When We Were Knights: Black Ring Tournaments in the Reconstruction Era

Tournament PracticeTournament Practice. Merritt Mauzey (Photo: Smithsonian)

Immediately after the Civil War, African Americans in the South embraced the new freedoms made possible by emancipation. Alongside the rights and privileges of citizenship, including marrying, voting, serving on juries, and testifying in court, black people enjoyed other experiences previously prohibited to slaves, such as the freedom to go to school, travel, and choose an occupation. Emancipated African Americans also eagerly seized the opportunity to participate in activities that may now seem surprising. Many demonstrated their new status by jousting.

Americans had always enjoyed equestrian sports. Jousting, which involved riders armed with lances charging toward targets (or sometimes other horsemen), had existed since the earliest days of white settlement but became a phenomenon in the 1840s with the introduction of the ring tournament format. Adopted from England, the ring tournament became popular in Maryland and northern Virginia before spreading across the antebellum South. Historical novels, particularly Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, inspired the pageantry and ritual accompanying the equestrian demonstrations. Competitors adopted fanciful costumes and pseudonyms, such as the Knight of the Black Plume and Knight of the Lone Star. Rather than risking life and limb by spearing each other, ring tournament riders took turns tilting their lances toward small metal rings suspended from arches. The rider who collected the most rings on his lance won the right to select the Queen of Love and Beauty from among the admiring female spectators who filled the stands. The evening following the joust featured a grand dinner and ball where the pretend gallant knights and fair maidens led the dancing.

The mix of chivalry, medieval role play, and aristocratic pretension proved irresistible to white southerners. Furthermore, the atmosphere of refined make believe, free from the gambling and sordidness associated with racing, cock fighting, and other public entertainments, encouraged attendance by families. Even the most refined young lady might appear, dressed in her finest, in hopes of public coronation by the victorious knight.

Ring tournaments continued to be held during the Civil War by Confederate cavalry units and found even greater popularity during Reconstruction. In the dislocation of the post-war years, as whites pined for the fantasy of antebellum aristocratic life, new noms de guerre appeared, including the Knight of the Lost Cause, the Knight of the Bonnie Blue Flag, and the Knight of the Imperial Chieftain. Post-war ring tournaments soon became associated with fundraising for the Southern Relief Association, Ladies Memorial Associations and other groups benefiting Confederate veterans and their families. With their invocation of chivalry and antebellum nostalgia, the ring tournaments represented the ultimate display of Lost Cause sentiment.

Almost immediately upon emancipation, African Americans seized the opportunity to hold their own ring tournaments. As early as the summer of 1865, “chivalric colored citizens” of northern Virginia were jousting, crowning Queens of Love and Beauty, and feasting and dancing at evening balls. The appeal of these events was enormous, and for the next twenty years black communities organized tournaments in public spaces across the South. African American knights tilted at arches raised in fields near large cities like Richmond and Memphis and small villages like Darlington, South Carolina, and Marianna, Florida.

Despite the occasional appearance of a Knight of the Flea Bitten Gray or Knight Before Last, white tournaments were generally conducted with such seriousness as to provoke mockery from northern and other jaundiced observers. Black tournament participants were more likely than whites to concede the absurdity of the entire spectacle. According to reports, black tournaments were “lively” events, offering skillful equestrian displays, high spirits, and humorous relief. More than their white neighbors, black riders revealed wit and even political commentary in their choices of identity. The Knight of Butler’s Silver Spoon rode in a black tournament in South Carolina and the Knight of Long Remembrance appeared in Louisiana. The Knight of the 15th Amendment sent a more pointed reminder to a large mixed race crowd in Alexandria, Louisiana. Some competitors brazenly paid tribute to the American Indian resistance in the West. In one tournament, held just two months after Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn, the Knight of Sitting Bull, Knight of the Black Hawk, and the Knight of Capt. Jack of the Modocs all competed.

White observers were bemused by the phenomenon of black knights emulating the aristocratic affectation of their white neighbors and former slave masters. Reactions varied widely. The Youth’s Companion, a popular children’s magazine, remarked that the “young [white] men who had ridden in previous tournaments felt indignant that their recent servants should usurp their noble pastime.” Another white commentator expressed pleased surprise, encouraged such “jolly and harmless play,” and approved of the appearance of both races in the audience. Nevertheless, most southern white reporters, with a hilarious deficit of self-awareness, could not refrain from mocking the pretensions of black participants who played at being knights and ladies. Jibes ranged from gentle teasing about the quality of the riding to cruel caricatures of the “dusky damsels.”

Reflecting their anxiety regarding Reconstruction, some whites read political meaning into black ring tournaments. One Memphis newspaper suspected that “Northern people” were encouraging blacks in their “‘little fun’ at the expense of the South’s” white chivalry. A Louisiana newspaper correspondent nervously reassured his readers in 1876 that the area’s “young colored men” planning a tournament had “not much Radical leanings,” and in the coming November election would take “a tilt alongside of their white friends.” After the tournament, the same newspaper – presumably the same writer – hoped that the presence of many white spectators would “encourage the colored folks in such innocent amusements and…show them that the whites are not opposed to their general welfare nor jealous of their advancement in polite arts.”

The popularity of black ring tournaments declined as precipitously as it rose. Twenty years after the first post-emancipation jousts, the press reported very few tournaments. By the late 1880s, the word tournament became more closely associated with African American participation in baseball and other sports. White tournaments also declined in popularity although ring tournaments have continued to be held occasionally even until today, particularly in Maryland where ring tournament jousting is an official state sport.

The spectacle of black jousting tournaments in the immediate aftermath of emancipation, with their racial and class overtones, and the obvious irony with which black men engaged in them, suggests that the culture of the postwar South was as hotly contested as its law and politics. The appearance of black tournaments in public spaces for nearly two decades may suggest a degree of fluidity in status after the Civil War, but the phenomenon of black knights armed with lances tilting at rings and crowning black Queens of Love and Beauty came to an end just as so many rights of citizenships were closed off to African Americans.

About the Author

Daniel R. Weinfeld

Daniel R. Weinfeld, an attorney in New York, is the author of The Jackson County War: Reconstruction and Resistance in Post-Civil War Florida and articles that have appeared in the Florida Historical Quarterly and Southern Jewish History. Most recently, he was editor of T. Thomas Fortune's After War Times: An African American Childhood in Reconstruction-Era Florida. He blogs on his history interests at Blood and Oranges.

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