The Price Of Forgetting: New Biography of Albion Tourgee

One of the more disturbing consequences of our tendency to interpret the Civil War and the postwar period along the lines of reunion and reconciliation and void of any references to emancipation is our failure to give credit to those who continued to push for civil rights. Even Frederick Douglass tends to be forgotten by the end of the Civil War though he continued to remind the nation of the service and sacrifice of black Americans in the Civil War until his death in 1895.  Rather than waste time and ponder counterfactuals about Gettysburg I often find myself wondering what our national memory might have looked like had we decided to highlight the work of those who concerned themselves with civil rights issues rather than stories that concentrated on the mythology of the "Old South", silly tales of Christian Warriors and narratives that watered down military service to a set of innocent virtues that all Americans could identify with.  Perhaps we would be able to see the modern Civil Rights Movement more as a continuation of steps taken earlier rather than as a reaction to conditions following the Second World War.  Better yet, perhaps the Civil Rights Movement would not have been necessary at all.  Some of the most exciting historical scholarship is now focused on uncovering the lives of Americans who worked tirelessly in the postwar period on issues related to race.  Historian Mark Elliott’s Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgee and the Quest For Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson (Oxford University Press, 2006) tells the story of one of the most important civil rights advocate, lawyer, and author of the latter part of the nineteenth century.  From the book description:

Civil War officer, Reconstruction "carpetbagger," best-selling novelist, and relentless champion of equal rights, Albion Tourgee battled his entire life for racial justice. Now, in this engaging biography, Mark Elliott offers an insightful portrait of a fearless lawyer, jurist, and writer, who fought for equality long after most Americans had abandoned the ideals of Reconstruction.

Elliott provides a fascinating account of Tourgee’s life, from his childhood in the Western Reserve region of Ohio (then a hotbed of abolitionism), to his years as a North Carolina judge during Reconstruction, to his memorable role as lead plaintiff’s counsel in the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson . Tourgee’s brief coined the phrase that justice should be "color-blind," and his career was one long campaign to made good on that belief. A redoubtable lawyer and an accomplished jurist, Tourgee wrote fifteen political novels, eight books of historical and social criticism, and several hundred newspaper and magazine articles that all told represent a mountain of dissent against the prevailing tide of racial oppression.

Through the lens of Tourgee’s life, Elliott illuminates the war of ideas about race that raged through the United States in the nineteenth century, from the heated debate over slavery before the Civil War, through the conflict over aid to freedmen during Reconstruction, to the backlash toward the end of the century, when Tourgee saw his country retreat from the goals of equality and freedom and utterly repudiate the work of Reconstruction. A poignant and inspiring study in courage and conviction, Color Blind Justice offers us an unforgettable portrayal of Albion Tourgee and the principles to which he dedicated his life.

I just picked up a copy and look forward to reading it over the winter break.

6 comments… add one

  • Justin Felux Dec 8, 2006

    This is great news! A few weeks ago my group, the Progressive Student Organization, hosted a week long series of anti-racism events. We had guest speakers (Joe Feagin of Texas A&M came, Robert Jensen of UT Austin came, Jim Loewen almost came but didn’t)and showed movies.

    In addition to all that, we made an exhibit of sorts out of posterboards that featured information about various white anti-racists in American history. We had a really big one for John Brown. We also had one for Garrison, Stowe, and the other prominent white abolitionists. We made one about the Union army. We had one for the Radical Republicans, with Sumner and Stevens serving as the archetypes.

    We had one on different figures in Reconstruction centered around Albion Tourgee — McPherson has referred to Tourgee as the “most important white advocate of civil rights in the late 19th century,” or something to that effect. When I first learned about him, I was outraged that I had never heard of him before, even after many years of studying history.

    Probably my favorite tribute that we made was the one for the American Communist Party, which ought to receive a great deal more credit for its tireless advocacy of black equality in a time when even many supposedly “progressive” whites were indifferent or supportive of white supremacy.

  • BorderRuffian Dec 10, 2006

    Albion Tourgee? Who introduced the Union League (aka Loyal League) into North Carolina in 1865. The organization that used tactics of intimidation and violence not only against their political enemies but also their own members (to keep them “in line”). Wasn’t it Forrest who said- “If there had never been a Union League there would have never been a Ku Klux Klan”?

  • Kevin Levin Dec 10, 2006

    Justin, — Sounds like a wonderful program.

    BR, — I am not going to comment except to say that your reference to Tourgee and the Union Leagues reflects very little understanding of recent interpretations of Reconstruction. I suggest reading Eric Foner’s seminal study, _Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution_.

  • Justin Felux Dec 11, 2006

    I am inclined to ignore anyone who goes by the moniker of “BorderRuffian,” but I would like to see some evidence for your claims about the Union League. If I remember correctly the UL was simply an organization that promoted political awareness and was associated with the Republican Party.

  • Mike Lutz Dec 14, 2006

    I read the book. Elliott says that the Union League never committed a single act in violation of the law, and that it is a myth of later times that Klan’s campaign of murder, rape, and mayhem was carried out in retaliation to the Union League’s similiar behavior. Also, Tourgee did not found the Union League–though his opponents later claimed that he did. He was a member, however, and insisted it was a peaceful fraternal brotherhood. The problem: it was an interracial fraternity that mobilized blacks and poor whites to excercise their right to vote!

  • Kevin Levin Dec 14, 2006

    Mike, — Thanks for taking the time to point that out. I started the book and am thorougly enjoying it. I particularly enjoyed his analysis early on of the Bateman lithograph. My guess is that people who push these stories about the Union League will not take the time to read this biography or anything of the secondary literature that is relevant to these issues.

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