Georgetown University Apologizes

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Yesterday Rev. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, apologized to more than 100 descendants of slaves who were sold by Jesuit-run Georgetown University in 1838.  The apology was part of a “contrition” liturgy. It was a form of penance.  You can read Kesicki’s remarks here.

In 1838 Georgetown was involved in the sale of 272 slaves from Jesuit plantations in Maryland.  The slaves were sold to help the college pay off its debts.

Here is a taste of Adelle Banks’s article at Religion News Service:

The “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope” was steeped in symbolism of time and space. It was held two days after Easter, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and two days after Emancipation Day, a holiday that marks the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862.

The school decided to name one building Isaac Hawkins Hall, in honor of a slave who was 65 years old when he was sold in 1838. His name was the first of the slaves listed on the sale documents, and most of his children and grandchildren were also sold to Louisiana businessmen.

Hall’s labor and his value helped build Georgetown and rescue it from financial crisis, according to the working group report.

The day’s written program noted that Isaac was the name of a biblical figure who was spared by God, but that the now-honored slave with that name “was not spared. He was sold.”

A second building was designated Anne Marie Becraft Hall, in honor of a free African-American woman who founded a school for Catholic black girls in the Georgetown neighborhood and later joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the oldest group of nuns started by women of African descent.

Previously, those buildings were named for the Rev. Thomas Mulledy and the Rev. William McSherry, respectively, former university presidents who were priests and supporters of the slave trade. In 2015, the buildings were temporarily named Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall.

Read the entire article here.

How Could They Believe in Slavery and Still Call Themselves Christians?

Lee BookChristopher Graham, writing at his blog Whig Hill, brings a dose of historical thinking to our understanding of Christian slaveholders in the 19th-century South.

Graham responds to Rev. William Sachs’s review of David Cox’s book The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee.  Sachs is the director of the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.

According to Graham, Sachs can’t seem to grasp how southern slaveholders like Lee could claim to be Christians and still own slaves.  Graham writes:

Sachs follows Cox’s explanation of mid-19th century evangelicals’ views on providentialism, sin, and action, but is tripped up by what appears to be a contradiction regarding slavery, “what sort of religion,” Sachs asks, “allowed such wrong?” He is so incredulous that he repeats the question, “how could Christian faith allow slavery and oppose its abolition?”

Christians today so thoroughly identify with the abolitionist and the Civil Rights-era interpretation of scripture, that any deviation is deemed hypocritical, delusional, heretical, and sinful. This view of a Civil Rights Christianity is so self-evidently sound and settled that we can hardly imagine that debate ever existed or that the abolitionist view was once the heretical, innovative, outsider to an orthodox Christianity.

Sachs searches for an explanation that I also see quite a lot. It includes two parts. First, “Lee, like others in his family saw slavery as evil, even as they owned human beings.” Again, I haven’t read this book, so I don’t now how Cox explains what Lee actually said, but this explanation allows slaveholders to have a moral conscience in accordance with ours while being helpless victims of 19th century material realities. At worst, they’re guilty of failing to turn belief into action, but they were ok because they “saw slavery as evil.”

The second part is this: “His turn to leadership of Southern forces was no defense of slavery in his mind. He expressed a sense of duty to his family and a way of life.” I see this frequently, not just in religious circles, but also in broader explanations for Confederate motivations. It compartmentalizes slavery, separates it from other categories like honor, family, home, and nationalist visions. This allows us to set slavery aside—yeah, it was bad, they knew that; we know that; but it was an aberration that didn’t have anything to do with larger motivations.

It all boils down to a notion that they couldn’t possibly have believed in slavery because as good Christians, they couldn’t have. But this is wrong. They believed in slavery because they were good Christians. Proslavery theology serves as a much more satisfying explanation for what we see than describing them as tragically confused.

This is a clear example of the differences between historical thinking and other kinds of thinking.  If I read Graham correctly, Cox wants to do more than merely understand Robert E. Lee’s faith as it relates to slavery.  He wants to show that Lee, from the perspective of his understanding of Christianity, is wrong.  This, of course, is a fair and honest exercise and one that theologians and pastors should make.  But, as Graham nicely points out, it strays from the tenets of good historical thinking.

