Tag Archives: OAH

Recovering Southern Women: A Report from the OAH

In recent weeks, activists have spotlighted the disappearance of numerous young women of color from the District of Columbia and its environs—a reality, they allege, that was long underreported by public functionaries and local media.[1] Intentionally or neglectfully, these women’s voices and those of their communities were long silenced. As a roundtable of leading scholars convened at the Organization of American Historians 2017 Annual Meeting noted, such silencing is not a recent phenomenon. The session, entitled “Pioneers and New Scholarship on Women in the Pre-Civil War South,” argued that until relatively recently, historical condescension, lack of interest, and unquestioned assumptions regarding archival limitations collectively suppressed the historical voices, stories, and lived experiences of African-American women. Only in the last few decades have scholars deployed new and rigorous research methodologies to find their voices amidst this silence and begun to recover them; in doing so, they have reiterated with every discovery that black women’s lives did and do matter, that their names must be said, and that their voices must be heard.

The starting point for this roundtable—comprised of Drs. Deborah Gray White, Catherine Clinton, Jennifer Morgan, Daina Ramey Berry, and Stephanie Jones-Rogers, and chaired by Dr. Brenda Stevenson—was Deborah Gray White’s groundbreaking Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (Norton, 1985). White (currently the Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University) informed the audience that when she began the project, she was told it could not be done because the requisite sources for a history of enslaved women simply did not exist: a refrain that became all too familiar as the session proceeded. To the degree that black women appeared in prior histories of slavery, White argued, they were bit players in a historical drama that emphasized black masculinity amidst the historical, social, and political debates swirling during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and they were often reduced to sexual points of contention between white and black men. Lacking language for what we would now term intersectionality, early scholars of enslaved women laid the groundwork for those who would come after by opening new archives and indicating voids yet to be filled. Catherine Clinton, Denman Endowed Professor of American History at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of (among many others) The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South (Pantheon. 1982) and Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Little, Brown & Co., 2004), largely affirmed White’s retrospective. Scholarship on black women produced during the late 1970s primarily emphasized their sexuality, whether as a factor in the construction of black masculinity or as a means of understanding the white plantation household—and further explorations were widely discouraged.

The roundtable’s other scholars reflected on the ways in which they had taken up White’s call for closer scrutiny of claims that the archive was truly devoid of black women. Jennifer Morgan, a Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University and author of Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in New World Slavery (Pennsylvania, 2004), recalled also having been met with skepticism regarding the possibility that her dissertation could even be written; nevertheless, she found rich new sources that placed women—and particularly the reproductive labor of enslaved women—at the center of the colonial experience in the New World. Morgan affirmed that historical inquiries can and should be rooted in the archives, but called for historians to be critical of the power dynamics and historical oppressions on which archives are constructed (a call reminiscent of those by Kathryn Burns, Yael Sternhell, and Marisa Fuentes to look at the archive as well as in it, and to give particular emphasis to those places where there are pronounced silences).[2]

Daina Ramey Berry (Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin) reflected on how the need to read archival sources afresh (and skeptically) proved fruitful in her work. She emphasized that in Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (Illinois, 2007), she chose to go where enslaved women were in the archives rather than where others expected her to go, and in doing so found women’s own assessments and valuations of their work as well as the values masters placed on their unique laboring capacities—particularly in reproduction. More recently, her The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Beacon Press, 2017), studiously juxtaposed enslaved voices and their self-determined soul values with the commodification forced on them by their masters.

Finally Stephanie Jones-Rogers, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California-Berkeley, whose forthcoming book, Mistresses of the Market: White Women and the Economy of American Slavery (under contract with Yale) examines the role of women in the business of slavery, recounted her own experiences pursuing female voices overlooked and disregarded in the archive. Historians long assumed that while women participated in the slave system, their involvement was largely limited to household management and domestic economy. Jones-Rogers’s research recovered the myriad ways in which they engaged in all aspects of antebellum slave commerce, and in doing so she advanced the inclusion of women in the story of the slavery’s expansion during the antebellum period.

