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Re: Report on the Southern Sources Symposium

My previous post covered my take on William Blair’s talk, “Civil War History: Deconstructing the Term.” To see how two people who hear the same talk can come away with different thoughts, compare my notes with what Sally Greene posted at the link below. She either took good shorthand, or had access to a tape recording:

Now for my impressions of the rest of the symposium:


Tera Hunter: “Retrieving Irretrievable Working Class Black Women”

Hunter identified some assumptions that hinder research in the field of black working-class women:
• Assumption that working class people were unimportant to history. In the past works were published mainly on articulate, literate upper class whites,
• Preconceptions about the unimportance of women’s labor,
• One’s own limited ideas of where to look for fruitful sources.

Hunter studied the 1881 Atlanta washerwomen’s strike in detail, using a tantalizing research method she called “layered research.” She did not go into detail except to say that she used the approach to find the histories and identities of the striking Atlanta washerwomen. Her initial research in newspapers identified names of many of the women involved in the strike, but she did not initially know where to look for other information. She stepped back and amassed a foundation of basic personal information from as many different sources as she could find, such as censuses, police and court records (including witness’ affidavits), that revealed much more about the persons behind the strike. Then she revisited her first sources (newspapers) to find new facts and new connections between events that she had overlooked the first time.

Hunter’s archival “wish list” included:
• Better funding for resources for archives at historically black institutions,
• Increased acquisition of working-class black materials.

Hunter concluded with advice to historical researchers: “Remove limits from our perceptions and imagination.”

Steven Hahn: Researching Poor, Laboring People

Hahn opened with advice for people planning to use an archive. Take time to become familiar with the contents of the archive; prepare for the visit by contacting the archival staff ahead of time. If possible, make friends with someone who is already familiar with the archive who can offer tips.

Hahn then suggested that researchers need to be open-minded to recognize in archives “topics and interpretations that historians don’t embrace – even when the evidence seems to stare them in the face.” The evidence of political activities among freedpeople in 1868 led him to speculate whether slaves had political organization and activity. He found evidence that political activity among ex-slaves did not spring spontaneously from emancipation, but had antecedents in slavery.

Hahn was amazed at the evidence available in the American Colonization Society records on microfilm. He found thousands of letters from freedmen and women in the South describing conditions in their neighborhoods, asking for information about emigration to Liberia, and naming others who might be interested in emigrating. Regardless of whether or not the letter-writers ever emigrated, these are marvelous sources written by newly-freed black people about themselves and their conditions. Hahn characterized the ACS papers as “one of the great sources for documents of post-emancipation southern blacks.”

Library of Congress catalogs 190,000 manuscript items in this collection; incoming correspondence alone fills 186 microfilm reels]

Hahn discussed the challenges of researching poor, laboring people, including “problems of what we bring to the archives and what archives bring to us.” The types of records found in archives tend to show powerful people in detail at any one moment or in depth through time, doing important things. These same records tend to show common people in “episodic and haphazard” glimpses – they show us “flashes” of limited info about specific people who momentarily appear then disappear from the archival record.

Hahn critiqued the dangerous but increasingly popular view that we can not know anything outside of ourselves (“self-humbling” and “self-referential”) as a deadly enemy to the historian’s craft.

Hahn called historians to:
• Revisit DuBois’ concluding call in Black Reconstruction [Chapter XVII] to read the federal record as primary source evidence, and to write history, not propaganda.
• Re-examine Garveyism. No-one has examined the movement in detail – who joined and why.
• Re-examine slave resistance during the Civil war as a possible revolution.
• Rethink and reframe our questions “to the many sources” available to us “to allow archives to reveal to us their fullness.”

W. Fitzhugh Brundage: Comments

“Limited imaginations no less than limited collections” narrow our perspective on Southern history.

Three institutions collected knowledge on the inhabitants:
• State
• Church
• Plantation
The post-war era is not reflected in studies of plantation sharecroppers comparable to the finely-nuanced histories of slavery on plantations. The separation of black churches from their predecessor antebellum churches has also left us less comprehensive records than those of the antebellum churches. Historians have work to do in these areas.

Final question: “What is going to propel a young generation of students to a new explosion of thought that will lead Southern history to new discoveries?”


Daniel T. Carter: Access to the Archives

Carter raised two concerns:
• Access to Information. The national government controls much of the information now that future historians will use. The Bush administration wants to eliminate all funding for the National Historic Records Preservation Commission, and significantly reduce funding for the National Archives.
• Problems with Digital Records. Archivists are wrestling with the issues of what digital records merit preservation and in what formats to preserve them.

Glenda Gilmore: “Southern History Writ Larger”

Gilmore has researched Southern history in Russian state archives! She related her experience of searching through reports sent to Russia from the Jim Crow South by Russian agents.

