Fences Are For White Folks

This illustrated envelope dates from the 1860s. Depicting a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and accompanied by a poem, the iconography prominently features “The Fence that Uncle Abe built.” From the U.S. Civil War Papers, ca. 1850-1917. Box 7. Columbia University, Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

This illustrated envelope dates from the 1860s. Depicting a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and accompanied by a poem, the iconography prominently features “The Fence that Uncle Abe built.”
From the U.S. Civil War Papers, ca. 1850-1917. Box 7. Columbia University, Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

I am currently enrolled in a MOOC, HIST1.1x The Civil War and Reconstruction – 1850-1861, taught by respected historian, Eric Foner.  Each week our online student body analyzes a primary resource, an activity I enjoy immensely. This week’s challenge was the above envelope.  Who was the audience for this 1860s product?  What message was it trying to convey?  How did it reflect the symbolism and policies of the nascent Republican party?

so I posted:

Last year, when I took the course the first time, I am sure that I saw a clear appeal to the demographic that embraced free labor in an expanding country. Now, all I can see is an appeal to white men, who had the privilege of dreaming about being their own boss, marking their own territory, building their own factory/workshop. Blacks, enslaved or free, and Asian immigrants didn’t have the opportunity to set up boundaries, either physical or mental. Indigenous peoples measured territory and property with a whole different paradigm. The nascent Republican party was appealing to the common man, as long as he was white. The economic and cultural revolutions may have broadened the concept of “good” labor, but the political system was still attempting to reinforce white supremacy.

The discussion that followed had me return, reflect, and drill down into the free labor/free soil ideology, a fascinating and confusing exercise that only got productive when I harnessed my roaming mind to my own family history.

I can say with reasonable certainty, that my cattle drover ancestor, John Pearson Minor, regarded land as the ultimate asset, not only for the stock that could be raised on top of it and sold to expanding markets but also for the coal, salt, and other mineral resources beneath it that could be mined and sold to expanding markets. From his base in Southwestern Pennsylvania he speculated in land in what became West Virginia, Illinois, and Iowa. Extended family swept westward through this free soil era as well.

Letters reveal that the free labor concept of “work hard and rise to the top” was a core piece of this westward impulsion. Other documents indicate that these same people aligned themselves with the Democratic party. Republicans may well have captured the votes of some of this crowd, but only in as much as the Republican-defined property rights aligned with their own self interest. And that self-interest was what white men could define, legally describe, control, and profit from.

In as much as enslavers demeaned the very work that such cattlemen/farmers/entrepreneurs conducted, I speculate that my ancestors viewed slaveowners with contempt, and the ultimate insult would be to not acknowledge their social structure, the cornerstone of which was human chattel. And Native Americans worked from a whole different paradigm regarding property and community with a degree of stewardship of resources that was alien to the white, Protestant mind.

This one branch of my family demonstrated that an American could be an advocate of free labor and agitate for “free” or deeply discounted soil, and yet remain committed to a hierarchical, racist social structure, that codified a particular definition of property–fenced in by white folks.

Hallowe’en, When Fall Meets Winter

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Frost on Dock

Frost on the Dock

Hallowe'en Hills

Hallowe’en Hills

Hallowe'en Sunrise

Sun’s Up on Hallowe’en

Hidden Faces

TRICK OR TREAT!!!

I trapped time with a lens, and caught a tree dressed like a Halloween pumpkin.

River Rising

Down by the Susquehanna

The river has been low; for weeks rocky sandbars were welcoming hiking trails WITHIN the Susquehanna’s banks. Steady rains in the last two days have run off the highlands and mountains, and slowly the river bottom is being covered. Autumn grasses give cover to Mourning Doves seeking protection from the Cooper’s Hawk squint. And the mid-river marshlands hold fish and insects for migrating waterfowl and Great Blue Heron and the resident Bald Eagle pair, circling just beyond those trees, tiny specks to the unaided eye. The river is rising, again.

By the Dike

A Raise in the South: Vintage Postcards

A road winding through the hilly farms of 1910 Greene County, Pennsylvania was likely to be pitted and ice pocked in late February.  Nevertheless, birthdays, particularly of beloved grandpas, required festive acknowledgements.  The Ruse family decided to let the mail do the travelling for Christopher’s seventy-third birthday, and, via USPS, invited young and old to shower the elderly carpenter with celebratory wishes.  Seven-year-old Donald Minor, my grandfather, received an invitation from Chris Ruse’s granddaughter, Helen E.

Dear Donald, We are having a surprise Postcard shower for Grandpa Ruse on March 13.  We want all of you to send a card and to tell everyone you see that knows him.

The adult who formed each cursive letter for Helen conveyed more than a mere request. On the front of the postcard greeting was a reproduction of an early twentieth century print, A Raise in the South.  In the scene, nine southern black men are gathered in a smoky, windowless room around a large table, mid-way through a hand of poker.  I suppose the cartoonish characters were meant to be child-appropriate and the title a clever play on the word “raise,” but a larger lesson was truly being dealt.

The Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction had become firmly lodged in the national psyche by 1910, guiding the country’s sectional reunion.  According to this historiography, the war was fought by valiant white men, Yankee and Rebel, for the cause of liberty.  Emancipation of slaves had not been a wise move; African-Americans needed –and desired–the paternal governance of the superior white race.  Tossed from memory were tales of black heroism and self-efficacy. What lingered were caricatures of idleness and incompetence, portraits of black men seeing raises within the context of a game, not within  the framework of gainful employment.

The birthday invitation from one child to another was an early lesson in the state of race relations within the country Don and Helen would inherit.  Insidiously, cartoon postcards planted doubt and fear, which in turn sprouted justifications for the South’s use of murder, segregation, and disenfranchisement of black Americans in the effort to re-establish a country of white men, governed by white men.

Far from comic,  A Raise in the South, is a chilling reminder of mass media’s influence on public memory.

Postcard. "A Raise in the South," From Helen E. Ruse to Donald C. Minor, 27 February 1910. Donald Minor Postcard Collection, D. Kay Strickland Family History Library.

Postcard. “A Raise in the South,” From Helen E. Ruse to Donald C. Minor, 27 February 1910. Donald Minor Postcard Collection, D. Kay Strickland Family History Library.