Civil War Historian James McPherson on the Problems with the 1619 Project

1619

What is the 1619 Project?  Get up to speed here.

Prize-winning Civil War historian James McPherson talks to Tom Mackaman at the World Socialist Website.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Q. What was your initial reaction to the 1619 Project?

A. Well, I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper, with the magazine section entirely devoted to the 1619 Project. Because this is a subject I’ve long been interested in I sat down and started to read some of the essays. I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism—which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it—but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out.

So I read a few of the essays and skimmed the rest, but didn’t pursue much more about it because it seemed to me that I wasn’t learning very much new. And I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view…

Q. We’ve spoken to a lot of historians, leading scholars in the fields of slavery, the Civil War, the American Revolution, and we’re finding that none of them were approached. Although the Times doesn’t list its sources, what do you think, in terms of scholarship, this 1619 Project is basing itself on?

A. I don’t really know. One of the people they approached is Kevin Kruse, who wrote about Atlanta. He’s a colleague, a professor here at Princeton. He doesn’t quite fit the mold of the other writers. But I don’t know who advised them, and what motivated them to choose the people they did choose.

Q. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer and leader of the 1619 Project, includes a statement in her essay—and I would say that this is the thesis of the project—that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

A. Yes, I saw that too. It does not make very much sense to me. I suppose she’s using DNA metaphorically. She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.

But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.

Read the entire piece here.

The Huntington Library Acquires New Collections on Slavery

Huntington

Here is Pasadena Now:

The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens announced today that it has acquired two collections related to abolition and slavery in 19th-century America, including an exceptionally rare account book from the Underground Railroad.

The first group of materials includes the papers of Zachariah Taylor Shugart (1805–1881), a Quaker abolitionist who operated an Underground Railroad stop at his farm in Cass County, Michigan. The centerpiece of the collection is an account ledger which contains the names of 137 men and women who passed through Shugart’s farm while trying to reach freedom in Canada; these names are recorded amid everyday details of Shugart’s business life, including the number of minks he trapped and the debts he was owed.

The second collection is the archive of some 2,000 letters and accounts documenting the history of the Dickinson & Shrewsbury saltworks, a major operation founded in 1808 in what is now Kanawha County, West Virginia. The records shed light on an industry that was not plantation-based but still relied heavily on slave labor.

“These new materials provide compelling windows into the lives of those who were enslaved and those who escaped slavery, and also shed light on the politics of the times before, during, and after the Civil War,” said Sandra Ludig Brooke, Avery Director of the Library at The Huntington. “They are a vivid complement to The Huntington’s rich collections documenting American slavery, abolitionist movements, and the history of the American South.”

Read the rest here.

Reenacting the 1811 German Coast Slave Uprising in Louisiana

1811_German_Coast_Uprising

Check out Rick Rojas’s recent piece at The New York Times: “A Slave Rebellion Rises Again.”  Rojas covers the reenactment of an 1811 Louisiana slave rebellion know as the German Coast Uprising.

Rojas writes:

The 26-mile march, a re-enactment of the 1811 German Coast Uprising in southeast Louisiana, began Friday morning and will conclude Saturday. It was timed to the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia, a moment that has ignited considerable reflection about the specter of slavery still hanging over the United States and the depths of its influence…

The performance was conceived, in part, to demonstrate how the ghosts of slavery have endured; the institution itself is gone, but the animosity and oppression have evolved and lingered. Staging a provocative revival of a violent rebellion, recounted in unsparing detail, stirred fears that the performance might turn into a very real confrontation.

Read the entire piece here.

Over at The New Republic, writer Nick Martin writes about the difficult work of diversifying historical reenactments.  Here is a taste:

Diversifying all forms of historical reenactment, whether an amateur showing, a school activity, or a professionally produced motion picture, is clearly a step in the right direction. That’s why communities of color have been focusing on this for decades: It’s a chance to render erased histories visible in a particularly physical way, taking up space the people in these histories have long been denied, and becoming a source of pride for communities of color. It’s hard to imagine any rational, good-faith objection to that: After all, white reenactors have been claiming for decades that education and pride in history is the whole point.

I am not a big fan of reenactments.  I don’t go to them. Reenactors think that history is all about authenticity–wearing the right number of buttons on a uniform or marching in a way that reflects the time period.  )Check out the late Tony Horwitz’s book Confederates in the Attic on this front). This approach to the past fails to let the past speak to the present and vice-versa.  Reenactments are antiquarianism, not history.  The doing of history requires an exploration of context, change over time, causation, contingency (which I guess could be captured in an reenactment as fans watch actors make choices), and complexity.

Yet reenactments, like historical movies or Broadway shows, do get people engaged with the past.  They have the potential to get observers to learn more about the past through reading or a visit to a historical museum that properly curates the past.

