The Author’s Corner with Jessica Marie Johnson

Wicked fleshJessica Marie Johnson is Assistant Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. This interview is based on her new book, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Wicked Flesh?

JMJ: In 1999, I took my first trip to New Orleans and my research on its history began not long after that as a Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. I was immediately struck by the power of a city steeped in its own history and of a history wrapped in (seeming) contradictions. From its founding, New Orleans has been inundated with African diasporic social, cultural, and political life. New Orleans has also been an intensely racist, colonial city where deep social, cultural, and political rifts rooted in race, class, color, gender, and sexuality become fault lines residents of African descent must navigate with care and at the risk of their own lives. Hurricane Katrina made this aggressively clear; COVID-19 (New Orleans was the second most active hotspot next to New York City) demonstrated it again.

And yet cutting across these truths is also the presence of Black women at every level and in every texture of historical and contemporary life. Black woman professors holding space for students at Tulane, Dillard, and Xavier Universities; Black women laborers work at cafes, restaurants, and bars; Black nuns and Catholic culture suffuse the calendar with occasions for feasts and penitence; Black women guide systems of belief from Spiritual Churches to Santería to vodun; Black women change the narrative as artists and culture workers. Black women in New Orleans are unapologetic in their strategies for play and pleasure. As a historian, I wanted to know more about the roots of this fiercely independent, community-accountable, and geographically rooted practice of living freedom. I wanted to consider the challenges that these practices faced in a city and region that experienced three slaveholding empires (French, Spanish, United States) and grew into an urban space during the Age of Revolution, but became the homebase of plantation empire as the U.S. moved into the nineteenth century.

It became clear very quickly in my research and thanks to foundational work by Jennifer Spear, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Paul Lachance, Virginia Meacham Gould, Daniel Usner, Tom Ingersoll, and connective work by Ira Berlin and Michael Gomez, that African history is where the story of the city begins, that the Caribbean is where the story connects, and that Black women were central to everything we think we know about New Orleans and the Atlantic world. New Orleans is a site of overlapping Atlantics, where diasporic and archipelagic flows splash and crash into each other. These flows have ramifications for all involved, but especially for African women and women of African descent. And yet, historians have not centered Black women when they tell the story of the founding of the city or the African presence in the region. I wrote this book as a way to witness Black women’s foundational work as an archive, history, and legacy.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Wicked Flesh?

JMJ: Wicked Flesh is a Black feminist history of the founding of the Gulf Coast. In it, I argue that over the course of the eighteenth century, the intimate and kinship strategies of African women and women of African descent reshaped the meaning of freedom in the French Atlantic, laying the groundwork for Black resistance strategies and abolitionist practices of the nineteenth century.

JF: Why do we need to read Wicked Flesh?

JMJ: Black women, when mentioned, are often relegated to the footnotes of histories of the early modern, early American, and Atlantic worlds. However, race, sex and gender function as more than categories of analysis for historians interested in molding records and archaic stories. Race, sex, and gender were organizing principles of the early modern world, used by historical subjects in their fight over resources (politics), their relations with each other (society), and in the meaning they made of the world around them (culture). African women and women of African descent, or those who came to be seen as Black (in all of its iterations) and woman (in all of its complications) shaped the slaveholding empires of the eighteenth century. They did so through their presence and through the symbolic labor (to draw on Jennifer Morgan) they were forced to engage in when slaveowners, colonial officials, slave ship captains, husbands, white women, and more used their bodies, their Africanness, their blackness, their assumptions about their sexuality, and the practices they engaged in for their own safety and security as reasons to enslave (partus sequitur ventrem), commodify, exploit, violate, and deny them equivalent access to rights and privileges.

But if that isn’t enough of a reason to read Wicked Flesh, there is more. Part of what I argue in this book is Black women did more than survive these attempts at control and coercion. They reshaped the nature of freedom through each challenge and affront to their survival. At each step in Wicked Flesh, year by year as the slaving process proceeded, crystallized, and evolved, African women and women of African descent refused to abide by the boundaries officials placed on or around them. Their refusal, sometimes physical, sometimes legalistic, sometimes more fugitive and maroon, changed the terms of what freedom (and slavery) meant. In other words, enslavement was a process and as a process has a history that we need to understand deeply and intricately. African women and women of African descent were key players in that history and in contesting enslavement.

None of this means Black women were always successful (and, in fact, this book queries what “success” even means in a world of slaves). In Wicked Flesh, we see how success and failure as a binary of freed (success) or enslaved (failure) are false binaries for understanding African women who were part of New Orleans’ Atlantic World–a geography that in this book stretches from coastal Senegal to the Caribbean to the shores of the Gulf Coast. Instead, exploring Black women’s lives and history offers a different vision of freedom. It offers a fuller history of Black womanhood, Black humanity, and African diasporic early modern life, but it also reshapes how we historicize empire, violence, pleasure, property, aesthetics, refusal and contestation.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the source material you used in the writing and researching of Wicked Flesh?

JMJ: The eighteenth century generated astronomical amounts of material on Africans and people of African descent as slaves, but not always as human beings. So I also drew on contemporary Black feminist theory, Black queer/trans theory, Black women’s literature and poetry to inform my reading of the archive and the documents. Where and when I could, I centered the cultural production of Black women of New Orleans or who claim New Orleans as an ancestral site like Rae Paris, Brenda Marie Osbey, Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar Nelson, Jeri Hilt and others, letting their cultural work inform my reading of the sources.

JF: What is your next project?

JMJ: Dark Codex: Blackness, History and the Digital explores the way images and texts created out of slavery’s archive resonate across digital and social media. In Dark Codex, I explore research, teaching, and theories that position Atlantic African diaspora history and histories of slavery as the unforeseen and oft-ignored heart of the digital humanities. As a digital humanities scholar, I’ve had the opportunity to explore questions of history, slavery and the digital as the as the curator of sites like African Diaspora, Ph.D. ( and Diaspora Hypertext, the Blog ( Dark Codex continues this work by exploring the history of the study of slavery (from U.B. Phillips to the Slave Voyages Database) alongside the historical and digital practices of everyday black women and women of color.

I’m excited to be able to spend the Spring 2021 semester working on this project as a fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

JF: Thanks, Jessica!

Who Was Homer Plessy?


