by Toni Morrison
Knopf, 318 pp., $25.00
In 1880, the United States Senate published a three-volume report of the findings of its select committee on black migration from the South, the Report and Testimony of the Select Committee of the United States Senate to Investigate the Causes of the Removal of the Negroes from the Southern States to the Northern States. The report, which drew on eyewitness accounts by African-Americans during the post-Reconstruction period, a time in which a US Marshal described Southern blacks as “politically in a state of siege,” records the systematic destruction of the full citizenship they had achieved as a result of the Civil War, the erosion of the expectations promised by emancipation.
During this period, known in the white South as “Redemption,” Southern blacks were effectively reenslaved through the sharecropping system and the adamant white determination to block them from land ownership by legal or illegal means, while white Southern Democrats regained control of state and local legislatures. An election of 1878 in Nachitoches, Louisiana, was conducted as described at the Louisiana Colored Citizens’ Convention: an organization of white men
herded the colored people together and made them vote contrary to their wishes, under the threat and peril of being exiled from their homes, if not murdered on the spot…. Badges were pinned on the lappel [sic] of their coats…as a source of protection from the ruthless mobocrats patrolling the streets…. One of these badges marked voted the Democratic ticket is far more potent than the arm of the law.
The Senate document records 683 incidents of white terrorism against blacks in Louisiana alone between 1866 and 1876. Nathan Williams was whipped and his cotton confiscated because he voted the Radical ticket, Jack Horse was shot on his way to vote, Abe Young was shot on the Angels plantation, “spouting about voting Republican ticket,” Ben Gardner was beaten by a group of white men “on Mr. Gable’s plantation, because he refused to stay on the place another year.” Hiram Smith was beaten “so badly I fear I cannot live” because he asked for wages due him from a white man who then forced him to crawl on his knees and call him “my master, the God of all power.”
At a public meeting held in 1877, and documented in the Senate report, the participants “said that the whole South—every State in the South—had got into the hands of the very men that held us slaves…and we thought that the men that held us slaves was holding the reins of the government over our heads in every respect almost, even the constable up to the governor. We felt we had almost as well be slaves under these men…. Then we said there was no hope for us and we had better go.” Such was the education of Henry Adams, an advocate of black emigration, whose painstaking records of these incidents in the lives of Southern freedmen, quoted in the Senate report, offer tragic witness to this period of …