Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Between history and memory: the legacy of Reconstruction

At long last--I don't even remember how long--I've finished, or abandoned, an essay I promised to write on The Voice at the Back Door, a novel by Elizabeth Spencer written and set in the 1950s, and the historical event at the heart of it, the mass murder of 10 or more black men in the courthouse of her home town of Carrollton, Mississippi. In the novel, that event happened in 1919, but in reality, Spencer didn't know exactly when it happened until she was writing her memoir about 10 years ago.

It happened in 1886, during the unrestful period between 1875, when the state was "redeemed" from the evils of Reconstruction, and 1890, when a new state constitution effectively disenfranchised black voters through poll taxes and the infamous "understanding" clause.

"Of course he wants to vote the Democratic ticket!"
Harper's 1876, reprinted in Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents, ed. Brook Thomas (1997)

In official history, the Carrollton Massacre disappeared. Even the Carrollton newspapers of the time disappeared. In the novel, the memory lingers. A white man of good will runs for sheriff on a platform of equality for black and white. He loses, of course--loses more than the election.

Voice cover

The novel came out in 1956 but was written earlier, before Brown v. Board of Education catapulted civil rights into a national crisis; before the still unresolved murder of Emmett Till, which happened in 1955 in Leflore County, adjacent to Carroll County, the same place from which, in 1886, scores of white men rode in on horseback to commit murder in a court of law. The Voice at the Back Door was nominated for a Pulitzer but none was given that year, perhaps because it would have won.

I offered to write this essay for the French journal Profils Américains, for a planned special issue on Spencer. The special issue hasn't happened yet, and I'm afraid I'm one of the reasons. I said I would do it because the idea intrigued me, not having any idea whether I'd be able to find the source material, not having much of an understanding of the historical issues at all. So it did take time. It's been a fascinating project, with more contemporary resonance than I would have preferred.

UPDATE 6/30: The essay has been accepted for dual publication in the Mississippi Quarterly and Profils Américains.

UPDATE 8/11: Visit to Carrollton.

UPDATE 12/02/07: Here is the essay, which was published in the Winter/Spring 2005-06 issue of the Mississippi Quarterly (Vol. 59, Nos. 1-2); the volume appeared in print in summer 2007.

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