John Arthur “Jack” Johnson was born into poverty in Galveston, Texas, in 1878, and he was an all-around genius. He was an intellectual and a poet. He was an engineer who held patents on improvements to wrenches that he used to fix the cars he owned, because Johnson eventually became rich. And if you couldn’t tell from his cars, his extravagant clothes and his nightclub, then his smile full of gold teeth would’ve given it away.
Johnson was also incredibly handsome, stood over six feet tall, and was known to entertain a seemingly endless number of women. Whatever ideals of success or manhood existed in that time, Johnson transcended them all — except for one thing. Johnson was a very dark-skinned Black man. And that endless number of women? They were white.
Of course, your everyday, run-of-the-mill white supremacists deeply hated Johnson, but there wasn’t a whole lot any of them could do about it. That’s because, on top of the genius and the poetry and the nightclub and the money and the good looks, Johnson was also a professional boxer. And in 1908, at age 30, he became the Heavyweight Champion of the World, the first Black man to ever hold the title.
America was growing.
The following year, a group of activists, journalists and lawyers — including W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells — formed an interracial civil rights organization called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Their protests, lawsuits, and other organizing efforts were bringing Black rights further into the white zeitgeist.
Then, on July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries. A former champ dubbed the Great White Hope, Jeffries was tasked with returning the heavyweight title to the white race. Instead, Johnson administered a thorough, savage, bloody, one-sided, 15-round hammering, all the while flashing his golden smile far beyond the cheap seats. It was the only loss of Jeffries’ career, and he would later say, “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in a thousand years.”
White supremacy had yet again been publicly proven false according to its own brutal standards.
Nineteen-ten was also the year The Great Migration began, when Black folks moved away from the Jim Crow laws of the South, seeking better lives out West and up North. The relocation of millions of Black people throughout the country had the potential to change everything. Many white people were indifferent to this national advancement, and some even welcomed it, but white supremacists saw The Great Migration as a terror. They envisioned thousands of frightening W.E.B. Du Boises coming to integrate their classrooms, and thousands of horrifying Ida B. Wellses coming to integrate their boardrooms, and thousands of big Black Jack Johnsons coming to integrate their bedrooms. White supremacists were scared out of their damn minds.
As Americans, we frequently dismiss the horrors of our history as “common for that era.” But when those horrors are examined, instead we often find a history written by the winners, and the uncomfortable truth that the good guys don’t always win. In fact, sometimes the winners are the worst among the worst.
One of those winners is Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States. An extremist white supremacist, Wilson’s life was spent in a continuous attempt to destroy the future, present and past of Black Americans. He was so successful in this pursuit that not only did other like-minded extremists emulate Wilson, he was also able to set many false standards for what we now believe was “common for that era.”
For example, in 1913, three years into The Great Migration and just four months into his presidential term, Wilson resegregated the federal government — an attempt to undermine half a century of Black American achievement following Emancipation. He also oversaw mass firings and demotions of Black people in government. On the rare occasion when circumstances prevented their demotion, firing or segregation, Black civil servants were forced to work inside actual cages to separate them from their white co-workers.
Before becoming President, Wilson was Governor of New Jersey, where he signed a eugenics sterilization bill into law. Prior to that, as President of Princeton University, Wilson not only blocked Black admissions, he erased records of past Black admissions.
In his five-volume revisionist text, A History of the American People, Wilson expressed deep affection for the Ku Klux Klan and called white people “the responsible class.” Black people were “thieves,” “beggars,” “insolent,” “idlers” and “an ignorant and inferior race.” Wilson was especially bothered by “the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes.” In other words, Black participation in democracy meant corrupt governments and oppressed white people.
The traditional white-supremacist answer to this problem was to stop Black people from voting, but Wilson had a more effective solution. He was a Southerner, and in the South at that time the primary instruments of segregation were white-owned businesses. Across much of the South during the Jim Crow era, it was expected, if not demanded, that white business owners refuse service to Black people. And so, to Wilson’s thinking, if a government was modeled on a business, the “ignorant and inferior race” would be rightfully and automatically excluded.
