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AfriGeneas Writers Forum

Re: David Paterson A Standard Writing Family Histo

Dear AfriGeneas Writers:

As promised, my interview with historian David Paterson about his research and article, "Slavery, Slaves and Cash in a Georgia Village” is included below. The interview was first posted on George Geder's website:

gedergenealogy.com.

Thanks George.

You can access Paterson's interview at Geder's link below, or read it here. Please note that George Geder has much more savvy in a layout design than I do.

Enjoy!

"Slavery, Slaves and Cash in a Georgia Village”; Historian David E. Paterson interviewed by Kathleen Wyer Lane

My interests are focused on the history of the Lower South, particularly on Florida. I proudly confess that I’m a shameless promoter of Florida history.

But sometimes I’m compelled to push aside my research and look north to antebellum Georgia and read David Paterson’s history on slave life in Upson County.

Why? His writing is always an inspiration to me. He writes with such descriptive clarity about the slaves bound to an inhuman way of life. His body of work presents Blacks as three-dimensional people. Paterson explains how slaves endured and overcame and worked around the slavery system.

David Paterson’s background, like his body of work is engaging. He was born in Scotland but grew up in Seattle, WA. He has a BA in History from the University of Oregon and recently, an MA in Public History from University of West Florida with a concentration in the American Old South and Reconstruction. Paterson is the Manager of the Slave Research Forum for AfriGeneas.com.

Below is my interview with David Paterson about his article, "Slavery, Slaves and Cash in a Georgia Village”

INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR AND HISTORIAN DAVID E. PATERSON

By Kathleen Wyer Lane

KWL: David, I read your fascinating article, "Slavery, Slaves and Cash in a Georgia Village” and I’ve recommended it to many of my colleagues and historians. What’s most intriguing is how you were able to describe your subjects in such detail. You write about their character/personality, not as a one-dimensional statistic, but as multi-dimensional persons.

Your opening paragraph will draw everyone, historian or novice, into the history of Thomaston. It reads:

“By 1859, Phil, a forty-five-year-old Georgia bondman, was as familiar with the village stables, shops, and houses of Thomaston, Upson County, as he was with many cotton fields and slave quarters in the surrounding countryside. He had been bought and sold at least four times by planters and villagers. In the early 1840s Phil had worked on Amos Rose's Upson plantation, until Rose fled to Alabama in 1842 to escape prosecution for mayhem. Probably to raise cash for his journey, Rose sold Phil to Rose's Thomaston lawyer, who quickly disposed of the slave to planter William Spivey. Spivey lived in Thomaston but operated a five-hundred-acre plantation a mile and a half northeast of the village, where his slaves cultivated cotton, corn, and wheat and raised swine and cattle. While working on the plantation, Phil was probably not the only one of Spivey's bondpeople who also traded his own produce to village residents—Mary Shackelford, the postmaster's wife, recalled that she had bought fruit from Phil on at least one occasion, paying for it with meat and meal (but he claimed she owed him twenty-five cents cash). After fourteen years Spivey sold Phil to Thomas L. Walker, a Thomaston dry goods merchant. Before absconding to Texas under a cloud of debt, Walker hired Phil out as a stable hand for Thomas Cauthorn's hotel. Phil and a fellow stable hand, Calvin, could come and go at will during their evenings, as long as one of them was there to answer the hotel bell that summoned a hand to take a customer's horse to the stable. Calvin said that Phil always left early, because Phil usually slept at Judah's house on William Spivey's farm. Judah testified that Phil was the father of her six children, and "when he goes to Judge Spivey's plantation, he stays at no place but [my] house, & keeps his clothes at [my] house." Although Phil was working at Cauthorn's stable in Thomaston on April 1, 1859, the night he allegedly shot Dr. Ansel T. Shackelford, Phil's double-barreled pistol and ammunition were later found above the door lintel of Judah's house.”

KWL: A novice might believe that the above description is speculation in part?