But the reenactment of the German Coast Uprising seems to be more of an example of reenactment as activism rather than reenactment as antiquarianism.  In other words, this seems to be something quite different from the traditional Civil War reenactment.  The goal is both understanding and social change.

The African American Women of the Underground Railroad

Tubman

Harriet Tubman, the subject of a movie now showing throughout the country, was just one of many African American women who labored on the Underground Railroad.  Over at Process, historian Jazma Sutton explains:

This November, Focus Features will release the anticipated movie Harriet in theaters worldwide. In promoting the film, the company characterizes Harriet Tubman as “one of America’s greatest heroes.” The website further asserts that “her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.” Kasi Lemmons, the film’s cowriter and director, in an interview addressing the film’s contemporary relevance, reminded the public how “important it is to remember what singular people were able to accomplish in turbulent times.” Undoubtedly, Harriet Tubman deserves credit, and her biopic is long overdue. But Harriet did not toil alone. Rather, her work as an Underground Railroad conductor was part of a national movement of free and enslaved black persons dedicated to the liberation and advancement of their race. Countless African American women, in addition to Harriet—young and old; free and enslaved; alone, pregnant, and with family; in the South, the North, and the Midwest—risked their lives to obtain freedom. Unfortunately, we know very little about the actions and sacrifices of other black women who liberated themselves or worked as assistants and operatives on the Underground Railroad. Who were these women? What motives did they have for escaping and aiding in the escape of others?

Surviving historical records suggest that several factors influenced African American women’s determination to flee slavery. These included the prospect of a better, more autonomous life; the threat or reality of family separation; the fear of being sold to the Deep South; and the hope of joining family members who had successfully escaped. Underground Railroad testimonies overwhelmingly describe African American women fleeing in the company of their children, husbands, and other family members. Their visions of freedom were inseparable from the responsibility they felt for family, especially their children. In the 1840s or 1850s, fifteen self-liberated people appeared at the Union Literary Institute (ULI), an integrated school established for the education of black students in the Greenville settlement of East Central Indiana, the region I study. The party consisted of a woman, her ten children, her son-in-law, a grandchild, and two others. The entire family was enslaved by one man and comprised his entire human property. When asked, “Were you not used well…why did you run away,” the mother responded, “My children were my master’s, and the mistress and the white children wanted us to be sold, and we thought it time to quit.” This particular woman appears to have eventually fled to Canada, but that was not the only promised land for African American women seeking freedom. Some chose to live permanently, or at least for extended periods, in free black communities on the Kentucky border; others preferred secluded communities in the rural Midwest, particularly because the threat of being captured was significantly lessened by the presence of cooperative Quakers. Still others chose remote or protected destinations convenient to them: Native American communities, the Great Dismal Swamp, and distant Mexico, for example.

Read the rest here.

Movies About Women of Color in History CAN Make Money

hero_harriet-movie-review-2019

Over at VOX, film critic and The Kings College (NYC) English professor Alyssa Wilkinson interviews Gregory Allen Howard, the writer of the screenplay for Harriet. Wilkinson writes: “it’s surprising that Harriet is the first biopic about such an important woman in American history, considering how this is an industry that loves making historical biopics — surprising, that is, until you remember that Hollywood has typically exhibited skepticism toward the idea that movies led by women and people of color can make money.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

Wilkinson: Hollywood has taken a really long time to accept the fact that movies about black people might be told on screen, and that audiences would embrace them. Were there any movies over the years that showed you what could happen if that ever changed?

Howard: Of course, and there are movies that proved that to my producers, too. For [producer] Debra [Martin Chase], it was Hidden Figures. Mine is 12 Years a Slave. See, what I had heard for all those years was, “Nobody’s going to pay to see the slave movie, Greg. Get out of my office.” But I said, “But it doesn’t matter. If the movie’s good, people will see it.”

“No, we don’t want it,” I’d hear back. “No one’s going to pay to see a slave story.” I swear to God, I heard that for over 20 years.

And then 12 Years a Slave came out and did massive business. It made almost $200 million worldwide. That’s when I took [Harriet]off the shelf again. And I said, “You can’t tell me what you’ve been telling me all this time.” And they said, “Yeah, but see, that was a different movie.” They came up with a different excuse.

But the truth was that the business was changing. If this movie has been made 10 years ago, it would’ve been an outlier, and no one in town wants to be an outlier. Fear drives our industry, and I don’t know that anybody’s ever gotten fired for passing on a movie.

But boy, if you say yes to something, or even go fight for it, you’re risking your career. You’re certainly risking your job.

Read the entire interview here.

The Author’s Corner with John Brooke

there is a northJohn Brooke is Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of History and Professor of Anthropology at Ohio State University. He is also Director of the Ohio State University Center for Historical Research. This interview is based on his new book, “There is a North”: Fugitive Slaves, Political Crisis, and Cultural Transformation in the Coming of the Civil War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write “There is a North”?

