Laura Visser-Maessen: Bob Moses’s Lessons on the Meaning of Citizenship We Need in Today’s Race Debates

Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots, by Laura Visser-MaessenWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Laura Visser-Maessen, author of Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots. One of the most influential leaders in the civil rights movement, Robert Parris Moses was essential in making Mississippi a central battleground state in the fight for voting rights. As a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Moses presented himself as a mere facilitator of grassroots activism rather than a charismatic figure like Martin Luther King Jr. Examining the dilemmas of a leader who worked to cultivate local leadership, Visser-Maessen explores the intellectual underpinnings of Moses’s strategy, its achievements, and its struggles.

In today’s post, Visser-Maessen explores Robert Parris Moses’s Algebra Project as a valuable example of Civil Rights Movement strategies employed to create social change.

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After the 2015 riots in Baltimore and elsewhere, I was struck—though not surprised—by many of the media’s depictions of its black inhabitants, as if they were irrational, self-defeating hoodlums, rather than emphasizing stories like that of Wayne, one of several hundred students in Baltimore’s public schools who participate in the Algebra Project (AP). Wayne had been kicked out of several schools until his AP involvement made him realize “what I can do inside of school and how I can help other people.”

The AP is a nationwide nonprofit educational program for underprivileged public school children founded by civil rights activist Bob Moses in the 1980s. Its story shows that there are effective ways of remedying these communities’ problems, largely because they build on the models African Americans set before them, especially Moses himself in 1960s Mississippi. But it also harbors intriguing lessons for American society today, about democracy, race, and class, by posing vital questions like: who is deemed worthy by society to be invested in and when? And what do working-class minorities need to do before white taxpayers will join their struggle for meaningful citizenship in the same vein as during the 1960s?

Historically, literacy was quintessential for blacks to escape subordinate conditions, but they also conceived of education as a preparation for responsible citizenship. Citizenship was not just a right, but it had substance to it, so they emphasized creating a sense of personhood and seeing themselves as agents of social change, thereby intrinsically linking the fight for education to community building.

That these agents could also come from the bottom of society was a lesson the 1960s civil rights movement reinforced. Continue reading ‘Laura Visser-Maessen: Bob Moses’s Lessons on the Meaning of Citizenship We Need in Today’s Race Debates’ »

Recipe: Penne with Sausage and Collard Greens

Savor the South Sampler

Greens: a Savor the South cookbook, by Thomas HeadEvery Tuesday this summer we’re featuring a new recipe on the blog from one of our Savor the South® cookbooks. Each little cookbook in our Savor the South® cookbook collection is a big celebration of a beloved food or tradition of the American South. From buttermilk to bourbon, pecans to peaches, bacon to catfish, one by one each volume will stock a kitchen shelf with the flavors and culinary wisdom of this popular American regional cuisine. Written by well-known cooks and food lovers, each book brims with personality, the informative and often surprising culinary and natural history of southern foodways, and a treasure of some fifty recipes–from delicious southern classics to sparkling international renditions that open up worlds of taste for cooks everywhere. You’ll want to collect them all.

Today’s recipe is from Thomas Head’s Greens. Head, a native of Louisiana, lives in Washington, D.C. He is coeditor of The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink. In today’s recipe, Head begins with a southern staple—collard greens—and takes it to another level by preparing it with parmesan, penne, and pork! This dish is a breeze to prepare, and is a splendid substitute for “spaghetti night” during hectic summer months.

Don’t forget to “like” the Savor the South® book page on Facebook for more news and recipes. Also, check back here next Tuesday for another Savor the South® Sampler recipe! Continue reading ‘Recipe: Penne with Sausage and Collard Greens’ »

Catherine A. Stewart: Looking Backward: On Memory and the Challenges of Oral History

Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers' Project, by Catherine A. StewartWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Catherine A. Stewart, author of Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project. From 1936 to 1939, the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project collected life stories from more than 2,300 former African American slaves. These narratives are now widely used as a source to understand the lived experience of those who made the transition from slavery to freedom. But in this examination of the project and its legacy, Stewart shows it was the product of competing visions of the past, as ex-slaves’ memories of bondage, emancipation, and life as freedpeople were used to craft arguments for and against full inclusion of African Americans in society. By shedding new light on a critically important episode in the history of race, remembrance, and the legacy of slavery in the United States, Stewart compels readers to rethink a prominent archive used to construct that history.

In a previous post, Stewart addressed the ongoing need for conversation about slavery in America’s history. In today’s post, she recounts her experiences with oral histories both personal and professional.

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Looking Backward: On Memory and the Challenges of Oral History

In memory of Stetson Kennedy

My mother and her only sibling, my aunt, are losing their memories. Though their short-term memory has all but disappeared, their shared memories of childhood still remain vivid. One of their neurologists described the brain’s storage of memory and the onset of dementia as a file cabinet, with the most recently filed folders disappearing first, and the ones stored long ago as the last to go.

As a historian interested in public and private memories of slavery and the Civil War, this image has helped me reflect on the memories of elderly ex-slaves, whose memories and the story of collecting them through oral history interviews are at the heart of my book, Long Past Slavery. By the 1930s, most of the former slaves interviewed by employees of the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project were in their nineties; some were over one hundred years old. This last generation to bear witness to the experience of enslavement would have been slaves for twelve to fifteen years at most, and many were freed at the age of seven or eight. Their memories of childhood were memories of slavery, and their experience of slavery was that of children.

A childhood game my mother and aunt still recall with pleasure was one they invented called “People Riddles.” In the dark, lying across from each other in their twin beds in their shared bedroom, after my grandmother had turned out the lights and forbidden further talking, they would whisper clues about the friends and acquaintances they both knew, telling signs that would identify the person to her equally observant sister: “This person rocks back in his chair in school,” my aunt would state; “Billy Hawking,” my mom would answer with glee. Doing oral history is a bit like playing “People Riddles,” but backwards.You know the person’s identity, but you look for tell-tale signs and clues to help you understand and evaluate the stories they tell you, and if you’re wise, you also observe how your subject is seen through eyes other than yours, refracted through the perceptions of those who know your subject better and closer and more fiercely than you ever will. Continue reading ‘Catherine A. Stewart: Looking Backward: On Memory and the Challenges of Oral History’ »

Recipe: Catfish Burgers

Savor the South Sampler

Catfish: a Savor the South® cookbook, by Paul Knipple and Angela KnippleEvery Tuesday this summer we’re featuring a new recipe on the blog from one of our Savor the South® cookbooks. Each little cookbook in our Savor the South® cookbook collection is a big celebration of a beloved food or tradition of the American South. From buttermilk to bourbon, pecans to peaches, bacon to catfish, one by one each volume will stock a kitchen shelf with the flavors and culinary wisdom of this popular American regional cuisine. Written by well-known cooks and food lovers, each book brims with personality, the informative and often surprising culinary and natural history of southern foodways, and a treasure of some fifty recipes–from delicious southern classics to sparkling international renditions that open up worlds of taste for cooks everywhere. You’ll want to collect them all.