Most school children learn about Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court case that upheld racial segregation laws of public facilities as long as those facilities were “equal” in quality.  The case was overturned (defacto) by Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and other decisions.  This is one of this historical facts that many first-year college history students seem to remember (along the fact that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader of the Civil Rights movement).

Over at The New York Times, Glenn Rifkin tells the story of Homer Plessy, the New Orleans “colored” shoemaker who sat in a whites-only car of a train and challenged Louisiana’s Separate Car Act.

Here is a taste:

When Homer Plessy boarded the East Louisiana Railway’s No. 8 train in New Orleans on June 7, 1892, he knew his journey to Covington, La., would be brief.

He also knew it could have historic implications.

Plessy was a racially-mixed shoemaker who had agreed to take part in an act of civil disobedience orchestrated by a New Orleans civil rights organization.

On that hot, sticky afternoon he walked into the Press Street Depot, purchased a first-class ticket and took a seat in the whites-only car.

He was seven-eighths white and could easily pass for a white man, but a conductor, who was also part of the scheme, stopped him and asked if he was “colored.” Plessy responded that he was.

“Then you will have to retire to the colored car,” the conductor ordered.

Plessy refused.

Before he knew it a private detective, with the help of several passengers, had dragged him off the train, put him in handcuffs and charged him with violating the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act, one of many new segregationist laws that were cropping up throughout the post-Reconstruction South.

For much of Plessy’s young life, New Orleans, with its large population of former slaves and so-called “free people of color,” had enjoyed at least a semblance of societal integration and equality. Black residents could attend the same schools as whites, marry anybody they chose and sit in any streetcar.

French-speaking, mixed-race Creoles — a significant percentage of the city’s population — had acquired education, achieved wealth and found a sense of freedom after the Civil War. But as the century drew to a close, white supremacy movements gained traction and pushed hard to quash any notion that people of color might ever attain equal status in white America.

The Separate Car Act spurred vigorous resistance in New Orleans. Plessy, himself an activist, volunteered to be a test case for the local civil rights group, Comite’des Citoyens (Citizens Committee), which hoped eventually to put Plessy’s case before the United States Supreme Court. The group posted his bail after his arrest.

When his case was heard in criminal court four months later, Judge John Howard Ferguson found Plessy guilty.

Read the rest here.

When 11 Italians Were Lynched in New Orleans


In 1891, 11 Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans.  It was the largest mass lynching in American history.  Now, the city and its African-American mayor will apologize for the incident.  Meagan Flynn is covering the story at The Washington Post.  A taste:

The mob assembled promptly at 10 a.m., crammed so tightly on the pavement that the streetcars couldn’t run.

Thousands of people, among them the most prominent businessmen, lawyers, merchants and politicians in New Orleans, marched in circles around a statue of Henry Clay. The crowd was “yelling itself hoarse,” bent on a kind of justice that would be called murder today but that The Washington Post and numerous other newspapers called “vengeance” in 1891.

The mob’s victims awaited in the Orleans Parish jail, all of them Italian immigrants or children of immigrants who had just been acquitted in the shooting death of the New Orleans police chief; others still awaited trial. To this day, the chief’s killer or killers have never been identified. But on the morning of March 14, 1891, despite the not-guilty verdicts, the mob seemed certain.

“When the law is powerless,” William Parkerson, the mob’s leader and mayor’s former campaign manager, yelled to the crowd, according to a 1991 New Orleans Times-Picayune article, “rights delegated by the people are relegated back to the people, and they are justified in doing that which the courts have failed to do.”

Once the speeches finished, The Post reported then, everyone stood still for a moment, quiet just long enough for one man’s voice to catch the agitated crowd’s attention: “Shall we get our guns?”

The verdict was decisive. That morning, anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 vigilantes armed with Winchester rifles, axes and shotguns broke down the door of the parish jail and trampled past the passive sheriff’s deputies until they captured 11 defenseless Italians and riddled their bodies with bullets. Two were dragged outside and hanged, one by a tree limb and the other by a lamp post.

Historians have called the massacre the largest mass lynching in American history. The vigilante mob escaped any consequence, and the city of New Orleans refused to take responsibility.

But now, 128 years later, the city is trying to make amends On April 12, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) is expected to apologize to the Italian American community for the infamous killings — a concession that Michael Santo, special counsel to the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy, said will shore up “long-lasting wounds” among Italians. The mayor is expected to issue a formal proclamation, according to the group. A spokesman for Cantrell confirmed the pending apology to the Associated Press on Sunday.

Read the rest here.

Puck Italians

Cover of Puck magazine on March 25, 1891

The Author’s Corner with Ashley Baggett

51SmfhXThCL._SY346_.jpgAshley Baggett is assistant professor of History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at North Dakota State University. This interview is based on her new book, Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans: Gender, Race, and Reform, 1840-1900 (University Press of Mississippi, 2017). 

JF: What led you to write Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans?

AB: I have been raising awareness about and combatting intimate partner violence (commonly referred to as domestic violence) for the better part of a decade, but I started researching Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans after noticing most historians focus on the North and leave out criminal cases. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans?

AB: Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans argues that the Civil War upended gender expectations, and in the 1870s and 1880s, New Orleans women demanded the right to be free from violence. The legal system responded by recognizing that right and criminalizing intimate partner violence until the 1890s, when abuse became racialized throughout the South and used as a means of racial control.

JF: Why do we need to read Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans?

AB: Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans demonstrates that abuse was not seen as “part of life” or acceptable for much of American history. Instead, legal reform on abuse was (and is) closely tied with how we perceive men, women, race, and relationships. The book inserts the South into the historical narrative on intimate partner violence and adds important insight on the Jim Crow era. 

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

AB: As I became more aware of pressing social problems, especially sexual assault and intimate partner violence, I committed myself to making a difference. For me, that was through understanding the past. History can inform our current decisions and interactions, and to that end, I always hope my research, teaching, and outreach effect a positive change.

JF: What is your next project?

AB: My next project is on an article that examines intimate partner violence during Union occupation. I am also working on an anthology about gender based violence in American history.

JF: Thanks, Ashley!

W.E.B. Du Bois on Confederate Monuments

Here is some more historical context for the New Orleans monuments controversy.

Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory shares this passage from a 1931 Du Bois piece in The Crisis:


Here is a taste of Levin’s commentary at Civil War Memory:

DuBois’s reflection on the selective memory and history of Confederate monuments comes right in the middle of a narrative on the challenges and contradictions of traveling through the South at the height of the Jim Crow era.

