ABC in Dixie: A Plantation Alphabet (ca. 1900)
We see the world through our letters. Horn-books with their Christian catechisms. Moralizing Victorian alphabet books.
George Willard Bonte from Cincinnati, Ohio and Marie Louise Quarles from Richmond, Virginia were both born in 1873. When they were four years old, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes cut a deal with southern Democrats to remove federal troops from the Reconstruction South, which tipped the balance in the Electoral College, made him president and ushered in the Jim Crow Era that would see the Civil Rights Act of 1875 declared unconstitutional, new state-level constitutions and voting laws designed to disenfranchise Blacks, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine as constitutional and Woodrow Wilson’s institutionalizing of segregation in the federal civil service. Fifteen Blacks were lynched in Ohio between 1877 and 1950; eighty-four in Virginia for the same period (Equal Justice Initiative). Sometime between 1900 and before 1908, the Bontes, who were married in 1902, published ABC in Dixie: A Plantation Alphabet with the firm Ernest Nister.
Ernest Nister had established his eponymous printing company in Nuremburg, Germany in 1877 and launched his London-based publishing company under the management of Robert Ellice Mack in 1888. Nister ranks with other German innovators of movable books such as Lothar Meggendorfer and Raphael Tuck. He came up with multiple versions of the dissolving-picture book in which the pull of a tab would transform one image into another. He also excelled at applying chromolithography to his books. Nister’s and Mack’s world view would seem mostly reflected in their titles: A Rabbit’s Tale, The Dandy Lion, The Animals’ Trip to Sea, Peeps into Fairyland, Surprising Pictures, Playtime Surprises and More Pleasant Surprises.
ABC in Dixie might seem surprising for a publisher with such a world view. Of course not so surprising for White Americans raised in the Jim Crow era. To whom this copy of the book belonged is unknown. Its cover’s colored-in letter C suggests that it reached at least one child — most likely White. Why was the page opposite “N is fer Noah …” violently torn out? Did a child named Olive take offense at the lines on its reverse?
“O is fer Olive
who looks like she’s white.
She brushes de
mo’nin’ en night”.
The illustrator’s “light-skinned” caricature speaks volumes to the engrained racism laughingly passed along to young readers. But they were v0lumes no one at Nister’s firm read. Nister’s must have thought it was on to a winner and followed up with a series of postcards based on the book. The one for Valentine’s Day drew on the publisher’s movable book devices and included rolling eyes. Following in the footsteps of W.H. Heinemann with William Nicholson’s Alphabet (1897) and An Almanac of Twelve Sports (1897), Nister’s also signed up George Bonte for The Coon Calendar for 1905.
Why have a work like this in the Books On Books Collection? For its chromolithography? Yes. For its connection with Ernest Nister? And yes. But the full answer is to be found in another collector’s viewpoint. In 2012, now retired professor of sociology David Pilgrim established the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan. The museum presents over 10,000 objects of hate that were part of growing up Black in the Jim Crow era. It exists to “use items of intolerance to teach tolerance”. Pilgrim’s 2005 essay explaining how the museum came to be and how it works is powerful. It needs to be. Jim Crow 2.0 is with us. The museum’s voice is still needed against ongoing violence, book-banning, voter suppression driven by legislatures and Supreme Court decisions and anti-immigrant measures taken around the world.
ABC in Dixie is here for its representation of how alphabets construct a world view. It is also here to be confronted with other world views. Rather than being coddled among rosy-cheeked children’s books — as it once was in Ernest Nister’s catalogue — ABC in Dixie sits here to be discomfited by American Alphabets (2005) by Wendy Ewald, Mourning/Warning (2015) by Tia Blassingame, Transforming Hate (2016) by Clarissa Sligh, R is for Reparations (2019) by the Global Afrikan Congress, The Modern Day Black Alphabet (2020) by Arial Robinson and Ein rassismuskritisches Alphabet (An Anti-Racist Alphabet) (2022) by Tupoka Ogette. By way of apology, if these other world views are seen alongside that of ABC in Dixie, maybe the arc of history can be bent a bit further toward justice a bit sooner.
“Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.
“Tia Blassingame“. 17 August 2022. Books On Books Collection.
“Wendy Ewald“. Books On Books Collection.
“Global Afrikan Congress“. Books On Books Collection.
“Tupoka Ogette“. Books On Books Collection.
“Arial Robinson“. Books On Books Collection.
“Clarissa Sligh“. Books On Books Collection.
Lester, Neal. 14 March 2022. “Black Children’s Lives Matter: Representational Violence against Black Children“. Humanities, 11(2), 41;
Pilgrim, David. 20o5. “The Garbage Man: Why I Collect Racist Objects“. Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan. Accessed 1 May 2023.
University of North Texas Libraries. 2000. “Ernest Nister” in Pop-up and Movable Books Exhibit. University of North Texas. Accessed 1 May 2023.