Manhood Rights in the Age of Jim Crow: Evaluating End of Men Claims in the Context of African American History

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Manhood Rights in the Age of Jim Crow: Evaluating End of Men Claims in the Context of African American History

Martin Summers

Department of History and African and African Diaspora Studies Program

Boston College


American history has seen its share of episodic crises of American masculinity. Or, to be more precise, American history has seen its share of periods during which American men experienced a heightened, collective anxiety that they were in danger of losing not only their privileged status in society, but the very foundational ideals by which manhood was defined. Although there have been numerous historical moments when larger political and economic transformations have precipitated a societal redefinition of manhood, such as the emergence of liberalism and the Market Revolution in the first half of the nineteenth century, this article will examine another important period during which anxieties about the decline of American men were pervasive: the late nineteenth century.1 It was during this period that white American men particularly felt their manhood being undermined by the corporatization of the economy and the decline of proprietary capitalism, the “closing” of the frontier, and the incursion of women into the political realm through reform and suffrage movements. They responded in a variety of ways, from becoming more involved in the education of boys and defining manhood in terms of physicality to reasserting their role in church leadership and advocating for a more aggressive American imperialism. Claims about the end of men, then, informed everything from U.S. foreign policy and ideas about education to changing leisure practices and conceptions of sexuality.

The late nineteenth century is also an interesting period to examine because it was during this time that the South witnessed the emergence of legal and customary forms of discrimination that eroded the citizenship rights of the overwhelming majority of African American men and women. In the wake of the redemption of Democratic state governments in the 1880s and 1890s, all of the states of the former Confederacy began to implement statutory and constitutional laws that enforced the separation of the races in educational institutions, sites of commerce, and public space; established practically insurmountable barriers to voting; and made it possible for the landed elite to reassert its economic dominance and control over a formerly enslaved labor force. Moreover, this matrix of discriminatory laws was reinforced by the ever present threat of extralegal violence in the form of lynching, rape, and race riots. While both black women and men were victims of this racial backlash, this article will explore how the struggle over fundamental issues of equality was framed in the gendered language of manhood rights, illustrating how African American men understood segregation and disfranchisement to pose an existential threat to their fundamental status as citizens as much as their identity as men. In a political environment in which women did not have suffrage, citizenship and manhood were inextricably linked. Middle-class African American men, whom this paper focuses on, responded to these assaults on their citizenship status, in part, by attempting to establish their dominance within their own communities. Although they did not reduce their male identity to their political relationship to the dominant culture and the state, middle-class African American men did seek to shore up their masculinity by reasserting their control, vis-à-vis black women, working-class men, and black children, in the areas of church and missionary work, the guidance of black youth, and the professional sphere. But these attempts did not go unchallenged, especially in the case of black women. While there was a great deal of collaboration between African American women and men in building up their communities and defending them against white racism, women certainly did not cede leadership of the race to men. As historian Martha Jones argues about black public culture in the nineteenth century, rather than being “patriarchal or male-dominated,” it was an “openly and often heatedly contested space in which activists self-consciously wrestled with the meanings of manhood and womanhood and the implications of those ideas for the structures and practices of institutions.”2

* * *

The 1880s and the 1890s were decades that were marked by a sense of unlimited possibility, irrevocable change, and a great deal of trepidation. Industrialization and the ascendancy of corporate capitalism laid the foundation for the American century, spurring economic growth that would underpin the United States’ emergence as a global economic and military power. More efficient processes of capital organization and production and distribution of goods facilitated the expansion of urban areas, leading to the number of Americans residing in cities to surpass the number of rural Americans by 1900. Urbanization established new work patterns and economic expectations, necessitated changes in family formation, and created opportunities to engage in new forms of leisure and consumption. Industrialism also led to the influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrant men and women, primarily from southern and eastern Europe, who crowded into the nation’s cities, altering their cultural environments and political landscapes in the process. As Americans marveled at the improvements that accompanied the technological and commercial advancements of the period, they were also acutely aware of the “dark side” of progress—extremes of wealth and poverty, the labor exploitation of the nation’s most vulnerable populations, the moral and environmental pollution of the city, the rampant political corruption at the municipal, state, and federal levels of government, and a general anomie, a feeling of being “weightless,” or untethered from the social networks and cultural values that had served as the bedrock of American middle-class life. These harmful outgrowths of what many recognized as necessary progress invigorated various reform movements, many spearheaded by women who invoked their unique status as women as the antidote to a society mired in corruption and excess.3

