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Grappling With the Overthrow of Reconstruction

Two new books ask us to shift our attention away from the white vigilantes of Jim Crow and instead focus on what it meant for the survivors.

Andi Rice/Bloomberg/Getty Images
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice remembers the more than 4,400 African Americans lynched in the United States.

In 1885, 14 years after white vigilantes stormed their homestead, Hannah and Samuel Tutson, both formerly enslaved, were living in St. Johns, Florida, a small town near the state’s northeastern coast. Hannah was now in her mid-fifties, her husband, Samuel, in his mid-sixties, and two of their three children, 20-year-old S.L. and 15-year-old Mary, still lived with them. Apart from these bare facts, the record is silent on how, or even if, the Tutson family managed to rebuild their lives in the wake of the attack.

Did they sell their 160-acre plot of land, or did they decide to simply leave it behind and prioritize making it out of the area alive? Did their youngest daughter, Mary, suffer from an irreversible disability—brain damage, paralyzed limbs—from the way the attackers threw her 10-month-old body across the room? And how did Hannah and Samuel’s marriage fare after they each witnessed the other subjected to appalling violence? Did they even discuss the sexual assault she endured at the hands of their white assailants? Did they talk about how the vigilantes mercilessly whipped him after they tied him to a tree? Or was it too difficult even to speak about that night, with too great a risk of reopening the wound?             

The Tutsons’ experience of extrajudicial racial terrorism in the aftermath of slavery was not unique. In the century between Reconstruction and the civil rights movements, tens of thousands of Southern Black men, women, and children—the exact number is unknown—were shot, bludgeoned, gang-raped, and hanged from trees, nearly all by posses of white men trying to reimpose something like the racial and economic order that existed under slavery. Few of the perpetrators were convicted or even tried, and the fact that we know anything at all about what happened to survivors like Hannah and Samuel Tutson comes from their willingness to testify before an only occasionally receptive federal government. 

Historians call this period the Jim Crow era—when, after Reconstruction, racial apartheid was imposed in the South and reinforced by extralegal anti-Black violence that came to be known as “lynchings”—and the focus tends to be on the motivations of the white perpetrators, the spectacle of the lynching itself, the failure of local and federal officials to intervene, and how it challenges the general narratives we tell ourselves about racial progress, freedom, and democracy. But two new books ask us to shift our attention away from gruesome details of individual attacks and the political culture that enabled them, and instead focus on what it meant for the survivors—how a century of anti-Black violence affected its victims and the generations of Black families and communities that lived in its wake.

Kidada E. Williams’s wrenching and urgent new book, I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War against Reconstruction, examines the initial wave of racial terrorism that engulfed the South in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Williams, a prominent historian of racial violence who teaches at Wayne State University, mostly draws on two well-known sources: the thousands of survivor testimonies collected by the federal government in 1871 as part of the “Klan hearings”—a federal investigation into the crimes committed by the recently formed Ku Klux Klan—as well as the 1930s Works Progress Administration interviews, an attempt by FDR’s administration to collect the oral histories of slavery’s aging survivors. Rather than mine these documents in the way historians typically do—for the leads they give us into the limits of Reconstruction and the motives of the aggressors—Williams instead pays attention to what historians “have often rushed past”: the stories that survivors told about what these terrorist raids did to their families, their communities, and their efforts to build independent lives after emancipation.

I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War against Reconstruction
by Kidada E. Williams
Bloomsbury Publishing, 384 pp., $30.00

By rooting her history in the intimate lives of survivors, Williams highlights the considerable gains of the Reconstruction era. Freedom for most freedpeople during Reconstruction “wasn’t simply about being released from bondage, being paid for their labor, or even legal equality.” The three major constitutional amendments that capture the essence of Reconstruction—the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment, which effectively made all Black Americans U.S. citizens and entitled them to equal protection before the law; and the Fifteenth, which gave Black men the right to vote—were a backstop intended to ensure that newly emancipated Black Americans could attain the basic rights that slavery had denied them: the rights to marry, to gain control of their children, to own land, attend schools, pass down wealth, build churches, and secure fair wages. Becoming a citizen and voting were, in short, not only ends in themselves but also means, giving Black Americans the freedom to form families and communities of their own choosing.

