The Author’s Corner with Loren Schweninger

9780190664282Loren Schweninger is Professor Emeritus of History at UNC Greensboro. This interview is based on his new book Appealing for Liberty: Freedom Suits in the South (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Appealing for Liberty?

LS: For many years I have been interested in freedom suits in the South, beginning in 1970 when I discovered a suit for a family–Thomas/Rapier–that became the basis for my doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago on James Rapier and Reconstruction.  During the period 1991 thru 2009 I headed a project titled “The Race and Petitions Project” at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (now on line at the University with some 60,000 “hits” each month and part of Proquest’s Slavery and the Law Collection”. Most of the freedom Suits in this study come from this collection.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Appealing for Liberty?

LS: The book argues that African Americans were involved in contacting lawyers and bringing the suits to court and that to a surprising degree many among them are successful, in about three fourths of the cases. 

JF: Why do we need to read Appealing for Liberty?

LS: Anyone interested in the African American experience, race relations, and the coming of the Civil War should be interested in this volume.

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

LS: I became an American historian in 1966 under to tutorship of John Hope Franklin, a life-long mentor and friend. I’m now a professor emeritus, retired in 2012, at the University where I taught African American history for forty years.

JF: What is your next project?

LS: With regard to my next project I’ve been thinking about an examination of Slavery and Freedom in the District of Columbia, but this is in its very early stages.

JF: Thanks, Loren!

Washington and Lee University in the Wake of Charlottesville

Lee College

One might expect that Washington and Lee University, a school named after George Washington and Robert E. Lee, might respond to the tragic events of Charlottesville 2017 by removing Lee from its name or removing on-campus memorials to the Confederate general.  According to Susan Svrluga’s piece at The Washington Post, this has not happened.  But other things have changed.

Here is a taste:

In the days after the Charlottesville conflict, the new president of the private university in Lexington, Va., William Dudley, convened a group and asked it “to lead us in an examination of how our history — and the ways that we teach, discuss, and represent it — shapes our community.”

As this school year began, Dudley announced the changes that would — and those that would not — take place on this storied campus, where traditions carry tremendous weight: The university will keep its name, Lee Chapel will remain an integral part of campus, and the school will find ways to tell its history more fully.

The school has begun a national search for a director of institutional history, a historian who will lead the design, construction and operation of a museum and oversee all of the school’s historical sites. The museum will be dedicated to the university’s many connections to American history. Dudley envisaged close collaborations with students and faculty members to create interactive exhibits, such as a campus walk, that would delve into lesser-known parts of the institution’s history — including the role of slavery.

The challenge for Washington and Lee was different from what other colleges confronted as they considered the fate of Confederate relics. Duke University removed a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee last year after it was vandalized. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, protesters recently toppled a monument to alumni who fought for the Confederacy. At Washington and Lee, named for two generals who helped the school endure and thrive, “they aren’t just honorifics,” the school’s president said. Both men played important, direct roles. And Lee is buried on the grounds.

Read the entire piece here.

Goodbye Silent Sam

In case you have not heard, last night protesters (apparently students) at the University of North Carolina pulled down a Confederate statue called “Silent Sam.”

A few quick comments:

  1. I support the spirit behind this act.  The statue needed to be removed from its prominent place on campus.
  2. I understand what Silent Sam stands for, and I oppose it, but I was bothered by the hate and rage I witnessed during this video.
  3. The UNC History Department has made an earlier statement about the monument.  The department proposed removing the monument from its prominent position on campus and moving it to an “appropriate place” where it could “become a useful historical artifact with which to teach the history of the university and its still incomplete mission to be ‘the People’s University.'”  I wish the UNC administration would have acted sooner on the UNC History Department’s recommendation.

Author’s Corner with Leigh Fought

FoughtLeigh Fought is Associate Professor of History at LeMoyne College.  This interview is based on her book Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisia S. McCord, due out in paperback in September 2018 with University of Missouri Press.

JF: What led you to write Southern Womanhood and Slavery?

LF: The not entirely glib answer is that I wanted to understand my grandmother, a powerful southern woman, who bore many traits of Louisa S. McCord, from the father-worship to the contradictions between her ideals and her life.  The serious answer is that I never bought Mary Chesnut’s lament about “poor slaves, poor women” or that southern women were closet abolitionists. Now, of course that has been entirely dissected in the historiography, but I wrote this manuscript back in the 1990s when much of that research was very new or developing. McCord captured my attention in a section of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Within the Plantation Household. Not only did she seem more true to a white woman of the planter class, but she was also a woman who married late and widowed early, controlled her own property after marriage, and counselled women to be the “conservative force” behind the scenes while publishing essays on unfeminine subjects like slavery and political economy. I wanted to know more. This became, to the best of my youthful abilities, the book that I wanted to read.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Southern Womanhood and Slavery

LF: Because this was my first book, taken from my dissertation, the implied argument was: “Please give me a PhD and publish my manuscript!” The real argument was that Louisa S. McCord was a female Fire-Eater, one of the Southern political essayists who defended slavery even to secession. She injected women into their white supremacist construction of society, insisting that, while women could match any man intellectually, they must remain subordinate to prevent the nation from descending into chaos because they did not have the physical capacity to control slaves or the working class.

JF: Why do we need to read Southern Womanhood and Slavery?

