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Inequality and its Historical Roots

Book tells tale of post-Civil War Washington, D.C., and struggle for equality

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July 11, 2011 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A recent book by a Northwestern University professor shines a light on post-Civil War Washington, D.C., to tell a larger tale about the struggle over issues of race and equality that still shapes America today.

“An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C.” (University of North Carolina Press) places the capital at the center of a fresh analysis of Reconstruction and the debate over the meaning of equality in the period after slave emancipation.

The book, by Kate Masur, assistant professor of history and African American studies, shows how the unique dynamics of Washington –- oddly placed by the Constitution under the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress –- created a laboratory of sorts for understanding America’s thorny debate over inequality.  

The first comprehensive treatment of Washington during Reconstruction in more than five decades, the book focuses on legal and popular development of concepts of equality, the effect of popular politics on policies and the juridical structures that in turn shaped and constrained political arguments.

African-American activism is a generative force in the book. Black Washingtonians from various walks of life, Masur shows, insisted on equality in a wide range of arenas as well as respect for their own independent institutions, particularly schools and churches. At the same time, a cadre of Republicans in Congress viewed the capital as a laboratory for progressive social policy and passed legislation that was in harmony with African Americans’ demands. 

As a result, during the 1860s, the capital was home to many of the most racially progressive policies of the era. In fact, women’s rights activists sought to take advantage of Congress’ inclinations and, for a time, pressed hard for women’s voting rights in the capital. 

Remarkably quickly, however, that period of ferment came to an end. A new coalition gained the upper hand in local affairs, Congress’ politics shifted, and the District of Columbia became an example of the era’s most conservative tendencies. In 1874, Congress declared the experiment in universal manhood suffrage in the capital a failure and installed a government run by three appointed commissioners. “For almost 100 years, residents of the capital were completely disfranchised,” Masur said. “Not only did they have no representative in Congress, they had no formal voice in the governance of their city.”

The book emphasizes how vehemently Americans disagreed about the meaning of civil rights.  “Did civil rights include only basic rights to enter into contracts or own property or travel from place to place?” Masur asked. “Or would they also include a right to equal access to education or public transportation? The right to vote? The right to be on a jury? All of those things were up for grabs.”

Masur argues that struggles to define equality pivoted on the question of where the “social” or private domain stopped and where “civil” or public life began.

Whenever radicals pushed the bounds of racial equality -- for example, by demanding the equal right to vote or hold office or access to public schools or public accommodations -- opponents charged them with seeking something that just about everyone at the time professed to despise: “social equality.”

“People used social equality to describe what they saw as inappropriate government interference in whatever relationships they believed should be considered private matters of personal taste,” Masur said. “One conservative newspaper even insisted that Congress should not enfranchise black men in the district because the vote was a ‘purely social question.’”

The discourse of “social equality” continued to fuel arguments for racial segregation into the 20th century.

“Seeing the struggle over equality in this way helps explain why opening white schools to black children was more politically contentious than opening fancy restaurants and theaters to black patrons,” Masur said. “It helps us understand how white Republicans -- in the early 1870s -- could argue for racial equality while at the same time opposing independent black political organizations. It sheds light on the crucial but slippery discourse of ‘social equality,’ which became a key justification for racial segregation in the 20th century.”

“An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C.” received Honorable Mention for the prestigious 2011 Lincoln Prize from Gettysburg College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. It also received Honorable Mention for the Avery O. Craven Award for scholarship on the Civil War Era, given by the Organization of American Historians.

“Masur’s rich, well researched discussion of how the debates over equality played out in the nation’s capital is required reading for scholars of race and Reconstruction,” according to a review in Choice, a journal for university libraries. “Also important is her treatment of the larger implications of Washington experiments in equality, particularly as they informed the evolving feminist movement in the postwar years. A sophisticated and fascinating treatment deserving of a wide audience.”
Topics: Research