Sunday, January 20, 2019

Victoria L. Harrison's "Fight Like a Tiger"

Victoria L. Harrison is an instructor in the department of historical studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She has published essays in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society and Ohio Valley History.

Harrison applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Fight Like a Tiger: Conway Barbour and the Challenges of the Black Middle Class in Nineteenth-Century America, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Fight Like a Tiger reflects the main argument of the book that the black middle class has its roots in the free black population of the mid-century and developed alongside the idea of a white middle class. Although slavery and racism meant that the definition of middle class was not identical for white people and free people of color, they shared similar desires for advancement. Barbour, a former slave, was a steamboat steward in Louisville, a race activist in Cleveland, businessman in Alton, Ill., and a legislator in Reconstruction Arkansas during the administration of Governor Powell Clayton. After he left the legislature, he was appointed tax assessor in Chicot County, Ark., where residents of the county seat, Lake Village, greeted with threats of violence.

The page begins with the last of a previous paragraph describing attacks made on Barbour by the Democratic Arkansas Gazette newspaper, a racist paper that ridiculed “airy darkeys.” The two full paragraphs on the page read:
Barbour did not respond to the attacks, but, instead, continued to expand his portfolio. He asked for and received credentials as an attorney from Associate Justice E.J. Searle of the Arkansas Supreme Court after supplying the Clayton ally with “satisfactory evidence of his good moral character and qualification.” Barbour was certified to practice in the supreme and all inferior courts in the state. He swore his oath on the last day of September 1871; the clerk of the state supreme court recorded his license the following February. Barbour’s rival for tax assessor had been a lawyer, and although Downs had relinquished his claim to the county job, Barbour, possibly anticipating more trouble, acquired the means to counter further legal challenges to his position and a new way to make money. With the stroke of Searle’s pen, Barbour became a lawyer, one of only three black attorneys in Lake Village during the period.

Less than two months after he swore his oath, Barbour bought four town lots in Lake Village from Charles H. Carlton, a former officer in the Confederate Army, for $955. The full amount was due by 1 March 1872; thereafter interest accumulated on the note at 2 percent per month. As security, Barbour sold Carlton all of his household good, including a piano, for $5, the sale being void when Barbour paid off the lots. The presence of a piano, the symbol of middle-class refinement, among his belongings suggests a financial stability he did not enjoy. His property in both Cleveland and Alton had been auctioned off only a few months before, and despite his county job and newly acquired legal credentials in Arkansas, Barbour paid the debt to Carlton a full eighteen months later than agreed. Even so, with his large Lake Village homestead, license to practice law, and county office, Barbour accumulated the trappings of an important resident of Chicot County.
The remainder of the page begins to examine the tumultuous politics in Chicot County.

The two full paragraphs demonstrate Barbour’s relentless pursuit of standing in the communities where he lived and his persistently precarious financial situation. His struggle was representative of many heretofore unknown African Americans striving for entry into the middle class in nineteenth century America. In each place that he lived, we find others like him seeking to better themselves vocationally and economically, seeking respectability and status. Barbour failed as often as succeeded, but he never stopped fighting.
Learn more about Fight Like a Tiger at the Southern Illinois University Press website.

My Book, The Movie: Fight Like a Tiger.

--Marshal Zeringue