The assembled scholars celebrated strides made over the last thirty years in recovering voices long assumed to be lost, applauding the ways in which careful observation and reading sources against the grain have populated scholarship on the antebellum South with unprecedented numbers of women—and particularly black women. They also provided instructive cautionary tales. Popular depictions of the enslaved, Clinton and White argued, have not kept pace with scholarship; while White compared Lupita Nyong’o’s exemplary portrayal of Patsey in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave to 2016’s Birth of a Nation’s retrograde use of black women’s sexuality as a foil for black masculinity, Clinton cited a request that she consult on a reality show recalling the plantation South. Berry’s experience on the 2016 remake of Roots suggested that many shows wish to incorporate cutting-edge scholarship, a positive step that must be set alongside arguments Clinton recalled, witnessing against Harriet Tubman’s inclusion on the twenty dollar bill. Popular mythmaking, the panelists concurred, can inaccurately shape scholars’ expectations about what they might find in the archive (many cited the elusive “Mammy” figure—long assumed to be a prominent part of the enslaved experience, but absent from the sources). Rather, historians must enter the archive and write what they find there: acknowledging historically created silences and lacunae, recovering and deploying the voices of the enslaved, expanding access to the archives for all, and encouraging deeper exploration of them by the next generation of scholars—all of which will allow new voices to resound out of present silences.

[1] Laura Jarrett, Samantha Reyes, and David Shortell, “Missing Black Girls in DC Spark Outrage, Prompt Calls for Federal Help,” CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/24/us/missing-black-girls-washington-dc/ (accessed April 14, 2017); Shaun King, “It’s No Accident That We Hear So Little About Missing Black Girls In This Country,” New York Daily News, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/king-no-accident-hear-missing-black-girls-article-1.3005609 (accessed April 14, 2017).

[2] Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Yael Sternhell, “The Afterlives of a Confederate Archive: Civil War Documents and the Making of Sectional Reconciliation” Journal of American History 102, no. 4 (March 2016): 1025-1050; Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Robert Colby

Robert Colby is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His dissertation, "The Continuance of an Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South," examines the ways in which the domestic slave trade shaped the course of the Civil War and the experience of emancipation. You can follow him on Twitter, @rkdcolby86.

Violence After Victory: Reconstruction Scholarship at the OAH

The streets, sidewalks, and facades of New Orleans’ famous Canal Street repeatedly bore witness to terrible outbursts of violence throughout the Reconstruction Era, as ex-Confederates tried to overturn the egalitarian reforms of Reconstruction through bloodshed and intimidation. Several of the most important massacres and street battles in the history of Reconstruction happened within walking distance of the Marriott, this year’s venue for the Organization of American Historians (OAH). In fact, the Mechanics’ Institute Massacre of 1866, which Philip Sheridan famously termed “an absolute massacre by the police” of supporters of black suffrage, took place just four blocks up Canal Street from the conference.[1] In this sense, the OAH was a fitting venue for Sunday’s panel, “Democratizing Violence in the Post-Civil War South.”

The panel explored the role of violence in shaping Reconstruction and the meaning of the Confederate defeat. Two of the speakers, David Williard and Carin Peller-Semmens, employed a bottom-up perspective to gauge the impact of vigilantism on the parameters of Reconstruction, while the third, Bradley Proctor, examined the ideology behind acts of white supremacist violence. Despite the different methodologies, the panelists made a single, collective assertion that the wave of postwar violence carries significant implications for our understandings of the arc of Reconstruction, its design, and its possibilities.

Peller-Semmens makes perhaps the most recognizable claim about postwar violence: that white vigilantism constituted an important political tool through which former Confederates regained local control after the war. Her essay, “‘The Creatures Do Not Respect Their Creator’: The Unifying Power of Violent White Supremacy in Northwest Louisiana,” argues persuasively that ex-Confederates in northwestern Louisiana used violence as a tool to overthrow the Republican Party in the Red River region of the state. Peller-Semmens examines the correspondence and political origins of three massacres in the region–at Shady Grove, Colfax, and Coushatta–finding that vigilantes tortured and killed local Republicans in grisly spectacles to permanently disable the party.

Where previous narratives of violence in northwest Louisiana tend to discuss postwar violence within its immediate context, Peller-Semmens provides a more detailed and sophisticated framework by alluding to antebellum systems of power.[2] She finds that “violence supplanted mastery as the means of subjugating freedpeople” after the war, cutting across class lines and prior party affiliation as part of a popularized struggle in ways slavery never could. This widespread white vigilantism in northwest Louisiana helped institutionalize white power and citizenship at the expense of African Americans while repositioning the remembered antebellum plantation regime to align more closely with the rhetoric white solidarity than property. In short, vigilantism rendered white southern politics participatory.

