Miletsky on Bergeson-Lockwood, 'Race Over Party: Black Politics and Partisanship in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston'

Author: 
Millington W. Bergeson-Lockwood
Reviewer: 
Zebulon Miletsky

Millington W. Bergeson-Lockwood. Race Over Party: Black Politics and Partisanship in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 262 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-4041-9.

Reviewed by Zebulon Miletsky (Stony Brook University) Published on H-SHGAPE (October, 2021) Commissioned by William S. Cossen (The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53663

What did it mean to place “race over party,” to create a “race first” ideology in the midst of a changing American republic at the end of the nineteenth century? Indeed, to be a “race man” in a northern city like Boston, a place with a complicated past shrouded by so many myths about its own disconnectedness to the American racial project? It is here that Millington W. Bergeson-Lockwood’s magnificently researched Race Over Party: Black Politics and Partisanship in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston enters—bringing a new approach to addressing questions of citizenship, Black intellectual life, and the political thought of African Americans in Boston. Bergeson-Lockwood’s research has created some important imperatives for new work on this period. It has become one of those instant classics that we may look back upon for having forever changed the historiography of Black Boston. Certainly much work going forward will have to turn to the rapidly shifting climate of independent politics at the end of the nineteenth century depicted in this magisterial book. In so doing, it provides a critical backdrop to a moment when Jim Crow was taking hold in Boston—and would not release its firm grip well into the twentieth century.

Boston became an important staging ground for African American political leaders seeking to develop new strategies for uplift at the dawn of the twentieth century. Here, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and William Monroe Trotter fought for influence over Black Bostonians, as part of a broader national battle to win adherents. Political independence was a cornerstone for ideas about “Black empowerment” for all three.[1]

Bergeson-Lockwood quotes from a series of studies of northern urban Black communities written by Du Bois, the renowned sociologist, and published by the New York Times in 1901. The fourth entry in that series centered on African Americans in Boston. As Bergeson-Lockwood explains in the first chapter, “Du Bois celebrated the history of black Bostonians and gave a tempered, yet optimistic account of racial advancement in the city. ‘In Boston,’ he wrote, ‘the atmosphere has been more liberal, although by no means unbiased…. On the whole, Boston negroes are more hopeful than those in New York and Philadelphia’” (p. 13).

Kerri Greenidge, in her book Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter, argues that Trotter makes the point that it was Black people that had built the country and that there was nothing wrong with Black people themselves. Trotter’s father exemplified the notion of putting race before party, and was a true champion of this vital right. America's racial system made it such that Black people couldn't succeed and that because of this, it didn't matter what Black people did to appease white people. The people they should rely upon were Black people themselves. Trotter wrote an editorial to this effect in 1904.[2] Greenidge writes, “True nonpartisanship in the radical fight for civil rights, Trotter argued, meant that blacks had to rely on themselves for political mobilization, and their politics had to be based on a ‘race first,’ rather than a ‘party first’ mentality.”[3]

Trotter was a firebrand—a man who, for his own reasons and unique circumstances, had developed into the hard-nosed “race man” that characterizes many of Bergeson-Lockwood’s subjects. Trotter and other Black leaders replaced the old-guard whites from the abolitionist tradition. During the 1920s, they helped reclaim Boston’s legacy as an abolitionist stronghold and lay the groundwork for the political actors who fought for the race later in the twentieth century. Like many other abolitionists, Trotter found his means of influence in journalism and sought others with the same authority.

The era of independence and later the abolitionist period fostered the emergence of a small but significant Black political leadership that fought to press abstract notions of liberty and democracy into meaningful concrete realities for Black Bostonians with some success. Just as white elites sometimes sought to use Black residents as pawns in their wider political efforts, so too did African American leaders and community organizations seek to exploit these cleavages for their own advantage—a complicated political calculus between constituencies that did not enjoy equal power.

