimes, was the South’s goal all along.
Black America’s progress had been suppressed once more.
Oddly enough, starting in May 1870 and then continuing into 1871, the United States federal government would pass a series of acts, namely, the Ku Klux Klan Acts, Enforcement Acts, Civil Rights Acts, and more, to thwart the Klan’s power within state government bodies.
Holding state officials who prevented Black Americans from their right to vote legally liable to breaking the law, then allowing those states and state officials to be sued for the same crimes, and then, to be charged with a federal crime and then arrested by federal agents for preventing Black Americans from voting.
These acts, however well-intentioned, were seldom enforced and the South continued its reign of terror for years to come.
The Chinese Massacre, 1871
The 1870s and 1880s were for Chinese Americans and newly arrived Chinese immigrants what the nativism years of the 1850s were for Irish, German, and Dutch immigrants in the American North East and what American history was and continues to be for Black Americans from 1619 to date.
In fact, Anti-Coolie movements, a racist anti-Chinese sentiment within the American west would influence how Anglo-Americans viewed and dealt with Chinese migrants for the coming decades. Bestowing on them the burden of all that was wrong with society, namely, crime, economic downturn, pestilence, and immorality. It’s an age-old tactic that flourished within the American purview as anyone or any group that did not match the look, language, religious denomination, cultural and societal mindset as that of the status quo, the white American hegemony, was othered and ostracized; and eventually, many were killed.
Frank Shyong, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, pens his thoughts on the massacre in his article, History forgot the 1871 Los Angeles Chinese massacre, but we’ve all been shaped by its violence.
“The Los Angeles massacre was just one part of a decades-long campaign of anti-Chinese violence and racism, and it wasn’t even the most lethal: In Rock Springs, WY, at least 28 Chinese miners were slaughtered by a group of white miners who blamed them for economic struggles.
Beth Lew-Williams, a Princeton history professor and the author of the book ‘The Chinese Must go,’ found that between 1885 and 1887 there were 86 killings of Chinese people communities. It’s impossible to know the true scale of the violence, which went unchecked for nearly a half-century.
The massacres, forced evictions, and the constant threat of white violence against Chinese people helped pressure politicians into passing an entire system of laws excluding Asian Americans from doing business, owning land and competing for the same opportunities that white men wanted. Chinese Americans were demonized as dirty, disease-ridden, and deemed an existential economic threat. It was a half-century of racial violence that prompted the Chinese Exclusion Act and laid the groundwork for Japanese incarceration during World War II.”114
As Chinese migrants mapped the shores of California in search of work and the often elusive American Dream, local white minors and citizens sought to exploit them, using them as mine workers and paying them the lowest wages possible. They often had very little when they graced the shores of America so loan sharks would lend them money and expect the money back at unimaginably high-interest rates, further complicating their already delicate economic situation. They were forced into the ghettos of Los Angeles where they were blamed for everything that went wrong in the city.
Kelly Wallace, librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library’s History Department details what led to the massacre and the ensuing miscarriage of justice that left the Chinese community of Los Angeles nearly hopeless.
“In October, 1871, tensions were running high in Chinatown because of a feud between leaders of two rival Huignan (mutual benefit associations) over the kidnapping of a young Chinese woman. A shootout between several Chinese men broke out in the middle of Negro Alley. The ensuing response by two police officers resulted in the wounding of one of the officers and the death of a civilian who assisted the officers, Robert Thompson. The shooters took cover in the Coronel Building.
Word quickly spread that Chinese had killed Thompson, a popular former saloon owner. A bob of rioters quickly grew to 500 people, ten percent of the population of the city. The rioters forced the Chinese out of the Coronel Building and dragged the captured Chinese to makeshift gallows at Tomlinson’s corral and Goller’s wagon shop. When Goller protested that his children were present, a rioter pressed a gun to his face and said, ‘Dry up, you son of a bitch.’ After Goller’s portico cross was filled with seven hanging bodies, the crowd dragged three more victims to a nearby freight wagon and hung them from the high side of the wagon.
The next morning, seventeen bodies were laid out in the jail yard, grim evidence of the horrific events of the previous night. … Ten percent of the Chinese population had been killed.
Though a grand jury returned 25 indictments for the murder of the Chinese, only ten men stood trial. Eight rioters were convicted of manslaughter charges, but the charges were overturned on a legal technicality and the defendants were never retried.”115
As American history has shown, time and again, whenever Black Americans, whether slave or free, are mutilated by their own or by white Americans, it is fine, inasmuch as not a single white person is harmed. The moment a white American suffers the slightest harm, not to say the slightest offense, like, having to walk around a Black person on a public sidewalk, all hell breaks loose.
Los Angelenos would not have minded their despised Chinese community killing itself with bullets and daggers, nor the kidnapping of their prized children, but the moment a white officer was injured and a white business owner killed for performing the socially acceptable practice of vigilantism, 500 white law-abiding citizens rained down on Calle de Los Negros to hang uppity Chinese Coolies.
Whether the lynched and hanged were guilty of injuring the officer and killing a white man or not was not the issue. The mere presence of outsiders on American soil was an affront to the fiscal and racial survival of white Americans.
The title of Frank Shyong’s article states that history ‘forgot’ about the Chinese Massacre of 1871 but studying American history from a bird’s eye view helps us understand that this wasn’t an act of innocent forgetfulness. It was willful amnesia, preserving an image of American triumphant instead of its true face, White terror.
As historian David W. Blight accurately explains in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, as quoted by Nikole Hannah-Jones in The 1619 Project:
“Our nation’s glorious remembrance is all but overwhelmed by an even more glorious forgetting.”116
Meridian Race Riot, 1871
The Meridian Race Riot of 1871 takes place in the infamous state of Mississippi. To date, no other Southern state has earned as much national disdain because of its numerous high-profile white supremacist crimes. Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Louisiana have all had their fair share of violent crime sprees against Black Americans but none of them have struck such a low bell of injustice like Mississippi.
None of the Deep South states managed to lynch more Black Americans than white supremacists from the state of Mississippi.
In August 1955, Emmett Till was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman and attempting to court her. His assailants, two white supremacists, tied him up and drove him around, terrorizing the young 14-year-old Chicago native. Once they were done torturing him, they shot him and threw his body over the Black Bayou Bridge, weighing it down with a 70 lbs fan. His partially decomposed corpse was discovered near the Tallahatchie River. His assailants would escape justice.
And in 1964, Edgar Ray Killen, a Ku Klux Klan terrorist would stalk, hunt, chase, and lynch three Civil Rights field workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Four decades would slip by before Killen was charged with a crime and by then the only charges that stuck were three counts of manslaughter, not premeditated murder and hate crimes.
Killen’s initial trial led to a hung jury because the jury, made up of white Mississippians, could not, in good conscience, convict a baptist preacher, no matter how heinous his alleged crime sounded.
Killen’s fellow henchmen, klansmen, and police department friends who assisted in the lynchings and disposal of the bodies were never charged with a crime.
So what happened in the state of Mississippi from the 1950s and 1960s was but an extension of a long line of hate crimes and terror attacks committed by white locals as a way to placate their wrath.
Former Confederate rebels, Ku Klux Klansmen, and white identitarian groups raged against Black bodies because of the disappointing results of their Civil War. Black advancement in the South enraged these types, pushing them to their natural coping mechanism, lynchings.
White bounty hunters flooded the South in search of law-breaking Black Americans. Like the Black Codes of the state of Louisiana, Mississippi had similar pseudo-laws that were used to criminalize Black Americans for being black. Therefore these bounty hunters or vigilantes would invade black establishments in search of offenders to bring them before the law to pay a fine, provide free work for public roads under guard, go to prison, or suffer corporeal punishment as the local magistrate saw fit; at times the corporeal punishment came at the hands of white mobs.
And a bounty hunter had sought to enter a black school in Meridian in search of an alleged criminal, but a white teacher, Daniel Price, thought to use the Klans tactics against this bounty hunter by dressing up as a Klansman, disguising his identity, and then assaulting the bounty hunter to discourage him from ever setting foot in that school again.
This led the local Democrat-run establishments to use the seldom-used federal Ku Klux Klan Act against the teacher. The act was never used against actual Klansmen but whenever someone sought to use their tactics against them, namely, dawning hoods to intimidate white criminals, then the law needed to intervene because the only group allowed to perform such immoral acts was the Klan. Not people passing by as Klansmen to intimidate Klansmen.
Price was arrested and charged with Klan activity. As white citizens sought Price’s head, the city’s mayor, William Stirgus, gave Price a way out of town, willing to drop all charges if the teacher would flee the city as quickly as possible. He did.
This enraged the white locals to the point of setting the mayor’s brothers’ business on fire, although Black Americans were blamed for the fire, and this blaze consumed a great portion of their downtown district. A local newspaper claims the damages were upwards of seventy-five thousand dollars, which at the time, was a fortune.
The white mob, led by the Ku Klux Klan, sought to hold Black Americans accountable for the fire, killing several of them without cause or evidence of their being part of any crime, particularly arson.
Black Republican leaders J. Aaron Moore, William Clopton, and Warren Tyler sought to appease the Black community of Meridian, advising them not to arm themselves or to retaliate against white terror for fears of a city-wide genocide at the hands of the Klan.
But the white mob pegged the arson of their downtown district on these very innocuous Black public officials.
Their trial ensued shortly after and the Con Sheehan Courthouse was packed with hundreds of black and white spectators, many of them Klansmen, and many also armed.
Warren Tyler then confronted a white witness named Jim Brantly, accusing him of lying about Tyler’s participating in the arson. Brantly, who was on the stand and saw the interruption and accusation as an affront deserving of death, snatched a billy club belonging to a court official and rushed Warren Tyler with the intent of killing him in court.
This is where the greater Meridian Race Riot began as the courthouse erupted into violence, shots were fired, black men were killed, the white judge presiding over the case was also murdered where he sat by white locals. The pandemonium could only start and spread in a place like the state of Mississippi.
Sheren Sanders, writing for the BlackPast, details what happens next in her article, The Meridian Race Riot (1871).
“At that point, the Meridian race riot began. A shootout ensued and the presiding Republican judge and several others in the courtroom were killed.
Tyler escaped the shootout but was later chased down and shot to death by a white mob. Clopton, who was badly wounded and thrown out of the second-floor window of the courthouse during the shootout, died later that night after his throat was cut while he was under the protection of white guards in the sheriff’s office. Moore escaped to Jackson, Mississippi after being chased by a white mob. For the next two days, the angry mob led by the Klan terrorized the citizens of Meridian and killed nearly thirty other blacks. Mayor Stirgus, who went into hiding, was forced to resign his seat and flee the city.
The state of Mississippi as well as the U.S. Congress investigated the riot, but no one was ever convicted of a crime. Fearing for their own safety, hundreds of blacks left Meridian. As there was no criminal action taken against anyone in the Meridian race riot, racial violence, led by the Klan, spread throughout the South.”117
All of the defendants in the case were hunted down like dogs and murdered. Some had their throats slashed, others were thrown from windows, others yet were shot to death. The violence, which began in the courthouse would spew onto city streets and last for days.
Sadly, mayor Stirgus had to flee the city in an attempt to save his own life. Even though he was white, his bend to side with justice, meaning, he wanted nothing more than to protect innocent citizens from vigilantism and Klans terror, would cost him his career in the city and his mayor’s chair.
