Morning Report 9/21/05 Katrina’s Window Into Slavery’s Past — and Present


Storm reveals that the Emancipation Proclamation was a first step, not the last. A new book on Louisiana elaborates on that.


Exposed by this Naval Research Lab satellite view (on of Hurricane Katrina striking Louisiana on August 29 is “Gathering the Cane,” an illustration from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1853). In this reproduction from the University of Virginia Library, you might be able to see men cutting cane, women gathering stalks, an ox cart hauling them, and a white guy with a whip.

In addition to destroying lives and property, Hurricane Katrina may accomplish something worthwhile: washing away the illusion that the Civil War resolved the injustice of slavery in the United States.

Many people, including those living in Louisiana, are under no such illusions, of course. But Katrina’s swirling rage exposed to the world the sight of thousands of black people trapped by a storm because they were trapped anyway by the vestiges of a slave-based economy.

What will white America do with this new information? Will the new New Orleans be rebuilt on a different economic foundation from the one that, even after slavery was supposedly abolished, depended upon ghettoized blacks doing the scut work that made a charming city run but which left themselves with little prospect of escape? Did the hurricane blow away those cobwebs that keep Americans from seeing that our slavery past still has to be dealt with? Don’t hold your breath, because race and class issues impede equal opportunity just about everywhere else in this country.

But thanks to exquisite (and purely accidental) timing, a new book on Louisiana’s post-slavery history was scheduled for publication next month by Harvard University Press. Now, to capitalize on Katrina, it has been rushed into circulation.

rebecca-scott-mug.jpgThat might be academic, because the book itself is. Rebecca J. Scott‘s Degrees of Freedom is a fascinating and well-written piece of comparative history, but it’s not exactly written for a mass audience. Its subtitle, however, says that it should be: “Louisiana and Cuba After Slavery.” Scott (see photo) is a University of Michigan law and history professor who spent years trying to understand what happened after the Civil War — and after the Spanish-American War — to the hundreds of thousands of slaves working in the huge sugar-cane industries of Louisiana and Cuba.

Those who are rebuilding New Orleans would do well to capitalize on what’s inside Scott’s suddenly extremely timely book. With the Bush regime in power, that’s unlikely to happen.

But here’s a question posed and analyzed by Scott: After slavery, how did the African Americans fare, compared with the African Cubans? I’ll be more simplistic than Scott: Since slavery officially ended, the African Americans have been treated worse, and this was apparent long before Fidel Castro was even born. Here’s what Scott says:

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Louisiana and Cuba’s sharply contrasting patterns of public life helped to lock inequality into Louisiana’s world of cane, while opening up Cuba’s.

In Cuba, though political corruption was common and women were still denied the vote, virtually all families could have a political identity, and the votes of men of color were avidly sought.

Even those born into poor rural families of color in Santa Clara province, for example, could grow up thinking of themselves as valued members of the Liberal Party.

In Louisiana, by contrast, politics had been brought within tight bounds, one-party rule reinforced by systematic class and racial disenfranchisement.

Not that racism was dead in Cuba. But Scott writes:

In Cuba, however, private racism of the hierarchical and cultural type coexisted with public declarations of equality; in Louisiana, after forty years of struggle, white-supremacist ideology … had achieved dominance in the political and economic spheres.

Scott’s not just expressing her opinion here. As she adds, in discussing new Jim Crow laws banning blacks from riding in the same trolleys and train cars:

In his inaugural address of 1904, Louisiana governor Newton Blanchard made the core of that ideology quite clear. Although his colleagues eight years earlier had claimed to support Louisiana’s Separate Car Act on the grounds of custom and convenience, Governor Blanchard could now acknowledge that their real goal had been to deny to Louisiana’s citizens of color the very essence of public dignity: “No approach towards social equality or social recognition will ever be tolerated in Louisiana. Separate schools, separate churches, separate cars, separate places of entertainment will be enforced. Racial distinction and integrity must be preserved.”

This is 40 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

It was in this milieu, as Scott writes, that a black man in Louisiana named Pierre Carmouche got on his horse in 1898 and persuaded other black men to join him in what he saw as the struggle for freedom in Cuba. Carmouche, a blacksmith, had written the U.S. secretary of war to offer the services of “colored Americans, on short notice, in the defence of our country, at home or abroad.”

His offer was accepted and he recruited men to go with him, and they fought to “liberate” Cuba. Scott writes:

Carmouche hoped to prove his community’s patriotism and valor to a broad North American public in the face of crushing defeats for equal rights at home in Louisiana.

They did a great job in Cuba. But then they returned to Louisiana, where, Scott writes, Carmouche’s bid to be respected simply as an American citizen, let alone “an officer and a gentleman,” was of course rejected out of hand:

Carmouche’s goal of civil rights and respect was thwarted at every turn. Carmouche himself left Louisiana in despair and ended his days working as a janitor in Detroit, Michigan.

Emancipation, my ass. For one thing, black people in the South were officially kept from voting for more than a century after Lincoln “freed” them.

It wasn’t until 1964, 101 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, that the federal government forced places like Louisiana to let the masses of black citizens vote.

Then, as now, many white Americans resisted racial equality. That was the same year, in fact, when William Rehnquist went to polling places in south Phoenix and intimidated blacks and Latinos to keep them from voting.

And this guy later became Chief Justice of the United States.

Does that indicate that we still have work to do in repairing the damage caused not only by Hurricane Katrina but also by our slavery past? Exactly how many years ago was slavery really “abolished”?

Along with the charm of New Orleans, what else will be restored?
You tell me.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 21, 2005

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