The History of Slavery at George Washington University


The George Washington University in Washington D.C. is the latest university to offer a course exploring the history of slavery and segregation on its campus.  Next Spring Richard Stott will offer a history course titled “Slavery, Segregation, and GWU.”

Here is a taste of Lauren Peller and Liz Konneker’s article at The GW Hatchet:

Starting in the spring, the history department will offer a Slavery, Segregation and GWU course for the first time, giving history majors the chance to scour the archives and conduct their own research into how slaves and segregationist policies have shaped the University over its nearly 200-year history.

The course comes on the heels of a faculty effort to formally investigate GW’s ties to slavery and a nationwide trend of universities beginning to come to grips with their roles in one of the darkest chapters in American history.

Last academic year, a faculty research group asked top officials, including former University President Steven Knapp, to fund research into topics like the history of racial justice activism on campus and former college officials who owned slaves. University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said faculty have “delved deeply into GW’s archives and are now working to bring their research to students and the broader community,” including with the new course.

Read the entire piece here.

Russell Moore Channels Jess Moody: A Southern Baptist Story

Dr._Russell_D._MooreHe was one of the Trump’s strongest critics during the presidential election, but it was just too much for the Southern Baptist Convention.

Over at CNN’s STATE, Chris Moody tells Moore’s story and compares it to the story of his grandfather, a Southern Baptist preacher who criticized the Convention for upholding segregation. It’s worth your time.

Here is a taste:

Nearly 50 years ago, my grandfather found himself in a very Moore-esque situation. At the 1969 Southern Baptist Pastors Conference, he railed against racial segregation, which was still enforced at some churches.

Questions of race have long dogged the Southern Baptist Convention, which was formed in 1845 over the issue of slavery, on which the Southern Baptists were on the wrong side of history. Even well into the twentieth century, the denomination did not take a leadership role in speaking against civil rights abuses and Jim Crow.

“I’ve been loyal to this convention for the past 25 years and I intend that every breath I take of God’s free air will be a Baptist breath,” Moody said in 1969. “But you listen. It takes the black and the white keys to play the Star Spangled Banner. And you can’t do it without both. We must solve the problem of racial hatred within the next ten years or prepare to become the dinosaurs of the twenty-first century. I for one do not believe that God intended this denomination to be a humorless relic in the museum of tomorrow.”

My grandfather is 91 now. His sermon, which also excoriated fellow Christians who supported the ongoing Vietnam War, was met with faint applause.

The denomination grappled internally over racial issues throughout the twentieth century and finally issued a formal apology for its past racist policies in 1995.

But when Southern Baptists gathered in 2017, they still found themselves scratching at the scars of the past. And, in an interesting twist, Moore was on hand to help confront them.

Read the entire piece here.

Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour: Day 1

As I wrote earlier this week, I am spending the next seven days on a Civil Rights bus tour. Todd Allen and his staff have been running the “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour” since 2002 and they do a great job.  Messiah College, the school where I teach, sends several faculty and staff on the tour each year as part of its Christian commitment to racial reconciliation.  This year I am traveling (along with my wife and daughter) with several faculty members, admissions counselors, residential life workers, students, alumni, and even a member of the Board of Trustees!

We left Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (Todd’s base of operation and, I might add, the home of Joe Namath) early yesterday morning.  We spent most of the day on the bus, but did make a scheduled stop in Greensboro, North Carolina.


We started the tour with some Oram’s donuts–a Beaver Falls, Pa. tradition,  Thanks Todd!

Our first major stop was North Carolina A&T University (Go Aggies!), a historically black college in Greensboro.  On February 1, 1960, four A&T freshman–David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and Joseph McNeil–staged a lunch-counter sit-in at the downtown Woolworth 5 &10.  Today, the Woolworth building serves as the home of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum (ICRCM).  (The Greensboro Woolworth was open from 1939 to 1993.  A non-profit organization saved the building from destruction and turned it into a museum in 2010).

