Lincoln and the WPA Narratives and Inequality

In the Summer 2014 issue of Louisiana History Matthew Pinkser has some nice words about my essay on attitudes of ex-slaves alive in the 1930s in Lincoln’s Enduring Legacy:

“John Barr’s contribution on “African American Memory and the Great Emancipator” is the only essay [in the book] that focuses significant research on less conventional primary sources. In his useful study, Barr quantifies adn analyzes references to Lincoln in the 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews with ex-slaves. The results are not  unexpected – the Great Emancipator was still popular in Depression-era black memory-but the details about Lincoln’s various roles in African American folklore will nonetheless educate many readers.”

Well, thank you!

I read several thousand interviews for that chapter and you can find part of it in my book, not to mention another essay, published with David Silkenat, in the Lincoln Herald. Pinkser is correct that many African Americans still praised Lincoln, but some did not, for very specific – and instructive – reasons. Here is one quote from the essay in Lincoln’s Enduring Legacy, and  Loathing Lincoln:

But it was Thomas Hall, also from North Carolina, who best explained black discontent with Abraham Lincoln and by implication the United States: “Lincoln got the praise for freeing us, but did he do it? He give us freedom without giving us any chance to live ourselves and we still had to depend on the southern white man for work, food, and clothing, and he held us through our necessity and want in a state of servitude but little better than slavery. Lincoln done but little forthe negro race and from living standpoint nothing. White folks are not going to do nothing for negroes except keep them down. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the writer of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, did that for her own good. She had her own interests at heart and I don’t like her, Lincoln, or none of the crowd. The Yankees helped free us, so they say, but they let us be put back in slavery again.”

For me, this was important in that I argue that such attitudes reflected a deep-seated and justifiable disappointment, even loathing, with how the country had betrayed the war’s (I include Reconstruction here) egalitarian promises. Again, from the book:

By the 1930s there was unquestionable bitterness among African Americans about the shabby, violent treatment they had endured at the hands of whites since the 1860s. Such unfulfilled hopes and expectations go a long way in explaining the reasons for their harsh comments, as few as there are, in the WPA narratives. Their attitudes were consistent with previous criticism by previous African Americans, and it anticipated a decidedly negative view of Lincoln that would reemerge decades later within the black community and the country at large, during the civil rights movement, especially in Lerone Bennett’s seminal 1968 essay claiming that Abraham Lincoln was a white supremacist.

For the most part, however, African Americans continued to celebrate the memory of Abraham Lincoln. Blacks throughout the South, in contrast to the Ladies’ Memorial Associations, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and United Daughters of the Confederacy, all of whom glorified the antebellum South and established monuments to the men of the Confederacy who had tried to perpetuate slavery, continued their Emancipation Day celebrations after the war and revered the memory of Abraham Lincoln. Additionally, in contrast to the unreconstructed Confederates of the Lost Cause who glorified the Confederacy, they did not remember Lincoln uncritically, nor did they have any use for the alleged heroes of Confederacy or their apologists. Indeed, in 1930 African American poet Sterling Brown insightfully described Lost Cause apologists as “pathetic,” full of “the self-pity of the defeated,” motivated by the “evils of modern life [which] furnish the impulse to an easy romantic escape in dreams of a pleasanter past,” all in the service of “the buttressing of ancient prejudices.” African Americans who voiced criticism of Lincoln were doing so because they rightly believed that the federal government should have done more since the end of Reconstruction to ensure a new birth of freedom for their race, while Lincoln’s white critics claimed they were enslaved because the president had allegedly centralized power in Washington, D.C. It was apparent, finally, that in the 1930s Lincoln was still a haunting presence in the heartsof many black Americans.


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