DEP: All historians work with imperfect and incomplete information. To write a convincing narrative from our limited evidence, we have to use our imagination to reconstruct the past; however, the word “speculation,” to me, suggests guessing what might have been, without any evidence to support it. Historians are always most vulnerable to criticism if and when they speculate. But, without resorting to speculation, historians can take the evidence available to them, which admittedly may be scant, and construct a narrative that is greater than its parts—they integrate different sources, they interpret and they many interpolate to overcome gaps in evidence—while stating clearly to the reader what they are doing. When writers purely speculate, readers expect the author to clearly say they are speculating so they can give it the credence it deserves. But a historian must use historical imagination—how does particular evidence make best sense given what we know of the time and place from other documentation. That’s the difference.

Take for example my statement that Phil was “as familiar with the village stables, shops, and houses of Thomaston, Upson County, as he was with many cotton fields and slave quarters in the surrounding countryside.” The evidence shows that he was owned by at least two planters and two townsmen, and that while working in town his wife lived on a plantation to which he routinely commuted. His ability to sell fruit to town neighbors adds further evidence of some freedom of movement within the neighborhoods where he worked. I assume that Phil was endowed with the same curiosity about his surroundings as the average person; therefore I conclude from the evidence that Phil would have been familiar with his neighborhoods both rural and urban.

In the absence of explicit evidence I extrapolate from an explicit known fact to a generalized unknown in my statement that “Phil was probably not the only one of Spivey's bondpeople who also traded his own produce to village residents.” Our sources tell us Phil bartered fruit in Thomaston; we have ample evidence that other slaves all over Upson County also bartered or sold the products of their own labor in their neighborhoods; the sources do not imply that the activities of these people were unusual in any way—therefore, I conclude that other slaves from Spivey’s plantation were likely to have engaged in similar transactions as Phil. The word “probably” alerts readers that I have no concrete proof that other slaves from Spivey’s farm traded produce in the neighborhood.

The most tentative connection in that paragraph is my identification of Phil the slave of Amos Rose as the same Phil the slave of William Spivey and Thomas L. Walker. This is based on an accumulation of circumstantial evidence; I do not have a bill of sale or other evidence to make the identity explicit. I am satisfied that the preponderance of my evidence supports Phil’s identity, but even if I am wrong about the identity of Phil, that fact would not affect my arguments about the activities of slaves in Thomaston and Upson County.

KWL: But first, I’m interested in why did you choose village of Thomaston in Upson County, Georgia. ?

DEP: Purely circumstantial. I began occasionally researching the courthouse records of Upson County in 1988 because I expected to retire there from the Navy. I lived in Thomaston, Upson County, from September 1994 to February 1998, a time that coincided with me developing my passion for researching history. Since I had put so much effort into one place, I saw no reason to start over with another place when I moved away.

KWL: How many years did you spend on researching slavery in this community?

Total years researching Upson slavery, 1994 to now . . so over 15 years . . . but the amount of time I could devote has varied due to my evolving job situation. I worked full-time in the court records from late 1994 until–oh, say, the summer of 1995—assisting the archivist set up the newly-established Thomaston-Upson archives. After that, when I had to get a series of “real” part-time and full-time jobs, I researched there in my spare time every available minute until I moved to Pensacola early in 1998. I bought many of the court house records on microfilm so I could continue researching at night at the library. Eventually my kind wife, Judy, bought me my own microfilm reader so I could research at home.

KWL: Recently, ABC TV’s “THE VIEW” featured Lisa Kudrow discussing the genealogy show “Who Do You Think You Are.” Kudrow briefly discussed each of THE VIEW’S co-hosts’ genealogy. I mention this because when Kudrow presented the genealogy of African-American Sherri Shepherd, she focused on her enslaved ancestors and explained how difficult it is to trace the genealogy and history of slaves. Kudrow referred to research from Ancestry.com. Barbara Walters added her understanding about the widely held belief about genealogical barriers, such as the absence of slave names in census records. These beliefs are in direct conflict to your research about tracing slave genealogy.

Can you share your slave research experience?

DEP: Well, yes, the slaves’ names do not appear in the census slave population schedules for 1860 and 1850—but before the 1850 census only heads of free households were named, so to a large extent the earlier censuses were anonymous for most people. This is where folks inexperienced with AA genealogy get hung up—because of the anonymous censuses, they think slave genealogy is too hard if not virtually impossible.

