The Author’s Corner with Sharla M. Fett

RecapturedAfricans.jpgSharla M. Fett is Professor of History at Occidental College. This interview is based on her new book, Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Recaptured Africans?

SF: This book has deep roots! While I was researching my dissertation, which became Working Cures, archivists at the Virginia Historical Society showed me a ship log written by a white doctor serving as a U.S. agent traveling with recaptive Africans to Liberia.  Then I learned that the recaptive men, women, and youth on that particular ship had been sold to slave smugglers working at the mouth of the Congo River.  In fact, Harper’s Weekly had published a large engraving of these same West Central African recaptives aboard the slave ship Wildfire upon their 1860 arrival in Key West, Florida. Together, the doctor’s log and the Harper’s image struck me deeply on a personal and intellectual level.  As a child of medical missionaries, I had visited the coast where the massive Congo River pours into the Atlantic.  The devastating history that linked those childhood memories to recaptives’ enslavement and displacement spurred me to learn more about recaptive African journeys resulting from U.S. slave trade suppression efforts. I also wanted to understand how illegal transatlantic slave trafficking—often sidelined in American history—shaped the turbulent politics of slavery in the years before the Civil War. So, the seeds of this book were planted quite a few years ago. By the time I finally began to work on the book in earnest, Atlantic world scholarship had expanded considerably, aided by digital history collaborations such as the Voyages: Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, African Origins and Liberated Africans databases.  This new scholarship offered essential context for the particular stories I traced.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Recaptured Africans

SF: This book argues that recaptive African youth and adults, rather than being “liberated” upon their release from illegal slave ships, entered a new phase of captivity defined by death, forced migration, and U.S. racial politics.  Under these conditions, shipmate relations between recaptives vitally shaped the particular strategies by which both child and adult slave ship survivors attempted to rebuild their social worlds in the midst of profound displacement.

JF: Why do we need to read Recaptured Africans?

SF: 2017 is a significant year for considering how long and difficult the road to a just emancipation can be.  For some time now, scholars like Saidiya Hartman have challenged the idea of a clear transition from the time of slavery to the time of freedom.  That was certainly the case for African children, women and men seeking to survive their “recapture” from illegal slave ships.  Their story underscores the human costs of slave trade suppression practices molded by U.S. racial inequality and political conflicts over slavery.  Many historical studies have looked at antebellum slavery politics primarily through the lens of sectional battles over domestic slavery.  By showing how Atlantic world slaving and emancipation deeply shaped responses to hundreds of African recaptives in U.S. custody, Recaptured Africans offers readers a new perspective on U.S. slavery debates in a much broader geographic context.

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

SF: As I tell my students at Occidental College, I don’t study history to bury myself in the past, but instead to understand our current world better, to gain perspective on American histories of race and slavery, and to broaden my vision of alternative paths humans can take in our troubled times.   Although I majored in Biology as an undergraduate, I always felt the pull of my elective classes in history, anthropology and politics. I credit my Carleton College history professor Robert Bonner for helping me discover that history was about interpretation not memorization of facts. After several years of high school science teaching and non-profit work, I finally took the plunge and applied to graduate school, pursuing a PhD in American History. I was lucky to take classes from Estelle Freedmen in women’s history during my MA program at Stanford.  At Rutgers, the opportunity to work with Suzanne Lebsock and Deborah Gray White affirmed my interest in U.S. southern history, women’s history, and the history of slavery.  I was particularly drawn to the study of antebellum U.S. slavery, a field at the time defined by imaginative new studies of enslaved community and culture.  The diasporic dimensions of African American history and the Atlantic World context for slavery studies became increasingly important in my research.  Recaptured Africans reflects my interest in how displaced Africans individually and collectively, navigated the daily realities of their condition resulting from the large-scale developments of Atlantic slaving and its abolition.

JF: What is your next project?

SF: In the long term, I have interests in exploring African American involvement with Belgian Congo between the 1880s and 1930s, especially in regard to Black women missionaries whose lives bridged the periods of American slavery to European colonization of Africa.  Currently, I’m working on several projects in American women’s history, including Black women’s activist networks and the nineteenth-century Colored Convention movement in California, in conjunction with the national digital humanities Colored Conventions Project.  Mid-nineteenth-century California is another venue where the fictions of the “free state” can be critically examined through studying the history of Black thought and collective action.


JF: Thanks, Sharla!

The Author’s Corner with Julie Holcomb

HolcombJulie L. Holcomb is Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Department of Museum Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.  This interview is based on her new book  Moral Commerce: Quakers and the Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy (Cornell University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Moral Commerce?

