Five New Digitized Manuscript Collections at the William L. Clements Library

library-outside

William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

They are:

African American History Collection, 1729-1966 (bulk 1781-1865) at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/a/africanamer/

Lydia Maria Child Papers, 1831-1894 at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/child/

Fort Wayne Indian Agency Collection, 1801-1815 at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/f/fortwayne/

Henry James Family Correspondence, 1855-1865 (bulk 1859-1865) at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jameshenry/
Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society Papers, 1848-1868 at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/r/rochester/

Learn more here.

Eric Foner on the “Buried Promise of the Reconstruction Amendments”

Foner new bookOver at The New Yorker, Isaac Chotiner interviews historian Eric Foner on the promise of Reconstruction.  Foner, of course, remains the foremost historian of  Reconstruction.  I have taught his book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 several times over the years.  Foner’s current book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, focuses on the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

Here is a taste of his interview with Chotiner:

You say early in the book that, in one sense, “Reconstruction never ended.” What exactly do you mean?

I defined Reconstruction in two ways. One, it’s a particular time period of American history. You can debate the dates. It starts in 1865, when the Civil War ends, or maybe it starts in 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, and it ends sometime in the eighteen-seventies, although there’s debate about that also.

But, I think, more importantly, Reconstruction is a historical process. And the process is, How does the United States come to terms with the results of the Civil War? The unity of the nation we seem to have come to terms with. But the other matter is the destruction of slavery. How does the United States deal with the fact that four million people who were slaves became free? What role would they have? What rights would they have? How would they be treated? And those debates are still going on. Pick up today’s newspaper, and you’ll find things which relate back to the legacy of slavery. So in that sense, the reckoning has never happened, or we’re still grappling with the consequences of two hundred and fifty years of slavery.

Did you write this book because there was an area of Reconstruction you wanted to learn more about or teach people more about, or had things changed in your understanding of your previous scholarship?

Why does one choose to write a book in the first place? It may be some archival discovery, which was not really the case here. It may be the way debates are going on in the present. That did influence me. The issues central to the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fifteenth Amendment, the right to vote, are still part of our politics today. Who should vote? Who should be a citizen? What does equality before the law really mean? But, most important, and without trying to denigrate any other scholar, I lecture a lot about Reconstruction—I lecture in law schools, I lecture in history departments, I lecture to public audiences outside the academy—and I have found that there’s very little knowledge of why the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments are important, or what they were trying to accomplish, even in law schools.

One of the things that I think needed to be corrected is that so much discussion of these amendments is based on just law-making places, like Congress and the Supreme Court. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m a historian. You’ve got to look at the whole society. Everybody was debating these questions during Reconstruction. So if you want to find out the meaning of these amendments, you’ve got to look way beyond Congress and the courts to see the general debate. And I felt that hadn’t been really illuminated enough.

Read the entire interview here.

The Author’s Corner With Christopher Cameron

Black FreethinkersChristopher Cameron is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte. This interview is based on his new book, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism (Northwestern University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Black Freethinkers?

CC: Like countless scholars of African American religion, I began this project after reading Al Raboteau’s classic book Slave Religion. Toward the end of the work, he mentions that not all slaves “too solace in religion” and some could not believe in a just and all-powerful God who would allow his people to suffer under slavery. Raboteau’s discussion of atheism and agnosticism occupies just two pages yet was incredibly intriguing to me, as I’d encountered no other historians who explored religious skepticism in nineteenth century slave communities. This discovery led me to begin searching for examples of black freethinkers, both in the era of slavery and in the twentieth century, and what I found convinced me that black freethought was much more prevalent and important than scholars have realized.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Freethinkers?

CC: African American freethought began as a response to the brutality of the institution of slavery and developed in tandem with movements such as the New Negro Renaissance and Black Power. While freethinkers have constituted a small segment of the black population, they have nevertheless played critical roles in African American intellectual and political life since the mid-19th century.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Freethinkers?

CC: Probably the most common response I get when discussing this book with people is “I didn’t know that person was a freethinker.” This is the case when discussing lesser-known figures such as Louise Thompson Patterson or more well-known freethinkers such as Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. Black Freethinkers demonstrates that religious skepticism was prevalent among some of the most prominent voices in African American history, including Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Phillip Randolph, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Huey Newton. And these were not simply intellectuals and political activists who happened to be freethinkers but rather people whose political ideology/activism and literary production were profoundly shaped by their religious skepticism. Black Freethinkers thus helps us to more fully understand the intersections between religion and African American literary, intellectual, and political history, especially in the twentieth century.

JF: Tell me a little about your research and sources for the book.

CC: Following up on the discussion of atheism among slaves in Raboteau’s book, I began the research for Black Freethinkers by reading dozens of slave narratives. While historians have used these sources to document various aspects of slave religiosity, they are also useful sources to document the presence of religious skepticism in southern slave communities. For later chapters of the book, novels, poetry, memoirs, newspapers and other periodicals were key sources. I likewise found archival sources such as letters, unpublished memoirs, sermons, and records of liberal congregations such as the Harlem Unitarian Church to be incredibly valuable in writing the book.