With this definition of freedom and its transformation of everyday life, Williams challenges arguments that Reconstruction was a failure by design. A vocal subset of racial justice activists contend that Reconstruction laws and amendments were intentionally riddled with loopholes and deliberately unenforced. The Thirteenth Amendment, for instance, included an exception that allowed incarcerated people to be used as slave labor, and few freed Black people got the one thing most of them wanted—land—meaning that most would remain in a form of debt bondage to their former masters. Williams might be overstating the extent to which practicing historians subscribe to this view of Reconstruction, but she is not wrong to suggest that it has recently gained prominence in popular culture. Daryl Michael Scott, a leading critic of this view and respected historian of African American history, has even given it a name: “Thirteentherism,” nodding to the Oscar-winning 2016 documentary Thirteenth, by Ava DuVernay, which traced a straight line from the Thirteenth Amendment to mass incarceration.

Williams, an advocate of racial justice herself, convincingly challenges this cynical view of Reconstruction. She reminds readers that for the tens of thousands of freed Black people who were now legally able to own land, build families, attend churches, and send their children to schools, Reconstruction was, in the words of Eric Foner, an “unfinished revolution.” That families like the Tutsons were terrorized to the point of fleeing their land is not evidence of Reconstruction’s failures, she argues, but of the rapacity of the Southern white war against it. As Williams and others have put it, Reconstruction was not a failure: It was “overthrown.”

To counteract the notion that Reconstruction’s promises were meaningless, Williams highlights the real gains that many freed Black Southerners made under the protection of Reconstruction laws and federal enforcement. Hannah and Samuel Tutson were born into slavery, but two years after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, they were free, legally married, had three young children under their control, and were able to purchase a 160-acre plot of land in northern Florida. The couple used the savings Samuel earned as a newly freed farmer, and Hannah as a self-employed laundress, to purchase that land—land that had, to be sure, been seized from Indigenous Americans, but was now cheaply available to freedpeople thanks to another Reconstruction law, the Southern Homestead Act, which passed Congress in June 1866. “I have worked too much to lose it,” Hannah had told federal authorities in 1871, an indication of how much she valued the property Reconstruction laws entitled them to.

But losing that property is precisely what happened. Like thousands of other recently freed Black Southerners, the Tutson family was sleeping in their home one May night in 1871 when six white vigilantes broke in and brutalized the entire family. The Tutsons were targeted, Williams shows, for no other reason than their white neighbors’ resentment at their financial success. Indeed, a disproportionate number of white vigilantes’ victims were slightly better-off freedpeople like the Tutsons, whose wealth and independence threatened the racial order upon which the South was built. Black voters, almost all of whom voted Republican, were another frequent target. Then there were the thousands of Black Southerners who were tortured, hanged, and burned for in some way or another defying the color line—asking a white employer to be paid on time; accepting lower pay than white workers; flirting with a white woman; for being accused, usually falsely, of attacking or killing a white person.

Williams spends only two early chapters on the night raids themselves, as her real interest is in the long afterlife of these attacks. With great sensitivity and care, she details how such attacks were the start, not the culmination, of the pain and humiliation that Black survivors endured. While the Tutsons decided to report their crimes to federal authorities—who, in another Reconstruction achievement, tried to investigate and prosecute cases of white supremist terrorism—most survivors did not. It was simply too dangerous, and the chances of legal victory slim. The Tutsons, for instance, initially contacted a sympathetic white lawyer who put them in touch with the local county judge. But after taking notes on the case, the judge did nothing. Undeterred, the Tutsons traveled 40 miles to a federal judge, who did do something: He arrested the six vigilantes, one of whom was a local sheriff. But one of the Tutsons’ white neighbors paid their bonds, then turned around and had local authorities arrest Hannah and Samuel for “false reporting.” Now that Hannah and Samuel were broke, a different white neighbor agreed to pay their bonds in exchange for one of their few remaining assets, a prized cow.

