Friday, February 24, 2012

Albion Tourgee: Citizenship Rights For ALL!

From North Carolina's News and Record's Opinion Page, "THE SIT-INS: Albion Tourgee a pioneer for rights," on 31 January 2010, by Professor Frank Woods:

After much hesitation and anticipation, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum will soon open its doors. A broad spotlight will be cast on Greensboro in recognition of its activist spirit in the quest for equality, one that reaches deep into the past and beyond the transformative day of Feb. 1, 1960.

Woolworth's Luncheon Counter located at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum (Greensboro, NC)

The city’s history is, in fact, steeped with courageous individuals who have lobbied intensely for positive change in the midst of racial injustice and, sometimes, sacrificed body and soul to secure for all the precious guarantees found in the 14th and 15th amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Across the street from the museum, is an informational marker that honors a former resident of Greensboro who made it his primary mission to secure basic rights of freedom for newly emancipated slaves and to see that when the new state constitution was framed, it was favorable to black advancement.

Albion Winegar Tourgee

The same man is also honored by a historical marker on Lee Street near the ramp leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, citing the location where his home once stood. Obviously, he left a mark on the city but the city hardly knows of him today. His name was Albion Winegar Tourgee, the most “infamous” carpetbagger to set foot in North Carolina.

Map of Greensboro, North Carolina, U.S.A.

Born in Williamsfield, Ohio, in 1838, Tourgee grew up in Kingsfield, Ohio, an area of strong abolitionist sentiment. He later joined the Union army at the outbreak of the Civil War and sustained a severe wound to his spine. After the war, Tourgee’s injury left him in poor health. In an attempt to recoup his strength, he decided to try the warmer climate of the South, and Greensboro was his destination.

Tourgee’s early years in the city during Reconstruction were filled with righteous outrage as he continually witnessed the mistreatment of “freedmen.” He soon drifted into a personal crusade for social justice and became increasingly vocal on behalf of African American rights. This, in turn, caused him to be vilified and ostracized by whites in the state who wished to see the old social and political order preserved.

Tourgee took an active part in the N.C. State Constitutional Convention held in Raleigh in 1868, and served as one of the chief framers on the new constitution. He pushed for a progressive document that called for the inclusion of blacks in the creation of a “New South.” For his efforts, Tourgee was branded a derisive figure in North Carolina politics and a “contemptible friend of the Negro.”

North Carolina Ku Klux Klansmen, 1870

Wearing that label like a badge of honor, Tourgee continued to be an outspoken champion of African American rights and liberties. He was elected a judge of the Superior Court, Seventh Judicial District of North Carolina — a position that gave him the authority to enforce his ideals throughout the Piedmont. Judge Tourgee continued to lobby against those who opposed African American progress, even though his life was threatened by the newly formed Ku Klux Klan.

Undaunted, Tourgee attacked that organization with a scathing expose titled “The Invisible Empire.” This material was later incorporated into a best-selling novel, “A Fool’s Errand” (1879).

Tourgee left the state in the waning years of Reconstruction as the “Old South” was being redeemed.

Living outside of the South did not dampen Tourgee’s efforts at racial redemption. He continued to write and speak on matters of race.

More importantly, he founded a national civil rights group in 1891, the National Citizens’ Rights Association, to deal with mounting racial injustices throughout the country caused by restrictive “Jim Crow” laws and lynchings.

Homer Plessy, the man who set the standard for the American Apartheid system called "Jim Crow," was only 1/8 African American and 7/8 white. In 1896 Homer Plessy became the standard bearer of how black is black, hence the "one drop rule" has been in full effect in the United States since 1896.

But Tourgee’s greatest battle against the forces of oppression came in a showdown before the Supreme Court in 1896 as the chief counsel for Homer Plessy in his case against the Louisiana railroad company that forced him into a segregated car (Plessy v. Ferguson). Unfortunately, Tourgee’s eloquence and fervor were not enough to sway a majority of the high court justices and the floodgates of discrimination were thrown open in America. Now that he was a beaten man, Tourgee’s activism shortly ground to a halt.

As local, state and national officials, along with the curious public, descend on the new civil rights museum, many will walk the same street that Tourgee trod long ago. In a way, they will follow in his footsteps to a “sacred place” in the struggle for equal rights. Had Judge Tourgee been alive on Feb. 1, 1960, there is little doubt that he would have been at the Woolworth building, lending his support to the Greensboro Four as they accelerated the cause he championed. (source: Professor Frank Woods, UNCG, published in The News & Record).

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