JB: I am thrilled that my book is out, and want to thank the University of Massachusetts Press for doing such a nice job with the production. I began thinking about this project in 2010 for two reasons: I wanted to write about how people experience “events,” and I wanted to address the central issue of the history of the republic. Here, I was dissatisfied with the dominant narrative, which focuses on why the South seceded. The new literature on the politics of slavery during the American Revolution and Early Republic makes it plain that the South would secede whenever the slaveholders faced a fundamental threat to “the institution.” 

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of “There is a North”?

JB: The central question regards how and when the fundamental threat to slavery emerged. It is equally clear that, while the abolitionists worked long and hard, they had not before the 1850s convinced a strategic block Northern opinion to stand up against slavery.

JF: Why do we need to read “There is a North?

JB: Readers should consider “There is a North” because it describes this conversion between the fall of 1850 and the spring of 1856, focusing on the way in which the Fugitive Slave Law was turned into a cultural weapon against slavery through the efforts of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but also the efforts of hundreds of other authors, musicians, and theatrical producers and performers. This process involved a fundamental though fleeting creolizing encounter of black and white American cultures, unfolding in a contested by real confluence of black and white interest against slavery and the Slave Power. By the time that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854, this drawn out “media event” had reshaped public opinion. While both the political and cultural dimensions of this story have been the subject of important works, “There is a North” is the first to focus on both equally, and on their synergies.

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

JB: My interests in American and also world history have their origins in my childhood, and were nurtured at Cornell and then at Penn, where I became an early American historian, eminently advised by Michael Zuckerman and his many colleagues. “There is a North” is my fourth book on society and culture in the American North from the Age of Revolution to the Civil War.

JF: What is your next project?

JB: Teaching global environmental and climate history at Tufts and Ohio State led to my global book, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey. The next several years will be devoted this project, producing a 2nd edition and a spin-off undergraduate text.

JF: Thanks, John!

Slavery and the Nation’s Capital

Early Washington D.C.

Over at website of The White House Historical Association, public historian Lina Mann explains why slavery flourished in Washington D.C. 

Here is a taste:

For the first seventy-two years of its existence, the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., harbored one of America’s most difficult historical truths and greatest contradictions: slavery. The city’s placement along the Potomac River, in between the slave states of Maryland and Virginia, ensured that slavery was ingrained into every aspect of life, including the buildings, institutions, and social fabric of Washington, D.C. Enslaved workers contributed to public building projects, were bought and sold within the boundaries of the city, and served many of the men who founded the nation. Slavery was alive and well in the President’s Neighborhood.

In June 1790, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson sat down to dinner with Virginia Congressman James Madison and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. By the end of the evening, these men had agreed upon a new location for the United States capital. Prior to this dinner, a debate on its location divided members of the fledgling government. Hamilton and his supporters believed the capital should be in New York City, while others preferred Philadelphia or a location along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Southerners like Jefferson and Madison favored a location along the Potomac River, fearing that a northern capital would diminish southern power, undermine slavery, and encourage corruption among bankers, merchants, and creditors. That night, according to Jefferson’s recollections, the three agreed to place the capital along the Potomac in exchange for the federal assumption of states’ war debts from the American Revolution.

On July 16, 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, moving the capital from New York to Philadelphia for ten years’ time and then permanently to the “river Potomack.”

By placing the seat of government firmly in the South, this legislation allowed slavery to flourish in the new capital. After President George Washington signed the Residence Act into law, he took an active role overseeing the construction of the Federal City. Working with French-born engineer Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant, he selected a building site near his Mount Vernon estate at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

To establish this new Federal City, Maryland ceded about seventy square miles, while Virginia contributed around twenty.

President Washington also appointed three commissioners in January 1791 to manage city construction: Thomas Johnson, David Stuart, and Daniel Carroll.

All three men owned slaves.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Fox-Amato

exposing slaveryMatthew Fox-Amato is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Idaho. This interview is based on his new book, Exposing Slavery: Photography, Human Bondage, and the Birth of Modern Visual Politics in America (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Exposing Slavery?

MFA: I was (and still am) interested in how social movements have used the power of culture to effect change. I also wanted to better understand the role that images of suffering have played in shaping modern experience and, more specifically, American politics. Initially, a project about abolitionist photography seemed the way to pursue these interests. I was aware of the many photos of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth as well as certain images that abolitionists circulated during the Civil War, such as the “Scourged Back” (1863), in which a fugitive slave poses with his flagellated back towards the camera. My plan was to examine how abolitionists drew upon this new visual technology to fight racism and expose the violence of bondage.