This “labyrinthine pursuit of justice,” Williams writes, was typical. The records suggest that the Tutsons’ assailants likely never faced convictions, and like most of the cases that federal authorities brought against white vigilantes, the Tutsons’ case—if there even was one—may have ended in a hung jury or acquittal. Faced with a paucity of documentation, Williams ends her book imagining what the lives of the Tutsons may have been like 14 years after their attack, in 1885, when they reappear in census data. That document shows that they had clearly moved and were living together with two of their three children. Yet we will never know if they sold their original farm or abandoned it, losing a generation of family wealth. And we can only speculate about the private damages they still might have been working through. “Catastrophes, like captivity and sexual assault,” Williams writes, “often strain marriages and break affective bonds.” But the fact that Hannah and Samuel were still married holds another possibility—that, “as broken open as they were by the strike and repeated torment,” they may have “ultimately found refuge in each other.”

Williams casts these racist attacks on Southern Black families as a “war” against Reconstruction, a kind of forgotten “small war” that commenced after white Southerners lost the big one: the Civil War. Her larger point is that these attacks were not spontaneous acts of violence but well-planned and coordinated operations, akin to small military raids. And to a large degree, the martial metaphor works, often brilliantly: In this framing, white vigilantes become a “shadow army” attacking victims in “night-riding zones,” or areas where federal authorities were least present. Blacks who fled become wartime “refugees.” 

But her suggestion that these attacks amount to a kind of genocide—or, in her phrasing were “genocidal-like”—misses an important part of what these terror raids were all about. It’s true that these attacks were, like genocides, attacks by one ethnic or racial group against another. Yet genocide implies a deliberate intent to exterminate an entire group of people, and that was decidedly not the objective of all this racial violence. The goal was to keep Black labor cheap, just as slavery had done for two hundred years. Racial terrorism was intended to intimidate Black people into never asking for more money than white people thought they were worth. As Williams notes, when in 1879–80 nearly 40,000 Black Southerners fled the South for Kansas in what became known as the Exoduster movement, white elites panicked. If the goal was racial extermination, you would think they would have celebrated. But instead they were frightened because they wanted Black people to stay put so they could continue to exploit their labor. Associating racist violence with genocide may offer a certain kind of activist credibility, but it hinders a deeper understanding of the economic interests that anti-Blackness serves.

When Williams describes the economic motives that drove terror raids, she usually draws them from a specific attack, like when Black workers were attacked for complaining about brutal working conditions. But even racist attacks that did not directly transpire from an economic dispute, like a Black man flirting with a white woman, served the broader project of devaluing Black labor. If a Black man thought he was good enough to date a white woman, what was next? Taking a white man’s job? In this system of capitalism—racial capitalism—white elites benefited the most from cheap Black labor. But even middling whites at least got something, like less competition for better-paying jobs and a personal sense of superiority that masked their own affinities with the Black underclass.

Like Williams’s I Saw Death Coming, Mari N. Crabtree’s My Soul Is A Witness: The Traumatic Afterlife of Lynching is less interested in the perpetrators than in the survivors. Crabtree, a professor of African American Studies at the College of Charleston, focuses on the ways survivors of post-emancipation lynchings passed down their stories through multiple generations—if they did so at all. Relying on oral histories recorded decades ago, and several she conducted herself, as well as novels, paintings, sculptures, and lyrics of Black artists, Crabtree demonstrates the multigenerational impacts a lynching could have on a family, while also detailing the many strategies Black families and communities used to work through the trauma.

