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Duke re-releases Bricks Without Straw

Reviving a 19th-century novel of Reconstruction

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Bricks Without Straw: A Novel
By Albion W. Tourgée, Edited by Carolyn L. Karcher
Duke University Press, 432 pp.

If you grew up in the American South, or if you've spent a fair amount of time here, you probably understand that the term "carpetbagger" is not often spoken with much warmth (at least, not how it's most commonly used: to connote exploitation, opportunism, greed and plunder at the hands of outsiders).

But the carpetbaggers were as complicated and varied as the defeated states they moved into. Some came for personal gain, certainly (land was cheap, prices low), but some came armed with dreams of building a better, stronger, fairer South.

Of this latter type, one of the most idealistic (though not without his own financial motives) was a white lawyer from Ohio named Albion Winegar Tourgée, who moved with his wife, Emma, to Greensboro in October 1865 to establish a free-labor farming cooperative, the West Green Nursery, on which he employed freed slaves and paid them fairly (a novel concept in the post-Civil War South), thus setting an example of peaceful racial coexistence for others in the region. "I don't care a rag for 'the Union as it was,'" Tourgée had written as a soldier during the war, "I want & fight for the Union better than 'it was.'"

History now remembers Tourgée as a civil rights visionary: He worked pro bono as counsel for Homer Plessy during the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case, helped found the Afro American League, and presided over the interracial National Citizens' Rights Association (a precursor to the NAACP). But earlier, Tourgée also left his mark on the American public as a novelist who, in both his work and his life, grappled with the broken promises of Reconstruction.

This month, Duke University Press will re-release Tourgée's fourth novel, Bricks Without Straw, originally published in 1880 to huge success—the book sold 50,000 copies its first year in print, a tremendous accomplishment for the time—but largely forgotten since. Unlike his more famous Reconstruction novel, A Fool's Errand (1879), which Tourgée based largely on his own social, legal and political battles with white supremacists in North Carolina, Bricks Without Straw tells the story of Reconstruction from the viewpoint of the people who suffered through it the most: the newly freed slaves.

Tourgée believed that, almost three decades after its publication, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin still formed the bulk of what most white Northerners knew (or thought they knew) about race in the South. Though he respected Stowe's novel, he felt that many of its characters were "blacked Yankees" whose behavior and speech didn't quite ring true. "Seems like Uncle Tom must have been raised up North!" Tourgée recalled a freedman saying. His primary aim in Bricks Without Straw was to write against prevailing racial stereotypes and make his African-American characters as complex as the men with whom he fought during the Civil War and those he came to know in North Carolina. But he also wanted to explain to the world how Reconstruction failed—or, rather, how the federal government allowed it to fail in the 1870s, and what that would mean for a reunited America.

The story follows a man named Nimbus as he struggles to negotiate life as an freed slave in post-war North Carolina. Though lacking formal education, Nimbus is a natural leader: tough, confident, resourceful and much more knowledgeable about tobacco farming than most of his white peers. After the war, he buys Red Wing, an unused 200-acre portion of his old master's plantation, on which he turns a successful tobacco crop and his childhood friend, Eliab Hill, runs a school for freedpeople. "I wants my own," Nimbus explains to the local sheriff after purchasing the land, "an' wuks fer it, an' axes nobody enny odds, but only a fa'r show—a white man's chance ter git along."

Nimbus, his family and his colleagues at Red Wing are more than worthy of their early material successes, but, as the Freedmen's Bureau crumbles and they are left with no real protection from the rage of white supremacists, their ambitions ultimately make them targets. "A white man's chance" is more than the white South is willing to give them. The friends consistently fight back against the Klan's terror, but the violence and persecution overwhelm them. Nimbus is forced into de facto slavery through fines and penalties, and the others, fearing for their lives, flee to Kansas.

The novel's long passages of heavy dialect are cumbersome for a modern reader, but Tourgée speaks directly to his audience in much of the book, drawing a precise legal and historical diagram of why what happened—the dissolution of the Freedmen's Bureau, the institution of the Black Codes, voting fraud—was allowed to happen, and how the inaction of the federal government forced millions of African-Americans back into peonage for decades. "Right he had, in the abstract," Tourgée writes of the former slave's plight, "in the concrete, none. Justice would not hear his voice. The law was still color-blinded by the past." More than an entertainment, but of interest primarily to scholars, Bricks Without Straw is a firsthand document of the South's bleakest years.

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