Jean, one of the docents at the museum, gave a very lively tour.  The highlight, as you might imagine, was our visit to the room where the Woolworth’s lunch counter was located.  A refurbished counter, with original signage and dumbwaiters, is part of the exhibit. The sit-in is re-enacted on video screens that provide a perspective from someone standing behind the counter.  Frankly, I wish we could have spent more time in this room.  I wanted to soak it all in and reflect on the courage of these four students.  I often wonder how many of my own students sit in their dorm rooms, ponder the life-transforming ideas that they encounter in class, and put those ideas into action in ways that bring meaningful change to their local surroundings.

If you are in Greensboro, the ICRCM is a must visit.  A lot of the original Woolworth building remains.  As we walked down the stairs into the lower level of the building, Jean informed us that the chrome railings and staircase were original.  I had flashbacks to a nearly identical set of stairs, complete with chrome railings, at the J.J. Newberry’s store on Main Street in Boonton, New Jersey.  I spent a lot of time in that store as a little kid–mostly buying candy and baseball cards.  There was no lunch counter.

The museum is small, but it packs a big punch.  The exhibits themselves invoke empathy at every turn.  For example, an exhibit room called “The Hall of Shame” is filled with graphic images of violence against civil rights activists.  The “Colored Entrance” is a maze-like exhibit that forces visitors to see the world from the perspective of African Americans during Jim Crow.  The rooms in this exhibit are small, tight, and uncomfortable, forcing the visitor to “feel the way Blacks felt everyday” during segregation.  An older African American women in our group was particularly moved by the exhibits.  She told the group that she had been part of “week one” (February 8-15, 1960) of the lunch counter sit-ins in Durham, North Carolina while she was a student at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University).

After dinner, we drove from Greensboro to Greenville, South Carolina.  We watched documentaries in the bus during the day, but on last night’s drive we watched Denzel Washington’s Fences.

We are off to a good start.  Stay tuned.  We are in Atlanta today.

A few more pics:


The “Greensboro Four” Monument at North Carolina A&T University


Front entrance to Greensboro Woolworths (now ICRCM


“Colored Entrance” to Greensboro Woolworths (now ICRCM)

Martin Luther King’s Christian America

21712-mlk-in-birmingham-jailThis post draws heavily from a column I wrote for Patheos in March 2011 and my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

When we think of the defenders of a Christian America today, the Christian Right immediately comes to mind. We think of people like David Barton or Ted Cruz.

Rarely, if ever, do we see the name Martin Luther King, Jr. included on a list of apologists for Christian America. Yet he was just as much of an advocate for a “Christian America” as any who affiliate with the Christian Right today.

Let me explain.

King’s fight for a Christian America was not over amending the Constitution to make it more Christian or promoting crusades to insert “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. It was instead a battle against injustice and an attempt to forge a national community defined by Christian ideals of equality and respect for human dignity.

Most historians now agree that the Civil Rights movement was driven by the Christian faith of its proponents. As David Chappell argued in his landmark book, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, the story of the Civil Rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about the revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African-Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed many of its citizens.

There was no more powerful leader for this kind of Christian America than King, and no greater statement of his vision for America than his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

King arrived in Birmingham in April 1963 and led demonstrations calling for an end to racist hiring practices and segregated public facilities. When King refused to end his protests, he was arrested by Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s Public Safety Commissioner. In solitary confinement, King wrote to the Birmingham clergy who were opposed to the civil rights protests in the city. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” published in pamphlet form and circulated widely, offered a vision of Christian nationalism that challenged the localism and parochialism of the Birmingham clergy and called into question their version of Christian America.

A fierce localism pervaded much of the South in the mid-20th century. For Southerners, nationalism conjured up memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction, a period when Northern nationalists—Abraham Lincoln, the “Radical Republican” Congress, and the so-called “carpetbaggers—invaded the South in an attempt to force the region to bring its localism in line with a national vision informed by racial equality.

When he arrived in Birmingham, King was perceived as an outside agitator intent on disrupting the order of everyday life in the city. Many Birmingham clergy believed that segregation was a local issue and should thus be addressed at the local level.

King rejected this kind of parochialism. He fought for moral and religious ideas such as liberty and freedom that were universal in nature. Such universal truths, King believed, should always trump local beliefs, traditions, and customs. As he put it, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” Justice was a universal concept that defined America. King reminded the Birmingham clergy that Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln had defended equality as a national creed, a creed to which he believed the local traditions of the Jim Crow South must conform. In his mind, all “communities and states” were interrelated. “Injustice anywhere,” he famously wrote, “is a threat to justice everywhere.” He added: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” This was King the nationalist at his rhetorical best.

