The Confederacy in New Orleans

The Confederacy in New Orleans

George Herriman was a cartoon artist famous for his Krazy Kat comic that ran from 1913 to 1944. Herriman wrote his comics at a time when black people did not have access to news rooms and careers in media. He was born to mixed race Creole parents in New Orleans, but throughout his life passed as white, hiding his parent’s ancestry and often hiding his hair and other features which may have made people question his racial heritage.
In the book Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White author Michael Tisserand explores the known history of Herriman’s family living in New Orleans before and during the Civil War. Herriman’s grandfather, George Herriman Sr., was a free black man living in New Orleans at the time of the Civil War. George Herriman (the grandson) was born in 1880 in New Orleans and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 10, but the impact of the Civil War on his family and his family’s history in New Orleans left a lasting imprint on him that Tisserand traces throughout his career and work.
New Orleans was a place of incredible diversity in the Antebellum South and it was common for white men to have a wife and family and to also have a black mistress (or several) and a separate mixed-race but free family. There were legal marriage-like arrangements between many wealthy white men and their black mistresses. This is the history that George Herriman’s heritage traces back to. Tisserand  writes about the racial history of New Orleans and about the complex forces that drove Herriman Sr. to join the Confederate Army in New Orleans as the Civil War broke out. Herriman Sr. enlisted despite, as Tisserand writes, “the aims of the Confederacy were no secrete. Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition – stated Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens in his Cornerstone Speech.”
Herriman Sr., as a free black, man enlisted because it was clear that free black men in the city would be in danger at the outset of the war if they did not find a way to demonstrate that they were not going to violently rebel against the government in New Orleans and across the South. Tisserand continues, “the free designation in free people of color was quickly losing all meaning.”
He adds, “yet, it didn’t take long to realize that even volunteering for the army didn’t ensure respect. Free people of color were treated poorly in the Confederate States Army, with many receiving neither uniforms nor weapons.”
Tisserand includes these details and more about Herriman’s family to help explain why he pursued a strategy of passing and to inform the audience of certain characteristics of his psychology which translated into his art and comics. Herriman lived as a white man, afraid that society would discover his black and Creole family history. Thanks to the color of his skin he was able to escape the world of deliberate hate and discrimination that his father and grandfather had lived in, but the trauma they experienced never truly left his life. The complex and diverse mixture of New Orleans stuck with him, but was something he hid, similarly to the way the South attempted to hide the ideas expressed in Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech through the Lost Cause Narrative after the Civil War. Nevertheless, the lived experience of his father and grandfather during the Confederacy in New Orleans and the response that can be read through Herriman’s life and work demonstrates the complexity and racial challenges that influenced the development of life in New Orleans and across the south.

The Onset of the Civil War

I heard recently in a podcast that the North won the Civil War, but the South won the culture war that followed. How we remember the civil war and think about the people who fought on both sides of the war is complex, and there is no easy way to remember and truly understand the history of slavery in our country. Many people in our country have a heritage that runs back to the colonial period prior to the civil war, and for many the iconography of the confederacy is a representation of that heritage. Unfortunately, that iconography, the men and women of that time, and the heritage represented cannot be untangled from the legal ownership and subjugation of human beings. There certainly had been slavery throughout the world before the United States’ Civil War, and outlawing slavery at the time our constitution was written would have required a monarch (something desperately avoided by our founders), but by the time the Civil War occurred, the legitimacy of owning people was very much in doubt. In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehesi Coats looks at the onset of the Civil War, and why slavery was worth protecting for white men and women in the South.

 

“At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies —cotton—was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi River Valley, and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. Our bodies were traded from the White House by James K. Polk. Our bodies built the Capitol and the National Mall. The first shot of the Civil War was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state. Here is the motive for the great war. It’s not a secret. But we can do better and find the bandit confessing his crime. ‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,’ declared Mississippi as it left the Union, ‘the greatest material interest of the world.'”

 

The right that Southern states wanted to protect was the right for white men and women to own black people as property. The South won a cultural war in changing the meaning and purpose behind the Civil War and throughout reconstruction and the early 1900s this idea was able to spread and gained legitimacy. When we reflect back on the period we should recognize that our history was not guided by angels but shaped by human beings. We made mistakes, we acted in self-interest, and we found ways to excuse our behaviors. We allowed the exploitation of human beings to form the backbone of our greatness, and then we made excuses to allow such exploitation to persist. As deplorable as our humanity may have been, we can still look back and celebrate the best part of our history, but we should not work to salvage memories of the worst part of our history. We can celebrate what men like Washington and Jefferson accomplished despite the fact that they owned slaves, but we should not revere the Confederacy or men like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, or Alexander Stephenson who were major players in history precisely because they owned slaves and fought for the right to continue to subjugate human beings as property. The iconography of the civil war should be understood not as pride in being southern, but as the very battle symbol that men wielded in the fight to maintain the exploitation of black men and women. We cannot compartmentalize the state’s right that the south fought for, and the iconography of the time.