AS Interviews Historian Michael Fitzgerald

In the latest in a series of interviews, Bruce Baker of the After Slavery Project interviewed historian Michael W. Fitzgerald of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota about the evolution of his scholarship on Reconstruction, and about his forthcoming study of post-emancipation Alabama. Fitzgerald is a prolific author, with two highly-acclaimed monographs, a number of important articles and a recent survey in print, and a third major monograph on the way. He took part in the AS-sponsored Wiles Symposium and contributed an essay to the edited volume After Slavery: Race, Labor and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South (Florida, 2013).


BB: Let’s talk a little about your background and your earlier work and then move on to discuss the book you are finishing up on Reconstruction in Alabama. First of all, where are you from originally?

MF: I was raised in Canoga Park, California, which is a suburb in the west end of the San Fernando Valley. My Dad is from Chicago, and my mom is from Florida. I was a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s. I did my BA and PhD at UCLA.

BB: Who did you work with there?

MF: Alex Saxton was my chair, and was a model of political engagement combined with tolerance. Armstead Robinson was there for a couple of years while I was coming in and was very helpful in terms of focusing my research on Reconstruction, as was Margaret Washington. But my dad was a history teacher, so we did the whole Gettysburg tour, and we had history books around the house. And with a mother from the South and a dad from the North, the race relations stuff of the sixties was being very much talked about in our home, even in Los Angeles. So I’m part of that generation for whom watching the racial chaos of the sixties and the seventies play out had a strong impact.

BB: That’s interesting. One of the things that I saw as I was reading up and thinking about this is that while you were working on your PhD you were working on the Marcus Garvey Papers. To what extent you see that experience feeding into your later scholarship and interests?

MF: Well, very much so. I actually teach African American history here, but it had never occurred to me that I was an African Americanist rather than a Civil War era historian. Certainly the notion that black nationalism is a force in American life has been muted by the political agenda of Reconstruction scholarship, which tends towards celebration of the integrationist impulse of the Radical Republican movement. That issue has been more interesting for me than for a lot of Reconstruction scholars because I do see the community sentiment as one of the things that is driving black politics in the Reconstruction era. While I was writing my dissertation, I spent a couple of years as a graduate student doing that, and those sets of issues were on my mind as I was writing the manuscript.

BB: How close was your first book, about the Union League in the Deep South, to what your dissertation was?


MF: It is my dissertation, almost unedited. Essentially what I’m looking at is the first black political mobilization and seeing it largely as a labor phenomenon, as driven by African American disaffection with gang labor, overseers, women and kids in the workforce, the kind of centralized plantation system derived from slavery. It’s incredibly unpopular among the freedmen. And the political mobilization of Reconstruction becomes a force tearing the old structure of the plantation apart and pushing in the direction of sharecropping. The argument is essentially that the labor mobilization, the explosive mobilization in 1867, 1868 into the Union Leagues is one of the reasons why decentralized farming takes hold. White planters start to decide they have to rent land to freedmen because the freedmen are just not working in a way that they can make a profit on. And the reason this is interesting is that in graduate school my major political activity was organizing tenant union locals for Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, the West L.A. tenant movement. My buddies were all activists in that movement. And it was funny because UCLA in the late seventies, early eighties was this pronounced social history, left place, and I was kind of on the moderate end of that because I actually believed in electoral politics. The tenant union activities resonated with what I was finding in Alabama in terms of how outside organizers could start things rolling. In terms of the emotional energy of the book, that’s kind of what inspired me, that I was playing off the ideas with what I was finding doing tenant politics in the late seventies, early eighties.

BB: In some ways that sounds similar to the scholarship from that period and a little bit before on the Populists. Things like Lawrence Goodwyn’s work and Robert McMath’s on how does a movement work, how does organization happen.

MF: And I was reading those books. As an undergraduate I actually read the long version of Goodwyn’s book when it first came out. I was very into it.

BB: How did you choose Alabama and Mississippi for your dissertation?

