Disinterring Albion Tourgee

by Jordan Green

When I moved to Greensboro almost five years ago looking for employment and professional advancement, I found a midsized city that encapsulated the contradictions of America: on one hand the promise of freedom embodied by four A&T students’  who broke the color barrier with their lunch counter sit-in and began the process of desegregating public accommodations; on the other, tragic conflict, terror and retrenchment as symbolized by the bloodshed in Morningside Homes in 1979 when a Klan and Nazi caravan rolled in and cut short an antiracist, pro-labor union march. (That event took place exactly 30 years ago, and Mayor Yvonne Johnson and others are scheduled to commemorate it with a conference at New Light Missionary Baptist Church on Wednesday.)

I did not understand when I came here that these two events not only shaped the identity of Greensboro and left a residual imprint on its current life, but that the same contending forces of hope and distrust drive it into the future.

From this perspective, the life of former Greensboro resident Albion Tourgee comes as a revelation. Mark Elliott’s 2006 book, Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgee and the Quest for Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson, masterfully describes the biographical arc of a white man at the heart of questions of citizenship, civil rights and the American ideal of equality that remain unresolved today. Anyone who cares about Greensboro or the nation should read this book.

Tourgee’s life is a testament to how the meaning of history is contested, no less than the meaning of current events such as the Greensboro police controversy. Tourgee was a central figure in the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, a period whose meaning has been fiercely debated by ideologues.

If most people in Greensboro know anything about Tourgee, it’s that he was a carpetbagger. The term is not kind, or even neutral. It means a Northerner in the South after the Civil War seeking private gain under reconstruction governments.

It also carries the connotation of outsider, meddler and scoundrel. The most iconic image of Tourgee is a mocking sketch drawn by our famous literary eminence, O. Henry. It shows a winged Tourgee in a bowler hat wiping away tears with a handkerchief as he flies north, symbolizing the reformer’s flight from Greensboro and North Carolina under threat from the hostile Klan and other conservative forces eager to restore the ascendancy of white supremacy.

It’s hard to find a conversational opening to talk about Tourgee to people in my generation. Mention the term “carpetbagger” to anyone under the age of 40, and you get a funny look. It has a musty and antiquated ring like the word “jackanapes.”

While Tourgee may be little more than a footnote in Greensboro’s history, his life work of literature and political agitation left a lasting legacy for the nation. He was honored alongside Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison as one of three “Friends of Freedom” by WEB Du Bois and others who founded what would become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He argued against segregated railroad cars before the US Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case whose tragic ruling would create the “separate but equal” doctrine and provide legal support for racial segregation until it was overturned more than half a century later by the Brown v. Board of Education decision. And according to Elliott, Tourgee “framed the first comprehensive anti-lynching law that drastically reduced the crime of lynching in Ohio” in the 1890s, as federal legislation failed, allowing black people to be murdered with impunity across the South well into the next century.

Elliott points out the irony of Tourgee having coined the term “color blind” in his arguments in Plessy, considering that the term has been co-opted to reflect a widespread notion today that race doesn’t and shouldn’t matter in American society life. Elliott writes that Tourgee made the argument that the fact that Louisiana’s Separate Car Act allowed an exemption for black nurses to ride in whites-only cars exposed its inherently racist intent. The Louisiana

Supreme Court had previously “ruled that racial segregation was a ‘reasonable use’ of state police powers to secure the health and ‘moral health’ of society,” Elliott writes. “Tourgee asked, ‘[I]f color breeds contagion in a railway coach,’ then why was the risk to public health and comfort not applicable to nurses? The answer was as plain as the law’s intent: ‘The exemption of nurses shows that the real evil lies not in the color of the skin but in the relation the colored person sustains to the white. If he is dependent it may be endured; if he is not, his presence is insufferable.’” In eloquent and sharp language, Tourgee drove home the point: “It is an act of discrimination pure and simple. It is not a matter of health and morals, but simply a matter intended to re-introduce the caste-ideal on which slavery rested.”

A lot of history has passed under the bridge in the century-plus since Albion Tourgee left Greensboro and in the 30 years since five people died on the streets of east Greensboro, and the meaning of citizenship, civil rights and race can be debated. One thing is clear: Race still matters, and shutting down a discussion about it does not advance the quest to more fully realize our founding promise of equal citizenship.