Lysistrata in the South? Freedwomen’s political activism during Reconstruction

I recently advised an advanced independent study on gender, race, and violence in the Reconstruction South. My fabulous student, Alexis Little (Bowdoin ’14), scoured testimony from the 1871 Congressional hearings on Ku Klux Klan atrocities in search of instances of sexual violence directed at freedwomen. As background, recall that immediately after the Civil War, former Confederates and white conservatives flooded into office throughout the South, and began relegating free slaves to second-class citizenship through measures such as black codes, which tightly circumscribed the liberties of newly freed slaves. In 1867 Congress (then under the control of Radical Republicans) rejected readmission to the union of these states. Placing them under military rule, Congress permitted the emancipated access to the political system, so that freedpeople could protect themselves through the vote. In response, paramilitary organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan emerged to contest Republican rule and suppress black equality.

We began the project with concerns about popular tendencies to fetishize the Klan, and reduce black women to victims in their own stories. We confirmed much of what is already known. Sexual violence constituted a critical factor in the re-assertion of Southern white racial and political control in response to Radical Reconstruction. Freedwomen often served as proxies for their politically active husbands, who fled the home and “hid out” rather than face Klan assault or execution. Tied to domestic cares, freedwomen could not evade night riders, and often bore the brunt of their wrath.

The meting out of sexual violence by white men to black women reinforced longstanding hierarchies of race and gender in Southern society. As Laura Edwards has shown, nineteenth century rape laws treated women as the property of heads of households. In slavery, to rape an enslaved woman was a crime not against her, but her owner. And when emancipation placed freedmen in nominal legal “possession” of their families, sexual violence against black women after the war often indirectly targeted black men.   In this way, the Southern whites who perpetrated these crimes attacked not only the sanctity of black family life and what they viewed as the inversion of the racial hierarchy, but also the ability of black men to hold and control their own property.

Initially, little of the grim story that we uncovered surprised us, since scholars such as Lisa Cardyn, Noralee Frankel, and Tera Hunter had suggested these functions of sexual violence during Reconstruction. But when we came to more closely examining the sources on freedwomen and the formal political process, we were surprised to note how often Southern white Democrats claimed that black women were acting in overtly political ways. We found a surprising amount of evidence of freedwomen’s direct roles as political boosters and operatives. Elsa Barclay Brown pioneered this approach, arguing that freedpeople in Reconstruction Richmond viewed the vote not as the property of individual black men, but as a family and community right, which black men exercised on behalf of all.

Our findings extend this recasting of freedwomen’s roles in Reconstruction politics. Rather than serving as passive actors, or proxy victims of racial violence, black women seem often to have played conspicuous roles in the conduct of formal politics. For example, in Congressional testimony over a contested election in Louisiana in 1876, a Democratic operative reported that “a great many” freedwomen had participated in local elections. They “kept their husbands straight” by haranguing them with speeches at a pre-election barbeque. Indeed, these black women were so active, and “so much more radical than the men were,” that the informant could “make no headway” in capturing black votes. In another instance, a white Democrat testified to seeing at election-time “a large number of colored women, armed with cane-knive[s], urging colored men to go on, kill the white men, and they, the colored women, would butcher the white women and children.” Still another deemed it common knowledge that “the colored ladies disdain, hate, and refuse to associate with a colored man who is a declared Democrat.” Freedwomen publicly beat a black Democrat in South Carolina, and “swore that they would leave their husbands and not permit them to come near them if they voted the democratic ticket.”

Here is a fascinating, largely untold, story of Reconstruction. Much like the character Lysistrata in Aristophanes’s comic play of the same name, freedwomen in the Reconstruction South threatened to withhold themselves in order to control their men’s political behavior. Unlike Lysistrata and her followers, they did so not to end war, but to pursue the political aims of their communities.

Initially, I greeted southern white critics of these politically active freedwomen with dismay. They hardly painted black women in a flattering light. On the surface, they support the contentions of the Redeemers (the conservative whites who wrested control of the South from the freedpeople and their allies) that Republicans practiced fraudulent politics that had to be overthrown.

But taking these accounts seriously may offer useful lessons in the handling evidence. It is of course possible that Southern whites reporters falsified their accounts entirely. Most, after all, had no love for Republicans or African Americans, and few likely scrupled against slandering either. Criticisms of freedwomen contributed to the idea, which needed no fostering among whites, that black women departed from acceptable gender norms. Sympathetic scholars’ own sensitivity to this charge may have led even them to neglect accounts of politically active freedwomen as yet another attempt to defame them.

And yet perhaps there is important truth in the account. Why, after all, would politically active Southern white men risk recounting to a hated government tales of being politically bested by black women whom they considered their clear racial and social inferiors?

Here we may take a lesson from a quite different direction. In judging evidence, scholars of the historical Jesus employ what is known as the “criterion of embarrassment,” which argues that historical accounts that appear unflattering to the utterer are worthy of consideration. Thus, most scholars consider the New Testament account of Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist likely to be true. It was a detail that early Christians would have preferred to leave out, for it disrupts the notion of Jesus as the son of god, superior to all other humans.

