Scholarly series: A look at race and politics in the Gilded Age

About a year after the 1861 outbreak of the Civil War, the United States government allowed African-Americans like Wiltonians Henry and Samuel Dullivan, George W. Robinson, John James King, and Sherman Roberts to enlist for Union Army service.
According to Wilton Bulletin founder and first editor G. Evans Hubbard’s “History of Wilton” manuscript, the 29th Connecticut Infantry Regiment was established in 1863 and joined by the Dullivan brothers on Dec. 28, and Mr. Robinson on Jan. 5.
Mr. King and Mr. Roberts, both of whom had been enrolled as substitutes, were mustered into the 30th Colored Infantry Regiment in 1864, according to Mr. Hubbard. The regiment was later combined with other African-American regiments to form the 31st U.S. Colored Regiment as part of the IX Corps.
The regiment was part of the attacking force at the mine explosion in Petersburg, Va. — also known as the Battle of the Crater — on July 30, 1864, during which it lost 136 officers and men, according to Mr. Hubbard.
In 1865, the Civil War came to an end and slavery was abolished with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Three years later, the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to former slaves, and in 1870 the 15th Amendment granted African-American men the right to vote.

On Sunday, Feb. 22, James Goodman, a history and creative writing professor at Rutgers University, will lead this year’s third scholarly series installment — “Race Relations and Politics in the Gilded Age” — at the Wilton Library.
“When we talk about the Gilded Age, we tend to think of economic growth and political corruption in the North, railroads and stuff like that,” said Mr. Goodman, “but my lecture is going to be about what was going on with race in the South.”

Political participation

According to Mr. Goodman, the participation of northern African-Americans — like Wilton’s 29th and 31st Regiment soldiers — in the Union Army contributed to southern African-Americans’ desire to continue fighting for equality.
“After the passage of the 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment, there was a huge upsurge in political activity among African-Americans,” said Mr. Goodman.
“Politics, of course, is where the power in society is worked out and distributed — how goods and services are allocated; how laws are made — and African-Americans gained a modicum of political power in the late 1860s and 1870s.”
Mr. Goodman said his lecture will, more specifically, focus on “the effort of white southerners to roll back the gains made by African-Americans in the South and push them out of politics” through “violence, terrorism and economic coercion.”
“It’s a very sad and frustrating story, but it’s a very important story because there was an effort to create interracial democracy in the United States,” he said. “There was an opportunity to do that and it became, sadly, an opportunity that was lost.”
Because power was found in politics, Mr. Goodman said white southerners believed it was necessary to “ensure white supremacy” and get African-Americans out of politics.
“That was something they succeeded in doing, but it took a long time,” said Mr. Goodman. “Reconstruction ended, formally, in 1877, but it still took another 20 to 30 years before blacks were kept out of politics.”
Mr. Goodman said attendees of his lecture will be reminded of the struggle over democracy, equality, voting rights, and political participation in the South.
“When a lot of people think about the Gilded Age, they sort of forget about the South, which is what a lot of northerners did in this period,” said Mr. Goodman.
“Northerners just said, ‘We’re tired of this. We’re just going to let the southern states take care of this on their own.’ So, I think this lecture will be a reminder of that struggle and that lost opportunity.”

Then and now

What Mr. Goodman finds most fascinating about the Gilded Age, he said, is “how problems in our own time seem to echo problems back then.”
“Not that history repeats itself,” said Mr. Goodman, “but that we have this problem of race and race intersected with social class that we’re still dealing with.”
Although there have been “some huge changes in terms of black elected officials,” like the election of President Barack Obama, said Mr. Goodman, “we still certainly don’t have a race-blind society or criminal justice system.”
There are a lot of similarities between race relations in the Gilded Age and today, according to Mr. Goodman, who said “we’re still trying to finish the revolution that was set in motion by emancipation and reconstruction.”
“There was tremendous hope in the 1950s and 1960s, with the modern part of the Civil Rights Movement that started with the Montgomery bus boycott and extended all the way to the Civil Rights Act [of 1964],” he said.
“We were having what was called ‘the second reconstruction.’ That was a decade of real progress in changing of the laws and civil rights and liberties of African-Americans.”
Similar to what happened in the 1880s and 1890s, Mr. Goodman said, there was an attempt to roll back African-Americans’ gains in the 1980s and 1990s “with efforts to dismantle affirmative action, reduce the size of social welfare programs, and of late, the attempt to disfranchise voters by failing to renew the Voting Rights Act [of 1965].”
“If we look back at the 19th Century, there were a lot of lost opportunities, which we then had to deal with in the ‘second reconstruction,’” said Mr. Goodman.
“There are certainly things that are problems now that we haven’t solved and that we might have solved had we taken a different path towards these 30 years ago.”
Mr. Goodman’s scholarly series lecture will begin at 4 p.m. There is no fee, but registration is essential. To register, visit or call 203-763-3950, ext. 213.