DuBois pushes right back against the myth of the Lost Cause. He refuses to draw a distinction between the Confederate government and the men in the ranks. DuBois clearly understood that as long as white southerners were able to mythologize the war through their monuments, African Americans would remain second class citizens.

Confederate monuments did not just occupy the Jim Crow landscape. For Dubois, they helped to make it possible.

Levin has also posted Du Bois’s take on Robert E. Lee.  Read it here.

Removing Monuments: How Far Should We Go?

Monument 1

I know that American historians have been wrestling with this question now for several years and it is not my intention here to offer a solution to the problem because I do not have one.  I am still thinking this all through and I hope some of our readers might be able to help.

In the wake of mayor Mitch Landrieu‘s decision to remove Confederate and racist monuments from New Orleans, a lot of conservatives have been asking about where we draw the line between acceptable monuments and unacceptable monuments.  I think this is a fair question.  And it is one that American historians must address.

David Blight hit the op-ed pages in order to pat Landrieu on the back, but a quick Google search (“Landrieu and historians” and “New Orleans monuments and historians”) reveals that very few historians have entered this conversation with complex and nuanced ideas for helping communities think about how to deal with their own controversial monuments.  Kevin Levin’s #nolasyllabus is a good start on this front, but there is very little in the “Op-Eds, Editorials” section of this excellent resource that address these theoretical and practical issues.  (Some of the readings on “The Memory of Slavery” might be more helpful).

I am sure there is scholarly material on these subjects.  So I ask public historians and historians of race and memory:

Where do we draw the line between removing overtly racist monuments and erasing the past?

I am thinking here about Blight’s comment in his interview with the Dallas Morning News:

DMM: Let’s step back from the Confederacy specifically, and consider this subject from a more generic perspective. Whether it’s a statue to Saddam Hussein or whoever else, is there a case against erasing these things because they are part of history, and for looking at them for what they represent about the people who erected them in the first place?

BLIGHT: Yes, of course there is. You can’t erase everything from the past. If you set out to erase every Confederate monument that would take a few lifetimes. But having said that, these things are all about politics and the present.

You mentioned Saddam Hussein: You had a regime that took over a country and ran a brutal dictatorship and fell when he was deposed. It isn’t surprising that monuments were pulled down. The problem with America is that this was a Civil War that involved the whole country, and the South couldn’t go anywhere. The losers were not going to go away. About 6,000 of them went into exile in Brazil and England and Canada and other places, but even some of them came back.

The loser in this war was always going to be here. And the problem was that the “lost cause” tradition that these monuments tend to represent, because that’s when they were put up — the late 19th, early 20th century — gained a deep, deep foothold, and not just in the South.

But there is an argument to be very careful when you erase history. It’s a dangerous thing to do, because next year someone will want to erase history you think should be preserved. We went through all of this at Yale University last year with the changing of the name of Calhoun College.

I agree with Blight when he says that we need to be very careful when we “erase history.” I also understand that monuments are more about the present (or about the time that they were erected) than they are about the past.  I am just looking for some scholarly wisdom to help me be more “careful” as I think about these things.  What are best practices?  Are there best practices?

I will get the conversation started by calling your attention to my Storified tweets on a 2016 American Historical Association plenary session titled “The Confederacy, Its Symbols, and the Politics of Public Culture.”  A lot of the issues I have raised in this post were addressed in this session.

Message to Mitch Landrieu: This IS About Politics


We have already sung the praises of Mitch Landrieu’s speech on Confederate monuments in New Orleans.  It is a classic.

Nathan Pippenger, a contributing editor at Democracy, agrees with me.

But Pippenger has a small criticism of Landrieu’s speech. His short piece “Opposition to the Lost Cause Is Still Political,” is worth considering.

A taste:

“This is not about politics” is a phrase that should always set off alarm bells, especially when it comes from a politician. Interestingly, the word “politics” does not make another appearance in the speech. But what else could a political figure making a speech about racist public memorials be talking about? Landrieu’s suggestion might be that the issue is somehow beyond politics—that a democratic argument over the statues would be inappropriate because they are so obviously unfit for public display. But if he truly thinks that, then the persuasive effort offered by his own speech is very strange indeed. Perhaps what he really intended was to say that the issue should be beyond politics, by which he means beyond disagreement: No American citizen should approve of a pro-Confederate public memorial. That is a world worth striving for, but as Landrieu knows, it is not an accurate description of the world we live in. The world we live in is home to many intellectual and political descendants of the Confederacy, and pretending that they somehow exist outside politics, or that they are not enabled by so-called “respectable” mainstream figures, is confusing and misleading.

Instead of marring an otherwise excellent speech with this trite declaration, Landrieu should have said something that the current crisis demands, something we must repeat loudly and often: The question of how we Americans remember our past and, symbolically, draw the boundaries of our civic community is a deeply political one. Indeed it is one of the oldest and most difficult, and something that would certainly be very dangerous to get wrong. The sickening blend of ahistorical nostalgia and white nationalism that currently dominates the White House is proof enough of that. In response to its ascendance, we should not only hope for moral transformations in the hearts of individuals; we should actively work for more just and democratic ways of understanding ourselves, and our history. The significance of that project, and the very activities of public engagement and argument through which it is carried out, is absolutely and necessarily political. Finding and elevating more politicians capable of giving speeches like this one, save that one pesky rhetorical feint, would be a good place to start.

Read the entire piece here.

In Praise of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu

Yale Civil War-era historian David Blight salutes Landrieu’s willingness to look straight into his city’s past and do something about it.

Here is a taste of his powerful Atlantic piece “The Battle for Memorial Day in New Orleans“:

It is difficult for historians to favor monument destruction or removal. We worry endlessly about historical erasure or purposeful ignorance of any kind. We favor debate however conflicted, and new memorials that augment or change the narratives told on our public landscapes. But I nod with understanding and approval when the mayor asks: “Why are there no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans?” For half a century and more American historians of all stripes have written and taught newer, more inclusive, and yes, often darker histories such as Landrieu advocates. But it is essentially true that these histories of pain and tragedy, destruction and survival, do by and large await public memorials. They are receiving public museum exhibition and exposure. But in great civic monuments, not so much. The massacre in Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston in June 2015 took America on this new tortured, surprising path to Confederate flag and monument removals. Where and when it ends Americans do not know. More than any other Southern politician, Landrieu has expressed this reckoning with the Civil War’s legacy in a newly eloquent honesty. Americans ought to debate how best to take up his call. Many great and challenging monuments, both old and new, exist in the United States. The world wars, the Irish famine, the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement, the attacks on 9/11, the Holocaust, and even the Civil War itself have inspired brilliant works of public art. But Americans have to know more history in order to learn to think about them more imaginatively.

