@Book{ hahn2003,
	author = {Steven Hahn},
	title = {A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration},
	address = {Cambridge, Mass.},
	publisher = {Harvard University Press},
	year = 2003,

Texas Passages

On 4 Sep 2012, scanning for what Hahn says about Texas:

  • gives an example from east TX about white planter fears of rumors among slaves
  • cites addington1950
  • cites Campbell on the insurrection scare of 1860
  • mentions the flight of planters and slaves to interiors and east Texas (p. 72)
  • Texas one of the states (along with SC, LA, VA, and FL) where African American delegates less involved in state constitutional convention, because blacks were a population minority, Union occupation came late, and there were significant pockets of white Republican support
  • mentions local black office-holding in east-central Texas, Red River counties and parishes of east Texas and Louisiana (p. 220), where Union league councils were also prevalent (p. 182)
  • talks about the post-1867 crackdown on KKK in Texas, mentioning Edmund J. Davis, “a Texas Unionist who had organized a loyalist cavalry during the war, declared martial law in at least two counties, and statewide . . . made over 4,500 arrests in eighteen months.” Citation to Ramsdell, Reconstruction in Texas (1910)
  • mentions Northeast Texas as one of several “clusters of interest and activity” in the ACS during the late nineteenth century (p. 325–327). Cites Rice, The Negro in Texas
  • discusses John B. Rayner, a Populist who emigrated to Robertson County, Texas from North Carolina in the 1870s (438ff), as well as the Grimes County massacres in Anderson that followed.

In the longest continuous section on Texas (pp. 393–400), Hahn presents Texas, especially east-central Texas, as something of an exception from larger regional patterns of the defeat of Greenback-Republican coalitions and the rise of Democratic Redeemers or fusion governments. “During Reconstruction, black majorities (sometimes heavy majorities) in many of these cotton-growing counties, together with active Union League organizing and the presence of small collections of carpetbaggers and white Unionists, a good many of them German immigrants, had enabled the Republicans to wrest control of local governments and send their representatives to the state legislature” (394). He points to the unusual fact that “a far greater number of African Americans held state and county offices in Texas after the collapse of Reconstruction than during it: more than double the number of seats in the legislature, and perhaps five times as many places in the counties” (394).

Key footnote on this cites the following: campbell1997; pitre1985; moneyhon1980; smallwood1981; barr1986; cantrell1990. Lots of other good citations here.

Hahn argues that part of the reason for “Texas exceptionalism” was that Democrats were less reliant on paramilitary violence than in other states because of many counties with comfortable white majorities, while in counties with black majorities, well-organized Republican militias led by Edmund J. Davis discouraged Klan-style violence. The result was a long-lasting tradition of consequential black political activity, especially in Fort Bend. Yet Hahn emphasizes that the days of this power were numbered “without committed white allies” (397). There were examples of interracial coalition during the Greenback insurgency, but these sorts of coalitions “required the nurturing, even on a small-scale, of new sensibilities and practices, of a new political culture, that institutions outside the electoral arena did not reinforce and sustain” (p. 400), especially “in the countryside of plantations and farms.”

Main Texas sources include Freedmen’s Bureau microfilm and James P. Newcomb papers at Barker Texas History Center.

General Notes


Hahn’s central argument is that a “distinctive African American politics” (1), developed during and after slavery, laid foundations for the origins of black nationalism in the early twentieth century. To make the argument he assumes a “broad understanding of politics” as “collective struggles for … socially meaningful power” (3), thereby pushing beyond a vision of slaves engaging either in resistance or accommodation.

In sketching African American politics across such a vast geographical and chronological terrain, Hahn upends conventional periodizations that identify the “politicization” of African American men with the rise and fall of Reconstruction. Black politics predated emancipation, in his account, and outlived 1876 (when he follows it into grassroots emigrationism, biracial political fusion, and eventually into Garveyism).

This perspective enables him to see things like kinship and communication networks as “elements of slave politics” (3) instead of simply signs of community resilience or agency—instead of as parts of a “background” or “prologue” to freedmen’s politics. It also challenges the broader “liberal integrationist framework” (6) which sees “inclusion and assimilation, the pursuit of individual rights” as the primary aspirations of slaves and freedpeople instead of “separatism and community development, the pursuit of collective rights, protonationalism” (6).