Here is Graham again:

Academics understand proslavery Christianity fairly well, but because this prevalence to convolute an explanation for Christian slaveholding (they were mistaken!) by the wider public suggests that academic inquiries have limited reach. This has consequences. To deeply absorb and understand that proslavery Christians (e.g.—most white southern Christians) actually believed what they said opens the door for the work of more authentic historical accountability. And it helps us better articulate and understand how white supremacy worked and has evolved into whatever form it has today. Slavery, after all, was just the beginning of this. But I believe that standing up and simply saying you’re mistaken is not an effective approach to solving today’s problems any more than it is to understanding and explaining the past. Confronting this history prepares us to do better today.

Read Graham’s entire post here.

Quote of the Day

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

Abraham Lincoln to Joshua F. Speed, August 24, 1855

HT: John Craig Hammond

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 National Endowment for the Humanities Funds the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database

mapDonald Trump’s current budget proposal will eliminate government funding for the humanities.  This means that local communities and American citizens will need to come up with other ways to fund programs like this:

If you teach or write about slavery you need to be aware of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.  The database has information about nearly 36,000 slave voyages to the Americas.

Here is a description:

From the late 1960s, Herbert S. Klein and other scholars began to collect archival data on slave-trading voyages from unpublished sources and to code them into a machine-readable format. In the 1970s and 1980s, scholars created a number of slave ship datasets, several of which the current authors chose to recode from the primary sources rather than integrate the datasets of those scholars into the present set. By the late 1980s, there were records of approximately 11,000 individual trans-Atlantic voyages in sixteen separate datasets, not all of which were trans-Atlantic, nor, as it turned out, slave voyages. And of course, some sets overlapped others. Several listings of voyages extracted from more than one source had appeared in hard copy form, notably three volumes of voyages from French ports published by Jean Mettas and Serge and Michelle Daget and two volumes of Bristol voyages (expanded to four by 1996) authored by David Richardson. The basis for each dataset was usually the records of a specific European nation or the particular port where slaving voyages originated, with the information available reflecting the nature of the records that had survived rather than the structure of the voyage itself. Scholars of the slave trade spent the first quarter century of the computer era working largely in isolation, each using one source only as well as a separate format, though the Curtin, Mettas, and Richardson collections were early exceptions to this pattern.

The idea of creating a single multisource dataset of trans-Atlantic slave voyages emerged from a chance meeting of David Eltis and Stephen Behrendt in the British Public Record Office in 1990 while they were working independently on the early and late British slave trades. At about the same time, David Richardson was taking over detailed multisource work on the large mid-eighteenth-century Liverpool shipping business begun years earlier by Maurice Schofield. All this work, together with the Bristol volumes that Richardson had already published, made it seem feasible to integrate the records for the very large British slave trade for the first time, and beyond that, given the available Dutch, French, and Portuguese data, to collect a single dataset for the trade as a whole. Meetings in January, 1991 at the American Historical Association and, in 1992, at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University, headed by Professor Henry L. Gates, Jr resulted in grant proposals to major funding agencies. In July 1993 the project received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities with supplementary support coming from the Mellon Foundation.

Read more about this website here.

In 2016 the National Endowment for the Humanities provided funding to improve the database and add new records.

For other posts in this series click here.

 

Slavery at Harvard

Faust and Coates

Drew Gilpin Faust and Ta-Nehisi Coates

I just came across this article Lydialyle Gibson’s essay in Harvard Magazine titled “A Vast Slave Society.”  It is a report on a one-day conference at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute on slavery at America’s first institution of higher education and other colleges and universities.  Speakers included Drew Gilpin Faust, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lizabeth Cohen, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Adam Rothman, James T. Campbell, Craig Steven Wilder, Vincent Brown, Natasha Trethewey, Annette Gordon-Reed, Sven Beckert, Julian Bonder, Daniel Coquillette, Alexandra Rahman, Alejandro de le Fuente, Hilary Beckles, Max Price, Christiane Taubira, and Daniel Carpenter.