The monuments in New Orleans, relocated to warehouses or holding stations and gone from view, are now the subjects of a new time, new imperatives, indeed even alternative victory narratives. Landrieu and the forces of popular support as well as the City Council have just declared the Confederacy, as the mayor put it, “lost and we’re better for it.” The “four year aberration called the Confederacy,” Landrieu said, ought never again to be celebrated even if never forgotten. His city, he maintained, ought never to embrace publically a “sanitized Confederacy,” held together by Orwellian language about history and “marinated in historical denial.” These are high ambitions about how America can actually heal the past and find justice. Much higher even that Lee’s statue stood. Landrieu invoked many of the best voices possible to his cause: Thomas Jefferson’s preamble in the Declaration of Independence, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln from the ending of the Second Inaugural, and George W. Bush as he honored the opening of the new African American history museum in Washington, DC.

It remains to be seen how neo-Confederates will take their latest defeats. They have a fledgling, unsteady, ahistorical victory narrative to follow now in the presidency and the White House. But Landrieu, with Dylann Roof and a host of many other major players, progressive and regressive in their aims, may have taken America into a truly new era of Civil War remembrance. Americans may never find e pluribus unum in their political lives. But we can surely keep striving to write, teach and know about our pluribus. American politics is an impossible distance from ever knowing how to be “out of one, many,” but the history keeps changing on us, keeps becoming many, forcing us to, as the mayor suggested: “By God, just think.”. Monuments, those removed after more than a century of struggle, or those erected in a new era with new histories, may never accomplish as Mayor Landrieu hopes, “making straight what has been crooked and making right what has been wrong.” But if this process makes Americans learn and think about our history more knowingly and reflectively, if painfully, it is all for the good.

Read the entire article here.

David Blight on New Orleans and Civil War Legacy


Yale historian David Blight talks to The Dallas Morning News about Confederate monuments, New Orleans, and the legacy of the Civil War in this city.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Let’s step back from the Confederacy specifically, and consider this subject from a more generic perspective. Whether it’s a statue to Saddam Hussein or whoever else, is there a case against erasing these things because they are part of history, and for looking at them for what they represent about the people who erected them in the first place?

Yes, of course there is. You can’t erase everything from the past. If you set out to erase every Confederate monument that would take a few lifetimes. But having said that, these things are all about politics and the present.

You mentioned Saddam Hussein: You had a regime that took over a country and ran a brutal dictatorship and fell when he was deposed. It isn’t surprising that monuments were pulled down. The problem with America is that this was a Civil War that involved the whole country, and the South couldn’t go anywhere. The losers were not going to go away. About 6,000 of them went into exile in Brazil and England and Canada and other places, but even some of them came back.

The loser in this war was always going to be here. And the problem was that the “lost cause” tradition that these monuments tend to represent, because that’s when they were put up — the late 19th, early 20th century — gained a deep, deep foothold, and not just in the South.

But there is an argument to be very careful when you erase history. It’s a dangerous thing to do, because next year someone will want to erase history you think should be preserved. We went through all of this at Yale University last year with the changing of the name of Calhoun College.

Read the entire interview here.


New Orleans Southern Baptists: Take Those Confederate Monuments Down


Warren Throckmorton has done some good reporting on this.  Two prominent New Orleans Southern Baptist pastors, Fred Luter of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church and David Crosby of First Baptist Church, support the removal of monuments and statues commemorating the Confederacy and white supremacy.

Here is a taste of Throckmorton’s blog post:

Rev. Luter is pastor of the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Luter is one of over 100 New Orleans area pastors who signed a lettersupporting the removal of the statues.

Via Twitter, I asked Luter if he considered himself on “the left” or the right and he replied that he is “a part of the Right.” Also on the list of pastors supporting the removal of the statues is Rev. David Crosby, the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church. Crosby was nominated for the Southern Baptist Convention presidency last year. Being in leadership in today’s Southern Baptist Convention does not strike me as an activity of those who populate “the left.”

President of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore told me he agrees with his New Orleans brethren:  “I agree with Drs. Luter and Crosby. I’ve always said that we should not whitewash history in either direction, by denying that it happened or by commending what is not commendable. This was the position I took in regard to the flying of the Confederate flag and is applicable here too.”

David Barton does not agree.

I would argue that the decision to remove the monuments is not as clear-cut as most would make it.  I think Jelani Cobb has a thoughtful take on this.

Confederate Monuments: “Relics of a bygone era” or “indicators of the one we’re still living in?”


Over at The New Yorker, public intellectual Jelani Cobb reflects on the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans.  It includes a reminder about the period of Reconstruction in the American South, an era that started out as a “bold experiment in actual democracy” and ended in white terrorism.

Here is a taste:

As with much else in Trump’s version of America, the protesters who lined up to defend the monument wish to maintain an à-la-carte relationship with history. They have cloaked their defense of the monuments by presenting it as a recognition of the valor of the men who fought for the Confederate cause. But that excuse falls flat when recognizing, for instance, that there is no monument in New Orleans to the mass slave revolt that took place in 1811, when some two hundred men who had endured the brutality of bondage marched on the city, killing two white men and burning plantations as they went. This is not the version of valor recognized by the crowd before the Lee memorial, or those phoning in death threats to Landrieu’s office.

At the same time, there is a valid, if lesser, risk in removing the Confederate monuments: the possibility that their absence is too neatly exculpatory—that future generations may know little about the acts of inhumanity that took place in the South, and even less about the misguided impulse that glorified those incidents for more than a century. The monuments are not relics of a bygone era; they’re indicators of the one we’re still living in.

Read the entire piece here.

