J. Brent Morris is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Carolina at Beaufort. This interview is based on his new book, Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism: College, Community, and the Fight for Freedom and Equality in Antebellum America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
BM: Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism grew out of my frustration with scholars’ frequent uncritical acceptance of the radical reputation the Oberlin community earned in its first three decades. This was manifested in the literature as a tendency by even well-respected historians to drop the name “Oberlin” as a keyword or shorthand of sorts to denote zealous abolitionism, religiosity, and social reform before hurriedly moving on to other topics. As I soon found it to have also been the case with contemporaries, it was often enough to point out the established and unquestioned fact of Oberlin’s significance as an icon of the abolitionist movement. Self-evidence was sufficient proof and too often took the place of details. I set out to put substance behind this potent symbol, and hoped to suggest new ways of thinking about the abolitionist movement in the process.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism?
BM: Oberlin—the community, faculty, students, and alumni—comprised the core of the antislavery movement in the West and was one of the most influential and successful groups of abolitionists in antebellum America. With a philosophy that was a composite of various schools of anti-slavery thought aimed at supporting the best hope of success, Oberlin led the process by which Western abolitionism transformed from an isolated reform into a multiracial mass movement that brought down slavery and forever changed the nation.
JF: Why do we need to read Oberlin, Hotbed of Abolitionism?
BM: Attention to Oberlin’s role in transforming the West shifts the focus of generations of antislavery scholarship from the East, and also demonstrates that the dynamic Western African American influence, rather than the mostly-white Eastern leadership, was largely responsible for a continuous infusion of radicalism that helped the movement stay true to its most progressive fundamental principles. The book also contributes to a fuller understanding of ideology, means, and ends in the American abolitionist movement.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
BM: Mine was a circuitous path to the profession. I was an English major as an undergraduate, but picked up a history minor in my final three semesters. Part of that minor included an independent study that first introduced me to the joys of archival research and the rich treasure that were the WPA slave narratives. I stubbornly went on to law school, but could not resist the temptation to spend my study breaks in the library’s history stacks. Long story short, I couldn’t ignore the bite of that pesky history bug, and the longer it festered the more I realized that I would ultimately be happiest as a historian. Despite the years of law school student loan payments to which I still have to look forward without a lawyer’s salary, I have no doubt that I made the right decision.
JF: What is your next project?
BM: Right now I’m busy with three substantial projects. I’m putting some finishing touches on a second book that I’ve promised to have to the University of South Carolina Press within the month. Yes Lord I Know the Road: A History of African Americans in South Carolina 1526-2008, with Documents represents the first comprehensive history of African Americans in the Palmetto State and includes primary documents that will be a valuable teaching tool for students and scholars of all levels. With my first two books completed, I am finally making significant progress on a decade old pet project of mine: a work exploring the world of the maroon (fugitive slave) communities of the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina. I am also Director of an NEH-funded teacher’s institute, “America’s Reconstruction: The Untold Story, ” which will be held in Beaufort this coming summer.
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner