No Longer Pliant Tools: Contesting Black Partisan Identity and Boundaries of Citizenship in Boston, Massachusetts, during the Late Nineteenth Century

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:20 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 1 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Millington William Bergeson-Lockwood, George Mason University
During the final decades of the Nineteenth Century, African Americans in Boston contested partisan identity as they engaged in heated debates over which political party deserved black support. In this paper, I argue that through the public discourse over partisan affiliation black men and women identified political partisanship as an expression of public citizenship, sought political inclusion, and tested the limits of the party system as a remedy for racial injustice. This paper complicates previous notions of black Republican fidelity and argues that black partisanship was much more fluid than previously suspected. Further, rarely have the voices of black women been included in the analysis of black partisanship.

This paper focuses on several issues which animated black partisan debates. First, for activists, attempts by political parties to compromise on or roll back the reforms of radical Reconstruction or a refusal to act when civil rights were infringed upon was cause for mistrust. Next, Boston’s black voters were also concerned about the lack of political appointments for African Americans from local Republican administrations. They understood political appointments as a way to secure “civic status” which represented African Americans’ full participation in the democratic public sphere. Finally, the rise of lynching and the limited federal response turned black activists away from faith in partisanship and further towards a commitment to racial political autonomy as an expression of public political identity.

Through debates over partisanship, black voters declared their destiny apart from traditional political institutions. They demanded the respect and recognition of political parties as prerequisites for their support and declared themselves fully qualified citizens endowed with the authority to shape political ideas and policy to their own vision of American democracy.