Tunis Campbell

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Abolitionist Tunis Campbell

Tunis Campbell Summary

During Reconstruction, numerous African Americans living in the South not only participated in the political process through voting but also ran for, and were elected to, public office. Tunis G. Campbell was a northern black abolitionist who moved to the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia to help freedpeople in the work of Reconstruction. He made Georgia his home, taking a job with the Freedmen's Bureau.

 

An ardent Republican, he participated in the political revolution that Reconstruction launched. Following the passage of the 1867 Reconstruction Act, he actively registered blacks to vote and gave speeches on behalf of the Republicans. He was elected a delegate to the state's constitutional convention, served as a justice of the peace, and was elected to the Georgia State Senate.

 

He remained committed to protecting the freedpeople's rights from abuses by white planters and officials. As an elected official, he worked for equal rights and against discrimination. He also made sure that blacks and whites would serve in equal numbers on juries. It was said that the former slaves viewed Campbell as "the champion of their rights and the bearer of their burden."

 

Local whites, however, did not appreciate his efforts as they saw him as a "constant annoyance." When white Democrats captured control of the state government of Georgia, they took revenge on Campbell. They threw him out of the state senate, convicted him on trumped up charges, and sentenced him to work on a convict chain gang in 1876. After being released from prison, he continued his political work before finally leaving Georgia permanently and settling in Boston, where he died in 1891.

 

Tunis Campbell's rise and fall resembled, in many ways, the rise and fall of black political influence in the South. Without political rights, freedpeople, like Campbell, were at the mercy of white planters and politicians, who did everything they could to deny equality to African Americans.

(Related reading below.)

Recommended Reading: Freedom's Shore: Tunis Campbell and the Georgia Freedmen. Description: For the first time since the early years of the American republic, the period following emancipation held out the promise of a true colorblind democracy. The freed slaves hoped for forty acres and a mule by which they could work as small farmers, erect houses, establish families, and live free from the gaze of planter and overseer. In this first light of freedom, blacks needed help to learn how to function in a democracy and how to protect themselves from whites eager to find a new way to exploit their labor. Continued below…

In Freedom's Shore, Russell Duncan tells of the efforts of Tunis Campbell, a black carpetbagger and fellow abolitionist and friend of Frederick Douglass, to lift his race to equal participation in American society. Duncan focuses on Campbell's determined work to push radical reforms, draft a new constitution for Georgia, and pass laws designed to ensure equality for all citizens of the state. Campbell made significant contributions at the state level, but his true importance was in his home district of Liberty and McIntosh counties on the Georgia coast. There he forged the black majority into a powerful political machine that controlled county elections for years. He successfully protected black rights, always promoting freedom-in-fact, not merely freedom-by-law. Yet, as many black politicians throughout the South were discovering, radical strength at the local level was insufficient to stop the growing strength of reactionary white politics at the state level. After years of struggle, Campbell was finally defeated by the white Democrats. Charged with political corruption, he was removed from his state and local political offices; at the age of sixty-four, over the protests of President Grant among others, Campbell was sentenced to Georgia's hire-out convict labor program. The black machine in McIntosh County, however, was not destroyed in Campbell's defeat, but instead remained an active force in county politics for forty years, returning a black legislator to the General Assembly in every election, except for the decade of the 1890s, until 1907. Presenting the beginnings of the battle for civil rights in the South, Freedom's Shore tells of the tenacity and achievements of one black political figure, of the hopes and dreams of a legally free people amid the political and social realities of Reconstruction Georgia. Author Russell Duncan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Georgia.

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Related Reading:
 

Recommended Reading: Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Description: In Forever Free, Eric Foner, the leading historian of America's Reconstruction Era, reexamines one of the most misunderstood periods of American history: the struggle to overthrow slavery and establish freedom for African Americans in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. Forever Free is extensively illustrated, with visual essays by scholar Joshua Brown discussing the images of the period alongside Foner's text. (From Publishers Weekly: Starred Review.) Probably no period in American history is as controversial, as distorted by myth and as "essentially unknown" as the era of emancipation and Reconstruction, award-winning historian Foner (The Story of American Freedom; Reconstruction; etc.) argues in this dense, rectifying but highly readable account. Continued below…

His analysis of "that turbulent era, its successes and failures, and its long-term consequences up until this very day" addresses the debates among historians, corrects the misrepresentations and separates myth from fact with persuasive data. Foner opens his work with an overview of slavery and the Civil War and concludes with a consideration of the Civil Rights movement and the continuing impact of Reconstruction upon the current political scene, a framework that adds to the clarity of his history of that era, its aftermath and its legacy. Joshua Brown's six interspersed "visual essays," with his fresh commentary on images from slavery through Reconstruction to Jim Crow, buttress Foner's text and contribute to its accessibility. In his mission to illuminate Reconstruction's critical repercussions for contemporary American culture, Foner balances his passion for racial equality and social justice with disciplined scholarship. His book is a valuable, fluid introduction to a complex period.

