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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition reimagines the Wilmington, North Carolina coup d’etat

Michelle Alexander’s new book The New Jim Crow and a recent post on GroundUpCT about the plight of the Scott sisters in Mississippi raise questions about whether Jim Crow practices continue without redress in the America of Obama. More than a century ago, opposition to the relaxation of Jim Crow laws and to black participation in the political process peaked in a notorious event in November 1898: the uprising by a mob of white supremacists in Wilmington, North Carolina, to overthrow legally elected black officials. Charles W. Chesnutt used this incident, which a 2006 state-appointed commission called “the only recorded violent government overthrow in U.S. history,” as the basis for what many consider his masterpiece, The Marrow of Tradition (1901).

At the end of the nineteenth century, Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina and a majority of its population were black. After the elections of 1894 and 1896, the Fusionist Party (a merging of the Populist and Republican parties) had gained control of the state government and started to pass laws increasing the rights of black citizens. In the election of 1898, Democratic candidates regained control of the state government and were determined to reverse course.

Historian C. Vann Woodward describes the actual events of November 10 in The New York Review of Books:
Immediately after the election, a mob led by a prominent white citizen burned down [the offices of the African American newspaper The Daily Record]. [The editor] escaped, but the mob, joined by an infantry company mobilized for the Spanish-American War, hunted down black leaders, killed some, and drove thousands of other black citizens from their homes and property, which was seized or destroyed by whites. Before it was over between ten and twenty black bodies lay in the streets. The chief leader of the attack on the press then settled into the mayor’s office.
The Marrow of Tradition follows the intersecting stories of numerous characters, white, black, and of mixed race, as they struggle to coexist in a small North Carolina town rife with racial tension. One of Chesnutt’s aims, in the era of yellow journalism, was to show the power of a newspaper as a tool for propaganda—racial hatred, in this case. The novel climaxes as a demonstration turns ugly:
The proceedings of the day—planned originally as a “demonstration,” dignified subsequently as a “revolution,” under any name the culmination of the conspiracy formed by Carteret and his colleagues—had by seven o’clock in the afternoon developed into a murderous riot. Crowds of white men and half-grown boys, drunk with whiskey or with license, raged through streets, beating, chasing, or killing any negro so unfortunate as to fall into their hands. Why any particular negro was assailed, no one stopped to inquire; it was merely a white mob thirsting for black blood, with no more conscience or discrimination than would be exercised by a wolf in a sheepfold. It was race against race, the whites against the negroes; and it was a one-sided affair, for until Josh Green got together his body of armed men, no effective resistance had been made by any colored person, and the individuals who had been killed had so far left no marks upon the enemy by which they might be remembered.
The 1901 review of the novel in The Richmond Times noted “To the accuracy of the picture Mr. Chesnutt has presented, there is a surprising unanimity of opinion: the riot he describes might have been photographed in a dozen Southern towns; the murder has, unfortunately, been reduplicated a score times, and even minor details and atmospheric effects of the book carry with them the conviction of actuality.”

Of related interest:
Related LOA works: Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays

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