Wilson’s plan would have to start small, at the local level of government. The elected mayor of a city or town could be turned into a symbolic leader with greatly diminished authority, or the position could simply be eliminated. That way, there’d be no publicly chosen leader for those Black “beggars” to appeal to, to hold to account, or, God forbid, become themselves.
The electoral districts of a city or town could easily be redrawn — either expanded or reduced in size in order to divide and dilute the voting power of these “thieves.” And if the new, white representatives of these gerrymandered districts hired an executive-level bureaucrat to replace the elected mayor, their government could be safely maintained by and for “the responsible class,” unburdened by the “insolent,” and made efficient by the exclusion of “idlers.”
Thus, a plan for a local white-supremacist government was formed. Wilson promoted the plan in national journals using racist dog-whistle claims that it represented “anti-corruption,” “efficiency,” and was good for “business.” The loudest dog whistle of all was the title of the job that would replace that of a mayor: city manager.
It sounds innocuous now, but in 1910 the word manager had a different connotation. The idea itself was born out of slavery. The enslavers who owned plantations didn’t like having blood on their hands, so the position of manager was created. The manager was the middle man tasked with brutalizing the enslaved, piling up their bodies, and dealing with the enslavers’ children — those conceived, birthed, and enslaved against the will of their enslaved mothers.
Managers also produced financial reports for the plantation owners. These reports were plain and bloodless, filled with language and concepts that, while common today, were uniquely vicious as they pertained to enslaved people at the time. For example, depreciation of assets specifically referred to the rate at which the savagery of slavery devastated Black bodies, eventually rendering them useless to the financial interests of their enslavers.
In 1910, a time when more than half a million Civil War veterans were still living, this was still a common understanding of what “management” meant. A revisionist historian like Wilson, whose father was an enslaver, would have known this intimately. But to many readers of those national journals and newspapers, the idea of installing a “city manager” sounded like a plan to enslave an entire city, so initial attempts to implement the concept faltered.
Enter the city of Sumter, in central South Carolina.
If you didn’t hear the dog whistles, you may have been confused as to why the people of Sumter would want to change their government. In 1912, the town’s 8,105 citizens didn’t have many complaints about corruption or inefficiency in their local government, according to most observers. What the town did have, however, was a majority Black population and two powerful, extremist white supremacists.
Dr. S.C. Baker and A.V. Snell were the president and secretary of the Sumter Chamber of Commerce, respectively, and their ideas were as monstrous as Wilson’s.
“Prior to their emancipation,” Dr. Baker once said of Black South Carolinians, “the crime of rape was almost unheard of.… I am of the opinion that 95 percent of all crime in the third [state judicial] circuit is committed by the Negro and of this 95 percent 90 percent is committed by the free-born Negro.”
“The Negro here is shiftless and useless, ignorant and unsanitary,” Snell once said. “The Negro, in my opinion, is absolutely the worst drawback the South has, and no one can doubt that, if it were possible to move every colored man from the South today, replacing him with a white man, in ten years the South, with its rich soil and climate, its great possibilities, it would be the richest section of the United States, if not anywhere in the world.”
Baker and Snell campaigned to change the structure of Sumter’s government. The townspeople voted on the proposal they promoted, and in 1912, what became known as The Sumter Plan was adopted. The town’s eight electoral districts were reduced to three. The position of elected mayor was eliminated, and the town would henceforth be run by a city manager. These changes were heralded as proof that democracy worked, that citizens could break free of corruption and finally forge an efficient, business-friendly government, one that was virtuous and honest — unless, that is, you were a member of the town’s Black majority, or if you looked at literally any of the details of the plan.