King understood justice in Christian terms. The rights granted to all citizens of the United States were “God given.” Segregation laws, King believed, were unjust not only because they violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) but because they did not conform to the laws of God.

King argued, using Augustine and Aquinas, that segregation was “morally wrong and sinful” because it degraded “human personality.” Such a statement was grounded in the biblical idea that all human beings were created in the image of God and as a result possess inherent dignity and worth.

He also used biblical examples of civil disobedience to make his point. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego took a stand for God’s law over the law of King Nebuchadnezzar. Paul was willing to “bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” And, of course, Jesus Christ was an “extremist for love, truth, and goodness” who “rose above his environment.”

In the end, Birmingham’s destiny was connected to the destiny of the entire nation—a nation that possessed what King called a “sacred heritage,” influenced by the “eternal will of God.” By fighting against segregation, King reminded the Birmingham clergy that he was standing up for “what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” (italics mine)

It sounds to me that King wanted America to be a Christian nation. The Civil Rights movement, as he understood it, was in essence an attempt to construct a new kind of Christian nation—a beloved community of love, harmony, and equality.

Simone Manuel’s Accomplishment in Historical Context


With her stunning and surprise co-victory in the 100 freestyle last night (take THAT, Australia!) Simone Manuel became the first African-American female swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold medal.

After watching Manuel swim my mind eventually went back to a piece I heard on National Public Radio in 2008 about the history of segregated swimming pools in the United States. I did a quick Google search and found Rachel Martin’s interview with Jeff Wiltse, a history professor at the University of Montana and author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.

Here is a taste of that interview:

MARTIN: So, Jeff, you wrote that, in the late 19th century and early 20th, municipal pools, city pools, weren’t built, just weren’t built in African-American neighborhoods in the same way, or at the same rate that they were in other neighborhoods. Then things seemed to shift in the ’20s and ’30s. Pools were segregated, but separate-but-equal wasn’t really equal. Right? Talk about how those pools varied. What were the differences?

Dr. WILTSE: OK, well, first let me address what you brought up initially, which is that, during the late 19th and early 20th century, cities throughout the northern United States built lots of pools in poor, immigrant, working-class-white neighborhoods, but conspicuously avoided building pools in neighborhoods inhabited predominately by black Americans.

And then in the 1920s and 1930s, there was a pool-building spree in the United States. And there were thousands, literally thousands and thousands of pools that were opened up in the 1920s and 1930s, and many of them were large, leisure-resort pools. They were – some of them – larger than football fields. They were surrounded by grassy lawns, and concrete sundecks, andContested they attracted literally millions and millions of swimmers.

And yet, it was at that point in time that cities began to racially segregate pools throughout the north, and it then extended, obviously, all throughout the United States. And black Americans were typically relegated, if a pool was provided at all, to a small indoor pool that wasn’t nearly as appealing as the large, outdoor resort pools that were provided for whites.

And so, take the city of St. Louis. In St. Louis, black Americans represented 15 percent of the population in the mid-1930s. But they only took one-and-a-half percent of the number of swims because they were only allocated one small indoor pool, whereas white residents of St. Louis had access to nine pools. Two of them were the large resort pools that I’ve been describing.

MARTIN: Hm. And you have written about some specific instances where there was some real violence surrounding these swimming pools, when black people would try to access these white pools. Can you tell us about some of those incidents, specifically in Highland Park?

Dr. WILTSE: Yeah, sure. So, there were two ways in which communities racially-segregated pools at the time. One was through official segregation, and so police officers and city officials would prevent black Americans from entering pools that had been earmarked for whites. The other way of segregating pools was through violence.

And so, a city like Pittsburgh, it did not pass an official policy of racial segregation at its pools. But rather, the police and the city officials allowed, and in some cases encouraged, white swimmers to literally beat black swimmers out of the water, as a means of segregating pools, as a means of intimidating them from trying to access pools. And so there was an instance, well, there was a series of instances over two summers in Highland Park pool, when it was first opened in 1931…

Read the entire interview here.