JF: What is your next project?

CC: I have two projects in the works right now. One is an edited collection (with Phillip Luke Sinitiere) entitled Race, Religion, and Black Lives Matter: Essays on a Moment and a Movement. The second is a monograph entitled Liberal Religion and Race in America that explores African Americans engagement with liberal sects such as the Unitarians and Universalists from the revolutionary era to the creation of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism in 2015.

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

Penn Live: “It’s time to remember the central role slavery played in the making of America”

Virginia sign

This piece at today’s Penn Live/Harrisburg Patriot-News will look somewhat familiar to readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  A taste:

In August 1619, a shipment of “20 And odd Negroes” from Angola arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia. They got there because earlier in the year English pirates stole them from a Portuguese slave ship headed for Vera Cruz, Mexico, and sold them to the earliest Jamestown settlers in exchange for food.

While the story of these Africans is complicated, historians agree that the August 1619 shipment was the beginning of slavery in the English colonies of North America. On Sunday, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of slavery in the colonies, The New York Times released a series of essays and a website called “The 1619 Project.” The Times describes the project as a “major initiative” to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who were are.”

The 1619 Project is excellent. Some of our best scholars of African American history, slavery, and race have contributed articles. The racist legacy of slavery in America, they argue, has shaped everything from capitalism to health care, and traffic patterns to music. I hope that teachers will use it in their classrooms.

But not everyone is happy about the 1619 Project. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh called it a “hoax” and a threat to “American greatness.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz told his Twitter followers that the project is a political attempt by the left to rewrite America’s history. He questioned the journalistic integrity of The Times

Read the rest here.

This is the Best You Will Get from the *National Review* on “The 1619 Project”

1619

Jim Geraghty writes about everything that is missing from the story of African-American history told in The New York Times 1619 Project.  The National Review writer seems to think that the project is an African-American history textbook that must cover everything.

But David French sees some merit in the project:

The black American argument for liberty is achieving new prominence in part because of the New York Times’s “ 1619 Project” — an ambitious effort to reframe the arrival of the first slaves on America’s shores as our nation’s “true founding.” Many of the accompanying essays are interesting and provocative, though they don’t truly make the case that America came into being as a result of slavery rather than through the ratification of one of the most stirring and aspirational documents in human history. The true founding of our nation resulted in the creation of a series of painful conflicts between the promise of liberty and the reality of oppression, and the promise of liberty has prevailed time and again. But the focus on 1619 should provide modern Evangelicals — many of whom are in a state of near-panic — with a healthy dose of perspective.

I like French’s piece because he draws upon African-American history as an antidote to evangelical political pessimism.  A lot of his thoughts here echo the last chapter of Believe Me in which I suggested that the Civil Rights Movement could serve as a model for white evangelical political engagement today.

Ring a Bell on August 25, 2019 to Honor the First Africans to Land in English America

Church bell

The National Park service is calling for a national “day of healing” on August 25 to “honor the first Africans who landed in 1619 at Point Comfort and 400 years of African American history.”  A commemoration will take place at Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton Virginia on the 25th. The staff of that site is inviting all 419 national parks and the general public to ring bells for four minutes–one for each century of the African-American experience.

Here is a taste of the National Park Service announcement:

Bells are symbols of freedom.

They are rung for joy, sorrow, alarm, and celebration…universal concepts in each of our lives. This symbolic gesture will enable Americans from all walks of life to participate in this historic moment from wherever they are–to capture the spirit of healing and reconciliation while honoring the significance of 400 years of African American history and culture.

Since its establishment on August 25, 1916, the National Park Service has cared for extraordinary historic and cultural sites that are pivotal parts of the American narrative. Parks and our programs can be places of healing and reconciliation. As we gather at parks on this day across the country to commemorate the landing of enslaved Africans 400 years ago, we honor this powerful moment in American history and the significance of four centuries of African American history and culture.

Find a Bell

Your bell could be big, small, old, or new. It could be lots of little bells, one church bell, or a carillon. Be creative as you create a moment that has personal meaning, power, and resonance for you and your group. 

Make your connection–explore the messaging above about the symbolism of bells. Does your site feature a bell? Share a picture or story about a historic bell, maybe the bell of a ship, on a writing desk, in the collection, in a building, in transportation. What does your bell symbolize? Joy, work, celebration, time, education, technology? Can you connect it to the concept of healing and reconciliation?

Plan Your Event

The nationwide bell ringing will take place at 3:00 p.m. EDT on August 25, 2019, the 400th anniversary. Choose a location that accommodates your audience comfortably and, ideally, is a place that has a connection to your group or community’s unique story. You may want to gather a few minutes early to be sure you’re ready at 3:00 p.m. EDT.

