The Pulitzer Prize for History was just awarded to David Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Blight’s book was chosen by a committee made up of historians Annette Gordon-Reed, Markus Rediker, and Tiya Miles. Learn more here.
Katie 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).
With 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.
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 Amistad, 12 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?
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.
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.
The Virginia Gazette is running an informative piece on interpreting the African-American experience at Colonial Williamsburg. Here is a taste:
Established in 1926, Colonial Williamsburg opened its first public site in 1932. Though African-American interpretation wouldn’t start in earnest as a fleshed out component of the living history museum until 1979, there had long been an African American presence at Colonial Williamsburg.
“Despite being here for 91 years, we’ve pretty much always had black interpreters,” Seals said.
Black Americans portrayed anonymous servants or costumed guides.
It took a few decades before they were seen as potential points of focus rather than background players in programming, said Seals.
In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers started to discover more information about African Americans in Revolutionary-era Williamsburg. They learned half of the city’s inhabitants were enslaved black people in the 18th century.
That prompted some questions: How were African Americans half the city’s population, yet their stories were essentially untold? Colonial Williamsburg embarked on an effort to determine how to tell those stories, hitting on the idea that a social-history perspective would be the best way to do it.
“When they made that choice, that started everything,” Seals said. “That’s when programming really changed.”
Forty years ago, a group of Hampton University students were recruited to work as first-person interpreters portraying African Americans known to live and work in Williamsburg during the late 1700s.
As part of its Black History Month coverage, the blog of the Organization of American Historians has published an index of every article published on African American history in the Journal of American History. Read the index here.
Here are a few of the articles included:
Charles Ramsdell, “The Natural Limits of Slavery Expansion” (1929)
Emma Lou Thornbrough, “The Brownsville Episode and the Negro Vote” (1957)
Benjamin Quarles, “The Colonial Militia and Negro Manpower” (1959)
Donald Mathews, “The Methodist Mission to the Slaves, 1829–1844” (1965)
James McPherson, “Abolitionists and the Civil Rights Act of 1875” (1965)
C. Vann Woodward, “Clio with Soul” (1969)
Edmund Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox” (1972)
Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “The Slave Economies in Political Perspective” (1979)
Peter Kolchin, “Reevaluating the Antebellum Slave Community: A Comparative Perspective” (1981)
Leon Litwack, “Trouble in Mind: The Bicentennial and the Afro-American Experience” (1987)
James H. Cone, “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Third World” (1987)
Eric Foner, “Rights and the Constitution in Black Life during the Civil War and Reconstruction” (1987)
John Hope Franklin, “Afro-American History: State of the Art” (1988)
David W. Blight, ““For Something Beyond the Battlefield”: Frederick Douglass and the Memory of the Civil War”
Linda Gordon, “Black and White Visions of Welfare: Women’s Welfare Activism, 1890–1945” (1991)
Nell Irvin Painter, “Representing Truth: Sojourner Truth’s Knowing and Becoming Known” (1994)
Mary Dudziak, “Josephine Baker, Racial Protest, and the Cold War” (1994)
Thomas Sugrue, “Crabgrass-Roots Politics: Race, Rights, and the Reaction against Liberalism in the Urban North, 1940–1964” (1995)
Daniel Mandell, “Shifting Boundaries of Race and Ethnicity: Indian-BlackIntermarriage in Southern New England, 1760–1880” (1998)
Walter Johnson, “The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s” (2000)
Ira Berlin, “Presidential Address: American Slavery in History and Memory and the Search for Social Justice” (2004)
Lani Guinier, “From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma” (2004)
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “Presidential Address: The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past” (2005)
Kenneth Minkema and Harry Stout, “The Edwardsean Tradition and the Antislavery Debate, 1740–1865” (2005)
Kate Masur, ““A Rare Phenomenon of Phiological Vegetation”: The Word “Contraband” and the Meanings of Emancipation in the United States” (2007)
Mark M. Smith, “Getting in Touch with Slavery and Freedom” (2008)
Dorothy Ross, “Lincoln and the Ethics of Emancipation: Universalism, Nationalism, Exceptionalism” (2009)
Mark Neely, “Lincoln, Slavery, and the Nation” (2009)
Penial Joseph, “The Black Power Movement: A State of the Field” (2009)
Nicholas Guyatt, “America’s Conservatory: Race, Reconstruction, and the Santo Domingo Debate” (2011)
Patricia Bonomi, “ “Swarms of Negroes Comeing about My Door”: Black Christianity in Early Dutch and English North America” (2016)
Two new street names in Philadelphia. Here is a taste of a piece at Philly.com:
Two dozen people gathered outside the Independence Visitor Center for a ceremony christening Market Street between Front Street and Eighth Street as “Avenue of Our Founders,” in honor of the country’s founding fathers. At the same time Sixth between Race Street and Lombard Streets was renamed “Avenue of Freedom” to mark key sites of black American history.