Why Robert Jeffress Should Not Be Talking About American History

Trump Jeffress

If you read this blog regularly you know about Robert Jeffress.  He is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas and one of the first evangelicals to endorse Donald Trump. Some of you remember that I debated him on an National Public Radio program a few months ago.  The other day he said he would vote for Donald Trump over Jesus.

Recently Jeffress explained to his followers why he has decided to get involved in presidential politics:

Part of Jeffress’s argument here is based on his belief that pastors have always been at the forefront of change in American history.  He is correct.  Clergy played a vital role in American political history.  Yes, they precipitated change. But they also used their role as pastors to in resist meaningful change.

There is a lot of historical problems with Jeffress’s remarks, but the most egregious issue is his failure to recognize that the former pastor of his church and one of the most prominent 20th-century Southern Baptists–W.A. Criswell-– used his position to promote racial segregation.  This is a dark chapter of Southern Baptist history.   It is probably not a good idea for Jeffress to invoke the Civil Rights movement as a moment in American history when pastors brought positive change to the United States.

Over at Religion News Service, Tobin Grant, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University, draws on the historical work of Curtis Freeman and Joseph Davis to call Jeffress out on this.

Here is a taste:

In 1956, Criswell spoke at the State Evangelism Conference in South Carolina. Against instructions to stay clear of segregation, Criswell gave a fiery sermon that linked the fight against integration with evangelism. All Southern Baptist pastors should, according to Criswell, speak out against those who were advocating integration.

Criswell did not mince words. He railed against both the National Council of Churches and the NAACP as those “two-by scathing, good-for-nothing fellows who are trying to upset all of the things that we love as good old Southern people and as good old Southern Baptists.”

He even used racist humor to make his points: “Why the NAACP has got those East Texans on the run so much that they dare not pronounce the word chigger any longer. It has to be cheegro.”

Criswell saw integration an attack on both state rights and democracy by carpetbaggers. Even more so, it was a blow to Southern Baptist religious liberty:Churches had the right and the responsibility to keep their congregations segregated.

Segregation was best for blacks and whites, Criswell said. Blacks, he argued, would never be able to excel, teach, or lead in a congregation of whites. Instead, they should stay in churches with other blacks. Segregation also limited miscegenation. And that, Criswell warned, was going to cause problems for everyone.

Read the entire piece here.

At the risk of making this post too long, I think it is also worth noting that some of the founding fathers did not think clergy should be getting involved in politics.

Many of the early eighteenth-century states banned clergymen from running for certain offices.  These included North Carolina (1776), New York (1777), South Carolina (1778), Delaware (1792), Maryland (1799), Georgia (1799), Tennessee (1796), and Kentucky (1799).

Here is article XXXI of the 1776 North Carolina Constitution:

That no clergyman, or preacher of the gospels of any denomination, shall be capable of being a member of either the Senate, House of Commons, or Council of State, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral function.

Here is article XXXIX of the 1777 New York Constitution:

And whereas the ministers of the gospel are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function; therefore, no minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall, at any time hereafter, under any presence or description whatever, be eligible to, or capable of holding, any civil or military office or place within this State.

Here is article XXI of the 1778 South Carolina Constitution:

And whereas the ministers of the gospel are by their profession dedicated to the service of God and the cure of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function, therefore no minister of the gospel or public preacher of any religious persuasion, while he continues in the exercise of his pastoral function, and for two years after, shall be eligible either as governor, lieutenant-governor, a member of the senate, house of representatives, or privy council in this State.

Here is Article I, Section 9 of the 1792 Delaware Constitution:

The Rights, privileges, immunities, and estates of religious societies and corporate bodies shall remain as if the constitution of this state had not been altered. No clergyman or preacher of the gospel of any denomination, shall be capable of holding any civil office in this state, or of being a member of either branch of the legislature, while he continues in the exercise of the pastoral or clerical functions.

It is clear that the framers of these state constitutions wanted clergy to tend to the souls of churchgoers, not the soul of the United States of America.  I need to explore this deeper, but it seems at first glance that these framers wanted to keep religion out of politics and did not want the purity and witness of the church to be tarnished by politics.