Read the entire announcement here.

A quick Google search reveals that churches and denominations will taking-up the National Park Service’s call, including The Episcopal Church, USA.

Will evangelical churches ring their bells on August 25th?  I hope so.  But this might be difficult since most evangelical megachurches do not have church bells or steeples.  🙂

The Author’s Corner with Katherine Gerbner

Christian SlaveryKatharine Gerbner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.  This interview is based on her book,  Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Christian Slavery?

KGI started Christian Slavery with a simple question: how could seemingly good people support something that was morally abhorrent? Specifically, I wanted to know why European Christians, and especially missionaries, accepted slavery. What I was uncovered was a deeply troubling story that is important to understand today. It shows how people with good intentions can play a terrible role in perpetuating injustice, and it demonstrates the long history of complicity between Christianity and slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Slavery?

KGI have three main arguments: (1) far from being forced to convert, enslaved and free blacks had to fight their way into Protestant churches; (2) Protestant missionaries paved the way for pro-slavery theology by arguing that conversion would not lead to freedom for the enslaved; and (3) White Supremacy grew out of “Protestant Supremacy”—the idea that enslaved people could not become Christian.

JF: Why do we need to read Christian Slavery?

KGThere’s a lot of discussion about White Supremacy right now. In those conversations, it’s essential to explore what we mean by “whiteness” and where this term comes from. What history shows us is that the word “white” replaced the word “Christian” in colonial records as a way to justify enslavement. In other words, whiteness was created under slavery in order to exclude people of African descent from freedom. So if we really want to understand White Supremacy, and to combat it, we have to acknowledge the complex relationship between Christianity and slavery.

My book also shows the possibilities for combating racism & White Supremacy. Some evangelical Christians and Quakers played a central role in the abolitionist movement, showing that Christianity could be used to support emancipation. And most importantly, enslaved and free blacks who fought their way into Protestant churches defined their faith around the concept of liberation, in opposition to pro-slavery theology.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KGI studied Religion and Middle Eastern Studies in college. But when it came time to write a Senior Thesis, I chose a historical document: the first antislavery petition written in the Americas, which was authored by German and Dutch Quakers in 17th c. Pennsylvania. I started by researching the origin of that document and its reception. As I did so, I realized that the anti-slavery Protest was rejected by English Quakers in Philadelphia. I was surprised by this—I grew up in Philadelphia and attended a Quaker school, but I had only learned about Quaker abolitionism. I was shocked to discover that there were Quakers who owned slaves. I wanted to know what else had been left out of the conventional histories. I started there, and I haven’t stopped researching since.

JFWhat is your next project?

KGI’m writing a book about slave rebellion and religious freedom, tentatively called Constructing Religion, Defining Crime. I noticed in my research for Christian Slavery that black Christians and other religious leaders were often blamed for slave rebellions. In response, white authorities created laws designed to criminalize black religious practices. My new research suggests that we cannot understand religion – or religious freedom – without examining slave rebellion. The history of slavery can help us to understand how and why some religious practices have been, and continue to be, excluded from the lexicon of “religion” and even criminalized.

JF: Thanks, Katherine!

Another MLK Scholar Weighs-In on the Garrow Article

fc141-martin_luther_king_jr

Jason Miller, an English professor at North Carolina State University and a King scholar, defends David Garrow’s controversial article on MLK’s moral indiscretions.  (See our coverage of Garrow’s article here).

Here is a taste of Miller’s article at The Conversation:

It’s natural to want to defend King – to say, “let’s wait and see.”

Others might try to argue that abuse precedes abuse, and that the long legacy of slavery still informed the actions of these revered black clergy who subconsciously became like their oppressors. This legacy, of course, often included white men raping black women and sometimes disowning their children.

But I don’t think any filter of rationalization can soften this portrait of King. I’m not prepared to wait eight years, and I’ve halted my two scholarly projects about King.

I’ve also started thinking about what happens next.

What will the next Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations look like? Will other details emerge? Will more women come forward? Will community centers, schools and streets need to be renamed? Will statues come down, or will they remain – and give fodder to those who justify keeping Confederate monuments?

King espoused nonviolence. If these memos are true, such a stance feels hypocritical.

The narrative has just changed. And if scholarship and true biographical research matters at all, one thing is clear: These FBI memos may have forever damaged King’s legacy.

Read the entire piece here.

How is David Garrow’s MLK Article Faring Today?

King preaching

We are starting to hear from historians and others on today’s David Garrow’s Standpoint piece on Martin Luther’s King’s moral indiscretions.  I linked to the article here and blogged about it last night.

Here is some news/commentary on Garrow’s piece that we found today.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covers Garrow’s piece, has an article about Garrow, and explains to readers why it is covering this story.  In the latter piece, the AJC mentions that Garrow approached the paper with his findings and wanted to work together on an investigative report. AJC declined because it did not have access to the King tapes.  (The tapes will be released in 2027).

