Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Carrollton Massacre: One of many forgotten histories

At long last, sometime this summer my essay on Elizabeth Spencer's novel The Voice at the Back Door and the Carrollton Massacre of 1886 was published. It came out in the Winter/Spring 2005-06 issue of the Mississippi Quarterly (Vol. 59, Nos. 1-2), which was published this summer. I recently obtained a .pdf copy to share here with you.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about visiting Carrollton, where the scene of this tragic violence, the county courthouse, still stands. I gave a talk about it as a Hutchins Lecture at UNC last year. The reaction in the blogosphere has been very interesting. A couple of comments to that "field trip" post:

"I live in Carrollton and I don't appreciate you coming into our town and digging up racial history and trying to stir up racial tensions."

"I grew up in North Carrollton and I don't recall ever hearing about the incident at the courthouse that I just read about in the 'field trip' story. I must admit that I am intrigued."

And quite recently,

"As a greatX4 grandaughter of the Confederacy, born and raised in the South of the 1950's, brought up with mint juleps and sitting on the veranda... I just want to say thank you. For far too long the truth of the horrid things that happenned has been hidden or twisted so badly that it could hardly be called truth at all.

"I have my own wound that must be healed... the lynching of L.Q. Ivy in Union County, MS. My grandfather was there when it occurred along with a crowd of several hundred and told me the story when I was a child. I was horrified then and am disgusted now at man's inhumanity to his fellow man."

I've had others say they knew, or kind of knew, about terrible violence way back when in the southern towns where they grew up, things that it wasn't polite to talk about. A crucial part of the rhetoric of the Lost Cause was to ensure that those stories didn't see the light of day.

The story of what happened in Wilmington in 1898 is an important example of the revised understanding of this history that is going on today. What used to be called a "race riot" is now, thanks to a study initiated by the North Carolina legislature, understood as a coup--a violent overthrow of legitimate governmental authority by the conservative white establishment. Al Brophy's work on what happened in Tulsa a little later is another example.

There are lots of stories. Nicholas Lehmann's book Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War provides a larger context to what happened in Carrollton and across the South. From a recent review of the book,

Nearly one month after resigning as governor of Mississippi, Adelbert Ames told a New York Times reporter in April 1876 that he did not blame the northern public for dismissing reports of fraud and violence in southern elections. "Before I went South," the Maine-born, former Union general explained, " ... I do not think that any amount of human testimony could have induced me to believe in such a condition of society as exists in Mississippi." Ames knew that it was difficult for northerners to believe that heavily armed paramilitary organizations would scatter peaceful political gatherings, that ballot boxes were stolen and burned, that public officials could be gunned down in broad daylight in the center of town, and that battles erupted between white and black militias in response to local elections.

The electoral violence of the mid-1870s remains perplexing. Although historians have documented the violent counterrevolution that undermined Reconstruction, the general public knows little of these events and seems skeptical that white terrorists could have so brazenly subverted democratic governance in the United States. Nicholas Lemann's intention in Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War is to bring this forgotten story to a wider audience and explain why southern democracy and civil rights were snuffed out.

Stephen Cresswell's Rednecks, Redeemers, and Race: Mississippi After Reconstruction, 1877-1917 also contributes to this new understanding specifically as to Mississippi.

And so, history and memory continue to tussle each other about. Writes Ira Berlin in a recent essay,

Slavery lives--and will continue to live--in both history and memory. But the time has come to put the two together, to join history and memory, to embrace slavery's complex history, to accept the force of slavery's memory, and thereby elevate both. For only by testing memory against history can a sense of a collective past be sustained. Perhaps by incorporating slavery's memory into slavery's history--and vice versa--Americans, white and black, can have a past that is both memorable and--at last--past.

"American Slavery in History and Memory," in Slavery, Resistance, Freedom, ed. Gabor Boritt and Scott Hancock (Oxford 2006).

UPDATE 12/03: More on the lynching of L.Q. Ivy mentioned above. Warning: not for the faint.

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