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416 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 22 illus., notes, bibl., index

$59.95 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2902-1

$22.50 paper
ISBN 0-8078-5567-7

Published: Fall 2004

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Righteous Propagation
African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction

by Michele Mitchell

Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

To Better Our Condition One Way or Another:
African Americans and the Concept of Racial Destiny

This race has increased … and is still on the increase… . Kindness, sobriety, manfulness, courage, morality, intelligence, religion, and duty marks her destiny.
—George H. Burks, Future (1890)

The Negro race … has survived all the punishment and unjustness to which a race could be subjected, and in its short birth of freedom points … to a record unequalled by any other race … under like conditions. Our destiny is now in our own hands.
—Arthur G. Shaw, Age (1915)

An epidemic hit Afro-American communities during the twilight of Reconstruction. It was an affliction with peculiar, distinctive symptoms: those affected generally reported feeling agitated, and a few began acting in a single-minded or even furtive manner. Some women and men started speaking about leaving their spouses; others became determined to part with earthly belongings; still others began to embrace risky behavior. Desperation was often a palpable manifestation among the infected, especially if they were poor. In time, race leaders feared that the phenomenon was symptomatic of a creeping insanity that led individuals and families to sell the very implements with which they eked out their livings. "Liberia fever" did cause people to act in seemingly rash or bizarre ways—but not because the "fever" was a literal disease. Rather, the term was a colloquial reference to an emigration craze pervading the Deep South, Arkansas, and Oklahoma Territory during the late nineteenth century. A phenomenon similar to the "Kansas fever" that resulted in waves of southern Exodusters headed for a midwestern promised land, "Liberia fever" spread as far north as Massachusetts and as far west as Colorado, producing women and men convinced that they could best work out their destinies by returning to Africa's west coast.

Nineteen-year-old Annie Williams was among the afflicted living above the Mason-Dixon line. In March 1878, the young cook from Baltimore, Maryland, sent a letter to American Colonization Society (ACS) secretary William Coppinger indicating that she was rather "[a]nxious" to become "one In the Number that you Will Select To go to affrica." Whether by word of mouth or from reading broadsides, Williams discovered that the American Colonization Society sent only those prospective emigrants to Liberia that it deemed worthy. Williams quickly composed another missive in which she took pains to convey that she was a hardworking, upright, churchgoing Methodist who could help teach school once in Liberia. Still, securing a place on an ACS ship required more than intense desire, moral rectitude, and an admirable work ethic. Annie Williams also needed money.[1]

Whereas she could manage to pay her own way to the docks of New York City in order to meet the society's ship, Williams's paltry wages prevented her from contributing toward passage or provisions. The fact that Williams was paid less than five dollars a month contributed to her desire to emigrate, as did other personal realities that were subtly, though urgently, articulated: "I … have no one to look to for Anny help as I am alone with the exception of my father and he drinks… . If you can please sir let me go… . I have benn supporting my self entirely ever since I was 15 years of age and kept my self decent and respectable Which you as a gentleman no doubt having Had experience In the World know that it is No eassy thing to do having … no one really interested in my Well faire dont you think I am cappable … that I can get Along[?]" Williams presented her intemperate father and sexual vulnerability as compelling reasons for the society to deliver a friendless, industrious young woman from a living purgatory. Moreover, the plaintive tone of Williams's entreaty for Coppinger to "please please please … annser" her letters underscored that she "want[ed] to go so bad" despite "know[ing] Nothing of the country."[2] Somehow, Annie Williams had heard that scores of other African Americans were trying to get to Liberia in order to improve their lot, feel secure, and find freedom—all that she desperately wanted for herself.

Approximately 1,500 miles away in Louisiana, Henry Adams also believed that Liberia provided a better life for African Americans. The former slave and ex-Union soldier was sufficiently vocal about black civil rights as to become a moving target for local whites who resented his ideas that "'spoil[ed] the other negroes.'"[3] Knowing that white men wanted to take his life hardly quelled Henry Adams's activism. Adams headed a "National Colored Colonization Council" and, in the midst of "mania for Kansas," his grassroots networking made him a leading advocate of Liberian emigration throughout Louisiana and parts of Texas.[4]