The Author’s Corner with Nicholas Guyatt

BindusApart.jpgNicholas Guyatt is University Lecturer in American History at the University of Cambridge. This interview is based on his new book, Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (Basic Books, 2016).  

JF: What led you to write Bind Us Apart?

NG: As someone who grew up in England, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider when it comes to the big narratives of American history. This is probably a disadvantage in lots of ways, but it also means that you sometimes notice different things. Two of those observations inspired me to write Bind Us Apart. The first is that American historians very rarely write about African Americans and Native Americans within the same frame, despite the fact that white reformers and politicians in the early republic were engaging with both populations simultaneously. Although the experiences of blacks and Indians were by no means identical, this tendency to keep them apart in the scholarly literature is one that I’ve always been keen to challenge. 

The second observation is even more rudimentary: as someone who learned at high school about the fight against slavery in the antebellum period, and the triumphs of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, it seemed incredibly odd to me that an entire century elapsed before the passage of effective civil rights legislation in the 1960s. If we accept the dominant paradigm that America has been on a ‘journey’ towards racial enlightenment, or that the nation has ‘grown’ over two centuries to extend the promises of “all men are created equal” to everyone, that century seems hard to fathom. And that’s even before we get to the overwhelming evidence of racial inequality and segregation in our own historical moment, fifty years after the supposed capstones of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. So this led me to think that there might be some serious limitations to white American thinking about race — even the thinking of “enlightened” and liberal whites — that we’d somehow missed in our stories of racial “growth.” Bind Us Apart is an attempt to explain why even whites who styled themselves as enlightened proved to be unreliable supporters of black and Native equality in American history. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Bind Us Apart?

NG: The book argues that most educated Americans in the decades after the Revolution accepted that blacks and Indians had a claim to “all men are created equal,” but that this equal potential could only be secured through programs of racial uplift and ‘improvement’ that would accompany emancipation or westward expansion;  when these uplift projects failed, for a variety of reasons, liberal whites argued instead that the long-term solution to the racial ‘problem’ in America was to convince black people and Indians to move somewhere else — to vindicate their supposed equality through separation.  ‘Separate but equal’ was northern (or national) before it was southern, liberal before it was conservative, and a product of the Founding era rather than the late nineteenth century.

 (I freely admit that the semi-colon above is cheating.)

JF: Why do we need to read Bind Us Apart?

NG: I think we need a new paradigm for thinking about the origins of the racial crisis in America. We can’t downplay the enormous horrors of slavery or the cupidity, avarice and open racism of many slaveholders and expansionists. But I think we also need to ask why so many white Americans who described themselves as “liberal” — a word they defined to mean enlightened, benevolent and free from prejudice — failed to accept racial integration or vindicate racial equality in the first decades of the United States. Slavery came under serious intellectual assault at the end of the eighteenth century, long before the economic and technological changes that made slave-produced cotton the most lucrative crop in the world; similarly, Founders like Washington and Jefferson were lavish in their acknowledgment of Native American rights and potential, but still managed to dispossess and kill thousands of Indians who wouldn’t conform to their rhetoric. By the 1830s, it’s easy for us to imagine that the principal moral drama in the United States concerns the expansion of slavery: heroic antislavery campaigners battle with villainous slaveholders, and the battle for emancipation seems synonymous with the realization of racial justice. My book argues that, in the formative decades of the early republic, the moral debate was really about integration rather than slavery; that it encompassed Native and African American peoples; and that it was resolved, by the majority of liberal whites, in favor of separation. Although it’s hard to draw a straight line from the 1780s to the present, I think we need to confront these liberal roots of segregationist thinking. If we’re open-minded enough to peer into this moment of American history, we might find the debates and perspectives of liberal whites in the Founding period to be uncomfortably familiar.

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

NG: That’s easy: I read a lot of Chomsky when I was a teenager, especially Deterring Democracy and Year 501. I was (and still am) in awe of his achievements and commitments, but I felt that his view of American history was unremittingly bleak: a lot of bad people doing very bad things. I absolutely buy the bleak thing, but I’ve always felt that what makes history fascinating is the way in which people convince themselves that the things they’re doing aren’t actually bad at all. That’s not an American invention, of course, but I think that American history has been shaped by a particularly enduring set of claims about the nation’s lofty purpose and value. In that sense, it’s a terrific place to do the history of moral evasion (or moral contortionism), which is what I’ve ended up doing.

