Below is a compilation of “History Nuggets” from my author e-newsletters. These are illuminating bits of information I came upon in my book research—arcane terminology, old attitudes, shocking anecdotes, and the like. Some of them appear in Embattled Freedom and others don’t, but I found them all interesting enough to share with you:
“Little Negro Boy Begs for White Arm.” That was the startling headline on a 1904 article I came upon recently in The Scranton Republican. The story goes that a five-year-old boy named Albert Turner had been run over by a train in Scranton, losing his right arm. At the hospital the youngster kept asking the doctor to give him a white arm. “I don’t want nuthin’ if I can’t have a really good one,” he is quoted as saying. “I don’t want noh more black ones. Had enuf ‘f them. Please.” The doctor replied that perhaps he could get a white artificial arm someday. The unnamed reporter commented that Albert “is firm in his belief that the evolution is possible, if the doctors only will. His recovery is rapid, but that doesn’t satisfy him in the least. There is a psychological phase of the incident which furnishes food for thought.” Census records list no black Turner family in or around Scranton during the era so it’s difficult to confirm this odd story. But however odd, the incident was sadly plausible given the stigma society placed on black people. And how telling that the reporter characterized obtaining a white arm as “evolution.”
“White Lily Republicanism.” This term popped up in The Scranton Defender, another now-defunct newspaper of the early 1900s. The black-owned weekly took aim at institutional prejudice including in the Republican party that black people had long supported. The party faction known as the “lily white movement” was managing to purge blacks from power, especially in the South, and The Defender felt its negative effect in Scranton. In a 1904 editorial, the paper complained of rampant discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and politics. Blacks “are ostracised in every way although they are at times the balance of power in local elections, yet not a single place is obtainable by them in this great Republican center; the only place held by the colored man is that of a dog catcher.” It was enough to make a boy like Albert Turner fantasize about changing his color.
“He separated the races.” Have you seen the new film Loving? Catch it if you can. It’s a graceful treatment of the mixed-race Virginia couple whose lawsuit prompted the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 to invalidate state bans on interracial marriage. For centuries interracial love had been referred to by the ugly term miscegenation. Pennsylvania, the focus of my book, ended its ban on miscegenation back in 1780 — but throughout the 1800s the state experienced plenty of open fear-mongering over miscegenation by another ugly term of the era: “racial amalgamation.” My book covers that. So it resonated when, in the film, we hear this quote from the Virginia trial judge’s 1965 opinion: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” At least Earl Warren’s Supreme Court had the wisdom to finally sweep that drivel into the juridical dustbin.
The “untamed” Maroons. A recent article in The New Yorker about current Underground Railroad scholarship made a passing reference to the Maroons. Who again? I must say I was clueless. If you, too, have never heard of the Maroons, you’re missing something. They were escaped slaves, many thousands of them across generations since the 1500s, who managed to band together into self-reliant, armed communities in pockets of the South and Caribbean. They often allied with native groups in remote highlands or swamps, and their periodic raids on plantations made them feared and hated by the whites. Could the old fugitive-slave settlement I researched in Northeastern Pennsylvania could be considered Maroon? Probably not. Although it had a degree of autonomy, and some weaponry as needed, the settlement was quite intermingled with the white village that harbored it. If you’re African American or a historian, you already might be familiar with the so-called “untamed” Maroons. For the rest of us, they’re one more eye-opening piece of history missing from our education. Fortunately, plenty is available about them on the internet.
“The White Race Alone Is Entitled.” The year was 1866 and the governor’s seat was up for grabs. Union veterans had poured back home, including thousands of black men who had served with distinction. My little hometown of Waverly, Pa., had 13 black war vets, only three of whom returned from combat unscathed. Black leaders formed the new Equal Rights League to press boldly for greater rights including the vote. Spokesman Jonathan Jasper Wright of Wilkes-Barre challenged whites to “act as though they believed in their own Declaration of Independence, and especially in its assertion that all men are created equal.” But the Republicans went limp on their support for black aspirations, seeing few votes to gain on the issue. Meanwhile, the state’s Democrats, angry foes of Lincoln and abolitionism, whipped out the white-supremacy card and whipped up racial fears to help nominee Hiester Clymer (see below and here). The Clymer platform was explicit: “The white race alone is entitled to the control of the government of the Republic, and we are unwilling to grant to negroes the right to vote.” The Democratic newspaper in Scranton warned that a vote for the Republican, John Geary, is a vote for “negro suffrage, negro equality, high taxation, amalgamation, disunion, another war, and all the evils that abolition fanaticism can inflict upon our country and race.” Republican vets in Waverly and elsewhere formed “Boys in Blue” clubs to get out the vote for Geary, to mixed results. Geary won narrowly statewide but was trounced in the county. And Waverly? It went for the Democrat, Clymer. It is a confounding fact that Waverly, despite having many GOP Boys in Blue and hosting its own fugitive-slave settlement, would remain in the camp of the race-baiting Democrats for another twenty years.
