Lysistrata in the South? Freedwomen’s political activism during Reconstruction

I recently advised an advanced independent study on gender, race, and violence in the Reconstruction South. My fabulous student, Alexis Little (Bowdoin ’14), scoured testimony from the 1871 Congressional hearings on Ku Klux Klan atrocities in search of instances of sexual violence directed at freedwomen. As background, recall that immediately after the Civil War, former Confederates and white conservatives flooded into office throughout the South, and began relegating free slaves to second-class citizenship through measures such as black codes, which tightly circumscribed the liberties of newly freed slaves. In 1867 Congress (then under the control of Radical Republicans) rejected readmission to the union of these states. Placing them under military rule, Congress permitted the emancipated access to the political system, so that freedpeople could protect themselves through the vote. In response, paramilitary organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan emerged to contest Republican rule and suppress black equality.

We began the project with concerns about popular tendencies to fetishize the Klan, and reduce black women to victims in their own stories. We confirmed much of what is already known. Sexual violence constituted a critical factor in the re-assertion of Southern white racial and political control in response to Radical Reconstruction. Freedwomen often served as proxies for their politically active husbands, who fled the home and “hid out” rather than face Klan assault or execution. Tied to domestic cares, freedwomen could not evade night riders, and often bore the brunt of their wrath.

The meting out of sexual violence by white men to black women reinforced longstanding hierarchies of race and gender in Southern society. As Laura Edwards has shown, nineteenth century rape laws treated women as the property of heads of households. In slavery, to rape an enslaved woman was a crime not against her, but her owner. And when emancipation placed freedmen in nominal legal “possession” of their families, sexual violence against black women after the war often indirectly targeted black men.   In this way, the Southern whites who perpetrated these crimes attacked not only the sanctity of black family life and what they viewed as the inversion of the racial hierarchy, but also the ability of black men to hold and control their own property.

Initially, little of the grim story that we uncovered surprised us, since scholars such as Lisa Cardyn, Noralee Frankel, and Tera Hunter had suggested these functions of sexual violence during Reconstruction. But when we came to more closely examining the sources on freedwomen and the formal political process, we were surprised to note how often Southern white Democrats claimed that black women were acting in overtly political ways. We found a surprising amount of evidence of freedwomen’s direct roles as political boosters and operatives. Elsa Barclay Brown pioneered this approach, arguing that freedpeople in Reconstruction Richmond viewed the vote not as the property of individual black men, but as a family and community right, which black men exercised on behalf of all.

Our findings extend this recasting of freedwomen’s roles in Reconstruction politics. Rather than serving as passive actors, or proxy victims of racial violence, black women seem often to have played conspicuous roles in the conduct of formal politics. For example, in Congressional testimony over a contested election in Louisiana in 1876, a Democratic operative reported that “a great many” freedwomen had participated in local elections. They “kept their husbands straight” by haranguing them with speeches at a pre-election barbeque. Indeed, these black women were so active, and “so much more radical than the men were,” that the informant could “make no headway” in capturing black votes. In another instance, a white Democrat testified to seeing at election-time “a large number of colored women, armed with cane-knive[s], urging colored men to go on, kill the white men, and they, the colored women, would butcher the white women and children.” Still another deemed it common knowledge that “the colored ladies disdain, hate, and refuse to associate with a colored man who is a declared Democrat.” Freedwomen publicly beat a black Democrat in South Carolina, and “swore that they would leave their husbands and not permit them to come near them if they voted the democratic ticket.”

Here is a fascinating, largely untold, story of Reconstruction. Much like the character Lysistrata in Aristophanes’s comic play of the same name, freedwomen in the Reconstruction South threatened to withhold themselves in order to control their men’s political behavior. Unlike Lysistrata and her followers, they did so not to end war, but to pursue the political aims of their communities.

Initially, I greeted southern white critics of these politically active freedwomen with dismay. They hardly painted black women in a flattering light. On the surface, they support the contentions of the Redeemers (the conservative whites who wrested control of the South from the freedpeople and their allies) that Republicans practiced fraudulent politics that had to be overthrown.

But taking these accounts seriously may offer useful lessons in the handling evidence. It is of course possible that Southern whites reporters falsified their accounts entirely. Most, after all, had no love for Republicans or African Americans, and few likely scrupled against slandering either. Criticisms of freedwomen contributed to the idea, which needed no fostering among whites, that black women departed from acceptable gender norms. Sympathetic scholars’ own sensitivity to this charge may have led even them to neglect accounts of politically active freedwomen as yet another attempt to defame them.

And yet perhaps there is important truth in the account. Why, after all, would politically active Southern white men risk recounting to a hated government tales of being politically bested by black women whom they considered their clear racial and social inferiors?

Here we may take a lesson from a quite different direction. In judging evidence, scholars of the historical Jesus employ what is known as the “criterion of embarrassment,” which argues that historical accounts that appear unflattering to the utterer are worthy of consideration. Thus, most scholars consider the New Testament account of Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist likely to be true. It was a detail that early Christians would have preferred to leave out, for it disrupts the notion of Jesus as the son of god, superior to all other humans.