In addition to fundamentally altering the economic, social, and political landscape of the nation, industrialization and corporate capitalism also precipitated a change in the normative definition of manhood for the American middle class. The pillars on which antebellum bourgeois manliness—embodied in the ideal of the self-made man—began to crumble in the wake of the economic transformation of the late nineteenth century. The ideal of the self-made man existed within, and was fostered by, a system of proprietary capitalism in which the optimal form of production was defined by the ownership of property and self-employment. Becoming a man and maintaining one’s manly status relied upon notions of self-control, self-denial, the ability to produce within the marketplace, and to provide for one=s family. With the intensive consolidation of capital in the late nineteenth century, increasing numbers of American men experienced a loss of economic independence. The corporatization of the economy and bureaucratization of the workforce meant that fewer American men were becoming small proprietors. Unlike their fathers, a growing number of middle-class men were working primarily as entry-level sales clerks and bookkeepers and mid-level managers.4

For middle-class white men, this loss of economic independence was compounded by various challenges to their political dominance in the late nineteenth century. Immigrant men vied with native-born men for control of the levers of municipal government while working-class men and women engaged in a quarter-century-long struggle with the business elite aimed at obtaining basic standards of safety and just compensation.5 But perhaps the most existential challenge middle-class white men faced at the turn-of-the-twentieth-century was that brought by middle-class white women. Brought primarily in the very public realms of employment, education, domestic politics, and foreign policy, middle-class white women’s challenge to the economic and political dominance of middle-class white men had wide-ranging ramifications, leading to a redefinition of manhood itself. Corporate capitalism fostered an increase in the presence of women in non-private waged and salaried employment, particularly in the “pink-collar” jobs of telephone operator, typist, stenographer, cashier, and sales clerks. The growing presence of native-born white women in these jobs led to a “feminization of the middle-class workplace,” or the aesthetic transformation of the office to look more like a parlor, replete with carpets, plants, and artwork. The turn of the century also witnessed a transformation in the higher education of middle-class white women. While the number of women as a proportion of the overall undergraduate student population did not increase significantly between 1890 and 1910—from only thirty-five to forty percent—women were utilizing their college education to enter the professional fields of medicine, journalism, social work, the clergy, and, to a lesser extent, law. This was a marked difference from the nineteenth century as a whole, when college for women generally meant a career as a teacher or a nurse. Finally, middle-class white women were challenging their male counterparts in the public sphere of politics, through their reform efforts in the areas of temperance and child labor, their suffrage activism, their involvement in party politics and state and local government (primarily in the western U.S.), and their advocacy for a peace-oriented foreign policy based on arbitration of international conflicts.6

White middle-class and elite men responded to these challenges to their economic and political dominance through the brute deployment of political force and rhetorical manipulation as well as a more subtle reimagining of what exactly constituted manhood and male authority.7 Resuscitating the early republican political culture of deference, they moved to expel unworthy members of what historian Kristin Hoganson refers to as the postbellum “male fraternity” of electoral politics, disfranchising African American men and some poor white men in the South and implementing various reform measures to prevent illiterate and immigrant men from voting in northern and Midwestern cities. They beat back women’s rights activists by forming antisuffrage organizations and attempting to delegitimize women’s growing presence in the public sphere. One of the ways elite and middle-class men did this was to cast suffragists as unwomanly scolds who endeavored to take the place of men in the workplace, the halls of government, and the home. (A corollary tactic was to feminize male supporters of women’s suffrage.) Moreover, they framed the efforts by women to progress in the world of politics, higher education, and employment as potential threats to the overall health of the white race, cautioning that women’s turn away from their natural role as mother would eventually lead to race suicide.8

