I am working to complete two new monographs: one a study of Jim Crow-Era popular constitutionalism (Politics, Anti-Democracy, and Jim Crow Constitutionalism, 1890-1915) and the other a legal biography of Booker T. Washington (The Litigious Mr. Washington).
Politics, Anti-Democracy, and Jim Crow Constitutionalism, 1890- 1915 is a narrative-driven revisionist history of the disfranchisement era, one that moves beyond its traditional framing as a southern phenomenon, situating it instead within America’s late-nineteenth century anti-democratic and imperial turn.
This, then, is not a traditional examination of how southern Democrats “got away with” disfranchisement but rather how their opponents and targets—namely, African Americans, Populists, and Republicans—themselves shaped the debate. Typically, the “national scene” is presented matter-of-factly as a settled side-issue. Here, it is the entire point, and this project weaves southern disfranchisement into a broader cross-continental and trans-Pacific context. Early territorial histories of the United States’s post-1898 overseas empire are a lens for exploring the inner workings of America’s anti-democratic mind. What it shows in the end is how these competing dark strains of thought fed the Jim Crow-era’s distinctive constitutionalism as pertains to citizenship.
I am dealing with a vast body of research, and I am tracing historical actors’ stories across astonishing physical distances. In all, I will have drawn from nearly 400 individual manuscript collections, upwards of 500 newspapers and periodicals, and almost 1,000 secondary titles.
With so much material, and with a narrative that moves across so much ground, there is a real risk the project could spin out of balance. My organizational solution is to structure it around a narrower set of characters who can carry these broad themes across time and space. So, though the project is situated within, and most closely analyzes political actors from, five southern states (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia), Hawaiʻi, and Oklahoma, its arc originates in Montgomery, Alabama’s Centennial Hill neighborhood.
Centennial Hill today is best known for its out-sized role in the Modern Civil Rights Movement, but six decades earlier, that vibrant African American middle class community generated efforts to resettle blacks in Hawaiʻi, launched landmark anti-disfranchisement campaigns, and produced many of the leaders who led efforts to establish in Oklahoma a safe haven for African Americans.
The Litigious Mr. Washington is my second work-in-progress. Over the twenty-plus years I’ve spent in this material, Booker T. Washington has recurred as a leading character, and he is the subject of my second in-progress monograph project, , which is under contract with the University of Georgia Press. Washington was an ambitious, sly legal strategist. He and his associates were the key players in the anti-disfranchisement fight, and my research for Defying Disfranchisement hinted at something larger afoot, that something being a comprehensive legal assault against Jim Crow.
I am loath to characterize this as a direct reply or rejoinder to any of Washington’s previous biographers, for I’m dealing with new material. Neither will The Litigious Mr. Washington revisit his entire biography. Reexamining his battle against Jim Crow in proper detail and context opens wide a long-sealed window on the broader world of “nadir period” African-American activism and resistance.