During the late 1870s, Adams sent President Rutherford Hayes and Congress at least two petitions enumerating why removal to Liberia was necessary for the race's political and physical well-being. The January 5, 1878, draft of Adams's petition was as much jeremiad as it was supplication: "We find our race in a worse State of Slavery than before. Being denied those rights that Belong to us … we Cry out with a full heart that … unless some protection is guaranteed to our race that we will cease to be a race… . We feel that our only hope and preservation of our race is the Exodus of Our People to Some Country where they can make themsselves a name and nation." Peaceful coexistence in the U.S. South between blacks and whites seemed increasingly impossible to Adams, a man who maintained that disfranchisement, "buldozing," and "murderous … whites" generated "thousands and thousands" of prospective emigrants with each mounting act of discrimination and terrorism. Adams further contended that if black southerners' civil rights could not be protected, African Americans deserved either a territory of their own within U.S. borders or federal assistance to emigrate. Adams might have had little luck in getting a response from Washington, let alone securing a land grant or federal aid, but he refused to be deterred. When he wrote ACS secretary William Coppinger in November 1878, the tireless organizer declared that he was "more determined for Liberia than ever."[5]

Whereas neither Annie Williams nor Henry Adams appears to have ever sailed for Liberia,[6] Amanda Berry Devine Smith made it to Africa and eventually published her views on emigration. Smith was a twice-widowed, clearheaded laundress possessed of a "mighty faith" who became a missionary in 1878, twenty-two years after an initial conversion experience marked by vivid premonitions and nagging periods of doubt.[7] In 1882, Smith began proselytizing in Liberia, where she attempted to convert indigenous Africans to Christianity and temperance. Smith poured her energy into "our country" until 1890 when the itinerant evangelist returned to the United States.[8]

If Williams's and Adams's words dramatically indicate the desires of African Americans to make a better way for themselves after Reconstruction, Smith's observations powerfully underscore just how elusive African Americans' attempts to secure a promising future in Liberia could be. Part travelogue, part sociopolitical analysis, An Autobiography: The Story of the Lord's Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith bristled with opinionated commentary. Smith assessed the strengths and weaknesses of Liberia as a colonial enterprise and remarked upon emigration to the coastal republic. Much of what she wrote was less than flattering.[9]

One episode involving freshly arrived emigrants to Maryland County, Liberia, particularly irked Smith. Sometime during late 1886 or early 1887, a group of Americo-Liberians held a mass meeting to welcome approximately one hundred women, men, and children from South Carolina to their settlement, Cape Palmas. Sister Smith took considerable umbrage that women were barred from attending: she literally carried her own chair into the proceedings, ignored reproachful glances, and seated herself in a conspicuous spot.[10] The interloper and self-described "privileged character" then witnessed a parade of men spouting lofty, charged rhetoric:

Mr. Jacob Tuning was the speaker of the evening. He had a very lengthy paper about Jacob receiving his brethren… . I knew that more than half … [of it] was only worth the paper it was on… . All the prominent men of the place were present… . When they were all through expressing themselves, [they] heartily welcom[ed] the emigrants to their country, this free country where they were not oppressed by white men; the country where they could be men; where they had the rights of law and were independent, and all the other big things we can say.
If Smith chose not to analyze women's absence from the meeting in terms of its larger implications for African Americans, Americo-Liberians, or Liberia itself, she did not hesitate to critique the manly hubris that suffused the Cape Palmas meeting.[11] Indeed, as far as Smith was concerned, men prone to "big talk" did not necessarily have the wherewithal to succeed in the frontier republic, let alone lead the race.[12]

Although Smith bridled at particular assertions of manhood, the preaching woman nonetheless understood why black men who "fought and bled, and died" for the United States craved a space where they, too, would finally be considered full-fledged men.[13] Smith additionally appreciated why a fledgling, all-black nation in Africa offered appealing prospects for African Americans wanting land to sustain their spirits and bodies. Smith thus supported emigration—as long as it was carried out by the "right kind of emigrants." From her vantage point, however, only the poorest of the southern poor crossed the ocean, and she despaired that too many of these hardscrabble "greenhorns" were illiterate, ill prepared, and ignorant of what it meant to start anew in a "strange country among strangers."[14]

Whether readers found her characterizations empathetic and moving or harsh and condescending, Amanda Smith's expositions on Liberia were certainly timely. The 1893 publication of An Autobiography: The Story of the Lord's Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith occurred when emigrationist movements were controversial, widely discussed, and, for working-poor black Americans, compelling.[15] Smith's memoirs were released following a groundswell in emigrationist sentiment, but what does that rush of sentiment among black Americans such as Annie Williams reveal about a particular moment in African American history, in U.S. history? How was that rush of sentiment connected to a sense that African Americans formed a collective whose destiny would be either exalted or debased, depending on the actions of its members? If activists such as Henry Adams were bound and determined to "better [their] condition one way or another," what issues other than emigration grabbed African Americans' hearts and minds?[16] Did other attempts by African Americans to improve the race's lot after Reconstruction have gendered dynamics similar to—or different from—those described by Amanda Smith?