MF: There’s a charming story. I’m in my first year as a graduate student, and I read about this movement in Armstead Robinson’s seminar. And I said, “Union Leagues, that’s really interesting.” So I go over to the old card catalogue in the university research library and look up “Union League,” and there’s almost nothing there. And I say, “Gee, how frustrating.” And then I thought about it and said, “Hey, wait a minute, this is interpretively significant. There’s nothing here.” And it turns out almost nothing’s been written. Well, the last full-scale history of Alabama in Reconstruction is Fleming in 1905. There really hasn’t been a full revisionist state study, though certainly elements have been done. And so once I got into it, I realized that there was some writing room. That’s one thing. And the other thing is I was thinking a two-state study because you don’t want to have it be utterly unique to the politics of one state rather than the other. Alabama has the best evidence, and I spent more time on Alabama than I did on Mississippi.

BB: Is that part of why you got interested in Alabama and stuck with Alabama for the Urban Emancipation book?

urban-emancipationMF: Yeah. You know, I’m not at a big research university. I’m at a liberal arts college, which means that time to pick up a whole new field and do it comes tougher to me. So if you want to do good scholarship, the inclination is to stick with things you know and expand on them. And that’s what I’ve done. In fact, Armstead Robinson told me in the old days, “Alabama, nobody’s done it. Go do it.” And he was right. So the Reconstruction in Alabama book I am writing now is the culmination of my career, and it draws on all the work I’ve done.

BB: Before talking about Urban Emancipation, I wanted to take a digression into a couple of the articles that you did. You did an article in Agricultural History about the motivations for the Ku Klux Klan. Also the article in the recent After Slavery collection builds on that and expands that. Both of those emphasize the connection between Ku Klux Klan activity and the material circumstances brought about by emancipation. In some ways, the argument that the Ku Klux Klan was responding to petty property theft by African Americans is something that Walter Fleming would have agreed with. The question that leads me to is, what kinds of things can we take from the very old generation of scholarship, like Fleming and so forth, to use as a basis for current studies? (Obviously not the assumptions about racial hierarchy) But more than some other scholars of our generation, I think your work often goes back and says, “Well, wait a minute, there is a good idea here. Let’s see what we can do with it.”

MF: You’re probably referring to the Fleming essay also that I have in that new book about the Dunning School. The problem with redeeming Fleming is that he’s a Klan enthusiast. He really thinks that in order to get what whites need, racial violence was essential. And he rather applauds it. Once he wrote his Reconstruction book, he actually collaborates with Klan-style groups to promulgate the memory of the wonderful KKK. The founders of the KKK wrote a memoir, and Fleming wrote the introduction to that memoir accusing them of backsliding, that they aren’t enthusiastic enough about the wondrous violence they used. So it’s hard to get happy around Walter Lynwood Fleming. But he’s there. He’s intelligent, and the other thing is that he has letters that former Klansmen wrote him that he sticks in the footnotes. He provides us all these wonderful primary sources for Ryland Randolph and other really unpleasant people. So the fact is that there’s all kind of evidence from racists that this white supremacist guy has access to that we don’t. The other thing is that his animating view is that class— the tension between Black Belt planters and whites up in the hills—really is a big thing in white Democratic politics. He’s not wrong about that. There are elements of what he does that you can take, but you need to say what he is all about, very clearly. The part of those two Klan essays that people could object to is that I do think that what’s going on is that as the shift goes on from gang labor, overseers, and the rest, to decentralized tenant farming, like sharecropping, that you go from a situation where the planters are feeding the hands and feeding their families, as part of the wage, to a situation where the hands are providing their own provisions over the crop year by borrowing money from the planter or the local merchants. So they are in a situation where they are providing for themselves. And when you have a bad crop, there is a tendency for them to steal somebody’s hog – and remember, this is the era of open ranging, where people don’t fence in their hogs, but they actually send them off into the woods. And now freedmen have dogs and guns. So if you take the planters’ correspondence seriously, they wail about it all the time: “The freedmen are stealing our hogs.”

