Braving cold temperatures and snow, several staff members of President Lincoln’s Cottage attended the American Historical Association’s 2018 Annual Meeting in early January. The American Historical Association is the largest professional organization serving historians in all fields and all professions, and approximately 4,000 historians attended the conference in Washington D.C. Read below for their reactions to panels on slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.
At the AHA Conference, two panel sessions I attended that were particularly insightful concerned Afro-Mexican communities and the experience of free children of color. Hearing scholars discuss how Mexico, and nearly all the rest of the Western Hemisphere, instituted emancipation four decades before the United States was needed perspective on our country’s history. Also, it was interesting seeing how Mexico has (or has not) included persons of African descent in its national mythology and narrative. Yet another interesting point of reflection for the United States’s experience with the matter.
The panel on free children of color during the 18th and 19th centuries was an eye-opening experience. Scholars discussed how these children, while legally free, were often apprenticed to wealthy whites because of their impoverish parents. A historian working on colonial North Carolina found many records of white women who had children with black men. Thanks to the colonial law, these mixed-race children all inherited nominal freedom from their white mothers, but the social and economic pressures forced these mothers to apprentice them to wealthier whites. The hardship was particularly extreme because the masters would not accept the apprenticed child for duty until they were old enough to actually work and would then retain the child’s labor for 15 to 20 years depending on the arrangement. This meant the burden of caring for a newborn fell upon the impoverished mothers until the first sign of productive labor at which point the apprentice master swooped in to claim the child.
As a historian who speaks with visitors about the meanings of freedom and opportunity, these are the kinds of personal stories and perspective-shifting information I love. They provoke new realms of thought and inspire reconsideration of American history and our perspectives on it.
Here are some summaries of the panels that stood out to me the most in relation to our work here at the Cottage. I very much enjoyed both of them.
Marcy Sacks’ research brought to light fears of Northern whites that they would be overrun with black people, specifically freedpeople moving north as they escaped slavery. She examined press coverage and illustrations of urban life in big Northern cities like New York – most interesting to me was the reporting on the 1864 return to New York of the 20th US Colored Troops, which implied that there were hordes, throngs, etc of black people in the city, despite the fact that over 2,500 African-Americans had left New York after the draft riots the year before. Dr. Sacks pointed out that public events like these contributed to the visibility of black people in the city, and that their economic marginalization meant they were often forced to take jobs that took place in public, like street vendors, porters, and coachmen – which in turn made them more visible and more easily feared. The concerns of historical Northern whites she discussed felt eerily parallel to me to present-day debates, with their arguments about a poor, unknown “other” coming to take away jobs from “decent folks” and irreparably damage public culture. The other thing that surprised me on this panel was Kevin Waite’s research on California during Reconstruction. California was the only free state to reject the 14th and 15th amendments as they came up for ratification, and it’s one of the places that refused to enforce African-American voting rights. In the 1870 elections, four California counties refused to register black voters at all, and the state government backed them up. California’s diversity before and during the war contributed to fears of white citizens of losing power; before the war its population included Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, and Chinese Americans. The state had a white supremacist government throughout this period, and Benjamin Franklin Washington was writing defenses of the South that sound like classic “Lost Cause” writings in the San Francisco Examiner. I really appreciated hearing about all this because it reminded me of the pervasiveness of fear as a motivator for exclusion, and because I think it complicates the narrative of North/good South/bad that is many people’s first impression of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Unfortunately, racism existed and exists across the United States, and I enjoyed hearing this intriguing new research on its scope.
