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The Accident of Color: A Story of Race in Reconstruction

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In The Accident of Color, Daniel Brook journeys to nineteenth-century New Orleans and Charleston and introduces us to cosmopolitan residents who elude the racial categories the rest of America takes for granted. Before the Civil War, these free, openly mixed-race urbanites enjoyed some rights of citizenship and the privileges of wealth and social status. But after Emancipa In The Accident of Color, Daniel Brook journeys to nineteenth-century New Orleans and Charleston and introduces us to cosmopolitan residents who elude the racial categories the rest of America takes for granted. Before the Civil War, these free, openly mixed-race urbanites enjoyed some rights of citizenship and the privileges of wealth and social status. But after Emancipation, as former slaves move to assert their rights, the black-white binary that rules the rest of the nation begins to intrude. During Reconstruction, a movement arises as mixed-race elites make common cause with the formerly enslaved and allies at the fringes of whiteness in a bid to achieve political and social equality for all. In some areas, this coalition proved remarkably successful. Activists peacefully integrated the streetcars of Charleston and New Orleans for decades and, for a time, even the New Orleans public schools and the University of South Carolina were educating students of all backgrounds side by side. Tragically, the achievements of this movement were ultimately swept away by a violent political backlash and expunged from the history books, culminating in the Jim Crow laws that would legalize segregation for a half century and usher in the binary racial regime that rules us to this day. The Accident of Color revisits a crucial inflection point in American history. By returning to the birth of our nation’s singularly narrow racial system, which was forged in the crucible of opposition to civil rights, Brook illuminates the origins of the racial lies we live by.


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In The Accident of Color, Daniel Brook journeys to nineteenth-century New Orleans and Charleston and introduces us to cosmopolitan residents who elude the racial categories the rest of America takes for granted. Before the Civil War, these free, openly mixed-race urbanites enjoyed some rights of citizenship and the privileges of wealth and social status. But after Emancipa In The Accident of Color, Daniel Brook journeys to nineteenth-century New Orleans and Charleston and introduces us to cosmopolitan residents who elude the racial categories the rest of America takes for granted. Before the Civil War, these free, openly mixed-race urbanites enjoyed some rights of citizenship and the privileges of wealth and social status. But after Emancipation, as former slaves move to assert their rights, the black-white binary that rules the rest of the nation begins to intrude. During Reconstruction, a movement arises as mixed-race elites make common cause with the formerly enslaved and allies at the fringes of whiteness in a bid to achieve political and social equality for all. In some areas, this coalition proved remarkably successful. Activists peacefully integrated the streetcars of Charleston and New Orleans for decades and, for a time, even the New Orleans public schools and the University of South Carolina were educating students of all backgrounds side by side. Tragically, the achievements of this movement were ultimately swept away by a violent political backlash and expunged from the history books, culminating in the Jim Crow laws that would legalize segregation for a half century and usher in the binary racial regime that rules us to this day. The Accident of Color revisits a crucial inflection point in American history. By returning to the birth of our nation’s singularly narrow racial system, which was forged in the crucible of opposition to civil rights, Brook illuminates the origins of the racial lies we live by.

30 review for The Accident of Color: A Story of Race in Reconstruction

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ernest Perreault

    I can’t recommend this book enough. The historical evidence presented was significant and helps understand today’s racial divide. The explanation of the scientific reality of race versus the social reality of racism was worth the read. Finally, “evolution” of race versus class distinction was well presented here. “Separate” by Steve Luxenberg is a great follow up read to “The Accident of Color”.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Miranda Burnett

    Incredible! Focuses on the topic of race during Reconstruction in New Orleans and Charleston.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jo Stafford

    This is a very informative history of how free communities of color in two of America’s most cosmopolitan and diverse Southern cities - Charleston, SC and New Orleans - responded to their changing circumstances during Reconstruction and the subsequent rollback of civil rights gains as white supremacy reasserted itself. In their campaigns opposing segregation on streetcars and trains and in theaters and universities, mixed-race activists challenged the very notion of race just as racial boundarie This is a very informative history of how free communities of color in two of America’s most cosmopolitan and diverse Southern cities - Charleston, SC and New Orleans - responded to their changing circumstances during Reconstruction and the subsequent rollback of civil rights gains as white supremacy reasserted itself. In their campaigns opposing segregation on streetcars and trains and in theaters and universities, mixed-race activists challenged the very notion of race just as racial boundaries were hardening and individuals came to be identified as either Black or white. As Daniel Brook observes, the imposition of this racial binary is a denial of America’s history of racial mixture. Race is a social construct - it doesn’t actually exist - but racism is very real. The Accident of Color introduced me to an aspect of post-Civil War history I had not previously considered. It deepened my understanding of an important period in US history and had me weeping for the brutal betrayal of the promises of Reconstruction.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Joe Keefhaver