The vote on the plan had been hastily arranged and barely publicized. Only 324 people showed up to cast a ballot, 252 of which voted for the plan. Three representatives of the prior electoral districts became representatives for the new districts. They included the previously elected mayor, a lawyer who was later forced by the bar association to pay restitution to clients he’d defrauded. After a lengthy search for a city manager, one was finally hired, but he quit after less than a year, having realized that his duties were not that of a manager so much as those of an assistant to the city council. Another city manager was soon hired to replace the first, but he also quit in under a year, citing the same arrangement of duties and suggesting that all three city councilors should be jailed.
So much for democracy, efficiency and ending corruption, but at least they got their business in order. White supremacy had secured its hold on Sumter and it certainly wasn’t stopping there. By the time the town’s second city manager quit, The Sumter Plan was being promoted and implemented by locally powerful white supremacists in small cities and towns across the country. But it wouldn’t be called “The Sumter Plan” for long. It would soon be renamed after the first big city to embrace the idea.
In Dayton, Ohio, the locally powerful white supremacist who pushed the plan was John H. Patterson, the robber-baron owner of National Cash Register (now known as NCR Corporation), which was Dayton’s largest employer and, at the time, the supplier of nearly all cash registers sold nationwide. Patterson was a proponent of “scientific management,” which was essentially just another of the same old white-supremacist business practices, this one dressed up with science in the name. If you’re wondering how scientific management differs from segregation, apartheid, or similar white-supremacist practices allegedly justified by “science,” a 1905 edition of the Dayton Evening Herald has the answer:
“The management of the National Cash Register Company made a change in its janitor force on Friday afternoon by bringing in white men to take the places of the colored employees,” the paper reported. “The managers want every person working for the firm to have a chance for promotion through any of its various departments. Therefore, the company has decided to start good, bright boys in the positions that the colored men have filled so that they may be eligible for promotion in its service. This change in the janitor force will give 80 young men a chance to get into the company’s service and show their various qualities.… There is absolutely no hard feelings on the part of the company or its President [Patterson] towards colored people, as that gentleman has a number of them employed at his home, and has no intention of dismissing them. At the factory, however, there was no chance for these colored men to advance.”
The Dayton Journal reported on how the mass firing was received:
“On Friday evening, President Patterson asked Harry A. Pollard, who has been for sixteen years a faithful colored employee at the Officers’ Club, and among those dismissed at the N.C.R., to come to his residence. After speaking about the situation at the N.C.R., Mr. Patterson gave him five twenty and two ten-dollar gold coins. He requested Mr. Pollard to deliver the donations to the several colored churches. This action was bitterly denounced in every local colored pulpit Sunday morning.… Rev. W.O. Harper, pastor of the Zion Baptist Church, said: ‘The conscience of the colored churches cannot be covered by a twenty-dollar gold piece…. If we die, we die men. We will not accept his $20 as “hush money.”’”
In 1913, Patterson’s hubris and corruption led to antitrust convictions of not only his business, but also of Patterson himself. The mogul was facing a year in prison. But just when it seemed his comeuppance was on its way, that same year Dayton was hit with a devastating flood. Patterson used his enormous resources to support rescue efforts, and made sure members of the national press covering the disaster knew he was doing so. One reporter’s account:
“Newspaper reporters, shot off by their city editors without time to get so much as a toothbrush or a collar, found themselves sleeping in brand-new brass bedsteads, under down quilts, and rattling round in tiled bathrooms, where everything was supplied them, even — if they had time to use them — with buffers to polish their fingernails. When their clothing gave out they were given new ones — clean linen, overalls, pajamas, anything they needed. Hard-working clerks and attendants at once acquired all the special knowledge of valets with the gracious manners of Southern gentlemen. Men smeared with mud were asked, as they went to bed, to send their clothes to be pressed, and there were large signs posted in the lower corridor stating that clothes-pressers and barbers worked all night and accepted neither pay nor tips.”
