A technicolor history of the first civil rights movement and its collapse into black and white.
In The Accident of Color, Daniel Brook journeys to nineteenth-century New Orleans and Charleston and introduces us to cosmopolitan residents who elude the racial categories the rest of America takes for granted. Before the Civil War, these free, openly mixed-race urbanites enjoyed some rights of citizenship and the privileges of wealth and social status. But after Emancipation, as former slaves move to assert their rights, the black-white binary that rules the rest of the nation begins to intrude. During Reconstruction, a movement arises as mixed-race elites make common cause with the formerly enslaved and allies at the fringes of whiteness in a bid to achieve political and social equality for all.
In some areas, this coalition proved remarkably successful. Activists peacefully integrated the streetcars of Charleston and New Orleans for decades and, for a time, even the New Orleans public schools and the University of South Carolina were educating students of all backgrounds side by side. Tragically, the achievements of this movement were ultimately swept away by a violent political backlash and expunged from the history books, culminating in the Jim Crow laws that would legalize segregation for a half century and usher in the binary racial regime that rules us to this day.
The Accident of Color revisits a crucial inflection point in American history. By returning to the birth of our nation’s singularly narrow racial system, which was forged in the crucible of opposition to civil rights, Brook illuminates the origins of the racial lies we live by.
About the Author
Daniel Brook is a journalist and author whose writing has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, and The Nation. His last book, A History of Future Cities, was longlisted for the Lionel Gelber Prize and selected as one of the ten best books of the year by the Washington Post. Brook’s research and writing have been supported by fellowships from institutions including the Library of Congress and Tulane University’s New Orleans Center for the Gulf South. Born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island, and educated at Yale, Brook lives in New Orleans.
The Accident of Color is a spell-binding exploration of mixed-race Charlestonians and New Orleanians who had built complex lives across the color line during and after the Civil War, and struggled mightily against the dawn of Jim Crow segregation in the latter parts of the nineteenth century. Heartbreaking but also vividly alive, The Accident of Color moves easily from court cases to activists on the ground to politicians in legislatures as it portrays the many ways people struggled for the right to define themselves in a time of hardening racial lines. A lovely, necessary book.
— Gregory P. Downs, professor of history, University of California, Davis, and author of The Second American Revolution