My Soul Is a Witness: The Traumatic Afterlife of Lynching
by Mari N. Crabtree
Yale University Press, 312 pp., $32.50

Many survivors of lynchings, and their descendants, refused to speak about a lynching in the family, while others protested the pain through funerals, memorials, and art. Yet all these strategies shared what Crabtree calls “the blues sensibility.” By that, she does not mean the musical genre itself but the “posture toward life” that blues music captured: a way of dealing with pain that both confronted and contained the trauma, while also creating a space for lives still open to creativity, humor, and joy.

It is not difficult to understand why silence was such a common strategy. Over a six-day period in May 1918, dozens of white vigilantes in the rural town of Barney, Georgia, went on a lynching spree that left at least 13 Black farmers murdered. All the victims worked for a notorious white planter, Hampton Smith, whose brutality was so well known that local white people refused to work for him. After one of Smith’s Black workers shot and killed him, springing the white mob into action, a local white resident told an NAACP investigator matter-of-factly: “It’s a matter of safety.” They had to show the Black workers “they mustn’t touch a white man, no matter how low-down and ornery he is.”

For much of her life, Audrey Grant, who lives near Barney, never knew the full story about what had happened to her great-grandmother, Mary Turner, one of the victims. When Grant was a child in the 1960s, she would occasionally ask her grandmother Leaster Turner, one of Mary’s two surviving children, about her parents, but her grandfather would quickly shut the conversation down: “Leave your grandmama alone about that,” he would say. “She don’t like to talk about that.” Even when Leaster tried to share something, it was in the vaguest possible terms—“They did a lot of very bad things to my mother”—then would break into tears. Only in the early 2000s, when a community organization held public hearings about the 1918 lynchings, did Grant learn the full details of Mary’s death: from the public hanging and torn dress lit on fire, to the 8-month-old unborn child cut from her belly and stomped in the dirt.

None of the lynch mob’s members ever faced a trial, and silence about what had happened was as common in the white community as it was in the Black one. But Crabtree argues that white and Black silences were not the same. For whites, silence about lynchings in the recent past—particularly when public lynchings became less acceptable amid the civil rights movement—served both to hide the shame and seduce white communities into believing they bore no responsibility. For Black communities, silence, or only threadbare references shrouded in vagueness (“They did a lot of very bad things”), was meant to protect family members. Particularly when Black families could not afford to leave the community after a lynching, or refused to, not sharing the details with one’s children was a way to protect them from more violence, as well as from the self-immolating rage and despair that might destroy them.

Another narrative strategy Crabtree identifies was to pass on lynching attacks as ghost stories and other tales of the supernatural. Crabtree tells the story of a tornado in Waco, Texas, that ravaged the white side of town—a disaster that Black families explained as divine retribution for how whites terrorized Blacks. She cites a man named James Reed, who remembered his great-aunt telling him in the 1950s about a local courthouse in Carrollton, Alabama, where a Black lynching victim’s face appeared in the courthouse window. Every time white authorities replaced the window, the story went, the victim’s face reappeared—a sign that, even if the aggressors were never prosecuted, whites were at the least haunted by what they had done. To Black listeners, these stories explained the realities of racial terrorism and gave Black communities control over how victims were remembered, while also holding out hope for the possibility of justice.

But the white community told the courthouse story differently. They said that the face was that of a local Black arsonist, who had been struck by lightning when he tried to burn the courthouse down—a story that reinforced the myth of Black criminality and bloodless white “justice.” Even to this day, the ghostly face in the courthouse window, along with a version of the white ghost story, serves as a kitschy tourist attraction. The fact that the courthouse was a common site for lynching Black victims—at least 10 between 1893 and 1917—is not mentioned in this version at all.

Another way Black communities processed lynchings was through various forms of protest. In one of several compelling moves, Crabtree defines “protest” broadly, arguing that even private acts of mourning and contemplative artworks commemorating lynching victims functioned as a form of protest. While most of the scholarly and public attention goes to prominent Black activists and organizations, like Ida B. Wells and the NAACP, both of whom spearheaded national campaigns against lynching, Crabtree reminds readers that “most Black people did not take part in marches and grassroots organizing and armed conflicts with white supremacists.” Drawing on the work of Black studies scholar Kevin Quashie, she argues that studying Black history through the binary of oppression and resistance leaves little room for understanding the quieter forms of Black cultural expression that have often been at the root of Black “aliveness”—that is, lives that have meaning, content, and purpose beyond the struggle against oppression.

