Missed Opportunities

Posted by Dan Alba on April 24, 2015

This is part two in a five-part virtual book club on The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law and Justice in the Reconstruction Era, by Michael A. Ross.

For this week, we read Chapter One: “A Kidnapping in the Back of Town.” Chapter one sets the stage for introducing one of our country's most sensationalized kidnapping mysteries in history. Through the lives of ordinary Americans from every segment of society in 1870 New Orleans, we see the entire social order of society turned upside down at the height of Reconstruction after the Civil War.

With the kidnapping of Molly Digby, the 17-month-old baby from Irish working class parents, a cast of citizens navigate their identities, roles and responsibilities in a city torn apart by politics, racial fear, rumors, hysteria and religious accusations of Voodoo sacrifices. This includes:

  • Louisiana's Governor, Henry Clay Warmoth,
  • a Union army veteran from Illinois,
  • suspect Ellen Follin, described in the press as a "fashionable tall, mulatto woman, probably for the purpose of receiving a ransom,"
  • police chief Algernon Sidney Badger, originally from Massachusetts, and
  • African American detective John Baptise Jourdain, assigned to the Digby case.

What considerations or conditions do we learn from chapter one that reflect the challenges of the larger society and the nation as a whole?

I learned that there were going to be serious challenges with newly freed blacks navigating their place in this country, along with the pressures to prove themselves against a backdrop of opinions that they were an inferior group, not having much to offer society given their place as former slaves.

Reconstruction image Black legislatorsMany scholars have identified over 1500 black officeholders between 1865-1876 with roughly 320 black state and federal legislators in the South by 1872. But in this book we also get to see the every day jobs: a growing black police force and the first black detective in the city. This kidnapping case was a way for the mayor and governor, both white, to prove that the hiring of black law enforcement officers would be just as successful as white candidates. Could this case be solved by a black detective? If so, it would prove that black officers were as capable as white officers. There was a lot riding on this case!

What is interesting about New Orleans in particular is that it has a rich history of diversity. With French, Spaniards, Cubans, Germans, Irish, Italians, Greeks, Croatians and Filipinos, New Orleans was one of the most diverse and complex populations in the country. And yet, there was a backlash about how to integrate freedpeople. In a city where kidnappings were not uncommon, the fact that the suspects in this case were two female mulattos was part of what sensationalized this case.

Race, identity, politics, and gender all come together around a case which would normally not have been newsworthy, but becomes national and international news. In this way, it is a window into the dynamics of a new America after slavery. The country is questioning the capabilities of blacks after slavery. You have whites in power who believe in interracial democracy and bringing blacks into positions of responsibility that have historically not been available to them. But they are up against a white Southern mind-set that sees blacks as inferior, not eligible, and incapable of upholding those responsibilities.

I love the way Michael Ross tells this story punctuated with the history and culture of New Orleans during Reconstruction. The fear of Voodoo practices with accusations of human sacrifice in New Orleans among whites reminded me of the blood libel accusations made against Jews during the Middle Ages. Fears arise in a way that paints free blacks as dangerous to society as a whole.

Another thing we see in this first chapter is the role of prominent white women who speak up. As fears and rumors come out about the kidnapping, women play a role in asking for more resources and an immediate resolution.

I’m beginning to learn that it is not so much the failure of Reconstruction, but the missed opportunities during a critical time in American history and interracial democracy. There were people, places, and choices that could have made a tremendous impact in a positive way. But it didn’t, at least not to the extent that could have spared this nation the long struggle for equal rights. I don’t want to discount the things that did work during Reconstruction to improve the lives of slaves newly freed, but it was a missed opportunity whose legacy we still deal with today.

As we continue reading The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case, what do we learn about Detective Jourdain? And, through his experiences, what do we learn about the way newly-freed slaves engaged with their world of Reconstruction America?

Interested in joining our virtual book club? It's not too late!

Topics: Reconstruction, The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case, Book

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