Defining Moments: African American Commemoration & Political Culture in the South, 1863-1913

By Cox, Karen L. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Defining Moments: African American Commemoration & Political Culture in the South, 1863-1913


Cox, Karen L., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Defining Moments: African American Commemoration & Political Culture in the South, 1863-1913 * Kathleen Ann Clark * Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005 * x, 302 pp. * $55.00 cloth; $19.95 paper

Historians of the post-Civil War South have explored in depth the political successes and failures of Reconstruction. As it applies to freedmen, however, those discussions have often focused on formal politics-the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and the subsequent repudiation of black civil rights as a consequence of Supreme Court decisions. Yet there existed a less formal, though no less powerful, political culture created and sustained by black southerners during this same period. African Americans around the South willingly assumed the mantle of citizenship upon freedom and publicly expressed their desire to be full participants in American democracy. They did so through public ceremonies and commemorations of emancipation, the Fourth of July, and other days when they defined the role they sought to play as citizens.

In Defining Moments, Kathleen Clark provides us with a detailed analysis of these public commemorations and the political culture that developed within African American communities throughout the South, though primarily in the states of Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. Clark's focus is on urban commemorations and most especially Emancipation Day celebrations. These celebrations occurred in several southern towns and cities throughout the period of Clark's study. These events were significant because through both deed and word African Americans created a political culture that both looked to the past for proof of their qualifications for citizenship and to the future by seeking to engage whites in both political parties within their larger communities.

Postbellum black celebrations of emancipation were grand affairs. In the immediate postwar years, there were parades, barbeques, and speeches by African American leaders. Men were the focus of these commemorations, especially members of black militias, which formed a key component of these events by providing black citizens' protection (they carried rifles), exhibiting their patriotism and military service, and significantly, serving as symbols of a vigorous manhood-important in a region where whites saw them as weak and inept. Central to these ceremonies were black leaders, often the elite in their communities, who spoke eloquently about emancipation and often employed the past as justification for freedom and citizenship. …

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