What a Black Confederate Can Tell Us About the Streets of Baltimore

I’ve spent most of the day in a sort of funk having gone from watching the unfolding protests and violence in the streets of Baltimore on the mainstream news to reading thoughtful commentaries from Ta-Nehisi Coates and others. All the while I’ve been doing my best to try to understand the situation and its larger context rather than allow myself to get drawn into premature judgments that do little more than push the tough questions aside. There is way too much of this on my own social media feeds from people who express more fear and ignorance than anything approaching thoughtfulness.

Along the way I managed to do a little reading about camp servants and came across one of the more fascinating obituaries re-published in The New York Times in 1886. That year Levy Carnine died at the age of 76. He lived most of his life as a slave to the Hogan family of Alabama. The obituary stresses the loyal service that Hogan extended to the family, having served both father and son in two separate wars as a camp servant. In both cases Levy cared for the bodies of both masters – the elder Hogan having fallen in battle in the Seminole Indian War in 1837 and the son in the battle of the Wilderness in 1864. Even after the death of latter, Levy remained with the Second Louisiana Infantry until the end of the war.

Following the war, according to the obituary, “this black Confederate became a Democrat, and labored earnestly for the overthrow of Republican Government in Louisiana.” Levy Carnine’s identity and character extended no further than his having fulfilled the expectations of the white community in which he lived.

One way to read this obituary is as an object lesson to the black community in New Orleans and beyond. It outlines what the white community expected of African Americans at a time of great racial unrest. Levy’s character and behavior is what commanded the respect of whites and would go far in guaranteeing peace in the streets of New Orleans. His life functioned as a model of what whites expected of their former slaves, their children, grandchildren, and so on. It also functioned as a marker by which behavior that threatened this peaceful picture could be judged and dealt with.

The obituaries intended final word of praise, to our ears, points to the very heart of American racism.

Nothing except his birth and color prevented his being master among men.

White Americans cannot watch what is taking place in the streets of Baltimore in a historical vacuum. The fear, anger, and judgments that simmer to the surface themselves have a history. Levy Carnine’s obituary reinforced the belief that black compliance and peaceful race relations could be achieved. It was ultimately an illusion that left white Americans with a belief that blacks were content.

Our reactions to the sights and sounds from the streets of Baltimore and other places around the country reflect the half-life of this illusion.

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20 comments… add one
  • Scott Norsworthy Apr 28, 2015

    Hopefully we will get past worrying about how “blacks” feel. Kind of a weird generalization when you really think about it. Humanly speaking I mean. About the remarkable closing sentence–the racism there is in the open, confessed (sadly?) in the facts of the man’s fate to be born when and where he was. Granted, what you say about racist models and markers is true enough in terms of history and politics and culture. But maybe we can give the Times writer credit for getting past all that with a fine insight at the close. Leaving aside conditions that he had no control over, Levy Carnine was no ordinary person but “a master among men.” Sounds like high praise to me.

    • MSB Apr 28, 2015

      Well, it was the highest praise the racism of the day would permit: “if we didn’t value factors over which this man had no control much more than the things he chose to do with his life, we would have given him higher status”. I would like to think American society had gotten beyond my grandfather’s highest accolade for an African American – the immortal “credit to his race” – but it doesn’t look too much like it to me.

      Thanks for a very thoughtful and insightful response, Kevin. I also think Coates’ current essay hits the nail on the head.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2015

      Hopefully we will get past worrying about how “blacks” feel.

      I don’t know what this means.

      But maybe we can give the Times writer credit for getting past all that with a fine insight at the close.

      I am pretty sure that this was re-printed in the Times from a newspaper in New Orleans.

      The praise was for Levy’s compliance to the expectations of Southern whites. It wasn’t the kind of praise that anyone today would hope to receive.

      • Scott Norsworthy Apr 29, 2015

        Kevin, I should have first said thank you for the thoughtful post and mention of the (reprinted) Times article on Levy Carnine. To explain if I can, my cryptic bit about “blacks” in quotation marks is trying to express resistance to generalizing about race, as if race (even assuming we could determine it) really defines us. So when you write of “white Americans” and “blacks” this way, in specific reference to fantasies (“illusion”) and feelings (“content”):

        >>It was ultimately an illusion that left white Americans with a belief that blacks were content.

        I don’t know what you mean–that is, to me the categories seem too broad to be useful.

        >>this was re-printed in the Times from a newspaper in New Orleans.

        OK, so we have the racist New Orleans obit, approvingly reprinted by the NY Times. Or maybe there is an editorial comment that distances New York from New Orleans. That does happen so I will check.

