Flashback Friday: Ivy League elite theories lead to Florida lynchings.

The Ivy League which is today diverse, multicultural experience was once upon a time the bastion of white, protestant elite and racist thought. The so-called Dunning School of history which grew out of Colombia University in the early 1900’s. Quoting Wikipedia:

The Dunning School refers to a group of historians who shared a historiographical school of thought regarding the Reconstruction period of American history (1865–1877). The Dunning School viewpoint favored the conservative elements (the Redeemers, rich landowners, businessmen, and Northern Democrats) and disparaged the Radical Republicans in the South (a coalition of blacks, Radical Republicans, Carpetbaggers and Scalawags) . The views of the Dunning School dominated scholarly and popular depictions of the era from about 1900 to the 1930s. Adam Fairclough, a British historian whose expertise includes Reconstruction, summarized the Dunningite themes:

All agreed that black suffrage had been a political blunder and that the Republican state governments in the South that rested upon black votes had been corrupt, extravagant, unrepresentative, and oppressive. The sympathies of the “Dunningite” historians lay with the white Southerners who resisted Congressional Reconstruction: whites who, organizing under the banner of the Conservative or Democratic Party, used legal opposition and extralegal violence to oust the Republicans from state power. Although “Dunningite” historians did not necessarily endorse those extralegal methods, they did tend to palliate them. From start to finish, they argued, Congressional Reconstruction—often dubbed “Radical Reconstruction”—lacked political wisdom and legitimacy.

It can be said that this “intellectual” support for racism and revisionism with regards to reconstruction led indirectly to lynchings and deaths of African-Americans. Backed by “scholars,” racism was suddenly “sophisticated.

Florida had the highest number of lynchings per capita in the nation between 1900 and 1950. In addition to the infamous Rosewood Massacre lynchings and race-based killings that were tacitly supported by elected officials and law enforcement took place all over the state.  Florida’s Democratic Party was a “white club” which used intellectual arguments to exclude African-American and Mulatto participation in the party. The Republican Party which from the Reconstruction era into the early 1900’s provided a landing place for the few African-Americans who had not been disenfranchised shifted toward the same sorts of policies as the Democrats after publication of many Dunning School influenced texts.
Professors at Florida’s State Universities produced revisionist reconstruction histories in mass that were based on Dunning School thinking. Elected Democrats then turned around and cited these “academic studies,” when forced to defend the state’s policies. Some elected Democrats like the infamous Willis V. McCall, the Lake County Sheriff who was in the 1950s the best known local enforcement officer in the state were able to sanction killing by working with the Ku Klux Klan. McCall had done so on the Groveland Case and the murder of Harry T. Moore. McCall was in many ways more powerful than anyone in the state.
The record on race relations Florida has accumulated was shameful and among the worst in the nation. But in many ways both southern and northern intellectuals were to blame for at least some of it.

One comment

  1. Ed Maslo · ·

    American racism evolved (devolved?) largely as a rationalization for slavery, which after all was quite profitable for planation owners. They needed a reason to excuse the inexcusable, and built up socially racist beliefs to justify treating swaths of humanity less than human.

    We still see this type of rationalization, when humans want to exploit or mistreat others. “Trickle down” economics is another paternalistic, intellectual dishonest excuse to justify a system of enforced inequality.

    But in the North, as you piece point out, slavery meant little economically. And yet we got pseudo-intellectualism that white supremacist trash referenced in the piece. That comes from another, equally unfortunate human impulse — to find a way to imagine one’s “group” to be inherently superior in some way, and thus, again, entitled to exploit and degrade.

    We hear plenty about the deplorable racism of the American South, often slyly wrapped in an overall geographic and class prejudice against “rednecks” and the supposed ignorance of rural people in general.

    It’s worth remembering that racist and other discriminatory thought wasn’t, and isn’t, just a foible of the poor rubes living outside of cities. More than a few American “intellectuals,” politicians, and business leaders found their own loftier- sounding more articulations for the same ugly worldview.


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