Patterson also gave reporters as much liquor as they could drink and, by no coincidence, newspaper headlines began appearing nationwide deifying Patterson as the savior of Dayton. His conviction was soon overturned, and Patterson directed his efforts toward implementing the city manager system of government. “He turned the full sales and advertising force of the N.C.R. into the fight and sold the plan to the people the way the cash registers had been sold,” a business reporter wrote a decade later. As a result, in 1914, The Sumter Plan became The Dayton Plan.
“Patterson was one of the first business leaders to try to apply scientific management to local government, testing out his ideas in rebuilding the city after a disastrous flood ruined downtown Dayton,” notes Dr. Samuel R. Staley, a professor at the University of Florida.
How’d the rebuilding go? Well, with its new white-supremacist government plan in effect, Dayton rebuilt itself into a segregated city. White-only neighborhoods were established, white business owners banned Black customers, and Ku Klux Klan membership grew until Dayton became one of the most Klan-populated cities in the country.
This was the pattern across the United States. In town after town, city after city, locally powerful, extremist white supremacists successfully promoted this self-serving form of government, claiming it would operate uncorrupted and efficiently, like a business. Of course, supporters weren’t the only ones hearing these dog whistles. In cities with well-established Black communities, like Tampa, activists fought the implementation of unelected city managers, but had little success.
By 1920, The Dayton Plan was in effect in 157 municipalities, and in 1923 it came to Portland, Maine. As in Sumter, Dayton and elsewhere, the plan was pushed by the local Chamber of Commerce and extremist white supremacists. More than 7,000 Ku Klux Klansmen marched through the streets of Portland in support of the change in government.
Portland’s nine electoral districts were gerrymandered down to five, and the elected mayor was replaced with a city manager hired by the five new councilors. The previous mix of nine aldermen and 27 councilors was reduced to just five councilors. Those councilors were elected at-large, by a city-wide vote, ensuring that neighborhoods with high proportions of already-marginalized residents would have no representation. After their victory, a KKK official wrote a letter to the Catholic Bishop of Portland that read, “Hereafter no niggers, Catholics or Jews will ever hold office in Portland.”
So, there you go. In response to The Great Migration and gains achieved by Black Americans in government, business, sports and culture, extremist white supremacists reacted by designing, promoting and enacting a system of government that strengthened white supremacy across the country. Even in quaint and charming Portland, Maine.
But, so what? That was 99 years ago. Just because something starts off bad doesn’t mean it stays bad. I mean, surely some places have been able to make this system work, right? Black folks, Catholics and Jewish people have all held office in Portland. In fact, Portland has done a lot to help its Black population. Half the Black people in Portland are immigrants, and the city has programs that have successfully lifted many of them out of poverty, like zero-interest loans to start businesses.
Unfortunately, the system of government championed by the KKK is still largely intact in Portland, and when you have a system designed to strengthen white supremacy, the outcomes are fairly predictable.
Nationally, the Black poverty rate is more than twice the rate of white poverty. The rate of Black poverty in Portland is more than twice the national Black poverty rate. In Maine, Black poverty is three times larger than the state’s white poverty rate. And in Portland, where the majority of Black Mainers live, Black poverty is four times higher than the white poverty rate.
The most recent estimates indicate that Black Portlanders have the lowest median household income of any racial group (we’re the only group below $50,000), and we’re the only group with a home-ownership rate below 10 percent. We’re also the only group to have negative or non-existent earnings growth, having reached our peak in 2018, when our earnings growth was zero percent.
Portland police arrest and issue citations to Black Portlanders at a rate far higher than that of white residents, based on each group’s proportion of the population. In Portland’s public schools, Black students are disciplined at a rate substantially higher than their white counterparts.