Read the entire piece here.
Here are some of the books on Kendi’s list:
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told
Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh
Leon Litwack, North of Slavery
Eric Foner, Reconstruction
Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis
Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
Read Kendi’s entire piece at The Atlantic
Amy Taylor is an Associate Professor of History along with Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky. This interview is based on her new book, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (The University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Embattled Freedom?
AT: For a number of years, while working on other projects, I kept coming across references to the hundreds of thousands of women, men, and children who fled slavery during the Civil War and forged new lives for themselves behind the lines of the Union army. But these were only fleeting references—a few sentences in a book, or a widely circulated Harper’s Weekly image, for example. So eventually I wondered: why don’t I know more? How could a mass migration of people that effectively destroyed slavery have taken place during this (abundantly studied) Civil War, and we still don’t know much about it?
The answer, of course, had to do with deliberate neglect — and the failure of white Americans, in particular, to reckon with the Civil War’s slavery history for so long. It should be noted that some black scholars, most notably W.E.B. DuBois in Black Reconstruction, did write about this history decades ago and tried to turn more attention to the story. But it has only been recently, in the last decade, that the subject is finally getting its due — in addition to my book, there are important books and articles by Thavolia Glymph, Jim Downs, Leslie Schwalm, and Chandra Manning as well. All of this work is in sync with present-day politics, as we begin 2019 with Confederate monuments coming down and new commemorations of slavery and black Civil War history going up.
I also wrote this book because of a more general and abiding interest in telling the stories of people who have not had their stories told. I am a social historian at heart and believe that everyone has a story that can tell us something about the world in which they lived. I am also an aspiring detective. So I was drawn to the challenge of digging up even the smallest scraps of information about individual refugees from slavery, and then piecing together their movements to try to understand their perspectives on the momentous events that shook the nation in the 1860s.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Embattled Freedom?
AT: My book rests on the premise that the Civil War represented a distinctly militarized period in the decades-long process of destroying slavery in the United States (the “long Emancipation,” as some have called it). Embattled Freedom zeroes in on that period and argues that the way in which freedom-seeking people navigated—and survived—the culture, bureaucracy, and dangers of military life was an elemental part of the story of slavery’s destruction in the United States.
JF: Why do we need to read Embattled Freedom?
AT: Because Embattled Freedom is deeply resonant with so much of what is going on in our lives today. First, it uncovers a key piece of the deeply buried slavery past with which we are only now beginning to reckon. As more and more Americans are tearing down romanticized myths and monuments and talking more honestly about this history, I believe it is the historian’s role to provide ample research that can make an open and constructive dialogue possible. My hope is that Embattled Freedom will help inform that conversation.
Second, the book also tells the story of one of the United States’ earliest refugee crises. As we consider our obligations to displaced people throughout the world—as Americans debate the meaning of its borders and how “open” the country should be—I think it behooves us to consider the longer history of how Americans have defined citizenship and belonging throughout the nation’s history. The parallels between what happened in the Civil War and what is happening today are striking and sometimes surprising: how many people know, for example, that northern politicians tried to build a metaphoric “wall” across the United States during the Civil War, when they refused the migration of refugees from slavery into northern states? That is just one example of how my book sheds light on the deep history of our present-day lives.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AT: I graduated from college thinking I would pursue a career in politics. So I went to Capitol Hill within months of obtaining my history degree and began working for a congressman. But I soon found myself sneaking into the Library of Congress during the workday to browse around and flip through the card catalog (which tells you how long ago that was). I was looking for materials related to the senior honors thesis on Confederate women that I had just completed before graduating. And I soon admitted to myself that I would rather hunt down leads on an already-completed history project than brush up on NASA policy and draft talking points for my boss (though I liked and respected him).
