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  • Writer's pictureShawn McNulty-Kowal

The Price of Progressive Thinking: An Analysis on Albion Tourgée’s Commitment to Civil Rights

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

The Reconstruction Era of the United States of America began and ended at different times in different states. While a specific date is subject to change with every state, a good place to start when considering reconstruction of the nation as a whole is with the Emancipation Proclamation. On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation which states, “‘…On the first day of January…all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free’” ( This Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation preceded the delivery of the actual legislation which took place on January 1, 1863. The proclamation declared “‘that all persons held as slaves’ within the rebellious states ‘are, and henceforward shall be free’” ( The nation was divided. Rebels of the South felt their way of life and the will of God were threatened while the abolitionists of the North seized victory. With the Emancipation Proclamation being the first Executive Order passed in favor of the black American’s livelihood, the fight for civil rights in post-Civil War United States of America was set into motion. With the fight for African-American rights progressing, many public figures came into the limelight to declare their solidarity with black Americans. While many white Americans proclaimed their will to fight for civil rights, one in particular was expansively neglected from the conversation: Albion W. Tourgée.

Tourgée was born in Ohio on May 2, 1838. He was the son of two farmers and moved around the country his whole life - for a moment in time, as a young boy, Tourgée grew up in Kingsville, OH, the Western Reserve, a center of antislavery sentiment. He lived in Lee, Massachusetts before attending the University of Rochester in 1859. At university, he was “active in campus Republican politics. During this time he wrote an essay critical of prosecutions of distributors of Hinton Helper's antislavery book (‘The Impending Crisis of the South’)” ( Tourgée was an outspoken political voice from a very young age. Because of this fact, it makes sense that he became private for the Union Army during the Civil War. While fighting during the Civil War, Tourgée suffered a severe spinal injury, which caused temporary paralysis. After the war, his doctor advised him to move to Greensboro, North Carolina in order to seek warmer climate for his health and spinal injuries. After moving to North Carolina, Tourgée was met with hostility from the Southerners who supported slavery. Despite turmoil, Tourgée persisted and resisted in the fight for black Americans’ rights.

From 1866 to 1867, he edited a Republican newspaper, the "Union Register," in Greensboro. Tourgee was also elected superior court judge and served from 1868 to 1874. He roused the ire of conservative opponents of Reconstruction by insisting that blacks be included on jury lists and that the jail be heated in winter, a concern for inmates that conservative critics believed would encourage crime (

While Tourgée made a lot of contributions towards the Civil Rights Movement, he was neglected almost completely when considering his recognition as an important civil rights activist. Tourgée was an outspoken, realistic, headstrong political figure, social critic, and ally to black Americans and it is conceivable that due to his incredibly progressive mindset and arguments - his unwillingness to separate the artful from the political - he was neglected by historians and literary critics.

Albion Tourgée’s literary career was eclectic as it was impactful. The son of French immigrants was recognized for his work as an editor, journalist, and novelist. Tourgée contributed to, founded, and edited one newspaper and two magazines: Greensboro Union Register, Our Continent, and Basis: A Journal of Good Citizenship. The Greensboro Union Register was founded by Tourgée in 1866 and it contributed news articles “in which he examined Reconstruction in the South. The newspaper ceased publication in 1867, when he joined the Republicans in North Carolina” (Applegate 378). The reasons for Tourgée’s entering the world of journalism and leaving it are important in that they are rooted in his dedication to fighting for the rights of African-Americans living in a post-civil war, Reconstruction-era America - while this might not be overt, it is implied in that Republicans were anti-slavery. Tourgée espoused equal rights in all of his published pieces. Our Continent made art political and this seems like a recurring pattern for Tourgée. While he agreed to edit Basis: A Journal of Good Citizenship, he included written works and news pieces that supported the National Citizens Rights Association - an organization founded by Tourgée “whose aim was to secure enforcement of the civil and political rights of African Americans in the South” ( Tourgée was a politician as well as an artist and for him, it seems, the two could never mutually exclusive.

In addition to writing for politically charged newspapers and journals, Tourgée was a novelist. During or close to the Reconstruction period of America, the novels that were published, written by Tourgée were novels that focused primarily on life in the South during Reconstruction. Some novels were told from a white man’s perspective and others were not - while this could be considered problematic having a modern day perspective looking at the Reconstruction Era in retrospect - it is crucial to note that Tourgée understood the importance of and necessity in including the voices of formerly enslaved people in art. Tourgée’s other Reconstruction-era American novels, in addition to A Fool’s Errand, took place in the south and examined the effects of Reconstruction on the Southern rebel’s and/or Loyalist’s lives as well as on the the formerly enslaved people’s lives. Toinette: A Novel was published in 1874 when Tourgée was still living in the South. This novel emphasized the importance of reconciling animosities between white and black people living in an United America; it followed a romance of a plantation owner and an enslaved person. Bricks Without Straw was published only a year after A Fool’s Errand and it also sold extremely well. In this novel, Tourgée depicts the story of an African-American boy living and working in a post-Reconstruction America and how no matter the monumental status of his financial success, white supremacy is too ingrained in our society for him to be fully rid of his social status in a racially charged nation. On the whole, Tourgée was committed to exposing a troubling part of America’s history.

