Reconstruction and the Post Bellum South

Cunning connivance is the thought that comes to mind when uttering the phrase “conjure tales.” The word “conjure” itself is rich with meaning; it conveys the idea of a deliberate falsehood when someone conjures up a tall tale. Yet within the context of “Conjure Tales,” it likely takes on the meaning, “of or practicing folk magic; a conjure woman.” The oft-repeated phrase spoken by Julius, to “cunjuh wuk” likely seems to reference the latter of the two definitions, but takes on a myriad of meanings — possibly even a double entendre – as Julius refers to the work of conjurers such as Tenie or Primus, all the while conjuring up tall tales himself! These clever yet untrue tales, which are met with great delight by his employers, most often relay a message that is supposed to not only entertain, but serve as a warning (i.e., not to knock down the schoolhouse, or not to purchase the vineyard). It is usually learned quickly thereafter that there was another reason for these tales: Julius had other designs.

Though Julius’s warnings are ignored with respect to purchasing the plantation, his later screeds frequently result in decisions that are favorable to the African-American community: though the schoolhouse was supposedly haunted, and its wood not used to build their new kitchen, Julius nevertheless quickly used it for their temperance meetings, remarking that if there were a spirit within it, “no doubt the preaching would do it good.” What this emphasizes, as well, are the subtle yet powerful actions that were necessarily employed by African-Americans in the period of Reconstruction – and later the Jim Crow South. In order to transcend the intentional and repressive acts perpetrated by white Southerners who greatly resented their emancipation and suffrage, these recently freed men and women had to battle predatory credit practices, racist labor policies, and even murderous lynch mobs. Nothing short of cunning tactics and oftentimes a conjured up tale (or spell) were all that could be done.

From the outset of Reconstruction, formerly wealthy aristocrats, landholders and great planters of the South sought by means of artifice to deny the recently-freed slaves their right to vote, their say in a representative government, or the ability to own land. These impediments were levied in the form of the Black Codes; the rise of the Ku Klux Klan; and poll taxes or other sorts of extremely difficult reading tests meant to disenfranchise. Of course, these tests also had the unintended (or intended?) consequence of disenfranchising poor, undereducated white males as well. Not surprisingly, unique and clever means were devised by the freed African slaves to circumvent such repressive tactics. Their efforts notwithstanding, the Republican Congress also sought – often by overriding Johnson’s vetoes – to moderate these pernicious acts engaged in by the Southern leaders.

Interestingly enough, these tales also highlight a pervasive ignorance that can be seen not only in Julius’s superstitious stories, but in his speech as well. In reference to the often inane stories, John, who is white, stated frankly: “your people will never rise in the world until they throw off these childish superstitions and learn to live by the light of reason and common sense.” This is closely akin to the words of Booker T. Washington, who in reference to the freed slaves’ inability to lift themselves up from poverty and discrimination, said that “Blacks should, moreover, refine their speech, improve their dress, and adopt habits of thrift and personal cleanliness; they should, in short, adopt the standards of the white middle class.”

While any of these changes might have helped incrementally during the period of Reconstruction and the subsequent era of Jim Crow, it was more the pervasive ignorance of the white Southerners that perpetuated these injustices. Today, we have a rich and unique cultural heritage to draw from when reading tales such as these. Nevertheless, changing habits and dress to better “assimilate” into white culture would not bring true equality; it would not come until white males in power had the moxie to “conjure up” some fitting legislation in response to the 1960s civil rights movement. Only then were African-Americans truly able to reap the benefits of Mr. Lincoln’s efforts nearly a century earlier.