Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South. By Hannah Rosen.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, January 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8078-3202-8, $65; paper: ISBN 978-0807858820, $24.95. 424 pages.
Review by Robin Dasher-Alston, American Historical Association
Reconstruction was a period when former slaves attempted to create new lives for themselves following the Civil War, and when the whites who occupied the cities, towns, and hamlets where these newly freed men and women settled were faced with the challenge of attempting to reconceptualize their perceptions of race and the racial hierarchy that had heretofore dictated their interactions. In 1865, Memphis, Tennessee was one of the many cities and towns that experienced an influx of former slaves from the surrounding countryside and other parts of the south. Recently freed blacks were drawn to Memphis, located in former Confederate territory, in part because of the strong presence of the Union Army and access to a local Freedmen’s Bureau. Of particular importance was the presence of black Union soldiers, who aided the federal government’s efforts to protect and provide for these newly freed slaves.
The former slaves embraced their newfound freedom, establishing schools, churches, and benevolent societies with such speed and vigor that local white communities were shocked by the sense of urgency associated with those efforts. Freed slaves did not hesitate to seek ways to exercise their rights as citizens, and quickly began to explore the opportunities associated with their new status as free men and women. Black women in particular sought the protection of law as administered by the local Freedman’s Bureaus. One former slave sued her employer for unpaid wages, and another filed a complaint against a former slave owner who refused to release her children. By virtue of such actions, these former slaves were redefining racial boundaries and their status in the public sphere—efforts to integrate and fully participate in every aspect of society as emancipated citizens—that had previously been denied them. Prior to this period, the very definition of citizenship was associated with being male and white.
What occurred in Memphis was, in many ways, illustrative of the struggles and conflicts that escalated as previously enslaved men and women sought political and social equality in realms that had been the preserve of whites. The Memphis Riot of 1866 and the brutal violence that followed was an example of how violence was tactically used to preserve black subjugation. For black women, rape and the threat of rape was used to intimidate, and to force them into submission. The presence of armed black Union soldiers, along with the accelerating tensions between those soldiers and the white city police provided the impetus by the white citizenry to correct perceived wrongs by Union troops. The events that led to the Memphis Riot were in were in many respects a violent collision between the established political order, with its historic racial hierarchies, and the demand for the rights and opportunities associated with citizenship by the previously enslaved.
Hannah Rosen reveals, through careful research and insightful analysis, that the violent response by white southerners against the push by former slaves to gain status in the political, social, and economic spheres served to unite whites across social and economic boundaries that had previously divided them. While wealthy white males may have initially resisted the economic implications associated with freed men and women seeking fair wages for their labor, immigrant whites understood the implications in terms of the potential loss their growing political power and a threat against the promise of enhanced economic status. The white citizens of Memphis were now united across class lines with a common goal and against a common target. While the goal was to suppress any actions by black men and women that would enable them to assert political, economic, or social independence or power in the public sphere, or to claim any notion of equality in the social sphere, black women were often targeted. The author reveals that the Memphis Riot was an attempt by the local white citizenry and the police to regain the control that they saw slipping away.
Rosen establishes that sexual violence against African American women enabled the rioters to reestablish the dominance of white over black, to reinforce racial differences and to assert racial and gender inferiority. The actions of the Memphis rioters were supported and, in some cases, even encouraged by local politicians and the press as an assertion of white manhood—protectors of not only the public spheres but also the private spheres of the home, hearth, and family. Not surprisingly, the riot erupted with a violent confrontation between black Union soldiers and white city policeman, followed by rumors of a planned attack by the black soldiers against the white community in general.
As Rosen asserts, the press often characterized blacks as disorderly and criminal, perceptions that black women, regardless of their status, were prone to sexual promiscuity and lewdness. These blatant mischaracterizations only served to heightened fear and anxiety amongst the white citizens who increasingly viewed the black community in Memphis as dangerous and out of control. During the riot, at least 48 blacks were killed, many were wounded, and at least five black women reported that they had been raped. Of the two white men who died, one succumbed to a self-inflicted gunshot.
Rosen presents the documented testimony of individuals—both black and white—both the perpetuators and victims of the violence of the Memphis Riot. Yet, most compelling is the testimony of the black women who were raped. The testimony of these women in itself was extraordinary because it revealed that they believed that the congressional committee that received their testimony would accept their statements as truthful, and that the law would recognize their rights as victims. To wit, their testimony challenged the perceptions of black women as immoral, incapable of being virtuous and honorable.
Among the many strengths of Rosen’s deeply engaging and penetrating book is that she uses the emergence of these formerly enslaved men and women into the social, political, and economic arena, as well as the Memphis Riot and its aftermath, as a way to examine and assess the radical shifts and disruptions that began to appear after emancipation. Rosen reveals, how, in an all-too-brief moment in history following emancipation, blacks sought to exercise their rights as citizens, and black women defied both racial and gender hierarchies as they sought to redefine those socially defined constructs.