Here is a taste:

OTHER SPEAKERS, including Faust, echoed that same sentiment, though with less specificity. “We cannot successfully move forward as a university, as a nation, or as citizens, without acknowledging this history and making it important to the understanding of our present,” said Harvard’s Beckert. “And to be meaningful, that acknowledgement will have to have economic and political consequences; it cannot be purely symbolic or rhetorical.” Stanford historian James T. Campbell, who a decade and a half ago led Brown’s effort to research its own past, said, “There has to be some response in the present to what you know about the history.” Conceding the impossibility of any full remedy, he added, “Nothing you do in the present even approaches the significance and scale and scope of the crime. That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything.” Adam Rothman, a Georgetown historian involved in that university’s archival effort, asked how many in the audience thought his university ought to help subsidize the education of people descended from slaves that it had owned in the early 1800s. Most hands went up.

As schools move forward in their efforts to reckon with centuries-old questions that have suddenly become urgent, Coates offered a few bits of advice. For one thing, he said, “Do not limit the study of enslavement to slavery.…Recognize that the plunder of enslavement does not end with enslavement.”  He also counseled them to “listen, and don’t be self-congratulatory, and don’t get too mad.” People will be angry with them, he warned, and with good reason. “The worst thing you can do is retreat into your shell.…You’ve got to listen. You’ve got to listen, and you’ve got to hear that anger. It comes from a deep, deep place.”

Read the entire article here.

 

Roger Taney Apologizes to Dred Scott

Dred Scott

Dred Scott

Well, actually both Roger Taney and Dred Scott are dead.  But this did not stop a descendant of Taney (also named Roger Taney) from apologizing to a descendant of Scott.

Here is a taste of an article from The Washington Post:

Lynne M. Jackson winced outside the Maryland State House on Monday as she listened to Charlie Taney repeat some of the words his great-great-grand-uncle wrote in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision 160 years ago.

Black people cannot be U.S. citizens and have no rights except the ones that white people give them. Whites are superior to blacks. Slavery is legal.

“You can’t hide from the words that [Roger Brooke] Taney wrote,” Charlie Taney said, standing a few feet from a statue of his ancestor, who lived in Maryland and was chief justice of the nation’s highest court from 1836 until his death in 1864.

“You can’t run, you can’t hide, you can’t look away. You have to face them.”

Then Charlie Taney turned to Jackson, the great-great granddaughter of Scott, an enslaved man who sued for his freedom. He apologized — on behalf of his family, to the Scott family and to all African Americans, for the “terrible injustice of the Dred Scott decision.”

Read the entire piece here.  Lean more about the Dred Scott decision here.

The Author’s Corner with Lisa Lindsay

atlantic-bondsLisa Lindsay is Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This interview is based on her new book, Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth-Century Odyssey from America to Africa (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Atlantic Bonds?

LL: In a biography of a women’s rights advocate in mid-20th century Nigeria, I read that her grandfather had come to Africa from South Carolina in the 1850s and stayed there for the rest of his life.  I was intrigued, because it seemed that this man, James Churchwill Vaughan, embodied connections between the American South and West Africa that we don’t often think about: the “return” migration of African Americans, the effect of the diaspora on Africa, and the similar but also contrasting histories of slavery and white supremacy in the antebellum south and colonial Africa.  So I began to try to find out about this fellow Vaughan.  Once I learned that he had emigrated to Liberia and then Nigeria, been captured in wars feeding the slave trade, led a revolt against white missionaries, and founded a prosperous family of activists who stayed in touch with their relatives in the United States, I was hooked.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument Atlantic Bonds?

