Wednesday, December 6, 2017
December 6, 2017: Reconstruction Figures: Albion Tourgée
[December 9th marks the 145th anniversary of P.B.S. Pinchback assuming the Louisiana governorship, making him the first African American governor in U.S. history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five figures from the Reconstruction era, leading up to a special post on Pinchback himself!]
On two very distinct yet still interconnected ways to remember a unique and seminal 19th century figure.
First, two suggestions for further reading (briefly right now and then at greater length) on Albion Tourgée. I wrote about him as part of this 2012 post on my public scholarly inspirations and goals, and would certainly continue to emphasize those current and communal reasons to remember and celebrate his amazing life and work. And my graduate school mentor and friend Carolyn Karcher has published one of the best scholarly and biographical books on Tourgée to date, A Refugee from His Race: Albion Tourgée and His Fight against White Supremacy (UNC Press, 2016). I can’t pretend to do the same justice to Tourgée in a blog post that Karcher did in her wonderful book, so after a Reading Rainbow-inspired encomium to “read the book!,” I’ll focus here on one of the conundrums sometimes presented by true Renaissance people like Tourgée: how we can remember not only the distinct and divergent sides to his life and career, but also the moments and stories within those threads that might seem blatantly contradictory.
At the risk of being reductive (a risk I face with every blog post of course; I hope it always goes without saying that there’s more to say, and that I’d love to hear further such things in comments), I would boil one of Tourgée’s seeming contradictions down to two seminal texts. One is Tourgée’s second novel, A Fool’s Errand; by One of the Fools (1879), an autobiographical, satirical depiction of Reconstruction’s tragedies and failures that spares no one—most of all not its titular author, narrator, and protagonist—from its bitter, caustic critiques. The second is the nuanced and stirring petition he filed to the Supreme Court on behalf of his client Homer Plessy; Tourgée, who studied law and served as a judge for six years in Reconstruction North Carolina, worked pro bono as Plessy’s lawyer in the case that became Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). It’s not just that these two texts are diametrically opposed in tone, although they certainly are that. It’s also that Fool’s depicts Tourgée’s Reconstruction-era legal work and activism as an integral (if not indeed the most central) part of his foolishness, as a quixotic crusade for justice and equality through and under the law with which the Fool seems thoroughly disenchanted and disabused by the novel’s end. Yet there we find Tourgée in front of the Supreme Court in 1896, arguing and advocating for Homer Plessy’s equality under the law.
Of course a single novel does not an entire career and identity make, and of course an individual’s perspective can also evolve over time. Yet I would argue that seeing these two texts and moments as contradictory still has value, as it can help us appreciate how that seeming contradiction can instead become an exemplary part of Tourgée’s inspiring legacy. For one thing, Tourgée clearly found a way to move past the personal and professional frustrations he experienced as a Reconstruction judge and toward an enduring belief in the power and possibility of the law. At the same time, he just as clearly didn’t want to elide or forget those frustrations and failures, nor did he exempt his own limitations and mistakes from a full accounting of them. Indeed, Fool’s represents—among many other things—a testament to the importance of writing, both in engaging with histories (even, if not especially, unpleasant ones) and in connecting them to audiences as we move forward into our shared future. If there’s one main through-line across Tourgée’s multi-part and inspiring career, it’s precisely the role that writing can play in confronting our worst and advocating for our best.
Next figure tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Reconstruction figures or stories you’d highlight?