The most obvious example of mourning as protest is the public memorial for Emmett Till. In 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, famously insisted on inviting the press and having an open casket for the memorial of her 14-year-old son, whose face was beaten beyond recognition by a white lynch mob in Mississippi. The international coverage of Till’s memorial jolted the nation into action, but Crabtree reminds us that the highly publicized service was, at root, the mourning ritual of a mother for her son.

Less obvious are the legions of artworks that do not fit the traditional definition of “protest art”—they are not loud or fiery denunciations of racism but introspective works largely intended for Black audiences. Crabtree highlights, for instance, Richmond Barthé’s 1939 sculpture The Mother and Son (1939), which reworks Michelangelo’s Pieta (1498–99), Mary caressing the body of a crucified Jesus, into a Black mother holding her lynched son’s corpse. Then there is Jacob Lawrence’s reflective painting Subway, from 1938, which depicts three Black subway riders in New York gazing into the distance, as white subway straps resembling nooses hang over their heads.

Neither of these works is blatantly defiant. There are no raised fists, no militant nods to “the struggle.” And yet, in the sensitive ways they allude to lynchings and depict Black people keeping alive the memories of their dead, they confront the pain Black communities have long suffered at the hands of white Americans, while also refusing to be defined by it. Like the blues, they transcend the pain by working through and beyond it, making space for the everyday business of being.

Both anti-lynching activists and historians have traditionally defined lynchings as not only the extrajudicial killings of Black people by white mobs but as public events that usually included the victim being hanged from a tree or bridge—a form of racial terrorism that peaked between the 1880s and 1940s. Following the Black literary scholar Ashraf Rushdy, Crabtree argues that this definition is too narrow. Lynchings, by her definition, should include any killing of a Black person by a white person not sanctioned by law, and for the purpose of upholding white supremacy. Crabtree recognizes the danger of flattening the past to a generic sameness, but like Rushdy, she argues that even as circumstances changed, the purpose of lynching never changed “so drastically that it could no longer be identified as lynching.”  

This definition, though contested by some historians, is compelling: Crabtree concludes her book with a powerful epilogue that draws obvious parallels between Jim Crow–era lynchings and Black Americans being shot—being lynched—by white civilians and police today. White groups, she shows, managed to obscure this through line, creating the impression that lynchings were a thing of the past: A pivotal, and too-little-known, moment in this history came in 1940, when a group of anti-lynching organizations tried to agree on a common definition of lynching. Despite concerns from the NAACP and the Tuskegee Institute, the definition that prevailed was the narrow one—public spectacles, often including tree hangings—favored by the whites-only Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. The group opposed anti-lynching legislation, unlike most Black organizations, and received support from Southern white politicians, not least because a narrow definition allowed politicians to declare that the era of lynchings was over.

But lynchings did not go away. They simply changed form. Emmett Till, it’s worth noting, was not hanged in public: His killers put a bullet through his head, then dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. When three civil rights activists—Jack Chaney, who was Black, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both white—were murdered by Klan members in 1964 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, there were no witnesses. By the traditional definition, they were not lynched. And at the time, the media, politicians, and even civil rights activists simply called these killings “murders.” All of this, of course, helped the nation convince itself that it was making racial progress, not unlike how our collective refusal to call many of the recent killings of unarmed Black Americans by civilians and police “lynchings” obscures what is actually happening.

As Williams’s and Crabtree’s books demonstrate, from the moment slavery ended, through the era of segregation, and up to today, racial terrorism has been, for most Black Americans, too real to ignore. But rather than sink into despair, many Black Americans have leaned on forms of Black cultural expression—call it the blues—to find a way out of no way.