The era following Emancipation was an era of cautious optimism for most African American women, children, and men. No longer divided into categories of "free" or "slave," people of African descent acted upon assumptions that the race was unified, that institution building was possible, that progress was imminent. Organizing freedom was arduous work that entailed individual initiative as well as collective endeavor, but for all of its challenges Reconstruction presented novel opportunities for black mobilization. With the Compromise of 1877 and the subsequent, steady erosion of civil rights, however, the fortunes of black women, children, and men became decidedly less certain. Between 1877 and 1930—an era of heated debates about immigration, class struggle, industrial capitalism, women's suffrage, imperial activity, and "the Negro Problem"—the status of African Americans was in constant flux, and black Americans did not always agree upon how to bolster their collective prospects. Yet, as the United States emerged as a world power and national destiny became a signal topic, Afro-American thought was dominated by debates about racial destiny.[17]

Notions of "racial destiny" in the United States dated back to the expansionist years between 1830 and 1850 when the American school of ethnology classified racial types and "the concept of a distinct, superior Anglo-Saxon race with innate endowments" began to "permeat[e] discussions of American progress."[18] "Racial destiny" thus connoted a hierarchical scale of humanity typically crested by "Saxons"—as opposed to "Teutonics," "Celts," "Gauls," or "Aryans"—before the Civil War.[19] Prior to 1865, African American intellectuals countered racialist hierarchies that invariably placed people of African descent at the bottom rungs of humanity by producing vindicationist ethnologies, including Frederick Douglass's The Claims of the Negro, Ethnologically Considered (1854) and William Wells Brown's The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863). Black activists, many of whom debated the controversial issues of colonization and emigration—among them Henry Highland Garnet, Mary Ann Shadd, Martin Delany, and James Holly—also deployed ideas about race and collective fate throughout the antebellum period.[20] Abolitionists such as Maria Stewart did so as well.[21] Still, it was after the Civil War that African Americans began applying "racial destiny" to an even broader range of issues.

It was with emancipation that freed people faced formidable pressures to make a way for themselves, and it was with emancipation that race activists devised an array of strategies built around and upon notions of collective destiny. "Racial destiny" therefore became a notably more inclusive and flexible concept during the late nineteenth century as African Americans increasingly invoked the concept when speaking of themselves. For postemancipation women and men, the wide-ranging yet singular notion that black people shared a common fate enabled activists to propose a number of strategies—political, social, cultural, moral, physical, religious—to ensure the collective's basic human rights, progress, prosperity, health, and reproduction. Messianic visions of the race's fate inspired emigration to Liberia; ecclesiastic visions of destiny suffused "civilizing missions" undertaken by Afro-American missionaries. Other African American concepts of collective destiny promoted full inclusion in the American body politic or situated the weal of black people within the United States by stressing the need for separate race culture, institutions, and even territories. The desire to secure a productive, progressive future for the race further motivated reformers bent on improving habits and habitats as it enabled activists to connect material culture to collective weal. Individuals who embraced nationalist ideologies also tended to believe that people of African descent would recapture past greatness once the race was truly unified.[22]

In these pages "racial destiny" is not limited to the ecclesiastic or the nationalistic. Rather, the crusading idealism of activists drives the narrative. Herein I use the concept of racial destiny to explore how African Americans, like sundry other collectivities—racial, social, political, imagined, and otherwise—"construct[ed] themselves as members of … [a] collectivity not just because they, and their forebears shared a past, but also because they believe[d] their futures to be interdependent."[23] This book therefore examines critical moments when African Americans contended that the race shared particular interests as a sociopolitical body and that the collective's future depended upon concerted efforts to police intraracial activity.[24] Since concepts of racial destiny helped create collective consciousness among African Americans, this book is a story of identity formation as much as it is an exploration of key issues around which black activists mobilized during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

As utterly disparate as ideas about racial destiny could be throughout the post-Reconstruction era, those ideas increasingly focused on intraracial reform by the early twentieth century. Between 1890 and 1900 when Progressivism generated a widespread reform ethic throughout the United States, African American ideas about racial destiny turned inward as black activists focused upon changing individual and collective habits. The motivations of people who decided to engage in various forms of reform work were varied and complex. Black reformers lived in a postemancipation society where many ex-slaves and their descendants still lived in conditions that were little better than they had been during slavery. Available housing stock was often derelict and living spaces overburdened. Nutritious foodstuffs were frequently scarce, and disease an ever-present reality. As a result, reformers took it upon themselves to attack what they believed to be the root problems plaguing black households.