JF: What is your next project?

NG: I’m not sure! Having written a book about manifest destiny and another about race, I had thought that the next one would be about empire — which would mean I’d covered all the Chomsky bases and could go on to write romantic fiction. I have an idea for a book about how Americans came to understand imperialism in the nineteenth century through their experience of other people’s empires. But it’s been a huge privilege to think seriously about Native and African American history, so I’m torn. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

JF: Thanks, Nicholas!

Fellow Historians of Lincoln and Reconstruction: Cut Hillary Some Slack

72118-last_lincolnApparently several historians and journalists are upset by Hillary Clinton’s remarks about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War at last night’s CNN’s Democratic candidate’s town hall meeting.  Here is what she said about Lincoln in response to an audience member who asked her to say something about the POTUS who has inspired her the most:

You know, I – wow, when I think about his challenges, they paled in comparison to anything we have faced or can imagine.  You know, more Americans died in the Civil War than, you know, the wars of the 20th Century put together.

So here was a man who was a real politician.  I mean, he was a great statesman, but he also understood politics.  And he had to work to put together, you know, the support he needed to be able to hold the country together during the war.

And while he was prosecuting that war to keep the Union together, he was building America, which I found just an astonishing part of his legacy.  The transcontinental rail system, land grant colleges, he was thinking about the future while in the middle of trying to decide which general he can trust to try to finish the war.

That’s what I mean, when you’ve got to do a lot of things at once, what could be more overwhelming than trying to wage and win a civil war?

And yet, he kept his eye on the future and he also tried to keep summoning up the better angels of our nature.  You know, he was willing to reconcile and forgive.  And I don’t know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly.

But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow.  We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant.  So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.

And, as I say, our challenges are nothing like what he faced, but let’s think ourselves about not only what we have to do right now, especially to get the income rising in America, especially to make college affordable, do something about student debt, keep health care growing until we get 100 percent coverage and so much else.

But let’s also think about how we do try to summon up those better angels, and to treat each other, even when we disagree, fundamentally disagree, treat each other with more respect, and agree to disagree more civilly, and try to be inspired by, I think, the greatest of our presidents.

I have highlighted the section of her remarks that led some pundits to squeal.

Luke Brinker of Policy Mic has gathered some of the tweets written in response to Hillary’s remarks about Reconstruction and Jim Crow.  Here are a few of them:

Frankly, I was quite impressed with Hillary’s understanding of Lincoln.  She understood the challenges that he faced as POTUS during a Civil War.  She knew that his presidency was not just about the Civil War.  Her references to the railroads and land-grant colleges were excellent.  She was aware of his problems with Union generals.  Her references to reconciliation and forgiveness captured the spirit of the Second Inaugural.  How many presidential candidates could summon this kind of historical knowledge off the top of their heads?

Of course she did imply that Reconstruction was a problem.  People like Chait and Bouie are correct to note that Radical Reconstruction in the South had positive results for the former slaves.  If Hillary was referring to the policies of Republican Reconstruction, then she was wrong to imply that it had negative consequences for Blacks.

On the other hand, she could have been simply referencing the “Era of Reconstruction,” a period that covers the entire period in U.S. History from 1865-1877.  This is normally how American History textbooks cover the period.  This “era” saw Republican policies that brought human and civil rights to those who were enslaved.  You had the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.  But this era ended tragically for African American as white redemption won the day, leading to Jim Crow and segregation.  From a curriculum standpoint, all of this–the good and the bad–are covered under the so-called “Era of Reconstruction.”

Did Hillary make a mistake by lumping Republican Reconstruction with Jim Crow and segregation?  Probably. But I don’t think it was enough to merit the outrage I am seeing among historians and the references to Hillary invoking the Dunning School.

If liberal commentators want to find the real problem with Hillary’s statement they should consider the fact that if Lincoln had lived the union might have come together much sooner, but I am not sure  we would have had a period of Reconstruction that benefited former slaves in the way that it did.  Lincoln’s so-called “Ten percent plan” made it pretty easy for the South to return to the Union without addressing the plight of the former slaves.