The local newspapers, of course, blamed Black locals for the violence, the uprising, the death of the judge, the burning of the town, and the entire series. This was a consorted effort on the part of Southern bureaucrats and citizens, to stomp out Black power and Reconstruction efforts in the South.
“Jackson, Miss., March 7.
There was a riot at Meridian, Miss., ninety-five miles east of here, yesterday, during which Judge Bramlette, of the City Court, (white), and eight or ten negroes were wounded. A fire occurred on Saturday night, destroying seventy-five thousand dollars’ worth of property. Loften, a negro, was arrested as the incendiary and was being tried before Judge Bramlette, when Tyler (negro) rose in the court-room, and shot Judge Bramlette through the head, killing him instantly. A general melee ensued. Tyler and Loften were killed instantly. J. Aaron Moore, a negro, a prominent politician, and member of the Mississippi Legislature, was also a prisoner as an accessory to the burning. He was shot; it is supposed mortally. Last night there was another fire destroying the church and other buildings. A meeting of the citizens was held, and a safety committee to co-operate with the sheriff in preserving order, was appointed. All is now quiet. Sturgess, Mayor, from Connecticut, who has been a fomenter of strife in the town, took the Northern bound train last night, promising never to return. A committee arrived here this evening to confer with Governor Alcorn in the matter.”118
The Colfax Massacre, 1873
The Colfax Massacre brings us back to the creole-dense state of Louisiana, where Black Codes abound and supremacist terrorist groups come and go to make a name for themselves.
In 1873, a group of former Confederate soldiers formed a violent extremist cell now known as the White League. Whereas the Ku Klux Klan operated under cloak and dagger, hiding their identities under hood whilst committing acts of violence and spreading death, the White League operated in broad daylight as terrorist militiamen.
At this point, Louisiana has at least three organized white supremacist terrorist cells, the Knights of the White Camelia, the Ku Klux Klan, and now, the newly baptized in blood, White League.
They were not afraid of the public because their method of quelling Reconstruction efforts and Black suffrage, however violent and public, was widely accepted throughout the South.
The White League operated throughout the day, visiting voting centers in search of Black Americans attempting to vote, where, upon discovery, they were either harassed, intimidated, or lynched in broad daylight. The Klan operated by night by paying a visit to the homes and communities of Black Americans who wanted nothing more than to practice their rights to vote but had their homes firebombed, their wives and daughters were sexually violated, and their men lynched in the light emitted by burning crosses.
Black Americans found no refuge in the American Deep South. Terror reigned by day with a face and a name and terror returned at night, dressed in white hoods and on horseback.
What happened in Colfax, Louisiana was just another wave of violence brought upon innocent and unassuming Black and white Americans who had voted in their local region but their vote was considered fraudulent by local Democrats. The spike of new Black voters in the South threatened to create a demographic shift away from racial supremacy and rule. This was unacceptable to city leaders and former rebel soldiers who had laid down life and liberty to preserve their right to a very lucrative peculiar institution through the Confederate cause.
On April 1873, the local Southern body politic sought to seize control of the local election body in Grant Parish but a small heavily armed all-black militia took residence in the town’s courthouse to prevent the supremacist takeover of their parish.
Shortly after this, a mob of 150 or more White League terrorists, followed by local Klansmen and other Democrat supporting raiders, showed up in front of the courthouse, threatening to kill everyone inside.
A small-arms skirmish ensued, both sides exchanging fire, but miraculously no one was killed in the process. As the siege continues into the night, the White League militia breaks apart and rushes out of town to kill Black Americans as a means to send a message to those inside the courthouse. People completely disconnected from the events in the courthouse were shot at and killed for merely being Black and proximal to the siege.
Upon their return to the town, they set the courthouse on fire, giving the people inside the building a false sense of safety upon exiting the building. Although the leaders of the White League promised those inside safe passage and freedom from harassment, everyone inside the building, safe women and children, was eventually led out in pairs to an empty field and executed, most of them shot in the back of the head.
Local reports believe well over 60 to possibly 150 Black Americans were executed or hunted down and shot at in cold blood by the plainclothes White League and their menacing hooded cohort.
Scott Yenor, writing for the Teaching American History forum, details the two-sided story that arose after Colfax Massacre in the Colfax Massacre Reports. One report, presented to the House of Representatives, gives an accurate account of the horror that took place in Colfax. The second was put together by Southern White supremacy sympathizers who sought to protect the image and rule of the White South, blaming the violence on Northern agitators and impetuous free Negroes. Their report was called the Committee of 70 Report.
House of Report on the Condition of the South:
“Here occurred one of the bloodiest riots on record, in which the Ku-Klux killed and wounded over two hundred Republicans, hunting and chasing them for two days and nights, through fields and swamps. Thirteen captives were taken from the jail and shot. A pile of twenty-five dead bodies were found half buried in the woods. Having conquered the Republicans, killed and driven off the white leaders, the Ku-Klux captured the masses, marked them with badges of red flannel, enrolled them in clubs, led them to the polls, made them vote the Democratic ticket, and then gave them certificates of that fact.
In the year 1873 occurred the transaction known as the Colfax massacre, to which the committee directed special attention. . . . It seems to us there is no doubt as to the truth of the following narrative:
In March, 1873, Nash and Cagaburt claimed to be judge and sheriff of Grant Parish under commissions from Governor Warmouth. After Governor Kellogg succeeded Warmouth, their friends applied to him to renew their commissions. He refused, and commissioned Shaw as sheriff, and Register as judge. They went to the courthouse, which they found locked, and Shaw and the other parish officers entered it through the window. Six days after, hearing rumors of an armed invasion of the town to retake the courthouse, Shaw deputized, in his writing, from fifteen to eighteen men, mostly Negroes, to assist as his posse in holding the courthouse and keeping the peace. The next day, April 1st, a company of from 9 to 15 mounted men, headed by one Hudnot, came into Colfax, some of them armed with guns; and on the same day one or two other small armed squads also came into town. This day no collision occurred.
April 2, a small body of armed white men rode into the town, and were met by a body of armed men, mostly colored, and exchanged shots, but no one was hurt.
These proceedings alarmed the colored people, and many of them, with their women and children, came to Colfax for refuge, perhaps a majority of the men being armed.
April 5, a band of armed whites went to the house of Jesse M. Kinney, a colored man, three miles from Colfax, and found him quietly engaged in making a fence. They shot him through the head and killed him. This seems to have been an unprovoked, wanton, and deliberate murder. This aroused the terror of the colored people. Rumors were also spread of threats made by them against the whites. April 7 the court was opened and adjourned. The alarm somewhat subsided and many colored people returned to their homes, the others maintaining an armed organization outside the town. April 12 the colored men threw up a small earthwork near the courthouse. Easter Sunday, April 13, a large body of whites rode into the town, and demanded of the colored men that they should give up their arms and yield possession of the courthouse. This demand not being yielded to, thirty minutes were given them to remove their women and children. The Negroes took refuge behind their earthwork, from which they were driven by an enfilading5 fire from a cannon which the whites had. Part of them fled for refuge to the courthouse, which was a one-story brick building, which had formerly been a stable. The rest, leaving their arms, fled down the river to a strip of woods, where they were pursued, and many of them were overtaken and shot to death.
About sixty or seventy got into the courthouse. After some ineffectual firing on each side, the roof of the building was set fire to. When the roof was burning over their heads the Negroes held out the sleeve of a shirt and the leaf of a book as flags of truce. They were ordered to drop their arms. A number of them rushed unarmed from the blazing building, but were all captured. The number taken prisoners was about thirty-seven. They were kept till dark, when they were led out two by two, each two with a rank of mounted whites behind them, being told that they were to be taken a short distance and set at liberty. When all the ranks had been formed the word was given, and the Negroes were all shot. A few who were wounded, but not mortally, escaped by feigning death.
The bodies remained unburied till the next Tuesday, when they were buried by a deputy marshal from New Orleans. Fifty-nine dead bodies were found. They showed pistol-shot wounds, the great majority of them in the head, and most of them in the back of the head.
Two white men only were killed in the whole transaction, Hudnot the leader, and one Harris. . . . [T]his deed was without palliation or justification; it was deliberate, barbarous, cold-blooded murder. It must stand, like the massacre of Glencoe or St. Bartholomew,6 a foul blot on the page of history.”119
The Committee of 70 Report:
“The most terrible and alarming threats of murder and rapine were made by the Negroes, and borne to the ears of the whites and terror, uncertainty and lawlessness prevailed from one end of the Parish to the other. . . .
About 12 o’clock, . . . the Negroes opened fire upon his force from the two pieces of improvised cannon which had been posted there. The whites returned the fire with small arms, and the Negroes retired to within their line of works near the Court House, and, lying down behind them, kept up a brisk fire with their shot-guns, rifles and pistols. The whites fired several shots from their cannon, which seemed to have done no harm whatever. Affairs continued thus for two hours, when about 2 P.M., the force under Nash, having secured a position for their cannon which commanded the inside of the line of works, opened fire upon the Negroes, who, finding their position untenable, retreated in all directions. Perhaps one hundred and fifty retreated into the woods and fields, and about one hundred took refuge in the Court House. Nash then opened fire upon that building, and one or two shots seemed to have struck its walls, without material damage. Up to this time no blood had been shed.
Instantly, the firing ceased. Mr. James W. Hadnot and Mr. Harris – unarmed, and with hands raised to show that they were unarmed – approached the Court House, calling upon the negroes to throw down their arms, and that they would not be troubled. Approaching to within ten or fifteen feet of the Court House, these gentlemen were met by a volley from the negroes, who by this time were coming out of the burning building, and both fell, mortally wounded. The whites – exasperated beyond endurance at the cowardly and treacherous murder of their comrades, thus lured to their death by the false flag of truce held out by the Negroes – closed upon them and slaughtered a large majority of them. The Court House was entirely destroyed, together with its books and records. Sixty-four negroes were killed and wounded, the loss of the whites being four wounded and three killed. . . .
We deplore in common with all good citizens, the bloody affair at Colfax. We can view it in no other light than affording another evidence of the results of the misrule and oppression of the Southern States at the hands of the Federal power.
It has its lesson to the Negro and to the white.
It teaches the former what he may expect, if in obedience to the devilish teachings of the Radical emissary, he arrays himself in hostility to the whites of the South.
It teaches the latter that acts of violence, no matter what the provocation, are construed into hostility and hatred of the National Government, and retards the day of conservative triumph.
It should teach both that their interests, their homes and destiny being identical, they should cultivate assiduously amicable relations the one with the other, and be co-laborers in the noble work of regenerating and restoring our once happy State to its pristine position of power and prosperity.”120
It is to no one’s surprise that Southern aristocrats and plantation tycoons in power and with influence over political entities and media sought to further tarnish the reputation of Black freedmen and Republicans by blaming them both for the massacre.
The message rang true and far that the Negro, as Southerners called Black Americans, would not be tolerated in their presence as free people, less so, as people holding political influence.
Their ultimate goal was the restoration of Louisiana’s “pristine position of power and prosperity” which was previously only possible because of the condemnable and exploitative practice known as chattel slavery.