I decided I wanted to think for myself, rather than for my boss, and that I needed to pick up the intellectual work that I had left behind with my history degree. So I began applying to graduate programs and landed at the University of Virginia for my MA and PhD degrees. Why exactly I was drawn to history is something I do not fully understand yet—maybe with age I’ll gain more perspective. But I think it has something to do with my nagging interest in comprehending human behavior, which is why I sometimes say that if not a historian, I would be a journalist, a detective, or a psychologist.
JF: What is your next project?
AT: I have two. The first is a short book that will tell the story of the last effort by the federal government to colonize people of African descent beyond the nation’s borders. In 1863, just months after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln approved and supported the migration of over 400 people from the coast of Virginia to Île a Vàche (Haiti). The people, already suffering in refugee camps in and around Fort Monroe, were willing to listen to big promises of employment, housing, and stable new lives that would greet them in Haiti. The expedition failed to live up to those promises, however, and amid disease, death, and unpaid wages, the group petitioned Lincoln to bring them back to the United States—which he did.
My other project explores the U.S. government’s effort to count newly freed people in the 1860s. During the Civil War, in particular, federal agents made numerous attempts to conduct a census of the formerly enslaved population. All of these attempts proved incomplete and haphazard; all, however, were advancements on the decennial federal census, which had long counted this population but never by name or by any other identifying information except for gender, “color,” and age. That changed during the war, as federal agents identified the people by name, family relationships, military service, and more. My interest is in exploring the meaning of this data-gathering in the context of Emancipation: what was behind the federal government’s impulse to count, sort, and classify this population, and what role did it play in imagining and building a postwar racial order?
JF: Thanks, Amy!
Randal Jelks is a Professor of American Studies and African and African American Studies at The University of Kansas. This interview is based on his new book Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).
JF: What led you to write Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans?
RJ: I wrote Faith and Struggle because I wanted to think through African American understandings of faiths, what their usages were, and how they reshaped the inner lives of these four historically interesting people.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans?
RJ: The argument of the book is quite simple. I argue that the inner lives of the personalities in this book are as consequential as their outer actions as they faced gendered racism and personal individual struggle.
JF: Why do we need to read Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans?
RJ: I want readers to read Faith and Struggle because I want them to think about their inner lives and how their inner sense of self speaks to the times we currently live in. There are valuable lessons to be learned from others. This is why my own personal narrative is a through line all throughout the book.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RJ: I was born in New Orleans. Above ground cemeteries forced me to always think about the interconnections between the past and the present. I decided on history as a methodology of inquiry as an undergraduate and have used it intellectually ever since. Professionally I became a historian when I decided to do a PhD in Comparative Black Histories at Michigan State University in 1989.
JF: What is your next project?
RJ: I am in the throes of finishing up a book titled ML: A Democratic Meditation. It is a collection of twelve essays about the current state of our polis as I think through the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. There are several more projects in the offing. I am also an executive producer on a documentary on the writer Langston Hughes titled I, Too, Sing America: Langston Hughes Unfurled (dreamdocumentary.org).
JF: Thanks, Randal!
Richard Hughes serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University. This interview is based on the second edition of his book Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning (University of Illinois Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning?
RH: At the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion that convened in Chicago in 2012, I was one of five scholars who responded to James Cone’s new book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. As part of my comments, I spoke of the five national myths that I identify in my earlier book, Myths America Lives By (Illinois, 2003), and how those myths shaped my understanding of both the nation and race when I was growing up in West Texas some sixty years ago. When I completed my remarks and took my seat at the panelists’ table, one of the panelists—the late Professor James Noel of San Francisco Theological Seminary—leaned over to me and whispered, “Professor, you left out the most important of all the American myths!” When I asked what I had omitted, he told me straight up, “The myth of white supremacy.” That simple comment launched me on quite a journey of reading, reflection, and introspection. In time I began to see Noel’s point, that even whites like me—whites who strongly resist racist ideology—can escape the power of the white supremacist myth only with extraordinary effort, if at all. That is because assumptions of white supremacy are like the very air we breathe: they surround us, envelope us, and shape us, but do so in ways we seldom discern.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning?
RH: The book draws three conclusions—first, that the myth of white supremacy is the primal American myth that informs all the others; second, that one of the chief functions of the other myths is to protect and obscure the myth of white supremacy, to hide it from our awareness, and to assure us that we remain innocent after all; and third, that there is hope, but only if whites are willing to come to terms with this reality. An important sub-theme in this book is the role white churches in America have played in perpetuating the doctrine of white supremacy since the birth of the nation—and especially now
JF: Why do we need to read Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning?