LF: At this moment in our national life a critical mass of people cannot escape the strains of race and gender that have defined our nation from its inception, and they echo those of Louisa McCord’s time. Indeed, many of the idols of her life have been resurrected in ours, but their purveyors attempting to strip or deny the reality of their historical contexts. At the same time, on the left, especially among white feminist, many editorial and columns ponder the perplexing issue of white women seeming to work against their own political interests.

Louisa McCord’s life and work illustrates aspects of these topics. She portrayed herself as a Roman matron in the cause of the Confederacy and, later, to the memory of the Confederacy, and she made perfectly clear that the Southern society defended by the Confederacy would not and could not exist without slavery. Her anti-woman’s rights position rested on privileges rather than rights. The ability of white men to exercise their rights without restriction would allow them to protect their dependents and thereby keep white women safe from other men, both black and white. She did not see the woman’s rights movement as empowering women to take care of themselves because, in a patriarchal slaveholding society, she understood physical violence as the decisive factor in maintaining order. Women, she believed, could not and should not wield that power. Race and class privilege, therefore, in her mind, came before the individual rights of gender for the preservation of civilization.

If you scratch the surface, of course, you find that she controlled the wealth in her marriage and was a widow for far longer than she was a wife. She found ways to use violence through overseers and the workhouse. She did not follow her own counsel on women remaining within their sphere, and others uniformly considered her a commanding presence. Indeed, many details of her upbringing resemble those of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s, she just took a decidedly different ideological road. She was a challenging woman to encounter as a subject.

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

LF: I may have decided to become a historian when I was in elementary school, watching Little House on the Prairie and Roots, visiting historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg, reading children’s biographies of Betsey Ross and Annie Oakley or children’s novels about slave girls and Laura Ingalls and captives among the Native Americans. Blame the Bicentennial. That “historian” was an actual job that a person could do did not occur to me until late in college. Then, I simply wanted to tell stories. Since I didn’t have the experience to make them up very well, I turned to history. The stories are already there, you just have to find them, which is even more fun. I especially wanted to learn about and to tell stories about the places where different people meet, be it in the borderlands, on slave plantations, or in a movement for racial justice. Half of those stories always seemed to be missing and mysterious, arousing my curiosity, while I was growing up so sheltered in the suburbs of Houston. I wanted to know the rest of the story, the whole story, and I wanted women to be the main characters.

JF: What is your next project?

LF: The project after Louisa McCord was a short history of Mystic, Connecticut, for a lay audience predominantly of tourists. The one after that was Women in the World of Frederick Douglass. Next, I’m considering either exploring nineteenth-century ideas of race and civilization through Frederick Douglass’s tour of Europe or Little House on the Prairie and the memory of the American borderlands. I’m leaning toward the latter at the moment. There is quite a bit on Laura Ingalls Wilder and her books, mostly within literary studies, but very little on the public history sites, television show, and other iterations of the story. I’m quite interested in the ways that the interpretations attempt to reconcile some of Wilder’s quite contemporary ideas about race and gender with more modern ones. I wonder at what point that becomes no longer possible. After all, the children’s literature award named for her was just un-named because of her racial depictions. I can’t say they were wrong in doing so.

JF: Thanks Leigh!

The History of the “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention

UneasyI am not a scholar of religion in the American South.  Nor am I an expert on the Southern Baptists or the so-called “conservative resurgence” in the 1980s.  But ever since I started writing posts about this whole Paige Patterson mess, people (mostly non-Southern Baptists) have been asking me for good books on the history of the conservative takeover of the Convention.

What scholarly books would you recommend on this subject?  Here are a few that I have found helpful over the years:

Nancy Ammerman, Baptist Battles

Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon

Barry Hankins and Thomas Kidd, Baptists in America: A History

A “Kanyefication of one of our most enduring national myths”

kanye-west

Writing at the Los Angeles Times, historian Kevin Waite connects Kanye West’s comments about slaves choosing slavery with Lost Cause myths about slavery.  Here is a taste:

Yet there’s an uncomfortable truth in West’s comment. Ill-informed though his views may be, they align alarmingly well with popular interpretations of American history.

The claim that slaves somehow consented to their own enslavement is a Kanyefication of one of our most enduring national myths. Depicted in fiction, film and even statuary, the “loyal slave” has persisted for more than a century and a half. The trope buttresses the so-called Lost Cause school of history, an intellectual movement celebrating the plantation South and exonerating it from any blame for the Civil War. Instead, that cataclysm is charged to the North, which destroyed a civilization that benefited masters and slaves alike — so goes the logic of Lost Cause propagandists.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Peter Moore

9781498569903.jpgPeter Moore is Professor of History at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. This interview is based on his new book, Archibald Simpson’s Unpeaceable Kingdom: The Ordeal of Evangelicalism in the Colonial South (Lexington Books, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Archibald Simpson’s Unpeaceable Kingdom: The Ordeal of Evangelicalism in the Colonial South?

