The author of the first major study of Washington, D.C. during reconstruction in over fifty years spoke to DCentric recently.
Kate Masur, a history professor at Northwestern and author of “An Example for All the Land,” opined on racism, the Republican party and how D.C. developed a thriving African American middle class through good schools.
Why did you write this book?
I’ve been interested in D.C.’s history in part because it represented the juncture between the North and the South. I wanted to look at the period of emancipation and quintessential Northern/Southern issues, including the end of slavery, the meaning of emancipation and urban politics. In D.C., I could look at local and federal government in an interesting place that mixed both regions. That and there hadn’t been a good study of these issues in a really long time.
What were D.C. audiences most interested in?
D.C. was hungry for this sort of work. People have an episodic idea of history, so filling in the blanks and offering a narrative for this period is useful. Lots of people asked about African American politics and participation in a progressive coalition. This was a period of upheaval. You could really see what a difference it made that Congress had exclusive jurisdiction in Washington…the city was batted back and forth. It didn’t have control over its own destiny, this period really highlights that.
That sounds familiar. At the Portrait Gallery, when you read from the Reconstruction-era diary of a racist Washingtonian, I couldn’t get over how similar it sounded to certain anonymous comments I read on recent news articles.
Now, no one wants to own racism. You sort of wonder where all those comments come from if everyone is not racist…not to mention structural racism. In my book, white power brokers deliberately and repeatedly said that it wasn’t about race or problems with African Americans, it was just about good government. In fact, the policies they were seeking dramatically reduced the power of a newly biracial electorate. They made life more difficult for poor African Americans who had just become voters and found a certain amount of political power in D.C., so despite saying those policies weren’t racist, they had everything to do with reducing the power of black people.
Tell me more about African Americans and the Republican party.
The Republican party stuck together during the civil war. They had a cause to fight for. Most members were not on board with extending or sustaining slavery. Once slavery didn’t exist, conditions were ripe for Republican party coalitions to fall apart, we see that nationally and locally. In D.C., when African American men got the right to vote in 1867, they were naturally members of the Republican party, because Democrats were associated with racism and white slave owners. The local Republican party is a coalition of African Americans, white natives and white northerners who were in D.C. because of the war. This biracial coalition hangs together for a short amount of time, but fractures by 1870. The more conservative side tries to build a coalition with Democrats who are out of power, on a pro-business platform by being critical of the more progressive, more African American side of the party…they made it clear they were not allied. This wasn’t unique to D.C., this pattern happened a lot throughout the South.
What happened to African Americans after that?
We see the beginnings of an upwardly mobile class of African Americans. If we go back to the period before the Civil War, there were thriving African American private schools. Reconstruction was the origin of public schools. There’s also Howard University, a top-notch university with graduate schools and a teacher training program. Because of the federal government, African Americans could find better jobs in D.C. than in most places (including elsewhere in the North), so D.C. became a magnet for ambitious, educated African Americans. African Americans started working for the federal and municipal governments in large numbers, and that laid the foundation for an unusual black middle class.
Wow, Howard. Go Bisons!
Well, Howard is not alone, but it did have a medical school, a law school, a teacher training program, and undergraduate degrees. There was also M Street high school, which later became Dunbar– it was the first preparatory high school for black students in the country. It was an amazing liberal arts high school at a time when many were talking about industrial education as the direction go in for the African American population. While some questioned the need for liberal arts education for African Americans, or felt that they shouldn’t aspire to medicine or law, M street and Howard were bastions of other points of view. Why shouldn’t African Americans aspire to the best education available? There was no reason why they shouldn’t. There was a lot of synergy between Howard, the federal government and the local school system. D.C. public school graduates went to Howard in disproportionate numbers and Howard graduates worked for the federal government in disproportionate numbers. Howard produced professional dentists, pharmacists, lawyers and doctors, many of whom stayed in D.C.
It sounds like education figures prominently in “An Example for All the Land”.
It’s interesting. When this was a dissertation, it had a separate chapter on education; in the book, it ended up being dispersed throughout the narrative. There are lots of connections between schools and politics. There are debates over whether black students should be allowed to go to white schools. Can white schools exclude blacks? In the end, schools remained segregated until the 20th century, but the debate was fascinating. Why have public schools at all? Why segregate? Why integrate? Those debates were connected to other issues, like equal accommodation in public transportation, theaters and a whole range of public and quasi-public places where segregation and integration were debated.
The last paragraph of “An Example for All the Land” addresses those debates:
The era’s struggles over where equality should be promoted and where inequality should be accepted, over how democracy should work, and over whether wealth, whiteness or manhood should be the sources of special privileges, resonate in our own time. The parallels are instructive, if not always encouraging.