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.