A Refugee from His Race: Albion W. Tourgée and His Fight against White Supremacy

A Refugee from His Race: Albion W. Tourgée and His Fight against White Supremacy

A Refugee from His Race: Albion W. Tourgée and His Fight against White Supremacy

A Refugee from His Race: Albion W. Tourgée and His Fight against White Supremacy

Synopsis

During one of the darkest periods of U.S. history, when white supremacy was entrenching itself throughout the nation, the white writer-jurist-activist Albion W. Tourgee (1838-1905) forged an extraordinary alliance with African Americans. Acclaimed by blacks as "one of the best friends of the Afro-American people this country has ever produced" and reviled by white Southerners as a race traitor, Tourgee offers an ideal lens through which to reexamine the often caricatured relations between progressive whites and African Americans. He collaborated closely with African Americans in founding an interracial civil rights organization eighteen years before the inception of the NAACP, in campaigning against lynching alongside Ida B. Wells and Cleveland Gazette editor Harry C. Smith, and in challenging the ideology of segregation as lead counsel for people of color in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. Here, Carolyn L. Karcher provides the first in-depth account of this collaboration. Drawing on Tourgee's vast correspondence with African American intellectuals, activists, and ordinary folk, on African American newspapers and on his newspaper column, "A Bystander's Notes," in which he quoted and replied to letters from his correspondents, the book also captures the lively dialogue about race that Tourgee and his contemporaries carried on.

Excerpt

During one of the darkest periods of U.S. history, when white supremacy was entrenching itself throughout the nation, the white writer-juristactivist Albion W. Tourgée (1838–1905) forged a remarkable alliance with African Americans. Acclaimed by blacks as “one of the best friends of the Afro-American people this country has ever produced” and reviled by white Southerners as a “pestiferous mouther who for years has labored to incite an uprising of the negroes in the South,” Tourgée offers an ideal lens through which to examine relations between progressive whites and African Americans. In a career stretching over four decades, he won fame in so many arenas that scholars increasingly rank him as a major actor in U.S. history and culture.

An Ohio carpetbagger, Tourgée figured prominently in North Carolina’s Reconstruction from 1865 till 1875. Creating an effective interracial and crossclass coalition that elected a Radical Republican government, he helped write a democratic constitution for the state that still bears his impress. In addition, he distinguished himself as a superior court judge who insisted that “justice should at least be ‘color blind,’” ensured that juries included African Americans, and vigorously pursued indictments of the Ku Klux Klan at the risk of his life.

A prolific novelist with a readership of “five to ten millions,” Tourgée influenced the outcome of the 1880 presidential election with two fictionalized accounts of the turbulent era he had lived through. The first, A Fool’s Errand. By One of the Fools (1879), which exposed the depredations of the Klan as powerfully as Harriet Beecher Stowe had the horrors of slavery, sold almost 150,000 copies within a year and 600,000 in Tourgée’s lifetime. The second, Bricks Without Straw (1880), sold 50,000 copies within a year and opened new literary horizons by dramatizing Reconstruction from the perspective of the South’s recently emancipated slaves.

A byliner for a leading Republican newspaper, the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, which published his weekly column “A Bystander’s Notes” (1888–98) on its Saturday editorial page, Tourgée boasted an interracial audience of 200,000 subscribers. The “Bystander” commented on a broad array of political, economic, and cultural topics, foregrounding the race question at . . .

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