Arc of Justice

Arc of Justice

by

Kevin Boyle

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Arc of Justice: Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the police van, Ossian feels relief—the mob can no longer reach him. But he also feels fear. He and his compatriots have changed from potential victims into “crazed colored men.” He will need to make people understand the complex reasons he felt the need to buy a home in an all-white neighborhood and protect it by any means necessary. These reasons lie in the past.
The fact that Ossian initially feels relief over being arrested and taken to the police station points towards the prevalence of racialized violence as a tool for maintaining segregation. And as Ossian considers how he will defend himself, his personal and family history will show how deeply entrenched racism, segregation, and violence are in American culture.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Ossian’s great-grandfather, Edmond DeVaughn, was born into slavery and taken by his owner, Alexander Cromartie, from North Carolina to the northern Florida panhandle in the 1820s. It was prime cotton land, both by virtue of the rich soil and Florida’s brutal dehumanization of enslaved people, who couldn’t even go for a walk without their masters’ permission. Violence occasionally surfaced in Leon County, where Black enslaved people outnumbered their white masters by 3 to 1 by the 1860s.
Ossian lives only a few generations removed from a world in which white Americans enslaved Black people. Because they were vastly outnumbered by the Black people they kept enslaved, white planters and their families feared violent uprisings. This shows how white Americans had long felt that their safety depended on keeping clear and impermeable barriers between themselves and Black people.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership Theme Icon
Edmond DeVaughn married an enslaved woman named Gilla in the 1840s and they had seven sons. Edmond died in 1857, and Gilla raised her sons on her master’s plantation against the backdrop of increasing national debate about slavery and the Civil War. When emancipation came to Leon County, the DeVaughn children were in their teens and early 20s. But their newly granted freedom “had no shape [or] substance.” Formerly enslaved people had no land, little education, and no political representation. Still, they were determined to claim freedom, property, education, and prosperity for themselves.
Following the American Civil War, the United States government granted formerly enslaved people freedom and gave them the rights of citizenship. But the situation of most Black Southerners didn’t change very much at first. True progress entails social upheaval and the hard work of education, labor, and fighting for civil rights—and at this point in the story, the narrative highlights that there’s still a long way to go.
Themes
Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon
Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
The white planters quickly passed laws to recreate as much of the circumstances of slavery as possible. These actions drew the federal government’s attention, which reasserted military control of the South and instituted Reconstruction. Republicans, in control of the federal government, planned to remake the South, not only granting rights and freedoms to formerly enslaved people, but reviving the Southern economy by linking it to the North with train lines and opening public schools for Black and white children.
Because social customs and legal interpretations are often more powerful than grand ideas like “equal rights,” the political and social white elite continued to torment and control newly emancipated Black Southerners with oppressive laws. Reconstruction represents the federal government’s realization that true justice requires equal rights in law and practice. Thus, it both rewrote laws and tried to provide Black Southerners with the education and resources necessary for full political participation.
Themes
Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon
Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
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Among the agents sent to the South to bring Reconstruction to fruition were many priests and pastors, including representatives of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. The AME broke from the mainstream Methodist Church when congregations began to enforce racial segregation during the early 1800s. AME preachers emphasized education, frugality, and self-discipline.
To combat the systemic oppression of white Southern planters, organizations like the AME Church sought to empower Black Southerners with the tools necessary to achieve the American Dream: hard work, education, and financial acumen. The fact that the AME broke from the mainstream Methodist Church demonstrates the pervasive nature of segregation and racism in American society. 
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
The DeVaughn family embraced the AME’s message. Two sons entered the ministry, and the whole family became sharecroppers together on one plot of land. This allowed them to pool and save their resources, send their children to the AME school, and open accounts when the government established a Freedman’s Bank. Nevertheless, they—and the rest of the formerly enslaved people—faced an uphill battle. Bad weather could ruin crops, and white planters never stopped their attempts to limit and disenfranchise people they once enslaved. And organizations like the Ku Klux Klan used violence to rebel against Reconstruction.