Reform activists certainly came from the ranks of the Afro-American elite—Mary Church Terrell, Margaret Murray Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois among them—yet a number of black reformers hailed from the aspiring class as well. From seamstresses to small proprietors to teachers to skilled tradesmen, the black aspiring class was comprised of workers able to save a little money as well as those who worked multiple jobs to attain class mobility; significantly, it included self-educated women and men as well as those who had attended normal school or college. The socioeconomic status of aspiring African Americans tended to be particularly tenuous in that economic downturn or personal calamity was more likely to move aspiring African Americans into poverty due to limited opportunity. Some aspiring-class women and men fought to work in professions for which they had trained, others became relatively prominent yet still struggled to make ends meet. The characteristic common to the overwhelming majority of the black aspiring class during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was an abiding concern with propriety—not to mention a belief that morality, thrift, and hard work were essential to black progress. Thus, in many regards, this book is as much about class stratification among black people in postemancipation U.S. society as it is about a particular cohort of ambitious activists.[25]

The majority of activists discussed within the following chapters were, for want a better term, "self-made" individuals—including Nannie Helen Burroughs, Josie Briggs Hall, Victoria Earle Matthews, Lucius Holsey, Reuben Pettiford, and A. Wilberforce Williams—and virtually all experienced privation or loss at some point in their lives. These race women and men believed that they knew how to improve the surroundings of families trapped in poverty; they felt that it was up to them to inspire people who had yet to gain access to education, which was critical in affording black Americans a modicum of upward mobility. Reformers who had lost children, spouses, siblings, parents, or friends to premature death even took it upon themselves to address sensitive subjects. Imbued with the spirit of reform, aspiring-class activists came from backgrounds that made them feel uniquely qualified to change the lives and ways of their brothers and sisters. But a welter of racialist theories pertaining to sexuality and reproduction also produced a reform impetus among African Americans. Between 1880 and 1920, fluctuating black birth rate statistics, black morbidity levels, and comparatively high occurrences of infant death fed speculation that black people were particularly "degenerate." So-called scientific theories generated additional pronouncements along these lines. Mainstream medical discourse charged that poor health, disregard of hygienic child culture, and venereal disease among African Americans primed the race for extinction. Social Darwinist theories implied people of African descent simply lacked the intelligence, discipline, and virility to make it in a competitive industrialized world. Popular eugenics suggested black women and men, due to sexual practices which were allegedly impure and haphazard, were scarcely capable of reproducing themselves, let alone creating "well born" babies.

For African Americans and other Americans alike, sexuality entailed a range of issues, exchanges, and actions: promiscuity, monogamy, fornication, flirting, proposition, erotic desire, same sex intercourse, masturbation, courtship, marital sex, adultery, rape, prostitution, molestation, incest. Still, for African Americans alive during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, certain sexual issues, exchanges, and actions were particularly racialized, including rape, concubinage, and "miscegenation." By 1900, rhetorics of lynching demonized black men as rapists, and black women experienced rape as a result of mob violence both during and after Reconstruction.[26] Retributive interracial sex, along with other coerced or consensual relationships between black women and white men, resulted in a number of postemancipation black activists being concerned that concubinage and miscegenation were among the legacies of slavery that compromised the race's moral progress.

Illicit propositions had a similarly racialized association for African Americans given that slavery's dynamics resulted in a postemancipation atmosphere in which black women were considered sexually available to any man. Black men were usually unable to intervene whenever their partners and relatives were approached or assaulted by white men. To compound matters, mainstream discourse generally portrayed black women as indiscriminate and insatiable, black men as oversexed and bestial, and black children as so sexually precocious as to preclude innocence.[27] As contemporary commentary typically portrayed the race as immoral and African Americans were considered a syphilitic race by the beginning of the twentieth century, promiscuity assumed additional meanings for black women and men. Moreover, gender roles and performances deeply informed Afro-Americans' sexuality after emancipation. Since slavery had purportedly engendered wanton sexual behavior and warped how black women and men interacted with each other, striving race members of the postemancipation period considered it critical that women radiate inviolable modesty, that men embody controlled manliness, that couples marry and establish patriarchal households. Indeed, sexuality—in the richness of its expression, the complexity of its dynamics, the pervasiveness of its racial stereotypes—was particularly fraught for African Americans.

