Finding Movement Families in the Early Twentieth Century Midwest: Theory and Method

Brent Campney, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Whites in the Midwest repeatedly targeted members of the same black families, over vast expanses of time and space, underscoring the under-investigated fact that late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century racist mobs targeted certain black families for disproportionate pain and suffering. Furthermore, whites could attach a negative reputation to these families through their control of a press that circulated defamatory stories about them and a criminal justice system that hounded them. Using these levers in tandem, they created negative images of these families and used them as justification for the ongoing violence. With whites in control of their reputations, these embattled families rarely had the opportunity to tell their own stories or contest the avalanche of self-righteous hatred directed at them. My presentation turns these contemporary white narratives on their head. It argues that whites targeted these beleaguered black families not because they were of bad character but because—in their manner, their conduct, their provocation—they challenged white supremacy to an unusual extent and refused to submit to it. Based on a detailed investigation of limited and often fragmentary sources over an extensive period and across a wide geographical area, my work demonstrates that historians may derive alternative and more sympathetic stories that may finally enable a restoration of these families' long-maligned reputations. The data come primarily from white newspapers that labored strenuously to denigrate these families and justify the attacks on them. Despite their bias, these papers provide extensive biographical details about these families, the violence against them, and the defiant responses they offered. Because these papers did not coordinate their attacks, they often provided contradictory details, explanations, and justifications, all of which raise questions about the underlying narratives. Some data also derives from black newspapers that occasionally challenged the lampooning of these families and often contradicted the accounts of white-controlled papers.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 245. New Data and New Perspectives on Mob Violence