But the project changed as I began finding evidence in the slave South. I came across a few digitized photographs, commissioned by enslavers, of enslaved people in the 1850s. I found written sources suggesting enslaved people actively engaged the medium, as in, for instance, a newspaper article about African Americans purchasing photographs from an itinerant daguerreotypist in a small town in Alabama. These and other sources led me to revise how I was conceptualizing antebellum photography. The medium was more than simply a tool for abolitionists: it served as a cultural middle-ground, through which various historical actors–in both the North and South–made claims about themselves and the world. How, I now asked, did photography influence the culture and politics of slavery? And how was the medium shaped in the process? My book aims to answer these questions.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Exposing Slavery?

MFA: Photography exacerbated the political crisis over slavery. In turn, those most invested in the potential futures of slavery–enslavers, enslaved people, abolitionists, and Civil War soldiers–turned photography into a political tool.

JF: Why do we need to read Exposing Slavery?

MFA: It is abundantly clear that the digital world has reshaped the intertwined relationship between media and U.S. politics–whether one looks to changes in newspapers or the influence of platforms like Facebook and Twitter. To make sense of these changes, we need a more textured understanding of how media have shaped politics in the past. My point in Exposing Slavery is not that the emergence of photography simply helped promote freedom and equality and diminished anti-black racism. It is, instead, that photography catalyzed conflict, because actors from across the political spectrum seized on it for different political goals–much like we see with social media today.

I also want readers to come away with a new approach for conceptualizing historical actors. Exposing Slavery puts visual culture at the center of American history in a very specific way. Not only does it analyze images as evidence (rather than simply illustrations), but it also foregrounds how non-artists helped produce images and delves into the ways in which they circulated, displayed, and gazed upon those images. I show, for instance, how some enslaved people preserved photographic portraits of their loved ones, a practice that enabled them to maintain familial ties amidst the disruptions of the domestic slave trade. Likewise, I reveal how white Union soldiers helped craft interracial scenes during the Civil War. These images, which routinely pictured black men kneeling beneath and serving white soldiers, reinforced racial hierarchy as slavery crumbled. These and other instances demonstrate how non-artists shaped history through photography. We see the past anew once we begin to grapple with the many consequential ways that ordinary historical actors (not just trained artists) have used and made meaning from images.

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

MFA: I was riveted by my first serious work in an historical archive. When I was writing my undergraduate thesis about the Hollywood Production Code (film censorship enacted in the 1930s), I spent time at the Margaret Herrick Library in LA, poring over letters between Code executives and studio producers. I was captivated by the letters I read–documents full of conversation about what should be kept, altered, and cut in various film scripts. I felt like I had a front-row seat to the creation of popular culture, and was struck by the idea that my thesis would be dramatically shaped by the questions I asked about these sources. It was in this moment that I knew I wanted to study the past for a living.

JF: What is your next project?

MFA: I’m beginning a new book-length study about the historical relationship between visual journalism and the White House. The project examines how sketch artists and photojournalists have visualized the presidency, and how administrations began to create and disseminate their own news pictures. I’m fascinated by connections between visual media and the uneven development of democracy. This book explores one part of that larger story.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

David Barton’s Latest: The Reference to “Free White Persons” in the Naturalization Act of 1790 Was Meant to Curb Slavery

Immigration Act

Yes–I have primary sources too!

Earlier today on his Wallbuilders Live radio show, Christian Right activist David Barton made the following case about the Naturalization Act of 1790 and its assertion that citizenship in the new United States be afforded to only “free white persons”:

The Naturalization Act 1790, is the first immigration act passed by Congress. And, it set forth what it takes to be an immigrant to America. If you come here you have to be able to provide your own income for five years.

If you become a public ward of the government within five years, you go back home. You have to have good moral character and a religious recommendation from some organization. So, it was all about character and the type of people you wanted as inhabitants.

So, why is it white? Because this is part of the anti-slavery thing, that we’re not looking for more slaves to come in. It was shortly after this that George Washington passed the law that forbid the exportation of any slaves out of America.

And, Congress had already been notified by the Constitution that Hey we’re going to ban the slave trade as well. We don’t want more slaves coming into America. And, you have to realize that at that point in time, we’re still in the middle of the Atlantic slave trade.

And, sentiment against that is growing. So, there’s lots of slave ships coming out of Africa. We know that over that that four centuries, about 12.7 million slaves were taken out to Africa; and, while most of them did not come to the United States–the United States only got about 2.5 percent of all the slaves sent out of Africa.

Still, there was growing sentiment against the slave trade in America, saying, “Hey, we need to get out of slavery and end the slave trade.” So, that’s kind of the tone at the time this law is passed. Therefore, while this looks racist today, in the context of the times, this is really more about We’re not after more slaves coming in.

Read the entire statement here.

First, notice what the Naturalization Act of 1790 offers citizenship to only free white persons.  Barton argues that by restricting immigration to free white people, Congress was trying to curb the number of slaves coming into the country.