Dennis Lewis, writing for the Smithsonian Magazine, depicts just how easy it was for Southern criminals to get away with disrupting democratic transfers of power with violence and death. Here is a snippet from his article, The 1873 Colfax Massacre Cripplied the Reconstruction Era.
“While the massacre made headlines across the country and 97 members of the white mob were indicted, in the end only nine men were charged of violating the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, sometimes known as the Klu Klux Klan Acts, intended to guarantee the rights of freedmen under the 14th and 15th Amendments. Lawyers for the victims believed that they had a better chance of bringing the ringleaders to justice in a federal court citing conspiracy convictions, instead of charging them with murder, which would have been tried in the heavily Democratic state courts. But the plan backfired. The defendants appealed, and when the case eventually came before the Supreme Court in 1876, the justices overturned the lower courts’ convictions, ruling that the Enforcement Acts applied only to actions by the state, not by individuals, Decker writes.
This ruling essentially neutered the federal government’s ability to prosecute hate crimes committed against African-Americans. Without the threat of being tried for treason in federal court, white supremacists now only had to look for legal loopholes and corrupt officials to continue targeting their victims, Gates reports. Meanwhile, principles of segregation were beginning to work their ways into law, with Plessy v. Ferguson officially codifying “separate but equal” just 20 years later.”121
Today, the City of Colfax refuses to alter or remove a plaque erected in 1951 in memory of the massacre, which misconstrues the events therein. Calling the massacre a riot, meaning, a civil disturbance on the part of Black Americans that needed stamping out.
“On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”
The sign, as written, still stands.
Battle of Liberty Place, 1874
Our next race riot takes us to the infamous and violence-ridden city of New Orleans. We’re two years and 228 miles (366 km) removed from the Colfax Massacre. The vigilante political party militiamen known as the White League have found steady ground in New Orleans, intimidating ‘carpetbaggers,’ or, Northern Reconstruction pushers out of the state through acts of terror and disenfranchisement.
In January of 1873, Fusionist party (Conservative-Democrat) leaders, John McEnery and his running mate, Davidson Bradfute Penn (D.B. Penn), refuse to accept the Republican party’s winning ticket for the governorship of Louisiana. Reconstruction-minded Governor William Pitt Kellogg (white) and his lieutenant governor, Caesar Carpentier Antoine (colored), are currently running the state of Louisiana, having legitimately won their right to gubernatorial leadership.
This decision enraged the White League party, namely, the Fusionist party to the extent that they set up their own government headquarters in the Odd Fellows Hall in New Orleans. Their governing body failed to garnish the attention and influence it sought because it lacked the financial backing of its constituents.
Incensed by his cumulative failures, White League sycophant McEnery musters a small militia in an attempt to take the state of Louisiana back from the hands of Northern-minded aggressors, and in March of the same year, he initiates a violent attack on the integrated Metropolitan Police of New Orleans.
The police department in the city had been integrated at the request of the Union army so that both white and black Americans would serve as enforcers of the peace in the new postbellum Deep South. Although only a quarter of the police force consisted of free Black Americans and the majority, white Irish immigrants, the White League used this integrationist idea as propaganda to promote anti-Black racism and paranoia throughout the state of Louisiana.
Their tactics were so successful that the assault on the Metropolitan Police was labeled as the Battle of the Cabildo or the First Battle of Liberty Place. The White League mob, however numerous, was dispelled by the heavily-armed Metropolitan Police and their attempted coup failed before it could begin.
We mustn’t see failed coups as one-and-done missions where the failed and flawed militiamen simply disappear into the throes of history, ashamed and forgotten. As long as dissident leaders remain alive and free, coups are always a possibility, no matter how much progress society has made.
McEnery saw his failed coup as a means to reconvene, restructure, plan, and reattempt in the near future. Not wanting to face both the Metropolitan Police and the Federal Union Army through city streets, he and his Confederate compatriots disappear from the scene until a more opportune time for another insurrection presents itself.
Come 1874, the idea of Reconstruction, namely, the reconciliation between Northern and Southern states, with the integration and enfranchisement of Black Americans into the fabric of white America, seemed to come to a screeching halt. Former Union General turned US President, Ulysses S. Grant, failed time and again to slow the violent progress of Southern Klansmen, white Knights, and White League fanatics as they painted the American Deep South red with the blood of Black Americans and their Reconstruction favoring Republican friends.
Local parish governments were violently overturned, white city officials were killed in broad daylight, Black Americans were lynched in front of statehouses, Black communities, churches, establishments, businesses, and more were razed to the ground under the weight of unrelenting fire bombings. Black Codes subjugated free Black Americans to more nefarious states of derision and bondage. Federal soldiers were unwanted in the Deep South, as local Democrat government favoring legislators and representatives opined to have all Union soldiers removed from the South for the prosperity and advancement of White Rule.
The Fifteenth Amendment, which granted Black Americans the right to vote had been ratified four years earlier but any person of color attempting to vote was turned away from the opportunity by the presence of lynched bodies hanging nearby or around ballot boxes.
President Grant had lost all control of the Deep South, save for the presence of the Union army. Americans did not want to live in a democracy where federal troops numbered the streets. Southern plantation tycoons, who bankrolled public officials, portrayed Washington D.C. as a federalist tyranny with its boot over the freedom and liberties of the South.
White League demagogues capitalized on these worrisome times by exploiting the fears of poor whites and wealthy whites, helping them band together under a social construct: race.
The presence of a colored man in the governor’s office was an inconceivable sight because the only reason colored men were free and now in office was due to “Northern aggression.” The White League went to work to displace the virus in their midst and its symptoms, namely, Black enfranchisement.
In July 1874, former Confederate officer and White League leader, Frederick Nash Ogden, was able to muster a small army of 1,500 white souls to become a belligerent sore on the Republican government body of New Orleans. Most of the militiamen were former Confederate soldiers, men trained for warfare and violence at a moment’s notice. The other portion of weaponized insurrectionists were young men who have not yet turned twenty years old.
Fanaticism spewed through the streets as young and old men, inflamed by the fires of racial superiority, sought to take back what they thought had been stolen from them. Their Southern heritage, namely, their wealth, accumulated through the exploitative nature of chattel slavery, was gone, and now the presence of Black freedmen on horses and with weapons in hand, patrolling their city streets was too much for them to bear.
On September 14, 1874, the mixture of fear, propaganda, demagoguery, misinformation, and racism kindled the city of New Orleans into a battlefield now known as the Battle for Liberty Place.
Justin A. Nystrom, writing for 64 Parishes chronicles what happens next through his article, Battle for Liberty Place.
“D. B. Penn, the Fusionist lieutenant governor, had assumed responsibility for the success or failure of the White League’s efforts. Remembering the disastrous Cabildo raid, he would not endorse any action unless satisfied that it enjoyed broad popular support in the city. Therefore, on Sunday evening, September 13, the League blanketed New Orleans with handbills announcing a “meeting of the people” around the Clay Statue that then stood at the intersection of Royal and Canal Streets and St. Charles Avenue. Perhaps five thousand people attended on Monday morning to hear speeches calling for the resignation of Governor Kellogg. A delegation from the meeting called on the governor to request the same. Kellogg refused to abdicate, but sensed the coming conflict and fled with his staff to the sanctuary of the US Custom House on Canal Street. Before leaving, he placed Superintendent Badger and militia general and former Confederate general James Longstreet in charge of defending his government. Meanwhile, the White League severed all telegraph lines leading out of the city.”122
White Leaguers, former Confederate rebels, had plans to instigate violence in an attempt to dismantle the legitimate leadership of Governor William Pitt Kellogg. Their animosity led some of their men to cut telegraph lines leading out to the city, as a way to thwart locals from attempting to contact federal troops for assistance should a siege ensue.
“Leading an unprepared mob into battle was a mistake that Ogden would not make twice. While the mass meeting took place on Canal Street, companies of the White League descended upon Eagle Hall at the corner of Prytania and Urania streets and assembled for their march downtown. … In disciplined columns, with snipers positioned in the buildings along Canal Street, the White League met the Metropolitans along Canal Street in a line extending from the levee to the custom house.
Intense fighting quickly erupted between the League and Metropolitans, while bystanders numbering in the thousands looked on. Within fifteen minutes, the battle had turned into a rout, with Metropolitans fleeing frantically toward the sanctuary of the Custom House or to their homes. The battle differed considerably from other episodes of Reconstruction-era violence in that it was an action instead of a riot or massacre. Among the dead were sixteen White Leaguers, thirteen Metropolitans, and six bystanders.
Within hours, the White League controlled the entire city. The black state militia filtered out of the surrounded statehouse and were forcibly disarmed and disbanded by the League. Meanwhile, Kellogg and the remnants of his government remained safe in the Custom House. The White League quickly set about establishing the trappings of government, including an inauguration of McEnery and Penn. Aware that much would hinge upon public opinion, they also took care to avoid outrages like the Colfax Massacre, which had happened earlier in the year, and they were mostly successful in this endeavor. Around the nation, some newspapers decried the actions of the White League, but a great many applauded Kellogg’s overthrow. President Grant, however, was incensed and ordered the army to force the League to surrender. Not wishing conflict with the federal government, three days after the League’s victory, it handed control of the city to federal troops, who in turn gave control back to Kellogg.”123
The White League under the guidance of the Fusionist party enacted its second coup, this time with great success. Surprisingly, the casualties were not in the hundreds considering the thousands of men who descended upon the city with violence and death on their breath.
In an attempt to avoid the national scrutiny that the Colfax Massacre received, the New Orleans coup opted to oust the sieged Metropolitan Police without an ensuing massacre.
The White League’s minor act of mercy did not absolve them of national scrutiny considering the nation lived and thrived off of peaceful transitions of power and not violent sabotage and subterfuge via militaristic might.
While the White League celebrated their triumphant battle, city officials opted to erect a monument in honor of those white men who died fighting for Southern liberties. And on September 14, 1881, a 35-foot-tall granite obelisk was erected in their memory as heroes of a long-lost world.
The plaque on the obelisk reads:
“McEnery and Penn having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored). United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.”
Although the monument has been moved from its original location, as a result of protests and civil unrest at the presence of such a structure, it still stands, as is, elsewhere in the city of New Orleans to this day as a reminder of the Battle of Liberty Place.
The battle where White League militants overturned an election and ruled the state of Louisiana for three days.
These events would increase in frequency, and in blood, further fracturing the reunified nation and in 1877, newly elected Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes would bring an end to the short-lived Reconstruction era by removing federal troops from the South, allowing the Southern aristocracy to rule supremely with its white iron fist.
A new age of absolute and unrestrained terror was about to begin for Black Americans. The evil of chattel slavery they left behind was to be replaced by an unchallenged regime that would flood Southern streets with blood and shroud them with menacing white hoods of death.
San Francisco Riot, 1877
The San Francisco riot of 1877 was another wave of anti-Chinese violence initiated by a disgruntled Irishman named Denis Kearny. The First Transatlantic Railroad was finished in 1869, and the Chinese immigrants that helped construct it had settled back in California, the number of Chinese emigrates reaching 75,000 by 1880. The surge in Chinese immigrants had created a dualistic society where Irish immigrants from the East settled in California in search of jobs but were often met with unemployment as worksites and mining corporations hired the Chinese for less.