JH: I learned of the free produce movement while writing an undergraduate paper about the Progressive-era labor reformer Florence Kelley. Kelley’s aunt Sarah Pugh was an abolitionist who abstained from the use of sugar and cotton. Several years later, when I encountered free produce a second time, in Betty Fladeland’s Men and Brothers, I remembered Kelley’s description of her aunt Sarah. I was intrigued and I was curious about this apparently international consumer movement against slavery. I wondered why so little had been written about this movement. I wrote Moral Commerce because I wanted to know more about the men and women who boycotted slave-labor goods. It seemed like a bold idea — boycott slave-labor goods to force the abolition of slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Moral Commerce?

JHMoral Commerce traces the genealogy of the boycott of slave labor, bringing together in a single narrative the stories of the Quakers, women, and black abolitionists who challenged the economic status quo and demanded the abolition of slavery. That they failed to achieve their goal is not evidence of their lack of commitment. Nor is their failure necessarily evidence of idealism or sentimentalism, though they were admittedly guilty on both counts. Rather their failure to force slave labor goods from the market is evidence of just how important slave labor was to the global economy.

JF: Why do we need to read Moral Commerce?

JH: Abolitionist historiography is a rich and diverse field. Moral Commerce contributes to that historiography in several ways. First, Moral Commerce is the first book to examine the breadth of the boycott of slave labor. I place the boycott within its transatlantic context and trace its development over more than hundred years of activism. This allows me to explore how different groups of activists interpreted the boycott, which leads to some interesting comparisons such as the different motivations for women’s activism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Focusing on the breadth of the movement proved challenging, however. Of necessity, I had to limit some discussions. For example, in her short work on the American free produce movement, Ruth Nuermberger devotes an entire chapter to the Quaker activist George W. Taylor. In my work, Taylor receives less coverage because I felt it necessary to tell other stories. Second, the boycott idea had a long history. Before activists talked about colonization, gradualism, or immediatism, there were Quakers who were calling for abstention from slave-labor goods as a protest against slavery. My book is also a reminder of the long history of consumer activism. Many of the tactics we use in modern consumer movements were first introduced by antislavery consumers: door-to-door canvassing, labeling of approved goods, and targeted appeals. Before the colonists boycotted British goods, there were Quakers like Benjamin Lay who refused to benefit in any way from slave labor. Finally, reading Moral Commerce alongside recent works on slavery and capitalism highlights just how much the global economy relied on slave labor. Books such as Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told emphasize the economic strength of the slave-labor economy. It makes clear how difficult it would be for men such as Jacob de Cordova, Edward Atkinson, George W. Taylor, and others to turn Texas into a major source of free-labor cotton for conscientious consumers. Moral Commerce brings the consumer into these conversations about slavery and capitalism.

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

JH: When I went back to college in my thirties, I struggled with identifying a major. I wanted to major in literature and creative writing, but as a wife and mother I felt I needed to be more practical in my choices. I knew for certain that I did not want to major in history. At the recommendation of a friend, however, I took a course with Larry Lipin, the American history professor at Pacific University where I did my undergraduate work. By the end of that semester, I had dropped my literature major and added a history major. Over the next three years, I took every history course Larry taught, including his course on American labor history (his area of specialization). Still, I wasn’t sure what I would do with a history degree. Prior to starting college, I had worked in a variety jobs, including retail sales, banking, and public and school libraries. After I added the history major to my degree plan and after talking with my husband, I thought I would pursue graduate work in library science and history with the goal of becoming an academic librarian. When I talked to Larry about this idea, he suggested instead a career in archives. That conversation changed everything! I spent two years working in the Pacific University Archives before applying to graduate programs in archives and history. When I graduated from Pacific, I had envisioned a career working in a labor history archive such as the collection at Wayne State University. Instead, after I finished my master’s degree, I worked for eight years as archivist and then director of a Civil War and western art museum while I finished my PhD in transatlantic history. I am starting my ninth year teaching in the museum studies program at Baylor. I enjoy the opportunity I have to maintain such a broad focus, researching and writing about history while teaching about archives and museum studies, and helping students understand the connections among those fields.

JF: What is your next project?

