by Eric M. Washington.
I, too, am a Son of the South, but of a different sort than Dylann Roof, the accused murderer of nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to an op-ed published in The Chicago Tribune, one of Roof’s classmates stated that Roof “had that kind of Southern pride.” I, too, have Southern pride. I’m proud of my deep roots in southeast Louisiana. I have learned that my maternal grandmother’s family were slaves in Ascension Parish, Louisiana as far back as the 1830s. On my father’s side, my slave great-great grandparents migrated from Virginia after emancipation to settle in the bayous and cane fields of Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. I’m proud of my Afro-Creole heritage. I will identify myself as a Louisianian quicker than I would an American. I, too, am a Southerner.
As an Afro-Creole Southerner, there are some things I distance myself from in the broader stream of Southern identity. I distance myself from the “fried-in-wool” racism that has pervaded Southern society historically. Though I hate Southern racism, and American racism for that matter, I have no inclination to destroy racists. My purpose is to help in their repentance through my vocation as a historian. This is the difference a Christian mind makes in this. Allegedly owing to his Southern pride, Dylann Roof decided to snuff out the lives of innocent people who welcomed him into their church. Christians. African-American Christians. Southerners, like him, but African-American Southerners; therefore, not like him. In his mind, he had to kill them. If we accept the story line that has emerged about what motivated Roof, he killed nine African Americans to uphold Southern pride. This is sinful pride. It is idolatry.
This horrific incident is just the latest in the history of violence against African Americans in the South. We historians of African Americans have long labeled such violence as terrorism.
At the end of the Civil War, white Southerners re-shaped their narrative of African Americans. During the days of antebellum slavery, pro-slavery apologists in the South exclaimed slavery’s moral good. It taught untutored Africans the virtues of hard work and industry, they claimed. With the advent of the plantation missions movement during the 1830s and 1840s, proponents of that movement asserted that slavery brought pagan Africans into the bosom of the Church. By becoming Christians, slaves would become better slaves, obeying their masters in all things.
With slavery’s end, unreconstructed Southerners began to sing another tune. The happy slave who labored hard while becoming more virtuous had become “idle and shiftless.” This prompted the passing of Black Codes throughout the South in order to control African-American labor. In my home state of Louisiana, St. Landry parish in the southern part of the state west of Baton Rouge, passed the following code in 1866: “Every negro is required to be in the regular service of some white person, or former owner, who shall be held responsible for the conduct of said negro.” In another code passed the same year: “No negro shall sell, barter, or exchange any articles of merchandise or traffic within said parish without the special written permission of his employer, specifying the article of sale, barter or traffic.” This was just one way white Southerners dealt with newly freed African Americans. In May 1866, former Confederates went on a rampage in Memphis that culminated in the killing of forty-six African Americans. The white men who perpetrated the murders targeted Union soldiers. Not only did these men kill African American men, but, in at least one case, they raped an African American woman. Mrs. Lucy Tubbs testified to the House of Representatives that a group of white men burst into her house looking for her husband, who had left. Asked by one House representative if she had been raped, she said, “Yes, sir.” As one man raped her, others stole money.
Compare this testimony with what Roof is claimed to have said to the lone survivor of the massacre at Emanuel AME: that blacks were “taking over” and “have raped our women.” This statement rings familiar. White terrorist groups that sprouted during Reconstruction apologized for their existence, in part, to preserve the virtue of white Southern women. That language indicated the white Southern men desired to protect white Southern women from the perceived sexual deviance of African-American men. This was a pretext for white Southern terrorism. During the 1890s, renowned African-American journalist Ida B. Wells wrote that lynchings and other forms of terrorism in the South perpetrated against African Americans were to preserve white Southern economic dominance and political supremacy. According to Wells, out of the 1,115 African Americans lynched between 1892-1894, there were only 348 charges of rape. These charges of rape were dubious at best with no shred of evidence. According to the reports about Roof’s ideological motivations, it is clear that he accepted an Unreconstructed Southern view of Southern society, which included the use of violence to suppress African-American rights and upward mobility. Like those of the 1890s, Roof used the protection of white Southern women’s honor as motivation of his murderous actions, which is an unsubstantiated claim that objectifies both African-American men and white women.
I, too, am a Southerner. Yet a different kind of Southerner than Roof. In Roof’s mind, I cannot lay claim to being Southern. If Roof believed everyone born or reared in the South could claim Southern identity, then he would have never entered Emanuel AME Church on the evening of June 17. His conception of Southerness excludes over 21 million African Americans who call the South home. For Afro-Southerners, they will always refuse to identify with Southerners who persist in waving the Confederate Battle flag as a badge of “heritage.” Afro-Southern identity includes musical traditions like the Blues, and Jazz. Food like Greens and Black-eyed peas. Most importantly it includes a cherished Protestant faith, even Methodism. It will never, ever include hoisting the Confederate flag as a symbol of their heritage.
Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.