Today’s recipe is from Paul and Angela Knipple’s Catfish: a Savor the South® cookbook. Paul and Angela are coauthors of The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover’s Tour of the New American South and Farm Fresh Tennessee. Frequent contributors to Edible Memphis and other periodicals, they live in Memphis. They also make a mean catfish burger, which is the star of today’s post! Whether you’re a seasoned catfisher or prefer to purchase fillets at your local market, catfish burgers are the perfect way to make your summer simply scrumptious. Enjoy them with family and friends this weekend for a savory Southern feast!

Connect with the Paul on Twitter @PaulKnipple, and “like” the Savor the South® book page on Facebook for more news and recipes. Also, check back here next Tuesday for another Savor the South® Sampler recipe!

Stan Ulanski: Sperm Whales: Demons of the Sea?

The California Current: A Pacific Ecosystem and Its Fliers, Divers, and Swimmers, by Stan UlanskiWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Stan Ulanski, author of The California Current: A Pacific Ecosystem and Its Fliers, Divers, and Swimmers. The California Current—part of the large, swirling North Pacific gyre—flows slowly southward along the west coast of North America, stretching nearly 2,000 miles from southern British Columbia to the tip of Baja California in Mexico. To a casual observer standing on the shore, the vast current betrays no discernible signs, yet life abounds just over the horizon. Ulanski takes us into the water on a journey through this magnificent, unique marine ecosystem, illuminating the scientific and biological marvels and the astonishing array of flora and fauna streaming along our Pacific coast.

In a previous post, Ulanski shares a glimpse into the world of Pacific sea turtles. In today’s post, Ulanski debunks a popular myth about sperm whales passed down by mariners and sailors that inspired books and movies.

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In the movie In the Heart of the Sea, based upon Nathaniel Philbrick’s best-selling book of the same title, an enraged sperm whale twice rams the whale ship Essex. In a matter of minutes, the Essex starts sinking and capsizes on its port side, leaving its crew stranded on the vast Pacific in three small and under-provisioned whale boats.

But about ten years before the sinking of the Essex in 1820, an even more cunning and fearsome whale received widespread notoriety throughout the whaling community and even among the general public. The whale, Mocha Dick, was a massive seventy-foot-long albino sperm whale that had purportedly killed more than thirty men and had attacked numerous whaling vessels over the span of almost thirty years. The whale was named for the island of Mocha off the coast of Chile, where he was first sighted; while the “Dick” part is thought to be the practice among nineteenth-century whalers to assign common names, like “Dick” or “Tom,” to certain notorious whales. Mocha Dick most assuredly would have gotten the attention of Herman Melville, who was familiar with the whaling profession, having sailed on the whaling ship Acushnet in 1841. Historians believe that it was Mocha Dick and the Essex disaster that provided Melville with the insight to write the novel Moby Dick.

If the above incidents were indeed the model for Melville’s own malicious creature, can we also conclude that Melville’s description of an enraged Moby Dick attacking whalers and ships alike is correct? A watery demon bent on vengeance against his tormentors? According to present-day whale researchers, the historical view of the sperm whale as an evil monster is incorrect, one that most likely has been embellished over time by mariners and sailors.

What we know about these whales is that they are generally shy and easily startled about anything new in their environment. Even as far back as the nineteenth century, Thomas Beale, a whaling ship surgeon, published this description: “The sperm whale is a most timid and inoffensive animal . . . readily endeavoring to escape from the slightest thing which bears an unusual appearance.” The captains of numerous whaling vessels also reported that while Mocha Dick was relentless in his attacks on whaling ships, he left all other ships alone since he rarely attacked unless provoked. He was observed to docilely swim along and around ships at times.

But can we summarily dismiss the eyewitness accounts by whalers of sperm whales exhibiting aggressive behavior? Were these rogue whales outliers from the norm? A look back to the whaling era may provide some answers. Continue reading ‘Stan Ulanski: Sperm Whales: Demons of the Sea?’ »

Interview: John W. Troutman on Kīkā Kila

Author John W. Troutman talks with Gina Mahalek about his new book, Kīkā Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music.

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Gina Mahalek: What is Kīkā Kila? What does it sound like?

John W. TroutmanJohn W. Troutman: Kīkā Kila is a Hawaiian expression for describing both a type of guitar and a technique for playing it. The instrument, also known as a “steel guitar,” a “lap steel,” a “dobro,” or a “Hawaiian guitar,” among other names and associations, developed in the Islands in the 1880s and 1890s. Players would physically modify a “standard” guitar, add steel strings to it, and fabricate finger picks and a steel bar, about 3” in length (the instrument is named after this bar). After creating new, open tunings for the guitar, players would place the guitar in their laps, pluck the strings with finger picks on one hand, and then, with their other hand, slide the steel bar along the strings, located high above the fretboard. The technique created an entirely new sound for the guitar, one that better mimicked both the gentle rising and falling of a somber human voice as well as the melodic acrobatics that Hawaiian falsetto singers were becoming known for at the time. Hawaiians soon began creating all sorts of other sound effects on the steel guitar, and very quickly, it became the most important accompanying (as well as lead melodic) instrument in Hawaiian music.

GM: How did you get interested in this topic?

JWT: I became interested in this topic for reasons that relate to my specialization as a historian of indigenous, popular music, but I gravitated to this project, first and foremost, as a pedal steel guitarist. I took up the pedal steel nearly twenty years ago and toured off and on for several years in Americana bands. It took a while for me to realize, as I struggled to learn the instrument, that the pedal steel descended directly from a Native Hawaiian instrument, the kīkā kila. Comparatively little information was available at the time on the history of the steel guitar, and the more I discovered, the more engrossed I became in this story. I was also interested in the fact that so few people in our audiences knew much of anything about this steel guitar contraption—I’ve heard it called a “table top guitar,” a keyboard, even a xylophone. But as a huge fan of popular music, I also know that you can’t jog through the radio dial (or browse Spotify, I should say), without hearing the steel guitar. So the relationship between these elements—the indigenous history of the instrument, its near ubiquity in popular music, and its near absence in public consciousness, even among music fans, really intrigued me.

GM: Is the steel guitar the same as the “slack key” guitar that is so well known today in Hawaiian music?

JWT: The kīkā kila is related to the kī hōʻalu, or slack key guitar, but they are played in fundamentally different ways. Kī hōʻalu similarly uses open tunings, but the neck is fretted just as you would fret any “standard” guitar. The style was developed around the same time as the kīkā kila, however, and their histories remain intertwined today. Whereas the Hawaiian steel guitar was exported out of the Islands almost as soon as it was invented, the slack key guitar style, up until the 1970s, remained largely confined to the Islands.

Kīkā Kila: How the Hawaiian Steel Guitar Changed the Sound of Modern Music, by John W. TroutmanGM: Where do we hear the steel guitar today?