The Mississippi River: The Flow of Religion, Tourism, and Music


R to L: Aaron Miller, Melissa Daggett, Cam Addis, and Jodie Brown

Our reports from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) continue to roll into The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  This report comes from Melissa Daggett, an instructor of United States history at San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas and the author of Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans: The Life and Times of Henry Louis Rey (University Press of Mississippi, 2016).  Melissa reports on a panel sponsored by the OAH Committee on Community Colleges.  Enjoy!  –JF

On April 8, 2017, the Committee on Community Colleges opened the Saturday sessions with a panel of three, who presented papers that were informative, entertaining, scholarly, and timely. All three papers contained the common theme of the influence of the Mississippi River upon the course of American history, and it was fitting that the presentations were done in a location next to the river.

Melissa Daggett of San Jacinto College discussed the circulation of people and ideas into New Orleans from the Northeast, and from France and the French colony of Saint-Domingue in her paper, “Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans.” This circulation helped to establish New Orleans as the premier city for Spiritualism within the confines of a very conservative South during the late antebellum period through the early years of Reconstruction. Daggett began with a description of the genesis of Modern American Spiritualism, recounting the Fox sisters’ early forays into séance Spiritualism in New York. The new non-mainstream religion eventually crossed the Mason-Dixon line and because of its diversity and openness to new cultures and religions, New Orleans provided fertile ground to nurture Spiritualism. Daggett emphasized mediums and speakers from the Northeast who traveled to St. Louis across the mid-West and then boarded a steamboat for the final leg of the journey.

Many séance circles flourished in the Creole Faubourgs of Tremé and Marigny as well as the American sector of the city. Daggett focused on Le Cercle Harmonique, the francophone séance circle of Henry Louis Rey (1831–1894), a Creole of color who was a key civil rights activist, author, and Civil War and Reconstruction leader. Daggett included scans of spiritual communications from the René Grandjean Collection, rare photographs, and maps indicating the flow of peoples and ideas into New Orleans in her PowerPoint. Melissa Daggett’s presentation was based upon her recently published book, Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans: The Life and Times of Henry Louis Rey (University Press of Mississippi, 2017).

Jodie Brown of American Public University focused her presentation, “The Voodoo That You Do: Exploration of African Traditions in Louisiana Tourism,” on the disconnect between reality and myths perpetuated on tourists in New Orleans. Brown pointed to the simplistic narratives of secondary school textbooks that are based on nationalism and morality as being one reason that the typical tourist accepts tour information dispensed by Crescent City tour guides. Brown, like Daggett, emphasized the importance of the Haitian Revolution and the resulting diaspora, upon New Orleans’ rich and complex history. Voodoo is a religion of African origins with strong Haitian influences that incorporates Catholic priests, and not simply a cult led by Marie Laveau.

The haunted house on Royal Street is a stable of tour guides, who delight in gory tales of mutilation and torture of Mme Lalaurie’s slaves. Brown argued that these tales are exaggerated and reflect the noble cause of abolition whose advocates often sensationalized the treatment of slaves to make a point. History was used as a tool to lecture the masses on moral lessons.

Brown discussed the importance of history education at both the secondary and post-secondary levels to present a more accurate picture of complex issues, events, and people. With a good history education, tourists to the Crescent City can understand the true events that form New Orleans’ history, and not sensationalized and simplistic stories.

Aaron Miller of Ivy Tech Community College focused on the importance of environment on music when he presented “Big River: The Mississippi Delta in the Life and Music of Johnny Cash.” Miller, a huge fan of Cash, said that the distinct geographical features of Cash’s boyhood home of Dyess, Arkansas had a profound impact on his childhood and served as a source of inspiration for his music. Dyess was created in 1934 as a new community which directed federal aid to impoverished and desperate people. The immediate goal was to help the residents to survive the Great Depression. As a young man, Cash struggled with poverty, spending much of his time picking cotton growing in the thick Arkansas mud, sometimes called “gumbo.” Music was Cash’s salvation. During the day, he sang songs while toiling in the cotton fields,and at night, he absorbed various genres of music, listening to the radio which managed to rely stations from far away cities like Memphis and Chicago.

Two of Cash’s early hits with the iconic Sun Records, “Five Feet and Rising” and “Big River,” are indebted to Cash’s formative years in the Mississippi Delta. Aaron Miller’s paper is based upon a book project.

Cam Addis of Austin Community College acted as Chair.

(Re)Reading Mass Incarceration: New Orleans Monuments and Reconstruction Violence

Many of you read William Horne’s New Orleans restaurant recommendations as you prepared for your trip to the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Today Horne is back with a report on an OAH session on the recent New Orleans monument controversy.  Learn more about Horne and his work from his previous post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  –JF

I circled the “What was Radical about Reconstruction?” round table the moment I saw it on the OAH program, and having survived the hostilities and debates expressed therein, can now say that it more than lived up to expectations. The big-name scholars like Downs, Dudden (via email), Hogue, Sinha, and Taylor didn’t disappoint and raised a number of interesting issues on the juridical and socio-cultural implications of citizenship with which scholars of Reconstruction and Americans alike continue to struggle. Perhaps the most important of these disputes concerned whether Reconstruction reforms were intentional or accidental and, by extension, whether or not the Civil War was fought over slavery or more general regional economic interests. Needless to say, the exchange was lively.

Given the robust conversation, I was surprised that a key inspiration for Radical Reconstruction, the Mechanics’ Institute Massacre, was only mentioned in passing. In our present moment marked by protests against over-policing, police brutality, and mass incarceration, coupled with President Trump’s racialized promise to inaugurate a campaign of “law and order” in America’s “inner cities,” the value of thinking critically about the relationship between state violence and citizenship seems significant. This is why, when Prof. Hogue mentioned the Mechanics’ Institute Massacre (though he prefers the term “battle”), I probably breathed an audible sigh of relief.

The massacre illustrated the intent of ex-Confederates to challenge even the discussion of African American rights and helped inspire Congress to pass the Reconstruction Acts. If we understand the limits of Radical Reconstruction as being expressed materially in subsequent acts of white terror like the White League coup in 1874 commemorated at the foot of Canal Street in the “Liberty Monument,” we should also acknowledge their root in the white supremacist violence of the 1866 massacre. And in this sense, for those familiar with the landscape of New Orleans, Hogue’s description of the site as “unmarked” revealed the overwhelming disparity between the monuments the city has and those it needs.[1]

New Orleans has a monument to those who overthrew the state’s democratically elected government to institute a regime based on white supremacy. The inscription is quite clear on this point.

“United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the south and gave us our state.”

