Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem, written in 1899 by Rev. Sutton E. Griggs, is a fascinating, prescient novella. In it, two men vie for control of a shadowy organization of African-American militants. One is the privileged mulatto Bernard Belgrave who advocates for full-out race war with European-Americans. The other is the self-made, full-blooded Belton Piedmont, who advocates for racial integration. The premise of a shadowy, militant African-American "empire within an empire" might seem like an ethnic peril novel except that Griggs was himself an African-American minister and social activist reflecting on the political forces in tension within African-American communities in the thirty years since the American Civil War. In that it is fascinating. It is prescient in how these forces are still at play in African-American communities today.
Despite being the greatest moral accomplishment in American history, and the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin becoming the best-selling novel of the 19th century, the abolition of slavery did not immediately translate to full material equality for African-Americans. Poverty was the main inhibitor to equality, with up to 80% of African-American farmers eking out a living as sharecroppers. Violence was also an effective tool.
The Ku Klux Klan, White League, Red Shirts, and independent actors emerged as domestic terrorists using violence and intimidation to suppress African-American voters. Between 1890 and 1910, Democrat legislators throughout the 11 former Confederate states passed Jim Crow Laws mandating poll taxes, literacy tests, and residency requirements that effectively disenfranchised the majority of African-Americans, most of whom still lived in the South. Many counties, and some whole states, lacked a single registered African-American voter. Being ineligible for the vote eliminated these African-Americans from serving in public office. They became, for all intents and purposes, politically invisible. This in turn made them vulnerable to regionally-instituted segregationist laws and continued white supremacist violence.
The response to this violence and disenfranchisement among African-Americans and their allies was varied. The Exodus of 1879 lead 40,000 people to simply up and leave the South for Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado to forge a new life. It was also common for African-Americans to band together for protection into "Union Leagues" organized by the Republican Party. Contrary to its reputation today, the Republican Party was the party of Abraham Lincoln and spearheads of the abolitionist and integrationist movement through the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. In fact, the Republicans became increasingly under the control of African-American factions, with its white supremacists defecting to the segregationist Democratic Party. The modern Republican party was a product of the 1960's "Southern Strategy," when the Republican Party sought to win over white Democrat voters in the South, and the 1980's "Moral Majority."
|An 1879 Harper's Weekly illustration of|
"Exodusters" on their way to Kansas.
|Illustration of the 1876 "Colored National Convention" held in Nashville.|
Education was a key component in African-American emancipation. The creation of secondary and post-secondary schools became a priority of Northern churches and the federal government. Whereas only 22 African-Americans had graduated college prior to the Civil War, the number doubled to 44 in the 1860's, and rose again to 313 in the 1870's, 738 in the 1880's, and 1126 in the 1890's. Whereas the average US worker made $200-$400 annually in 1910, college-educated African-Americans were making approximately $15,000, using their wealth and education to improve their communities.
These realities are all expressed through Imperium in Imperio, as a pair of educated African-Americans struggle for the heart and future of their people through a conspiracy shaped by violence and political disenfranchisement.