JWT: Today we hear the steel guitar . . . everywhere! The book chronicles how Hawaiians took the steel guitar all over the world in the early twentieth century. In the United States alone, the instrument quickly assumed a prominent role in just about every genre of popular music—from Tin Pan Alley sentimental songs to jazz. In the U.S. South, it figured prominently in the creation of “hillbilly” (later known as country) music, and in fact Native Hawaiians played the steel guitar on some of that genre’s most formative recordings. I argue that southerners of all colors embraced the Hawaiian steel guitar, and that it directly inspired the development of the African American delta blues “slide guitar” style that soon followed. In the 1930s, it seemed as if everyone in the country was familiar with the Hawaiian guitar, and hundreds of thousands of boys and girls, men and women, enrolled in Hawaiian guitar schools, often run by Native Hawaiian guitarists.

Today country artists continue to rely on the Hawaiian steel guitar (or its direct descendant, the pedal steel) to pull on audiences’ heartstrings—it remains the iconic sonic signifier of country music. Likewise, it continues to feature as the “dobro” in bluegrass, while rock stars and jam bands have featured the steel (including the slide guitar) on thousands of albums. You hear it in the landmark recordings of artists and groups such as Son House, Muddy Waters, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young, Duane Allman, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Ben Harper, Robert Randolph—the list seems endless. But then, the Hawaiian steel guitar also came to play a very prominent role in Bollywood and contemporary pop music genres in India, and you find it in popular Nigerian music, in New Zealand and Australia, in Japan, and all over Europe. And of course, you can still hear it in the Hawaiian Islands.

GM: When did standard guitars first arrive in Hawaiʻi, and why did they become so popular?

JWT: I spent a great deal of time in various archives in Hawaiʻi in order to uncover this history, and yet the guitar’s very first appearance remains elusive. We do know that by the 1840s the guitar was appearing, with great frequency, in the hands of diverse groups of arrivals, from Hawaiians returning home from work in the Americas or in whaling ships, to white missionaries, to blackface minstrels from California. Guitars made a lot of sense to Hawaiians—they were lightweight, portable, relatively inexpensive, and seemed perfectly adaptable to Hawaiian music. Soon Hawaiians began building them out of Koa and other local woods. By the 1870s, what I call an entire “guitar culture” had formed in the Islands, and by the 1880s, King Kalākaua busily promoted an entirely new genre of Hawaiian music, called Hula Kuʻi, which was defined by the very inclusion of guitars. Hula Kuʻi took the Islands by storm. Hawaiians then developed the kīkā kila, as well as the ʻukulele, adapted from a recently introduced Portuguese instrument, and Hawaiian music has never sounded the same since.

GM: Who invented the kīkā kila, and how did they come up with it?

JWT: This is a great question. In Hawaiʻi’s archives, and in interviews with descendants of the earliest guitarists, I discovered a wide range of possible inspirations for the steel guitar, from kids accidentally bouncing metal combs on their guitar strings, to an escaped Hindu indentured servant from South Africa playing the guitar with a metal knife on the streets of Honolulu. Contemplating these origins was one of the most exciting and difficult phases of my research. By most accounts, however, it is clear that one individual, Joseph Kekuku, is responsible for developing the technique into a form that sounded good and was readily adaptable by others, and it was he who first physically altered the standard guitar to accommodate the technique. He began working on it in the 1880s, while he was a teenager living in Lāʻie, a community near Oʻahu’s North Shore. Kekuku fabricated the finger picks and the steel bar while he was a student at the Kamehameha School for Boys, in Honolulu. He soon shared the technique and the technology with his classmates, and they quickly dispersed it throughout several of the Islands. In the 1890s Hawaiians took the steel guitar abroad, and in 1904 Kekuku joined them, when he sailed for San Francisco to make a living as a musician. He quickly set up shop there to teach this new guitar technique, and within a year or so he was working all over the region, and then the country, as a highly sought after guitarist.

GM: According to your research, Hawaiian music became incredibly popular in the U.S. and abroad shortly after Kekuku left the Islands. How did it spread?

JWT: Kekuku left the Islands just as the music industry modernized through the advent of vaudeville touring circuits and recording technology. Interestingly, Hawaiian music became incredibly popular in the U.S. in the years that followed, and soon enough, hundreds of Hawaiians were working vaudeville circuits not just in the U.S., but also throughout the rest of the world. Kekuku’s troupe, known as Toots Paka’s Hawaiians, soon signed with one of the most powerful agents in New York. The band relocated to the East Coast and remained on tour for the next several years, recording for Edison on commercial wax cylinders along the way. Before Kekuku and his fellow Hawaiian guitarists had arrived, no one on the vaudeville stage was using the guitar as a lead, melodic instrument, and no one had seen a guitarist sliding an object along the strings in this manner. By 1916, Hawaiian guitar music was outselling all other genres of recorded music in the U.S.

GM: Most accounts of the delta blues slide guitar trace its origins to Africa. But you argue that Hawaiians introduced the style to black southerners. Where did you find your evidence?

JWT: When I dove into the research for this book, about eight years ago, I was not sure what I would find, and I certainly did not assume that such a strong relationship existed between Hawaiian musicians and the origins of the blues slide guitar. In fact, blues scholars for decades have claimed that the style originated in West Africa on simple, one-stringed instruments that survived both the Middle Passage and centuries of slavery.

For that reason, I was blown away but what I found in the archives. Continue reading ‘Interview: John W. Troutman on Kīkā Kila’ »

Benjamin René Jordan: “Are you a Boy Scout?” The Youth Historian’s Dilemma

Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910-1930, by Benjamin René JordanWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Benjamin René Jordan, author of Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910-1930. In this illuminating look at gender and Scouting in the United States, Jordan examines how in its founding and early rise, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) integrated traditional Victorian manhood with modern, corporate-industrial values and skills. While showing how the BSA Americanized the original British Scouting program, Jordan finds that the organization’s community-based activities signaled a shift in men’s social norms, away from rugged agricultural individualism or martial primitivism and toward productive employment in offices and factories, stressing scientific cooperation and a pragmatic approach to the responsibilities of citizenship.

In a previous post, Jordan approaches the gun control debate from an unexpected angle. In today’s post, Jordan shares the modern and historical dilemmas that drew him to write about the Boy Scouts of America.

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“Are you a Boy Scout?” I am frequently asked this question at history conferences or during social conversations after stating that I study early American Boy Scouting. Perhaps it’s my short haircut, or my normative white guy appearance. The question may also stem from an (accurate) perception that many current and former Boy Scouts and adult leaders are enthusiastic readers and amateur producers of histories of the organization and their local councils, troops, and summer camps. Scout history associations, newsletters, websites, networks, and historical memorabilia swap meets facilitate the exchange and consumption of such histories and memories.

Thus, conference audiences and other people I meet are often confused when I report that I was not a Boy Scout. They seem surprised that somebody would study a youth organization like Scouting if that person had not been a member. I suspect other historians who study youth organizations and summer camps get similar queries.

I have both a personal answer and an academic answer to the usual follow-up question I receive, “So, what did lead you to spend the last decade studying and publishing a history of Scouting if you weren’t a member?” Although I never went to a summer camp of any kind as a child, years of counseling as a young adult at a traditional Catholic summer camp as well as working at a rustic behavioral drug and treatment center prompted my initial interest in the history of American and other modern societies using nature milieus to teach character development and civic responsibility to both “normal” and “at-risk” youth—often in very different ways for boys and girls.