Second, let me say that this interpretation is an example of what happens when you allow politics to shape your understanding of the past.  Barton’s argument here is absurd, but he has to make such an argument to protect his beloved founding fathers.  He knows that this is what his audience needs to hear so he twists and mangles the past to fit his contemporary agenda. He also knows that this is the kind of stuff that keeps him in business.

Third, Barton is making this all up.  He has no evidence for this revisionism.  How do I know?  Because the authors of the Naturalization Act left no specific commentary to explain why they limited citizenship to “free white persons.” In fact, it was not until 1952, with the passing of the Immigration Act and Nationality Act, that Congress prohibited racial discrimination in naturalization.

Fourth, it is likely that Northerners and anti-slavery advocates supported the Naturalization Act of 1790 precisely because it limited citizenship to white people. Duke political scientist and ethicist Noah Pickus has argued that white American men in Congress responsible for the Act–even those who opposed slavery—were trying to imagine what life in the United States would look like after emancipation.  Very few of them wanted African-Americans integrated into white society through citizenship.

As Pickus writes in his book True Faith and Allegiance: Immigration and American Civil Nationalism, “many leaders agonized over the tension between blacks’ natural right to freedom and prudential concerns about an integrated nation.  The free white clause terminology was consistent in the minds of those who opposed slavery with ensuring a cohesive community.  The shared concern to establish a nationalist foundation for citizenship made it easier for all to agree on excluding blacks from citizenship.”  In other words, the framers of the Naturalization Act of 1790 wanted a white republic.

Pickus is also aware that the evidence is scant. So he makes an argument partially based on context.  He writes, “Arguments from silence are, of course, slippery things that depend heavily on the context into which the silence is set.” But Pickus also looks to future debates over emancipation (rather than 1790s debates over naturalization) to advance his argument.  His evidence is found there.

Fifth, there is nothing in the Naturalization Act of 1790 about immigrants being sent back to their home country if they became wards of the state.  Maybe I missed it.  Perhaps someone can double-check for me.  I am afraid that this is Barton trying to twist the act to make a subtle jab about today’s undocumented immigrants.

 

The Author’s Corner With Matthew Clavin

ClavinMatthew Clavin is Professor of History at the University of Houston.  This interview is based on his new book The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community (New York University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: I am captivated by stories of extraordinary slave resistance that have for a variety of reasons been largely forgotten. Historians have known about Negro Fort for a long time, but I wanted to bring the story of its rise and fall to a wide audience. More than ever, it is vitally important for professional historians to communicate directly with the general public, especially regarding the long and complicated history of race and racism both in the United States and the world.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: The Battle of Negro Fort marked a significant moment in early American history. By destroying a fugitive slave community in a foreign territory for the first and only time in its history, the United States government accelerated its transformation into a white republic, which served both the interests and the ideology of an emerging Slave Power.

JF: Why do we need to read The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: The demonization of people of color on the opposite side of the United States’ southern border is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, American citizens and officials have long referred to these people as murderers, savages, and the like to score political points and secure what they considered important public policy. Following the War of 1812, slavery’s proponents depicted Negro Fort as an existential threat to the southern frontier. Eventually, they were able to convince the federal government to launch an illegal invasion of Spanish Florida to kill or capture the fort’s black inhabitants. The Battle of Negro Fort illuminates how—and why—in the four decades since the Declaration of Independence, much of the American republic’s ambivalence over the institution of slavery had disappeared.

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

MC: Since I was little, I have always been fascinated with the history of race and racism. While writing my senior thesis in college on nonviolent direct action and the Civil Rights Movement, I first considered the idea of research and writing history professionally. It wasn’t long after turning in that paper that I decided that I had to become an historian. A lot of people told me that I could never be a historian. I am so glad I did not listen to them.  

JF: What is your next project?

MC: I am currently writing a book that examines the intersection of slavery, anti-slavery, and nationalism in the United States in the decades before the Civil War. The goal is to show just how much love of the American nation justified and inspired revolutionary slave resistance.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

How Jamestown Embraced Slavery

Cultivation_of_tobacco_at_Jamestown_1615

At Zocalo, Dartmouth historian Paul Musselwhite explains how it all happened.  Here is a taste of “How Jamestown Abandoned a Utopian Vision and Embraced Slavery“:

In the summer of 1619, some of England’s first American colonists were carving up land seized from the Powhatan empire along the James River in Virginia. While the first settlers had arrived back in 1607, they had only recently discovered that they could turn a profit growing tobacco. Tobacco production had increased 20-fold over the past two years, and agricultural land was suddenly at a premium.

Yet the surveyors, instead of laying out private estates for upwardly mobile colonists, were mostly tracing the bounds of thousands of acres of common land. These vast tracts of public land were intended to accommodate hundreds of new colonists and their families, who would serve as tenants, raising crops and paying rents to support infrastructure while learning agricultural skills.