Anti-coolie sentiments had spread throughout California years before, violence exploding in the slums of Los Angeles and other parts of the state, as Chinese immigrants were lynched for no other reason than their proximity to white American and white European immigrant communities. Chinese immigrants were forced to live in congested slums, at times prey to hate crimes and kidnappings, their young women forced into the sex trade by white American locals. The only way they were able to rescue their family members from the human trafficking ring was by soliciting the help of local police officers who would only perform the job if payment was advanced for their services. Their position within society had them performing the most disdained jobs. The men who could not find work in the mines or on railways were left to work the laundry mills, a job many white Americans considered feminine. Harassed by white locals, white immigrants, local police, and city thugs, the Chinese community had no option but to soldier on in hopes of attaining a slice of the American dream.
John D. Hicks, professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, described the vicious maelstrom Chinese immigrants were victims of in the 1870s at the hands of racist locals and anti-Chinese immigrants as the state of California’s financial institutions collapsed, forcing unemployed locals to seek out a scapegoat in a mutually disliked immigrant community. In his article, Unrest in California, published in The Museum of the City of San Francisco, professor John explains:
“The full effects of the Panic of 1873 arrived late in California for our on the coast the depression was scarcely felt until 1876. The year before that Californians, hypnotized by stories of some great new “bonanza” finds, had indulged in a veritable orgy of speculation. When the bubble broke, thousands had lost their savings. Agriculture, too, suffered acutely from the light snowfall during the winter of 1876-1877. Streams essential for irrigation dried up, and crops were sure to be short. Distressed farmers, as in the Middle West, blamed the railroads as well as the weather for their calamities, and not without some reason. In California the Southern Pacific had monopolized the railroad opportunities of the state. It had received the customary right land grants; it charged all the favors and other valuable privileges; its word was law with most of the state’s officials. The farmers of the coast, still enthusiastic Grangers, demanded the greater taxation of wealth, control of the railroads by a really representative state government, and an end to the railroad monopoly on land. For good measure, they held that something must be done about the Chinese.”124
As the state of California experienced the detrimental side-effects of natural disasters, ecological shifts, financial woes, and downturns, it looked to the Chinese as the source of its problems. As wealthy corporate heads gloated their way to wealth, accumulating a fortune on the backs of poor Chinese and Irish immigrants. Instead of unionizing across racial lines to create a robust and competent strike against the unlivable wages and conditions, local white immigrants opted instead to release their pent-up rage on the innocuous Chinese population of San Francisco.
Professor John D Hicks continues:
“By the summer of 1877 San Francisco had become a city of job-hunters–miners, farmhands, laborers of every kind, including the hated Chinese. The feeling was keen against the upper classes, particularly the newly rich, who lived ostentatiously on “Nob Hill,” and were accused of employing Chinese in preference to whites.
More meetings followed, and because they were held on the vacant sand-lot opposite city hall those who attended them were called ‘Sand-Lotters.’ The idol of the crowd was Denis Kearney, an eloquent but ungrammatical Irishman, who had a practice to wind up each of his harangues with the words, ‘The Chinese must go!’”125
Denis Kearny, an Irish immigrant to San Francisco, had created an environment within white strike groups to depose and rid the city of its Chinese population. According to Kearny, the Chinese were responsible for white poverty since white railroad companies hired them instead of other whites.
In one particular demonstration, Kearny decided to turn his violent rhetoric into violent action.
Katie Dowd, writing for SFGATE, details in her article 140 years ago, San Francisco was set ablaze during the city’s deadliest race riots, how Kearny started the San Francisco riot of 1877.
“On July 23, the anti-Chinese riots started when 8,000 people gathered in the vacant ‘sand lot’ in front of City Hall for another labor gathering. It didn’t take long before it devolved into a racist mob.
‘Everything was orderly until an anti-Coolie procession pushed its way into the audience and insisted that the speakers say something about the Chinese,’ historian Selig Perlman wrote in The Anti-Chinese Agitation in California. ‘This was refused and thereupon the crowd which had gathered on the outskirts of the meeting attacked a passing Chinaman and started the cry, ‘On to Chinatown.’
Along the way, the mob destroyed property, burned Chinese laundries and threatened all challengers. The police were next to useless.”126
Katie Dowd remarks that rioters pillaged the Chinese quarters of San Francisco, a devastating force disrupting work and dismantling businesses and they went, unbothered by local law enforcement. Whether police forces were overwhelmed by the scourge of bloodthirsty rioters, outnumbered by them to do anything about it, or simply unwilling to stand on the threshold against the ensuing mob we do not know. As in other instances of race riots in the American North East, say, Philadelphia, police forces stood idly by as rioters burned town halls, churches, and residences, as pyromaniacs perfected their works on minority communities. The presence of police forces in the heat of race riots was an indicator that there would be an equal absence of police action.
This outbreak of collective violence against the Chinese community of San Francisco would have been successful enough in intimidating and demoralizing its residents but news articles the following morning called for more foot soldiers to join in the scapegoat bacchanalia to oust if not entirely eradicate the Asian community from town.
Katie Dowd continues:
“The following morning, it became clear the rioting had only just begun. A local newspaper ran an ad placed by one of the mob organizers. “RALLY! RALLY! Great anti-coolie Mass Meeting at the New City Hall, Market street, at 8 o’clock p.m.,” the advertisement read.”127
Mayor of San Francisco A. J. Bryant attempted although in vain to muster courageous citizens to maintain the peace or at least refrain from engaging in the riotous adventure that had swept the city. Police forces threatened to bludgeon rioters with brand new police clubs once the wave of violence became a city-wide phenomenon that threatened to make the news throughout the nation. All this, in vain, of course, as rioters moved through the Chinese community again that very night, razing Chinese-run and operated businesses, laundromats, and the more to the ground.
Rioters set the city’s wharf ablaze, burning the equivalent of $500,000 worth of materials and whale fat to the ground as a distraction to keep city officials, namely police officers and firefighters occupied with the fire so that rioters could harass, violate, and murder members of San Francisco’s Chinese community.
The following more the Chinese community was in shambles and whatever left stand was turned black from the fires set by rioters. One business owner had been shot dead inside his place of work and left to be consumed by the ensuing flames. Overall, the damage to the immediate Chinese community of San Francisco was well over $100,000.
A riot as far-reaching as this one made national headlines to the point where United States president Chester Arthur opted to penalize the Chinese for the violence in California, signing an anti-immigration philosophy into law to prevent the number of foreign workers from Asian nations from gracing American shores with their tired and heavy laden in search of work.
Katie Dowd continues:
“The maelstrom of anti-Chinese sentiment culminated in 1882 when President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, halting Chinese immigration for 10 years and barring Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens.
The act wasn’t fully dismantled until 83 years later, when the Immigrant Act of 1965 abolished quotas based on country of origin.”128
And as for the loquacious and mendacious Irish immigrant who was a willful catalyst for this riot, Denis Kearney, went on to lead an anti-Chinese political movement that had a successful run until 1883, the year after the anti-Chinese immigration law was rectified and enforced federally.
Katie Down concludes:
Despite the outpouring of support, the effect was only temporary. The 1877 race riots signaled the amplification of decades-long hatred toward the Bay Area’s Chinese population. Later that year, San Franciscan Denis Kearney formed the Workingmen’s Party of California, a labor organization whose rallying cry was: ‘The Chinese must go!’ In the coming decade, they elected several members to the state legislature; their ballot reminded voters they were casting a vote, ‘Against Chinese.’”129
The Seattle Riot, 1886
“Feb. 6: Mob forces 350 Chinese to the docks for ‘deportation.’ Soldiers and sheriff’s deputies intervene and five men are wounded.”130
Those are the words of Vince Kueter, Seattle Times news researcher, in his article for the same news entity titled 150 Years Seattle By and By.
Anti-Coolie sentiments were so prevalent in the American West that they jumped from one state to the next, as disgruntled and unemployed groups searched out a scapegoat on which to disseminate their brutal ways. History demonstrates for us that Chinese immigrants were unsafe on these American shores from their initial advent into the country to date. Granted, the level of hostility toward Chinese Americans and Asian-Americans has experienced a revelatory quieting in these last one hundred and some years as white Americans shifted their violence toward other groups who served as a better target at the time. But in all, no immigrant group was safe upon their introduction to the American narrative.
This was, once again, the case for Chinese immigrants in Seattle.
Although the Western coast experienced a tug-of-war between economic collapse and economic boom, the city of Seattle was on its dilatory route to financial recovery. Unlike the downtrend of labor opportunities in developing cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, the city of Seattle was on its way to becoming a potent metropolitan in the American Northwest.
Paul Dorpat, writing for The Seattle Times covers this resurgence of Seattle’s economy in his article, Stacking up evidence of Seattle’s growth in the 1800s.
“In his typewritten ‘Chronological History of Seattle from 1850 to 1897,’ Thomas Prosch, the former owner/editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the city’s busiest booster, included a panegyric to the growth of his city, which, since the 1880 national census, was the largest town in Washington Territory, surpassing Walla Walla by a few hundred citizens.
The boom that began in 1886 and grew in volume and force in 1887 continued with unabated activity and vigor in 1888,’ Prosch wrote. ‘It was manifested in a thousand ways, but particularly with real estate speculation, in the platting of additions to the city, hundreds of new buildings, scores of graded streets, the new railways, banks, hotels, stores, factories, shops and people.’”131
But the spike in opportunities also increased the number of job-seekers, westward trekkers, homesteaders, and immigrant communities relocating to the region in search of work and prosperity. And the presence of Chinese immigrants only exacerbated an already fragile understanding of their intentions in the area.
Mind you, the Congress of the United States and the drafters of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 were adamant about their sentiments toward Chinese immigrants, wanting nothing more than to thwart their entry into the country, even going as far as rescinding whatever landed status they might have attained in their stay in the country.
“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or having so come after the expiration of said ninety days to remain within the United States.
SEC. 14. That hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship; and all laws in conflict with this act are hereby repealed.”132
Anti-Chinese racism was so ubiquitous within the American narrative that no matter their city or town of choice, they were, numerous times subject to the worst of horrors and violence, as locals and indigenous groups attempted to oust them no matter the cost or ramifications. And, considering how widespread disdain was shared between locals for these innocuous immigrant labor communities, police forces were either unable to or positively unwilling to do anything about it.
Phil Dougherty, writing for HistoryLink.org references just how deep this race-based hatred of the Chinese had become in America. In his article, Mobs forcibly expel most of Seattle’s Chinese residents beginning on February 7, 1886, he details the horrors further.
“In September 1885, anti-Chinese violence broke out in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where a gang of white coal miners rampaged through the Chinese section of town, killing 28. The outbreak reached King County a few days later when a group of white and Native American hop pickers fired into the tents of Chinese hop pickers in Squak (renamed Issaquah in 1899), killing three. Later that month, Chinese miners in Black Diamond (located in southern King County) were run out of town.”133
The succession of violent outbursts against the Chinese community helped dwindle their numbers as many sought refuge further away from densely populated city centers, as a way to evade racial harassment and mistreatment. The city of Seattle was then left with some 300 odd Chinese community members, perhaps unable to flee or find work elsewhere, they were primed to become victims of a consorted effort by locals to deport them from the country by any means necessary.
