Michael W. Fitzgerald. Urban Emancipation: Popular Politics in Reconstruction Mobile, 1860-1890. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. xvi + 301 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8071-2837-4; $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-2807-7.
Reviewed by Christine Dee (Department of History, College of the Holy Cross)
Published on H-South (January, 2004)
Strength beyond Numbers: African-American Political Agency in Reconstruction Mobile
Strength beyond Numbers: African-American Political Agency in Reconstruction Mobile
A quarter of a century ago, Thomas Holt examined black political leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction. In Black over White, he concluded that socioeconomic divisions among black Republicans ultimately hindered political leadership. "If Reconstruction was to succeed anywhere," he wrote of South Carolina, "it had to succeed there," for in that state African Americans held a majority of state and federal offices between 1867 and 1876. African American leaders' inability to craft an ideology to unify their constituency, Holt argued, contributed to Reconstruction's demise. Looking beyond 1877, Holt saw an era of darkness, marked by the steady dissipation of black political agency and the collapse of the Republican party at both the state and local level. In Urban Emancipation, Michael Fitzgerald pushes beyond Holt's argument to shed new light on the political agency of African Americans. Urban Emancipation focuses on the first generation of African-American political participation in Mobile, Alabama. The volume is meticulously researched, utilizing private correspondences, rich newspaper accounts, along with records from the Treasury and State Departments that are too often overlooked by historians. Urban Reconstruction argues that class divisions within Mobile's African-American community contributed to the demise of Reconstruction. Fitzgerald finds that African-American leaders were divided between the privileged black elites with roots in the Mobile community and their challengers who represented the recent rural migrants to the city. These different factions maneuvered for political advancement under Republican rule. The greater value of the work, however, lies in Fitzgerald's argument that African-American politicians developed pragmatic approaches to politics during the period of Democratic resurgence in Alabama politics. The author shows that African Americans were adept at exploiting divisions within the white electorate, notwithstanding their numeric minority in Mobile. As Fitzgerald writes, "If the city's factional politics were self-destructive during the heyday of Republican rule, Redemption's aftermath was surprisingly benign.... it was in the hard choices of the post-Reconstruction era that Mobile's African American populace demonstrated a more subtle sort of political realism" (p. 7). In this manner, African Americans achieved political agency, especially in the decade after Reconstruction. Where Holt saw disenfranchisement and the limitation of political options for African Americans, Fitzgerald finds increased political agency among African Americans in Mobile. In this, the author sustains C. Vann Woodward's classic argument that the disenfranchisement of blacks was neither an immediate nor a predetermined consequence of the end of Reconstruction, but rather the product of a later age.
Urban Emancipation unfolds chronologically. In the first chapter, the author gives an overview of race in Mobile from the antebellum era through the Union occupation at the end of the war. Like Holt, Fitzgerald finds that background and caste were significant factors in shaping black politics. Specifically, a moderate faction in the African-American community allied with southern white Republicans. This group included antebellum free blacks and those who maintained local ties to the city that predated Reconstruction. A more radical group of blacks was less loyal to the Republican party or its white leadership. They derived their support from Mobile's newcomers, many of whom were former slaves from agricultural regions. The second chapter illustrates this division among African Americans by examining how each faction reacted to white Republicans' control of black political expression, specifically through the newspaper, the Mobile Nationalist. The author shows in the third chapter that upon the overthrow of Presidential Reconstruction and the advent of black suffrage, black political activism increased. African Americans turned away from ideals of interracial leadership to pursue individual and local interests. Through Union Leagues, streetcar protests, and labor agitation, African Americans gained political influence. Their achievements included the racial integration of Mobile's police force, the opening of soup kitchens, and the end of monopolies on city food markets. The fourth chapter documents African Americans' alliances with Mobile's business community, their support for railroad construction, and their participation in the fiscal mismanagement that prompted the state legislature to repeal the city's charter in 1879. Federal and municipal patronage is the focus of the next chapter, where the author argues that local economic issues not only played a central role in Redemption politics but also provided the context for African Americans' pursuit of patronage. Black activists divided among themselves and allied with different groups of whites in their pragmatic pursuit of patronage positions and the earnings they promised. Their pragmatism reaped rewards, Fitzgerald finds, by expanding the federal bureaucracy to include a broader segment of the black populace. He notes that these advances were achieved peacefully and provide one of the few advances in civil rights that outlasted the era. The final chapter examines black political achievement in the context of limitations--specifically the national economic depression and Democratic sweep of state and municipal government in 1874. Fitzgerald finds that African Americans maintained their political influence at the local level through the alliances they formed with disaffected whites during a period of economic turmoil. This is exemplified by the political allegiance of former slave Allen Alexander, a Republican who supported straight-out Democrats. As Alexander proclaimed, "If we are to be servants, let us serve the rich; it is preferable to serving the poor" (p. 236). So long as whites remained divided, the black electoral minority capitalized on cleavages to maintain their political influence and shape urban politics. Mobile's African-American community practiced politics, Fitzgerald is always careful to note, in a system characterized by segregation and white supremacy. Political influence was hard-won through pragmatic activism that mandated shifting alliances among different groups of blacks and whites. Urban Emancipation demonstrates the process by which African Americans achieved political influence despite the stark realities of white supremacy and fiscal crisis. In so doing, it provides needed insight into the local aspect of black enfranchisement which, Fitzgerald masterfully demonstrates, was more complex than either legislation or electoral results indicate at the national level. To get an even clearer image of politics at the local level, however, the volume would benefit from tables documenting population growth and municipal electoral returns which the press could include in appendices without disturbing Fitzgerald's excellent integration of narrative and analysis. In its methodology and its arguments, Urban Emancipation illustrates the value of considering post-war politics from a local perspective. Overall, Fitzgerald's work casts new light on the workings of race and politics in a southern city during Reconstruction and, perhaps more importantly, in its aftermath. Notes
. Thomas Holt, Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), pp. 5, 208-24. . C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 3rd revised edition, 1974), pp. 29, 43-4, 65, 106.
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Christine Dee. Review of Fitzgerald, Michael W., Urban Emancipation: Popular Politics in Reconstruction Mobile, 1860-1890.
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