“The First-Class Men in Our Town” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Abram Colby was one of the hundreds of African Americans who held political office as a Republican in the South during Reconstruction. While in the middle of serving three terms in the Georgia state legislature, he was kidnapped, beaten, and left for dead by the Ku Klux Klan. After President Ulysses Grant and the US Congress broke the power of the KKK in 1871, Colby was one of the many who testified to Congress about his experience. Colby's life and office-holding reveal much about African American agency in the post-Civil War South, the violence that black Southerners endured to pursue a better world during Reconstruction, the eventual plight of the Republican Party in the South in the late 1860s and 1870s, and, correspondingly, the end of Northern support for black civil and economic rights and, therefore, for Reconstruction itself.

Summary Overview

Abram Colby was one of the hundreds of African Americans who held political office as a Republican in the South during Reconstruction. While in the middle of serving three terms in the Georgia state legislature, he was kidnapped, beaten, and left for dead by the Ku Klux Klan. After President Ulysses Grant and the US Congress broke the power of the KKK in 1871, Colby was one of the many who testified to Congress about his experience. Colby's life and office-holding reveal much about African American agency in the post-Civil War South, the violence that black Southerners endured to pursue a better world during Reconstruction, the eventual plight of the Republican Party in the South in the late 1860s and 1870s, and, correspondingly, the end of Northern support for black civil and economic rights and, therefore, for Reconstruction itself.

Defining Moment

Between 1865 and the early 1870s, an increasing number of Southern blacks were able to win election to public office in the South because Southern black and white Republicans were united and many former white Confederates were still not able to vote. However, as early as 1868, just three years after the Civil War ended and the Reconstruction era began, the Ku Klux Klan was growing rapidly in numbers and influence. When Congress turned against President Andrew Johnson after he vetoed the Freedmen's Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Bill in 1866, thus ending the more moderate period of Presidential Reconstruction and starting Radical Reconstruction, which was aimed at a deeper alteration of the South's society, white southerners became more and more opposed to Northern-led changes. Historian Eric Foner has noted in his excellent work, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution: 1863–1877, that the violence against southern black and white Republicans in the late 1860s and early 1870s was “a measure of how far change had progressed that the reaction against Reconstruction proved so extreme” (425). Colby's experience was thus part of this larger pattern.

In Georgia specifically, events were turning against Colby and the Republicans already at the time of his beating in 1869. In fact, by the next year, even though he won a second term in the state legislature, Democrats had regained control of that body. They rapidly set about instituting legislation that would trap African Americans into sharecropping arrangements and other inferior positions for almost the next century (Foner 423–4). The Ku Klux Klan were obviously in league with the “redeeming” Democrats and, therefore, assisted with this Southern white resurgence by employing a wave of violence aimed at forcing black and white Republicans out of office. Even though Reconstruction would officially last until late 1876, Colby's beating and the Democratic “redemption” of Georgia occurred less than halfway through the period. In actuality, therefore, these events occurred when Republican strength, and federal commitment to black Southerners, was already beginning to ebb away.

For Colby personally, this attack occurred almost halfway through his time in the Georgia state legislature, since he was elected in 1866, 1868, and 1870 for two year terms each. His actual speech to the US Congress occurred three years after the incident, in 1872, after the power of the Ku Klux Klan had been broken. Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871, which made many of the types of things the KKK did, like intimidating voters and blocking their civil rights, eligible to be punished under federal law (Foner 454–5). Grant's administration then successfully prosecuted hundreds of Klan members and most of the rest ended their illegal activities. Colby's testimony was therefore aimed at helping to continue to bolster northern support for blacks in the South and also as part of the inquiry into the violence in the South in the late 1860s and very early 1870s.

Author Biography

Abram Colby was born in 1820 the son of a white owner and his black female slave. When his owner died in 1850, an acquaintance technically owned Colby until the Civil War, although he had a large degree of freedom and became a barber (Inscoe 15–16). Immediately after the Civil War, he was the head of the Equal Rights Association in Greene County, Georgia, which advocated for African American rights and opportunities (Foner 205). He also actively protested the Presidential Reconstruction of President Andrew Johnson, which was much more lenient on former white Southern rebels and not as concerned with protecting black political and economic rights as was the later period of Radical Reconstruction. He was elected to the lower house of the Georgia state legislature in 1868, 1870, and 1872, although by the time he left, Reconstruction was clearly coming to an end.