Meanwhile, the Washington Post quotes several historians.  Gillian Brockell’s piece notes that Garrow has been skeptical in the past about using FBI memos on historical research.  Garrow makes the case that the MLK memos are different. Yale’s Glenda Gilmore questions the veracity of the hand-written notes in the memos.  (This is relevant because the reference to King watching a rape is hand-written). Gilmore adds that FBI files often contain “a great deal of speculation, interpolation from snippets of facts, and outright errors.”  Nathan Connolly of Johns Hopkins is also “deeply suspicious” about Garrow’s sources.  He said that Garrow’s decision to publish these documents is “archivally irresponsible.”

From this article at Insider we learn that the Guardian originally accepted the piece and then retracted it at the last minute.  It was also rejected by The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Intercept.

I am sure there are historians working on op-eds and blog posts as I type this.  I will monitor this as best I can.

Of course I have no idea if any of the allegations in Garrow’s piece are true.  Historians will offer interpretations.  The way they respond to this story could have career-defining implications.  I think you will see a lot of caution and hedging over the next few days and weeks.  And, I might add, this is a good thing.  Historians should be the last people to rush to judgement (one way or another) on a story like this.

Journalists will now try to track down people who know something about what is written in these FBI memos.  They will shape the so-called “first draft” of this story.

Indeed, as Connolly and Gilmore note, we need to think about bias in these FBI sources.  This is important, especially in light of what we know about J. Edgar Hoover.  I read some of the documents embedded in Garrow’s piece and I also had suspicions about the hand-written marginal comments.  The memos Garrow found were documents that were obviously part of an ongoing editing process.  I am guessing that the final, more polished, reports are with the tapes.  Once historians see them they will be able to make more definitive statements about how the FBI interpreted the tapes.

We also know that context teaches us that King was not a saint when it came to these encounters with women who were not his wife.  Any historian will take this into consideration. King historians can comment on just how far of an intellectual leap is needed to get from what we already knew about King to the allegations in the FBI memos.

And what if we learn that Garrow is right about King?  This will be a reminder that all historical figures are complex and deeply flawed people.  Stay tuned.

This is also a great opportunity for teaching students and others about how to read the Internet responsibly.  (See Sam Wineburg’s new book and our interview with him here).  Different news outlets and opinion sites are already reporting this story in different ways.

Dinesh D’Souza Thinks He Knows Something About How African-American History is Taught

David Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King Jr., will drop a bombshell tomorrow (Thursday) when Standpoint magazine will publish an article, based on memos that discuss FBI tapes, that paints the Civil Rights icon in a very unflattering light.  Here is what Garrow claims:

  • FBI documents from the 1960s allege Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs with 40 women and stood by as a friend raped a woman, a new report said.
  • An article by the King biographer David Garrow set to be released on Thursday in Standpoint magazine will detail the FBI memos, London’s The Times reported.
  • Garrow said the memos say King engaged in orgies, solicited prostitutes, and “looked on and laughed” as a pastor he knew raped a woman.
  • The memos were part of a huge US National Archives data dump in early 2019.
  • The FBI secretly recorded King in a years long effort to discredit him. The tapes themselves remain under seal in the US National Archives. And Garrow’s article was rejected by more prominent news outlets. So the story carries many unanswered questions about the accuracy of the FBI material.
  • The King Center, which chronicles King’s life, has not yet commented on the allegations.

Learn more here.  Let’s see how this unfolds tomorrow as Civil Rights historians respond to Garrow’s article.

In the meantime, Laura Ingraham and the Fox News crowd are all over this story.  I am guessing they could not find a legitimate historian of King or the Civil Rights movement to comment on Garrow’s article so, as Fox News is prone to do, they turned to conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza. Watch:

D’Souza seems to be basking in all of this.  By the way, who are all of these progressive historians who “hate” and “do not want to teach” Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells, and Harriett Tubman?  I don’t consider myself a “progressive historian,” but I certainly consider myself a critic of D’Souza. I have been teaching Douglass every semester for two decades.  David Blight of Yale just won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Douglass.  Douglass’s Narrative remains a fixture on history syllabi across the country.  I am sure scholars of Wells and Tubman can weigh-in as well.

And D’Souza continues to think the Republican Party has not changed on issues related to the plight of African Americans and race since the Civil War. I wrote about this here, but I will defer to Princeton’s Kevin Kruse.

The Bible: Whites Used It to Justify Slavery and Africans Used It to Promote Freedom

Slave Bible 2

Check out Julie Zauzmer’s nice piece on the Bible and slavery at The Washington Post.  It draws from some of the best scholars on slavery, American religion, and the Bible, including Mark Noll and Yolanda Pierce.  Here is a taste:

As America commemorates the 400th anniversary of the creation of representative government in what would become the United States, and the first documented recording of captive Africans being brought to its shores, it is also grappling with the ways the country justified slavery. Nowhere is that discussion more fraught than in its churches.