Phil Dougherty continues:
“As February 1886 got underway, more than half of the Chinese who had been in Seattle a year earlier had left on their own, which left between 350 and 400 in the city. Many of those who remained behind had lost their jobs and could not find other employment.
As day broke on Sunday, February 7, several groups of five or six men — accompanied by members of the Seattle police force — spread out through Chinatown, which was located in the vicinity of the red-light district. They approached each home and asked its terrified occupants various questions about the city’s cubic-air and nuisance regulations, knowing that the Chinese would be unable to give a satisfactory reply. Others entered the home, hauled out its contents, and put them in wagons.”134
Their tactics were not only meant to intimidate honest Chinese locals but to terrorize them into submission and disenfranchisement. They initially portrayed the Chinese immigrants as unworthy of the work they did on mines and railways, then subjected them to social scorn by vilifying them as effeminate men for working the laundromats, and now, under duress and the threat of eviction, they forced them into answer unanswerable questions as a way to further ostracize them in the eyes of the public. It must have been a terrible sight within the Chinese community as members who spoke little to no English struggled with these nonsensical questions, unable to explain nor request sympathy from their racially hostile neighbors.
Later that same day, hundreds of Chinese immigrants were forced from their homes, illegally evicted and shamed, and marched from their communities to the local docks at Ocean Dock, from which they were to enter boasts headed for San Francisco and where from there they would be deported to China. Locals were so animated at the possibility of their successful ouster of the Chinese immigrants that the process, albeit quick, was not quick enough for them. Their impatience mixed with their hatred kindled a commotion that later turned into a riot.
Some of the Chinese migrant workers were loaded onto boats and dispatched south whereas others managed to stay behind by the benevolence of a select few Seattle locals. The sight of returning Chinese immigrants enraged a local mob that they felt there was no other recourse in the matter other than violence. This was how white Americans learned how to maintain and progress their racially monogamous heaven on earth: violence.
Phil Dougherty continues:
“They made it as far as 1st Avenue S, where they were met by a screaming mob of about 2,000 people. The mob demanded to know where the Chinese were being taken. The guard ordered the mob to step aside and let them pass. The mob refused. A few of the guardsmen tried to arrest some of the most aggressive men in the mob.
At that, the mob attacked the guards. Fists flew, and some of the guardsmen clubbed their attackers with the butts of their guns. In response, some in the mob grabbed the guardsmen’s guns and tried to yank them out of their hands, while simultaneously daring the guards to fire. Several guardsmen fired on these men and into the mob. Five people were injured; one man, Charles Stewart, died the next morning. Upon hearing the shots, the Chinese threw their packs on the ground and lay face down on the street.”135
The rioters later dispersed satisfied with their show of force in the face of a weak and limited police force. President Grover Cleveland then ordered federal troops to the city streets, who, upon their arrival by water from Vancouver, were met by a crowd thoroughly unwilling to grant them access into the city. The crowd was cleared at the tip of the bayonet and order was then restored to the city of Seattle. Power and authority were taken back from local rioters.
By the end of this skirmish, the Chinese population of Seattle which had before the riot swelled to well over 450 members now lay with a mere fifty or so members. Brave souls who dared stay behind to strive for a better way of life, a pie of the American dream.
Although the Chinese population of Seattle would swell years later, this was not a sign of violent let-up from racist rioters but a sign of Chinese American resilience in the face of insurmountable odds. These immigrant workers had a vision in sight and were able to attain it without the want for bloodshed in the most opportune moment to defend themselves against an aggressive and unrelenting racial tyranny that existed then and excelled within the American West for years to come.
The Thibodaux Massacre, 1887
The state of Louisiana was no stranger to the normalcy in the region that became white terror. Yet another wave of racialized violence consumes the Creole parishes of Louisiana as white Americans attempt and succeed, once more, to eradicate the enfranchisement movements of Black Americans. Freedmen’s Bureau with the help of Radical Republicans and their short-lived Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) were close to giving Black Americans their much sought-after dream of voting, owning land, and living without fear of harassment. This, it seemed, was a pipe-dream.
The Thibodaux Massacre takes place in Lafourche Parish, not far in mileage nor the passage of time from the Mechanic’s Institute Massacre (1866), Colfax Riot (1873), and the Battle for Liberty Place (1874).
We are twenty-two years removed from the American Civil War. Black Americans in the American Deep South have attempted, time and again to venture into the world of politics, land ownership, land renting, workforce ownership, development, invention, and policing, all, unsurprisingly, to no avail. Former Confederate soldiers are now decades into positions of power, authority, and influence within the American South, as they successfully negotiated the ouster of Federal troops from the racist empire a decade before, leaving innocuous Black Americans easily accessible to their white terror attacks. The formation of the Ku Klux Klan, the Whites of the White Camelia, and the White League were so successful, their reach so unmistakably coordinated and accepted by white Americans of the time that Southerners were emphatic about the South being under “home rule” and “white rule” indefinitely. The South, became once again, a White Man’s country.
Black Americans had very few alternatives after the American Civil War. Many were illiterate though very competent field workers, organized in their efforts, but without homes or freedom of travel. They were forced, under the threat of arrest, perpetual poverty, homelessness, and in some cases, death, to accept unethical labor contracts to work for former slavers as sharecroppers. Their pay, as newly emancipated Black Americans, was abysmal, to the point where they opted to form a union in the region against sugar plantation owners to get an increase in wages and better working conditions for the subsistence and progress of Louisiana’s agricultural community.
Their organization was seen as a threat to the very fabric of the White American Deep South.
Calvin Schermerhorn, writing for the Smithsonian Magazine, covers to deplorable pay Black Americans were cuffed to for years. Mind you, Black Americans caught wandering the American Deep South without a work contract in hand or proper documentation as to where it was they were headed were arrested, fined, beat, and at times killed — because loitering while Black was a crime. In his article, The Thibodaux Massacre Left 60 African-Americans Dead and Spelled the End of Unionized Farm Labor in the South for Decades, Calvin further explains the gravity of the financial conditions on the sugar plantations.
“With no land to own or rent, workers and their families lived in old slave cabins. They toiled in gangs, just like their ancestors had for nearly a century. Growers gave workers meals but paid famine wages of as little as 42 cents a day (91 cents per hour in today’s money, for a 12-hour shift).
Instead of cash, workers got scrip that bought basics at high prices at plantation stores.”136
W. E. B. Du Bois clearly explained that Black Americans were cycled from one form of subjugation to another, and this was systematically implemented by White Americans in power.
“The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
As sugar cane rolling season approached, the peak of the season which required workers to move fast to preserve the quality of a harvest, Black organizers petitioned change from plantation owners. This incensed white land and business owners to the point of soliciting the help of White Leaguers, local white supremacist groups, and militiamen to force the disgruntled Black labor force either back onto the field or into a shallow grave.
They would succeed in both ventures.
John DeSantis writes in detail about the horrors of The Thibodaux Massacre in his book by the same name, The Thibodaux Massacre: Racial Violence and the 1887 Sugar Cane Labor Strike. He recounts the massacre in part from the perspective of a Black American and former Union soldier, Jack Conrad who was chased to his home by militiamen, cornered, shot, and left for dead. Surprisingly, the former soldier survives to recount his near-death experience at the hands of white militiamen and then point out the leader of the militia, his former boss.
November 23, 1887, 7:00 a.m.
Bleeding from his chest and right arm, Jack Conrad squeezed himself under the simple wood-framed house on St. Michael Street as members of the mob, maybe fifty strong, kept on firing, clouding the air with acrid smoke. ‘I am innocent!’ the fifty-three-year-old veteran called out, protesting that he had nothing to do with the strike of sugar laborers, nominally the cause of the violence. He pressed his chest against the cold ground and felt hot blood pooling beneath him. Another ball ripped through Conrad’s flesh, and he pushed his face against the earth and weeds.
Nearly a quarter century had passed since Jack and other members of the Seventy-fifth U.S. Colored Troops stormed Port Hudson, doing a job the white senior officers did not believe possible, wresting the high ground from the Rebels and opening up the Mississippi River for Yankee gunboats. They fought for their own freedom, hoping a better life would result. But the war’s outcome made little difference on the sugar plantations. Now, here he was, cornered like a cur beneath his own home, playing dead while bullets whizzed and hot, spent cartridges plinked onto the dusty street, the scuffed boots of the regulators and the hooves of their cantering, spooked horses a breath away.
‘He is dead now!’ one of the men called out. ‘Let us go.’”137
Calvin Schermerhorn of the Smithsonian Magazine relays to us the violent reprisal that ensues.
“As the cane ripened, growers called on the governor to use muscle against the strikers. And Samuel D. McEnery, Democratic governor and former planter, obliged, calling for the assistance of several all-white Louisiana militias under the command of ex-Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard. One group toted a .45 caliber Gatling gun–a hand-cranked machine gun–around two parishes before parking it in front of the Thibodaux courthouse. An army cannon was set up in front of the jail.
Then the killings started. In St. Mary, the Attakapas Rangers joined a sheriff’s posse facing down a group of black strikers. When one of the workers reached into a pocket, posse members opened fire on the crowd, ‘and four men were shot dead where they stood,’ a newspaper reported. Terror broke the strike in St. Mary Parish.”138
White militiamen showed up in force, standing shoulder to shoulder with former Confederate soldiers perhaps reliving a shattered dream. Under the protection and blessing of local governing bodies, they defended landowners’ rights against unruly and dissatisfied Black Americans.
Shortly thereafter, the massacre began.
Calvin Schermerhorn continues.
“And before dawn on Wednesday, the 23rd of November, pistol shots coming from a cornfield injured two white guards.
The response was a massacre. ‘There were several companies of white men and they went around night and day shooting colored men who took part in the strike,’ said Reverend T. Jefferson Rhodes of the Moses Baptist Church in Thibodaux. Going from house to house, gunmen ordered Jack Conrad (a Union Civil War Veteran), his son Grant, and his brother-in-law Marcelin out of their house. Marcelin protested he was not a striker but was shot and killed anyway. As recounted in John DeSantis’ book, Clarisse Conrad watched as her brother Grant ‘got behind a barrel and the white men got behind the house and shot him dead.’ Jack Conrad was shot several times in the arms and chest. He lived and later identified one of the attackers as his employer.
One strike leader found in an attic was taken to the town common, told to run, and shot to pieces by a firing squad. An eyewitness told a newspaper that ‘no less than thirty-five negroes were killed outright,’ including old and young, men and women. ‘The negroes offered no resistance; they could not, as the killing was unexpected.’ Survivors took to the woods and swamps. Killings continued on plantations, and bodies were dumped in a site that became a landfill.”139
The massacre was unstoppable not only because it was a surprise and unprovoked attack on the Black community of Thibodaux but because the militiamen had a Gatling gun, a canon, soldiers, the governor’s approval, and the culture’s blessing to eradicate any efforts by colored Americans to equalize the economic playing field for everyone involved. Not only were their efforts thwarted by white militiamen but their organizers were brutally murdered, and no one was ever held responsible for these crimes.
This massacre was ushered onto American plains at the behest of Lafourche Parish District Judge Taylor Beattie who declared martial law, and sugar planter Andrew Price, who was among the attackers and would the very next year win a seat in Congress, and the church in the region who did nothing for Black community members. Law, legislation, and religion played a part in not only perpetuating but also covering up and revising the events that took place on that fateful November day.