Monument 1

To clarify, the “state government” that the United States troops overthrew was the one created from the White League coup. The “usurpers” who were “reinstated” were the democratically elected officials the coup had overthrown.

New Orleans does not, however, have any monument or marker to the proponents of black suffrage murdered at the Mechanics’ Institute. Indeed, as far as I can tell, this TriPod episode was the only local remembrance on the 150th anniversary of the event.

Here’s a brief overview for those unfamiliar, though you really should read Hogue’s Uncivil War or Justin Nystrom’s New Orleans After the Civil War for a fuller analysis.

On the morning of July 30, 1866, a convention of several dozen white Republicans, supported by a few hundred black New Orleanians and veterans, gathered at the Mechanics’ Institute near Canal Street to demand black suffrage. Outside, hundreds of New Orleans police and firemen lined the streets along with more than a thousand white protesters who threw bricks and yelled epithets at the convention. After the shouting and scuffles escalated in front of the building, police and firemen stormed the hall, beating, shooting, and stabbing many advocates of black voting rights.


Rev. Horton, a white minister attending the convention, was shot by police while waving a white flag in surrender. They shot Dr. Dostie, an outspoken white proponent of black suffrage, and ran him through with a sword. Officers pulled the former governor of the state, Michael Hahn, from the convention and into a white mob, who shot and beat him so severely that many early reports of the massacre included him among the dead, though he miraculously survived. Black bystanders were shot in the back as they fled the carnage. Black passengers were pulled off of streetcars and shot. Onlookers reported that the police and white vigilantes continued shooting unarmed suspected supporters of black suffrage for several hours. None of them was ever charged with a crime.[1]

The neglect in New Orleans’ public memory of those who struggled for equality makes it appear as if the city confuses its history with its white history; its heritage with its white heritage. Even still, we in New Orleans seem all too able to forget that white heritage when it means remembering the massacre of those who sought liberty.

While violence-oriented narratives of Reconstruction have their shortcomings, I believe that it remains worthwhile to observe that Radical Reconstruction ended much as it began: in a wave of violence. That states and localities commemorated this second wave of violence in public spaces underscores the strategies of statist violence and racial repression adopted by the “Redeemers.” The “law and order” tactics beneath mass incarceration and the state-level voter ID efforts to disenfranchise minority voters, which echo those of this earlier generation, indicate that our work explaining and altering the longstanding relationship of race to systems of state power remains incomplete.

[1] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Rowe, 1988), 261-264, 274-275, 565-574.

[2] Justin Nystrom, New Orleans After the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 66-69. James Hogue, Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 40-44. The Report of the House Select Committee investigating the incident is another excellent resource and may be found here.

The OAH Recaps Day 1 Of Its Annual Conference

OAH arch

A lot is going in New Orleans this weekend.  The Day 1 recap includes news about the first plenary session, the OAH mentoring program, the opening reception, and the States of Incarceration: A National Dialogue of Local Histories exhibit at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

Here is a taste:

“On behalf of the Local Resources Committee for OAH 2017, welcome!” write co-chairs Mary Niall Mitchell and Rosanne Adderley. “You’ve arrived in New Orleans at the start of our festival season, when tourists from around the world arrive in New Orleans to fill up on music and food. In fact, this is the time of year when the city’s reputation as a place to party is most well deserved. But New Orleans is also a city that celebrates history, so visiting historians can expect to receive a warm welcome in the midst of all this activity.”

Read the entire post here.

What To Do In New Orleans


We did not make it to New Orleans for the OAH, but we are covering the event here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  We even have restaurant recommendations!

The good folks at Oxford University have published a nice post on their blog to help get you acquainted with the Big Easy.  Here is a taste:

We also know you would love to explore the beautiful city of New Orleans when the conference is done for the day, or in between panels and conference activities. We’re here with a few suggestions on how to spend your leisure time. From delicious food, to beautiful architecture, this location is sure to offer something for everyone.

1. Rain or shine, you can always find some good food in New Orleans. Just a 5-minute walk from the Marriott, Criollo is lauded for its Creole food. Have a bowl of crawfish bisque or a baked stuffed Creole redfish. Or, if you’re in the mood for something sweet instead, order a basket of beignets with some extra napkins.

2. The conference venue is in the heart of the French Quarter, a perfect place to stroll when you are done for the evening or taking a break between panels. Some must-see sights include the Faulkner House, Jackson Square, Bourbon Street, and the Cabildo. But even if you don’t have time to see these locations, it’s worth a walk around the neighborhood just to check out the architecture.

3. If you’re staying in New Orleans for longer than OAH, you need to take time to do a cemetery tour. Above ground to protect them from rising water levels, these ghostly cemeteries are replete with beautiful stonework and design. St Louis Cemeteries are among the most popular, home to the departed Marie Laveau, Dominique You, and many others. You can stroll through on your own or book a guided tour.

Read the rest here.


Flavors of the OAH: Four Must-Taste Restaurants During Your Stay


We are still a couple days away from the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians, but our coverage here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home begins today.

William Horne, a PhD candidate at The George Washington University and editor at The Activist History Review , will be reporting for us from New Orleans this weekend.

Horne’s research explores the relationship of race to labor, freedom, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana. His dissertation, “Carceral State: Baton Rouge and its Plantation Environs Across Emancipation,” examines the ways in which white supremacy and capitalism each depended on restricting black freedom in the aftermath of slavery.  He can be contacted here and followed on Twitter at @wihorne.

We all know that conference-going historians love to eat.  So in his first post William, who is a native of NOLA, offers some restaurant recommendations for those American historians who may be new to the cityEnjoy!

One of the things I found most exciting about learning the OAH would be here in New Orleans this year, aside from the short commute, was that I would have a chance to recommend some of my favorite eateries. Many thanks to John Fea and The Way of Improvement Leads Home for allowing me the space to talk New Orleans cuisine.

New Orleans is famous for its food for a reason y’all, and while I’m sure most people know about the beignets (you should skip Café Du Monde and grab yours from Morning Call in City Park), it’s easy to get lost in the sea of restaurants available in city. I’ve tried to highlight several of my favorite eateries with an emphasis on the unique flavors and history of New Orleans cuisine.

