White Man’s Heaven reviewed in the Journal of American History by Randy Finley

White Man’s Heaven explores the racial dynamics in the Ozark Mountains, circa 1900. The author studies Arkansas and Missouri villages (focusing on Springfield, Missouri, the largest community in the region) and contends that the lynching and expulsion of blacks in the region resulted from varying communal complexities. A prevailing Ozark culture of violence extant since settlement, political competition in which African Americans often determined close elections, economic uncertainty that exacerbated class conflict, cultural anomie as New South mentalities rocked the Ozarks, and regional racism endemic since the antebellum era spawned the violence that was perpetrated on a miniscule black Ozark population.

Kimberly Harper reminds us that the prevailing lynching narratives constructed by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Edward L. Ayers, Stewart Tolnay, E. M. Beck, and Michael J. Pfeifer are critically important, but they often overlook contingencies that a microscopic view such as this discerns. Harper finds multiple causes, and heterogeneous black and white communities reacted uniquely. Mobs were formed in Pierce Cityand Springfield after assaults on young white women, in Joplin after the murder of a policeman, and in Harrison after an assault on workers. In Pierce City, Joplin, and Harrison, scores of blacks fled after the mobs burned their homes, but in Springfield, white government officials quickly formed patrols after the lynching to restore order and prevent a mass exodus of blacks. In Pierce City, Joplin, and Harrison the judicial system failed to bring mob members to justice; in Springfield one leader was indicted and tried, but a hung jury signaled the futility of such cases.

For this well-written and creatively researched work, Harper mined newspapers, court records, pardons, city directories, and even the pen-pal exchanges between a northern and a southern adolescent. Photographs and sketches of the mobs keep their grisly work before the reader’s eyes. Eschewing the sterility of many scholarly monographs on lynching that become anemic exercises in finding a new paradigm where no human is really burned, mutilated, or dying, Harper never forgets the Conradian horror involved.

Why did such a small number of African Americans so frighten the vast majority of whites in the Ozarks? Harper reveals the diverse black and white responses. Many blacks fled a region infested with racism; others stayed. Many whites embraced lynching; others resisted it. Further investigations of racial separatism in the white culture of the Ozarks, the Populists ’ role in heightening racial tension, and the structure of Missouri and Arkansas state politics would enrich Harper’s tale of Ozark racism. I wish she had inquired into the dynamics of all-white Ozark towns to ask whether an absence of blacks intensified class conflict. As a good social scientist, Harper joins those who rationally analyze the causes of mob formation and lynching, but perhaps mobs escape rational inquiry because they fall within the realm of the irrational. The author movingly documents “ a dark mark upon the land yet to be removed ”

Randy Finley

Georgia Perimeter College
Dunwoody, Georgia

Review originally published by Journal of American History, Volume 98, Issue 3, Pp. 851 – 852. Re-published by permission Oxford University Press.

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