JH: I am in the early stages of a book project about Orthodox Quakers in the nineteenth century, specifically the Philadelphia Quaker George W. Taylor who appears in Moral Commerce. From the 1840s through the 1860s, Taylor was one of the primary Orthodox Quaker proponents of free produce. He ran a free produce store in Philadelphia, operated a cotton mill, and published the Non-Slaveholder. Since the 1940s that has been the standard story of Taylor. In the last few years, the Quaker Collection at Haverford College has received several donations of Taylor papers from the family. Reviewing those materials in the course of my work on Moral Commerce, I realized that there was much more to Taylor than his support of free produce. I am broadly interested in the relationship between Orthodox Quakers and the reform movements of the nineteenth century. In 1827, in an event that one historian describes as “the greatest tragedy of Quaker history,” American Friends divided into two distinct groups: Hicksite and Orthodox. That split led Quakers to scrutinize their beliefs and practices, including Friends’ participation in the various reform movements of the period, especially the antislavery movement. Orthodox Quakers have been largely absent from the story of Quakers and abolitionism. Generally, when historians talk about Quakers and reform, the focus tends to shift toward Hicksite Quakers such as Lucretia Mott and Amy Kirby Post, among others, who were active in abolitionism and women’s rights. Less well known are the stories of Orthodox Quakers like Taylor. Yet, in 1875 Taylor shared the stage with Mott and other abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, at the centennial celebration of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. For me that event suggests that historians have missed the significance of Taylor’s activism. Admittedly, Taylor’s views were never as radical as those of Mott and Post. (In the 1830s Angelina Grimké denounced Taylor as a “rank colonizationist.”) Still, the story of Taylor’s activism in the peace, temperance, and women’s rights movements as well as the free produce and antislavery movements is an important counterpoint to the story of Hicksites like Mott and Post.

JF: Thanks, Julie

The Author’s Corner with Randy J. Sparks

AfricansintheOldSouthRandy J. Sparks is Professor of History at Tulane University. This interview is based on his new book, Africans in the Old South: Mapping Exceptional Lives across the Atlantic World (Harvard University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Africans in the Old South?

RS: In this project I embrace what has been called the “biographical turn” in the scholarship of the Black Atlantic, and it speaks to a growing effort to record the life histories of individual African slaves and their descendants.

It is important to see Africans as individuals with complex lives, as men and women who enslaved and who suffered enslavement, who moved from freedom to slavery and back again, who defy any easy categorization. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Africans in the Old South?

RS: I see the reconstruction of individual lives as an important corrective to quantitative studies of the slave trade that have largely ignored the lives of individuals. Studying the life experiences of individuals allows us to better understand the diversity of the African experience in the Atlantic World and in the Old South.

JF: Why do we need to read Africans in the Old South?

RS: The full story of the African slave trade could only be known with biographies of each of its 12,500,000 victims, but that sort of complete record is lost to us forever. This great loss, one of the world’s chief disgraces, serves to highlight the importance that should be attached to every individual story that can be retrieved. And in order to be fully understood, the tragic history of the slave trade must embody its perpetrators as well as its victims, for they, too, have a history. These life geographies of individual Africans, both enslavers and enslaved, remind us of the human and individual dimensions of the Atlantic slave trade and its impacts on individuals and families as well as on the American South.

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

RS: I always loved history, but I did not envision pursuing it as a career. It was an undergraduate Southern History class with E. Stanly Godbold that first attracted me to the history of the South, and he and other members of the faculty at Mississippi State encouraged me to pursue an M.A. and then a Ph.D. with John Boles at Rice. I owe my mentors a great debt for guiding me toward this rewarding career. 

JF: What is your next project?

RS: I am currently at work on a couple of projects related to the illegal slave trade of the nineteenth century. One involves cases of slaves in the U.S. and Spanish Caribbean who appealed for their freedom claiming to be British subjects. My larger project explores the U.S. involvement in the illegal slave trade from 1808 to 1865.

JF: Thanks, Randy!

The Author’s Corner with Manisha Sinha

TheSlaveCauseManisha Sinha is Adjunct Professor of History and Professor of Afro-American Studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst. This interview is based on her new book, The Slave Cause: A History of Abolition (Yale University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Slave Cause?

MS: I began writing this book as a history of black abolitionists but soon realized that I could not just talk about them in isolation from the broader abolition movement. I also realized that such an approach allowed historians of abolition to either ignore or marginalize the contributions of African Americans, free and enslaved, to the movement.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Slave Cause?

MS: I argue that slave resistance rather than bourgeois liberalism lay at the heart of the abolition movement from its origins in the eighteenth century until the Civil War. Further, that abolition overlapped with international social movements like utopian socialism, early feminism, and led many abolitionists to espouse the rights of labor, American Indians, and develop incipient critiques of economic inequality and European imperialism.