“Christianity was proslavery,” said Yolanda Pierce, the dean of the divinity school at Howard University. “So much of early American Christian identity is predicated on a proslavery theology. From the naming of the slave ships, to who sponsored some of these journeys including some churches, to the fact that so much of early American religious rhetoric is deeply intertwined . . . with slaveholding: It is proslavery.” Some Christian institutions, notably Georgetown University in the District, are engaged in a reckoning about what it means that their past was rooted in slaveholding. But others have not confronted the topic. “In a certain sense, we’ve never completely come to terms with that in this nation,” Pierce said.

The Africans who were brought to America from 1619 onward carried with them diverse religious traditions. About 20 to 30 percent were Muslim, Pierce said. Some had learned of Christianity before coming to America, but many practiced African spiritual traditions.

Early on, many slaveholders were not concerned with the spiritual well-being of Africans. But few had qualms about using Christianity to justify slavery.

Some theologians said it was providence that had brought Africans to America as slaves, since their enslavement would allow them to encounter the Christian message and thus their eternal souls would be saved, said Mark Noll, a historian of American Christianity.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Quincy Newell

Your Sister in the GospelQuincy Newell is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College. This interview is based on her new book, Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: The most immediate spur was a conversation with a staff person at the LDS Church History Library. She knew I was working on nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons, and she told me that she had recently run across a mention of Jane James in the diary of one of Brigham Young’s wives. The diarist recorded that Jane James had stopped by and that told her that Isaac James (Jane’s husband, another African American Mormon) had left Jane for a white fortune teller. My jaw dropped—all I wanted to do for the next three days was scour the Salt Lake newspapers to see if I could figure out who that fortune teller was! That was the rabbit hole that finally convinced me I should write Jane James’s biography: I kept trying to write about African American and Native American Mormons more broadly, and I kept getting sucked into Jane James’s story. I joke that I made a deal with her: I would write her biography, if she would leave me alone. We’ll see if she keeps her end of the bargain!

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: Your Sister is a biography and might best be classified as narrative history, so there is not an overt argument in the text. The implicit argument, though, is that racial identity, gender identity, and religious identity all shape one another in powerful and often underappreciated ways, so we have to keep all of these aspects of identity (and more) in mind in order to understand the past.

JF: Why do we need to read Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: First of all, Jane James is a fascinating historical figure in her own right. So you need to read it because her life is just so interesting. My hope is that it is a relatively easy read—I wrote it for a broad audience with the aspiration of producing a book that might interest general readers, not just my academic colleagues.

But aside from having a good story, the book helps deepen our understanding of American history in four ways. First, it illustrates some of the less-frequently-trod paths open to African American men and women in the nineteenth century. Jane James lived in places that didn’t have large African American populations—rural Connecticut, western Illinois, Utah. And she joined religions that we also don’t typically associate with African Americans—Congregationalism and then Mormonism. Second, it helps us think in a more nuanced way about American religious history: James’s story gives us a totally different perspective on the development of Mormonism than the standard narrative, which takes the white male subject as normative. I sometimes explain James as “the Forrest Gump of nineteenth-century Mormonism” because she knew all the important people and was in the background for many of the most important moments. Because she was black, though, her experience of those events gives us a new angle of vision on them. Third, James’s life broadens our sense of nineteenth-century American women’s lives. James’s entire life was shaped by her identity as a woman and the struggle to conform to the gender norms of her community. Her experience demonstrates how those norms constrained her opportunities and made her vulnerable to attack, even as they offered some kinds of support and community not available to men. And finally, James’s story improves our understanding of the history of the nineteenth-century American West by increasing our knowledge of African Americans’ lives in the region. Grappling with James’s presence in Utah also helps us acknowledge the ways race shaped western societies: her experience demonstrates that even when those societies were overwhelmingly white, they still wrestled with the construction and meaning of whiteness and other racial identities.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

QN: I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the early religious history of Oregon, and I think it was that experience that really gave me the religious history bug. I vividly remember sitting in the Oregon Historical Society reading room, plodding through 1830s Methodist meeting minutes. I couldn’t believe that the OHS would let me touch these—they were over a hundred and fifty years old!—but I was also incredibly bored. The minutes were handwritten, sometimes barely legible, often badly spelled, and just plain tedious. But then I got to the bottom of one page and found a doodle: an elaborately drawn hand, in a frilly cuff, pointing to the next page. I realized that the poor guy taking the minutes was just as bored as I was reading them—and something about that connection, that shared boredom across the centuries, got me hooked on archival research.

JF: What is your next project?

