The Author’s Corner With Matthew Clavin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: What is your next project?

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

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

The Author’s Corner With Bryan Rindfleisch

GalphinBryan Rindfleisch is Assistant Professor of History at Marquette University.  This interview is based on his new book George Galphin’s Intimate Empire: The Creek Indians, Family & Colonialism in Early America (University of Alabama Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write George Galphin’s Intimate Empire?

BR: The idea for the book started with a one-off conversation I had with my mentor – Joshua Piker – as a second semester doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma. I was toying with all sorts of different ideas for a dissertation project, but none of them really stuck. Then, Josh mentioned “George Galphin” and how curious this one man’s life was, who popped up all over the place in the documentary record related to the Creek (Muscogee) Indians and European empires in the eighteenth-century, but only leaving fragmentary details along the way. Josh said something to the effect of “see what you can find out about him,” and from there I ran headlong down the rabbit hole. My first research seminar paper revolved around Galphin and the Lower Creek towns of Coweta and Cusseta during the American Revolution, and it was at that point I knew I had something. Yet in the course of my research over the next seven years, I discovered that the story was not about Galphin per se, but about the multitude of family members – immediate and extended relatives who were Creek Indian, African American, Irish, and Anglo-French – that he surrounded himself with throughout his life. And in a sense, I’ve been living with the Galphin family ever since.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of George Galphin’s Intimate Empire

BR: Among the several arguments I make in the book, the most important is that empire and colonization were far from impersonal processes, but intensely intimate and revolved around the families who made the empire possible or real on the ground, and these families were oftentimes intercultural. I also demonstrate how Creek peoples, and Native Americans writ large for that matter, are not only essential parts of the early American story, but critical partners – at times even purveyors of empire – as much as they were opponents of empire in the eighteenth century, because of the family/kinship ties they fostered with imperial subjects like Galphin.

JF: Why do we need to read George Galphin’s Intimate Empire?

BR: While I’d love to say that everyone needs to read my book, that’s a pipe dream. First of all, it’s a first book and – of course – there are stories left out, ideas unrealized, and other things that I am sure book reviewers will point out soon enough (half-joking). And while I hope my arguments speak to the broader field of early American history, I’m also engaging with a particular niche in early American and Native American history: the American and Native Souths. However, the book grapples with a number of themes and events that are relevant to many audiences, be it family and kinship, immigration, empire and colonization, intercultural relationships and violence, slavery, the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, among others.

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

BR: I only gravitated toward history as an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire because I learned the hard way that I didn’t want to be an elementary school teacher! I believed I was “good” at history in high school – yes, the memorization of events and dates – and like many of our undergraduate students, I was obsessed with World War II and other global conflicts, therefore I decided to major in history. It was only when I took Native American History with Richard St. Germaine (Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe) that I realized how flawed my understanding of history was, as he literally threw my world upside down. Because of St. Germaine, I double-majored in American Indian Studies and history, and knew that I wanted to educate others in the same way that he had re-educated me.

JF: What is your next project?

BR: I’m currently working on two book projects. The first revolves around the intra-Indigenous connections – kinship, cultural, ceremonial, political, economic, linguistic, etc. – between the Creek and Cherokee peoples during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I’m hoping for this project to be an intervention of sorts in Native American and early American history, by reorienting scholars’ attention to the intra-Indigenous world that existed side-by-side, and at times proved more important than, the Indigenous-European world.

The second project is a microhistory focusing on a particular Creek family over the course of the eighteenth-century, to illustrate the various themes and events that defined the Indigenous/Creek and early American worlds. This book is an outgrowth of my frustrations as a teacher, in which undergraduate students often have a hard time investing themselves in a distant past (early America) or unfamiliar histories (Native America). Over the past couple of years, though, I realized that the particular stories I tell about Native America and early America matter a great deal (duh!), as students more readily embrace stories and the individuals within those stories to understand such histories. This project is my attempt to do the same in my writing/research, by following two Creek brothers – Escotchaby and Sempoyaffee of Coweta – and their family and clan relatives to illustrate the many themes and events that defined the Native American and early American worlds, as well as the profound transformations ushered in by the Seven Years’ War and American Revolution to both Indigenous and early American worlds.