LL: James Churchwill (Church) Vaughan’s life story forms one thread in a larger fabric of interconnections during a transformative period in Atlantic history: when slavery was abolished in the United States and colonialism began in West Africa, and when black people in both places confronted challenges to their security and autonomy.  Following Vaughan’s journeys from South Carolina to Liberia to several parts of Yorubaland (Nigeria) enables a view of linkages across the nineteenth century Atlantic world as well as a comparison of related and similar phenomena in various settings.

JF: Why do we need to read Atlantic Bonds?

LL: The book brings together the histories of the United States, Africa, and the African diaspora–whose practitioners do not often engage substantially with each other’s scholarship–and of slavery and colonialism, which are generally studied separately.  This wide, comparative view yields two sets of revelations often missed by specialists who focus exclusively on one place.  First, it reminds us that American slavery was part of a connected, Atlantic world of bonded labor, one where slavery and freedom were not stark opposites but rather framed a continuum of dependency relations.  Second, the book probes the relationship between diasporic Africans and the politics of African colonialism, showing how consciousness of the diaspora informed opportunities and strategies in Africa.

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

LL: Actually, I’m an Africanist historian.  My first monograph was on colonial Nigeria.  But I have always been interested in the interplay between the local and the global in African history, and in comparative history.  As a graduate student at the University of Michigan I had the good fortune to work with Rebecca Scott, Tom Holt, and my adviser Fred Cooper, who were collaborating on a project about postemancipation societies.  So from early on I was intrigued by cross-regional comparisons, particularly as they relate to slavery and its aftermath.  At UNC-Chapel Hill, I’m in a department with a distinguished faculty in US, and particularly Southern, history.  And so when I became interested in the story of Church Vaughan, it gave me the chance to bring together the expertise I had already developed on Nigeria with new challenges and rewards in studying American history.

JF: What is your next project?

LL: I keep moving back in time and to larger geographic frames.  The next project will center on the history of women in the Atlantic slave trade, tracing such topics as the enslavement of women, women in the middle passage, and women in the antislavery movement over roughly the 16th to the 19th centuries.

JF: Thanks, Lisa!

Episode 16 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast Drops at Midnight

podcast-icon1Episode 16 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast drops tonight at midnight. It is our abolitionism episode and our guest is University of Connecticut history professor Manisha SInha, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.

We also chat about the end of another academic semester, the links between the “Slave’s Cause and the “Bible Cause,” and Historians Against Slavery.

As we come to the end of another season (we have one more short episode to release), we hope you will consider downloading episodes, telling your friends about the podcast, sharing what you like about the podcast on your social media feeds, and, especially, write a review at ITunes or wherever you listen to the podcast.

Thanks!

From the Archives: “A Time Empathy, a Time for History”

charleston

I published this at The Christian Century on July 12, 2016–JF

Sunday, after a tragic week of race-related killings in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge, I took a seat in my white evangelical middle-class megachurch in central Pennsylvania. I didn’t know what to expect, but as the sermon began I found myself pleasantly surprised.

My pastor used his scheduled sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) to address the issue of race in America. He urged the congregation to take seriously the racial division pervading this country. He challenged those in attendance to do more listening than talking about race.  He asked us to consider what it really means to love our neighbor as ourselves.

But what struck me the most about the sermon was my pastor’s assertion that racism is a structural problem. Though he did not go so far as to use the pulpit to issue a treatise on institutional racism in America, he did challenge his privileged congregation to consider the fact that racism is embedded, and has always been embedded, in virtually all aspects of American life.

White evangelical congregations in the Pennsylvania Bible belt do not usually hear this kind of preaching. The sermon took courage to deliver. I left church on Sunday proud to call myself an evangelical Christian.

On the ride home I had a conversation with my 18-year-old daughter about structural racism. We wondered whether the congregation really understood what our pastor meant by this phrase. There are various ways of examining institutional racism in America, but any exploration of this moral problem must begin with the study of the past.

Most white Americans know something about slavery, Jim Crow laws, or Martin Luther King Jr., but very few of them have studied African American history beyond a mandatory unit in high school or the brief coverage the topic might receive in a required college history course. Many have never been challenged to think historically about the plight of their black neighbors.