JF: Why do we need to read The Slave Cause?

MS: Most scholars as well as the broader public have yet to fully appreciate the interracial and emancipatory nature of a radical social movement like abolition as well as its role in effecting political change, state formation, and progressive constitutionalism.

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

MS: I grew up in India in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and was taken by the manner in which Martin Luther King, Jr. connected the black struggle for equality in the United States with Mahatama Gandhi’s notion of nonviolent struggle in India’s anti-colonial freedom movement. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody and became deeply interested in questions of race, citizenship, and democracy. From there I worked my way back to the history of slavery, abolition and the Civil War.

JF: What is your next project?

MS: My next project is on the making of Radical Reconstruction after the Civil War. I want to explore what happened to the abolitionist vision, often caricatured as a radical mindset rather than a program for political change, after emancipation. I plan to start working on it next year when I am on sabbatical.

JF: Thanks, Manisha!

A New Find in Abolitionist History

AdrianOver at Historians Against Slavery, Christopher Momany describes a new find in abolitionist history from the archives of Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan.  An alumnus of the college recently stumbled across the diary of Rev. David Stedman Ingraham, the founder of the Oberlin College mission to Jamaica.  The diary recounts Ingraham’s 1839 response to the slave trade at Port Royal and specifically a newly impounded slave brig that carried 556 slaves.

Here is a taste of Momany’s piece:

The twenty-second page of this journal speaks with pain and power. Before his trip home, on Christmas day 1839, Rev. Ingraham went down to the harbor at Port Royal, Jamaica and inspected a recently impounded “slave brig,” theUlysses. He documented the way 556 people were abused over the course of a fifty day voyage, and he created a diagram of the ship. The journal entry for that day exclaims: “It seems as if the church were asleep.”

While I understand the language of seeking some “usable past,” I would suggest that this find addresses us on a different level. Years ago, theologian Nelle Morton spoke of “hearing people to speech.” The hard work of listening (even to those in the graveyard) can be advocacy – love and justice that struggle to hear the voices of those too often silenced. I think not only of Ingraham but especially of the 556 people on that ship. Who were they? What is their story? What are they still trying to say? We do not know – yet, but it is time someone listened to them and countless millions today who are told to keep quiet. For now, silence is their voice, but that should change.

Read the entire post here.

Slavery’s "Trail of Tears"

After 1808 it was illegal for Americans to participate in the international slave trade.  This, however, did not mean that slaveholders were prohibited from trading slaves within the United States. Between 1808 and 1865, slaveholders in the upper South (Virginia, Maryland, etc.) sold hundreds of thousands of slaves to cotton planters in the Gulf Coast states.

Writing at Smithsonian magazine, Edward Ball applies the phrase “trail of tears”–a phrase normally used to describe the Cherokee displacement in the 1830s–to this forced migration.

Here is a taste:
The Slave Trail of Tears is the great missing migration—a thousand-mile-long river of people, all of them black, reaching from Virginia to Louisiana. During the 50 years before the Civil War, about a million enslaved people moved from the Upper South—Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky—to the Deep South—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama. They were made to go, deported, you could say, having been sold.
This forced resettlement was 20 times larger than Andrew Jackson’s “Indian removal” campaigns of the 1830s, which gave rise to the original Trail of Tears as it drove tribes of Native Americans out of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. It was bigger than the immigration of Jews into the United States during the 19th century, when some 500,000 arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe. It was bigger than the wagon-train migration to the West, beloved of American lore. This movement lasted longer and grabbed up more people than any other migration in North America before 1900.
The drama of a million individuals going so far from their homes changed the country. It gave the Deep South a character it retains to this day; and it changed the slaves themselves, traumatizing uncountable families.
But until recently, the Slave Trail was buried in memory. The story of the masses who trekked a thousand miles, from the tobacco South to the cotton South, sometimes vanished in an economic tale, one about the invention of the cotton gin and the rise of “King Cotton.” It sometimes sank into a political story, something to do with the Louisiana Purchase and the “first Southwest”—the young states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
Historians know about the Slave Trail. During the last ten years, a number of them—Edward Baptist, Steven Deyle, Robert Gudmestad, Walter Johnson, Joshua Rothman, Calvin Schermerhorn, Michael Tadman and others—have been writing the million-person-migration back into view.
Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Gregory O’Malley

Greg O’Malley is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This interview is based on his book Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619-1807 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Final Passages?