As newly enfranchised Black Americans begin to claim their rights as citizens, opposition forms among those white planters and elites who want to maintain their power and who believe in their own inherent racial superiority. The Ku Klux Klan and other organizations serve to defend the purity of the white race and they use violence, intimidation, and political savvy to reinforce the color line between Black and white Americans.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership Theme Icon
Quotes
In 1868, the Republican Party took control of the Florida state legislature and installed 19 Black legislators. But their white Republican colleagues were more interested in attracting Northern business than overturning white supremacy. In 1872, the Black delegates staged a political coup to nominate Ossian Hart for governor. Black voters helped propel Hart to victory. Although he was a former slaveholder himself, he was primarily interested in forging economic ties with the North. Hart repaid his Black supporters with a law prohibiting discrimination in public facilities and appointing Hubbert DeVaughn as the county’s first justice of the peace.
In the years following the American Civil War, political progress towards a more racially just and economically integrated nation meets defeats as well as victories. Economic policies that will help rebuild the South motivate Ossian Hart, a former slaveholder himself. Still, he pushes through legal changes that protect the rights of Black Southerners and he honors their political voice.
Themes
Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon
Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
Quotes
Just 14 months later, however, Ossian Hart died suddenly. The Republican Party lost control, while white economic opportunists reclaimed power. Then, the Democratic Party seized control of the state legislature in the 1872 election. While Democrats maintained the Republicans’ economic policies, they also systematically enshrined race-based oppression. Poll taxes reduced Black political representation, while a systematic cultural narrative of white supremacy—enforced through anti-miscegenation laws preventing sexual relationships between white and Black or mixed-race persons, segregated schools, and employment discrimination—ensured a common dehumanization of Black people.
The backlash against Reconstruction shows that progress isn’t guaranteed and must be fought for over long periods of time and despite reversals of fortune. The rise of the Jim Crow South depends on both social customs—the systematic narrative of white supremacy—and legal policies to reinforce the color line. In generating this segregated society, white politicians and powerbrokers play on their constituents’ sense of superiority and fear of integration to enshrine an ideal of white racial purity.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership Theme Icon
Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
Dora DeVaughn, Remus DeVaughn’s daughter, grew up as Reconstruction’s promises crumbled around her family. By the 1880s, most of the DeVaughn brothers, including Remus, left Leon County. Remus moved his family to Orlando, where he tried to eke out a living doing manual labor. White people in the cities enforced Jim Crow segregation just as enthusiastically, if not more, than their rural counterparts. But quiet, dignified, determined Dora never abandoned the AME principles instilled during her childhood. In 1890 or 1891, she married Henry Sweet Sr., a man born free in 1865 to parents who—according to family lore—escaped slavery in Alabama in the midst of the Civil War. They named their first son, who died in childhood, Oscar. To her second child, Dora gave the name “Ossian.”
The collapse of Reconstruction’s promise into the violence, political disenfranchisement, and segregation of the Jim Crow South demonstrates the precarity of progress: without vigilant effort to maintain Reconstruction initiatives, the racism and elitism of Southern white people returned. Despite being born after the end of the American Civil War, in practice Henry and Dora don’t have many more rights of opportunities than their parents and grandparents. Nevertheless, they cling to the idea of the American Dream for themselves and their families.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
In 1898, when Ossian was three, Henry Sweet, Sr. purchased and moved his family to a small plot of land in Bartow, Florida. When it was on the Florida frontier in the 1880s, Bartow was much more integrated. But the arrival of the railroad, with its economic opportunities, and the discovery of mineral reserves, spurred the town leaders to forbid Black people from living on the “white” side of town. East Bartow—where the Black families lived—had a cohesive social community and vibrant businesses. But they had no public utilities, and life was still hard. 