 

Recommended Viewing: American Experience - Reconstruction: The Second Civil War (DVD) (175 minutes). Description: Spanning the years from 1863 to 1877, this dramatic mini-series recounts the tumultuous post-Civil War years. America was grappling with rebuilding itself, with bringing the South back into the Union, and with how best to offer citizenship to former slaves. Stories of key political players in Washington are interwoven with those of ordinary people caught up in the turbulent social and political struggles of Reconstruction.

 

Recommended Reading: Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Review: This "masterful treatment of one of the most complex periods of American history" (New Republic) made history when it was originally published in 1988. It redefined how Reconstruction was viewed by historians and people everywhere in its chronicling of how Americans -- black and white -- responded to the unprecedented changes unleashed by the war and the end of slavery. This "smart book of enormous strengths" (Boston Globe) has since gone on to become the classic work on the wrenching post-Civil War period -- an era whose legacy reverberates still today in the United States. Continued below...

About the Author: Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University, is the author of numerous works on American history, including Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War; Tom Paine and Revolutionary America; and The Story of American Freedom. He has served as president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, and has been named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities.

 

Recommended Reading: A Short History of Reconstruction. Review: In an attempt to document the important issues of reconstruction, Eric Foner compiled his book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Foner addresses all the major issues leading up reconstruction, and then finishing his book shortly after the end of reconstruction and the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876.  In the preface of his book, Foner discusses the historiography of Reconstruction. He notes that during the early part of the twentieth century many historians considered Reconstruction as one of the darkest periods of American history. Foner notes that this viewpoint changed during the 1960s as revisionists shed new "light" on reconstruction. The revisionists saw Andrew Johnson as a stubborn racist, and viewed the Radical Republicans as "idealistic reformers genuinely committed to black rights." The author notes that recent studies of reconstruction argue that the Radicals were actually quite conservative, and most Radicals held on to their racist views and put up very little fight as the whites once again began to govern the south. Continued below...

Foner initially describes the African-American experience during the Civil War and Reconstruction. He argues that African-Americans were not simply figures that took little or no action in the events of the day, and notes the enlistment of thousands of African-Americans in the Union army during the war. Foner also notes that many of the African-Americans that eventually became civil leaders had at one time served in the Union Army. He states, "For men of talent and ambition, the army flung open a door to advancement and respectability." He notes that as reconstruction progressed, African-Americans were the targets of violence and racism. Foner believes that the transition of slaves into free laborers and equal citizens was the most drastic example of change following the end of the war. He notes how African-Americans were eventually forced to return to the plantations, not as slaves but as share croppers, and were thus introduced to a new form of slavery. He argues that this arrangement introduced a new class structure to the South, and states "It was an economic transformation that would culminate, long after the end of Reconstruction, in the consolidation of a rural proletariat composed of a new owning class of planters and merchants, itself subordinate to Northern financiers and industrialists.” The author illustrates how both blacks and whites struggled to use the state and local governments to develop their own interests and establish their respective place in the evolving social orders. Another theme that he addresses in this excellent study is racism itself and the interconnection of race and class in the South.

Another subject he addresses is the expanded presence of federal authority, as well as a growing idea and commitment to the idea that equal rights belonged to all citizens, regardless of race. Foner shows how both Northern and Southern blacks embraced the power to vote, and, as Reconstruction ended, many blacks saw the loss of suffrage and the loss of freedom. Foner illustrates that because the presence of blacks at the poll threatened the established traditions, corruption increased, which helped to undermine the support for Reconstruction. The former leaders of the Confederacy were barred from political office, who were the regions "natural leaders," a reversal of sympathies took place which portrayed the Southern whites as victims, and blacks unfit to exercise suffrage.

Reconstruction affected the North as well, but argues that it was obviously less revolutionary than it was in the South. Foner notes that a new group of elites surfaced after the war, industrialists and railroad entrepreneurs emerged as powerful and influential leaders alongside the former commercial elite. The Republicans in the North did attempt to improve the lives of Northern blacks. However, there were far fewer blacks in the North, so it was more difficult for blacks to have their agendas and needs addressed in the local legislatures. He states, "Most Northern blacks remained trapped in inferior housing and menial and unskilled jobs." Foner adds that the few jobs blacks were able to acquire were constantly being challenged by the huge influx of European immigrants.

Foner's subject is definitely worthy of his original volume. Reconstruction is a subject that can still be interpreted in several ways, including the revisionist school of thought. Foner, however, seems to be as objective as possible on this subject, and has fairly addressed all major issues that apply.

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