The blame, as you guessed it, was placed on the Black union organizers and strikers.
White local church Fr. Charles M. Menard, famous for recounting the events of each year in the church’s journals, recounts the events of the Thibodaux Massacre from a white man’s perspective.
“There was a strike, directed by the famous Knights of Labor, from the North. It concerned raising the wages of those who work during the sugar cane grinding season. The negroes, the large majority being simple and very ignorant allowed themselves to be led by bad advisors. Some of them went out on strike and wanted to prevent the others from working. There was much concern among the planters who foresaw the possibility of their abundant crop being lost by what could be a very disastrous delay in grinding. They were obliged to find new workers and to take precautions for their protection against violence from the strikers. Several shots were fired at the non-striking workers during the night and several were slightly wounded. Militia companies were organized. A militia company with a machine gun came from New Orleans. Thibodaux was flooded with striking negroes, who began to make threats to burn down the place. It became necessary to place guards throughout the town. Everyone armed himself as best he could. On Nov. 23, about 5 o’clock in the morning, a picket of six men stationed on the edge of town was fired upon. Two of them were seriously wounded…
This fusillade angered the other guards who rushed to the scene and began firing on the group of negroes from whence the shots had come. It was every man for himself. A dozen were killed and there were some wounded. The day passed with marches and countermarches to force the unemployed negroes and those without a domicile to evacuate the town. All left promptly to go to the country. The negroes realizing that they had been tricked and duped went to the plantations and asked for work without conditions. Thus was concluded the famous strike which was bad for both the planters and the workers. Grinding proceeded in calm and peace to the satisfaction of all.”140
The Thibodaux Massacre was so successful in terrorizing Black Americans of the region and throughout the American Deep South that Black Americans did not attempt to unionize again, with such fervency, until Civil Rights leader and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. graced the plains of the South in the 1960s with his siding in favor of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike.
The Jaybird-Woodpecker War, 1888-89
The Jaybird-Woodpecker War takes us to the dusty plains of Richmond, Texas, near Fort Bend where a racial-political skirmish developed because the domineering white population was unwilling to share their political power with Reconstruction radicals.
The election of 1888 favored the Woodpeckers, Democrats supported by Republicans, a group in favor of Reconstruction ideals. Their disgruntled political opposites were the Jaybirds, Democrats who represented the wealthiest white groups in the region. Their quibbling over which group should control their district and town led to altercations that would eventually become violent when the Jaybirds lost the election in 1888.
At one point, Black Americans were told to leave town, having been given ten hours to do so by local officials. Knowing the history of the region, the animosity toward Black skin and the impunity whites had in destroying Black communities were all these fearful residents needed to abandon their residences and livelihoods in search of refuge elsewhere.
Pauline Yelderman, writing for the Texas State Historical Association better explains the upsurge in racialized violence that had more white Americans killing other white Americans in hopes of maintaining the myth of white superiority over Black Americans. Here is more from her article, Jaybird-Woodpecker War:
“On August 2, 1888, J. M. Shamblin, Jaybird leader, was killed. In September Henry Frost, another Jaybird leader, was seriously wounded. The Jaybirds held a mass meeting at Richmond on September 6 and resolved to warn certain Black people to leave the county within ten hours. They did so. Members of both factions were armed, and Texas Rangers were stationed in Richmond. The heaviest vote in the history of the county was polled on election day, which passed peacefully. Again the Democrats were defeated and the Woodpeckers left in control. After the election the breach between the factions widened. There were insults, assaults, threats, and denunciations-and two more killings. Kyle Terry, Woodpecker tax assessor, killed L. E. Gibson at Wharton on June 21, 1889; a week later Terry was killed by Volney Gibson. The county became an armed camp, and the “Battle of Richmond,” on August 16, 1889, became inevitable.”141
In an attempt to squash what remained of Reconstruction efforts, white Texans enacted political and physical terror on their political opponents with impunity, losing one leader after the next, never discouraged from their murderous schemes.
Leslie Anne Lovett, emphasizes the gravity of this insurrectionist movement in the state of Texas in her article, The Jaybird-Woodpecker War: Reconstruction and redemption in Fort Bend County, Texas, 1869-1889.
“The Jaybird-Woodpecker War, which culminated in August 1889, brought a violent end to a unique twenty-year period of biracial government in Fort Bend County, notable for outlasting reconstruction in the rest of the former Confederacy. Through the auspices of the Jay Bird Democratic Association of Fort Bend County, an all white political organization, county whites established one of Texas’ first white primaries, effectively negating black political involvement at the county level. Between 1869 and 1889 blacks and whites experienced a revolutionary period of political equality; on August 16, 1889, county whites revolted against post-war changes in their society, restoring white supremacy as the guiding principle of Fort Bend County politics.”142
Black Americans, once more, had their Constitutional rights ripped from them at the hands of white insurrectionists who used crowds, gun powder, bayonet, and rope to redeem power back from a racially diverse government. The Thirteenth Amended afforded Black Americans the right to emancipation, the Fourteenth the right to citizenship, and the Fifteenth, the right to vote. But in the state of Texas, white Southerners made sure that none of those federal mandates made any difference in their newly established white kingdom as they used every means available to them to disenfranchise and oust Black Americans with impunity.
Leslie Anne Lovett concludes her thoughts on this two-year war for racial superiority with these words:
“But to white Ford Bend, their idea of reform was to install a white county government. In 1889 Fort Bend witnessed a counter-revolution, as white Ford Bend reasserted its dominance over county affairs. It would be another half-century before black Fort Bend County resumed the revolution begun in 1865.”143
New Orleans Lynchings, 1891
The New Orleans lynchings of 1891 were unlike any of the postbellum lynchings because here we find white Southerners lynching white immigrants instead of their preferred standard victim group, Black Americans. In the antebellum era, Americans sought to discard from their communities anyone who stood against their highly lucrative exploitative economic system, the slave trade. When the rise of abolitionist (anti-slavery) sentiments broached America’s shores, pro-slavery fanatics went out of their way to raze homes, churches, and buildings to the ground wherever abolitionists would gather. When anti-abolitionist sentiments dwindled, white Americans found new victims in foreign laborers and immigrant groups that had recently moved to the United States in search of work and livelihood, many of them fleeing religious or political persecution at home. Irish immigrants were harassed in the American North East while Francophone Creoles were subjugated to second-class status in Louisiana even though many of them were of fair skin, and the Chinese immigrants in the American west we subject to all forms of horror and deportations because of the disdain white Americans held for the bunch.
No other group in American history was a more favorite recipient of white racial violence than the Black American community. But towards the end of the 1800s, America experienced an influx of yet another immigrant community in the spike of Italian natives moving west of the Atlantic in hopes of building a life for themselves in the golden American narrative. Little did they know was that they too would soon become victims of not racial violence but ethnocentric and nativist extremists.
Not unlike the Know-Nothing political and militia movement of the American North East, where anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant fanaticism set in motion a wave of violence against immigrant communities and Catholic Christians, these New Orlean natives sought to reduce the power Italian immigrants had within the city’s political sphere. Now, decades later, the presence of yet another Catholic minority group graced the American plains, and white American protestants, having held positions of power and influence over racial lines for centuries, begin to wonder how other white groups will attempt to sabotage their political gains.
Fallacious propaganda is spread about Italian immigrants, denouncing them as either thugs or members of organized mafia families. These misconstructions of the new immigrant community were all that was needed to prepare the city of New Orleans, which was an already hostile environment for minorities, to lynch eleven innocent Italian Americans in broad daylight.
Daniela G. Jager, a German author, better explains the motivation for the public lynching in her journal article, The Worst “White Lynching” in American History: Elites vs. Italians in New Orleans, 1891:
“New Orleans Police Superintendent David C. Hennessy’s assassination on October 15, 1890 has become a classic murder mystery. When Hennessy returned home from a Police Board meeting, he was mortally wounded and died. According to Captain William J. O’Connor, the dying superintendent declared, “The Dagoes did it!” Soon after the shoot-out more than one hundred Italians were rounded up at random and taken to prison. From the beginning, Mayor Joseph A. Shakespeare supported the notion that the murderers were Italian. He appointed a Committee of Fifty, almost exclusively representing the city’s white elite, to investigate the Hennessy assassination.
On March 13, 1891, the court announced its verdicts regarding the first nine defendants in the Hennessy case: a mistrial as to the three and a not guilty verdict for the six Italians, confirming the weakness of the evidence against them. The next morning the most respective citizens became leaders of the mob that slaughtered eleven Italians, ‘to remedy the failure of justice.’ — This greatest ‘white lynching’ in American history caused a temporary crisis in relations between Italy and the United States, but none in the mob was charged.”144
This surge in white-on-white violence was another indicator that white Americans were unwilling to share their political power with groups they deemed unworthy of the helm or inferior to their master race. And the unusual behavior of raiding a prison or jail in search of assailants deserving of vigilante violence was a practice normally reserved for Black Americans accused of murder or criminal indecency with white women.
Daniela G. Jager relays just how willing the white citizenry of New Orleans was to not only allow this kind of scapegoating to take place but also partake in it as a steeple of what is required of law-abiding white American citizens in the matter.
“Five to ten thousand people gathered on March 14, 1891 on Canal Street at the Henry Clay statue, a defiant symbol of citizens’ rights. Among the participants were members of the Young Men’s Democratic Association (Y.M.D.A.), who were especially committed to the ‘unwritten, higher law’ of vigilante justice. They regard themselves as American patriots. Leading the mob was William S. Parkerson, a lawyer and political leader of the Democratic Party, who had been Mayor Joseph A. Shakspeare’s campaign manager in 1888. He fired the first verbal shots:
‘I am a plain American citizen, and as such, and as a good citizen, I am here… Crimes must meet prompt punishment… Murderers must be given their deserts. The jury has failed. Now, the people ha[ve] to act. I ask you, citizens of New Orleans, whether we shall suffer this infamous condition of affairs any longer? (Cries of no! No!)…’
Parkerson, John C. Wickliffe, one of the editors of The Daily States and James D. Houston, a Southern planter, together with sixty armed men, went inside the prison. Six of the defenseless prisoners were shot in the main yard, three others in the gallery. Emmanuelle Polizzi and Antonio Bagnetto, the first to be shot, were subsequently hung outside the prison to calm down the furious crowd. The Italians were neither tortured nor hung ritually. Instead, the lynchings were intended to intimidate the victims’ even more prominent colleagues.”145
The Italian communities relocated to survive, as most immigrant communities would learn to do, eventually growing in number and political influence in the American Mid-West and the American North East in the coming century, mobilizing family ties not only as a means to further legal and illegal dealings but also as a means to protect themselves against another undeserved and unexpected wave of nativist violence.
It was not until 2019 that an African American Mayor of New Orleans LaToya Cantrell formally recognized and apologized to the Italian community for the horrors they suffered in her city well over one hundred and twenty-eight years before.
“What happened to those 11 Italians was wrong, and the city owes them and their descendants a formal apology. … At this late date, we cannot give justice, but we can be intentional and deliberate about what we do going forward.”146
New Orleans Dockworkers’ Massacre, 1895
The state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans are no strangers to racial animus as the region became infamous for the presence and prevalence of white supremacist groups that led night raids and day riots against the Black American communities of the time without care for reciprocation from victims or consequence from authorities.