JF: Thanks, Bryan!

Flannery O’Connor on the Lost Cause

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Check out Peter Candler‘s piece at The Christian Century on a little-known Flannery O’Connor short story in which she wrestles with memory and history in the South.  Here is a taste of his piece, “Flannery O’Connor’s challenge to the Lost Cause myths of the Confederacy.”

Propping up an illusory history has a price, and not just on balance sheets. The human cost of such self-deception is the subject of an early and little-known story by Flannery O’Connor, “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.” Originally published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1953 and included in A Good Man Is Hard to Find two years later, the story is about the ways in which the burdens of history, when honestly confronted, can bring not enlightenment but devastation.

“Late Encounter” is barely ten pages in the Library of America edition. It is hardly one of her major works (O’Connor described it as “not so bad”), and it rarely figures in critical studies of her work. But it is notable for being the only piece of her fiction that directly treats the Civil War and its legacy. The story is only superficially about the war, though; it is really about the way in which the war is—or is not—remembered. It is a story about memory and the deep conflict between public commemoration, sectarian mythology, and historical reality.

“Late Encounter” is structurally simple: there is a single main scene framing one flashback. Sally Poker Sash is about to attend her college graduation, the joyful fruit of a protracted education spread out over 20 summers while she was teaching school. It’s such a big deal that she has invited her 104-year-old grandfather, a Confederate veteran, to attend in full military dress. Sally arranges for him to sit up on stage—not so that he will have a good view of the proceedings but because she wants him to be seen: “she wanted to show what she stood for, or, as she said, ‘what all was behind her,’ and was not behind them. This them was not anybody in particular. It was just all the upstarts who had turned the world on its head and unsettled the ways of decent living.” She wants the crowd to see him, and herself through him—“Glorious upright old man stand-in for the old traditions! Dignity! Honor! Courage!”—as a rebuke to their wanton ways.

And here is Candler’s conclusion:

What if history is not at all the way we prefer to remember it? Could it be that monuments—not just public ones but also those our own personal histories are made of—are tokens of a tacit agreement to forget certain difficult truths? Directed both generally at an inveterate human skill for self-deception and specifically at the mythology of the Lost Cause, the question that O’Connor’s “Late Encounter” puts to the reader is both blunt and surgical: What if you are wrong about what it is you think you were fighting for?

Read the entire piece here.

Historicizing “Sweet Home Alabama”

Most of us know Lynyrd Skynryd’s southern anthem “Sweet Home Alabama.”  I used to teach the song in my Civil War America course using Jim Cullen’s book The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past.

But what is this song actually about?  I thought it was obvious.  I still think it’s pretty obvious. But Felix Contreras’s piece at NPR made me think in a more nuanced way about the song.  Here is a taste:

In a way, the song began as a contradiction: It was written by two guys from Florida and one from California, none of whom ever lived in Alabama. So where did members of Lynyrd Skynyrd get the gumption to write about a state they had only driven through? In part, it was because a Canadian got there first. Neil Young’s song “Southern Man,” released in 1971, took the entire South to task for the bloody history of slavery and its aftermath.

In the Showtime documentary If I Leave Here Tomorrow, one of the song’s composers, lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, explained that the musicians wanted to counter what they saw as Young’s one-dimensional stereotype.

“We knew that by doing that song, just writing those lyrics, we knew from the beginning that we’d get a lot of heat for it. And I did attack Neil Young in that song,” Van Zant said, referring to a verse that called Young out by name:

Well I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow

“What are you talking about, you know?” Van Zant said. ” From what I’m told you were born in Canada.”

Even as the song was positioned to dispel some stereotypes of the South, the band was embracing others. Back then, Lynyrd Skynyrd performed in front of a large Confederate flag — at the suggestion of its record label. And in the documentary, Van Zant offered this: “Everybody thinks we’re a bunch of drunken rednecks … and that’s correct.” So which is it?