QN: I’m getting back to the project from which Your Sister distracted me: an examination of the religious lives and experiences of nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons. W. Paul Reeve has shown quite convincingly in his Religion of a Different Color that the LDS Church was “struggling for whiteness” in the nineteenth century; I want to understand what it was like to be a Latter-day Saint of color during that time period.

JF: Thanks, Quincy!

The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Daniel Wells

Blind No MoreJonathan Daniel Wells is Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. This interview is based on his new book, Blind No More: African American Resistance, Free-Soil Politics, and the Coming of the Civil War (University of Georgia Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Blind No More?

DW: Although much of my work so far has focused on southern history, several years ago I became interested in the evolution of free soil thinking. Based on the reading I did in primary sources like newspapers, manuscripts, and sermons, I concluded that the genesis for shifting antebellum public opinions on slavery was rooted in the crisis over fugitive slaves. Because enslaved people persistently and at great personal risk fled bondage, they forced white northern voters and politicians to rethink their relationship with the South and their obligations to return runaways under the Constitution.

Blind no More is the print version of the Lamar Lectures that I was honored to deliver in 2017. One of the goals for such lectures is to be provocative, so I wanted to accomplish two primary goals. I placed African Americans at the heart of our understanding of Civil War causation and I made the case that given the parameters in place after the ratification of the Constitution there was a certain inevitability to the outbreak of civil conflict.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Blind No More?

DW: The book is really about how free state voters between 1820 and 1861 came to question the value of the Constitution, and the central role of African Americans in fostering that reevaluation. We often think about the coming of the Civil War as a product of hardening of southern views on bondage, but the free states underwent their own dramatic and important shift in thinking about the Union and the Constitution, a shift that contributed significantly to the coming of the Civil War.

JF: Why do we need to read Blind No More?

DW: Over the past few years, we have benefited from a number of important works on nineteenth-century African Americans, abolitionism, and the Fugitive Slave Law by leading scholars like Richard Blackett, Manisha Sinha, Leslie Harris, and Martha Jones, just to name a few. Other scholars like Corey Brooks and Rachel Shelden have contributed important works on antebellum politics. Blind no More seeks to connect our increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the black experience with our understandings of partisan politics in the antebellum North.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DW: I was privileged in that my father was a literature professor of what used to be called the “American Renaissance,” so I knew what becoming an academic would look like. I became interested in antebellum American history mostly through curiosity about the lively political battles of the period, especially between the Democrats and Whigs. Eventually, as a North Carolina native, I also became interested in southern history, African American history, and the history of slavery. I was fortunate to work with prominent scholars at the University of Florida like the late Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Kermit Hall, Ron Formisano, and other mentors like David Colburn, to whom Blind no More is dedicated, and with Mills Thornton as a PhD student at the University of Michigan.

JF: What is your next project?

DW: I am completing a book called The New York Kidnapping Club: Slavery and Wall Street before the Civil War, a true story about how a nefarious group of police officers, lawyers, merchants, and judges conspired to kidnap black New Yorkers and send them to slavery. It also tells the epic and tragic tales of how the illegal transatlantic slave trade used New York’s harbor all the way to the Civil War.

JF: Thanks, Daniel!

#OAH19: “Revisiting Reconstruction Political History”

Freedmen's Bureau 2Katie Lowe, a graduate student in American history at Towson University, is back from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians where she was covering the conference for The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  In this conference dispatch, she writes about Session #AM2873: “Revisiting Reconstruction Political History.”  Read all of her OAH dispatches here.

Technically, the OAH meeting didn’t end until Sunday, but I had to catch a train, so my last panel on Saturday was #AM2873, “Revisiting Reconstruction Political History.” It was a good choice!

Corey Brooks (York College, PA) began with a discussion of Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau legislation and its eventual revision and passage. He argued that the bill represented a need for Congress to “advance meaningful liberty.” Brooks noted that there was a vocal minority, rooted in longstanding racial prejudice, against using a federal agency to help people of color. After Johnson’s initial veto, the legislation was changed in terms of appropriations, aid, and the distribution of claimed and abandoned land.

Hilary Green of the University of Alabama discussed efforts in Alabama to ensure education for African Americans during Reconstruction. These efforts were framed around the concept of “education as a vehicle for citizenship.” Delegates to Southern state conventions worked to have public education become part of state constitutions, with Alabama’s statute opening free education to all children ages 5-21. It became a right of citizens, including African Americans, to access education. This raised the question of who would be deemed worthy to gain education and the revolutionary nature of the conventions.  Texas and Arkansas had vague language in their statutes, without comment on freed or former slave status, while Florida’s statute made education accessible “without distinction or preference.” Race, class, and place continued to define access to education. Opposition from the South, philanthropy from the North, and the availability of resources could all affect the quality of schooling.

Kevin Adams of Kent State followed up with an examination of the far Western United States during Reconstruction..  He focused on the Army’s role in Reconstruction as part of a “chronological and geographically expansive approach.” Anti-Chinese mobs in the 1880’s triggered the use of the Army as posse comitatus in Seattle, even though this practice had officially ended years earlier.

