Scholars of Reconstruction have generally described Republican party factional conflicts in racial terms, as if the Radical agenda evoked unified black support. As Michael W. Fitzgerald shows in the first major study of black popular politics in the urban South in the years surrounding the Civil War, that depiction oversimplifies a contentious and often overlooked intraracial dynamic. Republican political power, he argues, heightened divisions within the African American community, divisions that were ultimately a major factor in the failure of Reconstruction.
In Mobile, the Confederacy’s fourth largest city, the most pressing social divide within the black community was between longtime residents — often freeborn, prosperous, and of mixed ancestry — and the wave of destitute rural freedmen fleeing the countryside. After Emancipation, moderate African American leaders seeking legal equality, and promoted by powerful white allies, emerged from the first group. The newcomers spawned a more militant faction — younger, poorer, and darker-skinned than their opponents — who encouraged mass action in the streets and formed the constituency for the white “carpetbag” leadership that dominated popular Republican politics.
Fitzgerald traces how the rivalry between black factions yielded a startlingly antagonistic political scene that steadily escalated into physical conflict, culminating in years of confrontations and altercations at rallies and conventions. He also explains why such strife was especially intense in urban areas, where activists and political patronage concentrated. Indeed, in Mobile, African American leaders seldom met violence at the hands of their racist adversaries, but their own rival clusters challenged each other repeatedly.
Though Fitzgerald’s book examines the local level, its implications are far reaching. By showing that rifts in the African American community kept its members from working as a unified whole, it demonstrates that the Republican factionalism that helped doom Reconstruction went beyond competing cliques of white officeholders and their ambitions for patronage and position. Blacks too were partially responsible for the failure of Reconstruction. Boldly contesting reigning theories about the nature of post–Civil War politics,Urban Emancipation will spark historical debate for years to come.
Michael W. Fitzgerald is professor of history at St. Olaf College and the author of Urban Emancipation: Popular Politics in Reconstruction Mobile, 1860-1890 and The Union League Movement in the Deep South: Politics and Agricultural Change During Reconstruction.
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