It’s not a major motive for the Klan. The major motive for the Klan is electoral violence and putting black people generally in their place. But if we’re talking about a third-tier motive, and one that is easily defended in the public sphere, they talk about theft all the time. If there is an issue of a freedman appropriating their livestock, the planters they can live with it, if cotton pays, but what about the neighbors who were not planters? If freedmen are stealing anything, it’s going to be from both groups, but only one group gets the benefit from the labor of freedmen. I’m not sure if I used the term in the article, but I think it’s like an ethnic cleansing from the point of view of non-planter whites who really want to drive the freedmen out of their neighborhood for a number of reasons. I think that’s what is going on.


BB: Kind of like later whitecapping violence where poor white tenants are driving all the African Americans out of the neighborhood so they can get better wages and better terms.

MF: The other thing is a lot of poor whites are moving from the piedmont and the hills down to the Tennessee Valley or other areas, so they don’t like freedmen as rivals as tenants either. And that’s another mechanism that’s driving this along. What I would also say is that there is a difference between the two articles. When I did the first research, which was in the Agricultural History piece in the late nineties, the research method was to take my list of four hundred or so indicted Klansmen and try to find them in the reels of microfilm and whatever indexes existed. It was a laborious process. It was driven by just, “Oh, that name sounds familiar, let me double check on my list.” So there’s sort of a haphazard quality to it, and I just did 1870. I did the agricultural census, and I did the population census. I found, lo and behold, of everybody I could find that was indicted as a Klansman, they are almost all destitute. So the median wealth for accused Klansmen in 1870 that I found in that first case was zero. They just have no money. And they’re all in their early twenties, and they’re all, so far as I can tell, poor. So I figured, okay, first article, poor whites attacking labor rivals, attacking people for these kinds of class reasons. By the time I wrote the second article, the piece for our anthology, we have and other things where you can find them more readily. So I took the research back to 1860, too. They’re still poor in 1870. I found more names, and they’re still quite poor, but if you go back to the families in 1860 before the Civil War, they weren’t so poor. A lot of them are from slave-holding families. About half of the ones I could find are from slave-holding families, some of them prosperous slaveholders. In 1870, they’re poor. In 1860, they’re not, which kind of gives you a sense of their potential motivation. They come from families who have been impoverished by the war.   The two articles are in tension simply because the research available to me changed. But I think that the newer version is interesting, too.

BB: One of the things you were talking about just then about poor whites moving down from the hills into the Tennessee Valley and the Black Belt, in some ways that parallels the movement of African Americans from the countryside into the city of Mobile. So that might be a good transition for you to talk about your Mobile book. How was it different studying a city from the very rural environments of your first book?

MF: My first book has a chapter on what’s going on in the cities, and a good deal of that chapter deals with Mobile. The thing that struck me was this chaotic factional situation in Mobile where two different factions of the Republican party, largely black and native white, are at each other’s throats to the point that you had actual fistfights, real fights between two Republican factions. And I was wondering, “What in God’s name is going on in Mobile?” So as I began to ponder the next project, I got intrigued with trying to figure out what the Mobile explanation was. What I found was that there were two factions, both of them interracially led. There’s kind of a moderate, native white southerner-dominated faction of which all the leaders are light-skinned – according to the ones I could find in the census – they’re all lightskinned, literate, and a good number of them are Afro-Creoles. So you have this group that is sort of into legal means. You have another group, led by carpetbaggers, and kind of stereotypical carpetbaggers, where the leadership is all dark-skinned, and most of them are former slaves and not as literate as the other group. This Radical group is much more inclined toward mass action: streetcar occupations to integrate streetcars, strikes on the docks. And these two groups are struggling for leadership all through the era to the point that they actually defeat an incumbent Radical Republican congressman, an African American congressman, because they ran a moderate light-skinned Creole against him and divided the Republican vote. This dispute ties into broader social trends. What I did was I analyzed this urban black factionalism, and tied it to the process of emancipation. Huge numbers of freedmen are moving into the suburbs of Mobile, and these immiserated recent migrants from the countryside become the basis for all this direct action on the docks and in streetcar occupations and in other forms of popular direct action tactics. I wish the book had gotten more attention because I think it’s a model for what’s going on in southern cities. You can analyze Republican factionalism in terms of what’s going on in the black community in the urban areas where factionalism is most intense, because there are patronage positions for activists to fight over.