I was very impressed with the work these three sites have done to continue to restore the landscape and the interpretation of slavery to their sites. All three have recently done new archaeology to uncover buildings and structures used by enslaved people, and Montpelier and Monticello have both done work to physically recreate them. At Highland, they recently discovered that the house they had been interpreting as a wing of the main house was in fact a guest house built by an enslaved carpenter, so the adjustments to their interpretation allow them to include this specific person’s story throughout the narrative. Relationships with the community of descendants of the people enslaved on the plantation have been important for all three sites; Monticello in particular has a vibrant relationship with Jefferson’s descendants and Montpelier has recently directly included their voices in their newest exhibit. As poet Reggie Gibson reflects in the exhibit: “We hate history. We love nostalgia. We love to remember things exactly the way they didn’t happen.” (nb: there is a WP article about this exhibit here) All of these efforts to restore the landscape of slavery have been made possible by huge financial contributions, and none of them began earlier than 1993. As I attended this panel, I was reflecting on the work we do to interpret slavery at the Cottage and its relationship to these big Founders. We don’t have quarters that housed enslaved people, or large archaeological work to do, and our president-in-question – while his position changed over time – had a much less ambiguous position on slavery than, for example, Jefferson. What we are interpreting, in fact, is the end of slavery. It is, of course, all tied up in how slavery got started, and it sounds like visitors have similar questions whenever they encounter the subject. One way to think about Lincoln’s work is as a process of untangling Jefferson’s big idea “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from the Constitutionality of slavery.
One thing that struck me as I perused the program for the conference was how many sessions there were on slavery, not just in the United States, but globally. Similarly, there were several different sessions that grappled with the legacy of Reconstruction. On the flip side, there were not many sessions about “The Civil War” itself, such as analyzing battle formations. I saw this as a good sign that the profession has moved past the basic military and political analysis of 1861-1865 to the much broader aspects of the Civil War era. Here are some brief thoughts on a few such panels that I attended:
On the first day of the conference, I attended a session on how universities up and down the Atlantic seaboard are grappling with the legacy of slavery at their institutions. Specifically, panelists included faculty members of Georgetown University, Rutgers, and the University of Virginia (MIT and Harvard faculty were scheduled but couldn’t make it due to weather). Each of these universities have set up some kind of commission/panel that includes historians in order to research the universities’ early connections to slavery. As Adam Rothman of Georgetown said archives can act as sites of reconciliation, and that’s what this research is trying to accomplish in some way. I was perhaps most struck by Rutgers’ efforts; they’re taking a wider look at the institution’s intersection with white supremacy to incorporate postbellum stories, including the University’s relationship with Native communities.
I too attended this session, and echo Joan’s comments that it was a really interesting and informative panel. In addition to the two papers that Joan described, the session also included a paper on the topic of young adults who came of age in the Civil War Era. Benjamin Davidson focused on four different children in Virginia, Boston, Japan and California in the late 1860s. One of the characters was George Smith Patton – the father of World War II General George S. Patton. George Sr.’s father died at the Third Battle of Winchester fighting for the Confederacy, and his family relocated to California after the war. So it was interesting to learn that only a single generation stood between a Confederate officer and a major general of World War II. One thing that struck me during Ben Davidson’s paper was the idea that during Reconstruction, anxieties increased as people feared a future that looked different than the past. I think that is at the crux of the matter when it comes to modern issues like removing Confederate Statues or the Lost Cause as a whole. Davidson also discussed the concept of how Civil War experiences transformed into memories during Reconstruction. This tied into other sessions’ themes that memory is not the same as history.
This “all-star” panel as I dubbed it, reviewed the efforts spanning back to the late 1980s to create a National Monument dedicated to Reconstruction. Eventually the Reconstruction Era NM in South Carolina was created by presidential proclamation on January 13, 2017, in the final days of the Obama administration. But it was quite a long effort to get there, involving the federal government (represented on the panel by former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and former National Park Service attorney Molly Ross), reconstruction historians (Kate Masur, Greg Downs, and Eric Foner who submitted a remote video from New York), and local government in South Carolina (Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling). The crux of the issue was that the relevant structures in South Carolina that were contributing features to the proposed National Monument were on land that was privately owned. Thus, the federal government had to secure land donations in order to create the Monument, since there are no mechanisms by which the federal government can buy land for the creation of National Monuments. The key theme of the session — inter-governmental cooperation — echoed the Cottage’s efforts to become a National Monument. Ironically, Bruce Babbit was the Secretary of the Interior at the time that President Clinton proclaimed the President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home National Monument. At the end of the panel, I got to ask a question about the permanence of the National Monument, which aired live on C-SPAN.