        >>Levy’s compliance

        Of course you mean Levy Carnine. Or maybe not, since now I notice “Levy’s character” in the main text. But “old Levy” in the obit sounds condescending to me and “Levy” not much of an advance in the way of respect. “Mr. Carnine” might be best, I’m thinking now.

        Great site, thanks again!

        • Scott Norsworthy Apr 29, 2015

          Just looked it up and the New Orleans item about Mr. Levy Carnine appears without editorial comment–on the same page with other mortuary notices, and right below a Philadelphia item headed

          HE PUT ON TOO MANY AIRS.
          WHY A CLERGYMAN LEFT A COLORED PENNSYLVANIA CHURCH.

          …. One of the light colored members of the church said: “We’ve had enough Beans in our’n. We don’t want any preachers that puts on airs.”

          “His face was too dark for some of the mulattoes in the congregation,” said Mrs. Young. “He’s a real nice man, and will do better where he’s gone.”

          The Wood-street people have not hit upon a successor to Brother Beans yet. There are about 1,000 colored people in Bristol. Every once in a while there is said to be a split in one of their four churches and a new congregation is formed. –New York Times, January 18, 1886

  • Rob Orrison Apr 28, 2015

    Sorry Kevin, but making this a race issue is over done. The city has a black mayor…a black police chief and over the past few decades, liberal-Democratic leadership. This is not a white vs black issue….the facts don’t support that argument. Giving people who destroy private property of their neighbors, commit arson and looting a credible voice is insane. Peaceful protest speaks more volumes than violence. Sorry, there is just NO excuse for such behavior.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2015

      Thanks for the comment, Rob, but you completely missed the point of this post. I am not excusing the behavior of anyone or focusing on the topic of who, if anyone, has a “credible voice.” I don’t even know what that means in this context.

      • Rob Orrison Apr 29, 2015

        My point is, as I read your post, that giving people who commit violence and destruction credibility through historic connection makes their acts “credible” If that is not what you intended, then my mistake. But this is not about race as I read your post, it comes across that way IMHO

        • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2015

          Perhaps you can point to the exact passage where you think I am vindicating or giving credibility to anything. Thanks, Rob.

          • Rob Orrison Apr 29, 2015

            White Americans cannot watch what is taking place in the streets of Baltimore in a historical vacuum. The fear, anger, and judgments that simmer to the surface themselves have a history. Levy Carnine’s obituary reinforced the belief that black compliance and peaceful race relations could be achieved. It was ultimately an illusion that left white Americans with a belief that blacks were content.

            Our reactions to the sights and sounds from the streets of Baltimore and other places around the country reflect the half-life of this illusion.

            My reactions to what is happening in Baltimore has nothing to do with race (and I a white male, but many of my black friends feel the same) it has everything to do with lawlessness and destroying innocent people’s property

            • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2015

              I am sorry to see that you interpreted this post as about you and your black friends.

            • Rob Orrison Apr 29, 2015

              Not what I said at all Kevin, no idea why you are twisting my words here as I have been pretty direct.

              You asked me where I felt you had giving credibility to the riots via historical background and I pointed that out. In the comments I referenced, you said “white Americans cannot….” and I was pointing out that by saying that, you are making it about race and many feel that its not about race at all. Both white, black or whatever “color” … Its race baiting in my opinion. But I guess we can humbly agree to disagree.

            • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2015

              Yes, we will have to agree to disagree re: the extent to which what has happened in Baltimore and other cities is about the history of race and our perceptions of race. Thanks again for the comment.

    • James Harrigan Apr 29, 2015

      This is not a white vs black issue….
      Agreed. It is a police versus poor people issue. But it is not a coincidence that most of the police are white, and most of the poor people are black.

      • Rob Orrison Apr 29, 2015

        This is true in cases like Ferguson…but in Baltimore, the police leadership is black, the police chief is black and the mayor is black. So, that’s why I do not believe it holds true here.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2015
          • Rob Orrison Apr 29, 2015

            agreed…brutality can be brutality without race involved. With African American leadership, the “buck stops there”. A lot of this began with the O’Malley mayorial administration with a Zero Tolerance policy. Hopefully the good and well intentioned police and community leaders can build a better city.

            • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2015

              I hope some positive change can come of this as well, but that is not what my post is about.

            • MSB Apr 29, 2015

              “Without race involved”
              True, but I fear race will be involved as long as African American males (Tamir Rice can’t be called a man) have so much higher a chance of dying at hands of the police than anyone else. You are right to raise the point that police brutality is a serious problem in the U.S. but ignoring the racial aspect prevents us from seeing the problem clearly enough to propose useful solutions.

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