Manisha Sinha of the University of Connecticut rounded out the panel with a paper reexamining Reconstruction with regard to the expansion of the state and the redefinition of American democracy to include political and civil rights for African Americans.  She began by suggesting that conventional wisdom, which paints abolitionists as political neophytes, is inaccurate. The political history of abolition and Reconstruction includes debates over the nature of the Constitution that led to political and social changes through government power.  Slaveholder influence in the U.S. government did not result in the growth of the state, but abolitionist work did. Radical Reconstruction could be seen as “rescuing the federal government from the clutches of the slave power.” She notes that suffrage and black citizenship were not new ideas during Reconstruction. The work of radical/political abolitionists remade constitutions to ensure the “[inscription] of black rights into law.” Sinha concluded by emphasizing the interaction between political citizenship and social justice.

The chair/commentator, Andrew Slap from East Tennessee State University, emphasized the “radical and revolutionary nature of Reconstruction” and suggested that the multiple approaches taken by the panel countered the idea of a “greater Reconstruction” that was too big to say anything meaningful. The floor was then opened to questions.

The first question was for Manisha Sinha.  How representative were radical abolitionists? She said that they were the “ideological vanguard” of the party, which is why they are important to the conversation and the formation of the idea of an American state responsible for the well-being of all of its citizens. Corey Brooks added that late wartime and post-war legislation had radical voices setting the parameters for congressional debate.

The next question was for Corey Brooks: Did the Freedmen’s Bureau have its own authority even after its reauthorization and realignment under the War Department?  The answer is yes. A follow up; “Why did Andrew Johnson veto the legislation? Brooks stated that Johnson claimed that eleven states did not have representation at the time and so he believed passage would be inappropriate.

Someone asked Kevin Adams if Washington was still a territory, how did federal authority extend there? He said that the Washington territory had asked for federal intervention.  Moreover, a broader view had emerged by this point giving government the power to intervene in all civil rights issues.

A member of the audience asked Hilary Green if the discussion over Reconstruction education extended to universities.   Yes, in South Carolina the University of South Carolina was desegregated. Some states agreed to build separate schools and others made provisions for students with special needs (blind, deaf).

Episode 48: The Color of Compromise

PodcastWith so many contemporary examples of racism in American society, it is tempting to see these as the actions of racist individuals. However, many social critics have increasingly pointed to the structure and system of racism as an active part of American society today, and the Church is no different. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling are joined by Jemar Tisby (@JemarTisby), the president of The Witness, a Black Christian Collective, host of the podcast Pass the Mic, and the author of the new book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

A White Teacher is Removed from Teaching a Michigan High School Course in African-American History

Groves
Recently an African-American staff writer at the Bridge Magazine in Michigan wrote an opinion piece criticizing an African-American history course at Groves High School in Birmingham, Michigan.  Chastity Pratt Dawsey was not happy that her children, who were enrolled in the course, were required to watch movies such, Boyz in the Hood and Do the Right Thing, view the documentary “Inside Bloods and Crips,” and read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.  Dawsey was especially upset that the course, taught by a white teacher, did not give enough attention to the accomplishments of African Americans.

Dawsey posted the syllabus from Scott Craig‘s African-American history course.  I think she thought that by posting the syllabus it would strengthen her argument.  In my view, the syllabus actually reveals that Craig is a very good history teacher.  The syllabus includes readings from Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Howard Zinn, Martin Luther King Jr., Winthrop Jordan, Ulrich Philips, Kenneth Stamp, and Marcus Garvey.  Craig’s list of movies include Amistad12 Years a Slave, and Glory.

The syllabus also notes:

Students will be exposed to readings and films that have distinct points of view.  One skill we will work on is recognizing and evaluating point of view.  Some of the readings will contradict each other, and students will have to wrestle with differentiating and deciding which POV is most value…

The course covers the following topics: police brutality and African Americans, the success and failure of Affirmative Action, white flight, poverty and racism, the 1967 Detroit riot, the successes of the black middle class, African American political leadership, De Jure v. De Facto racism, segregation and resegregation, gangs and gang culture, and cultural appropriation.

Sounds like a great class.  Can I take it?

But the story does not end here.  The superintendent of Birmingham Public Schools apologized to parents for permitting this course to be taught.  He apologized because the “resources listed in the course pilot syllabus failed to meet the depth and breadth of African American history.”  That is actually the only thing the letter says about the content of the course.  Apparently many in Birmingham’s African-American community believe that an African-American should be teaching the course.

And now Scott Craig, the teacher of this course, has weighed in. Craig has been teaching social studies in Michigan for thirty-two years and appears to be very popular among students.  In 2013, he ran for a spot in the Michigan state house as a Democrat. In August 2017, he was Birmingham’s delegate to a National Association of Education Conference on the subject of equity and integrity in education. In 2018 he marched, on behalf of his students, in a “March for Our Lives” rally against gun violence.  He has an M.A. in African American and Labor History from Wayne State University.   We should also add that he designed the African-American history course in question because he thought African-American history was not getting a fair shake in his school district.