RH: As far as I know, no other book systematically explores the mythic structure of American identity and roots that mythic structure squarely in the myth of white supremacy.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RH: I was raised in a very narrow, sectarian Christian tradition that claimed to be the one true church. My deeply held, existential questions about those claims first led me into the history of American religion. In time I saw unmistakable parallels between the sectarian dimensions of my church and the sectarian dimensions of my nation, and the mythic structures that sustained both
JF: What is your next project?
RH: Sidney E. Mead was widely recognized as the dean of historians of American religion and was my teacher at the University of Iowa. Mead always claimed that the Enlightenment stood at the heart of the American experience. Much later, a group of evangelical historians placed American evangelicalism at the heart of the American experience. I want to do a project that compares the work of Mead and the work of the evangelical historians on the way those two traditions helped shape the American experience.
JF: Thanks, Richard!
Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School on Gurnee, IL is doing yeoman’s work from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. Here is latest. Enjoy! (Read all of Matt’s posts here). –JF
I wrote a research paper last semester on the ways in which evangelical women used religion to interpret and defend the American Revolution. I included a section on Phillis Wheatley, but rather than rekindle the debate here over whether or not she was an evangelical, I’ll save that for my post on Saturday’s session, “Who is Evangelical? Confronting Race in American Christianity.” The original plan for my paper had been to include Loyalist women, whose evangelical faith led them to the opposite position, but space and time constraints forced me to narrow my focus to Patriots only. Thus, I was thrilled to see two sessions titled “Loyalism in the Age of the Atlantic Revolutions” on the agenda today at AHA19. Both sessions were arranged by AHA President Mary Beth Norton.
I’d be remiss at this point to not put a plug in for my graduate program, which is offered through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, in cooperation with Pace University. The program offers K-12 history teachers, such as myself, the chance to earn an MA in American History online for a fraction of the cost of most graduate programs, and best of all, the lectures are all led by preeminent historians in their respective fields. The professor of my course last semester on women and the American Revolution was none other than Carol Berkin, who chaired the second session today on new research.
Timothy Compeau started that session off with his paper “Retributive Justice? Loyalist Revenge and Honorable Manhood in the American Revolution.” It offered a fascinating look at the ways in which Christian virtue and masculine honor culture were in conflict during the Revolutionary Era and how this acutely affected Loyalist men. According to Compeau, these men provide an excellent window into studying that culture. He pointed out how Patriots specifically attacked the manhood of Loyalist men, such as when Alexander Hamilton claimed that Samuel Seabury was impotent or when Thomas Paine wrote that Tories were unfit to be husbands or fathers. He also explained how due to the war, Loyalist men were limited in the ways that they could respond to such questions of honor. Many chose Christian responses of forgiveness and restraint, out of necessity if not desire. But some did find ways to square the use of retributive violence with their Christian faith. In the end, many Loyalist men were able to claim that their choice had been the more masculine one, as it took greater manhood than the Patriots had to suffer all the indignities that were forced upon them. As Compeau succinctly put it, “by defending the Crown, loyal men gained nothing put honor.”
Elite, white, Loyalist women of the Delaware River Valley were the focus of Kacy Tillman’s paper and she brought up names that were familiar from my own research, such as Grace Growden Galloway and Elizabeth Drinker. Tillman sought to parse some of the differences among such Loyalist women. Some were what she called active Loyalists, others were passive Loyalists. Some assumed the label while others had it attached to them. And many of them were Loyalist by association, be it familial, religious, or both. Tillman’s thesis was that all of these women faced violations of their bodies and their writings (“stripped and script,” as the title of her paper aptly put it) as a result of their Loyalism. One of the things she noticed in her research was that one can learn just as much from what these women didn’t write than what they did. Perhaps that’s why I had such difficultly using those sources for my own paper. “It’s hard to read for silence,” Tillman said. “But we have to be able to do so when reading the letters of Loyalist women.”
James Sidbury rounded out the session with some words of reassurance related to my own experience in researching Loyalists. He started off his talk by defending the truism that history is often written by the winners, but then qualified that observation. “There’s been a whole lot written about the Revolution,” he said. “It’s inevitable that something is going to be written about [Loyalists].” His paper focused on the Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia who helped found the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone. Those colonists, while remaining loyal to the British Crown, led an uprising against the company that ran the colony and attempted to create an autonomous enclave within the colony by using many of the Enlightenment ideals of rights and governance they had learned in Anglo-America. As Sidbury’s talk made clear, despite the Nova Scotians’ embrace of some American ideals, the new United States explicitly excluded non-whites from political participation. Thus, it makes sense that monarchical government still held much ideological appeal for Black Loyalists in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions.