Read the entire piece here.

Why I Defended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Statement on its Racist Past

Southern Sem

Below is a version of what I wrote in the comments of this post.  You can read that post to get up to speed.

I responded to a post by someone named Justin S.  He wrote:

We are all in different stages of processing our racial heritage and identities, and I like you’re “walking” analogy. The trouble is–it seems to me–that a lot of people come from such a retrogressive perspective that they expect affirmation for taking a step or two forward when they have miles left to go.

It is commendable that SBTS is making an effort to more-clearly assess its trouble past, and I think you make a good point when you observe that we are all in different places. But when you lobby for more understanding and equanimity from their critics, it sounds like you are saying, “Hey, let’s cut them some slack now because–even though they are still pretty racist–they are slightly less racist than they used to be.” It’s unrealistic to expect people to treat dogmatic racists kindly just because they’re trying to be less racist about their dogma, especially when they’re still hurting people with their slightly-less-toxic racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and nationalism.

I know some of the folks who wrote the SBTS statement and I can attest to their integrity and serious commitment to racial reconciliation.  Justin, what do you want them to stop doing? Seriously, would you rather they not have written the report? Are their past sins so great that cannot be redeemed? (I don’t think you believe this). These folks know the work is not done.

As far as I know, no one at SBTS is “expecting affirmation” for the statement. So far they have been quiet about the criticism they are getting. (By the way, when I say I know these folks I do not mean Al Mohler. Frankly, I am afraid he will open his mouth and make things worse. I am referring instead to some of the historians who authored the document).

I have defended the SBTS publicly because I felt someone had to do it. I don’t want to “cut them slack,” I want to encourage my fellow evangelicals to walk with them on the journey. Of course we will all be watching to see where they go next.

In the end, I think SBTS is going to have to turn for help to people with whom they might have theological disagreements.  Non-conservative evangelical Christians have more experience on this front.  For example, what might it look like if SBTS takes a meeting with Chris Graham and his racial reconciliation committee at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, the so-called “Cathedral of the Confederacy?” Of course SBTS will never embrace St. Paul’s progressive liberal theology, but they can certainly learn from the way this historic church has tried to deal with its racist past.

I understand that progressive Christians want more out of this statement. Many have suffered as a result of the Southern Baptist Convention’s racist past. This should not be ignored. There is time and space to be angry, but I am a Christian and I cannot dwell in anger any more than I can dwell in fear.

Right now progressive Christians should be getting on the phone and calling SBTS to ask how they can help the seminary on its journey.  Isn’t this the kind of work progressive evangelicals want to do?  Instead, they are criticizing the seminary in public and on social media.

I tend to view the SBTS statement through the eyes of hope.  And God knows we could use more hope in the world right now.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Report on Racism and Slavery is Well-Done and It is a Big Step in the Right Direction

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In case you haven’t heard, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville recently issued a 66-page historical report on its long history of supporting slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, racial inequality, Lost Cause mythology, and white supremacy.  The scholars who composed the report produced an excellent work of institutional history.  I have known professors Gregory Wills, Matthew Hall, and John Wilsey to be first-rate historians and honest scholars.

A wise friend once told me that when it comes to dealing with race and racial reconciliation in America all of us (especially white people) are on a journey.  When we engage the darkness of race relations in the United States we are always going to encounter people who are at various stages on that journey.  What I have learned in recent years is that we must walk beside one another on this journey and help each other along the way.  As I see it, it is the only way forward.

I say this because I have been disappointed by the response the SBTS statement has received by those who seem to believe that they are further down the road on the question of race relations in America.  Rather than seeing this statement as a MAJOR step in the right direction for SBTS–a step that should be commended by all those concerned with racism in the Christian community–most of the coverage has attacked the statement as not going far enough.

For example, I think Rod Dreher, bombast aside, is generally correct in his criticism of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove‘s piece in the Washington Post.  Here is a taste of Dreher:

The gist of his column is that because the leaders of SBTS are theologically conservative, and because many white Southern Baptists are politically conservative, they are not much different from their slaveholding and white supremacist ancestors. If they were really sorry for slavery and white supremacy, Wilson-Hartgrove’s column says, then the Southern Baptists would become Social Justice Warriors like — golly! — Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.

It’s an extraordinarily graceless piece of work. It’s important for this reason. Today I blogged about the Fairness For All proposal, an attempt by some Evangelical leaders — conservatives among them — to find middle ground on the struggle between LGBT rights and religious liberty. Already some conservative Evangelicals are calling it a sellout of principle that will in any case not be respected by liberals and progressives. Part of their argument is that progressives do not negotiate in good faith, that if you yield even a bit, they’ll take advantage of the opportunity to smash you.

A column like Wilson-Hartgrove’s gives ammunition to the “no compromise” side. To be clear, I don’t believe for a second that SBTS president Albert Mohler ordered the appraisal because he sought any kind of political advantage, whatever that might look like. I believe he did it because it was, and remains, the right thing to do. But those on the religious right who oppose initiatives like this on grounds that it will allow progressives to weaponize confession and repentance will cite Wilson-Hartgrove’s column as evidence that the Evangelical left is interested only in scoring points against their enemies.

Read Dreher’s entire post here.  I wonder if Wilson-Hartgtove, whose work I admire, just missed an opportunity to walk alongside SBTS as they embark on this journey.

And here is historian Alison Collis Greene, a historian I know and respect, at National Public Radio:

Notwithstanding the seminary’s new openness about its pro-slavery past, the detailed chronology ends in 1964. “In the decades following the civil rights movement, the seminary continued to struggle with the legacy of slavery and racism,” the report concludes, but without further elaboration.

“Making a statement about Confederate monuments might be a next step,” says Alison Greene, a historian of U.S. religion at Emory University in Atlanta, “or taking a stand on questions of voting rights in the 21st century. That would be really significant.”

Greene, who was raised as a Southern Baptist, found the seminary report lacking in its failure to acknowledge any consequence of the denomination’s recent association with conservative politicians and the policies they have promoted.

“It papers over a generation of hand-in-glove cooperation with efforts to roll back every single social program that served African-Americans or promised to rectify, even in the smallest ways, the gross economic and social effects of enslavement and segregation and inequality on black communities,” Greene says.

Greene’s criticism here is fair.  But rather than see the statement for what it doesn’t do, I prefer to see it for what it does do.

I know Greene has not been at Emory University very long.  Perhaps she will be able to help Emory add to its own statement about the school’s connection to slavery.  It is nowhere near as thorough as SBTS’s statement and it stops at 1962.

NBC’s coverage quotes my friend, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs professor Paul Harvey: “The Southern Baptist Seminary, and by extension the denomination leaders…did a very good job of reckoning with the past, and a not-so-good job of reckoning with the present.”  Again, this is a fair criticism.  SBTS has a long way to go on this issue.  Perhaps a model for moving forward might be what is happening at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”  (Listen to episode 43 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast).  But in the meantime, I am glad to see that SBTS has begun the journey.  As someone on my Facebook page noted, “Let’s hope they keep walking.” Yes!  We will be watching.

I hope future coverage of this statement will be more balanced.  For example, why hasn’t The Washington Post, NPR, or NBC talked with African-American leaders within the Southern Baptist Church?  Where are the interviews with Fred Luter, Thabiti Anyabwile, Byron Day or anyone in the National African Fellowship or the Black SBC Denominational Servants Network?

I also hope other southern schools–seminaries, colleges, and universities–will do the kind of historical work SBTS has done as a necessary starting point to address their own racist pasts.  I am thrilled to see the way these SBTS professors are using the study of history to work toward justice.