What does it look like to think historically about race, and how might such an exercise contribute to the process of racial reconciliation? Good history teachers know that the study of the past, in order to be a useful subject of inquiry in our democracy, must move beyond the memorization of facts. The study of history demands that students of all ages listen to voices from the past that are different than their own. How can one understand structural racism in America without understanding the long history of oppression and discrimination that black people have faced in this country?

To put it differently, the study of history, when taught well, leads to empathy. History teachers require their students to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms. As historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions—their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they fit within it.”

It will take more than historical empathy to solve the racial problems facing our country. The pundits and politicians (or at least the ones who care about these issues) are right when they call for a national conversation on race. My pastor and other Christian leaders are right when they call the church to draw upon biblical teachings on reconciliation, neighborliness, and human dignity. But a more robust commitment to historical thinking—and the virtues that result from such an approach to understanding our lives together—will also help. Sadly, public school districts and public and private universities are making drastic cuts to the study of history and social studies at precisely the time when we need it the most.

After church my daughter and I stopped for breakfast at a local restaurant. As we walked across the parking lot we noticed a pickup truck with a back windshield displaying stickers of a Confederate flag, a gun manufacturer, and a prominent Christian university.

We have a lot of work to do.

The Author’s Corner with Kristalyn Shefveland

anglonativevirginiaKristalyn Shefveland is Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. This interview is based on her new book, Anglo-Native Virginia: Trade, Conversion, and Indian Slavery in the Old Dominion, 1646-1722 (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: During my PhD program at the University of Mississippi, I took two seminars on the American colonies, with emphasis on the Southeast. One was a history seminar in which we discussed at length the Chesapeake school and the evolving issues of race, particularly as it related to the work of Edmund Morgan and Winthrop Jordan, and the seminal work of Powhatan’s Mantle. The other was an anthropology seminar in which we were introduced to the body of scholarship on the Eastern Woodlands and the emergence of the trade in skins and slaves. Out of these two courses I came away with many questions about the Stegg/Byrd family and the role of Virginia in the Indian slave trade. I was inspired by the work of Alan Gallay, Robbie Ethridge, and Charles Hudson and wanted to know more.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: Anglo-Native Virginia argues that attempts to regulate and control trade and indigenous peoples via a tributary system was at the foreground of Virginia’s native concerns from Governor Sir William Berkeley to Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood. This tributary system and its accompanying categories and rules represent an era of deep upheaval in the indigenous communities of the coastal plain and piedmont, resulting in the enslavement of native peoples as the colonies used the frontier exchange economy to finance their emerging plantation complex.

JF: Why do we need to read Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: As an interdisciplinary work of ethnohistory, I hope this book finds an audience in a number of venues, including but not limited to scholars of Atlantic trade, colonial settlement, Southern Studies, slavery studies, and Indigenous peoples. The book asks us to consider the central role that indigenous and colonial interaction played in the larger narrative of the plantation South. It asks us to look more closely at how trade with Native peoples shaped Virginia history as it transitioned from a fledgling colonial outpost to a settler society dependent upon slave labor. I argue that the Southeast cannot be understood without understanding Virginia and one cannot understand Virginia without understanding the tributary system. The framework of this project came from my interest in demonstrating the importance of Native history for broader narratives. Until fairly recently, Native peoples of Virginia have been in the background of important studies that have focused on the Atlantic slave trade, mercantilism, and the plantation economy. A full understanding of the important role that Virginia tributary and foreign Natives played in the trade in skins and slaves as it relates to the Atlantic economy and mercantilism has been the subject of important recent scholarship and I think my work complements this emerging field.