PM: When I was a graduate student in the early stages of doing research on what would eventually become my dissertation/first book, I was exploring the mysterious death of William Richardson, an evangelical Presbyterian minister in backcountry South Carolina who had either (depending on the source) hanged himself, been murdered by an enemy, or died at his devotions. There was an account of his death in the diary of his coreligionist and close friend Archibald Simpson, which I found on microfilm in the wonderful archive of the now shuttered Presbyterian Historical Society in Montreat. The diary was not, to say the least, reader-friendly, but it seemed to have a lot of rich material for the social and religious history of the colonial lowcountry. So when I finished the first book, I decided to transcribe and edit Simpson’s diary, parts of which I published in 2012. The diary turned out to be even more amazing as a source than I could have imagined back in 1999, and since I was already so deep into the project, writing a cultural biography of Simpson was a logical next step.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Archibald Simpson’s Unpeaceable Kingdom: The Ordeal of Evangelicalism in the Colonial South?

PM: Evangelicals met with fierce opposition from all directions as they tried to impose an evangelical order on churches and communities in the late-colonial southern lowcountry. Despite the great midcentury revivals, the steady stream of religious dissenters who poured into the region, and all the noise evangelicals made about slave conversions, Simpson’s story suggests that there was no evangelical movement in colonial South Carolina, just a frustrating evangelical slog.

JF: Why do we need to read Archibald Simpson’s Unpeaceable Kingdom: The Ordeal of Evangelicalism in the Colonial South?

PM: This book is a microhistory of transatlantic evangelicalism. Although the heart of the argument deals with the colonial south, four of the ten chapters are set in southwestern Scotland, where Simpson grew up and where he died in 1795. Aside from engaging the debate over the significance of evangelicalism in the pre-Revolutionary American south, the book explores evangelicals’ inner world and the boundaries of religious experience, the really important role of pastoral care in building evangelicals’ credibility, the complicated relationship between evangelicals, slavery, and slaves, and the impact of the Revolutionary War on transatlantic communities, among other things. As a biography it treats these issues in an interesting narrative format. I should add that Simpson’s dour Presbyterian exterior masked his intense emotions, his sorrows and insecurities, and his rich inner life, all of which he poured into his diary. It was both challenging and fun to bring these out in the book, especially in the chapters on courtship and marriage (he was a really bad suitor) and when he runs away from George Whitefield’s orphanage.

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

PM: I was not a history major as an undergraduate, and when I made my first attempt at graduate school I studied religion, not history, at Vanderbilt University. One of my first classes was Jack Fitzmier’s seminar on Puritanism, which opened my eyes to the possibilities of religious history and the way it intersected with society, ideas, politics, culture, and psychology. While there I was also fortunate to be able to take two courses on Southern history from David Carleton in Vanderbilt’s history department, and I was hooked. I dropped out of the program, but when I grew up a bit more and returned to graduate school later at the University of Georgia, I was all about southern religious history. At a more personal level, my research projects have also been something of an exercise in working out questions about my own identity as a southerner, spirituality as a Christian, and notions of community and belonging.

JF: What is your next project?

PM: I am in the early stages of research on the failed attempt by Scottish Covenanters to plant a colony (Stuarts Town) in South Carolina in the mid-1680s. Some of this is familiar ground — Presbyterianism, religious history, colonial South Carolina — but much of it is new, a bit intimidating, and very exciting because it brings me into the seventeenth century, the Spanish borderlands, and Indian history.

JF: Thanks, Peter!

Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 2

Last temptation

Read Part 1 of this series here.  Read Gerson’s Atlantic piece here.

Anyone who reads my work knows that I am a big fan of George Marsden‘s essay “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category” in Wilfred McClay’s ed., Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, 2007).  In this essay, Marsden writes: “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems to increasingly confirm it.”

In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image and thus have value, worth, and dignity.  More specifically, the Christian faith teaches that all human beings–past and present–are important because Jesus Christ died for their sins.  People have dignity because they are eligible for redemption.  For Christians, history should drive us to hope in the eschatological culmination of our redemption. It should instill in us a longing for a time when there will be no more sin and suffering.

Sin, the imago Dei, and the Christian understanding of hope and redemption inform my work as a historian.  When I do my work I should not be surprised that human beings are flawed and do horrible things.  I should also not be surprised when men and women perform acts that might be described as heroic or just.  Such acts bear witness to the fact that they are created in God’s image.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have sinned.  They have failed to live according to New Testament standards.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have lived-out their faith in acts of mercy, justice, and love.  Yes and yes.

In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery.  We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools.  All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.

But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past.  They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation.  The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.

Gerson needs to be careful about asking us to return to an evangelical golden age when all born-again and revived Christians were truly living-out the justice-oriented message of Jesus.  His historical analysis in this piece is only half right.  But having said that, I am willing to give him a pass since there is only so much one can do in an essay format.  As I said in my first post in this series, “The Last Temptation” is a very good piece.

More to come.

The Author’s Corner with Enrico Dal Lago

9781107038424_1Enrico Dal Lago is Professor of American History at National University of Ireland Galway. This interview is based on his new book, Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy?