This symbiotic vision of common land and public institutions was one of the most dramatic innovations in the history of English colonialism to that point. But we have lost sight of that original vision and how it was undermined.

Read the rest here.

The 1619 Project: A “patriotism not of hagiography but of struggle”

1619

Over at Boston Review, Princeton graduate student David Walsh wonders why the conservative view of “patriotism” is so “fragile.”  He comes up with three reasons for this:

  1. The conservative propensity for “viewing freedom and equality as incompatible.”
  2. Conservatives are invested in the “explicitly racist power arrangements that the 1619 Protect criticizes.
  3. Conservatives “revere history as a source of  incontestable authority, as opposed to a storehouse of fallible human experience.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Attack on the 1619 Project is an Attack on Mainstream Historical Scholarship and Teaching

I am guessing, and it is only a guess, that most critics of the 1619 Project have not read much serious American history, particularly the history of American slavery and race.  Here is Jeet Heer of The Nation:

Damon Linker’s piece at The Week, for example, has given a lot of ammunition to the kind of people who have been responding to Southern Baptist president J.D. Greear.  Linker, like many conservatives, gets caught-up with the phrase “reframe American history.”  He praises some articles in the 1619 Project, but trashes others.  When was the last time he taught an American history course?  Everyone is an expert.

We can debate what the narrative of American history should look like, or whether or not The New York Times proposal is more political than it is historical, but I would say that we cannot understand colonial America, the American Revolution, or much of early American history without making slavery central to the story.  There is just too much good historical scholarship out there to see this any other way.  Yet we have conservatives like Rod Dreher (another pundit who I am guessing hasn’t taught U.S. history in a while) so upset that he has canceled his 30-year subscription to The New York Times.

I have been teaching the first half of the United States survey for over two decades.  We talk about white colonial settlement, slavery, native Americans, political history, religion, presidential elections, democracy, industrialization, southern culture, the Western ideas that drove the American Revolution, Manifest Destiny, and the coming of the Civil War.  How does one teach these things without slavery? Slavery is everywhere in this course. It constantly rears its ugly head.  There is no way to tell the story without it.  It is central. I don’t advertise my course as a U.S. survey focused on “race” or “slavery” and I don’t put such language in my syllabus.  But these topics just come to the surface naturally and start to shape the narrative.

What the New York Times is proposing in the 1619 Project is not really that radical.  There is actually no “reframing” here. The Times is not as revisionist as it thinks it is.  Just look at any high school or college textbook.  Slavery and race have been central to the study of American history for several decades.

Penn Live: “It’s time to remember the central role slavery played in the making of America”

Virginia sign

This piece at today’s Penn Live/Harrisburg Patriot-News will look somewhat familiar to readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  A taste:

In August 1619, a shipment of “20 And odd Negroes” from Angola arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia. They got there because earlier in the year English pirates stole them from a Portuguese slave ship headed for Vera Cruz, Mexico, and sold them to the earliest Jamestown settlers in exchange for food.

While the story of these Africans is complicated, historians agree that the August 1619 shipment was the beginning of slavery in the English colonies of North America. On Sunday, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of slavery in the colonies, The New York Times released a series of essays and a website called “The 1619 Project.” The Times describes the project as a “major initiative” to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who were are.”

The 1619 Project is excellent. Some of our best scholars of African American history, slavery, and race have contributed articles. The racist legacy of slavery in America, they argue, has shaped everything from capitalism to health care, and traffic patterns to music. I hope that teachers will use it in their classrooms.

But not everyone is happy about the 1619 Project. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh called it a “hoax” and a threat to “American greatness.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz told his Twitter followers that the project is a political attempt by the left to rewrite America’s history. He questioned the journalistic integrity of The Times

Read the rest here.

This is the Best You Will Get from the *National Review* on “The 1619 Project”

1619

Jim Geraghty writes about everything that is missing from the story of African-American history told in The New York Times 1619 Project.  The National Review writer seems to think that the project is an African-American history textbook that must cover everything.

But David French sees some merit in the project:

The black American argument for liberty is achieving new prominence in part because of the New York Times’s “ 1619 Project” — an ambitious effort to reframe the arrival of the first slaves on America’s shores as our nation’s “true founding.” Many of the accompanying essays are interesting and provocative, though they don’t truly make the case that America came into being as a result of slavery rather than through the ratification of one of the most stirring and aspirational documents in human history. The true founding of our nation resulted in the creation of a series of painful conflicts between the promise of liberty and the reality of oppression, and the promise of liberty has prevailed time and again. But the focus on 1619 should provide modern Evangelicals — many of whom are in a state of near-panic — with a healthy dose of perspective.

I like French’s piece because he draws upon African-American history as an antidote to evangelical political pessimism.  A lot of his thoughts here echo the last chapter of Believe Me in which I suggested that the Civil Rights Movement could serve as a model for white evangelical political engagement today.

