It is difficult, even excruciating, to imagine the staggering descent from high optimism to despondency experienced by many African Americans who lived between emancipation and the dawn of the twentieth century. For historians living in the post–civil rights era, recapturing the scale, velocity, and brutality of that dramatic fall has been hampered by two conceptual problems. The first of these, undergirded by prominent trends in the formerly “new” social history, is a widely shared enthusiasm for illuminating those hidden corners of daily life where men and women on the receiving end of Jim Crow continued to wield a degree of control. “Agency” has been the buzzword for a generation of scholarship that emphasizes the staying power and persistence of black Southerners in the face of relentless assaults on their social and economic status, their civil rights, and even, at times, their collective existence. This is, in many ways, an understandable reaction to an earlier consensus that relegated black historical initiative to the margins of a national fable cleansed of unseemly violence and sharp social conflict, but it is also be problematic.

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