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

KS: I started writing stories at an early age and they always had a historical element. I split my childhood between the small Mississippi river town of Wabasha, Minnesota and a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I was always drawn to the historic sites of the two very different communities, one barely 2,500 people and the other a sprawling rustbelt town where suburbs converged into one another. In Minnesota, I was raised on the history of Euro-Native interaction, trade and settlement, and the folklore of the river valley. Across the river in Wisconsin was the Big Woods that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about and the town of Maiden Rock. In sum, I always loved a folktale and a yarn, a lifelong love affair that my parents greatly encouraged by going through historic towns and stopping at roadside markers, even when it added an hour or three to our regular road trips to Minnesota or Florida. In Ohio, I had the opportunity to work with an incredible high school teacher, Steven Abbey, who allowed me to take independent studies on a wide variety of historical topics and then I had the pleasure to attend Bowling Green State University where I studied under the Great Lakes historian, Edmund Danziger. He fostered my love of stories and helped to guide my scholarship towards the field of ethnohistory. In his seminar courses as well as the eye-opening classes I got to take with the Latin American historian, Rob Buffington, I knew that I wanted to pursue the field of history beyond undergrad. I was lucky to land at the University of Mississippi to work in interdisciplinary collaboration on indigenous peoples with Sheila Skemp and Robbie Ethridge. In a bit of kismet, I moved south to study peoples who came originally from Lake Erie.

JF: What is your next project?

KS: I am currently at work on a book on historical memory of indigenous peoples in Florida, particularly the town of Vero Beach, on the Indian River. This is a project of personal importance to me as it is a place I have known all my life and yet its deeply manicured history of settler pioneers and adventurous rogues reveals an incomplete narrative. I came to this study because of a large Spanish-mission style building that overlooks the town center with a relief carving of Pocahontas. Indian River produce advertisements from the 1880s-1970s depict idyllic jungle scenes, complete with friendly and noble Indians of vaguely Plains motifs—a vision at odds with the region’s indigenous past. Yankees, calling themselves pioneers and colonizers, moved to the region in waves throughout the early 20th century, viewing Southerners with scorn as the wealthy Northern investors built empires of citrus and sugar.

The Indian River Farms Company of Davenport, Iowa made the greatest strides toward conquering Florida. While settling the region, the company created a romantic narrative to sell land to potential Yankee colonizers. Street names included Seminole, Osceola, Cherokee, Mohawk, Kickapoo, and Ute. Buildings included the Chief Sleepy Eye Lodge and the Pocahontas Arcade. All names considered “picturesque” by would be settlers. Situating these endeavors within the broader context of Yankee imperialism in the Caribbean, particularly Cuba, I am reconsidering the legacy of a colonial southern past alongside the emergence of the vacation south to explore its potential impact on studies of the Indigenous south.

JF: Thanks, Kristalyn!

Let’s Remember the Difference Between Slavery and Race

bed14-raelSome of you may recall our July 2015 Author’s Corner interview with Bowdoin College history professor Patrick Rael on his book Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865.

Last week Rael published an excellent piece on the difference between race and slavery at the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.

…the political conflicts surrounding race at the time of the founding had little to do with debating African-descended peoples’ claim to humanity, let alone equality. It is true that many of the Founders worried about the persistence of slavery in a nation supposedly dedicated to universal human liberty.  After all, it was difficult to argue that natural rights justified treason against a king without acknowledging slaves’ even stronger claim to freedom. Thomas Jefferson himself famously worried that in the event of slave rebellion, a just deity would side with the enslaved.

But the Framers never got to the point of debating black freedom and equality in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. They were too busy arguing over how much extra power slaveholders would have in the new form of government. As James Madison noted, of all the divides between the states, the one that came to drive debates most was that between slave states and those becoming free. But these debates were over slavery–not race.  They were about the political power of slaveholders, not the rights of those enslaved or degraded by the racial identity ascribed to them.

Slavery divided the nation; race, not so much. At the Founding, the argument over slavery was an argument between powerful elites, some of whom depended completely on slavery for their profits and some who did not. While the issue of slaveholder power eventually came to dominate the national political agenda, the question of race — and particularly the racial equality of non-Europeans — did not. Widespread consensus consigned nearly all blacks to sub-citizen status, even when they were not legal property.

Read the entire piece here.

The Electoral College is Here to Disabuse You of Your Democratic Naivete

22c0d-united-states-constitution

If you still have questions about the Electoral College I would encourage you to read Kevin Gannon‘s piece “Some Thoughts on the Electoral College.”