(Question: For Hahn, slavery is primarily a power relationship (3) and a labor relationship (9-10). Its status as a creature of law that created capital value for slaveholders is not as prominent in the prologue. Significant for his larger account?)

Part 1

Chapter 1

Before emancipation, slaves struggled with masters to obtain customary recognition of kinship networks defined on their own terms, and worked to embed their kindship networks into the organization of work. In so doing they created points of leverage that enabled them, sometimes, to define the terms of their work, win privileges like patches and paid labor that could be interpreted as rights, and developed vibrant internal economies. These practices differentiated slave communities and networks in ways that could work against collective solidarity, but exchanges among slaves as well as between slaves and masters could, by addressing inequalities or meeting basic needs, create powerful solidarities across kin and generational lines, too.

p. 17:

The slaves’ struggle to form relations among themselves and to give those relations customary standing in the eyes of masters and slaves alike was both the most basic and the most profound of political acts in which they engaged.

Since local kinship networks or households formed slaves’ basic political unit, their “community” as a whole or across plantation boundaries could not be taken for granted but had to be nurtured and created by the mediation of respected elders, the exchange of information and rumor, and quasi-institutional structures like churches. These threads made it possible for wider political currents in the revolutionary Atlantic or among the “maroon communities” of free blacks in the North to reach into slaves’ communities, though how widely or deeply is difficult to gauge. It was enough, at any rate, to enable slaves to “imagine powerful allies [beyond their plantations]. If this did not propel a frontal assault on the institution of slavery, it enabled them to create a fledgling political community, founded on shared perceptions, understandings and expectations” (61).

Chapter 2

Drawing heavily on the interpretation of the Freedmen and Southern Society project, this chapter describes the Civil War as a sweeping revolution with the largest slave rebellion in the history of New World slavery at its center: “The rebellion not only weakened the project of the Confederacy and strengthened that of the Union; it also helped create unprecedented spaces for slaves to meet one another and educate themselves, and unprecedented opportunities for the making of new black leaders” (64), especially in labor camps and sites in the South, contraband camps, and black military units.

(Question: how well do these points apply to refugeed slaves brought to Texas?)

p. 68:

Through a combination of donation, hiring, and, eventually, impressment, hundreds—and, in some cases, thousands—of slaves and free blacks were assembled at military and industrial sites across the South. … Torn away from their families and friends and exposed to hardships and dangers of several sorts, these laborers rarely welcomed the assignments. But they could also mingle with African Americans with a variety of experiences, exchange ideas and information, and learn more about the wider world. Those who returned after what were commonly short stints usually brought a good deal of new knowledge with them—about the war, about the perspectives and aspirations of other slaves, and about the prospects for freedom.

The war also created new meeting grounds between slaves and Northern missionaries and soldiers trailing army lines, who often discovered that newly freed people’s aspirations were shaped by expectations and customary privileges won during slavery—for a cotton patch, for example, or ritual “gifts” of food and clothing.

Flight the primary form that early slave rebellion took, but not always.

p. 84:

Slaves did not have to believe the tales told by their masters to view Union army posts or contraband camps with critical eyes; they only had to rely on their own intelligence networks to learn that fugitives could be denied entrance, surrendered to demanding owners, impressed into military service, contracted to profit-hungry lessees, physically abused and sexually violated by Yankee soldiers, and generally treated with contempt. … In many places, therefore, the presence Yankee troops acted less as an irresistible magnet for rebellious slaves, or as a rapid solvent of slavery, than as a corrosive element that weakened the chattel institution’s supports and rearranged its balances of power and negotiation.

Thus flight from and mutiny on the plantations made the return of “status quo antebellum” impossible by middle of 1864 (89), not just because of the slave rebellion but because that rebellion prompted a broader revolution exemplified by black enlistment and the new opportunities for education and political leadership that military service provided.

Chapter 3

Turning to the early postwar months and years, Hahn first examines the political visions of urban and Northern free blacks who often assembled in the South’s “freedmen’s conventions” of 1865. These “Jacobin” figures argued primarily for equal rights, suffrage, and citizenship, but their efforts were stymied by Presidential Reconstruction.

