Sunday, April 13, 2008

The very long civil rights movement

Ken Zogry already had a fine career established in public history by 1998: he had completed two books, both of which would end up winning awards, The Best the Country Affords: Vermont Furniture, 1765-1850 (The Bennington Museum: 1995), and The University’s Living Room: A History of the Carolina Inn (UNC: 1999). Then, something happened that changed his life. He was asked to take a look at an endangered house in downtown Raleigh, a house built in 1901 by Dr. Manassa Thomas Pope. Dr. Pope, a graduate of the medical school at Shaw University, was the first licensed African American doctor in North Carolina. His daughters lived in the house until into the 1990s.

In 1998, Zogry prepared a National Register nomination for the house, which by then was surrounded by parking lots. He ended up involved in a 10-year struggle to save the house and to turn it into the first house museum of an African American family in North Carolina. It's not yet open to the public, but there are great plans, and Zogry is the executive director of the Pope House Museum Foundation.

About 1,800 of the documents Zogry found in the house at the outset are now in the Southern Historical Collection at UNC. What especially piqued his interest was a 1906 voter registration card issued to Dr. Pope. "Everything I had learned said this should not exist," he said as he began his talk on Saturday morning at a conference on New Perspectives in African American History and Culture. The discovery launched him on an investigation into a fascinating and little-known story about black male political resistance to white supremacy in the first two decades of the twentieth century--in Raleigh. The result is his UNC dissertation, which he has just recently defended.

What Zogry has discovered is that Dr. Pope's action in registering to vote was part of a concerted voter registration effort that went on around 1906; then it stopped, to pick up again in 1916. Many questions remain unanswered, including why the 10-year hiatus, but it is clear that there was a strong movement among African Americans to participate in politics even as Jim Crow laws were tightening and the conservative Democrats were shoring up their power after retaking the government in 1898.

In 1919, Dr. Pope actually ran for mayor of Raleigh. He was joined on the ballot by African American candidates for commissioner of safety and commissioner of public works. With no hope of a chance, these men were making a statement: "the strongest possible public action that black leaders could take against disenfranchisement," according to Zogry.

The election was lost, but all was not lost. A student named Ella Baker was attending Shaw in 1918. According to Zogry, the election of 1919 was "a formative experience" for her. After graduation she moved to Harlem and began her life's work--which included becoming "a guiding force" behind both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In fact, said Zogry, it was no accident that SNCC was formed at Shaw: Baker could have taken it to any major black school, but Shaw provided "a strong connection to history."

Commenting on Zogry's paper, Fitz Brundgage called Dr. Pope's mayoral election campaign significant because of its threat to the "appearance of hegemony." It was significant "because it underscores the persistence of a commitment to black political action that extends far back," back before the 1950s, back before the 1930s (which is sometimes what we think of as the outer edge of the civil rights movement), back to within the very height of the Jim Crow period. And Brundage would even take it farther back. Rather than read Dr. Pope's story as a predecessor to what was to come later in the twentieth century, he "would read it backward and talk about a continuous black struggle for equality, with varying tactics, but a continuity of struggle," one that has never let up: These various episodes of civil rights activities should not be seen as separate events that just happened, but rather as a long steady march, by actors conscious of their own history from one generation to the next.

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