Here is a taste:

It’s hard to deny–impossible if you actually read the historical record–that the Electoral College was an attempt to avoid the democratic implications involved in creating an elected executive. It’s a particularly egregious antidemocratic kludge in a document full of antidemocratic kludges. Hell, James Madison proposed the system as a way around the “difficulty…of a serious nature” that southerners would encounter trying to protect their interests against a more populous tier of non-slaveholding states (see his speech onJuly 19). And the subsequent history of presidential elections has borne that out. If you have assumed that whoever gets the most votes wins the election, the Electoral College is here to disabuse you of your democratic naivete. There have been five presidential elections in which the winner of the popular vote did not become President by virtue of the Electoral College system, including this most recent election, where Hillary Clinton will not become president in spite of the fact that she won the popular vote by a larger margin than, for example, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon did in their electoral victories. And even though the three-fifths compromise no longer affects a state’s number of Electoral College votes, the legacy of slavery in terms of race-based voter disfranchisement still haunts the electoral process, in particular when those efforts in pivotal “swing states” like Wisconsin and North Carolina tip the Electoral College balance like they did in this canvass.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Emily Clark

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

JF: What led you to write A Luminous Brotherhood?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Emily!

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Harper

the-end-of-daysMatthew Harper is Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Mercer University. This interview is based on his new book, The End of Days: African American Religion and Politics in the Age of Emancipation (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).  

JF: What led you to write The End of Days?

MH: I was researching something else, what probably would have been an uninspired account of black institution building in the post-emancipation period, when I kept running across black writers’ references to the millennium or the end of days. Each time, I would make a note and tuck it away in a separate file. The small file kept growing, until eventually, it was bigger than my main file. I threw out the first project. And the more I dug into black political conversations after emancipation, the more I found talk of the end times, of God’s unfolding plan for human history. I couldn’t ignore it. I became fascinated with the experience of emancipation as a dramatic intervention by God. How did slaves imagine a social order drastically different from their own? How did they make sense of multiple reversals of fortunes in their own lifetime?

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The End of Days?

MH: Black Christians prophesied emancipation and when it occurred they became convinced they were living in the end of days when God would inaugurate a new era. In the following decades, when black southerners debated politics—be it a question of voting rights, land reform, temperance, Populism, migration, or segregation—they argued about what exactly they thought God had done and would do in human history; so we’d be hard-pressed to understand their politics without also understanding the theological meaning they gave emancipation.

JF: Why do we need to read The End of Days?

MH: In the political conversations I describe in the book, we see a lot of disagreement. Fist-fighting even, in one case. Black Christians argued about the meaning of emancipation, deployed competing biblical narratives to make sense of their circumstances, and chose quite different paths. I think it’s tempting to look at the sources, to see lots of references to biblical stories, and then to argue simply that religion helped inspire black political activism. We end up with monolithic descriptions of “the Black Church.” But if we do that, we skate right past what I argue is most interesting about religion and politics: that different religious ideas led to different political strategies. 

It’s also tempting to narrate the decades after emancipation as a long descent into the dark night of Jim Crow. But the people in my book resisted that kind of declension narrative. For them, God’s work in emancipation overshadowed the work of white supremacists. Even in the 1890s, they lived in the Age of Emancipation, and I hope we can tell a story that they would recognize.

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

MH: Strange as it may sound, I took a historiography class in high school, which cemented my desire to become a historian. But if you ask my mother, she’ll tell you that I was checking out African American history books from the library when I was 8. I was always curious about people. Growing up in small southern towns where schools were integrated and churches weren’t, I had plenty curiosity about religion and race. Reading stories about people and places were they only way I could get at the complexity of what I saw.

JF: What is your next project?

MH: It’s too early to give a precise answer, but I’m investigating the Baptist War in Jamaica in 1831. I’m still asking the question, how did slaves imagine a world radically different from their own? And there’s nothing more intriguing about the relationship between religion and politics to me than a black Baptist deacon leading an uprising of tens of thousands of slaves while the British Parliament debated abolition.

