In the novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Dr. Ernest J. Gaines creates the main character, Jane, who has lived through every historical event to happen to African Americans in the South. Jane functions as a living history book that provides personal reflections on American Slavery (the Antebellum Era), Reconstruction, and civil rights, and the Civil Rights Movement in rural South Louisiana. Throughout the novel, there are conversations regarding the ebb and flow of Black freedom, Reconstruction’s failed policies, the rise of Jim Crow and active disenfranchisement of black liberty and equality, and the introduction of the Civil Rights Movement in rural spaces through Jane’s memories and the experiences of her friends and family throughout her lifetime.
In addition to Jane remembering her abuse at the hands of her former slavers and her childhood community being slaughtered after the Civil War, there are two more characters whose lives are directly impacted (ended), through violent tactics of disenfranchisement, Ned Douglass and Jimmy. In the novel, Ned Douglass gains an education, becomes a member of the Freedman Bureau, is a Veteran, and returns to the South as a “teacher.” During his childhood, he is influenced by the plantation teacher, a “Yankee” landowner, and Black Reconstruction Politicians. Throughout his life, Ned actively works to uplift his people and encourages them to think of themselves as American citizens, not simply former slaves, and he is eventually assassinated for his work.
His character is representative of the Freedman’s Bureau’s work, and the many challenges formerly enslaved Black people faced during the Reconstruction Era as they began engaging with their newfound freedom and liberties. In his article Rights and the Constitution in Black Life during the Civil War and Reconstruction, Eric Foner writes how the formerly enslaved Black people had a deep appreciation for their newly found freedom and considered themselves equal citizens in every way. Foner also points out that many Black people during the time of Reconstruction actively leaned on the words in the Constitution and its new amendments.
Because of this understanding, many joined the Freedman’s Bureau and actively worked to document and report mistreatment and abuses suffered by Black people as they attempted to create new lives for themselves and engage in political activities during the Reconstruction Era. The work done by this federally established organization was to ensure protection and fair treatment for newly freed Black people and poor White people displaced by the Civil War. This included documenting voter discrimination and disenfranchisement, in addition to racially motivated acts of violence and disruption of Black communities. Due to lack of funding and staffing, the Freedman’s Bureau was never able to fully perform as it was intended, and Black communities suffered under unfair laws created by Southern State Governments as they re-entered the Union.
The character Jimmy represents the young activists of the 1950s and 1960s. The Southern young adults who had better access to education than their ancestors evaluated the changing landscape of the South, and how the plight of their people was directly intertwined. Students who were members of CORE ( Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (Student Non-Violent Corrdinating Committee) actively engaged in techniques to bring an end to segregation and the degradation of Black People throughout the Southern States. Through training programs established by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and other Civil Rights organizations, young adults learned techniques for engaging and motivating communities to fight for their rights. Engaging in activities, like voter registration drives, sit-ins, desegregation of schools and public spaces, freedom rides, and bus boycotts actively upended the social and legal status quo throughout the South, and was often met with extreme violence and resistance from state and local governments.
As Foner stated throughout his article, after the total abolition of slavery, Black people expected to be treated as complete citizens of the United States. While Dr. Ernest J. Gaines did not go into great detail about The Civil Rights Movement, he actively created characters in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman who, through their work and dedication to their community, personified the purpose and tribulations of major civil rights organizations throughout the South.
Foner, Eric.”Rights and the Constitution in Black Life during the Civil War and Reconstruction.” The Journal of American History. Vol. 74 No. 3. 1987
Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman