Category: Blog

“What soldiers are for”: Jersey Boys Wait for War

“What soldiers are for”: Jersey Boys Wait for War

A certain cohort of the baby boomer generation—boys born between the late 1940s and mid-1950s—spent their high school years wondering if they would be drawn into the Vietnam War. With older brothers, neighbors, and older friends anxiously awaiting their lottery numbers; with the nightly news and weekly news magazines providing images of the bloody and frustrating fighting a world away; and with no clear end in sight, most young boys spent their adolescence wondering if they would end up at the sharp end of war.

Those same forebodings or yearnings no doubt shaped the lives of Civil War-era teenagers, virtually all of whom would have had a family member or close neighbor in the army. In the Confederacy, almost complete mobilization occurred; in the United States, although the percentage of males of military age who served was closer to 40 percent, 81 percent of boys born in 1844 joined the Union army.[1]

Newark High School, c. 1860s. Courtesy of the Barringer High School Alumni Association.

A few boys—just a year or two younger than that martial cohort—attending Newark High School in New Jersey worked through their thoughts and some of their fears in the pages of the Athenaeum, a hand-written school paper published during the war. It was the second iteration of the paper. The “old Athenaeum,” as the current editors called it, had been born at the beginning of the conflict, but much had changed since then, and it was impossible for these men-in-the-making to ignore the war. At least a few of the original editors had actually gone off to war; one was an officer in the Army of the Potomac. An editorial in May 1864 remarked that the number of boys at school had dropped by half. “What makes this change[?] War! War!.” Some had joined the army but others had gone into business to replace older brothers and fathers. “They are no more,” continued the editorial in sentimental wartime rhetoric, “the vacant seats seem to proclaim.”[2]

The boys produced a few short pieces of romantic fiction, poems, and a few strained jokes (although a humorous piece on “Shaving” effectively chided fifteen and sixteen-year-olds for thinking that the “fuzz’ they managed to grow on their lips or chins earned them the right to shave every Sunday). But the bulk of the articles are painfully sincere (but also rather pompous) essays on “Perfection,” Success,” “Faithfulness,” “Home,” “Revenge,” “Perseverance,” and, somewhat improbably, “First Baby.” In the way of nineteenth century writing for young adults, most are aspirational, and they reflect both a nostalgia for childhood and a certain amount of angst about making a living in the world.[3]

At the same time, they were clearly processing their concerns about the war. Numerous pieces dealt with the war; like the juvenile magazines they seemed to be using as models of style and content, they approached the war as a source of inherently interesting news, as a fundamental threat to the nation, and as a chance to demonstrate political loyalty and masculine values. A story that could easily have been published in The Student or Schoolmate or Our Young Folks or any other juvenile magazine from the period told a typical tale of a soldier training, fighting, being captured, and escaping from Libby Prison—but this time, through a story told from the point of view of his boot![4]

A typical page from the Athenaeum. Courtesy of the New Jersey Historical Society.

But a close reading of the boys’ essays reveal the fact that they are preparing themselves for the possibility of fighting. They describe hardships, but frame the war as survivable. They acknowledge the terrible sacrifices made by many soldiers but present those sacrifices as necessary for the greater good. Throughout, they balance fear with loyalty, loss with the benefit of Union, and hardship with motivation.

Although a few essays employed humor, most were dead serious. A piece on “Courage” equated moral courage with the kind of courage that “enable[d] men to encounter difficulties and dangers with firmness or without fear,” while a Christmas editorial acknowledged the joys of the season—including a welcome break from school—but urged readers not to forget “the poor soldiers . . . fighting the enemies of our country and enduring hardships to save our much-loved Union and secure freedom to all.” A reflection on “The Soldier” acknowledged that life in the army inevitably led to dissolution and sin, but also deserved our sympathy and gratitude.[5]

In a piece called “Blighted Hopes,” the boys indicated they understood the personal stake each American had in the conflict. “Thousands have died on the field of carnage,” it began. “Thousands in whose bosoms have been kindled some high some noble flame aspiring to some great object of which the power of their imagination has enabled them almost to obtain a sweet fore-sight rising up before them like some luminous orb in the far off future.” They died doing their duty, which could be a “hard master.” Some men survive the “leaden hail of the enemy” and return to happy homes, where family members wept tears of joy. But in other homes, where loved ones have failed to return safely, “vacant chairs seem to proclaim to us in loud accents, ‘Blighted Hopes.’” Widows and orphans mourn fallen husbands and fathers’ “war is indeed dashing down the anticipations of many.”[6]

The editors featured sentimental domesticity in a number of articles and a few drawings. Courtesy of the New Jersey Historical Society.

A poem published in May 1864 tried to imagine the war ending, when, even as the last victims of the war were being buried and their widows began to mourn them, surviving soldiers march home: “The soldiers are coming,/from carnage and gore./They come to their homes,/to be happy once more./They have tasted the hardships,/and dangers of war;/they have learned to know well,/what soldiers are for.” A few months earlier, another poem, “The Dying Soldier,” captured with unusual poignancy—if little literary flair—the conflict between the individual tragedies of soldiers’ deaths and the necessity of those deaths in winning the war. The poem features the thoughts of a dying soldier, who understands that news of his death would break many hearts but understands that it really didn’t matter: “He thought of the tears,/Twould be shed ‘ore his fate,/he thought of the hearts,/that for him would await./It mattered but little,/he was but one./One soldier was naught;/Victory was won.”[7]

The somewhat war-weary and knowing tone of many of the essays and poems in the Athenaeum show teenaged boys, assuming—fearing—that they would eventually play their parts in the war that had been raging for most of their adolescence. They sought to create credibility, to begin to prepare for something they may have instinctively known they could never prepare themselves for, to understand the causes and reasons that the war had to be fought, to talk themselves into thinking that they would be ready when the call came.

 

[1] Dora L. Costa, The Evolution of Retirement: An American Economic History, 1880-1990 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 198.

[2] Newark High School Athenaeum, October 1863; May 1864, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, NJ.

[3] Athenaeum, April 1864. For a short overview of children’s magazines, see James Marten, “For the Good, the True, and the Beautiful: Northern Children’s Magazines and the Civil War,” Civil War History 41 (March 1995): 57-75.

[4] Athenaeum, April 1864.

[5] Athenaeum, October 1863; December 1863; April 1864.

[6] Athenaeum, June 1864.

[7] Athenaeum, May 1864; December 1863.

James Marten

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette University. His most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2014). He is a past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

Every Social Media Manager a Historian: Reflections on Interpreting History Through NPS Social Media

Every Social Media Manager a Historian: Reflections on Interpreting History Through NPS Social Media

In one of his final acts as President of the United States, Barack Obama utilized the power of the 1906 Antiquities Act to establish Reconstruction Era National Monument (REER) in Beaufort, South Carolina, as a unit of the National Park Service (NPS) on January 12, 2017. Like many historians of the Civil War era, I was thrilled to hear that the NPS would finally have a site dedicated to interpreting the Reconstruction era on its own terms. For public history, no longer would Reconstruction exist only as a brief interpretive footnote or be simply ignored at a Civil War history site. Finally, Americans from all backgrounds would get to see a tangible representation of a greatly misunderstood era in this country’s history; a time in which dynamic changes to America’s political, social, and economic life transformed the country after the Civil War.[1]

The Old Beaufort Fire House will function as the Visitor Center for Reconstruction Era National Monument when it opens to the public. Courtesy of the Reconstruction Era National Monument, National Park Service.

Given the significance of this event for the future of Civil War era history, it came as a great surprise and a high honor when I was asked in April 2017 to manage REER’s social media accounts. Over the next year I created more than 250 Facebook and Twitter posts dedicated to interpreting Reconstruction. With these posts I aimed to discuss significant events and people from the era, the historiography of Reconstruction, and why Beaufort is a remarkable symbol of Reconstruction’s enduring significance. I tried to move beyond common stories of allegedly corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags towards posts about African Americans, women, Native American Indians, and others. My overarching goal was to portray Reconstruction as a fluid, dynamic era that was in some ways the country’s first civil rights movement.[2]

It is hard to determine the true success of these social media posts. Counting the number of likes, retweets, and reactions is one way to measure success, but it is tough to determine if those reacting to the posts actually do anything beyond the act of tapping their phone screen. Do they mention REER to a friend in polite conversation, go to the library to read about Reconstruction, or make plans to travel to South Carolina to learn about the Civil War era?[3] What I do know is that by the end of my experience this past April, REER’s Facebook page had more than 1,100 followers and its Twitter page had more than 700 followers.

In the course of my work I learned a lot about interpreting history on social media. I believe some of the strategies I developed for REER’s social media posts can be relevant for others looking to create compelling social media posts about the history of the Civil War era. What follows are three takeaways for interpreting the past on social media.

Build alliances with like-minded historical sites: When I began working for REER I received valuable assistance from Chris Barr and Emmanuel Dabney, two talented public historians working at NPS Civil War battlefields. They helped REER during its early months and started using the #ParkSpotlight hashtag to highlight other NPS units with connections to the Reconstruction era. I found this to be a useful strategy in a number of ways. For one, it gives credit to and celebrates the work of other NPS units working to interpret the Civil War era. Equally important, by tagging these sites in our posts, we made them aware of REER’s social media presence. For instance, I highlighted places like Nicodemus National Historic Site, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, and Appomattox National Historical Park while working for REER.

Know your platform and always share interesting photos and links: One of the most important realizations I made during this experience is that one cannot assume that all social media platforms have the same user base. Facebook is most heavily used by millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers; young people under twenty-one are much more likely to use Instagram and/or Twitter on a regular basis than Facebook. Conversely, Twitter is fun for emojis and GIF-based tweets, but it can be awkward to use those tools when creating Facebook posts.

No one wants to read a dissertation-length post on Facebook. Brevity is a virtue on social media. I found, however, that one- or two-paragraph FB posts received positive reactions from users.[4] A good example of a well-received post is the one below about Congressman Joseph Rainey.

Screenshot of Facebook post about Congressman Joseph Rainey for Reconstruction Era National Monument. Courtesy of the author.

In my opinion, there are three crucial keys to a good post, regardless of platform:

1.  An attractive picture that draws attention to the post.
2. Clear, concise text that is not overwhelming for readers.
3. When possible, provide clickable links for users to learn more. Whenever there exists a good article on a historical topic, direct readers to that article rather than trying to tell the whole story yourself. I am not an expert on all things Reconstruction; sometimes it’s best to highlight other historians and resources that can do an effective job of discussing a particular topic for users.

Establish a cohesive theme for your posts: About halfway through my experience I talked with historian Kate Masur—a leader in the effort to establish REER—about what I could do to improve my posts. She recommended that I develop a monthly theme to help guide the direction of my interpretations. It was a valuable idea that did much to boost the reach of my posts.

The most notable example occurred this past February. To celebrate Black History Month, I decided to highlight the experiences of fourteen African American men and women who were politically active in South Carolina during Reconstruction. On Facebook I wrote short descriptions for each individual that were posted throughout the month, while on Twitter I created a tweet thread that I periodically updated (you can see the thread here). Several individuals and organizations sent me messages saying how exciting it was to check their social media every morning to learn a new tidbit about the Reconstruction era.

A screenshot from Reconstruction Era National Monument’s Twitter page. Courtesy of the author.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Civil War sesquicentennial was the use of social media as a medium for conversations about the Civil War’s legacy. No longer confined solely to the classroom or historical site, the stuff of the past is shared on the internet by historians and lay audiences alike on a literal minute-by-minute basis. Social media is already and will continue to be an active medium for the creation of historical knowledge and memories, but also for misinformation and myths. As historian and educator Kevin M. Levin points out, “the ease with which we can access and contribute to the web makes it possible for everyone to be his or her own historian, which is both a blessing and a curse. The internet is both a goldmine of information as well as a minefield of misinformation and distortion.”[5]

The work of managing social media at a Civil War era historic site may not be considered a top priority by a site’s leaders. Conducting historical research, crafting clear and concise language, and interpreting complex history in a roughly 100-word post is very time consuming. For public historians trying to balance on-site educational programming with social media outreach, establishing a consistent presence on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms can be difficult. But social media managers at these sites can play an important role in the sharing of accurate, fascinating, and even inspiring historical content if they make it a priority in their daily work.

 

 

[1] Jennifer Schuessler, “President Obama Designates First National Monument to Reconstruction,” New York Times, January 12, 2017, accessed May 30, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/12/arts/president-obama-designates-national-monuments-to-civil-rights-history.html; Sarah Jones Weicksel, “The Struggle to Commemorate Reconstruction,” AHA Today, March 8, 2018, accessed May 29, 2018, http://blog.historians.org/2018/03/struggle-commemorate-reconstruction/.

[2] In addition to standard overviews of Reconstruction by W.E.B. Du Bois, Douglas Egerton, Eric Foner, and Heather Cox Richardson, I read the following books on Reconstruction in South Carolina: Thomas Holt, Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1977); Peggy Lamson, The Glorious Failure: Black Congressman Robert Brown Elliott and the Reconstruction in South Carolina (New York: Norton, 1973); Willie Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964); Lou Faulkner Williams, The Great South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials, 1871-1872 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996).

[3] Reconstruction Era National Monument is not yet open to the public, reinforcing the importance of having a strong social media presence to provide contact info and assistance to those wanting to learn more about the site.

[4] Not all NPS social media managers agree with me, and I did receive some criticism for occasionally making my posts too long.

[5] Kevin M. Levin, “The Remedy for the Spread of Fake News? History Teachers,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 6, 2016, accessed June 9, 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remedy-spread-fake-news-history-teachers-180961310/.

Nick Sacco

Nick Sacco is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Guide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently had a journal article about the Grand Army of the Republic published in the Indiana Magazine of History entitled "The Grand Army of the Republic, the Indianapolis 500, and the Struggle for Memorial Day in Indiana, 1868-1923" (December 2015). Nick also runs a personal blog about history, "Exploring the Past," at https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/.

A Recap of 2018 CLAW’s “Freedoms Gained and Lost” Conference

A Recap of 2018 CLAW’s “Freedoms Gained and Lost” Conference

The 2018 Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW) conference is in the books. Reconstruction-era scholars, museum professionals, and non-academics converged on the city of Charleston for an insightful and productive conference. Though the chronology debate remains unresolved, the 2018 CLAW conference was one of the most important conferences on Reconstruction in recent memory. With so many panels, plenaries, and public history events, I share a few highlights below.

Plenaries and roundtables served as generative spaces for discussing the issues, challenges, and opportunities for Reconstruction Studies. After the wonderful dedication of the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1868 marker, the plenary on W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction provided the opening salvo for the rest of the conference. Brian Kelley considered the work as the starting point for future directions of Reconstruction Studies. Heather Cox Richardson characterized the massive tome as a political document and a meditation. On the other hand, Thavolia Glymph offered the text as a call to action, indictment, and a monument to African Americans. Following this stimulating opening roundtable, Bruce Baker asked that we grapple with the major question of “Who was Reconstruction For?” in his keynote address. The Saturday plenary brought together Eric Foner, Kate Masur, Michael Allen, and other key individuals involved with the creation of the Reconstruction Era National Monument. The remarks of Mayor Billy Keyserling of Beaufort, South Carolina, drove home the site’s importance. It allows local residents, white and black, to “know the truth,” use history as a vehicle for reconciliation, and answer “why has Reconstruction been muted?”

Two intriguing panels explored the possibilities yielded from an international perspective of Reconstruction in the Atlantic World. These panels demonstrated some of the benefits of moving toward an international history of Reconstruction, to borrow from Don Doyle’s wonderful paper title. Comparative frameworks of slavery have been instructive for understanding the institutions, motivations of enslavers, modes of resistance, and even the experiences of the diverse enslaved communities. Can Reconstruction provide an appropriate comparative framework? Or does a Reconstruction framework have any utility for understanding its legacy within a global African Diaspora, as suggested by Alison McLetchie? Does an international perspective simply provide unintentional fodder to individuals desiring the overturn of current Reconstruction Studies toward a Neo-Dunning School? While I am not sure what this direction will do for the overall field of Reconstruction Studies, I know that these scholars are actively addressing this aspect of Luke Harlow’s introduction to the JCWE’s “Future of Reconstructions Studies” forum.[1]

After spending time with these non-academics throughout the 2018 CLAW conference, I renew my call to Reconstruction scholars to enter the fray of public engagement as we contemplate the future of Reconstruction Studies. Multi-disciplinary and intersectional narratives demonstrate our relevance to popular audiences. Public schools remain an important site in the struggle for creating a better society. Yet, our work does not reach the predominantly black and brown communities educated within the system. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Henry Louis Gates are addressing the needs of individuals who are seeking to correct their K-12 education and/or the misinformation circulating on the internet (i.e. Black Confederates and most recently, Kanye West). AAIHS’s Black Perspectives, the Muster blog, Twitter crowdsourced syllabi, digital humanities projects, and even the new Reconstruction Era National Monument are solid attempts to reach these audiences through accessible scholarship, advisory roles in exhibitions, documentaries and textbooks, public lectures, and writing the occasional op-ed. To echo Kidada Williams, the field of Reconstruction Studies requires “more narrative histories of African Americans in the whirlwinds of freedom” that span time and the “geographic divides while covering a variety of subjects for African Americans across the nation and world.”[3]

We, as Reconstruction scholars, must be intentional in our chronologies, audiences, and scholarship. The conference demonstrates the need as well as the rewards of historical consulting on museum exhibitions, public lectures outside of the ivory walls of the academy, and writing accessible scholarship. It is hard work. It is, however, necessary. The important question that must guides our reflection on the future of Reconstruction Studies is “whether or not we are ready and willing to come through.”[4]

Thanks to Adam Domby and other CLAW organizers for providing a space for new scholarship, approaches, and essential conversations for addressing the scope, content, and future directions of Reconstruction Studies. I am excited to see how these conversations turn into action whether its public engagement or engaging scholarship. In short, the Reconstruction confab in Charleston was a resounding success.

Now, the real work begins.

 

[1] Luke Harlow, “Introduction to Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies,” Online Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies, The Journal of Civil War Era, accessed May 15, 2018, https://journalofthecivilwarera.org/forum-the-future-of-reconstruction-studies/. This forum also appeared in the March 2017 issue.

[2] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (July 1991): 1244-1291.

[3] Kidada E. Williams, “Maintaining A Radical Vision of African Americans in the Age of Freedom,” Online Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies, The Journal of Civil War Era, accessed May 15, 2018, https://journalofthecivilwarera.org/forum-the-future-of-reconstruction-studies/maintaining-a-radicalvision/.

[4] Williams, “Maintaining A Radical Vision of African Americans in the Age of Freedom.”

 

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is an Assistant Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

Editor’s Note: June 2018 Issue

Editor’s Note: June 2018 Issue

When Judy Giesberg asked me to guest edit a special issue on abolition and solicit essays that would showcase new directions in abolition studies, I welcomed the opportunity. For a field that has been ploughed thoroughly—from global syntheses of the transition from slavery to freedom in the western world by some of the most eminent historians of slavery and abolition such as Robin Blackburn, Seymour Drescher, and David Brion Davis to numerous finely grained studies of African Americans, women, Garrisonian, political, and evangelical abolitionists in the last few decades—it might seem that we have nothing new left to say about abolition. In fact, as the original essays in this issue illustrate, we have barely begun to uncover the long, diverse, and multifaceted history of the abolition movement that goes well beyond old caricatures of irresponsible religious fanatics on the one hand and the simple portrayal of heroic freedom fighters on the other. More importantly, individually and collectively, they challenge the oft repeated, virtually reflexive, received historical wisdom on abolition by both broadening our conception of what constitutes abolition and deeply engaging abolitionist archives.

Joseph Yannielli’s article on the abolitionist town Mo Tappan in West Africa exemplifies this simultaneous broadening and deepening of our understanding of abolition. Much of the recent work on transnational abolition has concentrated mainly on the Anglo-American connection. Even those who have sought to include West Africa in the story of abolition, including myself, have done so mainly through the lens of the debates over colonization and emigration. In his nuanced article on the founding of an abolitionist town in West Africa as part of the American Missionary Association’s Mendi mission composed of the returning Amistad rebels, African participants, and American abolitionists, Yannielli recovers the lost history of Mo Tappan. Eschewing ahistorical equations of abolition with western imperialism—while remaining mindful of the racial, economic, and gendered fault lines in this interracial abolitionist community—Yannielli’s article reveals not only the course of American abolition in Africa but also the Africanization of American abolition.

Similarly, Natalie Joy expands and deepens our understanding of abolition by showing how the Indian’s cause was tightly braided with the slave’s cause in antebellum America. Joy uncovers the crucial impact of opposition to Indian dispossession, or what she terms “antiremovalism,” in influencing black and white abolitionists’ opposition to colonization and shaping its anti-imperialist nature. Abolitionists further linked the ongoing violations of Indian treaties and sovereignty with the expansion of slavery into western territories, making “Indian wrongs” an important part of their argument against slavery. Indeed, the very notion of an aggressive and expansive Slave Power attributed to later political abolitionists actually emerged from the abolitionist critique of U.S.-Indian relations. Native American spokesmen as well as antislavery politicians such as Joshua Giddings ensured that Indian rights occupied a conspicuous place in the abolitionist program well into the 1860s. Unlike recent attempts to equate the emergence of the antislavery state during the Civil War and Reconstruction with Indian dispossession in western history, Joy recounts a different history of the relationship between abolition and Indian sovereignty.

Like Joy’s, Sean Griffin’s article, on the overlap between communitarian labor reform and abolition, qualifies longstanding generalizations on the divisions between the early labor and abolition movements. It also points toward a reevaluation of the relationship between abolition and the emergence of capitalism, a paradigm shift that compliments the revived interest in the relationship between slavery and capitalism. Griffin recovers the history of the forgotten abolitionist communitarian experiment led by the freethinking Frances Wright, an advocate of women’s rights, workingmen’s rights, and abolition. While most historians have emphasized the early friction between Fourierist labor leaders and abolitionists, Griffin shows that they moved closer to each other on the eve of the Civil War. Rather than just a capitulation to free labor ideology, this convergence laid the foundation of the postwar labor movement. Griffin’s essay underscores the importance of not subsuming the more radical positions of abolitionists on labor and market society under the free labor umbrella of the antislavery Republican Party described by Eric Foner a long time ago.

As Corey Brooks argues in the concluding historiographical essay, much of the recent work on American abolition has centered on African Americans, including the enslaved, but with very different evaluations of the nature of black abolitionism. David Brion Davis, for instance, questions the radical nature of black abolitionism emphasizing and subsuming notions of uplift and elevation within his broader, now contested, understanding of abolition’s hegemonic role in legitimizing the rise of early capitalism. Peter Wirzbicki’s essay on William Cooper Nell and the black abolitionist intellectual tradition unearths an unknown aspect of black transcendentalism that qualifies this argument. Nell’s Adelphic Union brought together African Americans, abolitionists, and transcendentalist intellectuals; hosted the leading lights of the day for lectures; and created a space for the cross-fertilization of abolitionist activism with transcendentalist ideas. Wirzbicki’s close reading of the union’s activities allows him to reconstruct a vibrant black abolitionist intellectual culture virtually ignored by previous historians.

I regret that events conspired against our including an article on women abolitionists, many of them pioneers of the first women’s rights movement. But as Brooks points out in his essay, the study of women abolitionists is an established and growing one. Promising work by young scholars such as Kabria Baumgartner, whom Brooks mentions, and Johanna Ortner, who has just recovered an early collection of poems by Frances Harper, are poised to deepen our understanding of female abolitionism and further highlight the role of black women abolitionists in the making of the movement.[1]

Corey Brooks concludes this issue with an essay that emphasizes the relationship between abolition and political antislavery, one that would bear fruit during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The future of abolitionist studies lies in its ongoing reevaluation as a radical, interracial, social movement, which the essays in this volume amply illustrate. It also lies in the progress of what W. E. B. Du Bois called “abolition democracy” during Reconstruction. My own book on abolition stops at 1860, with the election of Abraham Lincoln. Exploring more fully what happened to the abolitionist political project with emancipation during the Civil War and Reconstruction when the realm of movement politics intersected with high politics is indeed the next frontier in abolition studies.

 

[1] Johanna Ortner, “Lost No More: Recovering Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Forest Leaves,” Common-place 15, no. 4 (Summer 2015): http://common-place.org/book/lost-no-more-recovering-frances-ellen-watkins-harpers-forest-leaves/.

Manisha Sinha

Manisha Sinha is professor and the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. Sinha’s research interests lie in United States history, especially the transnational histories of slavery and abolition and the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Her award winning book, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, was published by Yale University Press in 2016.

Author Interview: Elizabeth Belanger

Author Interview: Elizabeth Belanger

This month, we are sharing an interview with Elizabeth Belanger, author of “‘A Perfect Nuisance’: Working-Class Women and Neighborhood Development in Civil War St. Louis,” which appeared in our March 2018 issue. Elizabeth is an associate professor of American Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and has published in the Journal of American History, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, and the Public Historian.


Thanks so much for talking with us, Beth, especially during such a busy point in the semester! I want to begin by hearing more about how you became interested in this subject. What led you to pursue this line of research?

My article draws from the wonderful collection of complaints, investigations, and official correspondence that make up the Missouri Union Provost Marshal papers. During the Civil War, the Union Army, and specifically the Provost Marshal, was tasked with keeping order in St. Louis. His office compiled large amounts of paperwork, including original complaints filed by Union women against Confederate sympathizing women. As I began to sort out St. Louis women’s complaints from the much larger collection of materials, I was struck, apart from the multiple misspellings and name variations employed by different officials for the same person, by the tone and vehemence of working class women’s testimonies. Their zealousness in asserting Union loyalties were matched only by the number of profanities they slung at their Confederate sympathizing counterparts. Looking at these documents, two patterns emerged. First, the use of the term “nuisance” to describe Confederate sympathizing women. Second, the fact that (thanks to the thoroughness of the Provost Marshal’s office) almost every complaint made sure to note where the accused and accuser lived. Who were these women? What was it about the setting of Civil War St. Louis that brought out such strong emotions? Why did they use term “nuisance” to describe other women? And finally, what did all of these questions have to do with the geographical space in which these women lived? These are the questions that animated my research.

That sounds like a real treasure trove of documents. Given your emphasis on examining neighborhoods, can you share with us the value of urban history for scholars of the Civil War era?

Scholarship in urban history adds new dimensions to our study and conceptualization of the “home front” and “battlefield” in the Civil War era. One of the points I make in my article is that many inhabitants of St. Louis considered the city as an extension of the battlefield. Even though historians might not classify the many skirmishes that happened on St. Louis’s streets as “battles,” it’s clear to me that St. Louis’s residents believed they were part of a larger war effort long after the Confederate Army had left the region.

What you do see as your contribution to the historiography of women’s loyalty during the war? And, how does your work inform our understanding of the unique situation in border states like Missouri?

My work examines the role women played in shaping the home front political climate. Like most historians, I build on a foundation of previous historical scholarship. In my case, I looked to other women’s historians: Anne Marshall, Judith Giesberg, and Sharon Romeo, to name a few. In my article, I took a close look at the spatial politics of women’s war activism. In St. Louis, working class women used an administrative apparatus of war, the Union Provost Marshal’s Office, to wage political battles against their neighbors. Mapping the arena in which these women acted, the streets and buildings of their neighborhood, illuminates the role of women in shaping dialogues about political, ethnic, and, to some extent, class differences, in a city that lived and breathed the war.

As a Union occupied city in the Upper South, St. Louis is a fascinating case study of the material effects the Civil War had on an occupied populace. As historians LeeAnn Whites, Adam Arenson, and others have noted, St. Louis also became a testing ground for the Union to develop occupation policies and protocols. How was the Union going to deal with city residents who supported the Confederacy? Looking closely at a border city like St. Louis shines light on the extent to which everyday city residents, in my case working class women, worked in, around, and with these developing protocols. It demonstrates how occupation was a process, an ongoing negotiation that reveals how residents thought of themselves in relation to their neighbors, their city, and their government.

Your article also embraces the “spatial turn” in historical scholarship. Can you explain what the spatial turn is, and how you approached this research?

Um….. how much time do you have for this interview? All joking aside, I would describe the “spatial turn” in historical scholarship as a renewed interest into how questions of space and place intersect with the many other questions that categorize historical scholarship. For example, in my own research I asked how the experience of neighborhood space shaped and was shaped by working class women’s political loyalties in a Civil War border city. I would hesitate to call these questions new. Since the beginning of the profession, historians have understood the importance of situating their work within a larger geographical context. What characterizes today’s spatial turn, however, is the accessibility of mapping software that makes it easier for researchers to visualize the spatial contours of their work. I’m not sure I could have discovered the patterns I discovered in my data without GIS technology. Just to give you an idea of my methods, here is how the visual elements of the project unfolded.

Because of its historic nature, I had to transfer location data by hand. So I would find an address in the Provost Marshal’s records, locate the address on a historic map, and then transfer the historic data into a latitude and longitude on a computer map. Each type of location, home of accuser and accused, market, streetcar line, public building etc., was on a separate map “layer.” Once I was done placing these sites, the GIS software allowed me to combine, sort, and overlay the various layers. It allowed me to visualize the relationship between, let’s say, the homes of my accused women and the locations of streetcar lines. I do think it’s important to note, however, while technology allowed me to store and present my data, at the end of the day, I approached my research just like any other historian–I looked for patterns, relationships, and silences in the data.

That sounds complicated and time consuming, but it can clearly help you see your data in new and interesting ways, as we learned from your article. Do you have any advice for those who might be interested in exploring this spatial turn? Are there any specific resources that novices might find helpful?

It’s been amazing for me to watch just how quickly mapping technology has advanced since I first found the Missouri Union Provost Marshal Papers. I used desktop ArcGIS to construct my maps, but I made that decision, in part, because my institution had ArcGIS software and support staff. Today there are a multitude of free and subscription services designed for individuals who are new to GIS including Carto, Mapbox, and Google Maps. ArcGIS also has an online platform. All of these sites have online tutorials although I have to confess I benefited immensely from working with a member of our support staff to learn the ArcGIS program. Equally, if not more important, is the incredibly body of scholarship (both online and in print) which draws from spatial technologies. Kelly Knowles and May Hillier’s book Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship was one of the first I read. Stephen Robertson’s work on Digital Harlem (digitalharlem.org) broadened my vision of the types of questions maps could help answer. I also found it valuable to look for models outside of the discipline of history and found the work of geographers Mona Domosh and Don Mitchell compelling examples of the difference place and space make in historical scholarship.[1]


Thank you so much for participating in the interview, Beth. To learn more about Civil War St. Louis, please check out her article in our March 2018 issue, on Project Muse. And readers, if you have questions, please leave them in the comments here or on Facebook!

 

 

[1] Anne Kelley Knowles, ed., Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship (Redlands, CA: Esri Press, 2008); Mona Domosh, “Those “gorgeous incongruities”: Polite Politics and Public Space on the Streets of Nineteenth-Century New York City,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 88, no. 2 (1998);209-226; Don Mitchell, The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space (New York: Guilford, 2003).

 

Preventing War after Fort Sumter: The Schleiden-Seward-Stephens Negotiations

Preventing War after Fort Sumter: The Schleiden-Seward-Stephens Negotiations

With the firing on Fort Sumter, the secession crisis escalated into bloody conflict. Weeks of work to mend sectional relations in Congress and with the Peace Conference had failed; Secretary of State William H. Seward’s conversations with the southern peace commissioners had similarly lead to nothing when President Abraham Lincoln determined to make a stand at Fort Sumter. Seward had been a driving force trying to prevent sectional war, but the outbreak of hostilities meant he fell in line and supported the administration’s war effort. Meanwhile, Rudolph Schleiden, the representative of the Hanseatic City of Bremen, had closely watched Seward’s belligerent attitude leading up to Inauguration Day, sharing the Secretary of State’s hope for a peaceful reunion of the country.[1] Even by late April, Seward had not given up on his assumption that peace was still a possibility, if Unionists got sufficient time to reassert their influence in the seceded states.

In April 1861, Seward supported Bremen’s Minister Resident Rudolph Schleiden’s visit to the soon-to-be enemy capital Richmond, but Seward did not explicitly send the minister to meet with Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens.[2] The meeting, which did occur, came to nothing because of the mutual distrust between the two sections. However, Seward’s support for Schleiden’s peace initiative indicates the continued perception that Unionists eventually could regain power in the seceded states and prevent further hostilities. Schleiden’s often overlooked trip to Richmond indicates how even a month into the war, the Union government continued its search for a peaceful solution, but not at any price.

Even after the first shots at Fort Sumter and the violence in Baltimore, Seward remained interested in preserving the Union and Bremen’s Rudolph Schleiden offered him an opportunity to do so. The violence in Baltimore had a deep impact on Schleiden, who had a humanitarian, even pacifist, streak in him.[3] In response to the foreseeable bloodshed, he contemplated mediating a truce between the two belligerents. As a former revolutionary, Schleiden approved of the right to revolution but like many Forty-Eighters, Schleiden did not grant the South that right. He believed that southerners had acted preemptively, or as he often termed it, on “sudden impulses.”[4] Furthermore, Schleiden knew from his experience how difficult it was for a state to survive against a larger, more powerful foe if the international situation was against that state.

Secretary of State William Seward and a Delegation of Diplomats at Trenton Falls, New York, 1863. 1. William H. Seward, Secretary of State; 4. Lord Lyons, British Minister; 5. M. Mercier, French Minister; 6. M. Schleiden, Hanseatic Minister. Taken by W. J. Baker, Utica, New York. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The idea of the diplomatic corps mediating was not new. In early January, Edward Everett approached the British minister Lord Lyons to inquire whether Great Britain, France, or Russia could mediate the sectional differences. Nothing came of the idea.[5] In March and April, foreign representatives in Washington were active trying to find some reconciliation between the two sides.[6] Schleiden’s attempt to mediate a truce was only one of many ideas that circulated in the diplomatic corps.

On the morning of April 24, 1861, Schleiden heard that Vice President Alexander Stephens was in Richmond. Knowing Stephens from his time in Congress when the two had resided in the same house, Schleiden secretly broached his idea to mediate a truce to both Salmon P. Chase and Seward. Where Chase refused to make any comment, Seward responded favorably, but with reservations. Schleiden’s concern to prevent bloodshed received Seward’s support and he reassured the minister that making contact with Stephens would not be held against Schleiden. However, Seward cautioned that the president and the government could not authorize such negotiations or provide specific terms. Nevertheless, Seward suggested that Schleiden talk with President Lincoln.[7]

That afternoon, Seward and Schleiden met Lincoln. The president thanked Schleiden for his willingness to help prevent bloodshed. He expressed a certain regret that he could no longer claim ignorance and wished that Schleiden had just gone to Richmond on his own. Schleiden countered that it would have been wrong for him to do so and would have exposed him to accusations of conspiring with the enemy against the only legitimate government.[8] Schleiden was painfully aware of why he was in the United States and not at home in Schleswig-Holstein. His role as an insurgent had made him an outcast once, but there was no need to become one for a cause Schleiden did not believe in.

Worried about the press misinterpreting his intentions, Lincoln insisted that the conversation be kept confidential. Despite his unwillingness to authorize negotiations, Lincoln promised that he would consider “with equal respect and care” all propositions that he would receive. Schleiden left the meeting with the impression that Seward and Lincoln wished for him, without official authorization, to consult with Stephens.[9] His official report and journal do not support the claim that Seward sent Schleiden.

On the way to Richmond, Schleiden noticed that his mission was unlikely to succeed. Throngs of young men filled the railroad stations eager to fight. The newspapers contained a belligerent tone. Richmond itself resembled an army camp. In the lobby of Richmond’s Spotwood Hotel, Schleiden found Senator Hunter and a few other prominent Virginians anxious to inquire about the reason for the journey.[10]

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, c. 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Schleiden immediately contacted Stephens and the two had a three-hour long conversation. Favorable inclined, Stephens doubted the prospects for success. Reminding Schleiden of the treatment the Southern commissioners had received in Washington, Stephens argued that Seward’s peacefulness could be easily discredited.

Recent developments increased Southern mistrust, according to Stephens. To him, Maryland had seceded by the actions of the mob in Baltimore and the Confederacy was honor bound to come to the state’s assistance if requested, which made the Potomac as a boundary unacceptable. Thus one aspect of the ceasefire had to be either Maryland’s inclusion in the Confederacy or the end of troop movements thought the state. In addition, the government could not risk demoralizing the people with a ceasefire. Finally, Stephens had no authority to negotiate. Nevertheless, Stephens decided to think about the offer. Schleiden requested a formal written statement.[11]

In the statement, Stephens regretted the “threatening prospect of a general war,” stressing that it was not the intention of the Confederacy to provoke a war. However, peace without independence was not acceptable. Stephens stressed his lack of authority, but provided some suggestions. The main point, which Lincoln would never accept, was to abstain from waging “a war for the recapture of former possessions . . . and subjugation of the people of the Confederate States to their former dominion.” Stephens asked the Lincoln government to make an authoritative proposal for consideration.[12]

With the formal statement as basis, Stephens and Schleiden debated for another two hours during which Schleiden impressed upon Stephens the need to modify passages of Stephens’s initial proposal. Schleiden told Stephens, “a significant amount of mistrust shined through the letter coupled with . . . a substantial amount of misplaced honor which threatened the impact of the letter because in Washington the letter would meet a similar mistrust and false, misplaced honor.” At the end of their conversation, both agreed to keep their talks confidential. Schleiden had lost faith and did not even record his second conversation with Stephens in his diary.[13]

After the final conversation, Schleiden returned to Washington on April 27. He immediately copied the proposal and correspondence, and added a cover letter, which he personally delivered to Seward. Seward listened attentively to the verbal report. Seward answered in Lincoln’s stead, thanking Schleiden for his effort. Seward confirmed that the Union was supreme and that restoration of the Union was the primary goal of the government. Lincoln saw no use to pursue the matter any further. Schleiden informed Stephens of the failure.[14]

The trip to Richmond shows Seward’s continued interest in using any means at his disposal to stall hostilities and allow Unionists time to regain control in the Southern states. Even by late April 1861, Seward was still under the assumption of strong Unionist sentiment in the South. However, there is no evidence that Seward was the instigator or that he directly provided Schleiden with terms and conditions to present to the Confederate Vice-President. Schleiden, as a former secessionist revolutionary, knew all too well how a civil war could tear a country apart and what violence and bloodshed that entailed. He brought his personal experiences along to Richmond. If anything, Schleiden’s trip in late April, one month into the war, illustrate the continued desire to find a peaceful solution. To some, the war, despite the firing on Fort Sumter, was not yet inevitable.

 

[1] Niels Eichhorn, “William H. Seward’s Foreign War Panacea Reconsidered,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, March 23, 2018, https://journalofthecivilwarera.org/2018/03/william-h-sewards-foreign-war-panacea-reconsidered/.

[2] Ralph H. Lutz, “Rudolph Schleiden and the Visit to Richmond, April 25, 1861,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association (1917): 207-16.

[3] Rudolph M. Schleiden, Schleswig-Holsteins erste Erhebung, 1848-1849 (Wiesbaden, Germany: Verlag von J. F. Bergmann, 1891), 352-360.

[4] Rudolf Schleiden to Syndicus Dr. Theodor Curtius, January 2, 1863, No. 8, US 27, Archiv der Hansestadt Lübeck.

[5] Lyons to Russell, February 4, 1861, James J. Barnes and Patience P. Barnes, Private and Confidential: Letters from British Ministers in Washington to the Foreign Secretaries in London, 1844-67 (Cranbury, NJ: Susquehanna University Press, 1993), 240.

[6] Albert A. Woldman, Lincoln and the Russians (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing, 1952), 56-59.

[7] May 4, 1858, 159, Book 18, 13 Tagebücher 12-20 (1849-1865), Box 653, Cb 44, Schleiden Nachlass, Landesbliothek Kiel; Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, April 24, 1861, morning letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[8] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, April 24, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[9] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, April 24, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[10] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, May 2, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[11] Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, May 2, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[12] Stephens to Schleiden, April 28, 1861, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[13] April 27, 1861, 237-38, book 19, 13 Tagebücher 12-20 (1849-1865), box 653, Cb 44, Schleiden Nachlass, Landesbibliothek Kiel; Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, May 2, 1861, evening letter letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

[14] April 27, 1861, 238, book 19, 13 Tagebücher 12-20 (1849-1865), box 653, Cb 44, Schleiden Nachlass, Landesbibliothek Kiel; Seward to Schleiden, April 29, 1861, Schleiden to Stephens, April 30, 1861, Schleiden to the Senate foreign relations committee, May 2, 1861, evening letter, 2-B.13.b.1.a.2.c.I, Ministerresident, Bremen, Staatsarchiv.

Niels Eichhorn

Niels Eichhorn is an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His first book, Separatism and the Language of Slavery: A Study of 1830 and 1848 Political Refugees and the American Civil War, is under contract with LSU Press. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.

“Starbucks is Not Just a Place To Buy a Cup of Coffee”: Race and the Boundaries of Urban Public Life

“Starbucks is Not Just a Place To Buy a Cup of Coffee”: Race and the Boundaries of Urban Public Life

When Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, two young African American entrepreneurs, entered a Starbucks coffee shop on April 12, 2018, for a business meeting in downtown Philadelphia, neither expected to be caught in the boundary between urban public and private space. The two men arrived at the café and awaited another associate to discuss a potential business opportunity. Shortly after entering, Nelson asked the manager to use the restroom and was told that the facility was for paying customers exclusively. Nelson and Robinson thought little of the interaction; similar policies around bathroom use are common. “I just left it at that,” Nelson later told a reporter.[1] Moments later, the manager, while never asking the men to leave directly, phoned the Philadelphia police requesting assistance with “two gentlemen in my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave.” Two officers arrived soon after and demanded Nelson and Robinson vacate the premises. Police placed handcuffs on the two men and escorted them out, charging them with trespassing and creating a disturbance, despite no witness testimony of misbehavior. Interviewed later, Robinson stated he understood the company guidance restricting non-paying patrons, but that he disagreed with how the manager applied the policy. “I understand that rules are rules,” he said, “but what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong.”[2]

Images of the incident, captured by other café patrons, went viral across the Internet and commenters from across the country shared outrage at similar experiences. The mayor of Philadelphia condemned the incident lamenting that the expulsion of Nelson and Robinson “appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018.”[3]

Spaces like Starbucks are an important part of the social and cultural fabric of modern cities. They sit as a middle ground between public and private space; a private business, yet used by the public for work, business, and social life sometimes with or without a purchase. As the company’s chief executive explained, “Our concept has always been that Starbucks is in the community. It’s a gathering place…a warm and welcoming environment for all customers.”[4] Philadelphia’s mayor reiterated the place of Starbucks in city life: “Starbucks is not just a place to buy a cup of coffee, but a place to meet up with friends or family members, or to get some work done.”[5] This overlap, however, has limits, as Robinson and Nelson discovered when the police intervened on behalf of the business.

The battle between an individual’s right to access and the right of a business proprietor to remove undesirable patrons has long been waged around places of public accommodation, particularly in American cities. Race has long been a central catalyst for conflict. In the nineteenth century, African Americans forced white business owners to contend with their participation in urban public life. Following the Civil War, in particular, as black men and women began to demand entry to urban businesses they challenged this boundary, asserting their right to patronize any business and rejecting a businesses owner’s supposed “private right” to exclude. Indeed, in Philadelphia, just blocks from the present day Starbucks, in 1876 the Bingham House denied accommodation to southern African American minister Fields Cook. The manager denied a room to Cook, even as he served white patrons. He told Cook, he was welcome to remain in the lobby, however. Cook sued the proprietor, arguing that the recently passed Fourteenth Amendment protected his right to accommodation. A judge agreed, marking the first successful use of the amendment in such a case.[6]

Racial discrimination in venues like the Boston Theater prompted African Americans to seek changes to Massachusetts law. “Stage and Auditorium of the Boston Theater,” Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion 9, no. 19 (November 10, 1855): 296.

Elsewhere in the Northeast, as explored in my 2015 article published in The Journal of the Civil War Era, African Americans had a history of challenging a business’s right to exclude, and in doing so, they redefined the boundaries of urban public life.[7] It was a challenging process, however, and activists faced major setbacks. In December 1856, African American barber Julian McCrea purchased a ticket in the upper balcony for a performance at Boston’s Howard Athenaeum. As he ascended the stairs, a doorman barred McCrea from entering the theater. He refused to leave and in response the doorman summoned the police. Confronted by the officers, McCrea invoked the U.S. Constitution in his defense. “I have a right to enter,” he explained furiously, “and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights make no difference by my color.”[8] The police then escorted the still angry McCrea from the building. McCrea sued the proprietor for his removal and assault, but the Massachusetts court upheld the actions of the theater, declaring that “the plaintiff’s attempts to enter were unwarranted, and the defendant rightfully used the force necessary to prevent his entry.”[9] In a similar case several years later, a judge ruled that a black man who refused to leave a theater when told by the management, “became a trespasser, and the defendant had the right to remove him by such a degree of force as his resistance should render necessary for that purpose.”[10]

Despite these early setbacks, following the Civil War, Boston’s black community organized and succeeded in pressing the state government for some of the nation’s first laws prohibiting public accommodation discrimination.[11] Yet these new statutes did not mean an end to the expulsion of black patrons by white business owners. In the 1880s, black Bostonians again faced business owners asserting their right to exclude; this time in the city’s newly-opened roller-skating rinks. In January 1885, the ticket agent of the Boston Roller Skating Rink denied entry to Richard Brown and his two young grandchildren. Brown rejected the agent’s declaration that the rink was private. “It is not private,” Brown argued, “you publically advertise it and call for the patronage of the public.”[12] When Brown refused to leave, several men grabbed him by the collar and he was “violently thrust out of the building” in front of his now crying grandchildren.[13]

Challenges to exclusion in places of public amusement are significant for the way they chart the boundaries of public accommodation. Opponents of anti-discrimination laws argued that individuals had no inherent right to access such seemingly frivolous spaces. A skating rink, they argued, was not an accommodation in the same way as a streetcar, hotel, or restaurant. Black advocates, however, argued that they held the right to access all places. “It is the principle that underlies the whole thing that we argue for,” one black activist argued to the Massachusetts legislature, “if a notice should be put up over the gates of hell that colored men would not be admitted, we would try to enter, because we have a right to.”[14] In response to these challenges, the legislature passed a new law further restricting the power of a business owner to deny service to patrons based on race.[15]

The Boston Roller Skating Rink enticed patrons with advertisements in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology student publication, The Tech. The rink proprietors made clear the policy of refusing service “to any objectionable person”; a strategy used to prohibit African American skaters. “Boston Roller Skating Rink,” Tech, 2, no. 13 (March 21, 1883): 18.

Enforcement of the laws, however, continued to be sporadic and activists fought for decades to expand the types of business included in the scope of the law. Business’s also came up with new schemes to deny service and continued to enforce policies reserving the right to exclude or deny service to “any objectionable person.”[16] The echoes of these business practices are clear in today’s Philadelphia when police took Nelson and Robinson into custody outside of Starbucks.

While black activists in the Northeast were unable to end all racial discrimination, their success shows the power of organization and action to push back against racism and force the state to act. In our own time, in the aftermath of the removal of Nelson and Robinson from Starbucks, demonstrators and activists took to the streets and occupied the business to express their outrage. The two men at the center of the story are now in arbitration with Starbucks working for new policies prohibiting future incidents, including a customer “bill of rights.” “We need a different type of action … not words,” Robinson told a reporter. “It’s a time to pay attention and understand what’s really going on. We do want a seat at the table.”[17] Taking inspiration from earlier generations of activists, present day opponents of racism continue to press both business owners and the state for the protection of the equal right to occupy and use any public accommodation. Like before, continued vigilance is necessary to secure free and equal access to urban public life for all people.

 

[1] Rachel Siegel, “’They can’t be here for us’: Black men arrested at Starbucks tell their story for the first time,” Washington Post, April 18, 2018, accessed April 26, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2018/04/19/they-cant-be-here-for-us-black-men-arrested-at-starbucks-tell-their-story-for-the-first-time/?utm_term=.c5b77c8e8914.

[2] “’They can’t be here for us,'” accessed April 26, 2018.

[3] Michael Tanenbaum, “Protests over controversial arrests at Center City Starbucks; Police commissioner says officers did nothing wrong,” Philly Voice, April 14, 2018, accessed April 26, 2018, http://www.phillyvoice.com/starbucks-arrest-philadelphia-center-city-police-investigating/.

[4] Samantha Melamed, “Starbucks arrests in Philadelphia: CEO Kevin Johnson promises unconscious-bias training for managers,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 16, 2018, accessed April 26, 2018, http://www.philly.com/philly/news/pennsylvania/philadelphia/starbucks-ceo-kevin-johnson-philadelphia-arrests-black-men-20180416.html.

[5] Jenny Garthright and Emily Sullivan, “Starbucks, Police And Mayor Respond To Controversial Arrest Of 2 Black Men In Philly,” National Public Radio, April 14, 2018, accessed April 26, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/04/14/602556973/starbucks-police-and-mayor-weigh-in-on-controversial-arrest-of-2-black-men-in-ph.

[6] Leslie Patrick, “African American and Civil Rights in Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Heritage, Spring 2010, accessed April 27, 2018, http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/pa-heritage/african-americans-civil-rights-pennsylvania.html.

[7] Millington Bergeson-Lockwood, “We Do Not Care Particularly About the Skating Rinks”: African American Challenges to Racial Discrimination in Places of Public Amusement in Nineteenth Century Boston, Massachusetts,” Journal of the Civil War Era 5, no. 2 (June 2015): 254-288.

[8] “Plaintiffs Exceptions,” McCrea v. Marsh (September 1, 1857), Suffolk County Superior Court, Judicial Archives, Massachusetts Archives, Boston, Massachusetts.

[9] McCrea v. Marsh, 78 Mass. 211 (1858).

[10] Burton v. Scherpf, 83 Mass. 133 (1861).

[11] “An Act Forbidding Unjust Discrimination on Account of Color or Race,” 1865 Mass. Acts 277; “An Act in Relation to Public Places of Amusement,” 1866 Mass. Acts 252.

[12] “A Question of Civil Rights,” Boston Daily Globe, January 17, 1885.

[13] “Petition of Richard S. Brown with Thomas Russell and Others,” February 2, 1885, Docket Documents, Mayor and Board of Aldermen, City of Boston Archives, Boston, Mass.; “A Question of Civil Rights”; “Brown at the Skating Rink,” Boston Daily Globe, January 24, 1885; “Contending for the Right,” New York Freeman, January 31, 1885; “Costly Discrimination,” Boston Daily Globe, January 24, 1885; “The Color Line,” Boston Daily Globe, January 16, 1885.

[14] “Even in Tophet,” Boston Daily Globe, March 14, 1885; “The Color Line,” Boston Daily Advertiser, March 14, 1885.

[15] “An Act to Punish Persons Making Discrimination in Public Places on Account of Race or Color,” 1885 Mass. Acts 316.

[16] “Boston Roller Skating Rink,” Tech 2, no. 13 (March 21, 1883): 18.

[17] Associated Press, “Black men arrested at Philadelphia Starbucks feared for their lives,” The Guardian, April 19, 2018, accessed April 26, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/apr/19/starbucks-black-men-feared-for-lives-philadelphia.

 

Millington Bergeson-Lockwood

Millington Bergeson-Lockwood is a historian of African American history, race, law and politics. He received his PhD from the University of Michigan in 2011. His book, Race Over Party: Black Politics and Partisanship in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press in May 2018. His article “‘We Do Not Care Particularly About the Skating Rinks’: African Americans Challenges to Racial Discrimination in Places of Public Accommodation in Nineteenth-Century Boston, Massachusetts” was awarded the Richards Prize by the Journal of the Civil War Era for best article published in 2015. He currently lives in Lilongwe, Malawi.

“Confederate Monuments…What To Do?”: Historians’ Town-Hall Meeting on Memorialization—and Racial Injustice

“Confederate Monuments…What To Do?”: Historians’ Town-Hall Meeting on Memorialization—and Racial Injustice

Today we conclude our series of reports on relevant panels at the 2018 OAH that will be of interest to readers. Our last entry in the series discusses the future of Confederate monuments in the American landscape, authored by Jonathan Lande. The earlier reports can be found here and here.


Confederate monuments like this statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, rise from the earth throughout the South as well as in other regions of the country. “Lee Monument, Monument Avenue & Allen Avenue, Richmond, Independent City, VA.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On Friday evening at the recent meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) in Sacramento, OAH President and Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities Edward Ayers led a town-hall meeting titled, “Confederate Monuments: What To Do?” to analyze the problem of memorialization, especially of the Confederacy, and what historians can do to help the nation move forward.[1]

Ayers contextualized the controversy. He said the question of Confederate monuments in public spaces erupted after the murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.[2] He added that it heated up further following the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue erected in New Orleans on February 22, 1884.[3] The murder of a counter-protester at a white supremacist rally around the Lee monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, threw more fuel on the debate in the summer of 2017.[4] Finally, noting the relationship between the monuments and the long-simmering problem of racial injustice that would come to define the session, Ayers mentioned Stephon Clark, an unarmed African American shot by police in Sacramento just a month before.[5]

Ayers orchestrated the conversation by asking questions of the panelists first and, after each response, inviting the audience to participate. The panel included Turkiya Lowe, Chief Historian of the National Park Service; Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia; and John Kuo Wei Tchen, Inaugural Clement A. Price Chair of Public History and Humanities at Rutgers-Newark and member of the New York City’s Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers.[6] Since the session was meant to facilitate a town-hall discussion, Ayers framed it so as to not privilege panelists’ voices over others. He gave the audience a platform to contribute throughout the meeting.

He laid the groundwork for a dialogue, first asking: “What do the monuments say to those who want to keep them?” Coleman responded. After gathering information from the monuments’ defenders, she said defenders see Confederate monuments as symbols of men who fought for their homes, defended their version of the Constitution, and often associated the figures with their ancestors. Tchen reminded the room that communities throughout the country erected monuments that cause violence, so all regions need to reflect. Adding further complexity, Lowe noted that the statues are artistic expressions.

Ayers then opened the floor to the audience. A high-school teacher said he valued the monuments as objects that he could use to tell the story of the Civil War. Another audience member echoed the teacher’s remarks, suggesting that as a historian the elimination of artifacts made him cringe, yet he admitted reservations, acknowledging the violence monuments cause.

Ayers turned to this violence next. He asked, “What’s the rationale of removing the statues?” Coleman outlined three reasons gleaned from research. Those wanting the statues taken down explain that the monuments are examples of the enduring disenfranchisement of people of color. Others grow impassioned because memorialization of traitors signals the power of white privilege in America. Finally, Coleman said that some approach statues from personal experience, remembering the laws establishing the monuments being passed in the same legislative sessions that stripped freedom and citizenship from African Americans. Lowe added that some monuments lack a direct relationship to historical fact, and Tchen expanded the question, addressing the violence caused by the erasure of events related to all populations of color.

This stereograph card of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson allowed viewers to see Jackson in three dimensions and for admirers to “visit” the Confederate monument whenever they looked through the stereograph’s lenses. D. H. Anderson, “Stonewall Jackson’s Statue,” Richmond, Virginia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

At this moment, Ayers turned to the audience, and the conversation addressed possible solutions. An audience member inaugurated the conversation, describing significant historical places that remain invisible to the public. He mentioned the relative absence of markers at Fort Pillow, where Nathan Bedford Forrest and his men massacred African American U.S. army soldiers. As a solution to the predominance of Confederate monuments, he suggested more focus be given to how to memorialize events and people who remain unnoticed, which would counteract the presence of Confederates in public space. Coleman remarked that a growing number of voices call for similar action in Richmond. As monuments memorializing the slave trade and the black freedom struggle pop up, she said, some call for Richmond to become a “monumental city.” She added that it is critical to engage the art community because artists strike emotions. Tchen said ephemeral efforts by arts groups in New York have long annotated historic locations. An audience member encouraged historians to raise monuments to other role models, yet another declared her skepticism of simply adding statues and, instead, invited historians to engage in what she called, without description, “authentic conversations.” Most often, though, participants’ suggested adding more statues to offset the Confederate monuments.