BB: Steve West’s recent article about black politics in Greenville, South Carolina, a year or two ago is a little bit like that. He’s actually talking there about the late 1880s, and elections there over whether the city is going to be wet or dry.

MF: There was a book on blacks in Charlotte, I think, back fifteen or twenty years ago, that found very strong differences over the prohibition issue between the respectable middle-class folks, which I think is part of the West article, if I remember correctly, and political activists who are Republican party people who are more in touch with this broader constituency that is not thrilled with this. I think that actually kind of works here. There’s also an interesting thing in that book about this subculture of black activists who are dependent on federal jobs and how their lives work as political activists and how they support themselves as political activists. My sense is that no one has done it. The problem is that a one-city study doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves in terms of the wider interpretation, which is something you’re going to discover when your magnum opus on Greenville comes out.

BB: Right, whenever that is! Although you’re working on the big book on Alabama, and we’ll come back to that in a moment, you did write a much broader scope book a few years ago called Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in America. Could you talk a bit about the experience of why you chose to write that, how it – obviously the elephant in the room is Eric Foner’s Reconstruction – how the view of Reconstruction that you present in your book varies from the view that has become standard from Foner’s synthesis?

Splendid Failure

MF: I’m quite an admirer of Foner’s. I think that his book is still the gold standard, and everyone has to situate themselves relative to the excellence of that work. In particular, his emphasis in the late 1860s on the interconnection between what’s going on on the plantation and popular politics is very consistent with my Union League stuff. So I’m a thorough admirer. But I’ve spent, now, twenty-five years teaching in the classroom, and I’ve tried to assign Foner’s short history, and it’s so good and so sophisticated that I had trouble getting my excellent, smart undergraduates to engage with it. I had an undergraduate who went on to library school, from Atlanta no less, who told me she skipped reading the book for my Civil War class! I was trying to figure out what portions of the Reconstruction struggle could be communicated effectively to an undergraduate audience. Another reason for writing the book is that some scholarship has come out since Foner. Factionalism in the black community is something I’m very interested in. And the railroad issue is interesting to me. I was trying to integrate African American agency into the decisions on railroad programs that turn out so badly. They aren’t really responsible, but I do think we should pay attention to at least how they’re thinking about these issues. I’ve always been an admirer of Mark Summers’s book on railroads. So class within the black community, faction within the black community, and the economic development issues that don’t get a tremendous amount of emphasis in Foner’s book I think are important. The other thing was the press approached me and asked if I wanted to do this. It occurred to me vaguely that if I wanted to write a Reconstruction history of Alabama, I needed a better grounding in national politics. It forced me to do the background reading in other states and Washington, D.C. I’m conceptualizing what I’m doing in Alabama as what state studies might look like going forward. I felt like I wanted to contextualize it in the national context because, to tell you the truth, to go back to Fleming, Fleming thinks his Alabama study is the South writ small. I would follow that aspect of his work. Alabama is, to some extent, the model Deep South state, and it is so central to the national consciousness of how the civil rights movement played out that I think that it’s a nice place. Because there haven’t been a lot of state revisionist studies, or post-Foner full scale histories of states. What that means is that Fleming’s book remains the standard place to look for the narrative for Alabama, and that’s ridiculous in the twenty-first century.

