Constructing Race in Reconstruction: An Interview with Daniel Brook
Almost 100 years before Rosa Parks’s famous protest of segregation on the Montgomery bus system, a woman named Mary P. Bowers took a similar stand on a streetcar in Charleston, South Carolina. Her 1867 protest would eventually lead to the desegregation of the city’s streetcars that same year.
This was no isolated incident, either. Elements of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century can be traced at least as far back as Reconstruction. The post-Civil War desegregation movements in Charleston and New Orleans stand out as especially important both for the cause itself, and for our understanding of its roots.
In The Accident of Color, Daniel Brook examines 19th-century New Orleans and Charleston, exploring these cities’ cosmopolitan residents who eluded the ubiquitous binary racial categories observed in the rest of the U.S.
Daniel Brook is November’s featured author for the BookStory book club. We recently spoke with Brook about his book and the construction of race in America.
BackStory: What drove you to write this book, and how did you come across Charleston and New Orleans as these unique areas to focus on?
Brook: It started as JSTOR research gone awry. I moved to New Orleans in 2011 and decided to educate myself on its history. I went to JSTOR and put in the terms “New Orleans” and “school desegregation.” I came up with over 100 hits. 99 of them were about the 1960s, and one of them was about the 1870s.
There was an article about the desegregation of the New Orleans public schools at the height of Reconstruction, which is something I did not know had even occurred. I stumbled across the desegregation of the University of South Carolina in the same period, and kept reading around streetcar systems, police forces, etc.
I thought that I should read a book about this topic, so I went to the libraries and bookstores. I couldn’t find one. I decided I would write one.
Time and again I kept coming back to Charleston and New Orleans where you saw the most progress in terms of civil rights, not just in the South but in America in this period. It eventually became clear that this progress was rooted in their having large communities of openly mixed-race free people of color before the Civil War.
As I moved into the project more deeply, I realized that this biracial identity, this belated adoption of the Anglo American idea of a black/white binary, was really central. As Americans, we often think that since slavery was so terrible, segregation was a kind of inevitable, awful consequence of it. But actually, America is the only New World society that imposed segregation after emancipation. Race is incredibly complicated in all these uniquely American ways that we typically don’t think about. At some level the book is about provoking these questions.
BackStory: You write about the enforcement of New York City’s street car system, how people of color could ride it up to certain streets but not take it down past others. Segregation was enforced on a very local and personal level.
Brook: The system is fragmented in the Antebellum period in many cities, including in New York. Just about every city in that period had a transit system run by private companies that were given a monopoly on different routes. One company built the Sixth Avenue street car and another company built the Third Avenue street car, and then different civil rights legal challenges to the system were resolved in different ways. Certain companies ended up with court orders that they had to be integrated and others did not. So you had this patchwork system where African American riders can take any street car on Sixth Avenue, but only a segregated street car on Third.
Each state had different definitions of what a white person is and what a black person is, based on how many grandparents or great grandparents are of African descent. So to decide which car people go to, streetcar drivers were essentially making snap judgements, based on appearance, about the ethnicity of someone’s great grandparent who was long dead.
As Americans we often think of race as this obvious and knowable fact, but it had to be created in this period.
BackStory: You talk about how Plessy v. Ferguson essentially argued against the idea of Americans having distinct races. Then Brown v. Board of Education, while it’s cast as overturning Plessy, really addressed a less radical idea, which is that we’re separate races but should be treated equal. I wonder if that was a missed opportunity to properly portray the history of Jim Crow and Reconstruction.
Brook: I was shocked and amazed when I actually read the legal arguments of the various attorneys in the Plessy case. It’s not as all the way it’s presented to us in school.
We’re taught that the Supreme Court decided that if the separate segregated car was ostensibly equal, then a company in the state could force a black man to ride in the Jim Crow car.