The possibility of building more statues led Ayers to a final question: “Can addition be a model?” Constructing more monuments adds history, making for a solution that surely seems enlightened to Clio’s ilk, though not all. Ibram X. Kendi contends that only adding monuments fails to counteract Confederate monuments and that monuments should only honor the United States.[7] Unfortunately, a vigorous examination over the merits of manufacturing more historical markers and contextualizing those standing never gained steam. Those looking for a definitive answer to the session’s framing question left wanting; but in the last half hour, the conversation offered insights into the true nature of the problem that, if more fully understood, may help the nation move forward.

Towards the end of the session, an audience member said the panel had scarcely addressed the culture that erected the monuments in the first place. She hoped for more discussion over the racial intolerance that funded the monuments and led to the deaths of unarmed black men.

Undoubtedly, connections between Confederate monuments and racism are at the heart of the problem. As the Southern Poverty Law Center has shown, the construction of monuments spiked at the same time when states enacted Jim Crow laws and in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the civil rights movement intensified.[8] In public debates, furthermore, racial violence and racial identities continue to be the locus of contention. As the panel acknowledged, monuments mean different things to members of society. Lowe put it succinctly in her remark: “What is one person’s art is another person’s violence.” As Coleman noted, defenders of Confederate markers hold on to them as heirlooms and do not appreciate that the monuments terrorize African Americans. As a result, she said, “These sides do not hear each other because they are expressing themselves through places of pain.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly yet nevertheless important to note, the session revealed that Americans continue to wrestle with the issue of Confederate monuments because of the ongoing problems of racism. As the conversation closed, it was clear that until Americans redress racial injustices and rebuild civic trust to support a productive dialogue the problem of Confederate monuments will continue to embroil communities throughout the country.

This does not mean historians should stop looking for solutions to this particular instance of racial violence, though. In fact, it means the opposite.

The problem of Confederate monuments is exactly where historians have the expertise to eradicate this vestige of racism. Indeed, beyond the session, historians have offered a range of solutions in opinion pieces and in public conversations. Some historians suggest the monuments be left as heaps of rubble or empty pedestals, recalling oppressive regimes while not celebrating them.[9] Others advocate relocating monuments to National Parks, where rangers can contextualize, or they call for the total removal of Confederate symbols.[10] The record number of historians who penned Op-Ed’s and appeared in the media compelled Catherine Clinton and Jim Downs to host a conversation of Civil War historians over the controversial monuments, which will appear in the forthcoming Confederate Statues and Memorization (with the University of Georgia Press) and make for a means to facilitate classroom discussions for years to come. As the public conversations and OAH session demonstrate, historians can provide their ideas on these ciphers of racial injustice.

Historians’ contributions remain critical to the debate, and historians should continue to raise their voices. As John Hope Franklin observed, historians have excited racial and nationalistic hatred, yet he noted that historians could also promote humanity, pointing out the unfulfilled promises of democracy.[11] Ideally, historians will strive for Franklin’s notion of the scholar as humanitarian, and the public debate over monuments creates the space for historians to endeavor toward the humanitarian-historian ideal. So, even if the solutions elude us, we should linger on the vexing question of what to do with Confederate statues, and other racist markers scarring the landscape, as long as it is necessary.

 

[1] The American Historical Association (AHA) declared in a 2017 statement the importance of considering why the monuments were erected, whether the monuments should remain, and where to relocate them if the decision is made to remove them; the OAH endorsed the statement not long after. “AHA Statement on Confederate Monuments, August 2017,” accessed April 17, 2018, https://www.historians.org/news-and-advocacy/statements-and-resolutions-of-support-and-protest/aha-statement-on-confederate-monuments; “OAH endorses AHA Statement on Confederate Monuments,” August 31, 2017, accessed April 17, 2018, http://www.oah.org/programs/news/oah-endorses-aha-statement-on-confederate-monuments/.

[2] “The Victims: 9 were Slain at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church,” NPR News, June 18, 2015, accessed April 23, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/06/18/415539516/the-victims-9-were-slain-at-charlestons-emanuel-ame-church.

[3] Amber Nicholson, “Robert E. Lee Monument,” New Orleans Historical, accessed April 23, 2018, http://www.neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/1279.

[4] Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Brian M. Rosenthal, “Man Charged After White Nationalist Rally in Charlottesville Ends in Deadly Violence,” August 12, 2017, accessed April 23, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/12/us/charlottesville-protest-white-nationalist.html.

[5] Frances Robles and Jose A. Del Real, “Stephon Clark was Shot 8 Times Primarily in His Back, Family-Ordered Autopsy Finds,” New York Times, March 30, 2018, accessed April 23, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/us/stephon-clark-independent-autopsy.html.

[6] Gregory Schneider, “An African American Leader Brings a Provocative Take to Expanded Civil War Museum,” The Washington Post, April 15, 2018, accessed April 17, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/an-african-american-leader-brings-a-provocative-take-to-expanded-civil-war-museum/2018/04/15/6a7daba4-3db4-11e8-974f-aacd97698cef_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d03c5153e8dc. To see the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers Report, see: http://www1.nyc.gov/site/monuments/index.page.

[7] Kendi quoted in Jeremy Miller, “Do Confederate Monuments Belong in National Parks?” Sierra, September 24, 2017, accessed April 24, 2018, https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/do-confederate-monuments-belong-national-parks.

[8] Southern Poverty Law Center, “Whose Heritage?: Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” April 21, 2016, accessed April 18, 2018, https://www.splcenter.org/20160421/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy.

[9] Steve Lubar, “Leave the Durham Memorial on the Ground,” August 15, 2017, Medium, accessed February 1, 2018, https://medium.com/@lubar/leave-the-durham-memorial-on-the-ground-4a3713f2bf5e; Kevin M. Levin, “Why I Changed My Mind About Confederate Monuments,” The Atlantic, August 19, 2017, accessed April 17, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/why-i-changed-my-mind-about-confederate-monuments/537396/.

[10] For a list of historians’ opinion pieces, see Megan Kate Nelson’s frequently updated list, “Historians Take on White Supremacist Memorials: A Round-Up,” Historista, accessed April 24, 2018, http://www.megankatenelson.com/historians-take-on-white-supremacist-memorials-a-round-up/.

[11]
John Hope Franklin, “History — Weapon of War and Peace,” Pylon 49, no. 3/4 (Autumn-Winter, 2001): 297-276.

Jonathan Lande

Jonathan Lande is finishing a year teaching history at Tougaloo College as the Brown-Tougaloo Exchange Faculty Fellow and recently defended his dissertation on African American deserters and mutineers, wartime emancipation, and anti-black racism in the courts-martial during the Civil War at Brown University. This fall, he will be researching at the New York Historical Society while teaching at the New School as the Irene and Bernard Schwartz Postdoctoral Fellow before assuming the position of Assistant Professor of History at Weber State University.

Two Visions of Abolition and Emancipation: An OAH “State of the Field” Roundtable

Two Visions of Abolition and Emancipation: An OAH “State of the Field” Roundtable

Today we continue our series of reports on the recent Organization of American Historians annual meeting with a concise summation of a lively discussion on abolition and emancipation, recorded by Evan Turiano.

Our first report from the 2018 meeting can be found here and the final report on the Confederate monuments town hall can be found here.


“Was abolition a fundamentally radical or conservative movement?” Joshua Rothman, Professor of History at the University of Alabama, presented this question as one of several that the panel of esteemed nineteenth-century historians could pursue at the OAH Conference’s “State of the Field: Abolition and Emancipation” roundtable session. This question proved central, engaging both the panel and the audience of nearly 120 people, who packed the hall of this primetime panel. The answer, it turns out, largely depends on context: are abolition and emancipation best understood in relation to the political and social movements that preceded them, or in relation to the shortcomings of Reconstruction that followed?

The panel featured a range of distinguished scholars whose research projects touch on emancipation from different angles. Stephen Kantrowitz, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, expressed in his opening remarks an interest in moving beyond the “slavery/freedom binary” and described the fruits of liberal emancipation as “disappointing.” He also called for an understanding of emancipation in the context of continental history, and of American empire. Manisha Sinha, the Draper Chair of American History at the University of Connecticut, assumed the opposite stance in her opening remarks. She warned that the long-fought scholarly efforts to overturn whiggish “slavery to freedom” narratives are at risk of being overdone, and can flatten the radical transformations inherent to abolition. She also warned that emancipation is too often considered as a contingent moment, one of wartime desperation, which obscures the long fight for abolition. Kidada Williams, Associate Professor of History at Wayne State University, considered emancipation from the Reconstruction era, and expressed particular interest in how an expanded source base, one that amplifies black voices, can add to our understandings of emancipation.

In her opening remarks, Chandra Manning, Professor of History at Georgetown University, laid out what she thought to be the three primary sites of conflict in the modern historiography on abolition and emancipation. First is the conflict between those arguments that emphasize the important agency of the enslaved, versus those that emphasize the hard power of enslavement and the meaningful ways in which it limited agency. The second debate is whether emancipation began quickly and decisively, or whether it was deferred to slowly as a desperate act. The final, most central debate Manning posed regarded whether or not we can collapse different forms of exploitation together: Does emancipation matter? How much did the material condition of African American laborers really change? More specifically, was Reconstruction doomed to fail from the start, or was it overthrown?

