Memory, Media, and Representation in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Solicited by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Gilded Age & Progressive Era; Social and Cultural

Papers Presented

Thompson Street, Currier and Ives’ ‘Darktown’ Comics, and 19th-Century Cultural Representations of Black Residential Segregation Before the Ghetto

This paper looks at late-19th-century popular culture representations of Thompson Street, New York City, and the immensely popular Currier and Ives’ lithographic print series the “Darktown” comics to argue that as African Americans migrated in growing numbers to U.S. cities across the South, North, and West in the final decades of the 19th century, a steady campaign to portray homogenous black urban space as both commonplace and natural emerged in popular culture, despite the fact that extensive racial segregation was not the reality in any U.S. cities during the period. The paper contends that imagery of all-black urban spaces in popular culture outpaced segregation on the ground and suggested to audiences that not only was homogenous black space an extant reality, but also that residential segregation of blacks and whites was both correct and normal. Popular culture also persistently crafted black urban space as fundamentally deviant, dangerous, and inferior, suggesting that maintaining social order in the city required cordoning off and containing urban African Americans and black space. This paper proposes that such imagery helped ideologically galvanize and bolster the emergence of large-scale residential segregation at the beginning of the twentieth century. Thompson Street, New York City, running south from Washington Square Park down to Canal Street through the neighborhoods currently known as Greenwich Village and Soho, was home to a sizeable black population in the late 19th century, but was far from an exclusively black residential space. However, numerous forms of nationally circulating popular culture repeatedly used Thompson Street as a metonym for all-black space. This paper helps explain how the street acquired its racial meaning by providing a history of the discourse around Thompson Street as it became a nationally recognized term for black urban space. Currier and Ives’ “Darktown” series was also nationally popular and was one of the printing powerhouse’s best sellers. Given their popularity, the scholarship on the Darktown comics is surprisingly scant. This paper helps correct this lack of attention and illustrates the revealing racial and spatial ideologies at work in the prints.

Presented By
Colin Anderson, University of Tampa

Reckoning with the Clinton Massacre of 1875: Dueling Reconstruction Memories in One Mississippi Town

On September 4, 1875, a seismic wave of racial terror was unleashed upon hundreds of freedpeople gathered at a Republican political rally and picnic in the small town of Clinton, Mississippi. Over the coming days, white paramilitary groups aligned with the state’s Democratic Party murdered as many as fifty black citizens, including many of the county’s Republican leaders, and effectively ended Reconstruction in Mississippi. In the aftermath of the violence, two vastly different and segregated versions of events were created, largely delineated by the local color line. This paper will focus on the creation of one version of the events, a false narrative promulgated by white Democrats and later epitomized by an article, entitled “The Clinton Riot,” written by Charles Hillman Brough and published by the Mississippi Historical Society in 1902. My research demonstrates that Brough, like other Dunning School historians, enshrined a Lost Cause mythology which justified white-on-black violence by raising the specter of slave insurrection. Despite modern historiography, Brough’s version remained the local, dominant narrative for more than a century, even permeating some circles within African American collective memory as revealed by oral history interviews. Finally, my research reveals the influence of Brough’s essay and traceable for nearly a century in public rhetoric, monuments, public school curricula, and even an eagle scout project. [Brough is better known as Arkansas’s 25th governor serving from 1917 to 1921. In 1919, Brough led the state’s official response to the Elaine Massacre, the deadliest mass-casualty instance of racial violence in Arkansas’s history.]

Presented By
Melissa Janczewski Jones, Mississippi College

Origins of the News Crisis: Temporal Acceleration, the Gilded Age and Progressive Era Press, and the Social Critic

Today, historians label past events as “crises” far more routinely than the historical actors who experienced them. Although the term appeared in early Christian theological texts and Thomas Paine’s invocation of the “times that try men’s souls,” it became commonplace only after the Civil War. Thus, the 1630s event described as the Antinomian Crisis – usually the first episode covered in the North American survey to be described as a “crisis” – remained to historians a “controversy” or an episode of “strife” until the early 20th century. For contemporaries, only a few events deserved the description: Southern slavery critic Hinton Helper’s The Impending Crisis of the South (1857); Lincoln’s invocation of crisis during his declaration of a National Fast Day in 1863; Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907); issues of Dubois’ journal The Crisis (1910-); and Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Challenge of the Present Crisis (1917). Up until the Civil War, crisis was invoked rarely, and usually to describe a turning point in an individual’s recovery from physical or spiritual peril. After the Civil War, however, major American intellectuals ranging from Richard Theodore Ely to Walter Rauschenbusch and W.E.B. Dubois began to explicitly describe collective crises that threatened to destroy much of all of society. This paper links the evolving meaning of crisis to the emerging power of the Gilded Age press to cultivate a sense of future emergency – a power that far transcended the antebellum press’s power to sensationalize past events as disasters. By the late 1880s, the new mass circulation dailies began to promise exclusive revelations in future issues, conditioning audiences to look forward to the development or resolution of scandals, trials, and debates. The conception of crisis ultimately drew upon the audience’s self-awareness of itself as awaiting these developments and resolutions. This paper demonstrates how newspaper coverage of class, race, and military conflict was soon taken up by the aforementioned thinkers, establishing a sense of modernity as enclosed within a series of ever-shifting temporal horizons.

Presented By
Justin Tyler Clark, Nanyang Technological University

Come and Gone: August Wilson, Sheriff Joe Turner, and the Lingering Presence of the Slave Driver

More than any other theme present in Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson’s work, convict culture is not only present in every publication, but it is often central to the plot. Nearly all of Wilson’s characters have experienced incarceration, know a loved one who has, or will likely be incarcerated. This becomes part of their everyday lives and can be referred to as convict culture. What is more, many of the black characters have had no contact with the police or the legislative system, and yet their lives are affected throughout by both. What explains the similarities between Wilson’s characters racial disparities in literature as well as the criminal justice system Further still, legalized slavery is legalized in the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in 1865, but condones servitude as “punishment for crime.” In a loophole, convict labor was legal after the civil war, became a staple of black southern life as the infamous Joe Turner, and continues into contemporary society. Today we still see slavery and involutnary servitude used as punishment for a crime. Michelle Alexander states it is remarkable that “hardly anyone seems to imagine that similar political dynamics may have produced another caste system in the year following the collapse of Jim Crow.” Alexander’s term referring to the current carcial system in the New Jim Crow as the rebirth of caste is apt. America’s racial caste system can be seen most readily in Wilson’s themes of convict culture through Joe Turner’s chain gangs, and the lingering presence of the slave driver. The chain gang was as abhorrent then as it is today, and yet it still exists.

Presented By
Jonathan Scott Lower, State University at Buffalo

Session Participants

Chair: Amy Louise Wood, Illinois State University

Presenter: Colin Anderson, University of Tampa

Presenter: Justin Tyler Clark, Nanyang Technological University

Presenter: Melissa Janczewski Jones, Mississippi College

Presenter: Jonathan Scott Lower, State University at Buffalo