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White Violence: A Response To Black Advancement

Written By Jayden Bolden

The 13th amendment ended slavery in December of 1865, freeing the rest of the enslaved individuals whom were not freed by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. What followed the two-year process of emancipation lay a world of barriers for the newly freed individuals. The economy, the political structure, and society were still contingent on the subjugation of Black people, despite them gaining their freedom at the hands of the constitution. Black people who refused to follow the slavery-esque guidelines put in place by these White-supremacist barriers were typically met with one of the most pervasive deterrents of all: racially motivated violence. The rampage of White Violence that lasted decades after emancipation in the South was a direct response to the social, political, and economical advancement of contemporary Black people. 


Despite slavery being officially abolished in 1865, there remained a general attitude amongst White people that the Black race was inferior. This attitude shaped society post-emancipation, and those who went against this societal norm were deemed insolent by the dominant group. One popular example of this prescribed insolence was the intermingling of Black men and White women. White men viewed any unauthorized interaction between the two groups as an unforgivable offense, and it was typically punishable by death of the Black man; sometimes at the hands of the law, but usually at the hands of any local Whites who felt offended.


In her 1892 anti-lynching pamphlet Southern Horrors, Ida B. Wells documented the widespread use of racial violence throughout the Southern region. One of the most extreme examples given by Wells was that of Ebenzer Fowler, the wealthiest Black man in his respective county in 1885. After a group of white men seized a letter apparently addressed from Fowler to a white woman of the area, the men tracked Fowler and shot him dead before the night fell. The men had merely suspected intimacy between Fowler and the local White woman, but they found that enough reasoning to end Fowler’s well-off life. No matter how much a woman wanted their company, White men felt a need to protect the “honor” of White women (a White supremacist and patriarchal view), enforcing this socio-racial hierarchy in the most heinous of ways.


Politics were one of the many ways in which Black people sought to even the playing field upon being released from bondage. After the passage of the 15th amendment in 1870, a tremendous influx of Black officeholders and voters were present. In White Rage, Carol Anderson says it best: “To stop this descent into the cauldrons of racial hate, African-Americans had to have access to the ballot box… As long as [black people] were disenfranchised, white politicians could continue to ignore, or even worse, trample on African Americans and suffer absolutely no electoral consequences for doing so.” Politics seemed like the only hope for African Americans, yet striving for political power ultimately put themselves in harm’s way.


The story of Abram Colby illustrates the harm in which Black people were subject to for seeking political power. Colby frequently advocated for the legal rights of his fellow freed persons before the passage of the 15th amendment, and local Whites despised it, offering Colby $5,000 ($96,600+ in 2021). After being elected to represent Greene County in the Georgia legislature in 1868, Colby spoke out against racial violence and asked for further protection for local Black people from this violence. An October night in 1869, a mob of White men broke Colby’s door down before kidnapping him, taking him to the woods and whipping him for three hours in front of his wife and children. While this morbid attack was an attempt to keep Colby from running or voting a “damned radical ticket” again, there was a clearer message behind it: this is a White man’s government. What Colby was pursuing, Black representation, was far outside of the guidelines of the racial hierarchy put forth, and violence was the punishment. 


Before emancipation, nation’s economy was dependent upon enslaved laborers. In 1860, 80 percent of the nation’s gross national product was tied to slavery, with Black laborers receiving no profit. There was a strong effort to keep Black labor at the heart of the Southern economy through keeping Black people dependent. Soon the slave master transitioned into the merchant post-emancipation, and systems like the crop-lien system, sharecropping and Black Codes kept freed Black individuals in an endless cycle of poverty and dependence upon White power structures. 


Black people who worked beyond domestic service in some capacity were often met with White resistance. Such was the case of Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and William "Henry" Stewart. When their store, People’s Grocery, was attacked by a local White mob that was led by the White man whose rivaling business, which held a monopoly on the entire block before PG was opened, was across the street. Moss and company defended their store from the thugs and unknowingly wounded White policemen who rioting with the mob. This sparked outrage amongst local Whites. A larger mob (I’ve read from a forgotten source that the mob consisted of at least 75 White men) located the jail in which the men were being held, “secretly” snuck the President, the Manager, and the Clerk of People’s Grocery out of the jail, and murdered them in an open field. Mosses last words were, “Tell my people to go West. There is no justice for them here.” This lawless attack served as a lesson of subordination according to Ida B. Wells. “Kill the leaders and it will cow the Negro who dares to shoot a white man, even in self-defense.” 


Individual acts of violence like those aforementioned were frequent occurrences during the period immediately after the Civil War. In Texas, from 1865 to 1868, almost one thousand African Americans were lynched. Beyond the White mob’s individualized attacks were larger attacks on entire Black communities. In 1863, after the government put forth a draft to increase Civil War enrollment, White aggressors began demolishing their surrounding areas. Some of those targeted were Black individuals, whom they feared would “take over” the workforce as they left to fight the war. An account of the 1863 Draft Riots mentioned that the rioters “made a sport of mutilating the Black men’s bodies.” Similar, but more devastating Black massacres at the hands of White people occurred throughout the 1860’s and 1870’s, such as those in Memphis, TN and Colfax, LA.


Let it be known that efforts were made by Black individuals to defend themselves from this onslaught of White Violence. In Southern Horrors, Wells documents three main strategies: boycotting, emigrating, and journalism. Boycotting White businesses in cities with large Black populations proved the industrial power of the Black individual, as demonstrated in Kentucky, where Black boycotts lost the railroads about $1 million. Emigration to the North was another tactic Wells advocated for, as she herself fled the South to dodge the threats put on her life due to her powerful journalism. This can be seen as Wells’ understanding of the persistent bloodthirst of racist White Southerners, as even arming oneself is not always sufficient (although she does recommend purchasing firearms for protection, regardless). Lastly, Wells calls on the Black press to continue to do the work, and for the people to continue to support them. Wells believed the Black press were the only journalists willing to print the truth about racial violence. Her ideas of self help, primarily those of targeted consumerism and truthful journalism, still serve as accountability checks for local politicians today. 


It is very easy to read stories of White violence in the 1860’s-70’s and feel as if they merely represent the past. The truth is, our current state of affairs is a reflection of the attitudes that shaped the period immediately following emancipation, including contemporary violence. After electing our first Black President of the United States, America elected one of the most overtly racist and xenophobic “politicians” of the last few decades. Even though Donald Trump left office over a month ago, people still frame his persona as a necessity, as if the country needed someone who cared less about race relations than they did much else. Because of racist and/or ambivalent attitudes like such, America has seen a clear increase in hate crimes since the 2016 election. It is my interpretation that this increase in hate crimes, alongside the election of Donald Trump, stemmed from the same psychological process that spurred the violent reign of White violence in response to Black advancement directly after emancipation. The sentiment of yesterday’s America is adjacent to that of today’s America, and Trump’s ongoing legacy stands as proof.