Ring a Bell on August 25, 2019 to Honor the First Africans to Land in English America

Church bell

The National Park service is calling for a national “day of healing” on August 25 to “honor the first Africans who landed in 1619 at Point Comfort and 400 years of African American history.”  A commemoration will take place at Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton Virginia on the 25th. The staff of that site is inviting all 419 national parks and the general public to ring bells for four minutes–one for each century of the African-American experience.

Here is a taste of the National Park Service announcement:

Bells are symbols of freedom.

They are rung for joy, sorrow, alarm, and celebration…universal concepts in each of our lives. This symbolic gesture will enable Americans from all walks of life to participate in this historic moment from wherever they are–to capture the spirit of healing and reconciliation while honoring the significance of 400 years of African American history and culture.

Since its establishment on August 25, 1916, the National Park Service has cared for extraordinary historic and cultural sites that are pivotal parts of the American narrative. Parks and our programs can be places of healing and reconciliation. As we gather at parks on this day across the country to commemorate the landing of enslaved Africans 400 years ago, we honor this powerful moment in American history and the significance of four centuries of African American history and culture.

Find a Bell

Your bell could be big, small, old, or new. It could be lots of little bells, one church bell, or a carillon. Be creative as you create a moment that has personal meaning, power, and resonance for you and your group. 

Make your connection–explore the messaging above about the symbolism of bells. Does your site feature a bell? Share a picture or story about a historic bell, maybe the bell of a ship, on a writing desk, in the collection, in a building, in transportation. What does your bell symbolize? Joy, work, celebration, time, education, technology? Can you connect it to the concept of healing and reconciliation?

Plan Your Event

The nationwide bell ringing will take place at 3:00 p.m. EDT on August 25, 2019, the 400th anniversary. Choose a location that accommodates your audience comfortably and, ideally, is a place that has a connection to your group or community’s unique story. You may want to gather a few minutes early to be sure you’re ready at 3:00 p.m. EDT.

Read the entire announcement here.

A quick Google search reveals that churches and denominations will taking-up the National Park Service’s call, including The Episcopal Church, USA.

Will evangelical churches ring their bells on August 25th?  I hope so.  But this might be difficult since most evangelical megachurches do not have church bells or steeples.  🙂

Let’s Remember That Slavery in North America Pre-Dates 1619

Slavery in New Spain

New Spain, 1599

The “20 And odd negroes” who arrived in Virginia in 1619 were the first slaves in English North America, but slavery existed in North American well before this.  Here is Olivia Waxman at Time:

The 400th anniversary being marked this month is really the 400th anniversary of the Anglo-centric history of Africans in the U.S., says Greg Carr, the Chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. Dating the history of Africans in North America to 400 years ago “reinforces this narrative of English superiority.” But, he argues, remembering the Spanish and indigenous sides of the history is more important now than ever, as “the people [officials] are closing the border to are [descended from] people who were here when you came.”

“People don’t tend to want to think about early U.S. history as being anything but English and English-speaking,” echoes Michael Guasco, historian at Davidson College and author of Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World. “There is a Hispanic heritage that predates the U.S, and there’s a tendency for people to willingly forget or omit the early history of Florida, Texas and California, particularly as the politics of today want to push back against Spanish language and immigration from Latin America.”

Read the entire piece here.

Are Conservatives Unable to Deal with the Complexity of American History?

Why Study HistoryThe responses to the 1619 Project sure make it look that way.

Complexity, of course, is one of the 5 Cs of historical thinking.

Over at Slate, Rebecca Onion traces the conservative backlash to The New York Times project back to the “history wars” of the 1990s.  Here is a taste of her piece, “A Brief History of the History Wars“:

The controversial history standards, along with the defeated and revised Enola Gay exhibit, provided a fine set of talking points for Republicans seeking election in 1995. Presidential candidate Bob Dole referenced the Enola Gay exhibit controversy in a speech to the American Legion in September 1995, calling the national history standards an effort “to denigrate America’s story while sanitizing and glorifying other cultures.” Newt Gingrich—a history Ph.D. who has long delighted in claiming the authority of “historian,” despite having left the academy in 1978 after being denied tenure—made hay of the exhibit and the standards in his own efforts to flip the House to the Republicans. “In a postelection interview,” Wallace writes, “Gingrich said that the new Republican leadership intended to improve the country’s moral climate, especially by ‘teaching the truth about American history.’ ” Later, Gingrich told the National Governors Association: “The Enola Gay fight was a fight, in effect, over the reassertion by most Americans that they’re sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country.”