Thanks again, Matt!
As picked by the editors of Black Perspectives.
Authors include Martha Jones, Julius Scott, David Blight, Lillian Barger, Daina Ramey Berry, Keisha Berry, Gerald Horne, and Imani Perry.
Subjects include: slavery in antebellum America, the Haitian Revolution, Frederick Douglass, liberation theology, the slave trade, black nationalism, African Americans in the military, Black Lives Matter, and W.E.B. Du Bois.
See the list here.
We usually think of the civil rights movement in political, moral, and even religious terms, but we seldom think about it in terms of what historian Joshua Clark Davis calls a “movement for intellectual change.” Here is a taste of his piece at Black Perspectives:
Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, is widely recalled as an unimpeachable moral authority, as a master orator, and as a fierce proponent of democracy. But how many Americans today recall him as the powerful intellectual that he was–the inveterate reader and theoretician that many of his contemporaries knew him as?
The same can be asked of the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The organization’s members are recalled for the remarkable bravery and resolute moral clarity they displayed on the Freedom Rides, during Freedom Summer, and in Selma. SNCC members created a movement for social change, for moral change, and for political change. But how many of us acknowledge that SNCC also forged a movement for intellectual change? A short SNCC memo I recently came across forced me to reconsider this question.
“Dear Brothers and Sisters,” begins the undated letter from SNCC’s national office in Atlanta. “This is a copy of SNCC’s suggested readings …It is essential that every black person become aware of his/her history and become proud of that history. Let us hope that his pride will build a basis for the coming together of black people on an international as well as national level.”
The memo is followed by a four-page document listing nearly one hundred books divided into eight categories: History of Blacks in the United States; Contemporary Black Thought; Biographies of Famous Black People; Black Fiction; Books on Black Arts; African History; Contemporary African Thought; and Books of International Revolution.
Read the entire piece here.
Many contemporary controversies over issues like voting rights and the scope of the government have their origins in the period following the Civil War. That era, known as Reconstruction, is one of the most contentious in this nation’s history, and also one of the most misunderstood.
Congress can help fix that by passing the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park Act before the end of the year. The bill, passed by the House in September and now under consideration in the Senate, would empower the National Park Service to connect Reconstruction sites all around the country; encourage visitors to talk about Reconstruction at local historical sites; and help convey the full story of how America was remade after the Civil War.
Reconstruction started in the early days of the Civil War. As United States forces entered the South, enslaved African Americans immediately pressed for freedom. They escaped to Union lines, demanded pay for their work, petitioned for their rights and served the Union war effort as laborers and soldiers. Some four million African Americans built new lives in freedom during the postwar Reconstruction era — reuniting families separated by slavery, building churches, founding schools and serving in government.
From 1865 to 1870, Congress passed, and the states ratified, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which permanently transformed the country. These Republican-led initiatives promised freedom, citizenship, due process and equal protection to everyone on American soil, and also prohibited racial discrimination in voting. These constitutional changes were so momentous that, in 2017, President Barack Obama called Reconstruction the nation’s Second Founding.
Read the rest here.
Here is what you can expect:
Black Perspectives, the award-winning blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), is hosting an online forum on Frederick Douglass on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth. Organized by Brandon R. Byrd (Vanderbilt University), the online forum uses the 200th anniversary of Douglass’s birth as an opportunity to highlight commemorative, critical reflections, and assessments of Douglass’s ideas and legacy. The forum will feature an interview with Kenneth B. Morris, the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass (and the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington). It will also feature essays from Neil Roberts (Williams College); Manisha Sinha (University of Connecticut); David Blight (Yale University); Leigh Fought (Le Moyne College); Noelle Trent (National Civil Rights Museum); and Christopher Bonner (University of Maryland, College Park). The forum begins on Monday, November 26, 2018 and concludes on Friday, November 30, 2018.
During the week of the online forum, Black Perspectives will publish new blog posts every day at 5:30AM EST. Please follow Black Perspectives (@BlkPerspectives) and AAIHS (@AAIHS) on Twitter; like AAIHS on Facebook; or subscribe to our blog for updates. By subscribing to Black Perspectives, each new post will automatically be delivered to your inbox during the week of the forum.