My academic answer stems from my graduate history readings, when I noticed how the brief, reoccurring interpretations of early American Boy Scout gender and environmental teachings contrasted with my own analysis of the organization’s early publications and local practices. Which of the two answers I give sometimes depends on who is asking.

Benjamin René Jordan is visiting associate professor of history at Christian Brothers University. His book Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910-1930 is now available.

Recipe: Sweet Potato Hummus

Savor the South Sampler header image

Cover of Sweet Potatoes

Every Tuesday this summer we’re featuring a new recipe on the blog from one of our Savor the South® cookbooks. Each little cookbook in our Savor the South® cookbook collection is a big celebration of a beloved food or tradition of the American South. From buttermilk to bourbon, pecans to peaches, bacon to catfish, one by one each volume will stock a kitchen shelf with the flavors and culinary wisdom of this popular American regional cuisine. Written by well-known cooks and food lovers, each book brims with personality, the informative and often surprising culinary and natural history of southern foodways, and a treasure of some fifty recipes–from delicious southern classics to sparkling international renditions that open up worlds of taste for cooks everywhere. You’ll want to collect them all.

Today’s recipe is from April McGreger’s Sweet PotatoesApril McGreger is founder-chef of Farmer’s Daughter Brand Pickles and Preserves, a farm-driven artisan food business in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Her recipe is a southern take on hummus, with sweet potatoes instead of traditional chickpeas. This hummus makes an excellent dish for parties!

Connect with McGreger on Twitter @farmersdaughtr, and “like” the Savor the South® book page on Facebook for more news and recipes. Also, check back here next Tuesday for another Savor the South® Sampler recipe!

Continue reading ‘Recipe: Sweet Potato Hummus’ »

Tamara Plakins Thornton: The Global Village, Eighteenth-Century Style

Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life, by Tamara Plakins ThorntonWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Tamara Plakins Thornton, author of Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers: How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life. In this engagingly written biography, Thornton delves into the life and work of Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838), a man Thomas Jefferson once called a “meteor in the hemisphere.” Bowditch was a mathematician, astronomer, navigator, seafarer, and business executive whose Enlightenment-inspired perspectives shaped nineteenth-century capitalism while transforming American life more broadly. By examining Bowditch’s pathbreaking approaches to institutions, as well as the political and social controversies they provoked, Thornton’s biography sheds new light on the rise of capitalism, American science, and social elites in the early republic.

In today’s post, Thornton describes Nathaniel Bowditch’s observations of the Indian Ocean island known as Ile de Bourbon, or Réunion today—a popular destination for U.S. merchants following the American Revolution.

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Last July, when wreckage from Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 washed ashore on Réunion, a typical response was something like “where?” The New York Times described the Indian Ocean island as “a French department about 4,000 miles from Europe,” adding that “if people had heard about it before, it was most likely because of bad publicity surrounding shark attacks or an epidemic of chikungunya.” So much for the world getting ever smaller. Over two centuries earlier, in the seaport town of Salem, Massachusetts, the island was well known. Many was the Salem vessel that set sail for this isolated speck round the Cape of Good Hope.

With national independence, American merchants were shut out of the British Caribbean, the bread-and-butter of their prerevolutionary commerce, and were forced to seek other markets. Some went to Russia, India, or China. Others found their opportunities in this remote French colony. What tea was to China, coffee was to Réunion. So single-minded were the island’s French colonial planters on producing coffee—with enslaved African laborers—that they soon came to rely on American vessels for life’s necessities. No surprise, then, that when the Salem ship Henry dropped anchor off St. Denis in 1795, it soon found a ready market for its cargo of everything from butter to boots.

La culture du café à l'île de Bourbon [Réunion], watercolor attributed to J. J. Patu de Rosemont, 18th century (Paris, Musée national des arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie) [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.]

Coffee culture on the Ile de Bourbon (Réunion), watercolor attributed to J. J. Patu de Rosemont, 18th c. (Paris, Musée national des arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie) [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.]

As a native of a globally engaged seaport, Nathaniel Bowditch, the Henry’s clerk, did not need to ask where Réunion was. But that did not make the island any less exotic to him, a twenty-two-year-old Yankee who had never before ventured outside New England. It was all novel, the island’s customs as much as its physical environment, and Bowditch observed both with keen interest, the strange practice of waxing floors no less than the eruption of a volcano.

Most often, his curiosity ended in shock and disgust. Continue reading ‘Tamara Plakins Thornton: The Global Village, Eighteenth-Century Style’ »

J. Michael Butler: Confederate Symbolism and School Integration

Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980, by J. Michael ButlerWe welcome to the blog a guest post from J. Michael Butler, author of Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida, 1960-1980In 1975, Florida’s Escambia County and the city of Pensacola experienced a pernicious chain of events. A sheriff’s deputy killed a young black man at point-blank range. Months of protests against police brutality followed, culminating in the arrest and conviction of the Reverend H. K. Matthews, the leading civil rights organizer in the county.

Viewing the events of Escambia County within the context of the broader civil rights movement, J. Michael Butler demonstrates that while activism of the previous decade destroyed most visible and dramatic signs of racial segregation, institutionalized forms of cultural racism still persisted.

In today’s post, Butler points to two 1970s court cases from Escambia High School to show how Confederate symbols signified white supremacy after integration.

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Symbols have historical meaning, and few are as polarizing as those identified with the Confederacy. Discourse concerning Confederate images has intensified since a white supremacist massacred nine African Americans during a prayer service in Charleston almost one year ago, and many Southern communities have questioned the appropriateness of having public schools, military bases, streets, and buildings named after notable Confederates. The trend shows no signs of slowing, as the Southern Poverty Law Center recently identified over 1,500 Confederate place names and monuments in public spaces throughout the country. Historians, bloggers, and other editorialists have had a metaphorical field day pontificating about the power of memory, cultural identity, Lost Cause mythology, and other themes that this issue illuminates. What, then, can yet another piece on Confederate iconography reveal about the topic that we do not already know?

I discovered the two court cases while investigating several episodes of racial unrest during the 1970s at Escambia High School (EHS) in Pensacola, Florida. I quickly realized that one issue linked the numerous school closures, student boycotts, and racially-based rioting over the nearly five-year period: EHS’s Confederate imagery. Continue reading ‘J. Michael Butler: Confederate Symbolism and School Integration’ »

Recipe: Southern Reuben

Savor the South Sampler

Biscuits: a Savor the South® cookbook, by Belinda EllisEvery Tuesday this summer we’re featuring a new recipe on the blog from one of our Savor the South® cookbooks. Each little cookbook in our Savor the South® cookbook collection is a big celebration of a beloved food or tradition of the American South. From buttermilk to bourbon, pecans to peaches, bacon to catfish, one by one each volume will stock a kitchen shelf with the flavors and culinary wisdom of this popular American regional cuisine. Written by well-known cooks and food lovers, each book brims with personality, the informative and often surprising culinary and natural history of southern foodways, and a treasure of some fifty recipes–from delicious southern classics to sparkling international renditions that open up worlds of taste for cooks everywhere. You’ll want to collect them all.