BB: If we think about the revisionist period, there are a lot of other state studies. So if we think about the Dunning School, and he sends his various students off to do their state studies, then we did get, in the revisionist period, other state studies of particular states. So, Simkins and Woody start things off with South Carolina. It’s not as revisionist as some of that later ones. And then you get other studies like Jerrell Shoffner for Florida, and so forth. And in all these various states, but why do you think, in the context of Reconstruction historiography, Alabama historiography, why didn’t somebody write a book about Reconstruction in Alabama?

MF: I have no idea. Maybe Atlanta is a cooler place to do research than Montgomery. I don’t know. I’ve always thought Montgomery is an interesting place. It has a lot of history. Another reason for this absence is that scholars know a state study is probably not going to galvanize the whole field, whereas detailed studies on some novel angle that is of interest to people oftentimes make a bigger splash. But let me tell you what I think is going to be my contribution with the Reconstruction in Alabama book. Beyond just the synthesis of everything else I’ve done, my sense of the great accomplishment of Foner’s book is to take the scholarship on, and use the fresh primary source materials in the Freedom papers project, at the University of Maryland to excellent advantage. He integrates what’s happening socially on the plantations with the great political struggle of military Reconstruction when blacks get the right to vote. So for the late 1860s, it’s a wonderful synthesis of political and social history, and it’s exactly the sort of thing I was trained to do at UCLA in the late nineteen seventies and early eighties. This is the brilliance of Foner’s work, and in the fact that it’s so utterly plausible. But only the last hundred pages of Foner’s book deal with the period after the Greeley election, after 1872. His interpretation—it’s still great—but in terms of the labor connection to Reconstruction politics, it kind of runs out of steam in the early seventies. And you see less of it. He talks about the depression’s impact, certainly. I think you might make an argument that what’s going on in Alabama in the 1870s is kind of like what’s going on in South Carolina, with fairly strong divisions among the white opposition. The place I would look for this is Perman’s book on factional politics during Reconstruction. Here’s what I would say. Foner’s argument in his Reconstruction book is that the Klan is led by planters. The upper class, the political elite has decided that Reconstruction is intolerable, and that violence is the only way they can beat people at the polls and put black people back in their subordinate position. I think he’s right. The Klan has, early on, a lot of elite participation, and at a time when plantation agriculture is collapsing, 1867, there is a lot of fury among planters. And there’s a lot of violence coming from planters and overseers in 1865 and 1866 as they try and deal with people on the basis of freedom. So Foner’s argument is that the Klan is upper-class led. But with sharecropping, a couple of years in, the plantation system improves.

Once the freedmen go to work as sharecroppers and the price of cotton recovers, planters are not so desperate anymore. And in 1870 when the Democrats temporarily regain the governor’s office in Alabama, I think you start getting a conservative push-back of planters who are tired of the violence and whose major issue is becoming labor shortage. Once cotton reaches twenty cents a pound, tenants are really desired. Big planters really don’t like it when you push their tenants out. And by 1871, 1872, the Greeley campaign, this dissident conservative tradition reemerges, especially in the old Whig counties of the black belt. Part of this is that the Klan is driving so many freedmen into their neighborhoods that the areas that are not violent have this relative surplus of labor. I did something sort of interesting, statistically. The way to do a quantitative sample of wealth among black people is to use this 1 percent sample of the census that the demographic history program at the University of Minnesota has. What I found is the freedmen in 1870 are poorer in the richest areas of the Black Belt than just about anywhere else. So workers are being driven from areas where blacks are more prosperous to the areas where there’s so much labor that there’s a surplus. These are the richest areas of Alabama, and freedmen are keeping less of their money. Somebody must be making money off them. You read the planters’ letters, and they say, “Oh, we’ve got 60 percent, 100 percent interest rates down at the store. Things are going really nicely.” I think what’s going on is that in the early seventies there is a real attempt among a lot of planters to try and coexist with the black majorities that they think will be permanently governing their counties. I think that’s what’s going on. What’s interesting is that I think that Foner, because he tends to see the planters as the villains, he’s missing the stuff that Perman is talking about, about these former Whigs who are moving towards some kind of coexistence, or are trying to win through less violent methods. It makes sense to integrate the labor and the political history. It just doesn’t play out the same way in the seventies that it does in the sixties. Then in the fall of 1873, the economy collapses, everything tanks, and the planters suddenly instead of having a labor shortage are trying to desperately drive people away from their plantations. And there’s this big wave of theft fears again. So what happens is you get this white-line, White League as the political situation changes. And some planters still aren’t that thrilled. You find in South Carolina that the planters oppose racial extremists in the areas where blacks are 80 percent, 90 percent of the population. I think it’s exactly what’s happening in Alabama. So what I think my book is doing is taking the Foner labor emphasis and extending it to the seventies with somewhat different results. There’s this conservative subculture who hadn’t been thrilled with secession, who hadn’t been thrilled with the war going on and on, and had basically been persuaded that states-rights Democrats crazy people had wrecked their lives and they were going to do it again. The argument is that there is a subculture of whites whose racial views don’t move them towards the more extreme forms of violence—until the economy tanks in 1874.

