A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration

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A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. By Steven Hahn. (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003. Pp. viii, 610. Prologue, illustrations, epilogue, appendix, notes, acknowledgments, index. $35.00.)

In this prize-winning work, Steven Hahn demonstrates that rural black southerners were anything but passive victims as they faced the challenges of slavery, freedom, and the arrival of Jim Crow. The idea that African Americans acted politically to construct a life for themselves in the later 1800s has become commonplace, but nobody before Hahn has argued this theme with such power and supported it with such breadth of research.

Hahn begins by looking at slaves in the late antebellum period as they created their own economy, maintained kinship networks, and constructed a vibrant religious culture. He shows how slaves freed themselves by fleeing plantations during the Civil War with many men taking up arms in the Union army. In one of the most original chapters of the book, Hahn describes rumors of an imminent insurrection circulating throughout the black belt after the war's end, and he argues that rumor constituted a form of political action. In part two, Hahn explains that during Reconstruction, freedmen organized for political activity through Union Leagues, negotiated labor contracts, registered to vote and voted in large numbers, served in county and state government in significant ways, and used force to protect their rights through Republican militias. In the third section, Hahn describes black responses to the many challenges posed after Reconstruction. He describes the continued black political involvement through fusion voting arrangements with Democrats and alliances with radical agrarian movements in the 1880s. And Hahn examines in some detail the emigration movements of the later 1800s and argues that organizing for a move to Kansas, Liberia, or Oklahoma-or later to Chicago and Detroit-was a conscious strategy to create a more viable black community, and thus was also a form of political activity. Hahn concludes with a discussion of the Garvey movement of the 1920s, arguing persuasively that the United Negro Improvement Association, which most historians have regarded as a northern urban movement, had its greatest strength in the rural South and continued a tradition of political activism and black nationalism.

This book has many merits and few faults. It is meticulously researched, showing depth and breadth of work in primary and secondary sources, and it displays the erudition of a mature scholar. …


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