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"An undergrowth of folly": Public order, race anxiety, and the 1903 Evansville, Indiana, riot

Brian Scott Butler, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Evansville, Indiana, is a good subject for the study of how the influx of African Americans following the Civil War influenced complex and conflicting notions of public order. As cities developed and industrialized in the nineteenth century, Americans were increasingly concerned with public order. Saloons, brothels, and gambling halls were the seed beds of urban disorder, offering an antithesis to the image of a well-ordered urban America the Victorian middle class wanted to present. Promoting sloth, self-indulgence, sexual license, and improvidence, the saloon and the urban subculture it appeared to promote, became the primary target of Victorian reformers, whose ordered ideal promoted self-control, frugality, and respectability. Victorians believed a well-ordered city, free of vice dens and their morally-challenged patrons, was essential in promoting an urban image that would attract industry and commercial development. Yet, the very complexity of American cities in the nineteenth century meant that competing notions would emerge of what constituted public order. Immigrants, African Americans, and the commercial liquor interests developed ideals of order often in conflict with the Victorian ideal. Influenced by racist stereotypes, white Evansvillians questioned the moral order of African Americans and the challenges they presented to the well-ordered city. As race relations reached a nadir at the turn of the century, Evansville's political culture increasingly exploited these challenges, setting the stage for a deadly riot that erupted after an African American man shot and killed a white police officer in July 1903.

Subject Area

American history|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology|African Americans|Social structure

Recommended Citation

Butler, Brian Scott, ""An undergrowth of folly": Public order, race anxiety, and the 1903 Evansville, Indiana, riot" (1998). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI9902949.