The Claim of an Integrated Nineteenth Century South

Every once in a while I see a Confederate Romantic promote the idea that southern society was integrated (meaning in this case, apparently, that blacks and whites were close to one another) and that this fact somehow reflects favorably on the racial attitudes of white southerners.  Take, for example, what this defender of southern race relations prior to the American Civil War says as he poses a rhetorical question:

So you are saying that Southerners who lived in integrated, albeit subordinate, relationships with blacks were somehow more racist than northerners?

What follows is an excerpt from Michael Burlingame’s biography of Abraham Lincoln in which Burlingame demonstrates the presence of racism in northern society.  Of course, to some people Burlingame’s a Lincoln apologist, which complicates matters a bit, because Lincoln apologists supposedly don’t recognize Yankee racism, but let’s set that aside … after all, the poster in question comes from a discussion group famous for its Confederate cherry-picking, at which he in particular excels, even if he doesn’t always understand the import of what he posts.

We also see claims for an integrated southern society in discussions about the presence of African Americans in Confederate military formations.  Take, for example, this declaration in a book that did much to popularize the notion that African Americans willingly served with the Confederate armed forces (and presumably shared an allegiance to the Confederate cause … meaning their continued enslavement).  Another website offers the claim in the middle of the usual logic employed by proponents of historical fantasy.  And elsewhere a white southern blogger offers yet another version of the notion that the Confederates had integrated units as part of the usual litany of claims that it really wasn’t about slavery.

In short, this claim of an integrated South serves as a way for Confederate romantics to claim (a) secession and the war was not about slavery (b) race relations were better in the slave South than the free North (which raises the question of why there was any need for a Fugitive Slave Law) (c) white southerners are better than white northerners, who are in denial about their past while white southerners should bask in the glorious society that was slavery.

That observed, one thus must ask: what happened to that wonderful, harmonious, integrated world after the Confederacy collapsed?

Why, after all, if blacks willingly supported Confederate independence, did many southern whites commence a campaign of terrorist violence against their former comrades in arms, the very people with whom they once rubbed shoulders in a friendship and tolerance born of integration?  Why didn’t more southern whites oppose such behavior?  Why, once these southern white regained control of their state governments, did they work toward segregation?  Why did they disfranchise blacks of both races shared a common vision?  Why, given the desire of white southerners to honor their short-lived Confederate past, did so many white southerners oppose integration … and fly the Confederate flag in justification of that cause?  Isn’t that a heritage violation–using the Confederate battle flag as a symbol to oppose the very integrated society that we are now told the Confederacy and the slave South embraced?

I find it very hard to take this argument about an integrated, tolerant slave South seriously.  Surely if southern blacks and whites lived in harmony together, there would have been no fugitive slaves, no abolition movement, no USCT, and so on.  Oh, sure, I’m used to hearing white southerners make invidious comparisons between the North and South concerning race relations, and white southerners were always anxious to claim that they were best equipped to deal with southern blacks (although sometimes this equipment seemed to consist of a shotgun and a noose).  But this appropriation of the notion that the slave South was more “integrated” than the North and thus was more tolerant, less racist, and more harmonious … come on, do you really expect anyone to accept that?  After all, if that’s true, how do we explain the South post-1865?  Why did so many white southerners oppose integration if southern history is a history of integrated plantations, towns, and military formations?  Why is there such a history of interracial violence in the South if the two races got along so well?

I suspect the answer lies more in what some white southerners (yes, folks, read carefully … some … not all, not many, not most) need to believe in order to deal with their own ambivalent feelings about race.  After all, if they were truly opposed to racism, they would denounce it, period, including racism past and present in the South.  Yet they don’t.  Instead, they invent a fictional world of racial harmony and tolerance, and castigate Yankees for not doing the same.  Denial isn’t simply a river in Egypt, as they say.

I guess the other question is why more white southerners don’t denounce such nonsense.  Oh, I know a few white southerners who will.  But watch the comments section, and let’s see if we see the usual type of responses (a) attacking the Yankee (b) talking about racism in the North (c) trotting out the usual Confederate romantic claptrap.

We’ll see.

22 thoughts on “The Claim of an Integrated Nineteenth Century South

  1. Al Mackey July 19, 2011 / 4:40 am

    You’ve truly found a never-ending source of comment-worthy silliness. I suppose it’s the result of treating the Civil War as a sporting event and “rooting” for one side. Probably something to do with having one’s identity wrapped up with that side. I’m surprised there aren’t a number of psychological studies published on this.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 19, 2011 / 7:31 am

      This is in fact part of the problem: a desire to identify with the past so that “they” become “we.” It’s personalizing the past and offering historical explanation as personal justification and defense. Usually that happens when writers overidentify with historical subjects, notably individuals. But for some white southerners, talking about racism 150 years ago is somehow talking about them … although it does seem that some of them embrace a slaveholder’s paternalism.

  2. Al Mackey July 19, 2011 / 6:46 am

    Also, since Burlingame is talking about Illinois specifically, I suppose it would be too complicated to talk about from where those Southern Illinois residents had predominantly emigrated. 🙂

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 19, 2011 / 7:28 am

      That would require real knowledge of history, not the simple ability to operate a scanner.

