This study examines how a seemingly disparate population of rural migrants was able to incorporate itself into the political process and elevate community concerns to the center of political discourse after the Civil War. Too often scholars pay little attention to the local concerns and historical processes that determined not only how former slaves conducted themselves in the political arena, but also how their goals and aspirations changed over time. Surrounded by majority slaveholding counties in the Mid-South, Memphis provides an opportunity to study the grassroots political mobilization of former slaves. Beginning with an examination of the wartime migrations of enslaved men and women in the Mississippi River Valley to Memphis, Tennessee, this study identifies the cooperative strategies black migrants utilized to express their freedom, forge new bonds of fellowship, and establish a sense of community in their new surroundings. In order to understand how the concerns of former slaves became a matter of public interest, I trace the movements and daily interactions of members of social networks within black neighborhoods to demonstrate how socialization and civic life influenced the contours of popular politics. While black political leaders focused on civil rights and the transformation of the social order, former slaves used politics to experience freedom and express their desire for self-determination in ways that demonstrated their level of attachment to their community.
By focusing upon these social and spatially based networks, this study seeks to broaden our historical understanding of the connection between civic life and political participation in an urban setting. An examination of former slaves’ cooperative associations reveals a variety of personal connections that transcended material conditions and long-term or migrant status. African American residential activities, leisure interests, and personal familiarity established a feeling of connectedness in their neighborhoods that became the basis for the development of political strategies. These social attributes, therefore, become a way to reconsider the shifting political alliances that characterized post-Civil War southern politics. African Americans were willing to forge alliances with ethnic minorities and ex-Confederates that reflected their sense of belonging in their respective communities and elevated local concerns to the center of public debate. In the end, my study challenges historians to consider looking beyond questions of race, class, and gender to explain black southerners’ participation in the public sphere. African Americans responded to multiple issues that allowed them to carve out a middle ground. In Memphis, African Americans relied upon neighborhood associations to foster a consultative model of local self-governance designed to not only elect their own representatives to local office, but also to articulate their desire for self-determination by ensuring their right to secure their material well-being, protect friends and families from violence, and educate children in their own neighborhoods. An examination of neighborhood life, the central role of black sodalities in popular politics, and electoral behavior, therefore, demonstrates former slaves’ willingness to eschew long-term political objectives for short-term goals to protect the social integrity of their new communities.