  1. Deanie’s Seafood, 841 Iberville St (menu)

Deanie’s Seafood has been an important fixture in New Orleans dining for more than fifty years. It originally opened in Bucktown, a lakefront fishing community and red-light district. If you’re into jazz history, you may have heard Jelly Roll Morton’s “Bucktown Blues” commemorating one of the genre’s many birthplaces.

The French Quarter Deanie’s location brings the humble flavors of Louisiana’s lakes, rivers, and bayous to a more accessible location. While you can get an array of New Orleans seafood favorites at Deanie’s, I’m sending you there for the boiled seafood (yes boiled). Boiled shrimp, crawfish, and crabs are a springtime staple in New Orleans, and you’ll thank yourself for trying them. If you’re not used to spicy eats, you may want to ask for extra butter and potatoes with your meal. The fried seafood is also great if that’s more your cup of tea.

If you’re open to wandering off the beaten path, their 1713 Lake Ave location gives a fuller experience of this type of cuisine without the tourist prices, but the French Quarter location will still deliver the basics. Cajun Seafood at 1479 N Claiborne Ave would be a closer option to enjoy this simpler fare.

  1. Antoine’s Restaurant, 713 Saint Louis St (menu)

I have two primary reasons for recommending Antoine’s Restaurant. First, it’s the oldest family-owned restaurant in the country. If you study New Orleans history, or even anyone who has visited New Orleans over the last 175 years, there’s a chance they ate in this very restaurant. And if that’s not enough of a draw for the historically-minded, they offer tours that include the signed photos and stories of famous patrons. Hard to pass up.

Second, they serve French Creole cuisine that you really can’t get in other parts of the country (Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s are also staples of this genre). The food is a little on the expensive side, but if you’re visiting New Orleans, it’s something you really should experience. I enjoy the Huitres Bienville and the Filet de Gulf Poisson aux Ecrevisses Cardinal, but anything you order there will be delicious. They’re also famous for their Pommes de terre soufflées, puffed potatoes, and they make a great Sazerac, New Orleans’ signature cocktail.

  1. Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, 2301 Orleans Avenue (menu)

Michel Martin’s interview of renowned chef Leah Chase gives a good sense of why a trip to Dooky Chase’s is a must for visitors to New Orleans. Chase made her restaurant a frequent meeting place for local Civil Rights activists and helped facilitate resistance to Jim Crow by fostering relationships through food and integrated space. Famous patrons included politicians, activists, athletes, and entertainers like Hank Aaron, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Martin Luther King, A. Philip Randolph, George W. Bush, and Barak Obama. But don’t take my word for it; these oral histories conducted by Loyola University New Orleans illustrate the importance of the restaurant to African Americans in New Orleans and local activism in the city that gave us Plessy v. Ferguson. This stop is required for historians of politics, race, and labor as well as anyone appreciative of the struggle for equality.

Dooky Chase’s lunch buffet is a great place to sample New Orleans favorites like red beans and rice, stewed okra, gumbo, and collard greens. Just be sure to learn from President Obama’s mistakes and put the hot sauce away when you’re eating your gumbo.

  1. Ruby Slipper, 1005 Canal St (menu)

Let’s say you stay out late listening to music at Snug Harbor or one of the many excellent venues on Frenchman Street. Maybe this activity even involves consuming adult beverages. Whatever the case, the Ruby Slipper is an excellent place to grab a rejuvenating brunch on Canal Street (the Palace Café is a close second). The restaurant is part of the post-Katrina rebirth of the city and takes its name from Dorothy’s famous realization in The Wizard of Oz that “there’s no place like home.” What better way to pay tribute to the city and remember those displaced by the hurricane?

I should admit that it holds a special place in my heart in part because it first opened in my own Mid City neighborhood, but wherever you’re from, the Ruby Slipper won’t disappoint. I’m a sucker for a good omelet and their “Louisianan” can certainly compete with the best of them. My three-year-old daughter swears by the pancakes.

Honestly, New Orleans boasts an array of fabulous restaurants and you should be in good shape almost anywhere you choose to dine. I’ve really enjoyed contemporary establishments like the Red Fish Grill and Café Amelie or tourist hot-spots like the Gumbo Shop and Bourbon House. If you’re looking to experience the unique food culture of New Orleans, however, you could do worse than those on my list.

Correspondents Wanted: 2017 OAH Meeting in New Orleans


Anyone interested in a writing a post or two (or three or four or five…) from the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians in New Orleans from April 6-9 2017?

Once again The Way of Improvement Leads Home is looking for writers/correspondents to report from the conference.

What am I hoping for out of these posts/reports? Frankly, anything. Let the spirit move you. I would love to get general observations, reports on sessions you attend, job market updates, or any other kind of stuff you might have the time or inclination to write about.

Feel free to be as creative and journalistic as you want. If at all possible I would like to get some stuff as the conference is going on, but general summaries would also work. Feel free to write as few or as many as you would like. I will try to get stuff posted here in real time (or thereabouts) during the conference.

Though we can’t pay you for writing, we can introduce you, your writing, and your online presence to a few thousand readers a day.

If you are interested, shoot me an e-mail at jfea(at)messiah(dot)edu and we can get the ball rolling.  In the meantime, check out our posts from other conferences to get an idea of what some of our previous correspondents have done:

2016 Organization of American Historians

2016 American Historical Association

2015 American Historical Association

Is Betsy DeVos the New Ruby Bridges?


Ruby Bridges, November 11, 1960.  That is one brave 6-year-old.

I am sure many of you are familiar with Norman Rockwell’s 1964 painting The Problem We All Live With.  The painting depicts Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old black child who desegregated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960.  The painting shows Bridges being escorted to school by federal marshals amid attacks from white protesters.  It is an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement:


Last week Glenn McCoy, a conservative political cartoonist, compared the plight of Ruby Bridges to the plight of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education.  I am assuming that McCoy is comparing the Bridges episode to this:

Frankly, I think DeVos was treated poorly by these protesters.  But I don’t think the way she was treated merits McCoy’s comparison:


Princeton historian Kevin Kruse has been quite critical of McCoy’s historical comparison and the people who are defending it.  You can read his tweets here.

.  Here are a few of them:

The Author’s Corner with Emily Clark

aluminousbrotherhoodEmily Clark is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. This interview is based on her new book, A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write A Luminous Brotherhood?

