Freedom Deferred: On Stephen Kantrowitz
The sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1, 1863, is fast approaching. Yet in anticipation of what will undoubtedly be an atmosphere of celebration, those professional killjoys known as historians are striking a more somber note. Where once the abolition of slavery was seen as the great watershed of African-American life—a point of view epitomized in the title of John Hope Franklin’s highly influential black history textbook, From Slavery to Freedom—historians of late have taken to emphasizing the failure, or at least the inadequacy, of the freedom brought about by the Civil War. Current scholars tend to stress continuity as much as change over the course of the nineteenth century. Racism and black subordination persisted despite emancipation; Reconstruction (when an alternative outcome seemed possible) failed. A few months ago, Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery hosted a conference on new directions in the study of emancipation titled “Beyond Freedom.”
Historians of the years following slavery have always spoken directly to modern-day concerns. The Dunning School, with its emphasis on the alleged horrors of postwar Reconstruction (corruption, misgovernment and “black supremacy”), provided scholarly legitimacy for Jim Crow and the disenfranchisement of Southern black voters. The revisionist school, which saw Reconstruction as a noble experiment in interracial democracy, arose in tandem with the civil rights movement. Today’s more gloomy view of emancipation and its aftermath reflects, in part, a sense that the modern civil rights revolution failed to address adequately the economic plight of most black Americans. The Freedom Movement may have succeeded on the legal front, but as the title of a recent work by Nancy MacLean on modern-day economic inequality puts it, Freedom Is Not Enough.
Stephen Kantrowitz’s new book places him firmly in the camp of historians who conclude that freedom, when it came, wasn’t sufficient to undo the centuries-long legacy of slavery. Kantrowitz, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin, is the author of a prize-winning study of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, who took part in the violent overthrow of Reconstruction in South Carolina and later rose to the governorship on the strength of lurid warnings that black demands for equality posed a threat to the purity of white womanhood. In More Than Freedom, Kantrowitz turns his attention to the North, chronicling the struggles of Boston’s black activists over the course of the nineteenth century. The key figures in his book are hardly household names, even among historians—men like the former slave turned underground railroad activist Lewis Hayden; William C. Nell, whose book The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution laid claim for blacks to the revolutionary heritage; and John S. Rock, who became the first black attorney admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court and who wrote articles ridiculing contemporary theories of racial hierarchy and inborn racial difference. Kantrowitz has done a remarkable job of bringing them to life and situating them in their social milieu.
Boston’s black community in those days represented only 2 percent of the city’s population. Most of its members lacked education and were confined to menial, low-wage employment. In this world the activists constituted an elite. But, as Kantrowitz makes clear, they often lived themselves on the edge of poverty. Nell remained in debt throughout the 1850s and resided in a room in a boarding house; Hayden’s clothing store failed, and he was able to make ends meet only after he was hired as a messenger by the secretary of state of Massachusetts. Thus, Kantrowitz claims, these leaders understood the experiences of ordinary black Bostonians and can plausibly be taken as spokesmen for them.
Kantrowitz argues convincingly that the familiar story of sectional crisis, civil war and emancipation takes on a different cast when viewed from the perspective of these black activists. The slavery controversy unleashed a complex, far-reaching debate about the role that racial difference should play in defining such core American values as freedom, equality and citizenship. Boston’s black leaders inserted themselves into this debate, using every means at their disposal—petitions, speeches, pamphlets, lawsuits and direct action—in pursuit of their goals. In so doing, they directly challenged the prevailing assumption that “public life was for whites only.” Kantrowitz insists, moreover, that the familiar label “black abolitionists” is a misnomer, since their goals extended well beyond ending slavery.
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Unlike most books on the era, More Than Freedom doesn’t begin or end with the Civil War. Tracing these activists and their careers over six decades allows Kantrowitz to emphasize that their struggle did not cease with emancipation. As the book’s subtitle indicates, their aim was not simply freedom but full and equal citizenship for black Americans. To be sure, citizenship itself was a contested concept in these years. One of only a handful of states to allow black men to vote before the Civil War, Massachusetts long recognized its free black population as citizens, although numerous racial inequalities existed in everyday life. Nationally, in the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that no African-American could be a citizen of the United States. After the war, the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to all people born in the country regardless of race, in effect abrogating Dred Scott. Beginning in the 1870s, however, the high court severely limited the actual rights that accompanied such citizenship. But black activists, Kantrowitz notes, embraced an expansive definition of citizenship, understanding it as the enjoyment of equal rights in all areas of life, including political participation, access to public facilities and much more.
