... shattering ... In her powerful and deeply moving history of the Reconstruction era, Williams... upends the narrative of the post-Civil War era ... The new book’s power derives from its eye-level approach, as Williams homes in on several newly freed Black families while they struggle in the months after the war to establish footing on hostile ground ... With scant documentation available from survivors, Williams has carefully sifted through census records and affidavits given to the Freedmen’s Bureau ... From these shards of evidence, Williams has given us an ugly widescreen view of the reign of terror that wracked the South — not during slavery or Jim Crow, but in the very thick of Reconstruction. I Saw Death Coming bears witness to a dark malignancy in American history, one we have never fully excised.
Williams offers a horrifyingly detailed picture of the ways Black people were attacked ... What is most powerful here is not the forensic analysis of the violence, though it is devastating, but the way Williams conveys the experience of the victims ... she offers a riveting picture of the hopefulness and energy of freed people as they began their lives after slavery ... Williams is surely correct about the overthrow of Reconstruction and the role of white-supremacist violence in it. But there are a number of other dynamics that would have to be fleshed out to sustain the argument and that remain just beyond her framework ... an unflinching and deeply compassionate account of what Black people accomplished, lost and fought for in resisting the war on freedom.
Williams... lays out her case with forensic precision ... her most compelling evidence comes from the victims themselves: witness testimonies from the Congressional hearings on the Ku Klux Klan in 1871 and transcripts of Works Progress Administration interviews with the last survivors of slavery in the 1930s. These testimonies make for harrowing reading, but that is no reason not to read them ... Williams honors their suffering by placing them at the center of this important, overdue correction to the historical record.