The following review of White Man’s Heaven appeared in the June 2011 issue of the American Historical Review published by the University of Chicago Press. This review appears in its entirety with the express permission of the American Historical Review and the University of Chicago Press.
In the historiography of racialized mob violence in the United States, case studies have a worthy purpose. At their best, they provide thick descriptions of the social dynamics and turmoil in localities or subregions that gave rise to violence, and, with their attention to narrative, they are able to reveal the impact of that violence on individual lives and communities. Local studies can thus serve as useful counterparts to broader studies of lynching that are more interested in locating patterns of violence across local, state, and regional boundaries. Kimberly Harper’s new book is just that kind of valuable local study.
Harper details a series of violent acts perpetrated against African Americans in the Ozark region of southern Missouri at the turn of the twentieth century. She focuses on several lynchings and riots in Pierce City, Joplin, and Springfield, using news accounts, court records, and census data to elucidate what caused these outbreaks. In doing so, she provides support for the arguments of scholars like Edward Ayers, Fitzhugh Brundage, and me, who have attributed the surge of lynching at this time to wider social transformations that many counties and towns were experiencing in the late nineteenth century. In particular, the expansion of markets and industry brought an influx of black labor into growing towns, which whites believed threatened the stability and safety of their communities. These changes disrupted traditional social arrangements and racial hierarchies, generating a white backlash that all too often took violent form. Harper finds that the localities she studied fit this general pattern. Moreover, she supports recent scholars who have argued that most lynchings were not directly motivated by economic concerns. The mobs in her study were dominated by men in the working or middle classes rather than the poorest of citizens. In other words, they were not laborers who were in direct economic competition with black workers.
By focusing on the Ozark region, Harper also adds to our understanding of regional patterns of lynching. Scholars have noted that, although Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas experienced the most lynchings in this period in terms of sheer numbers, border states such as Florida and Kentucky saw the greatest numbers of lynching relative to their black populations. The rapid changes these states faced in the late nineteenth century, including a sizeable increase in their black populations, led to greater social turmoil compared to Deep South communities in which racial hierarchies were more firmly entrenched. Harper’s Ozark towns seem to confirm this thesis. Southwest Missouri had only been sparsely settled before the Civil War, and during the war it remained largely Unionist. But as Confederate veterans and ex‐slaves began settling there after the war, the region became “a cauldron of racial disharmony” (p. xvii).
The Unionist roots of the region also meant that the Republican Party remained strong there in the early Jim Crow era, a fact that had deep ramifications for how the lynchings Harper discusses played out. Most significantly, in several cases, mob members were tried in court. In Pierce City in 1902, for instance, the families of two lynched men brought a civil suit against members of the mob. Although they lost the suit, that they were heard in court at all was quite extraordinary and belies any conception that, at the local level, African Americans remained passive to the violence committed against them. In Springfield, twenty‐two men were indicted, and two stood trial, for the lynching of three men in 1906. Although the men were released after a hung jury, Harper suggests that the influence of the Republican Party there allowed for more complex public and legal responses to lynching. That influence also meant that African American leaders had comparatively more authority, and black citizens felt relatively more emboldened, than in other regions of the country.
Whatever power African Americans had, however, was limited. In addition to lynchings, Harper examines the forced expulsion of black citizens from Ozark towns, sometimes following a lynching or in response to crimes against whites allegedly committed by blacks. While she does not pay as much attention to expulsions as the book’s title would suggest, this aspect of her study is the most original, since little has been published on this topic.
Although in her introduction Harper lays out her central conclusions about racial violence in this region, most of the book is narrative driven. Once she gets engrossed in her narrative, Harper often misses the opportunity to draw out the implications of the stories she is covering, especially regarding cases in which white responses to crime did not end in extralegal violence. Nevertheless, her book provides a cogent and illuminating contribution to the burgeoning scholarship on lynching.
Amy Louise Wood
Illinois State University