The "Race War" at Home


The discourses of racial and gender politics mark the salient difference between northern and southern newspapers during the period of the Spanish-American War, most notably, the ubiquitous concern for a possible "race war at home" in the South. For instance, in October 1898, the Atlanta Constitution ran front page stories about "whites [being] terrorized" in "A RACE WAR IN ILLINOIS," along with a feature articles announcing: "BLACKS PROPOSE TO COLONIZE AND CONTROL NORTH CAROLINA. They are at work on a Startling Solution of the Race Problem. A WAR FOR CONQUEST IS ON." According to the article, "the black race, united, solid, aggressive, is marching as one man against the divided white. . .[to] set. . .up for themselves a sovereign negro state. Then they will repeal the laws against intermarriage between the races and mixed schools. . . . Their aim is to colonize and negroize North Carolina." The article also alludes to the ongoing war with Spain when it claims that although this war at home "has been conducted in peace, without loss of life or even the letting of blood, it is as much a war for conquest as was ever fought and won or lost by armed hosts."

The piece then foregrounds the "Menace to Womanhood" literalized in the accompanying illustration:

[I]f the campaign of the blacks for the conquest of the state succeeds this fall, an epidemic of assaults upon the unprotected in the country is predicted. This has aroused the pure womanhood of North Carolina from the seashore to the mountains. They are asking their husbands and sons how they intend to vote--for the wives and mothers and sisters or for negro supremacy and a reign of terror? (October 2, 1898)
Atlanta Constitution October 2, 1898
The perceived threats of a burgeoning black empire in the South can be viewed as the projection of a southern political unconscious, an expression of the repressed anxieties about American imperialism (especially the possible influx of "lower races" from the newly acquired territories). This familiar rhetoric of white women being rescued by white men from the ominous black cloud of "negro domination" also anticipates in many ways the racism of D.W. Griffith's Birth of A Nation (and the propagandistic charges of the "rape of Kuwait" used to justify the Gulf War nearly a century later).

The rhetorical scenario is also representative of what Ida B. Wells documented in A Red Record as a major justification used by whites to lynch blacks. The putatively political rationale of "negro domination" was later transformed into the myth of the black rapist, which Wells' presents as another major excuse to lynch and terrorize African American men. Given Wells's attempt to construct a new social reality and cultural construction of African American manhood, it is not at all surprising that she encouraged African American men to participate in the "liberation of Cuba." In her auto-biography, she claims to have "very eagerly assisted in the movement to get the black troops of the [Illinois] Eight Regiment mobilized" by traveling to Springfield with her children and "stay[ing] with the regiment until finally it was mustered into the service, and. . .saw them entrain for Cuba" (254).

That journey across the Mason-Dixon line became another telling indicator of race relations in the U.S. for many African Americans. As Edward L. Ayers notes in Southern Crossings,

Patriotic crowds of both races cheered the black soldiers during the first part of their trip from Utah and Montana. As soon as they crossed over into the South in Kentucky and Tennessee, however, they met only silence. Black supporters were kept from the train; whites merely stared, glowered. "It mattered not if we were soldiers of the United States," one sergeant wrote, "we were 'niggers' as they called us and treated us with contempt." (259)
Demonstrating this, a story in the July 4, 1898 Worcester Telegram with the headline "BLACK SOLDIERS IN REGULAR ARMY," was overwhelmingly laudatory of the black regiments, claiming that they "are among the very best in government service" and pointing to the past successes of black "buffalo soldiers" in the forefront of the "Indian campaigns." The report claims that "in mixed posts, that is, where black soldiers are stationed alongside white men," black and white troops "soldier alongside" each other without incident, while preferring to remain segregated by choice during recreational activities.

In contrast, the presence in the South of African American soldiers from the North lead to race riots in Florida where twenty-seven black volunteers from the North and four whites were seriously injured in a confrontation between black troops and white soldiers from Ohio and Georgia (Ayers 257-260). The particular discourse of domestic or regional "colonization" in the Atlanta Constitution article can thus be attributed not only to the South's ambivalence toward the "White man's burden" and recent U.S. history (i.e., the Civil War and the Reconstruction) but also to this perceived "invasion" of armed blacks from the North.
Colored Troops Disembarking
Colored Troops Disembarking

This very different context of reception suggests that films of black soldiers during the Spanish-American War, such as Colored Troops Disembarkingwould carry very different connotations depending on the region. While the Atlanta Constitution cast the race war as a peaceful political conflict "without loss of life or even the letting of blood," during the months of the Spanish-American War this negrophobia translated into discursive threats in the form of articles about lynchings and into the real acts of racially motivated murder. W. Fitzhugh Brundage notes that Virginia Governor J. Hoge Tyler "privately lamented, in May 1898, that 'the lynch spirit is so strong again.'" As Brundage explains, "The resurgence coincided with racial tensions over the role of blacks in the military during the Spanish-American War and agitation over segregation and disenfranchisement" (178). Indeed, the 1890s marked the peak of lynching in the Unites States with the overwhelming majority of those lynchings perpetrated against African Americans in the South. Brundage argues that in the 1890s, "[l]ynching. . .came to define southern distinctiveness every bit as much as the Mason-Dixon line marked the boundary of the region" ("Introduction" 4). Elsewhere Brundage points out that "[c]ountless. . .whites simply accepted lynching as an inevitable part of the rhythm of life in the United States and as a curiosity that merited comment only when it assumed unusually barbaric form. Many whites responded with puzzlement to the violence allegedly committed in the defense of civilization, but few expressed outright horror or condemnation of the practice. . ." (Lynching in the New South 8).

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