Andrew Diemer is Assistant Professor of History at Towson University. This interview is based on his new book, The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African-Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817-1863 (University of Georgia Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write The Politics of Black Citizenship?
AD: Historians have made a fairly persuasive case for the centrality of African Americans, free and enslaved, to the emergence of radical abolition. What is less clear is the role that free blacks played in the political turn that antislavery took in the decades before the Civil War. Certainly many African Americans applauded the growth of broad-based parties committed to stopping the expansion of slavery, even if some of the leaders of those parties sought to distance themselves from the radical, interracial abolition movement, but what role did free blacks play in antebellum politics? I set out to write a book about black politics across the North, but at an early stage realized that the nature of nineteenth-century politics makes this difficult. As much as antislavery dealt with national issues, for free black people in the North, many of the most pressing political issues were state and local matters. Philadelphia, home to the largest free black population in the North (depending on how and when one measures this) was a logical choice. At the same time, it struck me that while we often think of Philadelphia in connection with other major Northern cities, it also had significant connections with Baltimore, and Baltimore had an even larger free black population than Philadelphia. Of course, between these two cities lay a legal boundary between slavery and freedom. I became increasingly interested in these connections, in the movement of African Americans within the region and across that boundary.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Politics of Black Citizenship?
AD: The existence of such large numbers of free African Americans and their movement (or fears of their movement) across the legal boundary between slavery and freedom made black citizenship rights particularly contentious in this region. Free blacks though largely disfranchised on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, shaped the legal and political system which determined their citizenship rights, in particular demanding the right to the equal protection of state and local laws.
JF: Why do we need to read The Politics of Black Citizenship?
AD: The study of slavery and abolition, along with so much of the historical profession, has taken a strongly international turn in recent years. As important as this turn is, and there is certainly an international dimension to my book, I think that it is essential that we balance this international perspective with close attention to the intensely local dimensions of American politics. Free African Americans were acutely aware of the overlapping geographies of their identities and rights. My book helps to show how the tensions between these local, state, national, and international connections generated a politics of black citizenship. Beyond this, and despite the profoundly different historical contexts, we are living in a time when it is particularly important to think about the history of black struggles for citizenship rights. This is a book about how free African Americans challenged a white dominated political system that often denied them fundamental citizenship rights and which therefore left them vulnerable to violence, kidnapping, and enslavement. This is a story which resonates with our own times.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AD: I had some great high school history teachers, so I think that was a big part of my interest in American History. My older brother was a big World War II buff and I was always sort of competitive with him, so I think I wanted to one up him by going back to earlier American History. I also remember watching Ken Burns’s Civil War as a really important influence on my historical imagination. When I went to college I thought at first that I wanted to study classics, but a few semesters of conjugating ancient Greek verbs helped me find my way back to American History!
JF: What is your next project?
AD: I am in the early stages of a new book project, a biography of the black abolitionist, William Still. While hardly unknown, he is someone who I think has been somewhat overshadowed by some of his peers, especially Frederick Douglass but others as well. Still is best known for his work in the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia where he was one of the key participants in the Underground Railroad during the 1850s. In that work he was part of some of the most exiting stories of that decade: Christiana, Henry “Box” Brown, Jane Johnson, John Brown, to name only a few. He also went on to become a businessman, activist, philanthropist, and author.
JF: Thanks Andrew!