Similarly, evidence for black women’s direct political participation must be considered. For one, there are not a few of these accounts, from different times and places, and they tend to reinforce each other, thus verifying the general phenomenon. (This is actually another criterion — the criterion of “multiple attestation”). Most importantly, complaints of freedwomen’s street politics threatened to undermine the white masculine supremacy of their authors, for they revealed times when black women successfully contended with white men for the vote.

Of course, the criterion of embarrassment does not mean that every portion of these accounts is true. In the case of the historical Jesus, the New Testament’s John the Baptist claims that “the one who comes after me is more powerful than I” (Mark 1:7). This is an assertion many scholars interpret as early Christians’ re-narration of a (for them) troublesome fact in Jesus’s life. If the historical John was understood to be the greater figure, the Biblical John explicitly subordinates himself to his own acolyte.

Similarly, there is much we might doubt about accounts of freedwomen active in Reconstruction politics. For example, the charge that armed freedwomen promised to butcher white women and children may have offset the sense of disempowerment that likely accompanied white men’s recognition that black women were active political players. Instead of ignoring freedwomen’s activism, conservative whites exaggerated it.

In the process, they also obscured Democrats’ own practices of fraud, which were widespread and egregious. (See, for example, Lawrence Powell’s analysis of the enormity of Democratic fraud in Mississippi’s failed ratification election in 1868.) The degree to which southern Democrats proved willing to project onto black women their own propensity to corrupt the democratic process suggests the depths to which they feared and respected what these women represented. Only a deep threat to their dominance could produce such grudging acknowledgement of the truth, as well as such hyperbolic recounting of freedwomen’s actual behavior.

Images of freedwomen’s political activism reinforced conservative Southern whites’ central complaint during Reconstruction. It was not so much that blacks corrupted the political process, it was that blacks took part in it at all. If this was true of black men, it was all the more distressing of African American females. The appearance of freedwomen at polling places, political rallies, and in the streets deeply challenged the social and political hegemony of the white men who had long ruled the South. For them, it constituted yet more evidence that a vengeful Union had overturned long-established social hierarchies and placed the “bottom rail on top.”

A few scholars, such as historian Paul Harvey, have noted the militance of freedwomen’s political activism, but more work remains to be done. Freedwomen were not merely passive victims of sexual violence. They were important political actors, and were understood as such even by their enemies. With care, historians can excavate this challenging evidence and uncover of the neglected historical realities underlying it.

Visit of the Ku Klux

Contemporary images of black families assaulted by white paramilitaries accurately reflected the freedpeoples’ vulnerability, but downplayed their capacity for assertive political activism

How Will I Know? Black Politics and the Search for Historical Truth

Late in his life, Captain Paul Cuffe, a prominent African American mariner of the early national period, began exploring the possibilities of emigration to West Africa. But in a reminiscence on the captain’s accomplishments, the black editors of Freedom’s Journal altered the record, writing some of those explorations out of African American history. As I listened to that presentation on Cuffe and others at this past weekend’s annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) I began thinking about some of the challenges of writing about black activists. How do we grapple with figures who consciously shaped the record because they were aware of the political implications of any choice they made? Cuffe was not actively altering his past, yet his story touched on fundamental challenges in our effort to understand prominent black figures. What can we truly know about men and women who were self-consciously making history?

I have been thinking about these questions in part because of responses to my project on free black activists and their efforts to construct citizen status in the mid-nineteenth century. Antebellum activists invoked citizenship in calls for an inclusive definition of that status, one that would provide specific rights and protections. Several times over the past few months I have been asked what people like Samuel Cornish, Frederick Douglass, or Henry Highland Garnet really believed. Did they think that the federal government would provide black rights, or that the United States could become a republic that supported real equality? My first impulse has been to say that we cannot know for sure what any historical figure believed. How can a collection of documents, however large, overcome the inscrutability of human hearts and minds? But history is, in a basic sense, an effort to know people from the past, which demands the difficult work of finding our way inside of those minds. While many scholars grapple with the problem of a dearth of sources, the challenge here is to maneuver through extensive written records in search of a satisfying interpretation while recognizing that those records were generated by individuals attempting to argue their way into the body politic. How can we separate rhetoric from reality?

I thought in a different way about these challenges while reading my colleague Brandon Byrd’s insightful post on Jozy Altidore, Barack Obama, and the assimilationist mode among black public figures. President Obama’s first inaugural sent a clear, strong message about his dedication to the ideals attached to the American founding. He positioned his campaign vision within the nation’s legal and political traditions. He was working to claim a place among the American people, many of whom rejected him because of his politics or their racism. With that in mind, what can we conclude about Barack Obama by reading his inaugural address? Where do we locate the man within the words of the politician? Does President Obama really believe in a narrative of irrepressible American progress?

I don’t have definitive answers to the questions that I raise here. Working through these thoughts does help me to see the scholar’s project as part of the essential struggle of humans to understand one another. For now, I can only wrestle with these figures, trying to think carefully about each voice and to do justice to human complexity, past and present.

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