Today’s recipe is from Belinda Ellis’s Biscuits. Ellis is editor of Edible Piedmont, a North Carolina food magazine, and a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Her recipe is a southern take on a Reuben Sandwich, made with rye biscuits instead of traditional rye bread. This sandwich is scrumptious for lunch, dinner, and even breakfast!

Connect with Ellis on Twitter @belindaellis, and “like” the Savor the South® book page on Facebook for more news and recipes. Also, check back here next Tuesday for another Savor the South® Sampler recipe! Continue reading ‘Recipe: Southern Reuben’ »

Jeff Porter: The Many Lives of Orson Welles

Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling, by Jeff PorterWe welcome a guest post from Jeff Porter, author of Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling. From Archibald MacLeish to David Sedaris, radio storytelling has long borrowed from the world of literature, yet the narrative radio work of well-known writers and others is a story that has not been told before. And when the literary aspects of specific programs such as The War of the Worlds or Sorry, Wrong Number were considered, scrutiny was superficial. In Lost Sound, Jeff Porter examines the vital interplay between acoustic techniques and modernist practices in the growth of radio. He identifies the ways radio challenged the conventional distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow cultural content to produce a dynamic popular culture.

In today’s post, Porter marks the 101st birthday of one of America’s most legendary radio storytelling voices: Orson Welles.

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Orson Welles

Orson Welles. (Photo courtesy Indiana University Lilly Library.)

If he were still alive, Orson Welles (1915-1985) would be 101 years old today. Welles is remembered as one of America’s most important filmmakers, but before he became famous for his movies, Welles ruled the airwaves.

On radio, he read poetry on CBS’s Musical Reveries at $50 per poem; performed as both the president of Germany and the arms dealer Sir Basil Zaharoff for The March of Time; impersonated John D. Rockefeller in Du Pont’s Cavalcade of America; and was heard as Lamont Cranston in The Shadow, as a disdainful British actor (Rex Dakolar) in NBC’s Peter Absolute on the Erie Canal, as Hamlet on the Columbia Workshop’s Shakespeare for Radio, and as the narrator in his own adaptation of Les Misérables for the Mutual network. By the time the Martians arrived in New Jersey in his notorious broadcast of War of the Worlds, Welles was on the cover of Time magazine and about to become a nationally known celebrity. It was precisely at this moment (June 1938) that he signed on with CBS to host an hour-long radio series that would become Mercury Theatre on the Air, a program devoted to radio adaptations of literary classics. Between the Mercury Theatre’s first and last programs, listeners tuned in to over 100 broadcasts of sophisticated storytelling, from Dracula and Heart of Darkness to Rebecca and Jane Eyre. These were acoustic marvels whose innovations changed radio forever.

first edition of The Third Man, by Graham Greene.

The Third Man, by Graham Greene. (Photo Burnside Rare Books.)

When Welles left for Los Angeles after signing with RKO in 1939, it may have seemed that his radio days were winding down. But even during the filming of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles continued to be heard on the air, wrapping up the Mercury broadcasts (now called Campbell’s Playhouse) in 1940 and directing and performing in Lucille Fletcher’s hit radio play The Hitchhiker in 1942. His attention may have been split between radio and film, but that never cramped Welles’s style.

In fact, his knack for moving across the media divide only enhanced his mastery of both. A striking case in point is the remake of the classic 1949 film noir The Third Man, adapted by Carol Reed from a story by Graham Greene. Orson Welles, who starred as the infamous villain Harry Lime in the movie, reprised his role for BBC radio in The Lives of Harry Lime in 1951. Continue reading ‘Jeff Porter: The Many Lives of Orson Welles’ »

John Shelton Reed: North Carolina Needs a New Holiday

Barbecue: a Savor the South® cookbook, by John Shelton ReedWe welcome to the blog a guest post by John Shelton Reed, author of Barbecue: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook. Reed’s Barbecue celebrates a southern culinary tradition forged in coals and smoke. Since colonial times Southerners have held barbecues to mark homecomings, reunions, and political campaigns; today barbecue signifies celebration as much as ever. In a lively and amusing style, Reed traces the history of Southern barbecue from its roots in the sixteenth-century Caribbean, showing how this technique of cooking meat established itself in the coastal South and spread inland from there. He discusses how choices of meat, sauce, and cooking methods came to vary from one place to another, reflecting local environments, farming practices, and history.

In previous posts, Reed has shared a surprising cocktail recipe and debunked a mysteriously popular barbecue myth. In today’s post, he calls for a memorial holiday to mark one historic North Carolina barbecue.

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North Carolina Needs a New Holiday: Commemorating the Wilmington Barbecue of 1766

It was 250 years ago, in late February of 1766, that the Royal Governor of North Carolina, William Tryon, attempted to win the New Hanover militia’s good will by treating them to a barbecue. He did not succeed: citizens of Wilmington threw the barbecued ox in the river and poured out the beer. (This was not an early expression of North Carolinians’ preference for pork; they were upset about the Stamp Act.) Every schoolchild knows about the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when some rowdy New Englanders threw boxes of tea in Boston harbor to protest a British tax. Yet how many have heard of the Wilmington Barbecue?

Not only was it seven years earlier than the Tea Party, its story is much more colorful. Continue reading ‘John Shelton Reed: North Carolina Needs a New Holiday’ »

Recipe: Soft Refrigerator Honeysuckle Jelly

Savor the South Sampler

Pickles and Preserves: a Savor the South® cookbook by Andrea WeiglAs the summer heats up, cool down with fresh recipes from our Savor the South® Sampler series! Every Tuesday this summer we’ll be featuring a new recipe from one of our Savor the South® cookbooks. Rediscover some of your favorite summer dishes and ingredients with a southern twang, like catfish burgers, sweet potato hummus, or a new twist on Eggs Benedict (bourbon, anyone?).

Today’s recipe is from Andrea Weigl’s Pickles and Preserves: a Savor the South® cookbook. Weigl is the food writer for the Raleigh News & Observer and lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her recipe transforms a childhood favorite—honeysuckle flowers—into a unique jelly. Spread it on toast or enjoy over fresh fruit for a nostalgic treat.

Connect with Weigl on Twitter @andreaweigl, and “like” the Savor the South® book page on Facebook for more news and recipes. Also, check back here next Tuesday for another Savor the South® Sampler recipe! Continue reading ‘Recipe: Soft Refrigerator Honeysuckle Jelly’ »

Interview: Charles O. Pilkey and Orrin H. Pilkey on Lessons from the Sand

Co-authors Charles O. Pilkey and Orrin H. Pilkey talk with Marisa Vitulli about their new book, Lessons from the Sand: Family-Friendly Science Activities You Can Do on a Carolina Beach.

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Lessons from the Sand: Family-Friendly Science Activities You Can Do on a Carolina Beach, by Charles O. Pilkey and Orrin H. PilkeyQ: Who is the primary audience for this book?

Charles Pilkey: The book is intended for families with kids up to middle school age. We hope parents will do the activities together with their children.

Orrin Pilkey: We also think that the activities herein are a goldmine for high school students doing science projects. The activities could give older kids a start, and they can follow up and proceed into the wild blue yonder as far as their imagination will carry them.