“Fraud! Fraud Everywhere.” I encountered that scary headline while back in Scranton on a research trip. You know how Donald Trump alleged that systematic vote-rigging might rob him of victory? And how he called on supporters to monitor the polling “in certain places,” which in Pennsylvania at least has been understood as code for Philadelphia? Well, Donald was hardly the first one to cry election foul. While poring over old newspapers in the Scranton public library, I came upon an unsigned item that The Scranton Daily Times, a conservative Democratic organ of the day, printed in October 1872. A statewide election was nearing and The Times claimed that the Republican machine was sending out hirelings, especially newly enfranchised black men, hither and yon to cast multiple votes. The writer offered a shocking solution: “when a negro from another State, brought here by the Cameron ring, presents himself to cast a fraudulent vote, shoot him dead. We ask no quarter, and we will give none on this point.” (Fortunately there was no actual violence, at least according to the election coverage I could find.)
“The ‘Despised race.'” As a counterpart to The Scranton Times’ trigger-happy view just above, consider how The Pittston Gazette, another newspaper in that corner of Pennsylvania, spoke of black people during the postwar era. In an item in late 1865 titled “Fair Play for the Negro,” The Gazette, a Republican weekly, noted how “the ‘despised race’ bravely mingled their blood with that of the Anglo-Saxon defenders of the Constitution on many well fought fields.” The black man, it continued, had thus earned “a fair and equal chance with the white man in the great race of life–and if he succeeds against the odds of color and the debasing effects of generations of servitude, he will show superior capacity to those who would make color and not character the criterion of merit.” Perhaps that sentiment rings a bell with you. Martin Luther King, in his immortal “I Have a Deam” speech a century later, yearned for a day when his children could live in a nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The Southern “Bulldozers.” In reading Retreat From Reconstruction, 1869-1879, the other day I was puzzled by a Virginia Republican’s reference to Northerners abandoning him “to the tender mercies of the Ku Klux and ‘Bulldozers.’ ” An internet search found several origins for the bulldozer term, one of them was dead-on relevant. During that woeful period of our history, black people across the South were plagued by gangs of murderous white terrorists. By using violence akin to the brutal “bull dose” a farmer might wield to bring a difficult bull to heel, these goons became known as bull-dosers or bulldozers. When the land-moving machine we’re all familiar with was invented a few decades later, a machine of brute force, the name was a natural fit.
“The Fountain of Sin.” One shared value that probably helped Waverly’s whites accept black newcomers was temperance—disdain for alcohol. Waverly briefly had a Temperance Hotel and its churches had teens sign personal temperance pledges. And the vigilance could never slacken, according to this July 1866 item in The Scranton Republican. “For several months past our village had been very orderly,” wrote the Waverly correspondent, a teetotaling Methodist minister. “The former hotel keeper, for conscientious reasons, had abandoned the sale of intoxicating liquors, and as a result our community was almost entirely free from intemperance, and the good people of Waverly enjoyed a short Millennium. But the enemy has again been let loose upon us; a new proprietor has again opened the fountain of sin and misery… Many Abington mothers have wept, and others are destined to weep over the wreck of promising sons. Many such have hopelessly disappeared into the Maelstrom of intemperance.”
“Mudsills.” That was a Civil War era slur for low-born people. I came upon it while looking closer at how whites of the day viewed one another. It turns out high-born whites referred to “the lower breeds” as clay-eaters, poltroons, and midsills. As historian Nancy Isenberg writes in her new book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, midsills were “a foul collection of urban roughs, prairie dirt farmers, greasy mechanics, unwashed immigrants, and by 1862, with the enlistment of Afro-American troops, insolent free blacks.” (We humans love our insults, don’t we?)
“Abid.” That’s Arabic for slave–and it’s still an Arab slur for any black African person. The legacy of the vast Arab slave trade is recounted in “Ten Facts About the Arab Enslavement of Black People not Taught in Schools,” a startling article on my History Enthusiasts online feed. It reminded me of when, during my time with a Darfur support group a few years ago, Darfuri expat friends told me how Arab janjawid marauders would call the black Darfuri villagers abid as they swooped in to plunder, burn and kill them. My friends say the Arab world, in fact, has never reckoned with its own deep-seated racism.
” ‘Proper’ Racial Awareness.” I’ve just finished reading a book titled Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War. It recalls the black GIs’ horrific Jim Crow treatment at Army training camps—and then their delight at being embraced by British villagers during their months in Britain mobilizing for the 1944 Normandy invasion. The stories are remarkable. Having no inbred racism, the rural Brits took a liking to the black men’s good manners and invited them in for meals and fellowship. The girls freely sought them out as dance partners. Restaurants and pubs welcomed them, too—and white Yanks who tried to oust them might find themselves ousted by the owners instead. “To white American soldiers, usually from the South, the lack of ‘proper’ racial awareness in Britain was appalling,” writes author Linda Hervieux. When D-Day came, the black troops distinguished themselves under fire as handlers of the barrage balloons that protected the Normandy beaches. Back home, though, they found attitudes unchanged. A Philadelphia GI said the first words they heard upon arriving back at camp in Georgia were: “Here comes that nigger group. Got all them medals over there in France. We’re gonna make sure that we take care of them while they’re down here.”
