Circulation and Resistance: The Marrow of Tradition and the 1900 New Orleans Race Riot

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While scholars have long understood Charles W. Chesnutt's novel, The Marrow of Tradition (1901), as a fictionalization of the 1898 race riot and political coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, this article suggests that the novel can be more fully understood by looking to a second historical soruce: the July 1900 New Orleans race riot. It is this event, not the Wilmington incident, that most shapes Chesnutt's depiction of a violent black response to the white mob. After establishing that mainstream press accounts in 1900 consistently justified lynching by focusing on the black violence that ostensible preceded it, this article demonstrates that Marrow responds by re-casting black-on-white violence as the inevitable result—rather than the cause—of white supremacist logics. While possibly building upon Ida B. Wells-Barnett's Mob Rule in New Orleans (1900), Chesnutt's novel fictionalizes white press accounts of New Orleans resident Robert Charles, who killed seven white men while evading police and defending himself from a mob seekign to lynch him. In the character of Josh Green, and particularly in Green's fictional defense of a black hospital in the novel's concluding scenes, Chesnutt rewrites white press accounts of Robert Charles's death at the hands of the mob. By doing so, Chesnutt does more than simply condemn the widespread violence against the black middle class, which received condemnation in the northern press. He also challenges press accounts, north and south, that depicted working-class black men as a latent source of danger, accounts that justified the widespread lynching of the period.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)363-384
JournalJ19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • Charles W. Chesnutt
  • Ida B. Wells
  • "The Marrow of Tradition"
  • Mob rule in New Orleans
  • Lynching
  • July 1900, New Orleans Race Riot
  • Robert Charles
  • 1898 Wilmington Race Riot
  • Race riots


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