Slave lived under different legal rules from free people; they had a dual existence as persons and property, but they were not citizens. As soon as you start researching slaves you look at many different records from what you would use researching free people, and the records that are the same for both, you look at them a whole different way, to get different kinds of information from them. You are looking primarily for property records (private and public) and court records that adjudicated property. One of the hardest challenges is to trace private sales. Few jurisdictions required bills of sale of slaves to be recorded in court, and most slave sales were probably privately negotiated deals. The paperwork just doesn’t survive for most of these sales.

Another large challenge is determining paternity, since slaves’ marriages had no legal force and were not recorded like citizens’ marriages. It is much easier to trace matrilineal descent that patrilineal descent. That is opposite to the challenges for whites, where patrilineal descent is usually easier.

At this stage it is impossible to say how many or what percentage of U.S. slaves are documented somewhere; likewise it is currently impossible to say with any certainty whether more slaves are invisible in the record that white people. Some slaves are probably lost to history, as I suspect some whites are also, especially non-head-of-household women and unmarried dependents. Because websites have given priority to digitizing censuses (that name free people but not slaves), the digital and online sources favor research of free people. Digitizing property and court records is in its infancy. In a few decades, if the digital revolution continues, we may be able to answer these questions. And I suspect we will be able to do slave genealogy as easily as for free people.

KWL: What records revealed the most information about your subjects?

DEP: Probate records (all kinds, not just wills and inventories), followed by deeds and mortgages. I reckon these two groups of records hold far more evidence about North American slaves than all other sources put together. See my discussion of these important records and others at AfriGeneas, http://www.afrigeneas.com/library/slaves_georgia.html. Although addressing Georgia research, the basic ideas apply to any Common Law jurisdiction (generally anywhere in the US except Louisiana and pre-territorial Florida).

KWL: Who was the most fascinating person or family that emerged from your research? Why?

DEP: When I began researching and writing bits and pieces of Upson history, I knew I wanted to know more about William Guilford, the county’s elected delegate to the 1868 constitutional convention, and briefly a state Representative in the Georgia legislature in 1870-72. Unless I uncovered specific leads—and that occasionally happened—I did not make a specific search for Guilford. As I worked through every source about nineteenth-century Upson, I kept alert for any fragment of evidence that I might encounter. My research method is really a vast exploitation of serendipity—finding things without specifically looking for them, and connecting them with other fragmentary evidence that I have encountered elsewhere. The lives of Upson people that I have been able to reconstruct basically emerged this way. I just had to recognize the bits and pieces wherever I encountered them.

Back to William Guilford, it is one of the amazing things about researching Upson County that so much is available about one of the key figures in Upson County’s Reconstruction years. Testimony from a neighbor and a remotely-related cousin in an 1892 court case revealed the identity of his parents in slavery and told much of their lives. His father submitted a claim (denied) to the Southern Claims Commission, for property stolen by Union troops in the last days of the War, that was a goldmine of information about the father and his business while a slave. There was a treasure trove of letters concerning Guilford in the Freedmen’s Bureau records and the records of the Third Military District during Reconstruction. Last but not least, while I was researching in Thomaston, an old Upson family donated their family Bible that contained a page of slave’s birth records—turned out that family had owned William Guilford and both his parents!

The picture that came together from all this evidence revealed a remarkably diverse and stratified black community emerging from slavery, led by some people who had been influential slaves (Guilford’s father among them) and young men like William Guilford capitalizing on their well-known family, but having limited success in the broader political world because of their poor literacy skills and their race (both the bi-products of American slavery). Although his statewide political career came to an early end, William Guilford organized in 1866 this nation’s oldest uninterrupted Emancipation Celebration, held annually on or about May 29 in Thomaston, Georgia.

KWL: What was the most compelling incident you uncovered?

DPP: One of the most compelling incidents I have found is from the years soon after slavery. Catherine Fincher was a woman formerly enslaved in Upson but for whom I can find absolutely no documentation until 1870, when she and her lawyer with a writ of habeas corpus stood before the judge of Upson Superior Court to claim her three children. Her children held as servants or quasi-slaves in Thomaston by the Harp family.

