Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Survey: Reconstructions

Just finished David Silkenat's new book Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, & Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina, (UNC Press, 2011). A great read, its pushing me to rethink my usual approach to Reconstruction. For the past few years, I've spent a lot of time trying to recover the vigilante horror of the Ku Klux Klan, using it to flag the virulent racism that characterized the South at the time, along with the role of vigilantism generally in American legal history (meanwhile providing context to the Slaughterhouse Cases, United States v. Cruickshank, and so on). Helpful in this task have been Charles Lane's Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction John Witt's "Exodus of Elias Hill," in Patriots & Cosmopolitans, and Glenda Gilmore's Gender & Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920. Yet, Silkenat's book paints a more complex portrait of the white South than any of the above, not simply a gang of bloodthirsty terrorists, but a profoundly broken, despondent group. Interestingly, the story coincides with the history of vice in the region (the focus of a new seminar I'm running at SLU). According to David Courtwright, southern whites had one of the highest morphine rates in the country following the war, partly due to "a pervasive depression." No one was more depressed, argues Courtwright, than former plantation owners, who also led the way in opium addiction. By the 1890s, opium had been joined by cocaine, prompting pharmacists to mix it with soda in Atlanta, and adding to an insurgent vice culture that I now think was beginning to characterize the region. In fact, one of the most interesting studies of the issue, conducted by Jeffrey Clayton Foster, shows that vice, and particularly drug use, were fueling integrated drug binges in places like Chattanooga and Knoxville. Here, some of the integrated prostitution cases in Julie Novkov's Racial Union: Law, Intimacy, and the White State in Alabama, come to mind, many involving not just sex, but also alcohol and drugs. Could C. Vann Woodward be right after all? Was there a moment of possibility for integration ... albeit fueled by depression and vice?

Photo credit: UNC Press