Williard likewise argues compellingly in “The Violent Creation of Confederate Veteranhood” that ex-Confederates’ acts of vigilantism in the immediate aftermath of the war indicate real changes to southern social and political hierarchies. Williard’s argument finds poignant illustration in his telling of an attack on a formerly enslaved man in Mississippi by a group of Confederate veterans. The victim, whose name was sadly omitted in the records, carried a pass from his enslaver-turned-employer to visit another plantation. Rather than respect the authority conveyed by the pass, however, the ex-Confederates declared “we don’t give a damn for that” and brutally assaulted the bearer. For Williard, widespread incidents like this indicate that the nature of citizenship itself had been altered during the war and its aftermath. White violence transformed the antebellum hierarchy predicated on the fetishization of enslavers’ property-in-persons to one based on white men’s “capacity to weild force… [as] the basis for standing within their communities.” These vigilantes acted to make sense of their Confederate service and challenge the classist version of white supremacy that characterized the region in the antebellum period.

Williard and Peller-Semmens’s more granular analyses of the role of violence in shaping the course of Reconstruction pair well with Proctor’s larger ideological framework in “The Mind of the Klan: An Intellectual History of White Supremacy during Reconstruction.” Proctor notes that though the antebellum order had been thoroughly upended by the war and emancipation, the nature of its replacement was still very much in doubt during Reconstruction. This uncertainty, for Proctor, helped inspire the Klan to pursue violence. In this sense, as with Williard and Peller-Semmens, postwar white vigilantism represents more of a response to changes brought by emancipation than an urge to maintain the prewar regime of plantation violence.

Proctor weaves examples of Klan violence into this ideological narrative to illustrate its connection to material systems of power. He finds that over half of the local officials and politicians they assaulted were white, and that Klansmen also attacked planters whose terms of employment seemed to favorable to freedpeople, representing a significant breach with the property-oriented, elite-friendly antebellum system. Proctor likewise argues that Klansmen espoused a specific vision of the post-emancipation household and regularly assailed “white or black, who seemingly challenged strict familial or sexual boundaries of race.” As a result, he observes, two thirds of the women attacked by Klansmen were single, versus only about one tenth of men.

The overarching vision of the panel indicates the richness of the “Dark Turn” in studies of the Civil War era.[3] Although violence alone falls flat as an analytical construct (as chair and commenter Greg Downs rightly noted), the renewed emphasis on violence provides an opportunity to better understand the workings of local government and its relationship to white supremacy. Indeed, one of the most significant and unfortunate achievements of Reconstruction was embedding white supremacy in state and local systems of power at the very moment when it might have finally been vanquished. Placing a greater emphasis on acts of violence also allows historians of the period to locate white northerners within the workings of white supremacy. Did they tacitly condone these acts, actively participate, or accept them as the price for Reunion? Despite the innovative work of Edward Blum, Chandra Manning, Elaine Parsons, and others in this direction, there is still much we do not know about the northern role in Reconstruction violence.[4] And if the many panels examining the legal implications of Reconstruction are any indication, the project of outlining the material and cultural limits of Radical reforms within the context of white supremacy and vigilantism will remain important for the foreseeable future.

[1] James Hogue, Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 44.

[2] Gilles Vandal provides by far the best survey of postwar violence in Homicides in Post-Civil War Louisiana, 1866-1884 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002).

[3] Brian Matthew Jordan, “The Future of Civil War History,” Emerging Civil War, June 23, 2016, https://emergingcivilwar.com/2016/06/23/the-future-of-civil-war-history-brian-matthew-jordan/.

[4] Edward Blum, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2005). Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 2007). Elaine Parsons, Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2015).

William Horne

William Horne is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University and editor at The Activist History Review, http://www.activisthistory.com. His research explores the relationship of race to labor, freedom, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana. Mr. Horne’s dissertation, “Carceral State: Baton Rouge and its Plantation Environs Across Emancipation,” examines the ways in which white supremacy and capitalism each depended on restricting black freedom in the aftermath of slavery. He can be contacted at horne.activisthistory@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @wihorne.