    This book is tremendously informative. It is both uplifting and depressing. It focuses on the Reconstruction period, primarily in New Orleans, La., and Charleston, S.C., cities with large and influential populations of mixed race people. The author focuses on the great strides in both equal rights and racial harmony that took place under the watchful eye of federal troops and then multiracial Republican state governments elected by universal male suffrage. Streetcar lines and other public accomm This book is tremendously informative. It is both uplifting and depressing. It focuses on the Reconstruction period, primarily in New Orleans, La., and Charleston, S.C., cities with large and influential populations of mixed race people. The author focuses on the great strides in both equal rights and racial harmony that took place under the watchful eye of federal troops and then multiracial Republican state governments elected by universal male suffrage. Streetcar lines and other public accommodations, police forces and even schools and colleges were integrated in many communities, and some former Confederates -- including former Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard -- played conciliatory roles. Then the hard-core pro-Confederacy Democrats regained power and the federal government backed away from enforcing civil rights laws. The end result was re-segregation of integrated institutions and a frenzy of activity to divide people into neat little racial boxes -- white or black. This wasn't easy in New Orleans and Charleston, where the ancestry of large numbers of citizens couldn't be classified by simply looking at them. The efforts to determine ancestry sometimes proved absurd. As progress slipped away, it is sad to think about how it resulted in 100+ years of racial oppression and strife.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Paul Womack

    A remarkable follow-on to Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste”. Inclusive and racially mixed Charleston SC and New Orleans LA provide the back ground to the erosion of their pre-Civil War societies to binary communities by 1900, with segregation in place. It is a sad story, and tragic, since this history makes it pretty darn clear America has wasted a lot of time and talent being racist, not to mention the lives spoiled by such hostility and ignorance.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Mary Halecki

    This is one that I may have to add to my home library. It was such a wealth of information and serves as an inspiration to continue with additional research.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jenna Lynn

    This should be required reading.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Samuel Barker

    I'm a fan of historical books, so my review will be coming from that angle. I have read a lot of books about Reconstruction and the backroom dealings that led to the abandonment of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, Plessy v. Ferguson and the return of segregation. This book comes at it from a different angle by tackling the American institution of race and the role people of mixed-race families played from the antebellum period until the turn of the 20th century. Brook uses a lot of primary sources I'm a fan of historical books, so my review will be coming from that angle. I have read a lot of books about Reconstruction and the backroom dealings that led to the abandonment of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, Plessy v. Ferguson and the return of segregation. This book comes at it from a different angle by tackling the American institution of race and the role people of mixed-race families played from the antebellum period until the turn of the 20th century. Brook uses a lot of primary sources and tells the story of this period without sugar-coating the reality of the situation. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and feel like I have learned a lot from reading it. I think when you're reading historical non-fiction, that is the best review you can give the book...acquisition of knowledge.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Sandra

    I’m giving the book four stars even though it was a three star read for me because my head just wasn’t in the right space. I have a bunch of library books due yesterday with no renewals so I found it difficult to take the time needed with this text. I will say I found the first part of the book to be the most interesting. The antebellum cities of Charleston and New Orleans are utterly fascinating and I learned so much about the people who lived there and how they related (figuratively and litera I’m giving the book four stars even though it was a three star read for me because my head just wasn’t in the right space. I have a bunch of library books due yesterday with no renewals so I found it difficult to take the time needed with this text. I will say I found the first part of the book to be the most interesting. The antebellum cities of Charleston and New Orleans are utterly fascinating and I learned so much about the people who lived there and how they related (figuratively and literally) to each other. That’s why it’s particularly interesting to learn about what happened to these cities after the war. Their entire essence was destroyed.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Cashour

    This book was excellent and terrifying. Reading about our past, and looking at the parallels in the headlines TODAY makes me wonder why we are doomed to repeat our criminal failures. The myth of American Exceptionalism was never true, and it is frightening to see the same racist policies emerge and take hold as those documented.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Katie Lynn

    quote from book: "What they believed they were right about was not merely that separate could never be equal but that, in America, separate was not even possible. As New World people,we were too mixed up to sort back out. Say what we may, Americans would never be black or white. We are mestizos, Creoles, misfits all." quote from book: "What they believed they were right about was not merely that separate could never be equal but that, in America, separate was not even possible. As New World people,we were too mixed up to sort back out. Say what we may, Americans would never be black or white. We are mestizos, Creoles, misfits all."

