The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Making the Body Politic

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Suzanne and Caleb Loring Research Fellow Ann Holder of the Pratt Institute discussed her research on post-Civil War citizenship, race, and public spaces in a presentation titled “Making the Body Politic: Sexual Histories, Racial Uncertainties, and Vernacular Citizenship in the Post-Emancipation U.S.” The presentation drew on one chapter from a book-length project exploring “public space as a battleground for citizenship.” In this particular chapter, Holder focuses on segregation debates and practices on streetcars and railways from the late 1860s into the early 20th century. She looks comparatively at Boston, Richmond (Virginia), and New Orleans in order to explore how the public space of streetcars and railway carriages were negotiated with regards to race, class, and sexuality, as these public transit systems developed and became necessary for urban life over the course of the 19th century.

Historians have often assumed that, following emancipation, the categories of black/white were easily mapped onto American society as a substitute for slave/free. Holder argues instead that racial segregation, in custom and law, actually rose in response to the uncertainty of racial categories in the Reconstruction era.  Inter-racial sexual relationships during the era of slavery had created racial ambiguity that slavery regulated; once slavery ended, the instability of racial identities exposed the fallacy of a clear demarcation between black and white. Segregation, she suggests, was a “newly-created borderland” between white and black communities, and one which required new mechanisms for enforcement – such as physical segregation in public spaces. Where once whites were relatively free to travel “at will” in black spaces, in the latter half of the 19th century they became subject to new laws restricting them to white spaces. This led to complaints, for example, by whites about crowded whites-only streetcars (particularly when black cars passed by relatively empty, as during organized boycotts), and the rise in arrests of whites for violating segregation laws. In other words, whites had to be disciplined into the “white role” in a similar (though lesser, less violent) fashion as blacks.

Here at the MHS, Holder is exploring the history of segregation in Boston transit, which was practiced customarily in the early 19th century before it fell victim to the campaigns to “strip the legal system of reference to race” in the early 19th century, and to repeal laws banning inter-racial marriage. She notes how the “forced democratization” of crowded public spaces, and the “physicality of encounters with the ‘other’” whether of another class, sex, and/or race, often discomfited those of higher social standing and introduced an unmistakable undertone of sexuality to the experience of traveling. In her presentation, she quoted an anonymous diarist who recounted his unhappy experience of traveling from New York to Boston on the railway, using the word “amalgamation” to describe class mixing in train cars – a word that would, in the Reconstruction era, come to mean inter-racial sexual relations.

Discussion following Holder’s presentation explored the various ways in which imposed order was attempted on the disorganization of public transit, whether by the creation of “first class” rail cars, smoking cars, women-only cars, or racially-segregated trolleys and trains.

We look forward to seeing where Anne Holder takes her research from here, and are very pleased to have her with us throughout the academic year pursuing her work in our Reading Room.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 8:00 AM


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