Teaching the Civil War in the South

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Check out Kristina Rizga‘s fascinating piece at The Atlantic: How to Teach the Civil War in the Deep South.”  Here is a taste:

The question of what students should learn about the Civil War, the role that slavery played in it, and the history of Reconstruction—the period from 1865 to 1876 when African Americans claimed their rights to freedom and voting, followed by a violent backlash by white Southerners—causes contentious disputes among educators, historians, and the American public. One outcome of these disputes is that ideologies often masquerade as historic facts. Texas’s 2010 standards, for instance, listed states’ rights and tariffs, alongside slavery, as the main causes of the Civil War—even though historians overwhelminglyagree that slavery was the central issue.

Another common problem is omissions: A 2017 survey of 10 commonly used textbooks and 15 sets of state standards found that textbooks treated slavery in superficial ways, and state standards focused more on the “feel-good” stories of abolitionists than on the brutal realities of slavery. When the same study surveyed 1,000 high-school seniors across the country, it found that among 12th graders, only 8 percent could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and fewer than four in 10 students surveyed understood how slavery “shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness.”

Of course, students aren’t students forever, and the views of American adults are influenced by what they learn as children. When one 2015 poll asked American adults whether slavery was the main reason for the Civil War, 52 percent said that it was, while 41 percent said that it was not. In the same survey, 38 percent of adults insisted that slavery should not be taught as the main cause of the Civil War. That the country is divided on how to deal with Confederate statues and the Confederate flag follows in lockstep.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Ansley Quiros

9781469646763.jpgAnsley L. Quiros is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Alabama. This interview is based on her new book God with Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942–1976 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2018). 

JF: What led you to write God With Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976?

AQ: As I pressed into the racial issues at the heart of American history, I began to think more about the South, particularly about the befuddling relationship between race and religion. These were issues that had long dogged at the corners of my consciousness as a child of the South, raised in Atlanta, but now I brought to them a historian’s perspective as well as native’s inquisitiveness. I wanted to see how exactly theological commitments animated not only the pursuit of racial justice but the opposition to it. And Americus was a perfect place to set this case study—notable for the presence of Koinonia Farm (an interracial Christian farming community founded in the 1940s), SNCC’s Southwest Georgia Freedom Project, the brutal, violent opposition to civil rights, and the deep religious commitments on all sides. I wanted to see how theological ideas took on flesh and blood, how they were incarnated in American life.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of God With Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976?

AQ: The struggle over civil rights was not, for many, just about lunch counters and waiting rooms or even access to the vote; it was also about Christian orthodoxy. God with Us examines this theological struggle through the story of one southern town–Americus, Georgia–where ordinary Americans both sought and confronted racial change in the twentieth century.

JF: Why do we need to read God With Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976?

AQ: In the past few years, it has become impossible to ignore the ways in which those who claim Christianity have also buttressed systems that uphold white supremacy. And this has been, for many evangelicals, shocking and dismaying. But it has a long history. This book contributes to understanding how these alliances came to be in the mid-twentieth century, how racism hides within certain theologies, sometimes in plain sight. But the book also, I think, offers hope. The courage of black and white activists for freedom and justice, the way that they refused to believe heresy but insisted on truth, is truly moving. And it may yet stir us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.

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

AQ: I suppose I had always been interested in big questions, and I had engaging, bright history teachers in high school who made me want to major in history when I went to college. At Furman University, I got to take a wide array of courses. My professors there encouraged me to consider graduate school and I ended up at Vanderbilt after I graduated. At Vandy, I had wonderful mentors and advisors, people who really taught me how to read and write history, how to harness my historical curiosity. And though I was interested in lots of different fields, I kept returning to questions about the American past, that compelling drama of freedom and exclusion. Even after all this time, I find the story of American history completely enthralling. I always tell my students, ‘I couldn’t make this up!’

JF: What is your next project?

AQ: I have two projects in the works. One is an exploration of the Atlanta street party known as Freaknik. It’s a wild story, but one that reveals much about the city of Atlanta, the rise of the black new South, and the limits of black governance in the multicultural 1990s. The other project is spiritual biography of Charles and Shirley Sherrod, racial justice activists who have spent their lives in Southwest Georgia. I guess I’m not done with Georgia yet!

