Reconstruction Period Research Forum
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Michael W. Fitzgerald. _Urban Emancipation: Popular Politics in
Reviewed for H-South by Christine Dee, firstname.lastname@example.org, Department of History, College of the Holy Cross.
_Strength Beyond Numbers: African American Political Agency in
A quarter of a century ago, Thomas Holt examined black political leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction. In _Black Over White_, he concluded that socioeconomic divisions among black Republicans ultimately hindered political leadership. "If Reconstruction was to succeed anywhere," he wrote of South Carolina, "it had to succeed there," for in that state African
In _Urban Emancipation_, Michael Fitzgerald pushes beyond Holt's argument to shed new light on the political agency of African Americans. _Urban Emancipation_ focuses on the first generation of African American political participation in Mobile, Alabama. The volume is meticulously researched, utilizing private correspondences, rich newspaper accounts, along with records from the Treasury and State Departments that are too often overlooked by historians. _Urban Reconstruction argues that class divisions within Mobile's African American community contributed to the demise of Reconstruction. Fitzgerald finds that African American leaders were divided
The greater value of the work, however, lies in Fitzgerald's argument that African American politicians developed pragmatic approaches to politics during the period of Democratic resurgence in Alabama politics. The author shows that African Americans were adept at exploiting divisions within the white electorate, notwithstanding their numeric minority in Mobile. As Fitzgerald writes, "If the city's factional politics were self-destructive during the heyday of Republican rule, Redemption's aftermath was surprisingly benign . . . . it was in the hard choices of the post-Reconstruction era that Mobile's African American populace demonstrated a more subtle sort of political realism" (7). In this manner, African Americans achieved political agency, especially in the decade after Reconstruction. Where Holt saw disenfranchisement and the limitation of political options for African Americans, Fitzgerald finds increased political agency among African Americans in Mobile. In this, the author sustains C. Vann Woodward's classic argument that the disenfranchisement of blacks was neither an immediate nor a predetermined consequence of the end of Reconstruction, but rather the product of a later age. 
_Urban Emancipation_ unfolds chronologically. In the first chapter, the author gives an overview of race in Mobile from the antebellum era through the Union occupation at the end of the war. Like Holt, Fitzgerald finds that background and caste were significant factors in shaping black politics. Specifically, a moderate faction in the African American community allied with southern white Republicans. This group included antebellum free blacks and those who maintained local ties to the city that predated Reconstruction. A more radical group of blacks were less loyal to the Republican party or its white leadership. They derived their support from Mobile's newcomers, many of whom were former slaves from agricultural regions. The second chapter illustrates this division among African Americans by examining how each faction reacted to white Republicans' control of black political expression, specifically through the newspaper, the _Mobile Nationalist_.
The author shows in the third chapter that upon the overthrow of
Federal and municipal patronage is the focus of the next chapter, where the author argues that local economic issues not only played an central role in Redemption politics but also provided the context for African Americans' pursuit of patronage. Black activists divided among themselves and allied with different groups of whites in their pragmatic pursuit of patronage positions and the earnings they promised. Their pragmatism reaped rewards, Fitzgerald finds, by expanding the federal bureaucracy to include a broader
The final chapter examines black political achievement in the context of limitations -- specifically the national economic depression and Democratic sweep of state and municipal government in 1874. Fitzgerald finds that African Americans maintained their political influence at the local level through the alliances they formed with disaffected whites during a period of economic turmoil. This is exemplified by the political allegiance of former slave Allen Alexander, a Republican who supported straight-out Democrats. As Alexander proclaimed, "If we are to be servants, let us serve the rich; it is preferable to serving the poor" (236). So long as whites remained divided, the black electoral minority capitalized on cleavages to maintain their political influence and shape urban politics.
Mobile's African American community practiced politics, Fitzgerald is always careful to note, in a system characterized by segregation and white supremacy. Political influence was hard-won through pragmatic activism that mandated shifting alliances among different groups of blacks and whites.
_Urban Emancipation_ demonstrates the process by which African Americans achieved political influence despite the stark realities of white supremacy and fiscal crisis. In so doing, it provides needed insight into the local aspect of black enfranchisement which, Fitzgerald masterfully demonstrates, was more complex than either legislation or electoral results indicate at the national level. To get an even clearer image of politics at the local level, however, the volume would benefit from tables documenting population growth and municipal electoral returns which the press could include in
. Thomas Holt, _Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction_ (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), 5, 208-24.
. C. Vann Woodward, _The Strange Career of Jim Crow_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 3rd revised edition, 1974), 29, 43-4, 65, 106.
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