Academic journal article Afro-Americans in New York Life and History

A Regional Interpretation of Black Nationalism

Academic journal article Afro-Americans in New York Life and History

A Regional Interpretation of Black Nationalism

Article excerpt

They are principally the agriculturists of the South, consequently, being wedded to the soil by life-long association and interest, and being principally a laboring class, they will naturally invest their surplus earnings in the purchase of the soil. Herein lies the hope for the future for he who owns the soil largely runs and dictates to the men who are compelled to live upon it and derive their subsistence from it. The colored people of the South recognize this fact. (1)


In 1884 black journalist and civil rights activist T. Thomas Fortune wrote this statement describing the aspirations and reasoning of black southerners during the precarious years following the official end of Reconstruction and the onset of Redeemer governments. Fortune would go on to become the editor of several influential newspapers in New York, a position he used to document and protest discrimination and violence against blacks. Although earning success and national recognition in the North, Fortune's roots were southern. He was born a slave in the Florida Panhandle and witnessed firsthand the hopes brought in by the promise of Reconstruction and their eventual demise hastened by the horrific violence that accompanied the return of white supremacy. (2) During the Nadir, Fortune was one of the few black leaders, most of who were from the South, who understood the plight of the masses of ex-slaves and accurately assessed the meaning behind their actions and objectives. The majority of blacks living in the South before the Civil War had worked in agriculture and one of their foremost priorities after emancipation was land ownership. Their desire was incessant as they equated it with both economic and political self-determination. Many of them also advocated territorial separatism as a means of achieving these goals and in doing so were early forerunners of Black Nationalist and separatist movements of the 20th century.

Black Nationalism can loosely be defined as "a general template of ideologies, programs, and political visions geared toward encouraging racial pride, collective action, and group autonomy among people of African descent." (3) Generally, it also entails an economic, social, political, or cultural separation from whites. (4) Territorial separatism is a subset of Black Nationalism whereby blacks seek to relocate to a distinct area free from the immediate vicinity of whites. In the vast majority of cases southern blacks advocating these ideals in the 19th century did not refer to themselves as Black Nationalists or separatists. This absence does not negate their support, rather it is the result of their inability to articulate their objectives using the contemporary vernacular. While unable to eloquently communicate their nationalist leanings, black southerners' actions speak for themselves. After the Civil War thousands left the South for homes in the all-black Republic of Liberia or left in the hopes of achieving dreams of economic and political autonomy by forming all-black towns in West.

Surrounded by an environment of heightened racial angst, extreme poverty, and a long legal history of racial caste, the post-Civil War South presents an unlikely environment for a burgeoning black social movement. However, during this time of turmoil and displacement, anomie and vulnerability, black southerners for the first time had the political space and opportunity to independently organize and act upon their own ideologies of nationalism and philosophy territorial separatism.

While intellectual histories tracing the black northern --and usually upper class - development of a Black Nationalist rhetoric have abounded in the academic discourse, far less attention has been paid to the intellectual, political, or economic maturation of Black Nationalist thought among ex-slaves. Likewise, studies of Black Nationalism have tended to be analyzed chronologically without regard to regional diversity. …

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