EC: A Luminous Brotherhood is a much-revised adaptation of my doctoral dissertation. Initially my dissertation was a huge (way too huge) telling of religion and race in New Orleans with a focus on Afro-Creole communities. New Orleans Afro-Creoles were primary Catholic, often bilingual (or even trilingual), often educated, and many of them were free during the antebellum period. The Cercle Harmonique, the name the Afro-Creole Spiritualist community gave themselves, was only going to be a chapter of the project. They practiced Spiritualism from 1858 as the country was on the verge of a civil war through the end of Reconstruction in 1877. The dissertation I envisioned myself writing went beyond a group of men holding séances for 19 years, but as I began to read their séance records I realized that they told a much bigger story.

The spirits communicating with the Cercle Harmonique included Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, John Brown, Voltaire, Toussaint Louverture, Robespierre, Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Jesus, and Confucius to name just a few. Their messages covered issues of politics, gender, racism, equality, poverty, power, and social injustice. Messages responded to local massacres of black politicians, the death of beloved martyrs for black rights, and issues of religious corruption. The Spiritualism of the Cercle Harmonique situated their practice in their immediate world of New Orleans, the region of the American South, the nation-state of the U.S., the politics of the Atlantic world, and issues of cosmic proportion. Their séance table opened up a vast and complex world.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Luminous Brotherhood?

EC: This book contends that the Cercle Harmonique envisioned the proper social, political, and religious ordering of the material world through communication with a wise spirit world. Through their séances the Cercle Harmonique connected with an idealized society whose members provided the Afro-Creoles with a republican ideology to combat politically destructive forces on earth and create a more egalitarian world.

JF: Why do we need to read A Luminous Brotherhood?

EC: A Luminous Brotherhood weaves together a number of threads about the long nineteenth century in America: race, liberal religion, politics, anti-Catholicism, the Atlantic world’s age of revolutions, reform, utopian impulses, republican thought, slavery, and more. Though it focuses on a small group of Afro-Creoles, the story it tells is much bigger. The practice of the Cercle Harmonique allows us to sharpen our conclusions about those topics.

The Cercle Harmonique articulated a strong critique of racism and white supremacy that still has resonance today. They and the spirits they communicated with argued that racial identity had no real meaning. Bodies were only material envelopes that temporarily encased our spirits. Bodies only had meaning in the material world, whereas our spirits existed long after. One spirit even wondered if people would have followed Jesus had he been black. White supremacy was a real problem for the Cercle Harmonique and remains one today. The Afro-Creole Spiritualists I studied offer a rich example of the intersections between religion and race in America, and A Luminous Brotherhood provides a close look at how religion can provide strong critiques to societal norms and injustices. The book also reveals how religion simultaneously supports such societal norms and injustices. As I tell my students, American religion is complicated, and my book reflects that too.

Additionally, A Luminous Brotherhood is the first full-length study of the New Orleans Cercle Harmonique and one of the first academic texts on American Spiritualism to provide a close look at the practice and records of a nineteenth-century Spiritualist group. Previous works on American Spiritualism typically focus on major figures and ideas but fail to offer a deep look at the everyday practice of Spiritualism. Since much of the Cercle Harmonique’s séance records are intact, A Luminous Brotherhood looks at the spirits who communicated with the Cercle Harmonique, explores the significance of their presence, and situates them in the context surrounding their communication. The book examines what the spirits said and asks why.

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

EC: I’m not so sure that I decided to become an American historian but rather just became one. During my time as an undergraduate student at Austin College and then an M.A. student at the University of Missouri, I was drawn to the interplay between religion and culture but not from a historical perspective. It wasn’t until I started my doctoral work at Florida State University that I began to study American religious history proper. I describe myself as being haunted by the stories that archives hold and feel the need to tell them. I encourage my students to consider the historical context of every source we examine. Just about all my academic work and class materials examine people, trends, communities, practices, ideas, and conflicts from America’s past. Even now there are times that I think of myself as a historian—I am trained in historical methods, after all—but I also think of myself squarely in the field of religious studies. I’m not surprised that I’ve become an American historian, but I think of that as one element of my academic identity.

JF: What is your next project?

EC: I have a couple projects in the works. I’m working on two edited volumes, one on digital humanities and material religion and the other on race and new religious movements. I’m also in the early research stages of my next full-length monograph, Jesuits, Native Americans, and Colonialism in the Pacific Northwest. While the historiography on Jesuit missions typically focuses on the seventeenth-century evangelists in New France, this work will interrogate the interactions between Native Americans and Jesuits in the Pacific Northwest. Unlike those earlier Jesuits, the Italian Jesuits out west operated more systematically and as part of the federal push to “civilize” and evangelize Native tribes in this region.

JF: Thanks, Emily!

The Author’s Corner with Rashauna Johnson

slaverys-metropolisRashauna Johnson is Associate Professor of History at Dartmouth University. This interview is based on her new book, Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge University Press, 2016).  

JF: What led you to write Slavery’s Metropolis?

RJ: I grew up in New Orleans, but I had no idea how central slavery was to that city’s history. I wanted to know more about the daily lives of the actual enslaved people who lived there as well as the ways that slavery as an institution shaped the city’s physical, economic, political, social, and cultural landscapes. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Slavery’s Metropolis?

RJ: This book argues that, in New Orleans, black Atlantic journeys and intimate interracial assemblies were neither exceptional to nor subversive of chattel slavery, but were instead essential to that system of domination. By decoupling cosmopolitan journeys and assemblies from their liberatory associations, we deepen our understanding of the malleability of modern power in New Orleans, early America, and the Atlantic world. 

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery’s Metropolis?

RJ: From monographs to movie theaters, we as a society are grappling with chattel slavery and its legacies, especially the ways that the institution shaped everything from capitalism to the nation’s colleges. This book adds to that effort by shifting focus from the paradigmatic rural plantation to show how a seemingly permissive, heterogeneous port city could at the same time be a capital of slaves and slavery. Ultimately, it shows how heterogeneity and interconnectedness can deepen inequality just as easily as they disrupt it.

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

RJ: My mother kept her prized copy of John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom under her nightstand’s telephone; as children, every time we wanted to make a call we had to confront history. But it wasn’t until I was an undergraduate that I realized I could use the historian’s tools to produce such knowledge. Several generous mentors and great internships later, I became a historian.

JF: What is your next project?

RJ: My current project uses my grandmother’s family history to examine the global history of immigration and labor in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes from the colonial period to the early twentieth century.

JF: Thanks, Rashauna!