Embattled Freedom

White Abolitionists, Black Fighters of Waverly, Pa.

Tag: African Americans

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“The Strawberry Movement.” Once the Civil War ended in 1865, Union soldiers poured northward out of the military. I’m currently researching an Army camp near my home that helped handle the vast flow of manpower, and this has led me to read Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. Author Brian Matthew Jordon chronicles how northerners turned out to shower their returning boys in blue with gratitude.  In one memorable example, a freelance humanitarian in New York named Vincent Colyer parlayed the gratitude into fresh food. Using funds from benefactors, Colyer gathered up “strawberries, cherries, radishes beets, cabbage, and lettuce that he had purchased from local street vendors,” Jordan writes in Marching Home. When military transport ships sailed into the harbor, Colyer and his helpers were there at the wharf to welcome the returning troops with fresh bounty–hundreds of baskets of it.  What a treat this was for soldiers who had just endured years of unappetizing hardtack and salt pork. The fresh fruit proved a particular hit and Colyer’s lovely campaign was dubbed the Strawberry Movement.

“The Empty Sleeve.” Once the postwar pomp and gratitude died down, the boys in blue returned to civilian life, sometimes easily but often not. Men who had lost limbs faced special challenges. This is where another friend of the war veterans, a publisher named William Bourne, is featured in Marching Home. In late 1865, Bourne sponsored a penmanship competition for the thousands of vets who had lost their right arms in combat and were learning to write left-handed. Skilled penmanship, Bourne said, could be their avenue to “lucrative and honorable positions.” Bourne offered cash prizes and publication in a  special gilded book. The response was an overwhelming 300 entries, causing Bourne to sponsor a second round the next year. And although the submissions were to be judged not on content but aesthetic appearance, many entrants wrote from the heart.  “Union amputees keenly understood that they had been afforded an opportunity to speak to the public–and to posterity,” according to Marching Home.  Many proudly referred to themselves as “empty sleeves” whose losses bore witness to the cost of what one called an “ungodly conflict.” Historian Jordan quotes one as writing “There is a strange history connected with each of these empty sleeves. A history of hardships such as only the soldier knows of long marches now through the rain and cold…of fearful conflicts amid roaring shells and hissing bullets, rattling of musketry and thunder of cannons, shouts and yells of excited men and groans of the dying and wounded.”

Book News. Two Embattled Freedom author talks are on tap in the next month. First up is to the Delaware Valley Civil War Round Table, next Tuesday, Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m., at the Radisson Hotel, 2400 Old Lincoln Highway, Trevose, Pa. 19053 . Then the Lancaster History Center is bringing me in as a Regional History Colloquium speaker on Thursday, March 7, at 4:30 p.m. The center is at 230 N. President Ave., Lancaster, Pa. 17603.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“The White Man’s Interests.” In my author talks I stress that, troubling as it may be to hear, the principle of “the white republic” was central to Pennsylvania’s ruling establishment throughout the 1800s. More evidence of that racist principle emerged to me recently in The Scranton Register, a house organ of the powerful old Jacksonian Democratic party.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, black activists and many white Republicans were arguing that the vote should be extended to black men. In its issue of July 27, 1865, The Register shouted a rebuttal. The American government was “got up by white men, for the benefit of white men,” it declared. The Democratic party “at no time in the history of the country ever considered the darkey, in its appeals for ‘universal suffrage,’ but labored, appealed, and fought solely for the advancement of the white man’s interests in the white man’s government.” Despite “the slander that Democratic opposition to negro suffrage is of recent origin,” The Register noted that Democratic state legislators, governors and judges had actually been holding firm against black rights for decades. (One of the early instances The Register trumpeted, the 1838 repeal of black voting rights in Pennsylvania, is the subject of a chapter in my book Embattled Freedom because that legal case originated in the region I chronicle. It’s tough stuff to read, but true.)

“Contemptuous of Others.” Soon I’ll be launching into my next project: exploring the disturbing history of so-called restrictive covenants (“no blacks, no Jews”) in my current town’s housing stock. To prepare, I just read The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein. It’s an eminent work — a New York Times Notable Book — and it left me shaken.  As Rothstein writes, “until the last quarter of the twentieth century, racially explicit policies of federal, state, and local governments defined where whites and African Americans should live. Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States.”  Inequities in public housing, mortgage guarantees, zoning codes, tax law and more led to profound racial disparities in wealth and opportunity and, Rothstein argues, violated the 14th Amendment’s prohibition on unequal treatment of citizens.  Let me give you another taste: “For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, America’s national leadership was almost exclusively white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and male, and most were contemptuous of others. … The bigotry of this elite was not based merely on social class but also on race. After all, it was the integration of middle-class, not lower-class, African Americans, that most aroused FHA [Federal Housing Administration] officials. In 1939, the National Association of Real Estate Boards, whose members furnished appraisers to the FHA, prepared a handbook for use in preparing brokers to take exams for licensure by state governments. This handbook warned brokers to be on guard against “a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites.” If  you want to get a new look at the world around you and how it developed, read The Color of Law.

Book News.  I’ll have four more author talks during the next month. Come by if you can, and spread the word if you will.

  • Wyoming Valley Civil War Round Table. Thursday, May 10, 7 p.m., at the American Legion Building on Rt. 415 in Dallas, Pa.
  • Covenant Presbyterian Church. Thursday, May 17, 6 p.m., at 550 Madison Ave, Scranton.
  • Bradford County Historical Society. Friday, May 18, 6 p.m., at 109 Pine St., Towanda, Pa.
  • G.A.R. Museum and Library. Sunday, June 3, 1:30 p.m., at 4278 Griscom St., Philadelphia.

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