Catherine Fincher’s testimony reveals that she had lived in Virginia in the 1850s, but had been separated from her husband, the children’s father (mother and children were probably sold into the interstate slave trade and brought to Upson). After the War ended in 1865, Catherine Fincher had faced the challenge of supporting herself and the children without the help of a husband, and with little prospect of earning a living wage at farm labor. She decided to do what many people in post-war Upson County did—she sought better opportunities in a big town. Reluctantly, she left her children in the custody of Harp (perhaps their former owner) and went to Macon. We do not know how well she fared there, but when the agricultural economy stabilized, she felt secure enough to return to Upson and claim her children, who she found were being cruelly treated by the Harp family.

With relentless questioning, the opposing lawyer tried to undermine her claim to her children, to suggest that the children were better off living where they were, and even that perhaps Catherine Fincher was being influenced by someone else to claim her children. We can imagine how frustration and indignation may have inflected her answer as she cited an authority higher than any man: “God almighty told me to get my children.” The Harps relinquished the children and the judge remanded them into their mother’s custody.

KWL: During the years you’ve researched, was the slave system in Upson County unique or different from other counties, or regions? For instance, the Lower South?

DEP: The work of historians in recent years shows how American slavery differed through time and across space. There were broad differences between Upper South, Lower South, east and west; Upson County was in the Lower South, but the culture and economics of slavery differed from that of other Lower South places like the Georgia Low Country rice plantations or the Louisiana sugar plantations. I think the best single work to highlight these differences over time and place is Ira Berlin’s book, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (Harvard: 2003).

KWL: How long did it take for you to write, "Slavery, Slaves and Cash in a Georgia Village”?

DEP: The germ of this article was a college term paper in 2002. The paper evolved as I researched, read, reconsidered and rewrote. Of course I was doing a lot of other things during those eight years, including work with AfriGeneas, but the ideas in the article took a long time to mature to where they were focused and coherent enough that I could ask other people to spend their valuable time reading my work. The article went through its most significant revisions the last two years before publication.

KWL: Do you have any advice for fellow historians who are looking to publish their research?

DEP: Read the secondary literature thoroughly—read, read, read—you have to know what others have already written to realize where your own work contributes to our overall knowledge or understanding of the topic. Publishers expect this; after all, if you aren’t saying something new and worthwhile, or if you are not engaged with any current dialog in your chosen area of study, why would anybody publish you—and why would anyone want to read you?

KWL: Is there other research not included in your article that you may want to publish or include in a more expansive book on slavery?

DEP: I am drafting an article on the slave trade in Upson County that I would like to publish in some historical journal. God willing, there will eventually be a book that embraces all my Upson County research. It will be a history of the first fifty years of the county (1825-1875) through the slavery and Reconstruction periods. The current concept of the book is to place families at the core of the county’s economy, social life, and politics. I would show how the slaves’ struggle to impose common human values on each stage in life from childhood to old age, centered in the family, led to a society parallel to that of the slave masters’ families.

A past generation of historians explained life in slavery as building a “slave community” whose function was to provide members with an extended family, a defense from some of slavery’s cruelties, and shared solidarity in resistance to the institution of slavery. Recently some scholars are questioning the reality of slave solidarity and are challenging the scholarly fixation on alleged day-to-day resistance to slavery—just as other historians continue to assault the still-dominant idea that antebellum slave owners subscribed to an ideal of paternalism that they used to justify their slaveholding.

I think that by exploring family histories I will be able to synthesize and harmonize several current historical arguments into one theory that explains more of what we see in the historical record. Big challenge, I know!

KWL: David, thanks so much for sharing your insight and research on Upson County and the history of slavery.

David Paterson’s article, "Slavery, Slaves and Cash in a Georgia Village,” originally published in Journal of Southern History, vol. 75, no. 4 (November 2009), pp. 879-930, can be read on-line from the link below.

http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Slavery,+slaves,+and+cash+in+a+Georgia+village,+1825-1865.-a0213529060

Kathleen Wyer Lane is a marketing and promotions consultant. In addition to her interest in Florida history, she is a dedicated promoter of the memory of US Colored Troops in the Civil War. She is the manager of the Writers Forum for AfriGeneas.com.


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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