Joe Turner's Come and Gone Historical Context

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Joe Turner

As one of the plays in his ten-play historical cycle, chronicling the African-American experience in the twentieth century, Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone is an overtly historical play. In this case, the play concerns what life was like for African Americans in the 1910s. Although slavery was technically illegal at this point, the notorious Joe Turner ignored the law and illegally impressed African Americans into slavery for seven years on his plantation. Says Herald, "Kept everybody seven years. He'd go out hunting and bring back forty men at a time." Actually, the name, "Joe Turner," is incorrect, historically speaking. Although the W. C. Handy song that Wilson bases his play on was called, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," the actual man that the song referred to was named "Joe Turney," the brother of Tennessee governor Pete Turney. This discrepancy is rarely mentioned by critics, most of whom still refer to the man as "Turner." Part of the reason for this oversight may come from the fact that, with the exception of Wilson's play and Handy's song, Turner's exploits are often overlooked. Says Jay Plum in his 1993 African American Review article, "Although the chain gang affected the personal lives of many African Americans, traditional histories of the United States make little or no mention of the phenomenon."


In addition to Turney's blatant disregard for the law, another form of slavery existed in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century—peonage, or debt slavery. Although the federal government outlawed the practice of peonage with the 1867 Peonage Abolition Act, southern states still passed a number of laws that allowed African Americans to be fooled into signing contracts that committed them to debt slavery. Some of these contracts were disguised as good opportunities to work off a debt or court fine. In these cases, a landowner would offer to pay an African American's debt, in exchange for having the man work the debt off on the landowner's farm. However, this was often a trap, because many landowners would simply charge the unwitting slave more room and board than he could pay for, effectively keeping the slave in perpetual debt and bonding him to the landowner forever. Eventually, the ban on peonage was enforced, although the first conviction of a landowner engaged in the act of peonage did not happen until 1901; and the defendant was later pardoned by President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1911, when the play takes place, peonage was still widely practiced, despite a Supreme Court ruling the same year that declared state peonage laws unconstitutional.

The Great Migration

Even when African Americans were not coerced into slavery, many of them worked in slave-like conditions, especially in the South. Many newly freed slaves, unable to find work elsewhere, were forced to work Southern lands as sharecroppers, or tenant farmers. Slaves who became sharecroppers would generally lease a portion of a landowner's cropland, farming it and giving a portion of the crop—or the money earned from selling the crop—to the landowner. However, while blacks were now paid for their efforts, it was rarely enough to survive. In the play, Herald and Martha are sharecroppers, until he is abducted by Joe Turner. When Herald is released, he recounts how he tried to return to his life. Says Herald: "I made it back to Henry Thompson's place where me and Martha was sharecropping and Martha's gone. She taken my little girl and left her with her mama and took off North." When Herald decides to take Zonia and go up North to find Martha, he joins many other African Americans who were also hitting the road, for a variety of reasons. In her 1995 book, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, Sandra G. Shannon discusses this massive northward movement of African Americans, known as the Great Migration. Says Shannon: "The historical context out of which the play evolves includes a backdrop of frustrated sharecroppers; hundreds of unemployed, unskilled laborers; countless broken families; and a pervasive rumor of a better life up North." This northward movement of American Americans was one of many such migrations that happened during the twentieth century, as many moved from the rural South to Northern cities. Herald Loomis's migration in the early twentieth century directly preceded a much larger movement, called the "Great Migration," which took place during World War I.

W. E. B. Du Bois and the NAACP

The beginning of the twentieth century also witnessed the rise of W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the most important figures in African-American history. Du Bois, who received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1896, took America by storm when he published his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk. In the book, Du Bois publicly denounced the policy of Booker T. Washington—an influential black leader who encouraged African Americans to put up with discrimination from whites, and to concentrate their energies instead on educating themselves. Du Bois's attack on Washington created a split in African-American political support. Conservatives aligned themselves with Washington, while more radical members followed Du Bois. In 1905, Du Bois led a group of almost thirty African Americans in secret to Niagara Falls, Ontario, where they founded the Niagara Movement. Although this organization—which was effectively set up to oppose Washington's conservative policies—never gained a massive following, it did provide a forum to discuss civil rights issues. In 1909, the Niagara Movement, under the direction of Du Bois, merged with a group of concerned whites, to create the interracial organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Since 1909, the NAACP has been extremely influential, especially in a legal sense, in the fight to promote equal civil rights for African Americans.

This section contains 955 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
Joe Turner's Come and Gone from Gale. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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