By placing executive power in the hands of an unelected bureaucrat, the city manager system was designed to exclude members of the public from decisions that affect their lives. Redrawing electoral district lines in the manner Portland and other cities have done further disempowers marginalized communities by diluting their voting power. For example, as the aforementioned data on home ownership indicates, Black Portlanders are concentrated in on-peninsula neighborhoods, where most of the rental housing is. Their ability to influence City Council elections in the three off-peninsula districts, or in the three at-large and mayoral races decided by city-wide votes, is diminished in exactly the way the KKK planned. Electing enough city councilors capable of forming the five-vote majority needed to pass laws — or to hire or fire a city manager — is practically impossible under this scheme.
How bad can city managers get?
In 2004, Jon Jennings lost a Congressional race in Indiana, where he ran as a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat. In Maine, he was a co-owner and general manager of the Maine Red Claws minor-league basketball team. South Portland hired him to be an assistant city manager in 2013, and two years later Portland hired him for the top job.
While in office in Portland, Jennings pushed for policies around policing, poverty and immigration that were disproportionately harmful to Black and brown people. This led Black Lives Matter organizers and other activists across the city to call for Jennings’ resignation or his firing.
He did not resign and he was not fired. Instead, the Portland City Council literally stood in support of Jennings on the steps of City Hall, holding an emergency press conference to defend the city manger the morning after an eight-hour Black Lives Matter rally commemorating Georg Floyd’s life and demanding Jennings’ removal.
“A city manager’s contract is only as good as the council’s willingness to hold that individual accountable,” former Portland interim city manager Sheila Hill-Christian said during her testimony to the Portland Charter Commission last November. “City managers are usually counting votes on a regular basis, making sure they got their majority at all times. And as long as they keep that majority they usually keep their job.”
“A lot of times, what councils do not want to do on a regular basis is hold that performance management meeting,” Hill-Christian continued, referring to job-assessment sessions for city managers conducted by the City Council. “I’ve known city managers that have gone years without a performance review.”
Jennings went several years without a performance review before eventually being subjected to one in October of 2020. The review was conducted behind closed doors and all details of what transpired are secret.
Last September, Jennings was hired as the city manager of Clearwater, Florida. Although the city is in a housing crisis, Jennings recently helped kill an affordable housing project three years in the making. Jennings will likely oversee the sale of the now-defunct project’s site to the Church of Scientology, as they already own over 140 downtown Clearwater properties. Residents have been fighting the Church of Scientology’s admitted attempts to literally take over Clearwater since the 1970s, but that’s another story for another time.
What can be done about any of this?
Over the past year, through carefully considered research, expert testimony and conversations with the public, the Portland Charter Commission has constructed a proposal that could bring an unprecedented level of democratic input and control to city government. Their plan includes returning Portland to nine electoral districts, with nine district and three at-large councilors, in order to broaden the scope of city leadership. The plan, which is Question 2 on the city ballot, would also give the elected mayor executive authority formerly vested in the city manager. Renamed the “chief administrator,” the top bureaucrat in City Hall would serve under the mayor’s direction.
Under the current system, the only way to remove the city manager is with a majority of council votes. In the commission’s proposal, the mayor can be censured by the council, recalled by the council, recalled by the voters, fired by the council, or, of course, lose re-election.
The history of the city manager form of government is a story of a small group of powerful, extremist white supremacists using their power to successfully normalize their hate. The problem with normalizing hate is not just that we stop being able to see it. It’s also that we then defend it. We forget the progress this country was once moving toward. We forget that some cities weren’t always segregated. We forget why the KKK marched through our streets and we forget that they won. And even though we can clearly see their desired outcomes all around us, many will say we should do nothing. “It used to be worse,” they’ll say, leaving out that it also used to be better. “That isn’t the right way,” they’ll say, even though it is the only way. “It’s complicated,” they’ll say, and that’s usually true, but this one time it’s actually simple.
This November, Portlanders voting “yes” on Question 2 will be voting for more democracy.
This article is partially a transcript from Samuel James’ new podcast, 99 Years, exploring why Maine continues to be the whitest state. More information is available at 99YearsPod.com.