A technicolor history of the first civil rights movement and its collapse into black and white.
Brutal slavery existed all over the New World, but only America followed emancipation with a twisted system of segregation. The Accident of Color asks why. Searching for answers, Daniel Brook journeys to the places that resisted Jim Crow the longest. In the cosmopolitan port cities of New Orleans and Charleston, integrated streetcars plied avenues patrolled by integrated police forces for decades after the Civil War. This progress was ushered in during Reconstruction when long-free, openly biracial communities joined in coalition with the formerly enslaved and allies at the fringes of whiteness. Tragically, their victories—including integrated schools—and their alliance itself were violently uprooted by segregation along a stark, new black-white color line. By revisiting a turning point in the construction of America’s uniquely restrictive racial system, The Accident of Color brings to life a moment from our past that illuminates the origins of the racial lies we live by.
The phrase "civil rights movement" is usually associated with the 1950s and 1960s, but, as journalist Brook's insightful history shows, it is just as appropriately applied to the post Civil War era. People of mixed racial heritage from Charleston and New Orleans, "misfit metropolises" that were home to sizable communities of free people of color, hoped to help the millions of ex-slaves, but were also concerned with protecting their own relatively privileged positions in the face of a new concept of race. That was the "one-drop rule," according to which every American was either white or black, with no difference between "freemen and freedmen, wine merchants and cotton pickers." Brook skillfully sketches the struggles of such men and women as Charles St. Albin Sauvinet, who battled educational inequalities in post Civil War New Orleans, and Josephine DeCuir, who in 1873 successfully sued the steamboat company that would not honor her first-class ticket, an instance that showed how quickly post Civil War racial advances were lost to Jim Crow segregation. Brook points out that later advances, such as the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, were based on the idea that individuals could and should be assigned unitary racial identities. Brook reminds readers that binary conceptions of race are relatively recent historical artifacts, and that the first post Civil War civil rights movement rejected not just racism but race itself. This thoughtful and vivid history makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of race in America.