Digital Archive of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions

Another great digital history project just went live last week.  

Harvard just made accessible a searchable online database of close to 3500 antislavery and antisegregation petitions sent to the Massachusetts colonial and state legislatures from the 1600s to 1870.  These petitions are housed at the Massachusetts Archives.

Read all about it here and here.

A small taste:

Each petition image is annotated with detailed information, and the dataset provides web-based browsing, searching, and filtering, along with images of the digitized documents. These digitized images include documents that date back to antislavery efforts from 1649 but also reflect black Revolutionary War veterans, female abolitionists (including Sojourner Truth), and petitions submitted before, during, and after the Civil War. The images, and the associated metadata, will be distributed by the Harvard Dataverse Network infrastructure and will be made publicly available for the first time at this event on February 27, 2015, at the end of Black History Month.

Adam Parsons on Randall Balmer and the Origins of the Religious Right

Regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will remember the Author’s Corner interview we did in April with Randall Balmer on his new book, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.  In this book Balmer offers a new interpretation of the origins of the Religious Right.  (Actually, fans of Balmer’s work will know that he first put forth a version of this argument in his Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America).  Here is what Balmer wrote in that interview:

I’d been batting about the idea for a biography of Carter for several decades, but I always found reasons to delay, in part because I didn’t have an angle on the project. I did research at the Carter Center and the presidential libraries of Reagan and Ford. I also did archival work at Liberty University and Bob Jones University, but the most important work I did was in Paul Weyrich’s papers, which (improbably enough) are held at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. My findings there allowed me, finally, to demonstrate beyond all doubt that the genesis of the Religious Right had nothing to do with the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973
Balmer elaborated on this argument in a recent piece on the origins of the Religious Right at Politico in which he argued that the movement coalesced around the desire of Southern fundamentalists to protect segregated Christian schools, and not around the anti-abortion crusade. Here is a taste of that piece:
In May 1969, a group of African-American parents in Holmes County, Mississippi, sued the Treasury Department to prevent three new whites-only K-12 private academies from securing full tax-exempt status, arguing that their discriminatory policies prevented them from being considered “charitable” institutions. The schools had been founded in the mid-1960s in response to the desegregation of public schools set in motion by the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. In 1969, the first year of desegregation, the number of white students enrolled in public schools in Holmes County dropped from 771 to 28; the following year, that number fell to zero.

In Green v. Kennedy (David Kennedy was secretary of the treasury at the time), decided in January 1970, the plaintiffs won a preliminary injunction, which denied the “segregation academies” tax-exempt status until further review. In the meantime, the government was solidifying its position on such schools. Later that year, President Richard Nixon ordered the Internal Revenue Service to enact a new policy denying tax exemptions to all segregated schools in the United States. Under the provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which forbade racial segregation and discrimination, discriminatory schools were not—by definition—“charitable” educational organizations, and therefore they had no claims to tax-exempt status; similarly, donations to such organizations would no longer qualify as tax-deductible contributions.

In my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction I used Balmer’s

argument in my explanation of the origins of the Religious Right because it seemed to make sense. But I also suggested that the traditional view, that the Religious Right gained prominence in response to Roe v. Wade, was also correct.  For me it was a combination of things that brought about the rise of the Religious Right.  I was less concerned than Balmer about the exact event that got the movement started.

While I was browsing Facebook last night, I came across another take on Balmer’s thesis about the origins of Christian Right.  Adam Parsons is a doctoral student in American history at Syracuse University.  You may recall that we have featured some of his work before here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Here is his take on the Balmer Politico essay:

I started to write a comment on this piece, which I’ve seen floating around a lot recently, and decided just to share it on my own page:
I’ve said similar things elsewhere, but – as much as I usually take his side – I think Balmer’s only half-right here. He’s right, of course, that Roe v. Wade was not the catalyst people think. And in looking for another origin, he’s right to point to taxation, and right to point to segregation academies – but there’s a lot more to the story than just the academies. It’s telling, for example, that he uses Bob Jones as an example. In the very politically conservative (we sang Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A. in Sunday morning service during the first Gulf War) but also very Northern fundamentalist and evangelical circles in which I spent my childhood, BJU was looked at as a kind of weird, inbred cousin. This view was, from what I’ve seen, shared by a large percentage of northern evangelical leaders throughout the seventies and eighties – even the most conservative of them were, by and large, Moody Press people, not BJU folks.
Those regional distinctions – broadly, between Northern/Canadian, Old Southern, and Southwestern

