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FW: H-South Review: Dee on Fitzgerald, _Urban Emancipation_ [Reco nstruction Mobile]

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi..aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@H-NET.MSU.EDU]On Behalf Of Ian Binnington, H-South Sent:
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@...]On
      Behalf Of Ian Binnington, H-South
      Sent: Wednesday, January 07, 2004 7:17 AM
      To: H-SOUTH@...
      Subject: H-South Review: Dee on Fitzgerald, _Urban Emancipation_

      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
      Reconstruction Mobile_

      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. [1] 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
      Republican rule.

      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. [2]

      _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.


      [1]. Thomas Holt, _Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South
      Carolina during Reconstruction_ (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,
      1977), 5, 208-24.

      [2]. C. Vann Woodward, _The Strange Career of Jim Crow_ (New York: Oxford
      University Press, 3rd revised edition, 1974), 29, 43-4, 65, 106.

      Copyright (c) 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied
      for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and
      the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@....
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