… from Jim Remsen:
"Little Negro Boy Begs for White Arm." That was the startling headline on a 1904 article I came upon recently in The Scranton Republican. As you may know, I've been doing book research about the life and times of the dozen black Civil War soldiers from my abolitionist hometown of Waverly, Pa., near Scranton, and in the process I've scoured period newspapers for items. And--egads!--that item from July 17, 1904, jumped out at me. The story goes that a five-year-old boy named Albert Turner had been run over by a train in Scranton, losing his right arm. At the hospital the youngster kept asking the doctor to give him a white arm. "I don't want nuthin' if I can't have a really good one," he is quoted as saying. "I don't want noh more black ones. Had enuf 'f them. Please." The doctor replied that perhaps he could get a white artificial arm someday. The unnamed reporter commented that Albert "is firm in his belief that the evolution is possible, if the doctors only will. His recovery is rapid, but that doesn't satisfy him in the least. There is a psychological phase of the incident which furnishes food for thought." Census records list no black Turner family in or around Scranton during the era so it's difficult to confirm this odd story. But however odd, the incident was sadly plausible given the stigma society placed on black people. And how telling that the reporter characterized obtaining a white arm as "evolution.""White Lily Republicanism." This term popped up in The Scranton Defender, another now-defunct newspaper of the early 1900s. The black-owned weekly took aim at institutional prejudice including in the Republican party that black people had long supported. The party faction known as the "lily white movement" was managing to purge blacks from power, especially in the South, and The Defender felt its negative effect in Scranton. In a 1904 editorial, the paper complained of rampant discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and politics. Blacks "are ostracised in every way although they are at times the balance of power in local elections, yet not a single place is obtainable by them in this great Republican center; the only place held by the colored man is that of a dog catcher." It was enough to make a boy like Albert Turner fantasize about changing his color.