Black & Browns

New book examines the failure of Reconstruction

The Accident of Color


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

Daniel Brook


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. 

Colored or not?

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. 

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. 

Impact of historians

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.


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