FW: H-South Review: Dee on Fitzgerald, _Urban Emancipation_ [Reco nstruction Mobile]
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Subject: H-South Review: Dee on Fitzgerald, _Urban Emancipation_
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-South@... (Janury 2004)
Michael W. Fitzgerald. _Urban Emancipation: Popular Politics in
Reconstruction Mobile, 1860-1890 _. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
Press, 2002. xvi + 301 pp. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.
$67.50 (cloth). ISBN 0-8071-2807- 4; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8071-2837-6.
Reviewed for H-South by Christine Dee, cdee@..., Department of
History, College of the Holy Cross.
_Strength Beyond Numbers: African American Political Agency in
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
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" (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 were 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 an 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" (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.
. Thomas Holt, _Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South
Carolina during Reconstruction_ (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,
1977), 5, 208-24.
. C. Vann Woodward, _The Strange Career of Jim Crow_ (New York: Oxford
University Press, 3rd revised edition, 1974), 29, 43-4, 65, 106.
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