“Odiferously” Maligned. That untold WWII story, above, reminded me of the vicious attitude that a Scranton newspaper expressed toward black soldiers during the Civil War. A dozen black men from the Waverly enclave had already volunteered to serve, but the reactionary Lackawanna Register predicted nothing but doom. It warned white soldiers not to fight alongside blacks, “for if you get killed, some African gentleman, in his long tall blue, may take your widow or marry your sweetheart for you. It will be pleasant to die on the field of battle, knowing this is the best government the sun ever shone upon; and that for the life you gave up, some darkey will come in your place to warm his shins at your fire, to sleep in your bed, to eat at your table, to ride in your carriage, to father your children, and to shine as odiferously in your mansion in a rotten mackerel.”
“Causes of Insanity Given.” According to the old Scranton Republican newspaper, Pennsylvania was building a new mental hospital at Danville in 1870 to take overflow from the crowded state asylum in Harrisburg. Some of the patients may have been traumatized war veterans, but the listings only indicated categories like “farmers 520, laborers 469, blacksmiths 26, housewives 618, daughters of farmers 121.” Here is the official rundown of the patients’ problems, verbatim: “ill health, 339; domestic trouble, 251; epilepsy, 118; trouble, 330; grief, 8; millerism, 4; spiritualism, 2; excessive study, 3; disappointment, 11; overexertion, 89; fright, 23; intemperance, 84; religious excitement, 8; opium eating, 10; loss of sleep, 6; failure in business, 2; loss of money, 4; ill treatment, 2; excesses, 25; novel reading, 2; sunstroke, 10; want of occupation, 1; mortified pride, 1; public excitement, 88; pecuniary trouble, 5; jealousy, 1; causes not assigned, 1,358” I can imagine what some of the terms meant and how we might classify them today, but novel reading? Mortified pride?
“The Slave’s Friend.” That was the actual name of a children’s magazine the American Anti-Slavery Society produced in the 1830s to awaken young readers to the cruelties of the Southern bondage. The website slate.com recently ran an article about it in conjunction with Slate Academy’s fine podcast series on American slavery. The abolition magazine gave it to the kids straight, telling them about slaveholders “who cropped enslaved people’s ears and chained them in attics or lashed them for the smallest of offenses.” My manuscript mentions other literature that abolitionists were circulating (slave narratives, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and more), but I didn’t know about The Slave’s Friend. I think I’ll add it.
“Poetical Justice.” Here’s a vivid story that appears in the book. Six Waverly recruits were posted in 1863 to a fort near Petersburg, Va., under the command of a fiery white abolitionist. A raiding party returned to the fort one day with a plantation owner they’d taken captive, a fellow who was known to have whipped his slaves especially severely. An eyewitness wrote that the commander gathered his black troops for a show of “poetical justice.” He had the planter tied to a tree and let one of the soldiers—a runaway from that very plantation—whip the man’s back bloody. Then two female runaways, also victims of the planter, did the same “to remind him that they were no longer his, but safely housed in Abraham’s bosom, and under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner.”
“The Camp of Skulkers and Cowards.” In October 1864, the colonel commanding the main black Civil War regiment I’ve been researching openly shamed 23 of his men as cowards and relegated them to a pariah camp. I recently uncovered his directive, issued in the aftermath of the bloody Battle of New Market Heights, where the regiment had been in the forefront of the uphill charge. The officer, Joseph B. Kiddoo, said the men “Straggled and Skulked and played the coward in the late battles and some of them actually ran away while their brave comrades were fighting the enemy.” The accused had survived prior traumatic combat at Petersburg, where at least one had been wounded, but Kiddoo gave them no quarter. “All good soldiers should frown upon them with that contempt due to their cowardly conduct,” he decreed. “It is therefore ordered that these men be placed in the rear in a camp by themselves called the Camp of Skulkers and Cowards and that they do all the fatigue duty of the Regiment till it again moves against the enemy when an opportunity will be given them to retrieve their lost honor.” Their opportunity came a month later, at the Second Battle of Fair Oaks. The regiment (the 22nd U.S. Colored Troops) assaulted Rebel entrenchments and suffered “heavy slaughter,” losing more than 100 killed or wounded. A quick check of regimental records showed two of the “skulkers” among the wounded.
Ever hear of Doughfaces? Neither did I, until I kept seeing the word in period newspapers of the 1830s. It was a term for Northerners who openly sided with Southern slaveholders in the decades before the Civil War. Antebellum Pennsylvania was lousy with Doughfaces, as I document in the book.
How about Immediatists? They were a brand of Presbyterian abolitionists who were shaking up their churches, including the one in Waverly. They demanded the immediate emancipation of slaves, as opposed to the gradualism of the Colonizationists, and they wanted to immediate purge the church of slaveholders. They feuded with the region’s “Old School Presbyterians” who opposed abolitionists as fanatics.