JF: Thanks, Matt!

The Author’s Corner with Rashauna Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Rashauna!

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Karp

ThisVastSouthernEmpire.jpgMatthew Karp is Assistant Professor of History and Elias Boudinot Bicentennial Preceptor at Princeton University. This interview is based on his new book, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Harvard University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write This Vast Southern Empire?

MK: It’s been a long time coming. My senior thesis in college was on Great Britain and the annexation of Texas, so I’ve been working with the main characters and events in this book for over a dozen years. Some people might say that a dozen years is a lot of time to spend with John Tyler and John C. Calhoun.

As a student, I think what stimulated my interest was an early sense of the open-endedness, the geopolitical uncertainty, that surrounded U.S. foreign relations in the 1840s and 1850s. For Americans, Texans, Mexicans, Indians, and Europeans, there was nothing inevitable about the process we still tend to call “western expansion.” The U.S. annexation of Texas, for instance, had to be organized, planned, managed. When I got to graduate school, and started looking into it more deeply, it struck me how many of these American organizers and managers of foreign policy—men like Tyler, Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis—were  slaveholding southerners. And often, the most powerful policymakers were not just run-of-the-mill southern politicians, but the country’ s most outspoken defenders of slavery. That seemed to warrant a fuller investigation.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of This Vast Southern Empire?

MK: The slaveholders who dominated antebellum American foreign policy were not sectional advocates of states’ rights, but ambitious empire-builders who saw the United States as the world’s leading champion of slavery. This Vast Southern Empire follows their strategic management of American expansion in the mid-nineteenth century, recovers their deep ideological confidence in the future of slave labor, and helps explain their ultimate decision to leave the Union in 1861.

JF: Why do we need to read This Vast Southern Empire?

MK: My book joins a wave of recent scholarship that has refocused our attention on antebellum slavery’s economic dynamism, its national and international reach, without in any way diminishing our sense of slavery’s enormous raw brutality. I think my book extends this work by exploring the geopolitical imagination of the South’s confident and prosperous slaveholding leaders.

Partly because the South lost the Civil War, we are accustomed to looking backward at the antebellum period from the perspective of Appomattox. Both scholars and the general public, I think, find it easy to imagine southern elites as provincial conservatives, hostile to the federal government and concerned above all with preserving their own social power at home. But the antebellum master class was very different: in many ways, they did not fear the federal government because they controlled the federal government. As guardians of U.S. foreign and military policy, they did not see a strong national state as a threat to their local power, but a tool to extend their international power.

In this sense, I think the book is important because it refuses to sectionalize the slave South. Slaveholding elites like U.S. Secretary of State Calhoun or U.S. Secretary of War Davis did not view themselves primarily as Southern partisans or crypto-Confederates. They saw themselves as Americans, and as proper leaders of the entire United States.

Most previous scholarship on slaveholders and foreign relations tends to focus on colorful but marginal figures like the filibuster William Walker, who led a private army to conquer Nicaragua in 1856. Walker’s story is fascinating, but it seems to me that putting weak and failed filibusters, separatists, or African slave traders at the center of the antebellum story can serve to exoticize the master class as a whole. My book concentrates instead on powerful national leaders like Calhoun and Davis—men whose fervent devotion to slavery did not, in their minds, make them anything less than the purest American patriots.

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

MK: When I decided I wasn’t really interested or able to become anything else—probably in my first year after college. I just wanted to keep reading what I had been reading as a history major, and I couldn’t figure out any other way to make that happen.

JF:  What is your next project?

MK: I’m beginning work on a new book with the hypothetical title The Radicalism of the Republican Party. I say hypothetical because it’s based on a hypothesis—that, given what we know now about slavery’s national power and international profitability, the antebellum Republican Party looks more unlikely and perhaps even more radical than most accounts give it credit for. But I’m just at the start of this project, so it remains to be seen whether the hypothesis will hold up through deeper reading and research.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!