That’s such an over-simplification of the case as to be almost inaccurate. Homer Plessy was chosen for this case because his race under a black/white binary was indeterminate. He was openly mixed race. He’d never been enslaved. He was, according to the African American paper in New Orleans, “as white as the average white Southerner.” The Justice wrote in his decision that he himself can’t decide what race Homer Plessy belongs to by looking at him or by ancestry, and he understands that different states are going to categorize him differently based on ancestry.
Some states will categorize him as a white man and some states will categorize him as a person of color, and each state is free to make that determination. On an interstate train, they can move him back and forth. He could be a black in Louisiana and a white man in Texas, and then a black man again in Arizona.
The Plessy case was really an attempt to challenge the notion of distinct races and that, sadly, has been lost. By the time the 1960’s civil rights movement happened, you’d had generations under Jim Crow. The one–drop rule of blackness had become more and more the law of the land.
BackStory: It’s interesting how this contextualizes figures that are commonly known in schools, like Ruby Bridges with school integration or Rosa Parks and bus integration. They were a part of this long history of resistance.
Brook: Even in the darkest days of Jim Crow, there’s always resistance. It’s also about who’s been remembered in history, and who’s been expunged.
There’s a character in the book, Mary P. Bowers, whose protest on the Charleston street cars in 1867 is almost eerily reminiscent of Rosa Parks’ protest on the Montgomery bus system in the 1950’s. Just like Rosa Parks she was too tired from a long days work to move to the seat for colored people. Of course, this is a woman who was taking a seat to make a stand to try to desegregate the line, which she successfully did in 1867 in Charleston.
At the very end of the book there is a long excerpt from “Lemon Swamp and Other Places” by Mamie Garvin Fields and Karen Fields. Mamie Fields is the grandmother of Karen and Barbara Fields, who co-wrote “Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life.” The excerpt describes this resistance game from when the streetcars of Charleston were officially resegregated around 1912.
In Charleston slang terms, a “Black Negro” was someone who identified as African–American and had dark skin, and a “White Negro” was someone who identified as an African–American and had light skin. A pair of teenage girls—one White Negro, one Black Negro—would board and sit right in the middle. Blacks were supposed to board from the back and whites from the front. As the white passengers board they get angrier and angrier.
Finally, the streetcar conductor yells at the girls to sit the way they’re supposed to. So they get up and walk to the very back row and sit down together, the White Negro and Black Negro girls. The colored passengers in the black section start laughing, and the white section is embarrassed that they’re enforcing this law that’s patently absurd.
That’s the extent of the passive resistance that two teenage girls can safely get away with in Charleston South Carolina at the height of segregation in the early 20th century. But even then, they’re not only resisting segregation but also needling at this concept of race and how ill–fitting it is.
BackStory: Has writing this book shifted your perspective on these issues?
Brook: Writing this book as a nonacademic and as a non–African–American, I’ve been so heartened talking to audiences and readers about it. The actual conversations I’m hearing in different places in America are much more sensitive, open, compassionate and honest than what I assumed from following these issues in the media. The idea that Americans can’t speak about these things in a helpful or useful or compassionate way has not been borne out by my experience. I’ve really been feeling a lot more optimistic, even in this hard time happening around the country, talking about this with readers.
BackStory: Finally, we have a question from a BookStory reader: “Do you think that anything would have been different had Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated? Seems like the events that caused the progress to be lost and Jim Crow laws to exist happened well after Lincoln would have finished his second term, but still curious about what might have been. I’m sure it’s hard to speculate.”
Brook: Lincoln’s views on civil rights were evolving rapidly at the time of his death but it’s hard to say how they would have progressed (or regressed) had he lived longer. His successor, Andrew Johnson, was a virulent opponent of civil rights but he so overplayed his hand that it led to Radical Reconstruction which might not have happened without his provocations. In general, I think these counter-factual questions are intriguing but there are so many moving parts in history that it’s hard to make claims with any confidence.
Daniel Brook is a journalist and author whose writing has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, and The Nation. Born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island, and educated at Yale, Brook lives in New Orleans.