  3. Jeff Davis July 19, 2011 / 7:18 am

    I find it hard to accept a modern day tolerant South today, although I find it very much more so now than it was 50-60 years ago. Somehow, perhaps it was the assasination of Dr. King, things changed and a swing toward tolerance occurred.

    That said, it is my impression that the tolerance issue is no better in the north and west than it is in the south, just more subtle.

    There’s equality for ya! What a shame. Everyone needs to denounce it.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 19, 2011 / 7:27 am

      The issue of how people get along varies a great deal from place to place and experience to experience. Currently I live in the most integrated neighborhood I’ve ever been experienced, and you would not recognize the Arizona you see on the news from how neighbors and friends of different races, religions, sexual preferences, and national origins interact.

      But when someone who teaches American history and hails from the South declares he didn’t know Boston had a racist reputation, either he’s just playing with people in order to get a rise or he’s confessing to complete ignorance and stupidity (of course, in this case both are characteristic of the person in question). In any case, what becomes tiresome about the finger-pointing is the assumption some have that highlighting a problem somewhere else somehow means that the problems in their own back yard no longer exist. It’s the creation of an Other in order for someone to feel smug.

      • Andy Hall July 19, 2011 / 8:46 am

        “Mississippi, a land only one generation removed from the epic civil rights battles of the 1960’s, a land of people who can tell you where their grandfathers were in 1860 but are quick to forget what their fathers were doing in 1960.”

        That’s a fantastic line that lays bare the basic dynamic at work here.

        • Lyle Smith July 19, 2011 / 7:35 pm

          I get what you’re saying here Andy, but knowing what my mother and father did during this time I can’t totally agree with. I just don’t think it is factually correct even there is some truth behind your point.

          Since learning about my father’s time as a school principal during integration in the South, I’ve always thought that someone should write about what white Southerners did to push integration along in the Deep South. When reading civil rights history today its largely and obviously focused on blacks (rightfully so of course), and the handful of Jews from wherever that traveled to South to make a stand against segregationists. The truth of the matter is though, they weren’t the only ones. Plain and simple white Southerners did so as well, in myriad ways. Yet, we’re all supposed to think our fathers were white supremacist segregationist. I say balderdash!

          • Andy Hall July 19, 2011 / 8:00 pm

            Sorry if my post implied that all Southerners thought and acted that way. Certainly mine did not, either. But I do think that quite encapsulates very well the fundamental problem of those who romanticize the Confederacy — a big part of how they’re able to glorify what happened 150 years ago is by willfully ignoring the hard and ugly realities of much more recent history, history that (unlike the “late unpleasantness”) is actually within living memory.

          • Lyle Smith July 19, 2011 / 8:45 pm

            No, I know you know. I can’t help myself from being a little bit contrarian. What you’re saying about certain individuals is true, I think.

  4. Dan Weinfeld July 19, 2011 / 8:59 am

    “Why, after all, if blacks willingly supported Confederate independence, did many southern whites commence a campaign of terrorist violence against their former comrades in arms, the very people with whom they once rubbed shoulders in a friendship and tolerance born of integration?”

    The rationale that I see offered in some circles is that the post-war South would have been peaceful and properous if those corrupt, meddling carpetbaggers hadn’t come down South to rob whites, exploit blacks and incite race war for political advancement and personal gain. Otherwise, presumably, blacks would have contentedly voted the Democratic ticket (if you overlook the fact that the 1865-66 Southern governments denied blacks the vote) and happily submitted to quasi-citizenship and discriminatory laws under the Black Codes.

    • Andy Hall July 19, 2011 / 10:39 am

      The rationale that I see offered in some circles is that the post-war South would have been peaceful and prosperous if those corrupt, meddling carpetbaggers hadn’t come down South to rob whites, exploit blacks and incite race war for political advancement and personal gain.

      That was the rationale then, and it seems to be popping disturbing frequency today. The violence and intimidation of the Klan, the Red Shirts in South Carolina and similar groups usually gets written off as being the work of the Union League/Loyal League, and known Klan activities get rationalized away. They make a big deal about the so-called “Second Klan” of the early 1900s being a different organization — which is in many respects true — but use that as a convenient “out” to avoid directly condemning the Reconstruction-era Klan, or challenge its heroic depiction in books and film like Birth of a Nation.

      The shorter answer is, every criticism of the South is either invalid of someone else’s (Northern slave ship captains, abolitionists, Black Republicans, carpetbaggers, Northern agitators, politically-correct academics, liberal bloggers) fault.

  5. Stephen Mccullough July 19, 2011 / 1:35 pm

    One class exercise I often use to discuss race relations during Reconstruction is use examples from the WPA Slave Narratives. Rather then shining knights who protect the white folk of the South against Carpertbaggers and Scalawags, the KKK is clearly seen as a terrorist organization.

    • Andy Hall July 20, 2011 / 7:19 am

      It’s great that you do that. But I’ve also seen the Slave Narratives cherry-picked to make the argument that slavery wasn’t really all that bad, because former slaves sometimes spoke wistfully of their own youth in those times. A certain Confederate apologist from New York State is especially prone to do that.