Rampant allegations that the race was inherently lascivious and degenerate were anything but benign: such allegations rationalized lynching and ritualized rape, legitimated segregation, and restricted employment opportunities. Such allegations circulated when the black birthrate appeared to be experiencing a precipitous drop. If claims regarding a sharp decrease in African Americans' fecundity were overheated, those claims nevertheless raised questions about high black infant mortality and, for race women and men concerned with collective progress, generated concern over mating, domestic spaces, and behavior. The impetus to secure a positive, hopeful, robust destiny for the race therefore became all but synonymous with reform activism.

Reform activists who labored on behalf of the race were imbued with a politicized mission to change the habits, environments, morals, and lives of African Americans. Two of their most effective and sweeping attempts to do so occurred within the realm of sexuality and domesticity. Activists, many of whom were ambitious strivers, took it upon themselves to convince their sisters and brothers that progressive individuals behaved in certain ways, that proper homes had strong patriarchs, pure mothers, and children schooled in race pride. Moreover, specific anxieties—over everything from masturbation to incest, promiscuity to venereal disease—generated a dynamic intraracial discourse that brooked propriety by approaching sexuality with a fair degree of openness. As much reformist discourse emerged out of specific concerns, it also reflected increased class stratification and intraracial tensions.

Attacks on African Americans' collective character and individual bodies further heightened an already palpable reform ethic among black women and men. Oppression generated and even sustained intraracial reform work as the crusading spirit of Progressivism expanded the cohort of black activists into a fairly sizable and diverse one. This cohort reached the conclusion that racial survival was especially contingent upon eliminating poverty, alleviating morbidity, promoting mainstream gender conventions, eradicating vice, reducing illegitimacy, and ensuring robust production of morally upright, race-conscious children. Such reform would reach its zenith after the turn of the century.

The concept of racial destiny, then, politicized the most private aspects of black life and spurred race activists to evaluate intraracial sexual practices rigorously and advocate moral purity. Politics and religion certainly informed African American activists' ideas about racial fates and fortunes, but these same activists also realized that the continued existence of black Americans literally relied upon biological reproduction. Reformers thus concentrated on more than the deleterious effects of racism—they sought to alter black self-perceptions, habits, and lives. Moreover, race activists wanted to reinforce black manhood, encourage women to be attentive mothers, and change both intraracial and interracial sexual conduct. Gender, sexuality, and morality were therefore constitutive elements of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century African American discourse.[28] If the very definition of black protest is transformed through analysis of gender and sexuality, analyzing Afro-American discourse on racial reproduction and destiny furthers our understanding of how and why subordinated peoples appropriate mainstream discourses to their own ends.

As prevalent as racial uplift ideology was after Reconstruction, and as much as that ideology involved dissemblance, respectability, and moralizing,[29] African American considerations of sex were often just that: black women and men discussed intimate relationships, venereal disease, so-called perversions, reproduction, sexual behavior and comportment. Since public considerations of their own sexuality emerged when African Americans' very survival was both questioned and scrutinized, one way to further our understanding of the period after Reconstruction is to consider demographic reasons why sexuality, health, morals, and reform were so prominent in analyses of the race. It is critical, furthermore, to analyze how sex, social phenomena, political conditions, and the broader culture informed black people's thoughts about their own future. It is also necessary to investigate discourses behind reform efforts and mass black sociopolitical mobilization.

