Richard Archer. Jim Crow North: The Struggle for Equal Rights in Antebellum New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 312 pp. $31.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-067664-3.
Reviewed by David Rothmund (University of Illinois at Chicago)
Published on H-Socialisms (June, 2020)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
Equal Rights in the Jim Crow North
Richard Archer's 2017 monograph, Jim Crow North: The Struggle for Equal Rights in Antebellum New England, provides a new and exciting perspective on nineteenth-century race relations and conflicts in antebellum New England. Widely considered the birthplace of abolitionism, Archer places the region at the center of Jim Crow segregation, widespread racial strife, and civil rights activism. Jim Crow North explains how racism during the antebellum period served as a precursor to the Jim Crow South decades later while challenging the notion that New England was more progressive or accepting of African Americans. Ultimately, by shifting the focus from white abolitionists and deconstructing preconceived notions of antebellum New England, Jim Crow North is able to weave a thrilling and often overlooked narrative through the lives of African Americans in the North.
The monograph is divided into five distinct thematic sections: "Jim Crow in New England," "Girding Up," "Toward Equality," "Mixed Marriages," and "Hitting the Wall." Each section provides a looking glass into the lives of African Americans in states such as Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Within these states, public places such as churches, schools, and workplaces carry most of the narrative. At the same time, legal battles and abolitionist presses, specifically William Lloyd Garrisons Liberator, fill in the gaps. In his first section, "Jim Crow in New England," Archer examines the foundation of racial conflict in the North, highlighting the complicated and often misunderstood history of emancipation. He argues that many citizens within New England expressed a self-righteous attitude toward the elimination of slavery; however, they still participated in brutal violent and aggressive actions towards communities of color. Slavery existed in the North until 1804 when states voted on gradual emancipation laws that abolished the institution over time; however, this did not rectify centuries of racial violence and intolerance. The first section of the monograph concludes by highlighting the two most pressing problems for African Americans in the North, a rigid class hierarchy and an aggressive white population that wanted to maintain clear distinctions between themselves and minority populations.
After establishing the antebellum North as a region still suffused with brutal racial conflict, the monograph shifts into the next section, Girding Up, which looks at the evolving education system in New England and the rise of race riots. Archer blends personal narrative and struggles with legal battles to create a compelling example of African American resistance to structural racism. Due to the relatively small number of African Americans in the North compared to the South, early activists utilized tactics of unity and uplift to create community-based coalitions. One of the prominent methods that African Americans used to combat racism in the North was partnership with white abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, to force a dialogue centered on racial tolerance and antiviolence. Even with the support of the abolitionist press and revered speakers such as Garrison and Fredrick Douglass, the battle for school integration ultimately failed due to mob violence and lack of funding.
In his third and most compelling section of the monograph, Toward Equality, Archer primarily focuses on the rail system in New England and the legal creation of segregated transportation. Here he parallels the abolitionist rejection of segregated train cars to the civil right bus boycotts more than a hundred years later. Although he provides instances of potential "Jim Crow" structures in the antebellum North, Archer unequivocally makes the comparison in this section by stating, "segregation, and the promotion of caste was a matter of policy on some railroads, and the passenger cars of the Eastern Railroad, the new Bedford and Taunton Railroad, and the Boston and Providence Railroad officially introduced 'Jim Crow' to New England" (p. 92). Although many of the early sit-ins were likely spontaneous, Jim Crow North includes stories of people such as David Ruggles, an African American and local business owner who purchased a ticket on the New Bedford and Taunton train with the intent to confront the segregationist policies enforced by the rail lines. Ruggles's refusal to submit to the train's segregationist policy quickly garnered the attention of civil rights activists throughout the region. Eventually, the sit-ins become more constant, and the New Bedford and Taunton Railroad succumbed to social and financial pressure to desegregate their passenger cars.
The monograph concludes with a reflection on African American progress in demanding, and in some instances, achieving social and economic equality. Archer cites a speech from John Rock, a member of the Massachusetts Medical Society and activist, to explain how the path toward equality exists in the ability to work and participate within local economies. Few African Americans disagreed with this sentiment; however, Rock did not provide a satisfactory path toward economic citizenship. While progress had been made throughout the antebellum era, the ability to fundamentally challenge the economic hierarchy in New England proved too difficult for African Americans to experience equality.
Jim Crow North is strongest early on when it explains the rigid class, gender, and racial hierarchy present in the region. Overall, one of the most apparent themes in the text is the battle for economic citizenship. While readers will easily identify barriers to education and public segregation as "Jim Crow" tactics intended to disenfranchise African American communities, the author's clear and digestible text highlights how a strict racial and economic hierarchy restricted mobility and reinforced racist norms within the region.
However, Jim Crow North is not without its faults, and readers may have problems with terminology throughout the work. Most readers associate Jim Crow oppression with late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century racial conflict. Although the term does ultimately fit and make sense theoretically, it often feels like individual stories and experiences are written to mirror more well-known Jim Crow conflicts rather than exist as their own historical events. For example, when Archer discusses the segregation of railcars, he creates a clear comparison to bus boycotts nearly a century later by stating, "most likely the first sit-ins were spontaneous acts—much like Rosa Parks more than a century later—but soon they became intentional provocations with the hope of pressuring the offending railroads to eliminate their segregation policies" (p. 96). Even with the clear comparisons between the two different eras, readers are ultimately left wondering if "Jim Crow" is the most appropriate term. The horrors of Jim Crow in a post-Reconstruction world primarily worked to segregate and disenfranchise African Americans through targeted violence and the enforcement of racist and discriminatory laws; however, even with their similarities the term "Jim Crow" represents a specific moment in American history when post-Reconstruction racist ideology blended with codified law to create a socially, culturally, and politically oppressive world for African Americans.
Even with its failures, Jim Crow North is a valuable resource for undergraduate and graduate students alike. In part due to the accessible and fluid prose, students will find this work digestible and compelling. Due to the relatively small sample size in comparison to the African American community in southern states, much of this antebellum activism has been overlooked or misunderstood. Rather than argue that one region utilized racist and oppressive tactics to subjugate their African American communities more than the other, Archer explains how racism impacted and altered the areas in different yet fundamentally important ways.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-socialisms.
David Rothmund. Review of Archer, Richard, Jim Crow North: The Struggle for Equal Rights in Antebellum New England.
H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews.
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