Q: Orrin, in the past, you’ve worked on projects for adults. What inspired you to tailor this one for younger readers?

OP: There is so little written about the real science of beaches, and kids need to appreciate beaches beyond being places to play miniature golf. This book is unique in its scientific basis. I’ve led a number of field trips to the beach for children, and I love their curiosity and willingness to learn. I’d guess 90% of the activities are concerned with things most children will miss altogether. It’s easy to see why because a beach is such a fun place. I also have two 12 year-old grandchildren and a great grandchild (amazingly, all are above average in everything!). These are my inspirations.

Q: How does this book work for families with children of different ages?

CP: Some of the more advanced activities in chapter 8, which measure salinity, use microscopes, and involve Google Earth maps, might be more suitable for older kids. Middle school and high school students, with a little fine-tuning, could expand many activities into high school science projects.

Q: Speaking of family, Charles, you did the illustrations and wrote most of the activities for Lessons from the Sand, and, Orrin, you wrote the activities connected to barrier islands and beach features. What was it like working as a father-and-son team?

CP: I’ve worked with my father on other books but only as an illustrator. This is the first time we’ve collaborated as writers. A little over half the activities I wrote on my own. For most of the others, especially those in chapters 2 and 4, my father wrote a rough outline, which I then expanded into a full activity. When an activity was finished, he checked it for scientific accuracy. The system worked well.

Q: Lessons from the Sand is organized into sections of activities and science experiments instead of traditional explanatory chapters. Why did you choose this particular format, and how would you like the book to be read?

CP: Kids learn best by doing. We decided an activity approach with a minimum of lecturing would be more inspiring than traditional pedagogy. I like to think of the book as a door through which young minds can pass and discover on their own the beauty and scientific wonders of a Carolina beach. Lessons from the Sand was designed to be as much an aesthetic experience as an intellectual one (hence the illustrations and literary quotes). All too often, the beauty in nature tends to be overlooked by traditional science texts. As stated in the “How to Use This Book” chapter, the activities do not have to be done from start to finish in numerical order. Better the readers skip around, choosing those activities that are most interesting.

Q: Do families need to bring any special equipment with them to the beach in order to do these activities?

CP: Families need to bring the following special equipment to the beach: imagination, curiosity, patience, and eyes that can see the world in a fresh way. Of course, they will need a microscope to look at plankton and a hydrometer to measure salinity. For some activities, families can improvise if lacking the required items (as listed under “What You Need”). For example, if no orange or timepiece is on hand for Activity 4 “Longshore Currents,” you can get a rough idea of current velocity by observing how fast bubbles or driftwood move in the surf and compare that velocity to how fast or slow someone can walk.

Q: In the book, you talk about your own family outings by the sea. When you were designing and illustrating these activities, were there any vacation memories that led to certain experiments being included?

CP: “Plankton” (Activity 36) was inspired by a Cub Scout camping trip on the USS Yorktown (not recommended for claustrophobes!). The trip included an oceanography class in which the scouts examined plankton under a microscope. The opening story for “Fossils” (Activity 26) is based on what actually happened one afternoon on Myrtle Beach while my son and I were hunting for fossil sharks’ teeth. I got the idea for “Beach Tracker” (Activity 18) after finding bobcat tracks on Huntington Beach. “Night” (Activity 40) came from several unrelated experiences, all revelatory of some of the cool (but largely unknown) things you can see on a beach after sunset: green flashes glimpsed from a Hawaiian beach; ghost crabs huddled in their burrows, illuminated by a flashlight on Shackleford Banks; phosphorescence glowing in the waters off Atlantic Beach (NC); camping on a Costa Rican beach only to be rudely awakened by a pair of coatis, crawling over my sleeping bag in the dead of night.

Q: Do either of you have a favorite activity from the book?

CP: My favorite activity is “Murder Mystery” Continue reading ‘Interview: Charles O. Pilkey and Orrin H. Pilkey on Lessons from the Sand’ »

LaKisha Michelle Simmons: Landscapes, Memories, and History in Beyoncé’s Lemonade

Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans, by LaKisha Michelle SimmonsWe welcome a guest post today from LaKisha Michelle Simmons, author of Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans. What was it like to grow up black and female in the segregated South? In Crescent City Girls, Simmons blends social history and cultural studies, recreating children’s streets and neighborhoods within Jim Crow New Orleans and offering a rare look into black girls’ personal lives. Simmons argues that these children faced the difficult task of adhering to middle-class expectations of purity and respectability even as they encountered the daily realities of Jim Crow violence, which included interracial sexual aggression, street harassment, and presumptions of black girls’ impurity.

In today’s post, Simmons responds to Beyoncé’s recently released visual album Lemonade, exploring the historical significance of some of the settings and themes. Following the article is a bibliography and list of suggested further reading.

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Landscapes, Memories, and History in Beyoncé’s Lemonade

The past and present merge to meet us here. What luck. What a fucking curse.

In Lemonade, Beyoncé recites these words against the backdrop of oak trees draped in moss. Black women sit in and among the trees. They gather on the porch of the cabins where enslaved people lived, worked, and loved. This is the scenery of the sugar plantations that snake along the Mississippi River, just outside of New Orleans.

Some writers have noted the presence of the “southern gothic” or the “southern porch” in Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s visceral visual album Lemonade. But the landscapes are unambiguously part of the geography of Louisiana; the visual album is haunting because of its specificity to place. Barely visible, in the discussion thus far, is the history of slavery—and its remnants—all over the landscape of the album.

Beyoncé’s representation of madness, jealousy, anger, and hurt are intertwined with the madness and pain inherited from our antebellum past. What luck. What a fucking curse. The trees, with their moss, are surely crying for us.

model Winnie Harlow in still from Beyonce's visual album Lemonade
As black feminist Katherine McKittrick explains, “The various kinds of madness, the pathological geographies, the dismembered and displaced bodies, the impossible black places, the present-past time-space of cartographers, the topographies of ‘something lost, or barely visible, or seeing not there’—these material and metaphoric places begin to take us” inside of black women’s subjectivities.

Dismembered and displaced bodies are haunting the landscape of Lemonade‘s past and present. In 1811, a slave revolt in plantations along the Mississippi River began with the murder of plantation owner Manuel Andry’s son. Charles Deslondes, a Haitian-born enslaved slave-driver (he was responsible for punishing the other enslaved workers) led an army of enslaved men and women fighting for their freedom. The army marched to plantations downriver, trying to make their way to New Orleans, killing whites and freeing enslaved blacks along the way.

Lemonade was filmed at one of those plantations: Destrehan Plantation. At Destrehan, an army of plantation owners and white elites confronted the black rebel army. The plantation elites won the battle and captured the men responsible for the uprising. As punishment, and as a reminder to the enslaved to fear white power, they executed those responsible and cut off their heads. The plantation owners placed the severed heads of the revolutionaries on poles and lined them up for 40 miles along the river to New Orleans.

