SHA 2019 Report: Reconstruction, Race, and Policing

Charles Welsko's picture

Review by Chuck Welsko (Kentucky Historical Society)

Given the contemporary conversation about the intersection between police violence and race, the presentations by Elizabeth Barnes, Bradley D. Proctor, and Samuel Watts, are timely reminders that police forces have often held both the allure of promise and peril for African Americans in the South. Each of these historians scoured the Reconstruction South to explore how formerly enslaved Southerners interacted with police forces. Barnes and Proctor both played on the interactions of police, vigilante organizations, and the Federal government. Comparatively, Watts looked less at the connections between police forces and federal power, and more at how African Americans in urban centers attempted to use positions of authority, specifically through police uniforms to change their social status after the Civil War. All three papers show a similar (if not familiar) story for historians—periods of hope that dotted Reconstruction, but ultimately led to a disappointing fall for African Americans and their civil rights.

Elizabeth Barnes and Bradley Proctor’s two papers focused heavily on the rise of professional, white police forces in Reconstruction. Both noted in their complimentary papers, that organized police forces in the South evolved from the legacy of slave patrols and overseers. Unsurprisingly, systems of control that enacted much, but certainly not all, of the violence from the institution of slavery, led to organizations that oppressed the emancipated African Americans. White police officers, Barnes and Proctor noted, often joined paramilitary and white supremacist organizations like the KKK.

Barnes focused on how these police units, like enslavers who hunted down or attempted to prevent fugitive slaves, attempted to control access to public spaces for African Americans. Those white officers wielded their civil authority to target, harass, and violate the formerly enslaved. Spanning Memphis, Kentucky, and reaching all the way down to Florida, Barnes highlighted how women, when assaulted, either physically or sexually, would appeal to the Federal Government. At times, Barnes argument sounded similar to that of Hannah Rosen’s Terror in the Heart of Freedom, but her expansive view encouraged the audience to consider the evolution of Southern policing during Reconstruction from the institution of slavery and how the intervention of the Federal Government, at least for a time, allowed black women the opportunity to challenge members of the KKK and local police forces.

Similarly, Proctor explored how the white police organizations were the heirs of plantation oppression, slave patrols, and paternalism in his paper. White Southerners constructed police organizations off one of the most effective working models for controlling African Americans that they had—the plantation system. Proctor noted that many of the early police officers across the South had ties to positions of authority in the old plantation South—either as overseers or members of the slave patrols. Local control was a vital piece of the puzzle, as courts, state administrations, and police organizations themselves enforced white supremacy, racial exclusion, and vigilante justice across the South. Like in Barnes’s paper, and other Reconstruction scholarship, the direct intervention of the Federal Government could ward off such violence temporarily, but as Republican and Northern commitment to black equality waned, white polices increasingly curbed the rights of African Americans. Lastly, Proctor concluded that the plantation influence on police organizations left two legacies in South police forces: first the belief that black men were predisposed to crime and that white men must act of stewards of public safety and stop those African Americans from committing those crimes.  

Finally, Watts offered a strikingly different perspective as he explored black police officers in the urban South, with an eye on cities like Norfolk, New Orleans, and Charleston. In these cities, black police officers grew into sizeable, if still underrepresented, portions of the city police organizations during the 1870s. Watts’s most important contribution came from his attention to material culture. Black officers became symbols of African American communities and attempts to integrate white and black society after the Civil War. African American police officers used their uniforms to impart new social identities for themselves and their communities. In short, black men appropriated symbols of universal power (police officers and badges that reversed their roles from slaves to arbiters of the law in society) and Southern culture, such as canes to make them appear as gentlemen. Although the rise of black officers in Southern cities was short-lived, declining by the end of the 1870s, African American men used cultural symbols to subvert the expectations laid out by Proctor and white Southerners.

Collectively these papers encourage us to think about how Southerners developed police forces after the Civil War. The conclusions by Barnes, Proctor, and Watts, should not surprise us. Reconstruction failed to deliver on some of its most basic principles.  Yet, by understanding more about how police organizations emerged in the aftermath of the Civil War across the South, and the contests over public space that ensued, there is the opportunity to educate larger segments of the population on the long struggles over the intersection of race and policing in the United States.