This incident of racial violence was instigated in part by racial animus and economic depression, as Black workers were paid the lowest wages for dock work, their unions under-bidding white competition every time, to retain some level of work for their members and thus solidifying contracts that in turn kept white working men out of work. Instead of promoting cross-racial unionization, a joint venture petitioning for better work for men of every race and nationality, white locals sought to kill off the competition, literally.
Some white locals, out of sympathy for their Black dockworkers, walked off work in a collective strike in favor of better wages and working conditions. This decision solidified the fates of many Black dockworkers as the combined and ineffective interracial effort was seen as an affront to the white ruling class and this level of disrespect would not be tolerated and would require expedient disciplinary repercussions.
Daniel Rosenberg wrote a book on the subject titled, New Orleans Dockworkers: Race, Labor, and Unionism 1892-1923. In it, he retells the riotous violence that befell the Black dock working community of New Orleans in the fall of 1985.
“On the night of October 26, between 150 and 200 whites, armed and masked, raided the ships stowed by Blacks; they threw 96 jackscrews — the screwmen’s tools — into the Mississippi River. The following afternoon, armed whites attacked Blacks working on the ships. Again tools were thrown overboard. Storage sheds were torched. Although the white screwmen’s local quickly denounced (and issued its statement in English, French, and German) ‘any acts of individuals… which can only tend to bring this association into disrepute,’ whites burned wharves and destroyed cotton at dockside.”147
There was no winning with white New Orleans natives as they sought to sap Black Americans of their freedom and when that failed they sought to disenfranchise them. When that, too, failed, at the onset of the Reconstruction, they then began killing them where they could and they killed them with impunity. In this case, the dockworkers were initially paid a lower wage, then harassed for the same, and then, in the thick of night, encircled and murdered like wild animals by their fellow white countrymen. Their only crime was their pursuit of honest work and fair wages in the newly emancipated South.
Robert H. Zieger, author of For Jobs and Freedom: Race and Labor in America since 1865, retells the same series of events with a more critical view of just how hostile white Americans were toward a racially diverse workforce where some planned to unionize across racial lines in favor or better pay and working conditions.
“Optimism about interracial harmony failed to survive the grim 1890s. A series of bitter strikes, both stemming from and exacerbated by the depression that began in 1893, stretch racial collaboration on the New Orleans waterfront to the breaking point. Black and white screwmen and longshoremen began a ‘race to the bottom,’ each group seeking to underbid the other in the hope of claiming scarce jobs for itself. In March 1895, frustrated by the continued employment of blacks, white screwmen and longshoremen turned to violence, attacking black dockworkers on several occasions in organized assaults. On March 12, several hundred white workers emerged from the morning mist to drive out a black crew loading an ocean-bound freight. ‘Bullets sand and whistled round the wharf like hail,’ a New Orleans newspaper reported. Fleeing blacks ‘were given no quarter and were shot down like dogs… blood flowed like water.’ Six African American dockworkers were killed in this assault and another that occurred the same day upriver.”148
Plessy v. Fersuon 1898
This landmark Supreme Court decision would solidify de jure discrimination in America from its implementation in 1898 until it was finally overturned by another tantamount decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). From the 1890s until the 1950s, the United States protected racial apartheid that legally segregated people on phenotypic differences, namely, race.
No other law was more a catalyst for the nationalization of Jim Crow segregation tactics, laws, policies, procedures, policing policies, incarceration disparities, housing opportunities, or the negation of the same, job and employment opportunities, military service, religious service, and just about every single facet of American life. Everything and everyone was divided between the line of the white race and colored races.
The Legal Information Institute provides us with a concise overview of this case which sided with the infamous state of Louisiana against a man who was mostly white but carried the then supposedly diseased and inferior bloodline of Black Americans.
“Louisiana had adopted a law in 1890 that required railroad companies to provide racially segregated accommodations. In 1892, the state of Louisiana prosecuted Plessy, a man who was 7/8 Caucasian and 1/8 Black, for refusing to leave a passenger car designated for whites.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Brown, upheld the Louisiana law, reasoning that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution was designated to enforce the political equality of blacks and whites but not intended to abolish social inequality. Thus, the Fourteenth Amendment did not encompass segregation, and states could permissibly exercise their police power to enforce segregation as a matter of public policy. The Court also held that the state statute itself was not based on an assumption of black inferiority, nor did it stigmatize blacks with second-class status; rather, ‘the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.’”149
Thereafter, by national edict, the “separate, but equal” clause was added to the annals of American society.
A decision that was considered an unmistakable “win” for the recently routed and embarrassed but now triumphant and domineering American Deep South. The visibility of “no coloreds,” “colored water fountain,” “colored restroom,” or “colored entrance” signs was now protected and enforced by national law as much as it had been previously enforced by local militiamen clad in white hoods.
Plessy v. Ferguson was such a successful law that it continues to affect Black Americans to this day. Most of the communities that exist as they are today, some very dilapidated, abandoned, adapted, and accepted as “ghettos” where crime festers, poverty depresses, and drugs pervade are all, without a doubt, mostly Black communities or Latin American communities. The only people given freedom of travel, access, housing, and the opportunity for financial and social advancement from this date forward, were white. It is no wonder that so many Americans refuse to confront the reality of their nation’s original sin — not slavery, but racism.
The playing field has never been leveled, we’ve just noticed and acknowledged its tilt.
Phoenix Election Riot, 1898
The Phoenix election riot takes place in Greenwood County, South Carolina, where white rule and white redemption have been in the works to return formerly Republican-led government bodies to the hands and rulership of radical Democrats. One family, that of the Tolberts, wanted nothing more than to enfranchise Black Americans. Many of the Tolberts had fought in the Confederate Army but were against the cause, although they were themselves, slave owners.
The issue escalated when the number of Black Americans superseded that of white Americans in that county and the possibility of their being able to vote and possibly overturn white rule was inconceivable. One of the Tolbert brothers wanted to get signed affidavits from Black Americans who were denied the right to vote to then produce a case against the county in federal courts. His actions were so contradictory for a Southern white American that local Democrats mustered their militiamen to kill the usurpers and put an end to a resurgent Reconstruction movement in their county.
Tom Henderson Wells wrote an article published to Clark Atlanta University called The Phoenix Election Riot, which better explains just how grievous a sin it was to attempt to enfranchise Black Americans in the Deep South.
“The crossroads community of Phoenix in Greenwood County, South Carolina, was racked with violence in November, 1898. Within a few days a dozen persons were shot to death and an unknown number, probably twice that many, were wounded. Among the victims were several prominent men of the area, a little boy, and an old Negro woman. Houses were vandalized, Negroes whipped, and the countryside was terrified by the sight of heavily armed white mobs by day and the fear of murderous black gangs at night.
In 1895 South Carolina had adopted a new constitution, an intricate document designed to disenfranchise Negroes while permitting whites to vote. By 1896 Negro voters had been reduced by more than two thirds, and it appeared that few Negroes would be able to vote in 1898. If the constitution of 1895 and election practices depending upon it continued to go unchallenged, citizenship would be worthless for Negroes.
After Tolbert had taken affidavits from twenty-two Negroes, he saw two of Gaines’s men, two miles from the polling place at which they were judges, J. L. ‘Bose’ Ethridge and Robert Cheatham, pushing their way through the crowd. Ethridge contemptuously kicked over Tolbert’s box, ink, and blank forms, then hit him over the head with the box or a stick. His companion bashed Thomas in the head and arms with a stick. Joe Circuit, a massive Negro whom rumor said was about to be appointed a postal clerk by a Tolbert, retaliated with a blow with a metal object, fracturing Ethridge’s skull. Shots rang out. A general melee followed, in which shotguns, pistols, and rifles all figured. Tolbert, struck by several shots, was sure that all the firing was done by Gaines’s men, on the piazza upstairs, and across the road. Other witnesses, mostly boys, reported seeing Circuit pull a pistol and fire it at Ethridge. As more and more whites came piling downstairs from the polling place, shooting into the crowd, Negroes, some wounded, fled in all directions. Tolbert careened out. Ethridge lay still on the floor, a bullet hole through his forehead, and his skull smashed.”150
This sequence is likened to that of an action-adventure story where good men are forced into an impossible position by numerous evil men and once there they’re required to take a stand against all that is wrong. Had it not been for Joe Circuit, this monumental Black man, Tolbert would have suffered a torturous fate at the hands of insurrectionist Democrats. And although Tolbert’s pursuers lost sight of him in the thick of the shooting they rounded up at his residence and ransacked the place in an attempt to find him or at least destroy his property.
But the band of raiders would soon return with more men and more weapons to hound down Tolbert and Circuit, in hopes of catching them alive to enact all sorts of horrors upon them. Sadly, however, they were nowhere to be found, luckily escaping their pursuers, leaving behind many innocent and uninvolved Black Americans to bear the full weight of white terror that followed.
Although locals feared rumors of an armed Black menace lurking the streets in search of blood, nothing came of such fancies. These were spread to further animate white Southerns to kill Black Americans indiscriminately, and so they did.
Tom Henderson Wells continues his record of this riot below:
“A more responsible group of about thirty or forty men came from Greenwood that same morning and went to Aix for a meeting with whoever of the Tolberts were there. Ann and Thomas and possibly Thomas Nathaniel… Ann wrote:
‘Mr. McKinley, Capt. (F. S.) Evan’s, a reporter in from Greenwood. Mr. McK was greatly excited, could not hear a word of our agony from the mob Tuesday afternoon. Said they were in great terror… the people believed the woods were full of armed col[ored] people. We told them we had seen no armed colored people. All we had seen were running for life. We were assured if we advised the col people to disband, we would be protected… The col were never armed & were driven from fields & shot indiscriminately. Many were lynched… The mail came & when I read of the lynchings I fainted & was not able to be up Friday. I am up now… if we made a mistake, it was in giving out affidavits, & if we had known there was danger, would not have done it. We surrendered at the polls & since then have been worse treated than Cubans by Spanish.’”151
White locals were discontent with their limited bloodlust and sought to round up innocent Black Americans, forcing false confessions out of some under the threat of death with ropes tied tightly around their necks. When false confessions were attained by the mob, those under the restraint of ropes were shot where they stood and others where they kneeled, all this taking place in front of a church.
“Ropes were placed around the necks of the Negroes. Some confessed to having fired at Ethridge or at Miller and his friends. Others admitted only to have been at the polls. Twice the Peace Committee quieted the mob; then feelings boiled up again. McKenny, limping from his wound, was led to a log, tied, and shot down. Slug after slug tore into his body. This murder caused some whites to free their captives; white Cleave Armstrong was shot in the neck by a member of the mob for releasing Latimer, and E. C. Ruse (brother of the editor of the Columbia State) risked his life to save another Negro. But three Negroes, Columbus Jackson, Jesse Williams, and Drayton Watts, were tied and could not escape. They were shot. The four dead men were left lying on the log in front of the church. Rain fell that night and the next while the corpses stiffened.”152
Tom Henderson Wells concludes his thoughts on this race riot with a distanced condemnation of the acts which transpired in Phoenix, South Carolina.