The planters recorded:

“[The Tribunal] decrees that the heads of the executed shall be cut off and placed atop a pole on the spot where all can see the punishment meted out for such crimes, also as a terrible example to all who would disturb the public tranquility in the future.

Done at the County of the Germans, St. Charles Parish, Mr. Destrehan’s plantation, January 15 1811, at 10 o’clock in the morning.”[1]

On the Madewood Plantation, the stage for interior scenes of Lemonade, lived Lionel Tapo Sr.’s mother-in-law. She told him of her time as an enslaved girl. She remembered beatings and a master so mean that he was close to the devil. Tapo remembered a story, that his mother-in-law “used to carry the whips [used] to whip the unruly slaves.”[2] And so, Serena Williams twerks in the very same place where an enslaved girl’s job was to carry the whip of torture. For Beyoncé’s Lemonade, the dance in this space is an act of defiance, of claiming self and freedom. Beyoncé’s throne is an “impossible black place.” Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s and Serena Williams’s bodily freedom does not belong here, yet they have claimed it for themselves.

Beyonce and Serena Williams still from Lemonade

Continue reading ‘LaKisha Michelle Simmons: Landscapes, Memories, and History in Beyoncé’s Lemonade’ »

Benjamin René Jordan: “Free-Range Kids” and the Problem of Children’s Citizenship

Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910-1930, by Benjamin René JordanWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Benjamin René Jordan, author of Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America: Citizenship, Race, and the Environment, 1910-1930. In this illuminating look at gender and Scouting in the United States, Jordan examines how in its founding and early rise, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) integrated traditional Victorian manhood with modern, corporate-industrial values and skills. While showing how the BSA Americanized the original British Scouting program, Jordan finds that the organization’s community-based activities signaled a shift in men’s social norms, away from rugged agricultural individualism or martial primitivism and toward productive employment in offices and factories, stressing scientific cooperation and a pragmatic approach to the responsibilities of citizenship.

In today’s post, Jordan calls for Americans to better educate youth in the responsibilities of adult civic life.

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American parents and educators today, myself included, struggle with the proper amount and ways in which we should give adult responsibilities and opportunities to our children. At the family dinner table and in public forums, we fiercely debate news stories such as the mother who taught and allowed her nine-year-old son to ride the New York City subway alone, whether or how to regulate our children’s use of the internet and smart phones, and the appropriate geographical roaming range for children at play.

The Boy Scouts and other youth organizations emerged in the early twentieth century amongst a range of efforts to solve the separation of adolescent and adult worlds created by new laws restricting child labor and making schooling compulsory. Today’s disconnect, however, is even more severe. In recent decades, many children and even adolescents no longer play outside or down the street unsupervised. Children are rarely sent to the store independently to pick up a few groceries for the family or to attend a movie with friends. After-school programs, adult-supervised playdates, and heavily structured sport leagues fill in the gaps in young people’s regulated schedule and cocooned environments.

When one takes such developments into account alongside the growing American trend toward the “six-year-plan” of undergraduate college education, then a 1923 article written by Dr. George Fisher, assistant to the national director of the Boy Scouts of America, has become even more true and dire today. Fisher warned that allowing young men to “stumble into citizenship,” assuming it only begins at age twenty-one, leads them to believe that civic responsibility is primarily limited to voting or paying taxes: “A boy cannot live his boy life entirely separate from any sense of responsibility to society and then be expected as a man to live a full-orbed citizenship.”[1] Fisher’s statement suggests that our current social and educational structure in which adolescents are isolated from broader community interactions, mature responsibilities, and opportunities for personal growth endangers the very foundation of America’s democratic society by restricting young people’s awareness of the broader community and experience of citizenship. Continue reading ‘Benjamin René Jordan: “Free-Range Kids” and the Problem of Children’s Citizenship’ »

Steven E. Nash: Who Was Virgil Lusk?

Reconstruction's Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains, by Steven E. NashWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Steven E. Nash, author of Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains. In the book Nash chronicles the history of Reconstruction as it unfolded in the mountains of western North Carolina. He presents a complex story of the region’s grappling with the war’s aftermath, examining the persistent wartime loyalties that informed bitter power struggles between factions of white mountaineers determined to rule. For a brief period, an influx of federal governmental power enabled white anti-Confederates to ally with former slaves in order to lift the Republican Party to power locally and in the state as a whole. Republican success led to a violent response from a transformed class of elites, however, who claimed legitimacy from the antebellum period while pushing for greater integration into the market-oriented New South.

In a previous post, Nash addresses the vandalism of an Asheville, N.C. monument on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the context of the racial politics of Reconstruction-era Asheville. In today’s post, Nash tells the story of a former Confederate officer who took on a difficult task during the Reconstruction period.

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It was a cold, rainy December afternoon when my wife finally asked the question: “Who was Virgil Lusk?” It was a fair question. After all, I had dragged her around Asheville’s historic Riverside Cemetery for well over an hour trying to locate his grave. With each grave adorned with a miniature Confederate battle flag, my frustration mounted. Lusk was a Confederate soldier. So why was my strategy of driving toward those flags not producing any results? Was his flag missing? Who was Virgil Lusk?

Let us start with the basic facts. Lusk was born in a section of Buncombe County later carved off to form part of Madison County. He was a lawyer, a Confederate cavalry officer, and a prisoner of war. So where was his battle flag? Maybe the answer lies after the war. Unlike many Confederate veterans, he surrendered both his sword and the cause in 1865. Lusk became a Republican. Nowadays, Republicans constitute a major part of the electorate in western North Carolina. During Reconstruction, however, many mountain whites viewed Republicans as akin to traitors. A sectional party built upon an adherence to a free labor ideology praising labor and middle class respectability, the “Party of Lincoln” carried the stain of defeat in the South. Tens of thousands of southerners—white and black—rallied to the Republican Party seeking a greater voice in local government after the war; those men like Lusk who did so after donning Confederate gray earned the enmity of their bitterly defeated former friends.

Lusk’s rise to prominence stemmed more from the oft-ignored Reconstruction period in the Carolina mountains. The state legislator appointed district solicitors in those days. The 12th District solicitor was David Coleman, a Confederate colonel with a not-so-secret drinking problem. His appointment dated from December 1865, and his short time in office was controversial. Although western North Carolina was predominantly pro-Confederate in its wartime sympathies, pockets of Unionism, growing wartime disaffection, and economic hardship strained mountaineers’ ties to the Confederacy. Coleman earned a reputation for unfairly prosecuting Unionists after the war, and the military removed him from office in 1868.

Lusk benefited from Coleman’s fall. Without a doubt, Lusk won no favor among the local Conservative Party leadership by taking the job. The historical record gives the distinct impression, however, that Lusk cared little about Conservatives’ feelings. The new solicitor used his office to fight against a growing Ku Klux Klan threat in his district. The Klan made its presence felt in western North Carolina in the spring of 1868. Threats against African Americans and federal agents announced its arrival as early as April. When Asheville erupted in violence on election day in November, at least one local observer blamed the Klan.