Learn more here.
Scott Heerman is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Miami. This interview is based on his new book, The Alchemy of Slavery: Human Bondage and Emancipation in the Illinois Country, 1730-1865 ( University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write The Alchemy of Slavery?
SH: I began with a question: how do you make a free society? I’m not the first to ask that question, but by focusing on Illinois before the Civil War I found a time and place where we didn’t have a good answer. I knew that slavery existed in Illinois when the French claimed it in the eighteenth century, and that eventually it became a “free state.” Yet I struggled to understand this change, as most of the forces that drove abolition in the north–a powerful free black community, newspapers and pamphlets, religious communities–seemed to be missing. Instead I found that each attempt to abolish slavery in the region, including the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the first and second state constitutions, state supreme court rulings–failed to accomplish that task. In each instance, what I thought should have abolished slavery led only to a new variation on coerced labor taking root. In light of this I found myself forced to rethink many of the organizing concepts of the scholarship: free states and slave states, radical abolitionists and proslavery fire eaters, gradual and immediate emancipation. That this one very important place could confound so much of the conventional story led me to write The Alchemy of Slavery.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Alchemy of Slavery?
SH: I argue that we need to set aside the idea that slavery was an institution, and instead we need to approach slavery as an adaptable set of power relationships. Slavery was not a status that people held; masters enslaved people using a wide range of ever-changing coercive practices, which for decades allowed them to reinvent slavery in the face of abolition laws.
JF: Why do we need to read The Alchemy of Slavery?
SH: This book shows that slavery and freedom are both historical processes. It is easy to think of slavery as a fixed status, but this book encourages us to think of it as an every changing power relationship. As a consequence, slavery could look very different over time: Illinois Indians raided and exchanged their captives, Europeans held African-descended people in lifelong chattel conditions, U.S. settlers in Illinois held African Americans as lifelong, uncompensated, servants, and masters kidnapped free people, turning them into slaves. People in each of these conditions were slaves, and yet their lives looked very different. When we recognize just how adaptable the power to enslave people is we can appreciate many of the hallmarks of American history differently.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
SH: As an undergraduate student, a professor asked me a question that I still think about most days: how do the powerful stay in power? In time, I recognized that various hierarchies existed, both now and in the past, and some of them are seen as legitimate and others of them are seen as unjust. I could not stop wondering: how and why does society sort these various forms of inequality? Most interesting of all: how do kinds of inequality move from just to unjust, from being seen as normative to being seen as an affront to the values of society? It is that question of how the powerful adapt, or don’t, to changing norms in order to stay in power that motivated me to become a historian.
JF: What is your next project?
SH: I am at work on a book project that studies the international kidnapping of freed men and women. I look at cases when enslavers carried freed people, for instance, from the U.S. North to the Caribbean, from the British Caribbean to Havana, and from Haiti to the U.S. South. It argues that there was a connection between abolition and the rise of more powerful nation states during the early nineteenth century. It is commonplace to argue that Civil War emancipation demanded new forms of state power—chiefly birthright citizenship and Civil Rights legislation that offered a ringing endorsement of black freedom and equality before the law. Yet those developments are almost always cast as a consequence of the wartime experience and crucible of radical reconstruction. Pushing against this trend, my work explores how kidnapping cases inspired new kinds of state action, and pushed ahead new types of governance. As Prime Ministers and Cabinet Secretaries, antislavery activists, and Afro-descended people tangled over these cases they confronted profound questions about the laws of nations. Theories and conceptions of subjecthood and citizenship were at the core of these cases. As various different governments confronted these cases they worked through what it meant to be part of a sovereign nation, and what rights and protections extended to its people.
JF: Thanks, Scott!
William Green is Professor of History at Augsburg University. This interview is based on his new book The Children of Lincoln: White Paternalism and the Limits of Black Opportunity (University Of Minnesota Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write The Children of Lincoln?
WG: After 1870, when it seemed that African Americans were about to begin a period of unprecedented freedom with the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, white supremacy grew even more emboldened throughout the South as racial discrimination deepened throughout the North. Notably, all of this happened on the complaisant watch of Republicans who controlled the federal government and had in various ways emancipated and enfranchised the African American in the name of their martyred president. I wanted to know whether a similar dynamic – complaisance in the face of, what Eric Foner termed, “America’s unfinished revolution” – occurred in Minnesota.