EDL: I was always fascinated by the historical parallelisms between the United States and Italy in terms of having a comparable past of difference and conflict between the north and the south of the country. My first book – Agrarian Elites: American Slaveholders and Southern Italian Landowners, 1815-1861 (LSU Press, 2005) – was a comparison between the propertied classes of the two southern regions of the United States and Italy, and other scholars, notably Don Doyle, have also written about parallelisms between the U.S. South and southern Italy. However, no scholar had ever written a comparative study of the civil wars that the conflict between north and south caused in the United States and Italy in the same years in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1861-65, contemporaneous to the American Civil War, fought between a northern-based Union and a southern-based Confederacy, a civil war was also fought in southern Italy, largely between northern and southern Italians. My book is the first comparative study of these two civil wars. I felt that it was an important gap in the comparative scholarship on the United States and Italy that needed to be filled in order to acquire an in-depth understanding of the significance of the parallelisms represented by the north vs. south conflict in the two countries. The importance of these parallelisms is further confirmed by the fact that, in both the United States and Italy, the long-term legacy of the outcome of the civil war – which, in both cases, led to a fracture and then a reconciliation between the northern and southern parts of the country – is still very much present and has witnessed a surge in national interest since the parallel commemorations of the 150 years from the start of the American Civil War and from Italian national unification, in 2011.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy?

EDL: My book argues that the two parallel civil wars in the United States and Italy in 1861-65 had comparable origins in attempts by two regional propertied elites to be instrumental in the creation of two new nations – the Confederate States of America and the Kingdom of Italy – which protected their interests at the expense of the majority of the two southern populations. The resistance to Confederate authority, carried out in the Confederate South by large numbers of Unionists, and especially by African American slaves, and the parallel and contemporaneous resistance carried out by large number of peasants and soldiers attached to the former Bourbon dynasty in southern Italy produced two parallel “inner civil wars” in the two southern regions, and eventually resulted in the collapse on the Confederacy and in the near collapse of the Italian Kingdom, and also in a temporary loss of power for the two regional elites.

JF: Why do we need to read Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy?

EDL: Not only my book is the first comparative study of the American and Italian civil wars of 1861-65; it is also the first comparative study that builds upon the most recent scholarly tendencies of focusing on the Confederate South’s “inner civil war” to argue that comparable “inner civil wars” occurred, as happened in Italy, wherever a process of forcible nation-building from above took place during the course of the nineteenth century. Inevitably, the outcome of this process could only be either the complete collapse or the near collapse of the new nation, as the examples of the Confederacy and of the Italian Kingdom clearly show. Crucially, for the majorities of the two groups of southern agrarian workers – African American slaves and landless southern Italian peasants – who were in conditions of dependency from masters and landlords, the “inner civil wars” in the Confederate South and southern Italy represented major opportunities to strike at their oppressors, by allying with anti-Confederate Unionists in one case and with the anti-Italian pro-Bourbon forces in the other case, and with the two primary and distinct, but parallel and comparable, objectives of acquiring legal emancipation and economic independence. My book shows, though, that, ultimately, complete freedom was indissolubly tied, for both African American slaves and southern Italian peasants, to ownership of land. My book shows also that this aspiration, common to all nineteenth-century agrarian workers, was frustrated in both cases, leading to continuous conditions of dependency for the African American freedpeople and the southern Italian peasants, and, also in both cases, these conditions lasted until long after the end of the two civil wars.

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

EDL: The long-term origins of my fascination with American History have a lot to do with the many American movies – starting from Gone with the Wind – and American TV Series – among which Roots and North and South – I watched in Italy, where I was born and I spent the first twenty-five years of my life. The actual decision to become an American historian, though, came somewhat later, during the course of my postgraduate studies, when I became progressively aware of the historical parallelisms between the United States and Italy to which I referred earlier with regard to the conflictual relationship between the north and the south of the two countries. As a result of this growing awareness, I thought that I could understand better the significance of these parallelisms if I studied in depth the history of the United States in the Civil War era, and this eventually became my main field of research.

JF: What is your next project?

EDL: I am planning to write a follow-up comparative study which will focus on the aftermath of the two parallel civil wars in the U.S. South and southern Italy. In my comparison, I will look specifically at the extent of continuity vs. change with regards to labor relations in the agrarian countryside. I am especially interested in the rise of illegal, and in one case paramilitary, forms of agrarian violence as tools for the protection of the interests of the agrarian elites – i.e., the former southern slaveholders and the southern Italian landowners – and as a means to keep the agrarian workers – i.e., the African American freedpeople and the southern Italian peasants – in continuous states of subjection in the Reconstruction U.S. South and southern Italy after 1865.

JF: Thanks, Enrico!

The Author’s Corner with Robert Ferguson

51tsc6ALGHL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Robert Ferguson is Assistant Professor of History at Western Carolina University. This interview is based on his new book, Remaking the Rural South: Interracialism, Christian Socialism, and Cooperative Farming in Jim Crow Mississippi (University of Georgia Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Remaking the Rural South?

RF: This book was adapted from a dissertation I wrote while a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I knew when I arrived to UNC that I wanted to research race relations in the rural South. After discussing ideas with my advisor, Fitzhugh Brundage, he suggested that I meet with the archivists at the Southern Historical Collection which housed on UNC’s campus. When I told them my very general and undeveloped plans for a dissertation, they showed me the 11.5 linear feet of documents they had pertaining to two intentional, interracial communities in rural Mississippi at the height of the Jim Crow era. I was hooked. Thank goodness for archivists!

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Remaking the Rural South?

RF: Focusing on two interracial, Christian socialist communities in the rural South, the book argues that former sharecroppers and their allies enacted significant cultural shifts that placed their communities in the vanguard of human rights struggles in the 1930s to the 1950s. From the Great Depression to the civil rights movement, residents of Delta Cooperative Farm and Providence Farm acted out moments of modification that created egalitarian, democratic communities and which were ultimately quashed by white massive resistance to the black freedom struggle.