  6. Ray O'Hara July 19, 2011 / 4:49 pm

    I got the impression Hugh is trolling for me and yeah, I’ll take the bait 🙂

    Is Boston a racist town? not anymore, 30 years ago? yes it was. but things have changed people are probably still so they deal with it and nowadays people can be anywhere is relative safety.
    someone recently posted the gem of a quote about White attitudes North and South “Southerners don’t care how close they are as long as they don’t get big, Northerners don’t care how big they get as long as they don’t get close” I have to agree with that.

    Segregation in Massachusetts is by settlement so there was never any need for “Whites only” places, the location of an establishment determined the clientele
    Everybody stayed in their own part of town. While growing up less than a mile from the city of Boston I still never encountered Blacks as a kid, there were none around here,
    Even today the town is 94% White but Blacks have become an economic presence in the town due to the location and easy accessibility by public transportation of shopping, movie theaters and dining .Blacks. have discovered they don’t get harassed by locals and the Police don’t randomly stop youths for DWB anymore. Places change sometimes for the better.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 19, 2011 / 5:24 pm

      My impression is that Boston has changed quite a bit since the 1970s. But the discussion, as usual, involves definitions of racism (such as “institutional racism,” which is different that what people usually associate with “racism”), and so on. Again, someone from Greensboro should know better than to point fingers. So should someone who taught at Murray State, as we see here and here. The professor in question was Lawson’s colleague.

    • Sherree July 20, 2011 / 6:11 am

      I haven’t been to Boston in a long time, so I am certain that the city has greatly changed in the past three decades, as has the rest of the nation, including the South (which is no longer George Wallace’s South, as it never was for some) Most of these changes have come about in both the North and the South, however, because of the dedication, persistence, and hard work of African American men and women. Yes, there were white men and women who helped a great deal and made their own sacrifices, including my parents. Nevertheless, the lion’s share of the work–and of the suffering–fell to African American men and women themselves, and I think we should be very careful about claiming that we have all moved beyond our racist past. Professor Henry Gates was arrested in Cambridge just two years ago, for attempting to gain access to his own home–shades of a Boston of yesteryear that we are saying no longer exists. In the meantime, in the South, there are many more problems arising than foolish civil war discussion groups whose members extol the virtues of slavery, as I am certain everyone knows, particularly our moderator who has done some important work, from what I have read, in countering a nascent resurgence of white supremacist groups (I am basing this on an interview I read at a SPLC website, Brooks) A lot of what is taking place now has an old familiar feeling to it, so again, let’s please take care and choose our words carefully. Racism is a thing of the past for whom? White people? I know plenty of Indigenous men and women and African American men and women, too, who would dispute that claim.

  7. Lyle Smith July 19, 2011 / 7:28 pm

    Since I’ve lived in an immigrant quarter/ghetto in a European city I’ve always thought of the white South as being a kind of a microcosm of the United States’ political relationship with the rest of the world. Many of America’s wars have been wars about political control of something or an area, and then coupled with a moral/social dimension. The Civil War and then Reconstruction roughly fit this very simple generalization.

    The White South (the immigrant quarter I lived in was predominantly Muslim) is a lot like the greater Muslim community. It’s a group that had/has different political ideas, a somewhat different economy, different culture, and its extremists got themselves in a war with the United States.

    Yet, we’re careful not to demand too much of the Muslim world in light of extremist Muslims and the wars the United States fights in predominantly Muslims land right now (at least six predominantly Muslim countries at the moment: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia). Why is this? Probably because the majority of Muslims, no matter what they really think, are just getting up in the morning and living their lives in peace. They want to get up go to work or do whatever, and get safely home. Just about like everybody else in the world. Furthermore, to demand too much is probably just bad politics.

    The fact is the reason why more white Southerners don’t stand up to denounce whatever bad history about the South is out there, is because they know what happened (I didn’t know there was even an argument about black Confederates until finding blogs like Crossroads, because never in the world would I argue that there were a whole bunch of black Confederates), know the difference between right and wrong, and just don’t care to shout down fools whenever they speak up. Nor do I think it is right to demand people to do such a thing.

  8. Brooks D. Simpson July 20, 2011 / 12:10 am

    What I enjoy most about reading cwh2 is that the Confederate romantics there are rather predictable. Take this reaction from a poster who styles himself “dixieman_sc”:

    … for some reason he dosen’t want anyone to believe that Southern black slaves and their white masters, for the most part, had affectionate extended family relationships …

    So affectionate that they involved forced sexual relations, the breakup of enslaved families, and violence, contributing to fugitives fleeing to freedom.

    You just can’t invent what slavery’s apologists offer in defense of the peculiar institution, then … or now.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 11, 2011 / 8:38 am

      I’m not sure how Mr. Tatum’s link responds in any way to the argument presented in the post. However, one gains a keener sense of his intellect and maturity from reading his last several posts hereand here. He thus joins Ms. Chastain as a ranter, second-class.

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