“Seen from almost seventy years later, the Phoenix riots mark a turning point in history. White supremacy became a legal as well as an economic and social reality. When courts released coercive mobs, when the President failed to act, and when Congress failed to investigate the election, a chance was lost for the development of a real Republican Party in South Carolina, as well as in the rest of the South. The Tillman constitution of 1895 was clearly discriminatory and should at least have been challenged in federal courts. Instead, it and similar constructions in Mississippi and elsewhere were fastened on the South, perpetuating the alliance between astute, conservative white leaders and backward, illiterate white followers.”153
Tolbert was nearly mortally wounded but survived long enough to be arrested and dispatched to a federal penitentiary to await trial for a crime he did not commit and to evade the ensuing and satanic white mob that wanted his blood and his ideas erased from the American narrative forever.
United States President William McKinley had the ripest opportunity to confront the prevalent of white terror attacks in the American South but opted instead to decry the wave of disturbances and remind the American public that although Black Americans should be able to vote, constitutionally speaking, they are not to be considered equal to whites because whites, to his estimations, are the superior race.
“But President McKinley also had to consider an increasing acceptance all over the country of the belief that Negroes were destined to remain at the bottom of society because of innate mental and moral deficiencies. In the North as well as in the South, postwar idealism had fallen before the idea that white men were and should remain supreme.”154
The Wilmington Insurrection, 1898
“The Democrats and most white citizens of the State feared a return to the corrupt and financially devastating rule of Republicans as had been experienced during reconstruction in the late 1860s. Waddell led white Wilmingtonians in their effort to shut down a racially inflammatory black newspaper, and then became mayor of Wilmington after the unpopular Republican regime had resigned. As mayor, ‘Waddell quickly restored sobriety and peace, demonstrating his capacity to act with courage in critical times.’ He continued in this office until 1905, leading a responsible and honest government.”155
That is how one biography portrays the events of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. Glorifying white supremacist champions became a cheerful recreational event in the American Deep South, as many sought to give further credence to the violence they had just participated in, the blood of innocent Black Americans still wet on their shoes.
But this narrative, that of a triumphant Waddell, standing tall over a corrupt and cowering Republican Party is a revisionist trope used to stupefy the masses into ignorant submission. Akin to what the Nazis would have done had they won the war, claiming the Jews were responsible for the war, the camps, the ovens, the mass graves, and that doing away with them was the best thing that could have happened for everyone involved in the major misunderstanding that became the war.
Adrienne LaFrance and Vann R. Newkirk II writing for The Atlantic better shape this horrific toppling of a lawfully elected government body by insurrectionist white supremacists. In their article, The Lost History of an American Coup D’Etat, they declare that this was the only successful coup that ever took place on American soil. To my limited understanding, white Americans have successfully overthrown non-white governments and ruling communities since they first stepped foot on Turtle Island, namely, what we know today as North America. It seems it is only a coup if the government body that is displaced is the one placed there by white Americans. Those of yesteryear, who belong to different racial or ethnic groups, are less deserving of such a term, less so of our attention.
But Adrienne and Vann frame this insurrection with an excellent quality of retaining the facts and the historically accurate understanding of why the insurrection happened and just how horrific it was for the Black community of Wilmington, North Carolina.
“By the time the fire started, Alexander Manly had vanished. That didn’t stop the mob of 400 people who’d reached his newsroom from making good on their promise. The crowd, led by a former congressman, had given the editor-in-chief an ultimatum: Destroy your newspaper and leave town forever, or we will wreck it for you.
They burned The Daily Record to the ground.
It was the morning of November 10, 1898, in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the fire was the beginning of an assault that took place seven blocks east of the Cape Fear River, about 10 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. By sundown, Manly’s newspaper had been torched, as many as 60 people had been murdered, and the local government that was elected two days prior had been overthrown and replaced by white supremacists.”156
What began as an unprovoked write-up by a white supremacist woman calling for the lynching of scores of Black Americans, for fear that the innocent group would ravage and rape white women on demand led to mass hysteria. Evidence supports the opposite. White slave owners and later white land owners, police officers, militiamen, and white supremacists were undeniably sexual deviants who voraciously consumed the bodies of black women and black girls, evident in the presence of mixed children or mulattos. It was inconceivable that a Black man would bed a white woman, producing mixed-race children. Therefore the only acceptable and historically accurate documents we have available to us now show that the true sexual monsters of the age were white men who knew they could commit all sorts of horrors in Black communities and then claim Black men were the deviants. Of course, the evidence does exist of Black men coupling with white women. Not even the threat of bodies hanging from poplar trees could dissuade true love — love that crossed racial lines.
The name of this racially animated, disgruntled, and cantankerous white woman who called for an upsurge in lynchings was Rebecca Latimer Felton and in her write-up, she specifies the “why” there exists a need for such expediency in ridding the South of Black men.
“If it needs lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from human beasts, then I say Lynch a thousand times a week if necessary. The poor girl would choose death in preference to such ignominy, and I say a quick rope to assaulters! The crying need of women on the farm is security.”157
Alexander Manly, the owner and editor of The Daily Record retorts Felton’s erroneous narratives, intelligently calling out the hypocrisy of a false purity narrative within the white community; their false religious piety that seldom exuded more than rape or murder when in contact with people of a different race; and he unashamedly called on Felton to start cleaning house in her racial group first before condemning the suspected ills of her people in the Black communities.
Here is Alexander’s response, at length in parts, published on August 18, 1898.
“Mrs. Felton, like many other so-called Christians, loses sight of the basic principle of the religion of Christ in her plea for one class of people as against another. If a missionary spirit is essential for the uplifting of the poor white girls, why is it? The morals of the poor white people are on a par with their colored neighbors of like conditions and if one doubts that statement let him visit among them. The whol[e] lump needs to be leavened by those who profess so much religion and showing them that the presence of virtue is an essential for the life of any people.
Mrs. Felton begins well for she admits that education will better protect the girls on the farm from the assaulter. This we admit and it should not be confied to the white any more than to the colored girls. The papers are filled often with reports of rapes of white women and the subsequent lynchings of the alleged rapists. The editors pour forth volumes of aspersions against all Negroes because of the few who may be guilty. If the papers and speakers of the other race would co[n]demn the commission of the crime because it is crime and not try to make it appear that the Negroes were the only criminals, they would find their strongest allies in the intelligent Negroes themselves; and together the whites and blacks would root the evil out of both races.
We suggest that the whites guard their women more closely, as Mrs. Felton says, thus giving no opportunity for the human fiend, be he white or black. You leave your goods out of doors and then complain because they are taken away. Poor white men are careless in the matter of protecting their women, especially on the farms. They are careless of their conduct toward them and our experience teaches us that the women of that race are not any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with colored men than are the white men with colored women. Meetings of this kind go on for some time until the woman’s infatuation, or the man’s boldness, bring attention to them, and the man is lynched for rape. Every Negro lynched is called a ‘big burly, black brute,’ when in fact many of those who have thus been dealt with had white men for their fathers, and were not only not ‘black’ and “burly” but were sufficiently attractive for white girls of culture and refinement to fall in love with them as is very well known to all.
Mrs. Felton must begin at the fountain head if she wishes to purify the stream.
Teach your men purity. Let virtue be something more than an excuse for them to intimidate and torture a helpless people. Tell your men that it is no worse for a black man to be intimate with a white woman than for the white man to be intimate with a colored woman.
You set yourselves down as a lot of carping hypocrites in fact you cry aloud for the virtue of your women while you seek to destroy the morality of ours. Don’t ever think that your women will remain pure while you are debauching ours. You sow the seed–the harvest will come in due time.”158
This published riposte single-handedly roused the racial animus of white Wilmingtonians into their devilish bloodlust demanding Manly’s head on a platter. They used his prophetic jeremiad, having called their hypocrisy to account, to burn his newspaper to the ground. An ignorant negro was a threat to innocent and defenseless white women but an intelligent negro was a threat to the fabric of American society.
Alexander Manly had to go.
Not satisfied with the ouster of a reputable Black editor and the arson of his establishment, Wilmington white supremacists went on to remove the fairly elected Republican government, to re-instate, or rather, redeem the American Deep South from the hands of Black sympathizers and carpetbaggers.
Toby Luckhurst, writing for the BBC, covers this story in his article, Wilmington 1989: When white supremacists overthrew a US government.
“Following state elections in 1898, white supremacists moved into the US port of Wilmington, North Carolina, then the largest city in the state. They destroyed black-owned businesses, murdered black residents, and forced the elected local government – a coalition of white and black politicians – to resign en masse.
Historians have described it as the only coup in US history. Its ringleaders took power the same day as the insurrection and swiftly brought in laws to strip voting and civil rights from the state’s black population. They faced no consequences.”159
While we can easily look back at this sad moment or rather the continuation and never-ending sadness that is white American history, we can distinguish between this horrific wave of violence against Black Americans for what it was, white terror, and the romanticized idea white supremacists turned it into years later. Many Southerners see this event differently. Lost Cause sympathizers have revised the meaning of the Wilmington Insurrection, this disgraceful crime spree, and molded it into a triumphant story of American heroism in the face of anti-American agitators.
The Cape Fear Historical Institute, perhaps a haven for Lost Cause conspiracy theorists, clearly demonstrates just how problematic white supremacist revisionist history can be in the face of contradictory and condemning evidence. They attempt to portray Alfred Moore Waddell, the leader of the Wilmington Insurrection, as a hero, when we know he is the lowest of racist vermin to ever grace our history books (the Wilmington Insurrection wasn’t taught in history books, shocker).
“Waddell wrote in 1908: ‘Long continued evils borne by the community with a patience that seems incredible . . . culminated on the 10th day of November  in a radical revolution accompanied by bloodshed and a thorough reorganization of social and political conditions. It is commonly referred to as the Wilmington riot, and legally and technically it may be properly so termed, but not in the usual sense of disorderly mob violence, for, as was said by an army officer who was present and witnessed it, it was the quietest and most orderly riot he had ever seen or heard of.’
He adds: ‘A Negro printing office was destroyed by a procession of perfectly sober men, but no person was injured until a Negro deliberately and without provocation shot a white man, while others, armed and defiant, occupied the streets, and the result was that about twenty of them were killed and the rest of them were scattered.’
Waddell was elected mayor of Wilmington after the unpopular Republican aldermen, half of whom were appointed by Russell, had resigned in accordance with the City Charter. As mayor, ‘Waddell quickly restored sobriety and peace, demonstrating his capacity to act with courage in critical times.’
Knowing that many black residents had fled to the woods to escape the violence, he sent “search parties of kindly disposed white men into the woods to bring them back to safety and comfort.”160
The End of the 1800s
White Americans are the proud perpetrators of thirty-seven race-related riots, a Civil War, multiple insurrections, one coup d’etat, massacres, and numerous waves of night raids and daytime lynchings as a result of the humanization, emancipation, enfranchisement, and advancement of the Black American in this ASININE (American Standard to Invalidate and Nullify Intelligent Negro Expansion) era.
The coming century will show the world just how resilient white supremacy has become with the explosive re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan on a national scale.
We will soon visit the 20th century as it spawns an age of horrors beyond our comprehension: The era of White Knight Terror.
To be continued in Race Riots: An American Heritage – Part II: 1900-1965.
One response to “Race Riots: An American Heritage – Part I”
[…] I’ve written at length about racial terror in America from 1800 to 1900 in my article, Race Riots: An American Heritage – Part I. […]