Such an approach to African American history benefits from both social history and intellectual history methodologies; thus, it is difficult to label this book either a "social history" or an "intellectual history." Indeed, this is a history of ideas, but it is one concerned with the impact that sociopolitical and material realities had upon African Americans' attempts to ensure their own collective survival. I therefore consider Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction a social history of thought, one that utilizes diverse primary sources ranging from correspondence and speeches to early sociology, from conduct manuals and fiction to newspaper columns. Gender and sexuality appear in dynamic, germane ways throughout these sources. In certain documents—especially those pertaining to emigrationism, imperialism, and nationalism—black manhood is rendered as simultaneously vanquished and virile. Sex becomes both blight and blessing in various domestic and conduct manuals; in the same texts, motherhood is typically idealized as fertile yet chaste. I use these sources to underscore three main points: concepts of racial destiny shifted over the years; despite such shifting, attendant usages of gender and sexuality remained relatively constant; the implications behind racial destiny were ultimately different for women than they were for men. The fourth, overarching point of this book is that between 1877 and 1930, mounting factors led people of African descent to turn increasingly inward in their efforts to preserve themselves.

I analyze and then situate the ideas of working-poor, working-class, aspiring-class, and elite black Americans within the context of material conditions that confronted the race during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whereas I am fascinated by discourse, I am not necessarily inclined to engage the work of theorists to drive my argument. I prefer instead to juxtapose arguments in order to recreate debates that emerged from specific historical exigencies. I have tried to "listen" to my sources—to their internal contradictions, silences, inconsistencies—in order to capture nuances within intraracial discussions about sexuality. I have further tried to make sense of the complex ways in which African Americans assessed gender tensions and increased class stratification within their communities during the years between 1877 and 1930 by ordering the chapters in thematic fashion. I have done so largely because specific overarching themes emerged from the sources themselves and to underscore overlapping ways that racial destiny arguments focused on women's ostensible role as reproducers of the race.

In the broadest sense, this book is about how race activists fought for the continued existence of Afro-America once embattled federal attempts to ensure black civil rights and reconstruct a war-torn nation sputtered to an ignominious end after Rutherford B. Hayes became the nineteenth president of the United States. My study does not focus upon how white Americans subverted the quest for black civil rights after Reconstruction, nor does it consider white activists, writers, or intellectuals at length. I also do not discuss black towns, electoral politics, economic strategies for self-determination, religion, or Ethiopianism in any depth.[30] I instead scrutinize various strategies that people of African descent launched in the name of their own collective well-being. I attempt to understand those strategies by invoking the zeitgeist in which post-Reconstruction African Americans found themselves: as such, I analyze social Darwinism, imperialism, popular eugenics, and nationalism; I assess ways in which race women and men situated themselves within Progressive Era reform as I seek to uncover how Americans of African descent dealt rhetorically with massive demographic shifts. As a work on a postemancipation society, this book attempts to make sense of a time when no one knew for certain what was to become of the descendants of slaves.

Overall, Righteous Propagation offers sustained analysis of why arguments concerning racial destiny were built around assumptions about gender, sexuality, and class at the same time that it connects gendered, sexualized notions about racial destiny to material realities and changing circumstances. The narrative considers the impact that racialist theories such as popular eugenics had on black analyses of intragroup vitality and draws connections between those analyses and contemporaneous phenomena. This study also reveals myriad ways in which African Americans reproduced themselves after emancipation—by seeking a better future for themselves and offspring, by producing diverse texts about and for the race, by advocating sex reform, by promoting specific forms of material culture, by making pointed arguments about racial purity.

The story that unfolds herein abounds in discomfiting interactions. Emigrationists tended to ignore ways in which Liberia was a colonizing enterprise for indigenous Africans; black men swept up in the rhetoric of empire overlooked how their own desires for dominion had the potential to oppress other people of color. The concept of racial destiny stressed collectivity, yet it enabled African American women and men to judge—often harshly—what they perceived as weaknesses, failings, and pathologies on the part of other black people. Impulses to change sexual practices within the race spurred reformist women and men to speak of the "masses" in ways that echoed mainstream, racialist notions of black degeneracy as anxieties over racial reproduction resulted in women and men making less than flattering observations about one another. Pronouncements regarding racial purity not only uncloaked uncomfortable matters such as intraracial prejudice but also resulted in confrontations both rhetorical and corporeal.

What follows is an account of communion and conflict, one in which various voices—especially those of aspiring women and men—engage, agree, dissent. From Ollie Edwards, who took in laundry as she dreamt about going to Liberia, to Black Cross nurse Kate Fenner, whose candor angered men in the Universal Negro Improvement Association, fairly obscure people populate these pages. These women and men have intrigued, shocked, confused, and even amused me on occasion. They have also taught me that the past is filled with surprises, that the historian is as much conduit as writer, that their acts of "calling out" contemporaries deserve as much careful attention as do their determined efforts to maintain themselves as a people.

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