African Americans in Boston were generally viewed by Democrats, who dominated city government, as a useful but secondary voting bloc. At that time, many African Americans were Republicans. Race Over Party tells the story of Black Republican politics in Boston before the political realignment of the 1930s. The book begins that process earlier than the African American masses, who would slowly move from being Republicans to becoming members of the Democratic Party, a shift that was largely precipitated through the New Deal and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Maintaining an allegiance that was not always reciprocated, the majority of Black Bostonians in the late nineteenth century pledged continued loyalty to the Republican Party. Notable exceptions included William Monroe Trotter’s father, James Trotter, who had enjoyed the somewhat anomalous role as Democratic Party organizer since his days in Cleveland, Ohio, and maintained fealty to the Democrats when he moved his family to Boston. James Trotter was a Civil War veteran, author of a book on American music, and one of the first men of color employed by the Post Office Department. In the 1850s, the elder Trotter’s parents fled the South for Ohio, a free state and common destination for former slaves. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Trotter’s father James moved to Boston to join the all-Black Massachusetts 55th Regiment.

By the 1900s, Boston, like much of the South, was infected by the deadly scourge of Jim Crow, which had seeped into the bedrock of the nation. After the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision was handed down, making “separate but equal” the law of the land, segregation began to creep into all corners of the country. Boston began to witness a slow deterioration of the rights that Black Bostonians had formerly taken for granted.

In many ways, late nineteenth-century Boston was a city at odds with itself over its past, its future, and the question of educating Black Bostonians—all of which are explored in Bergeson-Lockwood’s exquisitely well-researched study. Taking from Bergeson-Lockwood’s deeper dive into how this affected Black Bostonians, we find these issues were no less compelling in a previously unseen world of Black politics—and Boston’s Black patronage system, which this works makes visible, largely for the first time. One of the many strengths of this work is that it reminds us that while many white Bostonians saw the city as “the hub” of the universe, a beacon of the light of education, learning, and religion that was shown to the rest of the nation, this myth sharply contrasted with reality.

Stephen Kantrowitz, in his book More Than Freedom, describes a northern movement to establish African Americans as full citizens before, during, and after the Civil War. The fight to abolish slavery, in his analysis, was always part of “a broader campaign by free African Americans to claim full citizenship and to remake the white republic into a place they could belong.”[4] Bergeson-Lockwood’s work takes this precept whole cloth. For him, it was the vote that was the most important part of that claim to “full citizenship,” as Kantrowitz conceptualizes it.

Race Over Party makes a significant contribution to the field, particularly, by showing how the Black community unified and built coalitions when necessary to define freedom, citizenship, and equality in late nineteenth-century Boston. In so many ways, Race Over Party is a direct heir to the work of historian and author Mark Robert Schneider, whose comprehensive study of the African American experience in Boston during the Progressive Era and at the dawn of the twentieth century, Boston Confronts Jim Crow, 1890-1920, was previously the most complete articulation of an intellectual history of Black Boston in the late nineteenth century and a brilliant look at the minds of Black reformers.[5]

In the late nineteenth century, it was taken for granted that African Americans were mostly Republican voters and that they could not vote because they had been disenfranchised across the country, specifically in the South. However, in Massachusetts, free men of color had had the franchise since the American Revolution. As such, the issues were more involved in Boston and the Commonwealth—not only symbolically, but in actuality—because African Americans were carving out Kantrowitz’s notion of full citizenship.

Bergeson-Lockwood’s subjects saw the vote as a right that must not be conceded under any circumstance. His book makes clear that they found that the most effective way of realizing this was not just by saying that Black people should have the right to vote but by recognizing that African Americans had a radical vision of what democracy should look like in a multiracial, pluralistic society and that Black people themselves were responsible for seeing that vision come to fruition.

Notes

[1]. The term “Black empowerment” actually has very specific roots in the late 1960s, and, as Jessica Levy argues, carried moderate overtones meant to provide an alternative to Black protest. Levy, Black Power, Inc.: Corporate America, Race, and Empowerment Politics in the U.S. and Africa (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming).

[2]. Boston Guardian, April 2, 1904, 1.

[3]. Kerri K. Greenidge, Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter (New York: Liveright, 2020), 211.

[4]. Stephen David Kantrowitz, More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889 (New York: Penguin Press, 2012), dust jacket description.

[5]. Mark R. Schneider, Boston Confronts Jim Crow, 1890-1920 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997).

Citation: Zebulon Miletsky. Review of Bergeson-Lockwood, Millington W., Race Over Party: Black Politics and Partisanship in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston. H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews. October, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53663

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