Prosecuting alleged Klansmen was no easy matter, but Lusk felt obligated to resist the lawlessness plaguing his community. It was an uphill battle. Continue reading ‘Steven E. Nash: Who Was Virgil Lusk?’ »

Catherine A. Stewart: Having an Honest Conversation about Slavery—Now and Then

Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers' Project, by Catherine A. StewartWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Catherine A. Stewart, author of Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project. From 1936 to 1939, the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project collected life stories from more than 2,300 former African American slaves. These narratives are now widely used as a source to understand the lived experience of those who made the transition from slavery to freedom. But in this examination of the project and its legacy, Stewart shows it was the product of competing visions of the past, as ex-slaves’ memories of bondage, emancipation, and life as freedpeople were used to craft arguments for and against full inclusion of African Americans in society. By shedding new light on a critically important episode in the history of race, remembrance, and the legacy of slavery in the United States, Stewart compels readers to rethink a prominent archive used to construct that history.

In today’s post, Stewart argues for the ongoing need for a much-avoided and uncomfortable conversation for many Americans today: the history of slavery in the United States.

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Recent public conversations have revealed how ignorant most Americans remain about slavery, and also how resistant many are to hearing the truth about it. Reporting from the frontlines of this battle over Civil War memory are those doing public history: the educators, interpreters, and docents at historic sites, who engage a large number of visitors exhibiting a wide spectrum of assumptions and ideological perspectives—many of them mistaken—about the relationships of slaveholders and the enslaved.

Former tour guide Margaret Biser discusses the misconceptions that she encountered about slavery during her six years working at a historic site on Twitter as @AfAmHistFail. And, in the Web series “Ask a Slave,” which has become a cult phenomenon, actress Azie Dungey plays the role of a fictional house slave, Lizzie Mae, maid to first lady Martha Washington. Dungey created the series based on her own experiences portraying the life of Caroline Branham, one of the slaves owned by the Washingtons at Mount Vernon. The questions Lizzie Mae fields in the series are based on actual questions posed by tourists, and they suggest that the American public is largely clueless about the history and institution of slavery. As Dungey explains the show’s rationale, “I am not talking about slavery . . . I’m talking about modern racism, and I’m talking about modern ignorance.”

Yet despite Americans’ illiteracy about slavery, they clearly want to have a conversation about it, if the sold-out symposium this past September sponsored by Slate and GWU, “How to Talk Honestly About Slavery,” is any indication. Media attention to racial inequality and violence against black Americans and public awareness raised by Black Lives Matter and other social justice organizations have made race and the continuing legacy of slavery a topic of national conversation, one even political leaders have joined. In a much-discussed podcast interview in June 2015, President Obama observed that “the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination, in almost every institution of our lives . . . casts a long shadow and that is still part of our DNA that is passed on and we are not cured of it.”

But this current conversation is not the first time Americans and political leaders have attempted to talk honestly about slavery. In the 1930s, the federal government began an unprecedented and revolutionary discussion of slavery and its legacy by hiring unemployed writers to interview the last living generation of African Americans to have experienced slavery. The Federal Writers’ Ex-Slave Project sparked conversations between direct descendants of Confederate slaveholders and former slaves. This project, with its radical objective of recovering and reclaiming African Americans’ experiences with slavery and freedom, along with its failings and limitations, has much to tell us about why conversations about the past of slavery remain so difficult for Americans today.

The FWP’s Ex-Slave Project marks a historic moment in which the federal government both invited and enabled African Americans (as informants, interviewers, and in one case, as a federal director of the Project) to talk about black identity, but it also created a space in which they could address Jim Crow. The Ex-Slave Project set in motion a series of profoundly earthshaking and revelatory encounters as black and white Americans from different regions, educational backgrounds, and economic classes spoke to each other across the racial divide.

But the compromising circumstances of the color line in 1930s America made it almost impossible for blacks and whites to speak to one another freely about slavery. At all levels of the project, white employees’ varied assumptions about black identity and the historical legacy of slavery came into contact, and often conflict, with African American perspectives. Although the project did employ a number of African Americans as interviewers—most notably in the states of Virginia, Louisiana, and Florida, all of which established racially segregated Negro Writers’ Units—the majority of FWP interviewers involved in collecting these oral histories were southern whites.

There were many factors that shaped these conversations and their primary outcome, the ex-slave narratives, but one of the most surprising discoveries I made in my research was Confederate involvement in the project. Continue reading ‘Catherine A. Stewart: Having an Honest Conversation about Slavery—Now and Then’ »

Robert G. Parkinson: The Shot Heard Round the World Revisited

The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution, by Robert G. ParkinsonWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Robert G. Parkinson, author of The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolutionwhich is being published in association with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia. When the Revolutionary War began, the odds of a united, continental effort to resist the British seemed nearly impossible. Few on either side of the Atlantic expected thirteen colonies to stick together in a war against their cultural cousins. In this pathbreaking book, Parkinson argues that to unify the patriot side, political and communications leaders linked British tyranny to colonial prejudices, stereotypes, and fears about insurrectionary slaves and violent Indians. Manipulating newspaper networks, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and their fellow agitators broadcast stories of British agents inciting African Americans and Indians to take up arms against the American rebellion. Using rhetoric like “domestic insurrectionists” and “merciless savages,” the founding fathers rallied the people around a common enemy and made racial prejudice a cornerstone of the new Republic. 

In today’s post, Parkinson sheds new light on one of the most legendary events in U.S. history, focusing on how “the shot heard round the world” affected the racial tensions in America.

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Sixty years after the battle, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a triumphant hymn to the “embattled farmers” of Concord, Massachusetts, who gathered at the “rude bridge that arched the flood” underneath “their flag to April’s breeze unfurled” and “fired the shot heard round the world.” Emerson solemnized the “spirit that made those heroes dare / to die, or leave their children free.” Emerson’s imagery added to the already thick layers of mythology surrounding the events of April 19, 1775, fusing together nature and nation to craft an American pastoral patriotism. Ever since, when Americans think about the start of the Revolution, it is Emerson’s chorus—of heroic white colonists fighting to preserve their liberty—that plays in the background of this nationalist legend.

But that wasn’t how some people thought about the events of that night. In fact, race played a role in how people reacted to the Lexington Alarm. Even in Massachusetts.

Josiah Temple, a native of Framingham, Massachusetts (about fifteen miles south of Concord), published a book in 1887 on the town’s history. His recounting of what people remembered about the night of the Alarm was so different from the legend that he found it impossible to believe.

For four generations, the local story of the night of April 19, 1775, was that, as soon as the town’s militia marched north toward Lexington Green, a “strange panic” spread through Framingham. But that’s not what surprised the town historian, nor should it us. But what they said next certainly seems odd: “The Negroes were coming to massacre them all!” Some in the town, Temple noted, “brought the axes and pitchforks and clubs into the house, and securely bolted the doors, and passed the day and night in anxious suspense.”

It wasn’t the redcoats that scared people in Framingham, apparently, but even more terrifying African Americans in their midst that were plotting to fall upon them. Temple himself dismissed this as impossible. But he was wrong. People in Framingham were afraid of what might happen to them with the astonishing news that they were at war with Britain.

How do we know? Continue reading ‘Robert G. Parkinson: The Shot Heard Round the World Revisited’ »