Document Analysis

Abram Colby's testimony about his treatment at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan in 1869 revealed two key facets of the black experience in the Reconstruction South. First, he was physically harmed through a severe beating that was made even more humiliating by the fact that he had first been stripped naked. The white men were trying to convince him to abandon the Republican Party, since they asked if he would vote for the candidates they considered to be the radicals (i.e., the Republicans) and he said that he still would. He received even more blows for not changing his stance. Additionally, the physical threat extended to his family, as when his daughter had a gun pointed at her simply because she did not want her father taken from their home in the middle of the night. A father's helplessness and heartache is apparent in Colby's words about his daughter, “She never got over it until she died. That was the part that grieves me the most.” Finally, even during the next election cycle, whites “peppered the house with shot and bullets” while he was at church. The physical threats that many African Americans, especially those in public office, experienced during Reconstruction, and for nearly a century afterwards, were very severe and very real.

Second, his testimony provided a window onto how white southerners attempted to “redeem” control of the South from what they perceived as unjust northern and black southern “oppression.” At least, that was the viewpoint of white southerners, and unfortunately also many historians, until the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. The key to reasserting white Democratic control of the South was the destruction of any viable organized political opposition to their power, meaning the Republican Party. That is why the KKK members who assaulted Colby spoke in such political terms. They derided Colby for voting for Republican Ulysses Grant and for the fact that Colby “had carried the Negroes against them,” which meant the white Southerners held Colby at least partly responsible for helping to deliver the black vote in Georgia to Grant in the election of 1868. They had also attempted to bribe Colby to abandon his seat in the Georgia legislature and presumably then allow a Democrat to go in his place. In general, Colby told Congress later, the Republicans could no longer try to get their voters to the polls due to such intimidation and, therefore, Republicans could not “make a free speech in my county. I do not believe it can be done anywhere in Georgia.” As this type of violent intimidation went unpunished, and as it was participated in by whites at all levels of Southern society as the title of Colby's speech indicated, the Republican Party slowly deteriorated in power and numbers in Georgia and the South.

Essential Themes

Colby's experience and testimony shed light on two major themes–the personal agency of African Americans during Reconstruction and the unique events that occurred in the American South when compared to other countries. First, although several generations of historians often focused on the roles of either Southern or Northern whites, and respectively portrayed black Southerners as oppressors or victims, more recent scholarship has highlighted the very real extent to which African Americans were able to control their own circumstances in the post-Civil War South, at least for a while. Colby epitomized this trend as he held public office for several years and testified to Congress about the violence in the South as part of an effort to bolster Northern support for blacks. He was, therefore, actively involved in attempting to shape the context in which he, and millions of other African Americans, lived.

Second, as historian Eric Foner writes in Reconstruction, “The wave of counterrevolutionary terror that swept over large parts of the South between 1868 and 1871 lacks a counterpart either in the American experience or in that of the other Western Hemisphere societies that abolished slavery in the nineteenth century” (425). While the KKK was not exactly a guerilla movement, apart from the open armed rebellion of the Civil War, they were the most effective and influential violent opposition to the federal government in American history. Additionally, while in Latin American nations there have, of course, been militant opposition movements to a national government, none were nearly as racially-oriented as the KKK in its targeting of black Southerners and those who supported them. Seen through these lenses, Colby's experience and testimony tell us much about the role of African Americans in Reconstruction and the extent of the violent opposition to the wide-ranging northern attempt to change Southern society after the Civil War.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bryant, Jonathan M. “The Freedman's Struggle for Power in Greene County, Georgia, 1865–1874” Georgia in Black and White: Explorations in Race Relations of a Southern State, 1865–1950. Ed. John. C. Inscoe. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988. Print.
  • “White Men Unite: Primary Sources.” American Experience: Reconstruction. WGBH: PBS Online, 19 Dec. 2003. Web. 5 Apr. 2014.
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