JF: Why do we need to read Remaking the Rural South?

RF: In times of national polarization, history doesn’t have to be a weight that paralyzes us. We should never look at the world and say, “well, it’s always been that way” and then go about our days weighted down by an ahistorical, erroneous understanding of the past while doing nothing about the present. Rather, history can liberate us when we understand that in the face of overwhelming hardships—such as, say, the Great Depression or Jim Crow—historical actors have posed radical changes and set about achieving those changes.

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

RF: My father and grandmother were high school history teachers. I grew up in a house where the past was part of our daily conversations. We loved good stories. We especially loved uplifting stories. And while the past is full of astonishing tragedy, it can also be the source of inspiration. By the time I was a teenager, I was already reading about the civil rights movement and other minority freedom struggles that allowed me to imagine alternatives to the sometimes problematic race relations I witnessed growing up. Even now, as a historian, writer, and teacher, I seek out the stories of everyday Americans who have struggled against the status quo. If my readers and students find some inspiration there, all the better.

JF: What is your next project?

RF: I’m currently working on an environmental and economic history of how the boom and eventual bust of twentieth century industries have lead to a new era in southern history. In particular, by looking at industries that have relied on harnessing water – textiles, energy, and beer – I argue that while most of the twentieth century experienced almost unfettered industrial growth, since the 1970s many small towns across the region have begun to resemble the Rust Belt rather than the Sunbelt, complete with environmental degradation and economic decline.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

The Author’s Corner with John Hayes

51eS3fj0YsL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_John Hayes is associate professor of History at Augusta University. This interview is based on his new book, Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: The original idea was to see if, as a Southern historian, I could find real-world evidence for the imaginative landscape of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction—if I could demonstrate that O’Connor, with her literary insight, had evoked something real but perhaps opaque to historians. As I moved into the project, I realized that the type of Christianity embodied in her middle-class characters was well analyzed in the historiography; it was the Christianity of her poor characters (her primary characters) that had little presence in the scholarship beyond a few hints and fragments. The book is my attempt to excavate this distinct Christianity of the poor and to interpret it in its context.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: In the circumscribed world of the New South, poor whites and poor blacks exchanged songs, stories, lore, visual displays, and other cultural forms with each other, crafting a distinct folk Christianity that spoke from the underside of regional capitalism. Their folk Christianity was a fragile but real space of interracial exchange and a fervent attempt to grasp the sacred in earthy, this-worldly ways.

JF: Why do we need to read Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: 

* It’s the first historical monograph on folk Christianity in the American South.

* In the face of a culture that continues the well-established tradition of denigrating and dismissing the poor, it shows the inner complexity, cultural creativity, and rich interiority of the poor of a certain time and place.

* It complicates what we think we know about religious life in the American South, especially by debunking the abiding trope of religious homogeneity on either side of the color line.

* In the face of scholarship that insists that Jim Crow was the culture of the New South, it argues for the fragile but real presence of interracial religious exchange among the poor.

* Where else, in the pages of a single volume, can you read about haunting songs of personified Death, anti-Mammon odes to the Titanic, and praying spots deep in the woods; about cows kneeling in reverence on Old Christmas night, graves decorated with bedsteads and grandfather clocks, and initiates emerging from imminent death to the sights and sounds of bright green trees and birds chirping away?

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

JH: I had an a-ha moment a few years after college: I realized that history was a way to take the abstract philosophical/theological questions that obsessed me and pursue them in concrete, tangible form—to explore the “big questions” not in open potentiality but in flesh-and-blood actuality. That was the initial impulse, but as I’ve worked as a historian I’ve also come to see another impulse that was there at the outset, but subconsciously: history is crucial for understanding identity. Nothing falls from the sky; everything has a story behind it. I’ve driven to seek the stories behind our society so that I can make sense of it. To know the past is to get a handle on the present.

JF: What is your next project?

JH: It’s very much in the coalescing stage, but I want to look at religion in “moments of possibility” before and after the circumscribed world of Hard, Hard Religion: in Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. In both moments, sacralized social structures were being destabilized, and new religious conceptions had to emerge—though what exactly they would look like was very much an open question. That’s a very different context from my book, where poor people carve out meaning within stable, confining social structures.

JF: Thanks, John!

Southern Porches

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A.D. Miller writes about them over at The Economist.  Here is a taste of his piece “Southern Comfort“:

Like many of America’s traditions, especially in the South, the porch is at once derivative and indigenous, a synthesis of multifarious influences into an American original. Some architectural historians think the concept was imported with and by west-African slaves. But other iterations of the same idea – a shaded outdoor space beside a too-stuffy house – have also been implicated: Italian loggias, Greco-Roman porticos, English colonnades, early colonial architecture in the Caribbean. Spain and France contributed latticed ironwork and other refinements; later came Gothic arches and the turrets and gables of high Victoriana. In the mid-19th century they were incorporated by housebuilders across the country, but in the South they were older and ubiquitous.

