A Recollection: Before There Was A Movement (continued).
The University of. Michigan might not admit it now, assuming there is anyone still in Ann Arbor with a long memory or record, but when my mother arrived there in the Fall of 1939, there was no dormitory space for her to reside in.
Even those institutions that now field entire varsity football and basketball squads filled with African American athletes were a part of 20th century American. apartheid.
As a result, my mother was housed in a place called the International House during her time at Ann Arbor. The absence of de jure or legal segregation did not mean that the long-standing customs of informal segregation were banished in the North.
But, the North was different. It accomplished by custom and social distance what the South accomplished by formal edicts.
While Southerners undoubtedly had social and personal closeness they could never openly acknowledge, the North had learned to keep Black Americans at arms length. My mother made a point of reminding me of this in her own words and her own way.
And, lest anyone think that Ann Arbor was an aberration or that this was limited to 1939, it was plainly not.
Later, in the early Fifties, after my mother’s younger sister had been admitted to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, she would arrive at the Madison campus to be told there was no university housing available to her.
She would have to return to the South and North Carolina College in Durham. For her, the stupidity of informal segregation would bring a result like in the old folk tale.
This “briar patch” of segregation would mean my aunt would have to study history with John Hope Franklin, who spent a good deal of his time there writing his work, “From Slavery to Freedom.”
Yet, despite this lived experience, most Black Americans spent their energies and talents on eradicating those forms of segregation that were tangible and open — schools and public transportation were the targets — as they had been ever since the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.
The idea of ending “separate but equal” overwhelmed the time and talent of organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The more informal and ephemeral forms of social separation would have to wait their turn in the battle against apartheid. And the issues of economic exclusion seemed hardly, if ever, thought of at all.
Blacks had, with very few exceptions, been told and likely believed that Reconstruction was a chimera of the post-Civil War era. Ivy-league scholars at Columbia University like Professor Dunning had spawned an entire group of scholars who insisted that Reconstruction had failed.
Only W. E. Burghardt Dubois would contest this scholarship’s conclusions. It would take decades later for Eric Foner and now Henry Louis Gates to show us that most of Reconstruction in the South had succeeded.
It would take this new scholarship to show that a determined and vicious campaign of white-sponsored terror in the South and concomitant refusal of the United States Supreme Court in Washington to properly apply the Constitution to end Reconstruction.
The killing blow to Reconstruction, however, came simply because it was expedient for both Northern and Southern white politicians to compromise in 1876. The Supreme Court simply took two more decades (in Plessy) to pronounce it dead.
This struggle to achieve legal, and in some sense political, equality would shape the destiny of my parents’ generation and much of my own mother’s life.
She had watched in Tuskegee as Mr. Monroe Work, the school sociologist, annually tallied the numbers of American lynchings and counted the States where they occurred.
She had watched Mr. Charles GomillIon — who would later bring his case to the United States Supreme Court — persistently show up to vote in Tuskegee Institute, Alabama — as the town was officially known.
The idea of legal equality had by her lifetime overtaken most of the goals of the earlier period of Reconstruction. Blacks would no longer strive toward economic equality as it was briefly experienced during Reconstruction — it was legal status that was the prize. For Black Americans believed that once this status was allowed in law, the rest could and would follow.
It was this prize that would shape a new movement and would shape the destiny of her generation.
-Albert Turner Goins
(to be continued)