In his most striking departure from previous scholarship, Kantrowitz argues that black activists’ “vision of belonging” encompassed not simply a set of specific rights but recognition by white Americans as “brothers and equals,” including the establishment of “bonds of trust and even love across the color line.” Only when white Americans embraced what black activists called “the fraternal unity of man” would the country fully leave behind the legacy of slavery. In pursuit of this goal, black Bostonians, excluded from white schools, churches and organizations, created their own institutions—“a world apart,” Kantrowitz calls it. Their ultimate aim, however, was not separation but inclusion. Kantrowitz’s account differs dramatically from the most influential book on nineteenth-century black politics published in the last decade, Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet, which emphasized blacks’ desire for group power rather than integration or white good will. Neither historian is necessarily right or wrong: both strands—integration and self-determination—have always existed in black life, not infrequently in the outlook of the same individual. The difference may arise from Hahn’s focus on black communities of the rural South, whose members had to rely on their own efforts for advancement. As Kantrowitz shows, Boston—while rife with racism—was also home to a cadre of whites willing to work closely with blacks in pursuit of abolition and racial equality.
Although Kantrowitz faults white abolitionists for their paternalism, he acknowledges that Boston’s black activists experienced a degree of interracial cooperation virtually unknown elsewhere in the United States. Frederick Douglass long remembered how Wendell Phillips shared “my hardships with me”—insisting, for example, on remaining with Douglass on the frigid deck of a Newport–New York steamer because the captain would not allow him to sit inside with the white passengers. It was this kind of experience that enabled Boston’s black radicals to imagine a future world of genuine equality, freed from the tyranny of race.
Boston may have been atypical, but its black radicals spearheaded the city’s antislavery activism and helped to shape broader national events, Kantrowitz notes. The most striking example before the Civil War was the militant, sometimes violent opposition of Boston’s abolitionists to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Although the Boston Vigilance Committee, which worked to assist fugitives, had mostly white managers, the day-to-day work was done by blacks. During the 1850s, the committee assisted more than 400 fugitives who passed through the city. And while many (though by no means all) white abolitionists adhered to the Garrisonian principle of nonresistance and eschewed violence as a way to oppose the law, blacks literally put their lives on the line when legal procedures failed. In perhaps the most dramatic instance, hundreds of black Bostonians descended on a courthouse in February 1851 where Shadrach Minkins, a fugitive slave from Virginia, was being held by local authorities. One armed group broke in and spirited him to safety; Minkins eventually made his way to freedom in Canada. Lewis Hayden, who helped to organize the rescue, was indicted for conspiracy, but the jury failed to reach a verdict.
Not all such efforts ended in success. In 1854, while the Committee of Vigilance stood by helplessly, a squadron of police and federal soldiers escorted another fugitive, Anthony Burns, down State Street to Boston’s docks, from which he was sent back to slavery. But violent rescue attempts, both successful and unsuccessful, not only dramatized the fugitive-slave issue but moved the abolitionist movement away from its commitment to nonviolence. These events widened the breach between North and South and helped to bring on the Civil War.
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Nine years after the rendition of Anthony Burns, a different procession marched down State Street to the cheers of onlookers. This was the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, a black Union regiment (whose exploits would be celebrated in the film Glory). The contrast between these two events illustrated the transformation wrought by the Civil War. But as Kantrowitz shows, Boston’s black radicals were divided on the question of black military service. Some saw enlistment as a step toward equality. But given that the Union army maintained racially segregated regiments and paid black soldiers less than their white counterparts, many black Bostonians insisted that no one should fight unless accorded equal treatment. Their argument seems to have struck home: the Fifty-fourth was unable to fill its ranks with Massachusetts men and had to seek recruits from throughout the North. Those who did enlist in the regiment refused to accept their pay until Congress agreed to retroactive equality. The soldiers’ campaign eventually succeeded, producing the first national law explicitly based on the principle of racial equality.