Similarly, evidence for black women’s direct political participation must be considered. For one, there are not a few of these accounts, from different times and places, and they tend to reinforce each other, thus verifying the general phenomenon. (This is actually another criterion — the criterion of “multiple attestation”). Most importantly, complaints of freedwomen’s street politics threatened to undermine the white masculine supremacy of their authors, for they revealed times when black women successfully contended with white men for the vote.

Of course, the criterion of embarrassment does not mean that every portion of these accounts is true. In the case of the historical Jesus, the New Testament’s John the Baptist claims that “the one who comes after me is more powerful than I” (Mark 1:7). This is an assertion many scholars interpret as early Christians’ re-narration of a (for them) troublesome fact in Jesus’s life. If the historical John was understood to be the greater figure, the Biblical John explicitly subordinates himself to his own acolyte.

Similarly, there is much we might doubt about accounts of freedwomen active in Reconstruction politics. For example, the charge that armed freedwomen promised to butcher white women and children may have offset the sense of disempowerment that likely accompanied white men’s recognition that black women were active political players. Instead of ignoring freedwomen’s activism, conservative whites exaggerated it.

In the process, they also obscured Democrats’ own practices of fraud, which were widespread and egregious. (See, for example, Lawrence Powell’s analysis of the enormity of Democratic fraud in Mississippi’s failed ratification election in 1868.) The degree to which southern Democrats proved willing to project onto black women their own propensity to corrupt the democratic process suggests the depths to which they feared and respected what these women represented. Only a deep threat to their dominance could produce such grudging acknowledgement of the truth, as well as such hyperbolic recounting of freedwomen’s actual behavior.

Images of freedwomen’s political activism reinforced conservative Southern whites’ central complaint during Reconstruction. It was not so much that blacks corrupted the political process, it was that blacks took part in it at all. If this was true of black men, it was all the more distressing of African American females. The appearance of freedwomen at polling places, political rallies, and in the streets deeply challenged the social and political hegemony of the white men who had long ruled the South. For them, it constituted yet more evidence that a vengeful Union had overturned long-established social hierarchies and placed the “bottom rail on top.”

A few scholars, such as historian Paul Harvey, have noted the militance of freedwomen’s political activism, but more work remains to be done. Freedwomen were not merely passive victims of sexual violence. They were important political actors, and were understood as such even by their enemies. With care, historians can excavate this challenging evidence and uncover of the neglected historical realities underlying it.

Visit of the Ku Klux
Contemporary images of black families assaulted by white paramilitaries accurately reflected the freedpeoples’ vulnerability, but downplayed their capacity for assertive political activism

Comments on “Lysistrata in the South? Freedwomen’s political activism during Reconstruction

  • Fascinating! I always considered sexual violence as an act of warfare (both political and physical), in more contemporary texts , but I never looked at it as applicable during Reconstruction.

    As you highlighted here rape was often viewed as an attack on the man, the head of the family. This still seems to implicate black masculinity and black male power in defining the impacts of rape on black women. Meaning, the rape had less to do with the woman, and more about her husband or father or lover who could not protect her. Or rape against black women at this time is used to highlight the desires and in some cases fetishes of white men. Creating narratives of hypersexulality linked to power.
    This still has men as the main character in the story of sexual violence against black women.

    This post seems to suggest otherwise. It is centering black women as the main characters in their own stories. If sexual violence is an act of warfare, it is only right to acknowledge that black women must of been committing “acts of war” themselves. Their political activism was viewed as an act of war, it pinned them as the aggressors, as threats, and sexual violence was one way to attack women. “To put them” in their place, if you will. It changes the Reconstruction narrative to one that places black women during as politically active . Straddling between realms of being “political soldiers” and as victims of war.

    I would love to read more about what networks these black women militants built, what communities, if any, were formed by survivors, even if informal? And, if there were indeed networks for survivors, how did it shape their militarism?

  • Among the field defining books on this subject is Hanna Rosen’s multiple-prize winning book, Terror in the Heart of Freedom. From the publisher: “Sexual violence–specifically, white-on-black rape–emerged as a critical arena in postemancipation struggles over African American citizenship. Analyzing the testimony of rape survivors, Rosen finds that white men often staged elaborate attacks meant to enact prior racial hierarchy. Through their testimony, black women defiantly rejected such hierarchy and claimed their new and equal rights. Rosen explains how heated debates over interracial marriage were also attempts by whites to undermine African American men’s demands for suffrage and a voice in public affairs. By connecting histories of rape and discourses of “social equality” with struggles over citizenship, Rosen shows how gendered violence and gendered rhetorics of race together produced a climate of terror for black men and women seeking to exercise their new rights as citizens. Linking political events at the city, state, and regional levels, Rosen places gender and sexual violence at the heart of understanding the reconsolidation of race and racism in the postemancipation United States.”

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