By 2019, these arguments have become standard conservative fare, and liberals continue to have a hard time countering them. The New York Times Magazine’s use of the term reframe to describe its intention in reconceptualizing the sweep of American history drew particular conservative ire. I think that’s because it sounds a little like “revisionist,” a favorite trigger word for history culture warriors. In 2003, when George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice used it to slam those who criticized the foundations of the war in Iraq, then-president of the American Historical Association James McPherson observed: “Neither Bush nor Rice offered a definition of this phrase, but their body language and tone of voice appeared to suggest that they wanted listeners to understand ‘revisionist history’ to be a consciously falsified interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present.”

Read the rest here.

Onion is right about conservative’s resistance to words like “reframing” and “revisionism.”  Yesterday I argued the same thing about The 1619 Project.  I have also said a few things over the years about revisionist history.  This is from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

…the responsibility of the historian is to resurrect the past.  Yet, because we live in the present, far removed from the events of the past, our ability to construct what happened in by-gone eras is limited.  This is why the doing of history requires an act of the imagination.  Sometimes we do not have the sources to provide a complete picture of “what happened” at any given time….

Even the best accounts of the past are open to change based on new evidence or the work of historians who approach a subject with a different lens of interpretation.  In this sense, history is more about competing perceptions of the past than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event or life…While the past never changes, history changes all the time.  Think, for example, about two eyewitness accounts of the same auto accident.  Even if we assume that the drivers involved in the accident believe that they are telling the truth about what happened, it is still likely that the police will receive two very different accounts  of how the accident occurred and two different accounts of who is to blame or who caused the accident.  It is thus up to the police officer in charge, or perhaps a judge, to weigh the evidence and come up with a plausible interpretation of this historical event.  But let’s imagine two weeks after the paperwork is filed and the case is closed, a reliable eyewitness to the accident emerges with new evidence to suggest that the person who the judge held responsible for the accident was actually not at fault.  This new information leads to a new historical narrative of what happened.  History has changed.  This is called revisionism, and it is the lifeblood of the historical profession.

The word revisionism carries a negative connotation in American society because it is usually associated with changing true facts of the past in order to fit some kind of agenda in the present.  But actually, the historian who is called a “revisionist” received a high compliment.  In his book Who Owns History?, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, “When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?”  Foner responded, “Around the time of Thucydides.” (Thucydides is the Greek writer who is often credited with being one of the first historians in the West).  Those who believe “revisionism” is a negative term often misunderstands the way it is used by historians.  Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history.  Any good revisionist interpretation of history will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind.  This type of reconstruction of the past always takes place in community.  We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians.  This is called peer review.  When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through reviews.

A few examples might help illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history.  Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by what historians call the “Dunning School.”  William Dunning was an early twentieth-century who suggested that Reconstruction–the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to Southern blacks in the wake of the Civil War–was a mistake.  The Northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction and the various “carpetbaggers” who came to the South to start schools for blacks and work for racial integration destroyed the Southern way of life.  In the end, however, the South did indeed rise again.  In Dunning’s portrayal, Southerners eventually rallied to overthrow this Northern invasion.  They removed blacks from positions of power and established a regime of segregation that would last for much of the twentieth century.  These so-called redeemers of Southern culture are the heroes of the Dunning School, an interpretation of Reconstruction that would inform D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most popular, and most racist, motion pictures of the early twentieth century.  In the 1930s the Dunning School was challenged by a group of historians who began to interpret the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of the former slaves . Rather than viewing the blacks in the post-Civil War South as people without power, these revisionist authors provided a much richer understanding of the period that included a place for all historical actors, regardless of skin color or social standing, in the story of this important movement in American history.

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Will Commemorate 1619

PA Slave Trade

The PHMC will commemorate 400 years of African-American history through a social media campaign.  Here is a taste of J.D. Prose’s article at The Beaver County (PA) Times:

On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission announced a six-month long social media campaign to commemorate 400 years of black history in America.

In conjunction with the federal 400 Years of African-American History Commission and other cultural and historical organizations, the PHMC will, according to a statement, “share highlights from the hundreds of Pennsylvania Historical Markers dedicated to African Americans and their contributions to Pennsylvania’s rich and diverse heritage” through February, which is recognized as Black History Month.

Various commemorations and programs are occurring this month because it was in August 1619 that the first enslaved Africans were brought to the colonies at Point Comfort, Va.

Using its Facebook (“Pennsylvania Trails of History”), Twitter (@PHMC), Instagram (patrailsofhistory) and LinkedIn(“Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission”) accounts, the PHMC said it will feature stories of the black experience in Pennsylvania, including “both well-known and lesser-known people, places and themes.”

The PHMC said it will encourage followers to share the posts using #400yearsPA.

Read the rest here.

The President of the Southern Baptist Convention Writes a Sympathetic 1619 Tweet and Catches Hell for It

greear1

J.D Greear, the 62nd president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is trying to make the denomination more sensitive to race and the SBC’s long connection to slavery.  It looks like he has his work cut out for him.

On August 19, Greear wrote 3 tweets:

And then all hell broke loose: