The Author’s Corner with John Marks

John Marks is Historian and Public History Administrator for the American Association for State and Local History. This interview is based on his new book, Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery: Race, Status, and Identity in the Urban Americas (University of South Carolina Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: The idea for this project began developing for me in graduate school. In reading widely about the history of race and slavery in the Atlantic World, I began to recognize patterns in the lived experiences of African-descended people in urban spaces that often went unmentioned. Historians of the United States almost never talked about parallels with Latin American society; Latin Americanists, for their part, often referenced older, or more abstract, examples from US histories when drawing broad comparisons. A deep engagement with current scholarship for both regions, however, revealed parallels I just couldn’t ignore: namely, the opportunity for free people of color living in cities before the end of slavery to carve out spaces of autonomy for themselves, claim a degree of distinction within their communities, and conduct themselves in ways that defied white expectation—and often the law. Recognizing major differences in law, culture, and attitudes towards racial difference across the Americas, I wanted to understand with greater precision the ways African-descended people navigated daily life in these places. As I began researching, I recognized as well that explicitly comparative history in some ways represented an unfulfilled promise of the turn to the “Atlantic World” as a perspective for analyzing the history of the United States and other American societies. Few scholars had conducted the kind of careful social history research in service of a transnational and comparative project I thought was necessary to really understand local dynamics. Once I realized such an approach could make a unique contribution to our understanding of race and slavery, there was no turning back.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: Throughout the urban Americas before the end of slavery, free people of color relentlessly pursued opportunities to improve their circumstances and provide for their families, staking claims to rights, privileges, and distinctions not typically granted to African-descended people. These efforts represented part of an international struggle for Black freedom, as free Black residents in Charleston, Cartagena, and beyond subtly challenged ideologies of white racial supremacy that linked the Americas together and undermined the foundations of white authority in the Atlantic World.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Freedom in the Age of Slavery?

JM: 2020 has revealed for many Americans, especially white Americans, the degree to which racial injustice and inequality are still pervasive and pernicious features of our society. In order to fully understand the persistence of both individual racial prejudice and systemic racism, we need to understand the history of how race has operated and affected the lives of African-descended people. To fully understand that story, we need to at times look at the history of race and slavery from an international perspective.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, free people of African descent in the United States, Colombia, and throughout the Americas had to confront broadly shared notions of white supremacy among the country’s ruling classes in order to advance efforts to provide for themselves, their loved ones, and their communities. Today, anti-Black racism and a wide range of persistent racial inequalities are pervasive from Canada to Chile and everywhere in between. When demonstrations against systemic racism and police violence erupted this summer, they extended to places like Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia, in addition to across the United States. These international demonstrations were not just in solidarity with the US, they were protests against the particular, local histories of white supremacist violence and injustice.

Linking the histories of race and slavery in these places, exploring how and when racial dynamics were the same and different, offers new perspective on the histories of the United States, Latin America, and the Atlantic World, and I hope offers some insight into how we should understand efforts to combat white supremacy in the present.

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

JM: High school was the first time I really recognized that I had an uncommon interest in (and knack for) reading and writing about the past, but it wasn’t until college that I realized it could be a career. As an undergrad at Lynchburg College (now University of Lynchburg), I had the opportunity to pursue several locally-focused research projects, and I grew to enjoy the archive, the search for material, and the process of putting a puzzle together when you’re not really sure if you have all the pieces. As a New Jersey native researching race and slavery in Virginia, I also became keenly aware of regional differences in present-day racial dynamics, and I wanted to know more about how understandings of race developed over time. Moving forward through graduate school and now a career in public history, the way I think about what it means to be an American historian has certainly changed. But I’m as committed as ever to using research, writing, and engagement with the public to better understand the past and think through how it can help us solve problems in the present.

JF: What is your next project?

JM: I’ve got a couple things kicking around that I hope to be able to say more about soon. In both my scholarship and my day job (for the American Association for State and Local History), I’ve been thinking a lot about anniversaries and how historians can use them as opportunities to expand, challenge, and learn from the public’s understandings of history. 2022 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy in Charleston, and 2026 represents the 250th anniversary of the United States. I know planning is underway already for both commemorations, so I’m interested in using those events to think in new ways about the history of race, slavery, and freedom—whether for books, articles, public history projects, or other endeavors.

JF: Thanks, John!

The Author’s Corner with Warren Milteer

North Carolina's Free People of ColorWarren Milteer is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This interview is based on his new book, North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write North Carolina’s Free People of Color?

WM: North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 is derived from my interests in my family history. My passion for researching my family roots led me to conduct research in archives and courthouses. The information that I uncovered encouraged me to ask broader questions about the experiences of free people of color, both my ancestors as well as others who shared the same status. Free people of color became the focus of my academic research during my undergraduate studies. I continued my work through graduate school and wrote my dissertation on the topic. North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 is a revised and expanded version of my project from graduate school.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of North Carolina’s Free People of Color?

WM: The book argues that intersections among freedom status, racial categorization, gender, wealth, occupation, reputation, and other forms of hierarchy created a wide range of experiences for free people of color in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North Carolina. The story of North Carolina’s free people of color challenges previous understandings of the American South as a place organized under a strict racial hierarchy, suggesting instead that free people of color lived in a society with a much more malleable social order that permitted some free people of color to become relatively successful while others struggled for their subsistence.

JF: Why do we need to read North Carolina’s Free People of Color?

WM: North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885 offers us a fresh understanding of the origins and status of free people of color in North Carolina and to some extent the South more broadly. I provide readers with a careful analysis of the development of “free people of color” as a sociopolitical category in addition to exploring the diverse experiences of free people of color. Unlike most studies of free people of color in the South, I focus not only on the African origins of free people of color but also consider the importance of Native peoples in the growth of the population. This study of free people of color bridges the divide between the histories of people of African and Native descent in the South. My book highlights the importance of various forms of hierarchy in the daily lives of free people of color. The rights and privileges of free people of color were defined by their racial categorization but also by whether they were men or women, rich or poor, or considered respectable by their neighbors. Life for poor free persons of color differed significantly from the experiences of financially successful free people of color. Free men of color enjoyed privileges unavailable to free women of color. Furthermore, nearly one in eight of the South’s free people of color lived in North Carolina, making North Carolina a particularly appropriate site to examine in order to understand how freedom and slavery coexisted in pre-1865 America.

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

WM: I have been interested in history since childhood. As a teenager, I developed a passion for historical research, which continued through college. During college, I decided to pursue the study of American history as a career.

JF: What is your next project?

WM: My next project focuses on free people of color in what would become the U.S. South from the colonial period through the Civil War. The project examines the evolution of the political debates concerning free people of color and how free people of color responded to the back and forth of social acceptance and political attacks.

JF: Thanks, Warren!

Free Blacks as Refugees

Slave_kidnap_post_1851_bostonStephen Kantrowitz is the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History, African American Studies, and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In a recent essay at Boston Review he compares the racial plight of escaped slaves and free blacks in the antebellum North to 20th and 21st century immigrants to the United States.

Here is a taste of this piece “Refuge for Fugitives“:

The struggle of the 1850s began in and drew its animating energy from African Americans’ analysis of their own circumstances. Slavery hung a shadow over the lives of free black people, even in places where slavery had long been legally abolished, such as Massachusetts. There, African Americans possessed nearly every formal right on the same basis as the “free white persons” legally eligible for immigration and naturalization. But African Americans commonly experienced northern freedom as mocking, hostile, and violent. For the fugitive slave Frederick Douglass, liberty in Massachusetts included a constant, oppressive awareness of being perceived as an inferior. “Prejudice against color is stronger north than south,” he declared; “it hangs around my neck like a heavy weight. . . . I have met it at every step the three years I have been out of southern slavery.” Even in Massachusetts, African Americans were barred from nearly every avenue of economic or educational advancement. Railroad companies segregated black passengers in Jim Crow cars, a policy their conductors enforced with violence. State officials ejected free blacks from official processions, and ruffians chased them from Boston Common. The foremost form of popular entertainment, the minstrel show, mocked their appearance and aspirations. No wonder northern black activists bleakly called themselves “the nominally free,” or “the two-thirds free.” One African American newspaper was entitled the Aliened American.

In this sense, the free black people of the mid-nineteenth century prefigured the struggles of later generations of what historian Mae Ngai calls “alien citizens.” Ngai’s analysis reveals how the U.S. citizenship of native-born Americans of Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, and Muslim background has in practice been limited or nullified by what many consider to be their unalterable foreignness. The radical black activists of a century and a half ago well understood that their compatriots regarded them mainly through the prism of their racial association with slaves. So it has been since, for Chinese Americans figured as unassimilable aliens, Japanese Americans assailed as members of an enemy race, Mexican Americans dubbed “illegals” and rapists, and Muslim Americans branded terrorists. Even those formally vested with citizenship cannot escape the gravitational drag of their racialized association with a dangerous and foreign otherness. Even the mildest formulation of alien citizenship tells the tale: “Right, but where are you really from?”

Instead of seeking to overcome their association with slavery, antebellum African American activists built their activism around it. Defiantly dubbing themselves “colored citizens,” they pursued twin and inseparable projects: freedom to the slave and equal citizenship for all. Some embraced this course because they had been slaves themselves. Others did so because they understood that they could only escape from slavery’s stigmatizing shadow by asserting their common unity, dignity, and equality.

In one sense, the conditions of black freedom left them no choice. Most states that had abolished slavery did not require black people to prove they were free. But the U.S. Constitution’s Fugitive Slave clause curtailed this presumption of freedom. In theory, a 1793 law that gave teeth to this clause provided only for the capture and return of escaping slaves. But the law did not guarantee those accused of being fugitives the right to testify in their own defense, which made it quite possible to enslave a free person. Nor was this the only existential risk free black people faced: the demand for slaves birthed a kidnapping industry with hundreds (possibly thousands) of victims, among them Solomon Northup, who authored Twelve Years a Slave (1853) based on his experience of being illegally enslaved.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner With Andrew Diemer

Politics of Black CitizenshipAndrew Diemer is Assistant Professor of History at Towson University. This interview is based on his new book, The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African-Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817-1863 (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Politics of Black Citizenship?

AD: Historians have made a fairly persuasive case for the centrality of African Americans, free and enslaved, to the emergence of radical abolition. What is less clear is the role that free blacks played in the political turn that antislavery took in the decades before the Civil War. Certainly many African Americans applauded the growth of broad-based parties committed to stopping the expansion of slavery, even if some of the leaders of those parties sought to distance themselves from the radical, interracial abolition movement, but what role did free blacks play in antebellum politics? I set out to write a book about black politics across the North, but at an early stage realized that the nature of nineteenth-century politics makes this difficult. As much as antislavery dealt with national issues, for free black people in the North, many of the most pressing political issues were state and local matters. Philadelphia, home to the largest free black population in the North (depending on how and when one measures this) was a logical choice. At the same time, it struck me that while we often think of Philadelphia in connection with other major Northern cities, it also had significant connections with Baltimore, and Baltimore had an even larger free black population than Philadelphia. Of course, between these two cities lay a legal boundary between slavery and freedom. I became increasingly interested in these connections, in the movement of African Americans within the region and across that boundary.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Politics of Black Citizenship?

ADThe existence of such large numbers of free African Americans and their movement (or fears of their movement) across the legal boundary between slavery and freedom made black citizenship rights particularly contentious in this region. Free blacks though largely disfranchised on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, shaped the legal and political system which determined their citizenship rights, in particular demanding the right to the equal protection of state and local laws.

JF: Why do we need to read The Politics of Black Citizenship?

AD: The study of slavery and abolition, along with so much of the historical profession, has taken a strongly international turn in recent years. As important as this turn is, and there is certainly an international dimension to my book, I think that it is essential that we balance this international perspective with close attention to the intensely local dimensions of American politics. Free African Americans were acutely aware of the overlapping geographies of their identities and rights. My book helps to show how the tensions between these local, state, national, and international connections generated a politics of black citizenship. Beyond this, and despite the profoundly different historical contexts, we are living in a time when it is particularly important to think about the history of black struggles for citizenship rights. This is a book about how free African Americans challenged a white dominated political system that often denied them fundamental citizenship rights and which therefore left them vulnerable to violence, kidnapping, and enslavement. This is a story which resonates with our own times.

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

AD: I had some great high school history teachers, so I think that was a big part of my interest in American History. My older brother was a big World War II buff and I was always sort of competitive with him, so I think I wanted to one up him by going back to earlier American History. I also remember watching Ken Burns’s Civil War as a really important influence on my historical imagination. When I went to college I thought at first that I wanted to study classics, but a few semesters of conjugating ancient Greek verbs helped me find my way back to American History!

JF: What is your next project?

AD: I am in the early stages of a new book project, a biography of the black abolitionist, William Still. While hardly unknown, he is someone who I think has been somewhat overshadowed by some of his peers, especially Frederick Douglass but others as well. Still is best known for his work in the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia where he was one of the key participants in the Underground Railroad during the 1850s. In that work he was part of some of the most exiting stories of that decade: Christiana, Henry “Box” Brown, Jane Johnson, John Brown, to name only a few. He also went on to become a businessman, activist, philanthropist, and author.

JF: Thanks Andrew!

Archaeologist Uncovers the Life of a Free-Black Philadelphian

Location of the home of James Oronko Dexter

I came across this great story today at Philly.com.  It is a story of archaeological research, historical detective work, and good old-fashioned perseverance.

Here is a taste:

In 2003, the National Constitution Center and Independence National Historical Park undertook the archaeological excavation of an obscure homesite just east of the center, then under construction.

t was the spot where, in the late 18th century, James Oronoko Dexter rented a modest brick house at 134 N. Fifth St., and where, with the house long demolished, a bus depot for the center was planned.
The excavation, undertaken at the urging of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church and the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, produced a wealth of artifacts. But Dexter, a prominent member of the nascent free-black community of that time, remained elusive. Like the vast majority of Americans, he simply vanished into the past.
Now, Douglas Mooney, an archaeologist involved with numerous excavations on Independence Mall, has found an obituary for Dexter that establishes his date of death, and raises numerous questions about who he was. .
According to an Aug. 14, 1799, issue of the Philadelphia Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser, Dexter died Aug. 8 of that year at the age of 70.
For reasons that remain obscure, he is identified in the obituary as “Noka Kinsey.” The obituary offers no hint about where “Kinsey” came from, though “Noka” clearly alludes to Dexter’s enslaved name, Oronoko. But there is no question that the subject is Dexter.
Read the rest here.
HT: George Boudreau via Facebook