How, then, did Radical Republicans ultimately succeed in wresting Reconstruction away from Johnson and passing sweeping new legislation that granted equal citizenship rights regardless of race? The rise of Congressional Reconstruction was due largely, according to Hahn, to the political mobilization of the much more numerous black freedpeople living in the rural South, who—stirred by millennial religious revelations and by rumors of land redistribution that were sparked by federal policy during the war—raised fears of general insurrection and demanded attention to the need for property and land.

p. 159:

… the expectations of land and the accompanying contests over the relations of freedom that swirled through the southern countryside in the summer and fall of 1865 helped expose the dangers that an overly hasty course of sectional reconciliation entailed. Far more, perhaps, than the pressure of Congressional Radicals, and urban-based black leaders, they undermined Presidential Reconstruction, rendered untenable a southern world as ex-slaveholders would have made it, and opened the way for wholly different possibilities.

Part 2

Chapter 4

Hahn traces the political organization of freedpeople, beginning first with their efforts to reconstitute kinship networks that could help negotiate land and labor situations, and then moving into the formation of local Union leagues, which spurred voter registration and mobilization that led to the election of black delegates to state constitutional conventions after the Reconstruction Acts.

Throughout, Hahn is attentive to the persistence of the old within the new (e.g. the importance of kinship carried over from slavery, and the designation of prominent elders as political leaders for large groups of freedpeople), but he also stresses the extremely new political horizons that this grassroots political organization made possible, as black delegates at state conventions argued in many cases of land distribution and universal suffrage in defiance of threats from former slaveholders.

Chapter 5

Surveys the dramatic transfer of power effected by black suffrage in the South, especially at the local level, but also surveys the tactics of intimidation and reaction mounted by whites. The chapter ends with black conventions at the end of the 1860s that were beginning to see emigration as a preferable alternative to continuing to fight political battles in the former Confederacy.

Chapter 6

Retells the story of Congressional Reconstruction from the ground up by focusing on paramilitary struggles between freedpeople’s Union League and white groups like the KKK and White League. By viewing “vigilante” violence as part of the normal political process in the South before and after emancipation, Hahn shows how black associations armed themselves to defend against the depredations of white paramilitary organizations—with great success until the rise of Redeemer Democrats in 1874 and the retreat of federal occupation in 1876.

Part 3

End of Reconstruction narrated in Part 2 did not mean the end of African American politics; the political institutions and ideologies of black Southerners did, however, move in new directions and pursue new possibilities: most notably emigration and black nationalism.

p. 318:

Indeed, by the late 1870s emigrationist sentiment had not only gained a wide hearing but had also constituted a substantial movement among black laborers, chiefly in the cotton South—a movement that belies the notion that Redemption set black politics into full-scale retreat. What we can see, instead, is a reconstitution of the relationship between the electoral and other arenas of political practice …

Hahn uses the life of Henry Adams, a black emigrationist living in Shreveport and northeastern Louisiana, to illustrate this reconstitution.

Emigrationist impulse most prominent in particular areas, p. 331:

They tended to be cotton-growing areas with large and numerically dominant black populations that had experienced political mobilizations and in many cases substantial political gains during Reconstruction, but that also saw explosions of paramilitary violence and then concerted attacks on black rights and protections once Redemption was achieved. Which is to say that emigrationism seems to have been most evident and powerful in places where freedpeople labored on cotton plantations, had made major efforts—with at least some success—to organize themselves and create stable communities, but then suffered, or were threatened by, serious reversals.

East-central Texas, Hahn notes, was one such center.

Another new political opportunity opening up after Redemption was biracial fusionism, discussed in Chapter 8.

p. 367:

… black communities remained politically mobilized and alert to new openings, arrangements, and alliances. Some of these could involve horse-trading with local planters and some the manipulation of white paternalism. … The most daring and risky involved coalitions of various types with white independents or white adherents of third parties who could not hope to dislodge the Democrats without black electoral support.

When even these efforts failed, black communities did not cease to act politically, but they did turn inward: “they saw their survival and growth as families, as communities, and as a people best served … by pursuing self-reliance” (p. 452), much as Booker T. Washington advised. “But their responses were not necessarily Washingtonian” and often turned again to emigrationism and separatism. Hahn sees the Great Migration partly as a result of these long-standing political impulses, rather than just a specific reaction to World War I contingencies.

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