Albion Winegar Tourge'e may be best known now, though not in his lifetime, as the lead attorney in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which was a set-up, a staged incident, with the cooperation even of the railroad company, to get a man arrested for sitting in the wrong car, take the matter to court, and end segregation on trains except that it backfired horribly and legalized apartheid for over 50 years.
Tourge'e's work was not one incident alone, and his positive influence hasn't ceased. His was one of the most influential white voices for equal rights for blacks in the decades following the U.S. Civil War. I want to quote and consider a short section found in one of his novels, A Fools Errand. The book was a runaway bestseller in 1879, published anonymously "by one of the fools."
The book semi-autobiographically recounted the author's endeavor to relocate himself and his family from the North to Greensboro, North Carolina, following the war, in order to assist in reconstruction. The book recounts the horrors of Ku Klux Klan terrorism against blacks and against whites advocating for rights for blacks. While the passage I'm about to quote generalizes, the book does not. It provides the perspectives of whites and blacks from the South and the North, including Southern Unionists and racist Northerners.
The generalization is worth paying attention to and all the more so, because it describes the years immediately after the Civil War, which in a top-down simplified history found in text books, was the period of positive change when blacks voted and were elected, and which preceded the backlash of heightened racism and lynchings. In Tourge'e's account, the racism that followed was, at least in the South, already there, along with the lynchings, and change would only come through education. Tourge'e pauses in the narrative of his book to explain the failure of the North and South to even understand each other:
"Northern Idea of Slavery.
"Slavery is wrong morally, politically, and economically. It is tolerated only for the sake of peace and quiet. The negro is a man, and has equal inherent rights with the white race."
"Southern Idea of Slavery.
"The negro is fit only for slavery. It is sanctioned by the Bible, and it must be right; or, if not exactly right, is unavoidable, now that the race is among us. We can not live with them in any other condition."
"Northern Idea of the Southern Idea.
"Those Southern fellows know that slavery is wrong, and incompatible with the theory of our government; but it is a good thing for them. They grow fat and rich, and have a good time, on account of it; and no one can blame them for not wanting to give it up."
"Southern Idea of the Northern Idea.
"Those Yankees are jealous because we make slavery profitable, raising cotton and tobacco, and want to deprive us of our slaves from envy. They don't believe a word of what they say about its being wrong, except a few fanatics. The rest are all hypocrites."
"The Northern Idea of the Situation.
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