Reconstruction was a turbulent time, filled with significant political and social change, violence, and controversy. One controversial figure was Albion Tourgee, an Ohioan who moved to North Carolina for economic opportunities.
To many Southerners, he was a carpetbagger. Tourgee was also a controversial Radical Republican. Motivated often by religious ideas, the abolitionist was, as historians Mark Elliot and John David Smith describe, “among the foremost champions of racial equality in the 19th century.” His political and social views did not endear him with most mid-19th-century North Carolinians. In the words of Judge Robert N. Hunter Jr. in “The Past as Prologue: Albion Tourgee and the North Carolina Constitution,” Tourgee was “a lightning rod for controversy on matters of racial equality.”
Living in Greensboro, Tourgee had a fascinating and noteworthy legal and political career. He was a Superior Court judge (1868-74) serving eight counties, and he was a delegate to the 1868 state constitutional convention and made his mark on the state’s most fundamental law. On moral grounds, he argued for black suffrage and equal civil rights. He also worked for penal reform and election of all offices by the people — to name two other examples. In addition, he simplified legal procedures and revised the state’s civil codes. After an unsuccessful bid for Congress, Tourgee left North Carolina in 1878. His legal influence, however, remained.
Later in his legal career, he served as the plaintiff’s attorney in the landmark 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson lawsuit challenging segregation laws in New Orleans, La. He did not prevail in that instance, but he was successful that year in securing the passage of an anti-lynching law in Ohio.
In 1897, President McKinley appointed Tourgee as U.S. counsel to Bordeaux, France. There he corresponded with McKinley, and later President Theodore Roosevelt, offering advice regarding race relations in the U.S. He was dismayed, in particular, by the Wilmington Race Riot that occurred in November 1898. He had thought that the brave service of African-American regiments in the Spanish-American War might have altered opinions regarding race relations, or at least allowed the integration of Army regiments — which happened decades later. He was encouraged, however, in 1901 when Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House. Tourgee wrote Roosevelt: “It would be hard for me to give any idea of the emotions I have experienced in contemplating this momentous incident. To say that I have been thoroughly dazed is not too much.”
Tourgee was a prolific and popular fiction writer. Like many authors, his experiences influenced his content and informed his plots. Reconstruction-era North Carolina, and Greensboro in particular, provided him with ample material. A Fool’s Errand (1879) was a national bestseller and Bricks Without Straw (1880) also was very popular. Some scholars have argued that Tourgee was one of the most important American writers of his day. These two Reconstruction novels were his most popular works.
The two Reconstruction novels are autobiographical in many ways. In A Fool’s Errand, a former Union soldier moves his family to the South. The main character purchases a decaying estate and works to improve the condition of freedmen and race relations. In the process, he angers many of his neighbors and the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a novel about a Northern Radical Republican’s experiences in the postwar South. The story includes the issues facing the South during Reconstruction and the conflicting attitudes in the land.
In Bricks Without Straw, Tourgee tells the story of how an African-American community worked to improve their economic and social condition and the backlash against those efforts. In many ways, it’s a story of how Reconstruction failed from Tourgee’s viewpoint.
To learn more about Tourgee’s fascinating legal and literary career, read Undaunted Radical: The Selected Writings and Speeches of Albion W. Tourgee (edited by Mark Elliot and John David Smith).
Dr. Troy Kickler is director of the North Carolina History Project (northcarolinahistory.org).