Here is a taste of his piece: “I am the Michigan teacher removed from teaching African-American History.”

While the original article may leave readers with the impression that some random white guy was assigned to teach the African-American course, I created the course out of a deep commitment to civil rights and ending prejudice. I come from a family where both parents were involved in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. I have a master’s degree in African American and Labor History from Wayne State University. And I’ve been a participant in nearly every district initiative around issues of race and diversity. I’m the sponsor of the Diversity Club (25 years) at neighboring Seaholm High that organizes school exchanges and provides a forum for open discussion. I’ve also organized 12 of our past 15 MLK Day assemblies at Seaholm.

I created the course because I saw a need. American history texts hardly mention African Americans from Reconstruction until Rosa Parks. Then, they drop most discussion about African Americans after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. They also gloss over the rich debate and controversies within the African-American community as they faced over 100 years of second-class citizenship after Reconstruction. Most white students in Birmingham have little understanding about the real history and conditions faced by African Americans. Many of our black students are truly interested in learning more about their history.

Both the Bridge column and the superintendent’s letter to the staff and community portrayed the course as shallow, inappropriate and as somehow avoiding proper review. This was not the case.  

In 2015, I researched existing African-American history syllabi, mostly taught in colleges. I examined and selected the best, most challenging readings ‒ such as works by Malcolm X, Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois ‒ and chose films that reflected a variety of points of view.  

The course was reviewed and approved in 2015 by my principal, department head, and our district Education Council that included three or four African-American parents. Approval was unanimous and widely praised, especially by the African-American parents on the Council. The course was reviewed again and I created a longer curriculum guide in the summer of 2018. The administrators who reviewed it also offered praise.

While my name was not used in Bridge or in the letter, within days hundreds of staff and community members figured out I was the teacher. I decided to speak openly in defense at a district board meeting Feb. 26, especially when I learned members of BAAFN, the parent group protesting my class, would be speaking.

At the meeting, I listened as the head of the parent group argued for a revamped curriculum approved by the parents, and a black teacher to teach this course. By the time I spoke, 35 to 40 district teachers had contacted me. All of them offered support, and most of them expressed the fear that they could be next.

As I was leaving, I was stopped individually by five African Americans. One was a district teacher who expressed strong support and said he wanted to speak, but his wife told him he could not risk his job. Others were parents. One said she did not know who I was or my background at the time that I was dismissed from teaching the class. The district had not offered much explanation. Another parent said her son was in my class, liked it, and that about a dozen students talked about staging a sit-in at the principal’s office demanding to know why their teacher had been removed.

Read the entire article here.  What is going on here?

David Blight and Lisa Brooks Win the Bancroft Prize

BrooksBlights wins for Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom.

Brooks wins for Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War.

Congratulations!

Here is a taste of an article on the winners at The New York Times:

A mammoth biography of Frederick Douglass and a new study of the 17th-century colonial American conflict known as King Philip’s War have won this year’s Bancroft Prize, which is considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history.

David W. Blight’s “Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom,”published by Simon and Schuster, was cited for offering “a definitive portrait” of the 19th-century former slave, abolitionist, writer and orator “in all his fullness and imperfection, his intellectual gifts and emotional needs.”

Lisa Brooks’s “Our Beloved Kin,” published by Yale University Press, was praised for how it “imaginatively illuminates submerged indigenous histories,” drawing readers into “a complex world of tensions, alliances and betrayals” that fueled the conflict between Native Americans in New England and European colonists and their Indian allies.

The Bancroft, which includes an award of $10,000, was established in 1948 by the trustees of Columbia University, with a bequest from the historian Frederic Bancroft.

Blight

 

Mormon Church Donates $2 Million to Help African Americans Trace Family History

IAAM

Read all about it at the Atlanta Black Star.  Here is a taste of Tanasia Kenney’s report:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced this week that it’s donating $2 million to the International African-American Museum in Charleston, S.C., to create a Center for Family History aimed at helping Black Americans trace their genealogy.

The church made the announcement on Feb. 27 during the annual RootTech genealogy summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, local station KUTV reported.

More than half of the enslaved Africans brought to America came through Charleston and the majority of them disembarked at Gadsden’s Wharf, “taking their first steps into this country at the future site of the IAAM,” according to the museum.

“We want to support the museum and the Center for Family History because we both value the strength that comes from learning about our families,” said Elder David Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, who presented the donation.

“The museum will not only educate its patrons on the important contributions of Africans who came through Gadsden’s Wharf and Charleston,” he added, “it also will help all who visit to discover and connect with ancestors whose stories previously may not have been known.” 

Read the rest here.