Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

The White Rose Mammy: Racial Culture and Politics in World War II Memphis

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

The White Rose Mammy: Racial Culture and Politics in World War II Memphis

Article excerpt

G. Wayne Dowdy [*]

We respectfully solicit the influence of your good offices in having this advertisement removed, for the sake of interracial goodwill, which is unquestionably needed at this time.

The above quotation comes from a letter [1] written by the President of the Negro Chamber of Commerce to the Mayor of Memphis in 1942 concerning an advertisement which depicted a black mammy washing clothes. The controversy that resulted tells us much about the racial division in the South and reveals the existence of black political power in that segregated region.

Positioned atop the fourth Chickasaw bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, Memphis developed into a regional distribution center and became the largest city in the Mid-South. Rural communities in north Mississippi, eastern Arkansas, and western Tennessee relied upon the city as a market for their agricultural goods, especially cotton. Despite the upheaval of Civil War, the economy of Memphis prospered under Union occupation, only to see those gains reversed after several yellow fever epidemics in the 1870s. [2]

Much of the sophisticated and wealthy population fled the city never to return, leaving behind a city dominated by migrants from the countryside. A rural culture was nurtured in Memphis by its newly arrived residents which clashed with the existing urban commercialization. [3] Nowhere was this tension played out more than in the relationship between its white and black citizens. On the one hand, whites clung to the Lost Cause and celebrated the plantation myth, while at the same time they tolerated and even encouraged black participation in the political process. Without a white Democratic primary and with only the poll tax as an impediment, black Memphians enjoyed unusual access to power. [4]

Despite political participation, local blacks were not equal and the threat of violence at the hands of white Memphians was always beneath the surface. Several incidents during the nineteenth century, particularly the Memphis race riot of 1866 where forty-six African Americans were murdered, long colored daily life for both sides of the line. [5 The customs and laws of segregation enacted at the end of the century were at least in the minds of some whites a response to this possibility of violence as urban conditions forced both races into an ever shrinking orbit.

Memphis blacks, accustomed to a certain amount of deference, refused to allow this inequality to go unchallenged. Julia Hooks, a prominent black schoolteacher, is a case in point. Attempting to attend a theater performance in 1881, Hooks was refused seating in a whites-only section. Protesting this segregation led to her being fined five dollars for disorderly conduct. [6] That same year the State of Tennessee passed a law requiring railroads to provide separate coaches for black and white passengers. This law was eventually challenged by a young black schoolteacher who would become one of the nation's most recognizable reformers. [7]

In 1884 Ida B. Wells bought a first-class railroad ticket but was forced to ride in a second-class coach. She successfully sued the railroad, but the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the circuit court decision. Less than a decade later Wells would become the nation's foremost critic of lynching when she openly condemned mob violence after three black grocery store owners were murdered just outside Memphis. Forced to flee the city, Wells continued her activism in Chicago. [8]

Dissatisfaction over conditions of public transportation flared again as the Tennessee General Assembly debated requiring separate seating on streetcars. African Americans in Memphis and other cities contemplated boycotts if a law was enacted but decided against this action. However, black Memphians rallied to the defense of Mary Morrison, who was arrested after refusing to sit in a segregated section of a streetcar. The case became a rallying point for black resentment against segregation, leading to the raising of thousands of dollars for her legal defense team. …

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