Along with an assault on the innate capacities of those who would challenge their dominance, middle-class and elite white men engaged in a reconceputalization of manhood away from Victorian ideals of manliness to more modern definitions of masculinity. In doing so, they reimagined the relationship between manhood, the body, consumption, and sexuality.9 Central to this project, ironically, was an increasing discomfort with, and rejection of, one of the core axioms of the separate spheres ideology associated with nineteenth-century bourgeois culture: that women’s principal mission was to protect the family from the corrosive effects of competition that was at the foundation of laissez-faire capitalism and democratic politics. By the 1880s and 1890s, few middle-class and elite white men could be heard publicly touting the same sentiment captured in an 1845 newspaper article that the “nobler task” of women was “to control the stormy passions of man, to inspire him with those sentiments which subdue his ferocity, and make his heart gentle and soft.”10 Indeed, they instead expressed the concern that the white middle-class and, by extension, the nation, was becoming overcivilized. Mothers had coddled the sons of the elite and the middle class, leaving them ill-equipped to compete in the world of business and—particularly problematic in the age of imperialism—in the world of foreign affairs. Men and boys needed to reconnect with the source of primal manhood. As historian Gail Bederman argues, this reconceptualization of manhood is reflected in the linguistic shift from “manliness” to “masculinity,” which occurred in the 1890s. Whereas manliness, which was defined by character, respectability, self-control, and a commitment to producer values, had been a class- and race-specific construct that excluded men of color, immigrant men, and, to a lesser extent, working-class men, masculinity became increasingly used as a descriptive term that denoted qualities that all male bodies supposedly possessed. Masculine physicality and virility displaced the earlier subjective, moral characteristics by which the ideal man was defined. The emphasis on physicality can be seen in the rise of organized sports and particularly the middle-class embrace of boxing, a sport considered unrespectable for much of the nineteenth century; the Social Gospel movement’s characterization of Jesus Christ as a masculine, working-class figure; and the popularity of the “strenuous life,” advocated by politician and American war hero Theodore Roosevelt.11

Overcivilization also necessitated men taking a more active role in the socialization of their sons. This was achieved not only through the development of a closer father-son bond; it took place through organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Boy Scouts, and the Woodcraft Indians. Through some of these associations, middle-class and elite white men encouraged young males to cultivate qualities that had previously been deemed as vices needed to be tamed by mothers: aggressiveness, rambunctiousness, competitiveness. Rather than extinguish boys’ innate savagery, fathers sought to teach them how to channel it. An embrace of the “primitive”—often manifesting in Native American simulacra—served to revitalize a culture perceived to have become decadent, materialistic, and out of touch with simplistic virtues, characteristics that would not serve the United States well as it began to compete with other industrial nations for markets and territory.12 As this last example suggests, elite and middle-class white men were using racial difference to reconstruct their masculinity in the late nineteenth century. As much as they were appropriating an ersatz Indian-ness to reconnect with an imagined primal source of manhood, they were positioning themselves as the civilized counterpart to the uncivilized Chinese male, whose presence in the West and in urban areas was construed as a threat to the social, gender, and sexual order. Chinese men were deemed unmanly both because of the feminized labor they engaged in—as cooks, servants, launderers—and because they lacked self-control over their “savage” sexual urges. This latter characteristic posed a particular problem for preserving the sexual purity of white women, who were increasingly moving alone through urban public space as missionaries, reformers, and shoppers. Despite this paradoxical representation of Chinese masculinity, the unmanly Chinese male served as an important negative referent for the construction of white masculinity at a time when white men were feeling anxious about their ability to live up to the standards set by their fathers.13

In the South, where ninety percent of the nation’s African American population lived in the late nineteenth century, black men served as the central screen against which elite and middle-class white men would reassert their racialized gender identity and reconsolidate their masculine authority. With the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment and Fifteenth Amendments in 1868 and 1870, and the conferral of birthright citizenship on African American men and women and suffrage on African American men, respectively, white men lost monopoly control over two of the constitutive elements of normative manhood. One of the ways in which they responded was to make black men’s citizenship status and right to vote as meaningless as possible. From the end of Reconstruction through the first decade of the twentieth century, southern Democrats moved to implement laws legalizing inequality and disenfranchising African American men. To be sure, the white supremacist reaction to emancipation and black citizenship was ultimately aimed at restoring the antebellum political, social, and economic order and cannot be reduced to a reclamation project for a white southern manhood that was in decline. But gender was hardly incidental. As historian Hannah Rosen has illustrated, as much as they were about gaining the tactical advantage of surprise, the nighttime attacks on freedpeople’s homes by white vigilante organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan were also about reminding African American men that they did not have the patriarchal authority or power to protect their families and, therefore, were not worthy of citizenship. Middle-class and elite white men were also able to secure the fealty of working-class and poor whites to disfranchisement efforts and discriminatory legislation such as bans on interracial marriage by raising the specter of “Negro domination,” and its canard that African American men would mistakenly assume that their political power gave them sexual access to white women.14

Of course, given the synonymy between manhood and citizenship, it is not surprising that African American men viewed attempts to marginalize them politically, socially, and economically as assaults on their masculinity. In this period during which the privileges and protections of citizenship were being systematically rolled back—in the South as well as the rest of the nation—the struggle to maintain or regain them was framed as a struggle for “manhood rights.” As the journalist and political activist T. Thomas Fortune told a mixed-sex audience at the 1890 national convention of the civil rights organization, the Afro-American League, “we shall no longer accept in silence a condition which degrades our manhood and makes a mockery of our citizenship.”15 Rather than “manhood” serving as a universal metaphor for African American humanity, however, it often functioned as shorthand for equating race progress with the development of patriarchy within the black community and race leadership with male leadership. This formulation, moreover, was inflected by class as much as it was by gender and shaped intra-community relations in the spheres of religion, education, and work.

