On April 13, 1896, Albion W. Tourgée, the Ohio carpetbagger turned North Carolina lawyer, judge, novelist and civil rights crusader, presented an oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Homer A. Plessy. A mixed race Louisianan, Plessy tested Louisiana’s law requiring separate accommodations for whites and blacks on railroads.
As Plessy’s lead counsel, Tourgée challenged Louisiana’s law based on the 14th Amendment’s prohibition against states abridging “the privileges or immunities of citizens” and depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Notwithstanding Tourgée’s eloquent pleas in Plessy v. Ferguson, the court upheld the constitutionality of state laws mandating racial segregation in public facilities. Such was racial justice during the 1890s, what historian Rayford W. Logan termed “the nadir” of American race relations.
In “A Refugee From His Race,” Carolyn L. Karcher, a professor emerita at Temple University, argues that Tourgée’s close association and dialogue with African-Americans, both leaders and rank and file, significantly influenced his crusade for racial equality. She urges historians not to dismiss Jim Crow era white progressives like Tourgée as paternalists who fell short of “present-day standards of political correctness.”
Tourgée’s contacts with African-Americans ran deep and wide. Beginning in 1888 he published a column in the “Chicago Daily Inter Ocean” that attracted many black readers. He declared racial distinctions as arbitrary and unscientific and denounced disfranchisement, segregation and the quasi-slavery of black farmers. In one column Tourgée admonished African-Americans to respond to white lynch mobs with force. Blacks should arm themselves and “fill [their] assailants so full of buckshot.”
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In 1891 Tourgée launched the generally forgotten interracial civil rights organization the National Citizens’ Rights Association (NCRA), foreshadowing the biracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People founded in 1909. Committed to equal citizenship, the NCRA’s membership peaked at 250,000, including “Civil War veterans, scions of abolitionist families, African American intellectuals and activists, and barely literate plantation hands.”
Influential black activists, including Louis A. Martinet, Ida B. Wells, Harry C. Smith, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and William H. Anderson, enthusiastically endorsed the organization.
Tourgée’s African-American compatriots often commented on how thoroughly he grasped their sentiments and their urgency for racial equality. For example, black feminist and scholar Anna Julia Cooper credited Tourgée with “presenting truth from the colored American’s standpoint,” conversing “with all the eloquence and passion of the aggrieved party himself,” and outdistancing “any living writer, white or colored,” in the “fervency and frequency” of his criticisms of white racism. “I some times wonder if you was a colord [sic] man,” wrote a reader of Tourgée’s newspaper column.
Although she undervalues the degree to which modern scholars recognize Tourgée’s cross-racial dialogue, Karcher accurately notes that they pay short shrift to his powerful anti-lynching journalism. And for all her esteem of Tourgée, Karcher resists romanticizing his accomplishments as a racial reformer. Tourgée occasionally manifested “racial arrogance” and complained that blacks “did not sufficiently appreciate his sacrifices for them.”
That said, Karcher correctly argues that “African Americans retained their admiration for Tourgée even when he castigated them mercilessly and took stands they judged impolitic.”
Tourgée and his black comrades “managed to carry on an honest dialogue about race at the height of the white supremacist era and to do so in a manner that allowed sharp disagreement to coexist with mutual respect.”
That was no insignificant accomplishment at a time when the Plessy decision had drawn a seemingly indelible color line between the races. The “separate but equal” doctrine defined American race relations until 1954, when the Supreme Court unanimously overturned it in Brown v. Board of Education.
John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC Charlotte. He co-edited “Undaunted Radical: The Selected Writings and Speeches of Albion W. Tourgée” (with Mark Elliott).
A Refugee From His Race: Albion W. Tourgée and His Fight Against White Supremacy
By Carolyn L. Karcher
University of North Carolina Press, 444 pages