By the war’s end, slavery had been destroyed, 200,000 black men had served in the Union army and navy, and the question of black citizenship occupied a central place on the national political agenda. From one point of view, the gains made by black Bostonians after the war were remarkable. Harvard enrolled its first black undergraduate in 1865; the law school did the same one year later. Some black Bostonians headed south to take part in the democratic experiment of Reconstruction. Despite enjoying the right to vote, black men had never held public office in Massachusetts, except for a justice of the peace or two. Now some won election to the state legislature (including Edwin Garrison Walker, who carried the names of two great abolitionists: one was his father, David Walker, whose pamphlet, “An Appeal…to the Colored Citizens of the World,” launched the militant abolitionist movement in 1829). Ironically, Edwin Walker and Charles Mitchell, two of the first black legislators, were among a handful to vote against ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment on the grounds that it failed to grant blacks the right of suffrage. That would soon come, however, in the Fifteenth Amendment. By 1870, in the Constitution and on the statute books, blacks nationwide were fully equal to white Americans. The abolitionist dream of a national citizenship without racial difference had been achieved.
Freedom had arrived. Or had it? Kantrowitz titles his postwar section “The Disappointments of Citizenship.” Most blacks in Boston remained desperately poor; their only avenue for economic advancement was taking the place of striking white workers, as occurred during a railroad walkout in 1868. Exclusion and de facto segregation continued in many realms of life. Lewis Hayden’s long battle to integrate the Freemasons came to nothing. More broadly, Kantrowitz writes, “black hopes for a broader sense of belonging,” a “fraternal embrace across the color line,” failed to materialize. Instead, foes of Reconstruction in the South and of black equality in the North seized on the very ideal of “social equality” to discredit the entire egalitarian project. Blacks, they claimed, were trying to force themselves into places they were not wanted—railroad cars, hotels, restaurants, homes, even bedrooms. As befits the author of a book on Ben Tillman, Kantrowitz emphasizes how opponents of black rights took black Bostonians’ utopian goal of fraternity and love between the races and turned it into a synonym for interracial “amalgamation.”
In a short, breathless epilogue, Kantrowitz brings the story up to the present. We have not yet, he claims, achieved the “more than freedom” of the book’s title—the “emotional, spiritual, and intuitive sense of kinship” envisioned by Boston’s black radicals. His discussion is far too brief to explain why, but brevity is less of a problem than misplaced emphasis: in the end, the goal of all Americans sitting at a common “table of brotherhood,” as Kantrowitz puts it, seems more a spiritual than political aspiration. The idea is indeed a noble one, but what is less clear is whether it constitutes a viable basis for action. Political coalitions generally revolve around shared goals and interests, rather than fraternal feelings. Indeed, Kantrowitz’s evidence suggests that to ordinary black Bostonians, access to jobs, political influence and equal treatment in public spaces was of greater concern than whether white people loved them. Certainly, if the advent of universal brotherhood is the standard against which it is to be judged, actually existing freedom is bound to appear inadequate.
There is a compelling irony here. Today, we all embrace the brotherhood of man, at least rhetorically. Polls show that most white Americans believe we have achieved the “raceless”—or, as it is now called, color-blind—society envisioned by the Boston radicals. After all, blacks have achieved all the legal rights demanded by the abolitionists. We even have a black president, something utterly inconceivable then. Intimate interracial relationships—including marriages across the color line, so dreaded in the nineteenth century—are not only widely accepted but commonplace in television shows and elsewhere in popular culture. Where the racial gap remains glaring is in the more mundane areas: incarceration rates, family wealth, unemployment, health, victimization by banks and mortgage lenders.
Of course, the insistent claim that we have achieved a color-blind society too often serves as an excuse for ignoring the inequalities in American life that, in part, are the legacy of centuries of slavery and racism. And despite its weakness for a psychopolitics that elevates fraternal feelings above practical realities, More Than Freedom succeeds admirably in bringing vividly to life a group of all-but-forgotten black activists and, with them, a neglected chapter in the long struggle for racial justice.