They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I

They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I

They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I

They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I

Synopsis

Well after slavery was abolished, its legacy of violence left deep wounds on African Americans' bodies, minds, and lives. For many victims and witnesses of the assaults, rapes, murders, nightrides, lynchings, and other bloody acts that followed, the suffering this violence engendered was at once too painful to put into words yet too horrible to suppress.

In this evocative and deeply moving history Kidada Williams examines African Americans' testimonies about racial violence. By using both oral and print culture to testify about violence, victims and witnesses hoped they would be able to graphically disseminate enough knowledge about its occurrence and inspire Americans to take action to end it. In the process of testifying, these people created a vernacular history of the violence they endured and witnessed, as well as the identities that grew from the experience of violence. This history fostered an oppositional consciousness to racial violence that inspired African Americans to form and support campaigns to end violence. The resulting crusades against racial violence became one of the political training grounds for the civil rights movement.

Excerpt

“They broke me teetotally up. I left my things and they would not allow me to go back there, and I had to slip back and get my wife and children the best I could. They took everything I had, and all my wife had, and broke us teetotally up. I had to come away with nothing.” This was the proclamation that James Hicks, a formerly enslaved man of Caledonia, Mississippi, made to the Joint Select Committee of the Forty-First Congress that was investigating the “Affairs of the Late Insurrectionary States” in 1871–1872. Hicks was one of several million emancipated Americans living throughout the former slaveholding states who were working to establish authority and autonomy over their lives, which they believed was essential to their fate as a liberated people. For Hicks this meant reuniting family members separated by slave sales and the Civil War; establishing an independent household and acting as its head; negotiating a contract with a planter named Bill Darden that included land to farm, shelter, seeds, and farm equipment; voting in elections; harvesting his share of the crop; providing for his family’s well being; and working with other blacks to establish institutions that were independent of white people’s influence.

Hicks accomplished a number of the goals that African Americans had for life after slavery, until he ran afoul of Darden in a series of disputes in 1870. Hicks believed that Darden was trying to steal his crop by driving him from the land that he and his family worked before they harvested it. Hicks knew that he had produced the crop in accordance with the terms of his contract and that he was entitled to his share of its yield, so he had no reason to accede to Darden’s efforts to steal the crop he produced. Besides, he knew that surrendering his crop and the property he rented would mean financial hardship for his family and undermine his hardwon advances beyond slavery. Therefore, instead of deferring to Darden’s perceived authority over him, Hicks rebutted the man’s claims to his crop. It was this defiance that prompted the white man to shoot at Hicks in an attempt to achieve what threats could not.

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