I saw death coming A history of terror and survival in the war against Reconstruction

Kidada E. Williams

Book - 2023

"The story of Reconstruction is often told from the perspective of the politicians, generals, and journalists whose accounts claim an outsized place in collective memory. But this pivotal era looked very different to African Americans in the South transitioning from bondage to freedom after 1865. They were besieged by a campaign of white supremacist violence that persisted through the 1880s and beyond. For too long, their lived experiences have been sidelined, impoverishing our understandin...g of the obstacles post-Civil War Black families faced, their inspiring determination to survive, and the physical and emotional scars they bore because of it. In I Saw Death Coming, Kidada E. Williams offers a breakthrough account of the much-debated Reconstruction period, transporting readers into the daily existence of formerly enslaved people building hope-filled new lives. Drawing on overlooked sources and bold new readings of the archives, Williams offers a revelatory and, in some cases, minute-by-minute record of nighttime raids and Ku Klux Klan strikes. And she deploys cutting-edge scholarship on trauma to consider how the effects of these attacks would linger for decades--indeed, generations--to come. For readers of Carol Anderson, Tiya Miles, and Clint Smith, I Saw Death Coming is an indelible and essential book that speaks to some of the most pressing questions of our times."--

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  • We had to pick ourselves up
  • The devil was turned loose
  • I didn't know how soon they might come to send me up
  • They deviled us a while
  • I don't ever expect in this life to get over it
  • They never intended to do me justice
  • What they did is hurting my family
  • A revolution in reverse.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The Ku Klux Klan was at the forefront of "a shadow army of paramilitary gangs" launched in the post--Civil War South in "the pursuit of the Confederate cause by other means," according to this gripping debut from historian Williams. Basing her study on eyewitness testimonies given in congressional hearings during the early 1870s and recollections gathered by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s, Williams documents how formerly enslaved people worked to reunite scattered families, find homes and employment, and exercise their new political rights, while facing constant threats of violence from white Southerners who sought to prevent these advances. Among other horrors, Williams documents the whipping of Black children by "night riders," campaigns of intimidation and torture waged against Black landowners by their white neighbors, and a father witnessing his son's stabbing death in Limestone County, Ala. Along the way, Williams also pays tribute to Black families' resilience and determination to fight back against harassment, details federal efforts to stop the terror campaign and the forces that undermined them, and examines how the trauma of racialized violence is passed down through generations. This harrowing report hits home. (Jan.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

U.S. constitutional amendments--the 13th abolishing slavery, the 14th guaranteeing legal protections, and the 15th awarding voting rights--were intended to bring about a new era of freedom for Black Americans. However, the Reconstruction Era in the South remained fraught with danger and legal subversion. Masked Ku Klux Klan members terrorized, attacked, maimed, and murdered Black people with little to no repercussions. The failure to properly enforce laws occurred at the local, state, and federal levels, which left the Black population still subjected to disenfranchisement and effectively barred from achieving basic human rights. Williams (history, Wayne State Univ.; They Left Great Marks on Me) excels at transforming exhaustive research and maps, notes, and an appendix, into an accessible narrative with appeal for a scholarly or general reader. Her ability to trace select families through the decades truly reveals the lasting negative effect of Reconstruction-era terror on those who had hope snatched away. She reveals the seeds of social racism from the past, which sadly remain firmly planted. VERDICT A recommended heart-wrenching read that provides significant insight into the historical basis of racial conflict in the United States.--Jessica A. Bushore

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

A broad-ranging study of anti-Black violence in the Reconstruction era. Reconstruction was not so much a failure as an effort that was sabotaged from the outset. The administration of Andrew Johnson was committed to White supremacy, and the Confederates, though militarily defeated, never really surrendered. Immediately after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan was founded, and "night riders" began visiting violence on Black Americans who dared press for civil and economic rights. As historian Williams shows, these visits were carefully coordinated, indicating some sort of central organization as opposed to the commonly held belief that they were impromptu and rare attacks. The attacks "frequently targeted prosperous Black people," seizing income-producing tools and even whole crops. In some instances, as Williams chronicles, Black people organized resistance, and the night riders tended accordingly to steer clear of situations where they were likely to face gunfire. "Yet even within a limited space to operate, right-wingers committed extensive atrocities," she adds. Because they demanded total domination over Southern society, another understandable Black response was to move, as happened in the Deep South in 1879, "a hurried, mass movement of significant numbers in months" on the part of people called Exodusters, with Kansas gaining 30,000 Black migrants almost overnight. A combination of anti-Black violence, economic disenfranchisement, and voter suppression--all of which lend this book an altogether timely feel--doomed efforts to make Black Southerners equal citizens. Too many historians, Williams observes, have brushed such matters aside, blaming the failure of Reconstruction on its Northern champions, but Black Southerners did not forget, and many of the testimonials and eyewitness accounts that she draws on come from field recordings from the 1930s--even though, as she concludes, "Black counter-histories of atrocity and betrayal were no match for the machinery of the Lost Cause." Pair this book with Margaret A. Burnham's By Hands Now Known. A deeply researched work that exposes the shameful legacy of the neo-Confederacy, one that lingers to this day. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.