  12. 5 out of 5

    Perry

    Race in Reconstruction with a focus on New Orleans and Charleston. The book looks at education and transportation, and how the Civil War did not solve racism, but may have instigated it in some ways. Mostly tales of sadness. While the theme of the book is unmistakable, there is not a strong narrative thrust.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Molly

    Provided a view into two progressive cities whose view of race turned backwards to "catch up" with the rest of America's views on race and the definition of blackness. A peak into history unheard of in school's history classes Provided a view into two progressive cities whose view of race turned backwards to "catch up" with the rest of America's views on race and the definition of blackness. A peak into history unheard of in school's history classes

  14. 5 out of 5

    Diane Heath

    4.5 stars. A fascinating book for those interested in history. The Adage that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it seems applicable especially in the light of recent history. The phrase " one step forward two steps back" also comes bro mind. 4.5 stars. A fascinating book for those interested in history. The Adage that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it seems applicable especially in the light of recent history. The phrase " one step forward two steps back" also comes bro mind.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Eva

    Very comprehensive history of the lead-up to Reconstruction in America and the Reconstruction Era, as well as looking specifically at the communities of free people of color in New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina.

  16. 5 out of 5

    William O

    Very approachable read on the construct of race through Reconstruction.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth StClair

    Read this book. There is so much in it you'll be surprised you never knew. I only wish it had a more thorough footnote selection, as it mentioned my alma mater and I wanted to know the source. Read this book. There is so much in it you'll be surprised you never knew. I only wish it had a more thorough footnote selection, as it mentioned my alma mater and I wanted to know the source.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    The Accident of Color is about the creation of race in America, before, during, and following the Reconstruction period. New Orleans and Charleston are the focal points of the book, as the two cities with the most nebulous definitions of race, with large, powerful mixed race populations - the Browns.  This is, obviously, an incredibly rich and relevant topic. I wasn't able to devote as much brainpower to The Accident of Color as it really demands, as I read it while moving, while everything start The Accident of Color is about the creation of race in America, before, during, and following the Reconstruction period. New Orleans and Charleston are the focal points of the book, as the two cities with the most nebulous definitions of race, with large, powerful mixed race populations - the Browns.  This is, obviously, an incredibly rich and relevant topic. I wasn't able to devote as much brainpower to The Accident of Color as it really demands, as I read it while moving, while everything started shutting down due to COVID-19, so my understanding and absorption of the information was less than I might hope. Even still, I felt that I learned a lot. My pre-knowledge of Reconstruction was fairly limited to what I learned in high school, which was mostly, "Some really incredible advances were made and then lost." Learning what those advances actually were, and the brutality of the losses, was heartwrenching. I hadn't known that schools and public transportation were integrated for years. I hadn't known how many men of color were elected to state and federal office. I hadn't known the New Orleans police force was fully integrated. All of my reading about race in the United States is about trying to understand the world I live in, the political faults and why things are the way they are. In that respect, The Accident of Color is hugely successful, even with my limited absorption. I highly recommend it.

  19. 5 out of 5

    James Garman

    This is one of those books you get as a reference book. Like most history discussions, it is full of details, which I have never really had the patience to absorb. What I get out of it is the concepts and there is a lot of insight about our countries history. The primary cities under discussion are Charleston SC and New Orleans, La. A lot of the New Orleans stuff I was already at least vaguely familiar with, but it was good seeing it spelled out. The fact is that both cities were more cosmopolita This is one of those books you get as a reference book. Like most history discussions, it is full of details, which I have never really had the patience to absorb. What I get out of it is the concepts and there is a lot of insight about our countries history. The primary cities under discussion are Charleston SC and New Orleans, La. A lot of the New Orleans stuff I was already at least vaguely familiar with, but it was good seeing it spelled out. The fact is that both cities were more cosmopolitan and less likely to have racial tensions. New Orleans, especially, had a very nuanced view of race in general and there is a reason why New Orleans, even today, is acknowledged as not being like any other southern city..in fact it might also not be an American city at all, really. Which is exactly what I like about it by the way. I have no great admiration for especially southern culture except for the politeness and the apparently slow and easy movement. When it comes to being different and being around those of different cultures, I need a more European style city, which New Orleans qualifies as in large measure.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Siobhain

    A highly recommended read on the construct of race in the reconstruction period in New Orleans and Charleston. This is an incredibly palatable work on the history of racial oppression and strife in the US— which the US constantly attempts to hide or deny.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Katye Russell

  22. 4 out of 5

    Lena

  23. 4 out of 5

    Deena Frio

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ina Ivanova

  25. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Mabrey

  26. 5 out of 5

    Bri

  27. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Wakelee

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kristen

  29. 4 out of 5

    Johnisha

  30. 4 out of 5

    Michael Daudier

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