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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,042

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This is the grave of Albion Tourgée.

Born in 1838 in Williamsfield, Ohio, Tourgée went to public schools, growing up in no particular luxury. After his mother died, the family moved to Lee, Massachusetts. He even had to live with relatives for a couple of years when his father was off doing something or another. But he managed to get himself to Rochester University in 1859. He was a pretty indifferent kid to the roiled politics of the nation as the Civil War approached. At Rochester, there was a growing paramilitary group getting ready to fight the Slave Power if need be. They called themselves the Wide Awakes (I love mid-19th century political nomenclature). The university attempted to ban their activities. This woke Tourgée up too and he was outraged enough that he joined them and began to get involved in the Republican Party as well. He helped broker a compromise with the administration so that the Wide Awakes could continue operating.

But like a lot of poorer kids trying to make it through college, Tourgée had to drop out in 1861 because he lacked the money to pay tuition. He wanted to keep going so he taught school in order to raise funds. He enrolled again, but then joined the Army. Rochester gave him his degree when he joined the military, even though he hadn’t technically finished. He started in the New York 27th Volunteer Infantry. He was at First Manassas, that disaster for the Union and during the chaotic retreat, he got hurt when a gun carriage whacked him in the spine. Not a great start. His back would never be the same; it probably cause a hairline fracture in his spine which could not be diagnosed at the time. He was wounded at Perryville as well. In 1863, he was captured by the Confederates outside of Murfreesboro, Tennessee and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Virginia. But this was still in the era of prisoner exchanges and he was sent back North pretty quickly. In fact, he got back to fight at Chattanooga and Chickamauga. But he had some medical issues and left the military at the end of 1863.

After the war, Tourgée returned to Ohio and went into the law. But he didn’t stay there. He was pretty sick due to his war injuries. And then he also really hated Confederates. So moving to the South made sense. He could become someone pushing for Black rights and also living in warm weather. He and his wife settled in Greensboro, North Carolina. Tourgée wasn’t a federal employee during Reconstruction, but he was a huge supporter. He worked for a Republican newspaper and wrote widely about what he saw. Because Black men could now vote, plus the rump of Republican whites, Tourgée was elected to the state’s constitutional convention in 1868 to remake the state without slavery. There, he was a hard-core fighter for Black rights. He wanted genuine equality. That meant voting rights, the right to be on a jury with white defendants, the right to own a gun, the end of whipping posts, and universal public education.

The same year, Tourgée won election as a local judge. He was in that position until 1874. This put him in a position to try and bust the Ku Klux Klan and other white paramilitary organizations. His time on the bench saw the peak of Reconstruction and the fall of it due to general northern white indifference in the face of white southern violence. He prosecuted them vigorously. Not surprisingly, he faced repeated threats on his life from these racist thugs. He also was one of the commissioners who got rid of North Carolina’s dual-law system that had different codes depending on the race, merging them into a single code intended to be more fair, though in practice it was usually not. As white supremacists took control of the state and the entire South, Tourgée tried to stay on. He really was committed to using what power he had to fight for racial fairness. But he lost an election to Congress in 1878 and realized there was simply no future for him in the South. Bitter and angry, he returned to the north in 1881.

By 1878, most northern whites who had once really cared about Black rights no longer did. The Civil War was over a decade in the past. Reconstruction had ended. Republican inclusion of Black rights into its platforms and priorities was declining by the year. But there were some who remained committed to the cause and were furious over what had happened over the past few years. Tourgée was one of these. He took to the pen to continue his fight, writing a series of lightly fictionalized novels about his time in the South. Tapping into what remained of the public horrified at the white reconquest of the South, they became best sellers. The most famous of these was A Fool’s Errand, by One of the Fools, published in 1879. This was a damning indictment of Reconstruction–not in the growing white supremacist way of saying it itself was a folly, but by those furious over the result. This is perhaps the most important piece of writing on the period during the time, a necessary corrective to the already building Lost Cause mythology. He followed that the next year with Bricks Without Straw, which did much of the same work. Among the interesting things about these works is that they actually had Black characters who weren’t stereotypes, but rather were real people fighting for their rights, their freedom, and their lives. Writing such characters made him pretty unusual, even among the old abolitionist community. Harriet Beecher Stowe couldn’t write without stereotypes. Louisa May Alcott was a hard-core abolitionist but found actually seeing and being around Black people personally revolting, as she wrote about in Hospital Sketches.

When he finally left North Carolina, Tourgée and his family moved to western New York to be near the Chautauqua Institution. Tourgée was closely associated with that institution. He had done a lot of editing back in North Carolina and so picked that up again in New York, working on a literary weekly called The Continent for a few years, though it closed in 1884. He got really interested in the history of his state during his lifetime and also continued to explore new ideas such as Christian socialism. He was always an interesting guy that didn’t change as he got older. He wrote a historical novel about the early Mormons in New York called Button’s Inn, in 1887. I haven’t read this (does anyone these days read this?) but like his work on Reconstruction, he was touching hot button issues in his work. This wasn’t too long after the federal government had moved to crush the Mormons in the years after the Civil War and these were still not liked by a lot of people. I think Tourgée took on a pretty neutral attitude toward them in the book. He wrote a novel about his new Christian socialist beliefs too, called Murvale Eastman: Christian Socialist, which he published in 1890. For a respectable member of the Republican elite to go down this road was anathema to a lot of people at this time when the party had moved to the far right on all economic issues. But again, Tourgée was a different breed of cat.

In the early 1890s, the South looked to lock in its new system of racial control, segregation. This led Louisiana to pass a law segregating public transportation. In 1891, Black leaders in New Orleans starting finding ways to challenge the law. Who did they turn to for help? Albion Tourgée. He was happy to help. He wrote column after column in newspapers blasting the arrival of Jim Crow and the new segregationist laws. By this time, he had a popular syndicated column so he was able to publicize this around the country, or at least the North anyway. He had a widespread reputation for also opposing the growing scientific racism that came to dominate the entire nation, lynching, and all the other horrors of the late nineteenth century. So Tourgée became a key advisor on the case that ended up as Plessy v. Ferguson. He for instance suggested that the test case include a very light skinned Black person so that the ridiculousness of the law could be more directly challenged. Homer Plessy could very easily pass for white, which is how he got on the train car in the first place. Tourgée became Plessy’s lead attorney. He introduced the term “color blindness” into the lexicon in his briefs for the case. Today that term has often been adopted by those who just don’t want to talk about race at all, but for the 1890s, this was extremely progressive.

Tourgée also introduced Ida Wells to her future husband Ferdinand Barnett. See, after Wells reported on the 1892 Memphis lynchings, she wanted Tourgee to represent her in a libel case against the slanders against her in the Memphis Commercial. Other than Plessy, he wasn’t working at this time, so he declined but said to contact Barnett. He took the case, they fell in love, and the rest was a successful marriage and partnership for equality.

Tourgée was still a big enough deal in the Republican Party that William McKinley named him consul to France in 1897, assigning him to Bordeaux. It was a minor position, but it was easy and it allowed Tourgée to live in comfort in a nice place. It also kicked him upstairs out of causing problems in the U.S. talking about race, which McKinley very much did not want to engage. He remained in France until his death in 1905, probably caused by his old Civil War wounds leading to kidney damage that finally did him in.

Albion Tourgée is buried in Mayville Cemetery, Mayville, New York.

If you would like this series to visit more postwar northern whites who southerners would deride as “carpetbaggers,” you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Daniel Henry Chamberlain is in West Brookfield, Massachusetts and Wager Swayne is in Arlington. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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