This devotion to uncovering and sharing an ugly time for America could be looked at as Tourgée’s claim to fame as well as his downfall towards public abandonment. On the whole, Tourgée’s novels have been forgotten by readers and critics, alike. This exclusion of Tourgée in the conversation surrounding important civil rights activists is important because, in contrast to other romantic novels written in light of the Reconstruction era (Gone with the Wind, for one), Tourgée kept his plot lines as closely rooted in reality as possible. In his brief biography of Albion Tourgée, E.C., Applegate makes note of the fact that Tourgée has become a forgotten literary figure in American literature. He writes,

Most of Tourgée’s novels have been forgotten. However, any reader desiring to learn about Reconstruction int he sOuth should read A Fool’s Errand and Bricks Without straw, which are based on his experiences and observations. Without question, these novels accurately depict the attitudes of African Americans and whites, as well as the clashes between members of the Union League and the Ku Klux Klan (380).

Albion W. Tourgée wrote A Fool’s Errand through an autobiographical lens and because of this, the clashes between the Union League and Southern rebels might not be completely objective, but what this offers is an intimate and more emotional approach to the telling of hostilities between the two parties. By writing a fictionalized autobiography that is rooted in truth, Tourgée was able to accurately and empathetically account historical events from America’s period of Reconstruction. Perhaps this was the reason, he was a largely neglected literary figure - the truth he shared remained untainted with niceties in order to make it digestible for an audience. He proved that empathetic and realistic storytelling techniques are more powerful in the long run as they affect individuals on very personal levels. A Fool’s Errand sold more than 200,000 copies in the United States. This number reflects that Tourgée’s Reconstruction era novel sold just below the amount of what would qualify a bestseller ( The fact that Tourgée’s name and his literary works of fiction have not been granted the same amount of attention as his contemporaries is troublesome. In George Becker’s article, “Albion W. Tourgée: Pioneer in Social Criticism,” he writes about this dissonance. Becker understands the gimmick of romanticism in literature and how that makes historically truthful events a bit easier to swallow, but he suggests that Tourgée’s abandonment in the world of literature goes further than that. He introduces this when he writes,

This all the more curious because other and lesser figures among post-Cicil war writers of social criticism have…been receiving continuous attention, in spite of conventional romanticism of plot or superficial understanding of social processes…a romantic novelist at heart, he [Tourgée] merely tried to engraft a social purpose on an established fictional form without examination of its adequacy or appropriateness for what he was attempting to do (70).

Tourgée wrote in the romanticism genre, perhaps more strategically than his contemporary romantic writers, and his works that were written in this form were popular for only a short while. Becker notices this discrepancy and he argues that while his popularity was deserved, it is unsurprising that his novel - therefore, he as a literary figure - that was so politically charged and vehemently opposed to the institution of slavery, were only popular for so long. Becker writes further on this point,

He had sympathy for the South, though he offered it no course but to tread what it considered a further pathway of humiliation. He charged the North with dereliction of duty, harping on that theme whenever occasion offered. It is not surprising that his popular was somewhat brief (69-70).

Tourgée’s fleeting popularity was political as opposed to unintentional in that he was an writer who valued the merging of a political climate with his creative works. His political career was very much so intertwined with his artistry in the literary world. His political and social status surely allotted him with the confidence to pursue such hot topic issues like anti-slavery narratives and black education reform in America. His relationship with writing worked symbiotically with his career as a politician - writing, it seems, grants writers with the space to completely divulge into their thought processes and the ways others think and believe in legislation. Tourgée brimmed with anger when it came to legislation that negatively affected freed African Americans. This anger towards something so political was filtered through and drawn out in his written works. He assumed position as narrator in Bricks without Straw and in this novel, the narrator is a successful and ambitious black tobacco farmer. Tourgée has many pieces of written work that include black voices as omniscient narrator and the way this voice develops and forms over the period that Tourgée writes is impressive and offers credence to Tourgée’s empathic and sensitive approach to telling tales of the African American’s struggle in Reconstruction-era America. This point is made clearer in Peter Schmidt’s literary study, Sitting in Darkness: New South Fiction, Education, and the Rise of Jim Crow Colonialism, 1865-1920 when he introduces Albion Tourgée as a writer and social critic who fought laboriously for equal education for African-Americans,

But within the space of one year between the publication of A Fool’s Errand and Bricks without Straw, Tourgée rethought both how his fiction represented blacks and how it defined the aims and methods of black education. His portraits of black leaders shift significantly, from stressing dependency to stressing agency, the right of black to define their own destiny (55-6).

Albion W. Tourgée was an artist and politician who understood the power of empathy and the power of anger and that when combined, a certain sort of passion manifests, creating a way of communication that is influential, inclusive and kind. In his political career, Tourgée was able to pass a lot and be part of different legislative proclamations in favor of the livelihood of black Americans because of his empathetic approach to persuasion.