They have never been quite as innocent as I wanted them to be. Hybrid in origin, in its history and associations the porch is paradoxical. To begin with, it is at once public and reclusive. Like a negligée, it seems alluringly to lay bare a home, a family, its secrets, but also withholds them, the life that is out of sight somehow more opaque by being half-revealed – especially when, as many of the best porches do, it wraps around a house’s façade to make a zone of shady, unseen repose. And, while the neighbours might be able to see what you are doing on the porch, and with whom, your parents inside cannot.

Unsurprisingly, this has always been a place for courtship and assignations, in life and in art. “Sittin’ on the front porch on a summer afternoon,” Dolly Parton sings in “My Tennessee Mountain Home”; “And when the folks ain’t lookin’, you might steal a kiss or two.” Many of the romantic crises in “Gone with the Wind” occur on the porch. We meet Scarlett O’Hara, with her 17-inch waist, being courted by twins on Tara’s. From it she fatefully watches Ashley Wilkes riding up to the plantation and falls in love with him. Rhett Butler first propositions her on a porch in Atlanta, just before Scarlett sees the city burn.

Read the rest here.

The Women Behind the Lost Cause

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Over at The New York Times, historian Karen Cox tells the story of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the role the organization played in instilling “Southern white youth a reverence for Confederate principles.”

Here is a taste of her piece “The Confederacy’s ‘Living Monuments’“:

The Daughters’ primary objective, however, was to instill in Southern white youth a reverence for Confederate principles. Indeed, they regarded their efforts to educate children as their most important work as they sought, in their words, to build “living monuments” who would grow up to defend states’ rights and white supremacy.

Members of the U.D.C. developed a multipronged approach to educating white children about the “truth” of the “War Between the States.” They developed lesson plans for teachers, a number of whom were members of the organization. They placed pro-Confederate books in school and public libraries, which they insisted students use when they competed in U.D.C.-sponsored essay contests. They led students in the celebration of Robert E. Lee’s life on his birthday and placed portraits of Confederate heroes, festooned with the battle flag, in classrooms across the South and even in some schools outside of the region. They also formed Children of the Confederacy chapters for boys and girls ages 6 to 16, intended to serve as a pipeline for membership in both the U.D.C. and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a parallel organization.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Donald Mathews

Altar Cover.jpgDonald Mathews is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  This interview is based on his new book At the Altar of Lynching: Burning Sam Hose in the American South (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: In preparing to write a sequel to Religion in the Old South, I realized that lynching and religious participation in institutions, collective action, and media were increasing at the same time. I discovered an article by a former minister’s wife, Corra Harris, defending the lynching of a laborer called Sam Hose in 1899. At about the same time I was asked to write an essay on why I [born in Idaho] wrote about religion in the South. The short answer was, I realized: “Because my grandfather was lynched for defending a black family from being lynched.” He wasn’t exactly “lynched,” to be sure, because he survived a beating that damaged his brain, soul, and wealth. My father, however, remembered the event as a “lynching” and his family lived with the psychological fallout from my grandfather’s encounter with American populism and violence. Christians had seized him at prayer and destroyed his life. I thought I should think about Harris’s defense of violence within the context of her religious life and that of people like her.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: Religion enveloped the burning of Tom Wilkes: participants lived it, they shouted it, they enacted it in a grotesque carnival of violence and celebration. Tom Wilkes was not Christ, but his burning as Sam Hose was supposed to resolve matters far beyond and above homicide and rape: black equality, black autonomy, black defiance: His burning was thus a sacrifice to the savage god of White Supremacy.

JF: Why do we need to read At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: “Need” is subjective and I find it difficult to tell anyone what they need. I do invite them

* To understand the historical background of violence against African Americans;

* To understand the religious character of segregation as Lillian Smith understood it;

* To understand how the culture of White Supremacy criminalized black people, used sex and gender to create lies about American society and blacks, and how popular white religion was caught up in those lies;

* To think about how people of African descent condemned the lies told about them, how they were so alienated from the white-controlled “criminal justice system” built on those lies that they could see the execution even of those who were actually guilty of capital crimes as “crucifixions”;

* To understand why W E B Du Bois and concerned white clerics thought of lynching as “crucifixion”;

* To understand how the human compulsion to make signal acts as meaningful as possible even when they are illegal reveals the human capacity for making religious even the most heinous acts imaginable.

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

DM: In college I was always interested in American history; I can’t explain the why of that. In seminary, I was transfixed by the implications of two things Helmut Richard Niebuhr said in class: 1) The first question to be asked when addressing ethical issues, he noted, was “What is/was happening?” 2) When we think of the meaning of the Cross and crucifixion, he once said, we have to sift that meaning through the “Gas ovens. . .” That second comment is one of the most penetrating observations I have ever heard. The first one was prelude. I have to add, I suppose as confession, that I fully understand the homiletic style of my writing. Gene Genovese in a passing conversation once asked me partially in jest, partially in criticism, “Are you ever going to stop preaching?” I answered as I laughed, “No. I guess not.” He replied, “I didn’t think so.” And we went off to a seminar at the National Humanities Center.

JF: What is your next project?

DM: I hope to think about how the memory of violence against a loved one or family member affects those who struggle with its effects. There is a growing number of important books or articles on the memory of lynching, and I need to read as many as I can and come to terms with them. I suspect this is an article, but it could be a small book. I had thought to follow up on an article I wrote about the suicide of a Methodist minister in 1910 as a way to get inside the traumas of “modernity” and I may still do that.