Gilmore had sought unconventional sources because, “the Jim Crow South produced Jim Crow archives” – meaning that collections policies by Southern archives reflected the social and racial biases of the archivists. For example, the racial views of J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, founder of UNC’s Southern Historical Collection [and archivist from 1930-1948], shaped collections policy for materials from Reconstruction through the Civil Rights era; he only collected records from white people.

Gilmore suggested that sometimes the best place to research the South is in the North. Because of Jim Crow attitudes at Southern archives, she asked, “How many relevant collections migrated North?” The following Northern archives hold the types of African-American records missing from the Southern Historical Collection:
• Schomberg Collection (New York Public Library)
• Howard University (Washington D.C.)
• Yale University – the James Weldon Johnson Collection (New Haven, CT)
• Harvard’s Schlesinger Library of Women – the Pauli Murray Collection (Boston)


Waldo Martin: “Three Episodes: Archives as Repositories of Dreams and Memories”

[Martin presented his “three episodes” in such a disorganized, rambling fashion that it was hard for me to tell what he was saying. He was also the only male presenter who didn’t bother to wear a coat and tie – I suppose because he teaches at UC Berkeley. The three bullets, below, represent what I understood from his talk.]

• When the Greensboro, NC, school board announced plans to demolish the James B. Dudley High School, it sent shock waves through the local black community because it had been the “black school” during segregation days – and even though the school system was officially desegregated, that school building was the focus of memories for generations, and a symbol of black community. The school was, in a sense, a “repository for dreams and memories” of the living.
• One of his favorite archival collections is a set of radio programs taped in the late 1960s in San Francisco by a Chinese student. [I think his point was that US archival collection is a multinational, cross-cultural phenomenon - but I'm not sure.]
• Eating a taco in Greensboro, NC, alerted him to the changing culture in the South: the increasing Hispanic influences that he called “barrio-ization” need to be part of the archives. As he put it, “Tacos in Greensboro need to be documented.”

Timothy B. Tyson: Civil Rights Era Roots in WWII

Tyson argued that, although 1954 is traditionally the beginning odf the “Civil Rights Era,” all the elements of the civil rights movement were in place by 1947 – that, indeed, the civil rights era began with the end of WWII:
• Black veterans returning to their Southern hometowns registered to vote; so that black voter registration quadrupled in the decade after 1945.
• The federal government had taken the US into a world war to fight against racism and oppression, and the after-effects of its own rhetoric forced national attention on internal US civil rights issues.
• The dynamics of world politics after WWII that forced the US to demonstrate to the world the moral superiority of democracy over Soviet communism, forced the federal government to side with blacks in civil rights issues.

Tyson used an example of a 1947 incident that occurred in his NC hometown to illustrate his points. [Tyson is a dynamic speaker and excellent story-teller.]


John Hope Franklin: “Adventures in Archives”

“The [Jim Crow] South was utterly confused about what it should do about race. There were as many different arrangements as there were places.”

[John Hope Franklin is 90 years old this year. He related his experiences as a researcher in southern archives during the Jim Crow era beginning in 1939. I will not bother to write my version of his very entertaining talk, because Sally Greene has transcribed a large part of it verbatim at the link below. If you have read Franklin’s essay “The Dilemma of an American Negro Scholar” you are already familiar with most of these stories.]

Edward L. Ayers: History as Narrative and the Digital Archive

“History is valuable because it lets us think about change.”

“Narrative is our ally in telling stories; the preferred way to tell history is by telling stories. But –– history is not a story! It is all the information about every day before today.” It is data. The historian’s job is to make sense of the data. “We need to tell more about as many historical persons as possible.” Writing the narrative of history involves “expanding the cast of characters.”

All the individual stories that could be written would thrive in digital archives. Historians need to learn to use GIS [geographic information systems], interactive digitized maps, and dynamic maps that show movement. Imagine a map that dynamically shows migration patterns! Imagine computer-based reproductions of old places: imagine being able to walk down the reconstructed streets of antebellum Charleston! Think of how documents can be linked together on the internet. Think of a footnote on paper as a broken hyperlink – it doesn’t lead you anywhere. In the digital archive, it could take you to the digitized source!

I am not saying paper publishing is dead – paper will always be the appropriate medium for certain types of publications.

Genealogists – those people who occupy so many of the tables in the archives where we do our research [laughter] – we need to tap into their work!

We have heard how much material is in private hands. We can collect from individuals by scanning their documents, then give the materials back! We could put out a call at a location for people to bring materials to scan! We could greatly expand the sources available to us with digital archives!

[You may know Edward L. Ayers best for his digital project, Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War: ]

[The end of my words - any thoughts and comments on interaction between genealogists and historians?]

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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