I had just finished Degrees of Freedom, which examined the origins of the civil rights in Minnesota, and I found through the experiences of black residents, traits that were similar to what I saw nationally. But that book looked at the history through the experiences of black Minnesotans. The Children of Lincoln sets out to understand the motivations of often well-intended white patrons who amended the state constitution to establish black suffrage only to conclude that they had done their part, failing (or refusing) to acknowledge that voting rights alone did little to secure opportunity (i.e., farms and apprenticeships for skilled jobs) and end racial discrimination (i.e., denied service in restaurants and theatres). And yet, their expectation of gratitude from African Americans had the effect of quashing any chance for candid discussion between supposed black and white friends. I wanted this book to detail why white patrons who had fought for black equality settled for second-class citizenship, not even five years after Appomattox.
To gain insight into this dynamic, I profiled four Minnesotans – a Radical Republican senator whose public service straddled the years of war and reconstruction, an Irish Protestant immigrant farmer who enlisted in the U.S. Colored Infantry, the founder of the postwar women’s suffrage movement in Minnesota, and a St. Paul businessman and church leader who was key to founding Pilgrim Baptist Church, that would become Minnesota’s oldest black congregation. Each profile offers an often overlooked corner of Minnesota history, which, when pieced together, much like a mosaic, detail a uniquely multifaceted portrait of 19th century liberals.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Children of Lincoln?
WG: 1) The paternalism of white “friends”, though seemingly benign, was as duplicitous to black opportunity as the actions of a bigot; and 2) Self-satisfaction with one’s high-minded work was the surest way to watch the purpose and success of that work fade away.
JF: Why do we need to read The Children of Lincoln?
WG: The Children of Lincoln reminds us that after the war, with the massive influx of immigrants, farmer and labor tensions, agitation for women’s suffrage, railroad policy, expansion of industrial growth and monopolies, railroad expansion, the growth of urban centers and relocation of African Americans, the North needed its own policy of reconstruction.
I also think that The Children of Lincoln uniquely examines how little the “friends of black people” understood the nature of racism, and in particular, when blinded by hubris, were unable or unwilling to see it in themselves.
The book’s title is lifted from the address by Frederick Douglass during the dedication of the Emancipation Memorial when he said to the white listeners who had assembled for the unveiling, “You are the children of Lincoln, but we (African Americans) are at best his step-children.” He uttered these words under the likeness of the martyred president standing with outstretched arms over a freed slave forever huddled at his knee, now frozen in bronze. To white observers, the statue seemed majestic but to black onlookers, the statue seemed to commemorate the eternal duty of blacks to be both unequal and grateful to their white patrons. One year after the dedication, Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican President-elect, withdrew federal troops from the South to mark the end of both reconstruction and federal protection.
The Children of Lincoln examines how the actions of four Minnesotans who did not know each other, came to mirror what the national party leadership did. The book explores how the welfare of the African American came to be the welfare of an abstraction, for “the Children” had allowed the idea of freedom to supplant its reality. As such, I think the book gives an important perspective, and offers issues for discussion on the nature of race relations that carries over to today.
Readers of history – lay and professional – who are interested in Minnesota, Civil War, Dakota War, reconstruction, civil rights, black history, women’s suffrage, and church history, will be interested in The Children of Lincoln.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
WG: I suppose I always had the inclination to be an American historian. Born in Massachusetts and growing up in Nashville and New Orleans, I was surrounded by history and I enjoyed learning about the events of long ago. But those were the days when I was “only” a student of history. It wasn’t until I researched material for what would be my first publication – an account of an 1860 Minneapolis slave trial – when I felt that I had become a historian. I learned the thrill of the hunt, peeling away the layers, going ever deeper into the lives and actions of people who initially only revealed pieces of themselves, discerning how my subject and the larger context affected the other, interpreting the past and acquiring the courage to follow the evidence, honing the skill of engagingly telling the story, trying always to be disciplined, patient and just in doing the work.
JF: What is your next project?
WG: I have a manuscript on the history of liberalism in mid-19th century Minnesota that is being reviewed for publication; and I’m presently working on a biography of an African American woman who was active in the colored women’s club movement and women’s suffrage, and who drafted and successfully lobbied for passage of an anti-lynching bill in 1921.
JF: Thanks, William!