JF: Thanks, Donald!

A Young Confederate is Transformed by the Study of History

DewOver at History News Network, Robin Lindley interviews noted Civil War historian Charles Dew.  (On a personal note, I am using Dew’s Apostle of Disunion in my Civil War America course this semester).

The interview centers on Dew’s 2016 book The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade.

Here is a taste of Lindley’s introduction to the interview:

Professor Dew illustrates how he and generations of white southerners were poisoned by racism as if by osmosis, a word he uses advisedly to describe his own experience growing up with demeaning images of African Americans and rules that penalized and dehumanized them at every turn. He explores the vexing issue of how otherwise seemingly admirable people, including members of his own family, could embrace the odious tenets of white supremacy and the oppression of others.

But Professor Dew also describes his evolution from a “young Confederate” to an outspoken critic of racism, thanks in large part to his education at Williams College, and particularly his study of history. He details how he became a scholar of the South and its deeply conflicted past, and how that study revealed the noxious, insidious influence of white supremacist ideas that has poisoned whites there since the dawn of slavery.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Robin Lindley: I was surprised that your father, with his Jim Crow ideas, encouraged you to go to college at Williams in the far North.

Professor Charles Dew: Looking back on it, it does seem strange, but on the other hand I think he thought, as I say in the book, that the armor in which we were clad as Southerners was impenetrable and we could come to a New England college and, as he would say, we’d learn to speak well and write well and get a good liberal arts education. Then we would come back south with our cultural norms intact. It didn’t work that way. I think he anticipated that what he called “our Southern roots” were so firmly implanted that they weren’t going to be uprooted by four years of college in New England.

Robin Lindley: But your racist beliefs were uprooted, and your evolution—the unmaking of your racism–is a marvelous part of your story. What were a couple of incidents or moments that were particularly eye opening for you?

Professor Charles Dew: The experience of having an African American classmate and having someone I went to the dining halls with. We were in the same freshman vertical entry in the dormitory. You did a lot of things together with the kids in your entry. There were two senior advisors who lived in the entry with us and they planned activities for us together.

I was reacting as a social equal for the first time in my life with a person of color. I mention telling that dialect joke as my classmate walked down the stairs outside the dorm room in which I was telling this. I was so humiliated; I stopped and never told another joke like that in my life. I made a point of introducing myself to him a day or two later. I had to find out if he heard me. I was so upset. As I said, my mother had taught us not to humiliate anybody, and never to humiliate ourselves, and I thought I had done both. He didn’t let on that he had heard. We shook hands. That was the first time I’d shaken hands across the color line. I was 17 years old.

That was a profound experience for me. I started seeing things I hadn’t noticed before about Jim Crow customs in the South. I mention the curtain being pulled across the dining car on the train as it was going south. I had never noticed that before.

Just being in an educational institution in the North where I had classmates who were African American was life altering. I didn’t come out of that culture all that fast. It was a step or two forward, a step or two back. I still am puzzled by how blind I was to a lot.

I evolved with some tardiness, but I did evolve, and by my senior year, I was fully out from under. And that’s where those conversations with Illinois were so important. That’s the final thing that led me to break free from the racism that I had been raised under.

Robin Lindley: How did you come to study history and then to specialize in the history of the South and slavery?

Professor Charles Dew: I was fascinated by the South. Most boys who grew up in the South dream of Civil War battles, but I had some great teachers at Williams—historians who got me hooked on history, first as a major and then as something to study to understand Southern history.

I was fascinated by the region and I also began to ask questions about the South that I had never asked before. How did we come to embrace slavery? What caused the Civil War? How did the Jim Crow South evolve in the period after Reconstruction? I read a lot of C. Vann Woodward as an undergraduate and that made me want to go to Johns Hopkins and study with him, which I did.

So I think it was being fascinated with the South and its culture and history and absorbing that Confederate mythology and having that pretty well smashed to bits when I was studying it in college. So, instead of going to law school like everyone else in the family, I decided I wanted to go to grad school. It was a question of my growing up there and being fascinated by the South and then being educated about it in college in ways that were brand new to me. And just wanting to understand the region, which I still find fascinating and still find challenging.

Read the entire interview here.

Eric Foner: Robert E. Lee’s “Legend” Needs to be “Retired”

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Yesterday’s New York Times is running a piece by Columbia University historian Eric Foner on the legacy of Robert E. Lee.  Foner’s focus is on how Lee became a “legend” in the minds of the post-Civil War South and how his “legend” became wound-up with the so-called Dunning School of Reconstruction.  This is classic Foner.

Here is a taste:

Historians in the first decades of the 20th century offered scholarly legitimacy to this interpretation of the past, which justified the abrogation of the constitutional rights of Southern black citizens. At Columbia University, William A. Dunning and his students portrayed the granting of black suffrage during Reconstruction as a tragic mistake. The Progressive historians — Charles Beard and his disciples — taught that politics reflected the clash of class interests, not ideological differences. The Civil War, Beard wrote, should be understood as a transfer of national power from an agricultural ruling class in the South to the industrial bourgeoisie of the North; he could tell the entire story without mentioning slavery except in a footnote. In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of mostly Southern historians known as the revisionists went further, insisting that slavery was a benign institution that would have died out peacefully. A “blundering generation” of politicians had stumbled into a needless war. But the true villains, as in Lee’s 1856 letter, were the abolitionists, whose reckless agitation poisoned sectional relations. This interpretation dominated teaching throughout the country, and reached a mass audience through films like “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Klan, and “Gone With the Wind,” with its romantic depiction of slavery. The South, observers quipped, had lost the war but won the battle over its history.