JF: Thanks, Ansley!

The Author’s Corner with Erin Mauldin

51pZylgYBPL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Erin Mauldin is an assistant professor of History and Politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. This interview is based on her new book Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Unredeemed Land?

EM: While reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution for a graduate seminar in US Political History at Georgetown University, I realized that many of the economic, legislative, and political issues of that period are intimately tied to the use of natural and agricultural landscapes: fights over land redistribution (or the lack thereof), crop lien legislation, animal theft laws, the timbering boom, and of course, the expansion of cotton production. Yet very few environmental histories of the US South even discussed the period between the end of slavery and the Gilded Age, and the dynamic literature on Reconstruction had failed to absorb any of the insights or approaches of environmental history.

I set out, then, to write an environmental history of Reconstruction in the South, and over time, narrowed the focus to the changes occurring in rural areas (rather than urban ones). As I worked on my dissertation, however, I realized that one cannot explain the events of Reconstruction without grappling with the war. Fortunately, a flowering of scholarship appeared on the environmental impacts of the Civil War around the time of my graduate studies, and so my project follows those works and asks simply, “what happened next?” If the Civil War was a truly environmental event, then one would assume those changes did not stop being relevant after 1865. As a result, my book is an environmental history of Reconstruction in the rural U.S. South that connects large-scale economic changes of the period, such as sharecropping, the expansion of cotton production, and the closing of the open range, to environmental changes wrought by the Civil War.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Unredeemed Land?

EM: The Civil War and emancipation accelerated ongoing ecological change and destroyed traditional systems of land use in ways that hastened the postbellum collapse of the region’s subsistence economy, encouraged the expansion of cotton production, and ultimately kept cotton farmers trapped in a cycle of debt and tenancy. Southern farmers both black and white found themselves unable to “redeem” their lands and fortunes, with serious consequences for the long-term trajectory of the regional economy.

JF: Why do we need to read Unredeemed Land?

EM: I think that anyone interested in the Civil War, Reconstruction, race in America, economic inequality, or environmental history might find something here to like or, at least, argue with. So much of what we read in the news about the ecological and economic aspects of war zones in the Middle East, and the ways that environmental changes push people into refugee situations around the world—all those truths held in the American past, too. It’s time we started thinking about them.

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

EM: As an undergraduate, I wanted to go to medical school. However, I loved studying history, and performed well in those classes. I was attracted to the story-telling that happens in history classes and books, as well as the investigative work of piecing together past events. So, I combined coursework in both History and Biology, reluctant to give up either. When it came time to write my senior thesis for my History major, my undergraduate mentor in that department suggested I draw on my interest in the sciences, and I produced work that investigated early air pollution control efforts in Birmingham, Alabama. Through that experience, I decided I would rather research and write for a living than go to medical school. I was very, very fortunate to receive a doctoral fellowship to study environmental history with J.R. McNeill at Georgetown University, and haven’t looked back.

JF: What is your next project?

EM: Tentatively called “The First White Flight: Industrial Pollution and Racial Segregation in New South Cities,” my next book will investigate the role of environmental racism in racially segmenting the geographies of 19th-century cities. The poverty and debt of postwar cotton farming I describe in Unredeemed Land spurred tens of thousands of freed  people to abandon rural spaces in the decades after the Civil War and find employment in recently “reconstructed” cities such as Atlanta and Richmond; and newly established industrial centers such as Birmingham. Not only did minority enclaves or company houses exist among higher levels of pollution, filth, disease, and industrial contamination, but the white public’s representations of those conditions attached a persistent stigma both to people and place in these neighborhoods.

This project, then, argues that industrial pollution caused the cementing of an urban black/suburban white dynamic long before the Civil Rights Era, which, over time, reinforced disenfranchisement, engendered racially segmented economies, and allowed further environmental degradation.

JF: Thanks, Erin!

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!