Joshua Rothman then posed the first of Manning’s questions to the panelists on frank terms: Does emancipation matter? Stephen Kantrowitz answered first. “Of course emancipation matters,” he said, but he urged that it be considered in the context of what follows. In this light, according Kantrowitz, we are left with the sense that things could have gone differently after emancipation. Sinha also began by asserting that emancipation matters a great deal. She contended with Kantrowitz and others that we cannot include the “overthrow of Reconstruction” in our study of emancipation. This sort of “post-post-revisionist” conflating of two distinct events, according to Sinha, undercuts the transformative aspects of emancipation. Manning disagreed somewhat with Sinha on this interpretation. She described the marrying of emancipation and Reconstruction as being both fruitful and dangerous, suggesting that it can reveal some imperfections inherent to how emancipation played out.

In a question posed from the audience, Thavolia Glymph, Professor of History at Duke University, expressed shock that the state of the field was such that “Does emancipation matter?” was still an open question. She received the first applause of the session. From the panel, Manisha Sinha echoed Glymph’s frustrations. She questioned some of Stephen Kantrowitz’s earlier points, urging that the study of American imperialism cannot be allowed to undercut our recognition of abolition’s radicalism. Kantrowitz acknowledged that the focus on Reconstruction’s failures has created a somewhat troubling trend in public-facing history, the idea that, “slavery didn’t end, it just changed.” He points specifically to Ava DuVernay’s award winning 2016 documentary 13th as evidence that much of the public has lost sight of the transformative aspects of emancipation. A division was clear, and an audience question from Richard Blackett, Andrew Jackson Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, laid it out in concrete terms: Does focusing on emancipation in relation to Reconstruction mean that we under-study what came before? When we look at the shortcomings of Reconstruction, do we lose sight of the processes behind abolition and emancipation?

From the panel, Chandra Manning tried to organize the room’s increasingly clear rift back toward the historiographical question she had attempted to pose earlier. She posited that the question at hand was whether Reconstruction’s overthrow was the product of shortcomings inherent to emancipation, or of separate, outside forces. Both of these, according to Manning, were worthy of serious consideration. Sinha pushed back, reminding the audience that the former of the two theses, that Reconstruction’s failures were inherent to emancipation, did not have a “respectable genealogy.” Former slaveholders were the first to propose these ideas, as Sinha points out, in an effort to build a mythical Confederate narrative. Instead, she argued that the field must consider emancipation and abolition on their own terms, and understand Reconstruction as a project that was overthrown by external forces. In a final audience comment, Richard Blackett reminded everyone that abolition was “the most radical movement of its time,” and that we cannot say that nothing has changed in its wake.

This panel, delivered before a packed, often tense room, revealed that the study of emancipation and abolition is host to more conflict than consensus. The stakes of the fundamental question at hand are very high: How should we understand the Civil War? How do we make sense of slavery in relation to other forms of unfreedom throughout American history? Where do we break off the U.S. History survey course—is emancipation an end, a beginning, or neither? This panel made it clear that these questions are open but are certainly in good hands.

 

Evan Turiano

Evan Turiano is a PhD student at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is also a Teaching Fellow at Queens College, CUNY and is Co-Chair of the CUNY Early American Republic Seminar. His research examines the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and sectional politics.

Looking West at the OAH: New Views on Southern Expansion, Slavery, and Imperialism

Looking West at the OAH: New Views on Southern Expansion, Slavery, and Imperialism

This week, we are publishing reports on the recent meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) in Sacramento. We are highlighting panels and roundtables that intersect with the Civil War era and that we believe will be of great interest to our readers. Our first comes from Kathleen Logothetis Thompson, who attended a fascinating roundtable about the Civil War in the West. The other two reports are available here and here.


Looking backwards from secession in 1860, historians often focus on a trajectory of slavery and anti-slavery that frames western expansion as instrumental to the rising regional tension that led to war. A current movement within scholarship looks at the Civil War era in continental or international terms and reexamines the role of the West in both the antebellum and wartime periods. The opportunities present in the expansion of our geographical focus westward was highlighted by a roundtable session, “The Old South in the New West: Southern Expansionism and Empire Building in the American Borderlands.” William Deverell (University of Southern California) served as chair alongside panelists Stacey Smith (Oregon State University), Andrew J. Torget (University of North Texas), Maria Angela Diaz (Utah State University), and Kevin Waite (Durham University). Since this followed a roundtable format, each panelist gave a brief presentation of their research and questions for the field before the chair opened the conversation to the room.

Andrew J. Torget’s research examines southern expansion into Mexico in the first half of the nineteenth century as part of the western expansion of slavery and the international expansion of the cotton economy. As southern slaveholders moved into Mexican territory they had to explain the system of cotton and slavery to a new regime and their presence sparked a debate over the place of slavery in the newly independent nation. This debate helped cause the Texas Revolution and the creation of the Texas Republic, which Torget argued was everything the Confederacy wanted to be a couple decades later. The cotton and slave society set up in Texas ultimately failed, however, due to low international support and the collapse of the cotton economy during the Panic of 1837, leading to its necessary annexation into the United States.

While Torget framed his research as more of an economic opportunity rather than a chance at imperialism, Angela Diaz situated her scholarship more squarely in the discussion of empire. She argued that communities such as Pensacola, Florida, saw themselves as staging grounds for further colonization and questioned what happened to these southern communities when they reached out to conquer the west and Latin America. She also questioned the place of race in this southern expansion. While the American South had a binary white-black system where race was part of socio-economic status, that binary breaks down in more diverse areas such as territory taken from Mexico, cities like New Orleans, or countries in Latin and South America. When expanding west and south, Southerners had to put their structure against places that were racially and culturally very different than their own.

In his presentation, Kevin Waite posed questions about what southerners saw and expected when they looked west. There is a tendency to interpret this western expansion as an attempt to simply create space for plantation agriculture, but that type of system was not feasible in areas of the west and Latin America. He argued that even where plantation agriculture and chattel slavery could not take root, slaveholders expanded their political structure and preserved systems of unfree labor. Southerners had to recalibrate their ideas as they moved into the west, but they still upheld paternalism, unfree labor, and what they considered the natural order of society to preserve their political power and support their southern system of slavery.

Stacey Smith raised similar questions with her research on Jessie Benton Fremont, wife of John C. Fremont who credited herself with saving California from slavery during her search for good domestic help. A slaveholder offered her an enslaved woman, which she refused due to her free soil stance, and this action, she claimed, encouraged others to vote anti-slavery in California. Like Waite, Smith argued that even where the cotton economy could not flourish the institution of slavery could have still expanded to perform other labor in the west. In locations such as California, slavery would have been part of a patchwork of coercive labor and Smith raised questions about the racial and regional diversity of slavery as well as the opportunity to research the role of white women in these debates.

As a conclusion to the panel presentations, William Deverell asked what opportunities were missed in studying the west or Latin America in scholarship that looks only at the expansion of slavery in the South and abolition in the North. One common thread in the panelists’ answers was that they did not see a single slave conspiracy of expansion, a fear that northerners held in the lead up to secession. Instead, they saw smaller schemes or actions to spread slavery that add up to make it appear like a larger conspiracy to expand the slave power.

The ensuing discussion began with one audience member pointing out that reframing expansion also offers a different interpretation to post-war expansion and imperialism, both in the West and abroad. Torget added that southerners had broader horizons for slavery than usually studied and Waite asked at what point the expansion of slavery became sectionalized. It is easy for historians to read history backwards from the Civil War, but these questions invite historians to project forward from the events and reevaluate our narrative of history.

This discussion was followed by two audience questions about empire and imperialism. The first asked each panelist what empire looked like to them, since many had not brought up the term in their remarks. Diaz explained that her subjects saw themselves as at the center of a pro-slavery imperialist ideal and that slavery was at the heart of American imperialism during this period. Torget remarked that American expansion into Mexico and the Texas Revolution caused the creation of a new country (Texas) and an imperialistic war with Mexico. Waite and Smith took a different approach to the question; Waite remarked on the difference between expansion and imperialism and Smith pointed out the importance of timing—expansion could be imperialism before the Mexican-American War or simply expansion of southern ideas into United States territory once that land was annexed.

The second question about empire asked what happened to southern imperialism once slavery was gone, pointing out southern anti-imperialistic views around the turn of the century. While Waite did not see much of a change in the ideas about conquering non-white peoples, Torget remarked that the expansion of slavery as a form of political power was no longer relevant which changed the dynamic of expansion in the South. Diaz also reminded us that we could not underestimate the damage to the south (both physical damage and the blow to confidence and southern interests) brought about by the Civil War.

Another audience member asked if there was something about American slavery that made it inherently expansionist and whether southerners wanted to expand only due to slavery. Diaz responded that expansion was a combination of racial, economic, and geo-political factors. Southerners saw geo-political opportunities in this expansion, for example in commercial connections with sugar planters in the Caribbean and Latin America. Torget added that expansion was not inherent to the south or the institution of slavery, but was the experience of America. Southern interest in this expansion lay in political power because they felt vulnerable during the antebellum period in ways that northerners did not.

In addition, the audience posed questions about the defense of peonage in the west as pro-slavery language, the transfer of ideas west about Native Americans from removal policies, and connections between chattel slavery and interactions with other forms of unfree labor in the west. These questions and the panelists’ discussions revealed plenty of opportunity for new scholarship on the institution of American slavery, the trajectory of westward expansion, and placing American history into continental and international context. As these scholars demonstrated, looking west and south asks historians to rethink the narrative of expansion, secession, and slavery. This reanalysis of southern expansionism adds new complexity to the narrative of American history and will hopefully lead to rich new scholarship.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson earned her Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2017 with doctoral research on mental trauma and coping in the Union Army. She earned her M.A. from West Virginia University in 2012 and her B.A. in history with a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies from Siena College in 2010. In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010 to 2014 and she co-edits Civil Discourse, a blog on the long Civil War era.