Adam Parsons

evangelicals – started to break down, I think, a lot later than Balmer claims. He’s right to point to taxation – it’s just that the fears were driven by different things in different regions. In the Old South, yeah, it was the segregation academies. In the Southwest, it was, I think, part of the broader regional culture of John Birch conservatism, which overlapped quite a bit with conservative evangelicalism. In the North (and to a certain extent the Ozarks), though, I strongly suspect that anti-federal/anti-tax attitudes developed among evangelicals in a widespread way as they sought to opt out of late capitalism – they saw tax burdens as a way to obligate people to participate in regularized wage labor, which tore social institutions apart. This opting-out is particularly apparent in, for example, people’s explanations for their attraction to Amway and other kinds of multi-level marketing – they overwhelmingly talk about it as a way to achieve self-sufficiency and to reintegrate work and family life. (I suspect, also, that attraction to these kinds of business enterprises reinforced preexisting negative attitudes toward taxation; anyone who’s dealt with small-business or independent contractor taxes can tell you how much more onerous the administrative, and often financial, burden is compared to simple employment taxes).

There’s a lot more to the story, of course – the whole question of the southernization of the United States, for one, but also, for example, the fracture of radical evangelicalism during the seventies and eighties. A few brief thoughts, though: first, the story of the religious right is not, for the most part, a story about evangelicals changing their minds, but a story about new and different people thinking of themselves as part of the evangelical coalition. (To that extent, it’s also a story about class and intellectual respectability). Second, it would be instructive to produce work on the apartheid controversy in the American Dutch Reformed community, given their long-standing tradition of private schooling but also their ties to the Michigan GOP and their prominence within the evangelical left (especially the Wolterstorffs).

Thanks, Adam.

The Farmville Kneel-In

Farmville, VA Methodist Church

Over at Religion in American History, Mike Utzinger of Hampden-Sydney College has a fascinating piece on the 50th anniversary of an important moment in the Civil Rights Movement in Prince Edward County, VA.

In order to avoid desegregating its public school system, the county decided to abolish public education between 1959 and 1964.  White students attended all-white church academies and black students either left town, attended school in other counties, or were transplanted to other communities across the country by the American Friends Services Committee.  In 1963 the black students of the Prince Edward County town of Farmville had had enough and attempted kneel-ins in local white churches.

After reading Mike’s post, I am eager to read Jill Titus’s book Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, VA.  I would really like to learn more about what was going through the head of the minister of the Farmville Methodist Church (one of the few people who did not leave the church when the black students tried to attend worship, although he did beg the students to leave).  It was his first Sunday on the job!

Here is a taste of Mike’s piece:

Fifty years to the day, First Baptist Church, Farmville Methodist, Farmville Baptist, and Johns Memorial Episcopal Church commemorated the kneel in with a walking tour where the churches were open to all, including individuals barred from entrance 50 years ago.  Rev. Williams, pastor of Levi Baptist Church, spoke at First Baptist, recalling, “I had the students and the demonstrators sing right there on the steps of Farmville Baptist and I prayed. Well, before we knew anything, here come the cops.”  The students, he remembered, went limp as the officers carried them away.  However, within the past decade, he noted, things have changed. He even preached at Farmville Baptist last Good Friday.  Ms. Tina Land Harris was a leader in the NAACP Youth Organization and a student leader of the demonstrations.  She was also arrested that day on the church steps.  However, fifty years later the Farmville Police Department made a commendation of the students’ bravery.  After the commendation, a young lieutenant, who said the photographs of the arrests gave him chills (and not the good kind), turned and hugged Ms. Harris noting his respect of her bravery. Williams then led the multi-ethnic crowd of about 200 people in several chorus of “We Shall Overcome.”  Centra Southside Hospital provided water for the participants as they left the church for the next stop.  The Town of Farmville donated a local bus to transport those who needed assistance from site to site.