Bartow’s history shows how economic progress and prosperity go hand in hand with segregation. Not wanting to share the economic benefits of the growing town, white residents first force Black residents into their own part of town, then deny them services like public utilities and education. The disadvantaged population, closed off from civic life, becomes an ever-easier target for prejudice.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
Henry Sweet Sr. toiled on his farm and sold his produce both in Bartow and in Tampa’s bigger city market. Dora and Henry’s 10 children helped on the farm. The parents raised their children in the AME tradition, with its emphasis on self-discipline, hard work, and religious faith. They taught their children the value of an education. Unfortunately, the town showed little interest in providing a school for Black children. The Union Academy opened the year the Sweets arrived, but it was chronically underfunded and understaffed. It taught children to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. But after completing this rudimentary education, the children had nowhere to go: the high school was only for white students.
Although Henry, Sr. never achieves the economic and social status of his sons, Ossian, Otis, and Henry, he nevertheless demonstrates the core principles of the American Dream: by working hard, saving money, and valuing morality, he makes a place for himself and his growing family to thrive. Still, prejudiced beliefs about the rights and abilities of Black children to learn limit educational opportunities for the Sweet children in Florida.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
The American Dream Theme Icon
The violence of the Jim Crow South provided the constant backdrop of Ossian’s childhood years. Social and economic change had stripped many white people of their accustomed power and security, and white leaders played on their constituents’ fears to ensure that disenfranchised white people directed their anger at their Black neighbors rather than the wealthy and powerful white people. In Bartow, much of the racial fear centered on the phosphate mines. Low pay and backbreaking labor meant that the jobs were primarily filled by young Black men who lived in squalid company barracks. Brothels, bars, and gambling houses grew up around the barracks, both repelling and attracting white voyeurism and interest. The white community’s fear and disgust for these places fueled violence. Lynchings and other forms of vigilante justice occurred commonly.
The circumstances of Ossian’s childhood show how political and economic elites manipulate less-advantaged white citizens into acting on their racist beliefs and supporting segregation in the Jim Crow South. Yet again, this shows the connection between economic progress and segregation. And segregation makes a fertile breeding ground for fear and prejudice.  By confining the Black population and the seedier, less desirable businesses to the same part of town, white Bartow residents began to associate criminality with Black people, further perpetuating cycles of prejudice and segregation and licensing violence.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
Progress and Social Change Theme Icon
Then, in May of 1901, a white woman fishing in the river was raped and murdered. The testimony of a Black man who heard her screams implicated 16-year-old Fred Rochelle, a Black man who worked in the phosphate mines. As a mob gathered to march on the home where he lived with his sister, the AME church issued a statement condemning his actions and proclaiming their solidarity with the white mob. Two days later, three local Black men found Rochelle hiding near the mines and turned him in.
When Fred Rochelle stands accused of rape and murder, other Black residents in Bartow hurry to distance themselves from him. It’s a matter of survival, since anyone supporting Rochelle could fall prey to the same violence he faces. But it also shows how segregation consolidates power, forcing the marginalized group to align itself with its oppressors for safety.
Themes
Prejudice, Segregation, and Society Theme Icon
A crowd of 300 gathered in the town center when Fred Rochelle was brought in. That evening, Bartow’s town leaders placed Rochelle on a barrel of fuel and chained him to a tree. They piled tinder around the barrel, then allowed the victim’s husband to light the match. Although other men suffered horrific lynchings during Ossian’s childhood, Rochelle’s death made the strongest impression on Ossian. Although he was only five at the time, he maintained throughout his life that he hid in the bushes and witnessed the execution with his own eyes. Eight years later, just after Ossian completed eighth grade and another mob lynched another Black man in Bartow, Ossian’s family sent him north to complete his education. 
Like all acts of extrajudicial, vigilante justice, Fred Rochelle’s lynching parodies true justice. Yet, his execution happens with the implicit permission of the town’s leaders. Justice, in the Jim Crow South, isn’t available to all people equally, but depends on the color of a person’s skin. It teaches Ossian two terrible lessons. First, he must not expect justice or the full protection supposedly afforded by the laws from white officials. Second, he will always be vulnerable to the anger and hatred of white people.
Themes
Justice and Civil Rights Theme Icon
Self-Defense, Race, and Ownership Theme Icon
Quotes