As far as Lee was concerned, the culmination of these trends came in the publication in the 1930s of a four-volume biography by Douglas Southall Freeman, a Virginia-born journalist and historian. For decades, Freeman’s hagiography would be considered the definitive account of Lee’s life. Freeman warned readers that they should not search for ambiguity, complexity or inconsistency in Lee, for there was none — he was simply a paragon of virtue. Freeman displayed little interest in Lee’s relationship to slavery. The index to his four volumes contained 22 entries for “devotion to duty,” 19 for “kindness,” 53 for Lee’s celebrated horse, Traveller. But “slavery,” “slave emancipation” and “slave insurrection” together received five. Freeman observed, without offering details, that slavery in Virginia represented the system “at its best.” He ignored the postwar testimony of Lee’s former slave Wesley Norris about the brutal treatment to which he had been subjected. In 1935 Freeman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography.

That same year, however, W. E. B. Du Bois published “Black Reconstruction in America,” a powerful challenge to the mythologies about slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction that historians had been purveying. Du Bois identified slavery as the fundamental cause of the war and emancipation as its most profound outcome. He portrayed the abolitionists as idealistic precursors of the 20th-century struggle for racial justice, and Reconstruction as a remarkable democratic experiment — the tragedy was not that it was attempted but that it failed. Most of all, Du Bois made clear that blacks were active participants in the era’s history, not simply a problem confronting white society. Ignored at the time by mainstream scholars, “Black Reconstruction” pointed the way to an enormous change in historical interpretation, rooted in the egalitarianism of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and underpinned by the documentary record of the black experience ignored by earlier scholars. Today, Du Bois’s insights are taken for granted by most historians, although they have not fully penetrated the national culture.

Read the entire piece here.

Mississippi Historians: “Take the Flag Down!”

Mississippi State Flag

From the Jackson Free Press:

As college professors, we have watched events of the past few days in Charlottesville and around the country while preparing for a new semester. We know that students in our classes will bring many questions and perspectives about this moment in history. They will look for us to comment on a response from the president that many Republicans and Democrats alike found deeply troubling and insufficient. They will wonder why many white nationalists and racist groups feel empowered at this moment in time. We have our work cut out for us.

In turn, we are also historians in and of the state of Mississippi, where white massive resistance to black advancement has been the norm for 200 years. It is now incumbent upon us to take the strongest of stands against the white supremacist establishment in this nation and in this state and put this recent wave of white nationalism in historical context.

With that in mind, it is long past time for the emblem identified with the Confederate States of America to be removed from the state flag of Mississippi. This flag does not reflect the entirety of the state’s history and people. It ignores the reality of the African American experience, and it limits the scope of what Mississippi has been, is and can be.

Historians have long held that the Civil War was fought for the right of southern states to maintain and expand the institution of slavery. In declaring their support for the Confederacy, Mississippi’s leaders clearly stated in the secession ordinance of 1860, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. … A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”

Read the rest here.  The statement was signed by over thirty historians from Mississippi colleges and universities including the following friends of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Alison Greene, Otis Pickett, Daren Grem, and Patrick Connelly.

W.E.B. Du Bois on Robert E. Lee

Du Bois EssaysThanks to Kevin Levin for posting this on his excellent blog Civil War Memory.  DuBois’s thoughts on Lee were published in 1928.

Here is the entire short essay:

Each year on the 19th of January there is renewed effort to canonize Robert E. Lee, the greatest confederate general. His personal comeliness, his aristocratic birth and his military prowess all call for the verdict of greatness and genius. But one thing–one terrible fact–militates against this and that is the inescapable truth that Robert E. Lee led a bloody war to perpetuate slavery. Copperheads like the New York Times may magisterially declare: “of course, he never fought for slavery.” Well, for what did he fight? State rights? Nonsense. The South cared only for State Rights as a weapon to defend slavery. If nationalism had been a stronger defense of the slave system than particularism, the South would have been as nationalistic in 1861 as it had been in 1812.

No. People do not go to war for abstract theories of government. They fight for property and privilege and that was what Virginia fought for in the Civil War. And Lee followed Virginia. He followed Virginia not because he particularly loved slavery (although he certainly did not hate it), but because he did not have the moral courage to stand against his family and his clan. Lee hesitated and hung his head in shame because he was asked to lead armies against human progress and Christian decency and did not dare refuse. He surrendered not to Grant, but to Negro Emancipation.

Today we can best perpetuate his memory and his nobler traits not by falsifying his moral debacle, but by explaining it to the young white south. What Lee did in 1861, other Lees are doing in 1928. They lack the moral courage to stand up for justice to the Negro because of the overwhelming public opinion of their social environment. Their fathers in the past have condoned lynching and mob violence, just as today they acquiesce in the disfranchisement of educated and worthy black citizens, provide wretchedly inadequate public schools for Negro children and endorse a public treatment of sickness, poverty and crime which disgraces civilization.

It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right. it is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel–not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.