BB: So with your book, what is the end date going to be?

MF: There’s a new constitution in Alabama in 1875. It solidifies a lot of stuff. I know that people talk about the “long Reconstruction” but my Reconstruction is already long enough because to make the argument I’m making, I have to go back before the war and talk about the origins of conservative dissent. So I don’t even get to the African American core chapter till Chapter Five because I’ve got to do the war, I’ve got to do occupation, I’ve got to do the impact of what’s going on in Presidential Reconstruction. So my book ends in ’75 because I figure my lifespan is finite. I need to finish this damn thing.

BB: Certainly the new constitution is a good end-point. In a way, there’s a “long Reconstruction” in some places, and a shorter one in Alabama or in southwest Georgia as Susan O’Donovan found. Reconstruction is effectively over for African Americans by 1868. They don’t even really get much out of the seventies.

MF: And part of this that is just distressingly current is the amazing number of ways to prevent local black majorities from meaning anything. There are counties where blacks are still a majority, but they just strip those counties of self-governing powers. There’s a board of supervisors, but they have no power. The power is officials appointed by the governor. You set up a committee to vet jurors so African Americans won’t serve on juries. It’s very impressive. The ways you can make an electoral system do what you want it to if you decide to play games with the ballot box is incredibly instructive in our contemporary situation. I’m sort of hoping there are some lessons there.


Fitzgerald, Michael William. “The Union League movement in Alabama and Mississippi : politics and agricultural change in the deep South during Reconstruction.” Ph.D. diss, UCLA, 1986.

Fitzgerald, Michael W. The Union League Movement in the Deep South: Politics and Agricultural Change During Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Fitzgerald, Michael W. “The Ku Klux Klan: Property Crime and the Plantation System in Reconstruction Alabama.” Agricultural History 71 (Spring 1997): 186-206.

Fitzgerald, Michael W. Urban Emancipation: Popular Politics in Reconstruction Mobile, 1860-1890. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

Fitzgerald, Michael W. Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007.

Fitzgerald, Michael W. “The Steel Frame of Walter Lynwood Fleming.” In The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction, edited by John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery, 157-178. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013.

Fitzgerald, Michael W. “Ex-Slaveholders and the Ku Klux Klan: Exploring the Motivations of Terrorist Violence.” In After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South, edited by Bruce E. Baker and Brian Kelly, 143-158. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Goodwyn, Lawrence. Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

McMath, Robert C. Populist Vanguard: A History of the Southern Farmers Alliance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

O’Donovan, Susan Eva. Becoming Free in the Cotton South. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Perman, Michael. The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869-1879. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Summers, Mark W. Railroads, Reconstruction, and the Gospel of Prosperity: Aid Under the Radical Republicans, 1865-1877. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

West, Steven A. “‘A Hot Municipal Contest’:  Prohibition and Politics in Greenville, South Carolina after Reconstruction.”  Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 11 (Oct. 2012):  519-51.


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