GO:In graduate school I hoped to study the interaction of African and European people (and especially cultures) in colonial America. But as I tried to learn which African peoples and cultures landed in particular American places, I kept stumbling across discrepancies between data on slave populations in certain colonies and data on the slave trade. For example, by the American Revolution, only Virginia and South Carolina had larger enslaved populations than North Carolina, yet very few slave ships had arrived in North Carolina from Africa. So how did slaves get there? Like many scholars, I figured there was probably a small intercolonial traffic that dispersed Africans between the colonies. It was only when I got tripped up by such a missing link in the historiography of the coerced migration for the third or fourth time that I realized it might be a significant topic for research. Once I started combing port records for such intercolonial shipments, I found that this trade dispersing African captives after their initial arrival in the New World was vaster than I had even imagined—and that it was even bigger across imperial borders than it was between British colonies. So the short answer is that I wrote Final Passages to improve our understanding of who went where in the African Diaspora.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Final Passages?

GO: Most simply, the argument is that hundreds of thousands of African people endured another phase of the slave trade after surviving the Middle Passage across the Atlantic, but the book goes beyond simply tracking the importance of such trade for the spread of slavery. Final Passagesshows that individual traders and imperial strategists exploited the intercolonial trade (and the high demand for slaves throughout the Americas) to facilitate commerce in other commodities, entangling the profits of all manner of trade with the profits from buying and selling enslaved people.

JF: Why do we need to read Final Passages?

GO: Legacies of slavery continue to haunt American society, and I think it is vital to reckon with that troubling past. American culture has a tendency to be self-congratulatory, and our interest in slavery reflects that. To the extent that most Americans consider slavery at all, the focus is on the Civil War as a war that ended slavery or on the Underground Railroad as a triumph over slavery. Those histories are of course important, but it’s also vital to wrestle with the painful reality that slavery worked—that certain segments of American societies profited mightily from their exploitation of enslaved people. Final Passages is important in this regard because it highlights an overlooked aspect of that profitable exploitation. Slaveholders forced slaves to work, of course, but traders also exploited slaves as commodities for exchange. And that exploitation of slaves’ commodity value extended beyond the prices paid for them. Labor shortages in the New World left many land owners desperate for workers, so many general merchants found that having enslaved people to sell brought planters (or even whole empires) to their table; and once such customers were buying slaves, they would engage in other trade as well. Traders saw slaves as a unique commodity, not for their humanity, but for this ability to facilitate commerce. Their profits from trading all manner of goods were contingent upon their buying and selling of people. Confronting that aspect of the system is crucial for understanding what was gained at the expense of enslaved people’s freedom.

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

GO: I pursued an undergraduate history degree with no intention of a career in the field; I just wanted a liberal arts education. I then went to work at an internet startup during that brief moment, ca. 2000, when internet startups were new and exciting—and mostly unprofitable. The particular company I worked for was failing to make money designing the first digital textbooks for college courses. I ended up managing the history product line, facilitating meetings between historians and our programming whizzes, trying to help the historians understand what our technology had to offer and help the programmers understand what the historians wanted to accomplish pedagogically. It was a fun job for a recent college grad with a history B.A., but I gradually realized I was much more interested in what the historians at the table were doing than I was in the internet economy. So I headed to grad school. I chose early America because I’ve always been fascinated by Americans’ struggles with the multicultural nature of their society. In the colonial era, the foundations for those struggles were laid.

JF: What is your next project?

GO: I’m not entirely certain, as I’m still kicking the tires of several possibilities. But one idea that I’m excited about would explore the remarkable growth of the enslaved population of North America. Historians have long struggled to explain why enslaved populations elsewhere needed constant replenishment through the slave trade, while a relatively small number of people delivered to North America grew to such a large population by the Civil War. Explanations have focused on harsh conditions in the Caribbean (in terms of labor and disease), but I see demographic growth in North America as the anomaly requiring explanation. Slavery was also harsh on the mainland, and infant mortality was appalling, so why did the population grow so dramatically? I plan to explore a multi-pronged answer that examines age and gender patterns in the slave trade, slaveholding practices in North America, and a problematizing of the numbers themselves with an eye to who was counted as “negroes” in early America. While the logic of the “one drop rule” in American understandings of race leads us to interpret those labeled as “negroes” as people of African descent, the ancestries of enslaved people were often more complicated. In other words, the slaves in the U.S. by the time of Civil War were not entirely descended from the 450,000 African people who arrived via the slave trade. The host population was larger but has been partly obscured from American memory.


Thanks Greg!

And thanks to Allyson Fea who facilitated this edition of The Author’s Corner!