As was the case in antebellum black communities, the church remained a critical institution for community-building in the postemancipation period. Free from laws requiring that their congregations be attached to white congregations or proscribing their worshipping outside of the presence of a white minister, southern blacks began establishing new independent churches and augmenting existing ones, such that they became incubators for other important institutions such as fraternal associations, mutual aid societies, trade associations, and literary societies. Churches also served as important sites of political activism, providing the institutional infrastructure and leadership for many of the early black civil rights organizations, including Union Leagues, Equal Rights Leagues, and Daughters of the Union Victory. The black church created an internal public sphere, according to historian Elsa Barkley Brown, a space in which African Americans could deliberate the political, not just the spiritual, state of the race.16

Moreover, the nascent political communities that African Americans envisioned for themselves—and the churches in which they formed—tended more towards an egalitarian ethos and were inclusive along the lines of class, gender, and age. Taking shape prior to the development of a stable class system, these political communities’ leadership emerged from the grassroots and consisted of laborers, farmers, teachers, and ministers, most of whom had been previously enslaved. African American women were also integrally involved in the collective efforts of the race to assert its new relationship to the nation-state. Although in miniscule numbers, black women attended the national colored conventions meeting throughout the late 1860s, advocating for female suffrage with the support of some of their fellow male delegates. On the local level, black women participated in mass political meetings in which communities provided guidance to African American delegates to constitutional conventions; provided protection, sometimes with guns, for African American men in political organizational meetings; and sought to influence African American men, often through the use of shame and ridicule, into voting for Republican slates. Even though the Fifteenth Amendment did not extend suffrage to them, black women exercised a very real franchise within African American political institutions. This was reflective of freedpeople’s conviction that citizenship was a collective status and suffrage was a communal right.17

The relative egalitarianism of postemancipation black political culture began to decline within a generation of freedom. As Barkley Brown argues, “In the changing circumstances of the late-nineteenth century, working-class men and women and middle-class women were increasingly disfranchised within the black community, just as middle-class black men were increasingly disfranchised in the larger society.”18 African Americans’ inclusion in the civic life of the South as full citizens was short-lived. White Democrats regained control of the state governments by the early 1880s and began to implement a structure of legal and customary practices—disfranchisement, segregation, and economic marginalization through sharecropping, debt peonage, and the convict-lease system—that forced African Americans back into a subordinated position. Abandoned by a Supreme Court skeptical of federal overreach and a national Republican party and a northern population that was weary of dealing with the “Negro problem,” African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries engaged in a struggle against white supremacy that took different ideological and strategic forms. Nonetheless, the struggle increasingly lost its communal spirit. As a stable black middle class was brought into existence by the necessity of providing goods and services to segregated communities, men and women of this strata pointed to class formation, and the social hierarchies that came with it, as necessary because it demonstrated to whites that African Americans were capable of being citizens and being assimilated into the dominant culture. Class formation, in other words, was evidence that a segment of the African American population had developed an appreciation for the bourgeois values of thrift, industry, sobriety, regularity, and a public-private organization of gender within the home and community.

Demonstrating this capacity for citizenship required drawing particular lines within the community along the lines of gender and class. Throughout African American churches—Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, AME Zion—black men attempted to reassert their privileged position by quashing women’s authority. They sought to take control of the churches’ missionary societies or reduce them to auxiliaries of men’s societies, rejected the prospects of women’s ordination, and challenged women’s right to have a meaningful role in church governance. Of course, there were African American women who resisted their marginalization and African American men who supported women’s enfranchisement in the most important institution within the community.19 But in general, black men moved to contain black women’s authority in the church and used two different rhetorical strategies to do so. One was to suggest that African American women’s increasing public roles as pastors and as missionaries potentially rendered them less “womanly.” As one concerned man expressed in an editorial to the AME Zion’s newspaper, The Star of Zion, “There are mannish women who, by this example, will come forward and do God’s church any amount of damage. A woman in a river baptizing men; a woman in the army acting as chaplain; a woman celebrating marriage and a woman in the pulpit divesting herself of wig and teeth, when under religious excitement, are sights that even angels would be shocked to see, much less men.”20

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