‘The Accident of Color’ examines failure of Reconstruction

Review of “The Accident of Color: A Story of Race in Reconstruction’’ by Daniel Brook. W.W. Norton & Company. 344 pages. $27.95.

BY DR. GLENN C. ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER

After he was refused a drink in a posh coffeehouse and bar in January 1871, New Orleans Parish Sheriff Charles St. Albin Sauvinet filed a suit “for the purpose of vindicating his civil rights.”

Sauvinet cited Louisiana’s new public accommodations law, which required that all businesses be “open to the accommodation and patronage of all persons without distinction or discrimination on account of race or color.

Nonetheless, the trial turned on a determination of the race of Sauvinet, a freeborn Creole, with a French immigrant father and a mother of Haitian descent.

Contrary to defense assertions that the plaintiff had claimed to be White until he ran for office and began courting African-American voters, Sauvinet explained that his “general reputation in the community” was as a person of color, even though “whether I am a colored man or not is a matter that I do not know myself.”

In “The Accident of Color,’’ journalist Daniel Brook focuses on New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina, cosmopolitan metropolises with large mixed-race populations, to explore the changing nature of racial distinctions in 19th-century America.

Before the Civil War, Brook reminds us, a clear distinction was made between slaves and free persons. A child of a free mother was free, no matter who the father was, no matter how dark his or her complexion; the son or daughter of an enslaved mother was a slave.

THE RE-SEGREGATION ERA

During Reconstruction (from about 1865-1877), racial distinctions were less applicable (under the law) because Constitutional amendments (reinforced by Congressional legislation) deemed all citizens equal regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

But with the “redemption” of the South in the last quarter of the century, a new, ostensibly biological definition of race took hold, with Jim Crow re-segregation laws defining a person of color as anyone with at least one African-American great-grandparent, and, in time, hewing close to a “one-drop” rule.

Intended for a general audience, “The Accident of Color’’ draws on the work of several generations of professional historians, including W.E.B. Du Bois, C. Vann Woodward, John Blassingame, and Eric Foner, who have called attention to the “fluidity” of race relations in the aftermath of the Civil War.

And Brook’s book joins recent publications on the same subject, such as “Stony the Road, Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow,’’ by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and “Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation,’’ by Steve Luxenberg.

A MATTER OF SKIN TONES

Brook’s account is not without flaws. His account of the views of northern Whites on slavery, race, and Reconstruction, for example, is simplistic. That said, “The Accident of Color’’ brings to life Charlestonians and New Orleanians, as they struggled, courageously, against voter suppression, the imposition of allegedly “separate but equal” streetcars and railways, public schools, colleges and universities, and hospitals, and the re-segregation of municipal police forces.

Brook underscores the fact that as New Orleanians stopped identifying themselves as Creoles and Charleston’s Browns ceased to call themselves “Browns,” their skin tones did not become “any less ambiguous.”

Even as formal protests ceased in the face of intimidation and violence, Brook tells us that mixed-raced people “relished the chance to highlight the system’s absurdity.”

Pairs of Black and White Negro young women, he indicates, boarded street cars, sat down, waited for the fidgety conductor to say, “You girls sit the way you are supposed to,” and then obeyed the law, to the letter, by proceeding slowly to the very last seats in the back, while the White stripe passengers blushed and the Black stripers chuckled.

But the laughter fades with Brook’s painful, poignant, persuasive conclusion: “The law was a farce but that didn’t make it any less binding.”

Race was a myth, grounded in pseudo-science, and willful ignorance of the fact that we are all so thoroughly mixed. And racism, an enduring reality, “became the most important factor in every American’s life.”


Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.

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