Tourgée’s political career started out in the army. He was a private for the Union army during the Civil War and after the war he entered law school, which worked as a catalyst for his dedication to the uplifting of every American citizen in light and power of the law. As stated above, his writing career was never anything but political. When he wasn’t practicing politics or law, Tourgée was writing about the two. After testing the waters in the world of journalism, Tourgée was elected as delegate to the state constitutional convention in 1868, “where he advocated civil, political, and judicial reform, much of which was eventually written in the state’s constitution” (Applegate 378). Once this convention was over, Tourgée helped to kickstart a new Code of Civil Procedure for North Carolina, which was a provocative move for a Northerner living in Southern territory during the Reconstruction period of America. Being one of the most vocal and progressive civil rights activists during the Reconstruction-era, Tourgee insisted that black Americans “be included on jury lists, an action that, along with others, caused prominent whites who opposed Reconstruction to criticize him in public and in the press” (Applegate 378). Tourgée and his wife were ostracized in the South by the public. Tourgée seemed to have represented a man who stood up for the victims of racism and oppression no matter the retribution he suffered from the rebels. When a figure in American history rebels against oppressive power in a way that is not violent, but peaceful and clever, it seems that the ostracizing and the oppression they are specifically fighting against turns around onto them because they represent a scapegoat. This could offer some insight as to the reasons why Tourgèe was neglected by historians or literary critics.

When considering the forgotten civil rights activist, writer and politician, the term “historical revisionism” may come to mind. Historical revisionism - or, less commonly, “negationism” - is a term that “describes the process that attempts to rewrite history by minimizing, denying or simply ignoring essential facts” ( Fighting for the rights of an oppressed group, especially while living in region of the most oppressive, will always stir up conversation, but not necessarily the kind of conversation people want to keep on record for future admiration. Bold confrontation, the kind Tourgée acted with, is more often than not looked at with the cold shoulder as opposed to documentation. Tourgée’s life story, his progressive novels, his fight for civil rights has since been revised from history in such a way that offers credence to this idea. It seems that Tourgée was a social critic who went above and beyond the call for civil activism, therefore making his efforts the precedent. For political figures who wish to keep feathers unruffled or a more neutral public image, Tourgée could represent their worst nightmare: a bold and unapologetic representative for the unheard voices of an American oppressive history. Tourgée, it seems, could be one vocal participant in the civil rights movement who set the bar for his contemporaries and colleagues and this was conceivably threatening for those who’d rather stay neutral during times of violence targeted against a certain group of people. An easy way out of coming to terms with their own lack of response to violence is by simply “ignoring essential facts.”

Albion W. Tourgée was and is an iconic activist, politician, and writer who worked tirelessly in defense of the Civil Rights Movement. He has been widely unrecognized for his devotion to ensuring rights to all groups of people and he was undeserving of this neglectful erasure. When researching this outspoken social critic, one can find his name and his story and his fight through sources that are documents specifically in defense of civil rights for black Americans, but it is even more rare to find his name on websites that simply highlight general political figures. Was his active fighting against the KKK not worth remembering? His founding of a newspaper that focused on promoting civil rights for every person living in America? His founding of the first all-girls school for black Americans? His producing the National Citizens’ Rights Association? The list goes on and the answer is always no. So why has he been forgotten by the majority of America? We live in a nation whose devotion is not with the common people, but the powerful people. Albion W. Tourgèe represented a force that created space for the unheard, a man who lent his voice to those who could not speak, a white man who recognized his privilege as living as a white man in a country that based itself on an institution that will inevitably always lift white men to the top of the hierarchy. Albion W. Tourgèe recognized this fact from the start and we are only now uncovering it. This makes you wonder - if Albion W. Tourgèe - a well-off, white, politician from the North - is so easily forgotten by the masses, then whose voices, belonging to those who have been silenced from the very start, remain unheard?

Works Cited

“A voice against segregation, Albion Tourgee.” A voice against segregation, Albion Tourgee | African American Registry, segregation-albion-tourgee.

Alexander, Michelle. The new Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, 2011.

American Memory from the Library of Congress - Home Page, S?ammem%2Fmurraybib%3A%40field%28SUBJ%2B%40od1%28National%2BCitizen %27s%2BRights%2BAssociation%2B%2BU%2BS%2B%2B%2B%29%29.

Applegate, E. C.. American naturalistic and realistic novelists: a biographical dictionary. Greenwood Press, 2002.

Becker, George J. “Albion W. Tourgée: Pioneer in Social Criticism.” American Literature, vol. 19, no. 1, 1947, pp. 59–72. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Color Blind Justice : Albion Tourgée and the Quest for Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson, Oxford University Press, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://

“Early American Bestsellers.” 1870-1879, 2010/12/1870-1879.html.

National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, preliminary_emancipation_proclamation.html.

“Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).” Our Documents - Plessy v. Ferguson (1896),

Sitting in Darkness: New South Fiction, Education, and the Rise of Jim Crow Colonialism, 1865-1920, University Press of Mississippi, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://

“The Emancipation Proclamation.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, emancipation-proclamation.

Williamson, G. I.. “Historical Revisionism.” 14 December 2017.

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