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Bittersweet Legacy: The Black and White "Better Classes" in Charlotte, North Carolina, 1850-1910.

During the last decade, as our appreciation for the complexity of nineteenth-century Southern social relations has grown, a number of historians have suggested the need to examine a long-neglected group, the black proprietors and professionals that emerged during the decades after the Civil War. In Bittersweet Legacy: The Black and White "Better Classes" in Charlotte, 1850-1890, Janette Thomas Greenwood provides one of the first full scholarly treatments of this class. According to Greenwood, the South's black urban elite played a fundamental role in Southern postwar race relations. By their achievements, vision, and ambition, they encouraged respectable Southern whites to move beyond their own racism and to consider other options to the postwar "race problem" besides segregation and exclusion. Through a meticulous investigation of the black middle class in Charlotte North Carolina, Greenwood provides considerable new evidence to support C. Vann Woodward's thesis that there was an era of "forgotten alternatives" between emancipation and Jim Crow in which race relations were comparatively tolerant and fluid.

According to Greenwood, Charlotte's black better class was a product of Reconstruction era churches and schools. Yet it was not until the prohibition movement of the 1880s that these leaders came to prominence. Greenwood argues that this black middle class used prohibition as a vehicle to "bridge the chasm of race" and widen the chasm of class. By preaching values of "morality, self-discipline, and social decorum," they hoped to both differentiate themselves from the mass of hard-drinking black laborers and gain the respect from white community leaders. For a brief time, the plan seemed to work. Throughout the 1880s, Charlotte's black and white better classes organized "dry" tickets for municipal elections. Although their efforts rarely paid off in political victories, the movement inspired a variety of biracial reform efforts that lasted into the early 1890s. These cooperative efforts encouraged the black better class to believe that white elites respected them and might someday treat them with full equality.

Unfortunately, the black better class could not sustain the interracial class collaboration of the 1880s. Although the black better class seemed not to notice, the truth was that white elites never accepted black elites as a "better" class. Instead, according to Greenwood, whites "seldom recognized class differences in the African American community." (p. 87) Indeed, white civic leaders did not allow respectable blacks to join their reform associations, even though they shared similar values and objectives. Adding insult to injury, respectable whites often blamed the black better class for unsuccessful reform efforts. Thus when the prohibition ticket lost the 1886 election, white party leaders publicly criticized black reformers, claiming that they had failed to lead the mass of black voters to the cause and were thus not the true leaders of the black community.

For the next two decades, the black better class tried to rehabilitate their image by looking for forums to display their status within the black community. Unfortunately, they had few opportunities to do so. As entrepreneurs of the mostly impoverished black ghetto, they were an economically vulnerable class and could not easily translate their status into a source of influence over the community. Although they condemned the racial divisiveness of party politics, they came to understand that the Republican Party was one of the few institutions that gave them a voice. And so, even as they warned themselves that party politics could not solve the race problem, they continued to be seduced by the opportunity to help shape the platform of the Republican Party. The results were tragic. Although the black better class helped a fusion ticket of Republicans and Populists win state elections in the late 1890's, they received few of the spoils of victory. Moreover, race-baiting white supremacists within the Democratic Party used blacks' modest political success to raise the specter of "negro domination." In 1898, these "Young Democrats" swept local and state elections and quickly enacted segregation and disfranchisement laws. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century all the black better class could do was to reminisce about the romantic age of racial cooperation of the 1880s.

Although Bittersweet Legacy provides a thorough presentation of the black better class's successes and failures, like many works on the forefront, Greenwood's analysis raises more questions than it answers. For instance, Greenwood virtually ignores how the upper-class black-white political and social reform alliances of the 1880s and 1890s influenced daily patterns of race relations. Politics and social reform movements often create strange bedfellows. Was this the case here? Or did the alliances re-shape - even momentarily - traditional patterns of race relations? It might also be helpful to know more about intraracial class relations. Lower-class and upper-class blacks may have subscribed to different moral codes and resented one another as a result, but how did they interact on a day to day basis? Specifically, how did each try to influence the other at the shop, the store, the church, and the street corner? How much could the black better class do to distinguish themselves from laboring blacks given their social and economic dependence upon their patronage ? Given whites' resolute determination to guard the color line after 1890, it might be suggested that the most dynamic relationship during the period was not the one between the races but the one between upper- and lower-class blacks. Unfortunately, Greenwood seems uninterested in intraracial class relations. One indication of this is that her otherwise extensive index does not include entries for either lower-class blacks or intraracial class relations. Finally, if the black better class failed so often in their attempt to gain the attention of paternalistic whites, why were they so consistent in their message? Given their failures, did any of their numbers ever break from the fold to espouse a more aggressive stance? Greenwood notes that reactionary whites feared the emergence of a so-called "new negro" during the era of Jim Crow. Did such a group exist? If so, what was their significance to the black community?

These, of course, are questions for further study. In the meantime, we have Janette Thomas Greenwood to thank for helping to initiate the discussion of postwar race and class relations, uncovering new information on the postwar black community, and suggesting the rich potential of the sources.

Steve Tripp Grand Valley State University
COPYRIGHT 1996 Journal of Social History
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Author:Tripp, Steve
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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