Jill D. Snider: A Macro-Micro Approach to Biography

Today we welcome a guest post from Jill D. Snider, author of Lucean Arthur Headen: The Making of a Black Inventor and Entrepreneur, out now from UNC Press.

Born in Carthage, North Carolina, Lucean Arthur Headen (1879–1957) grew up amid former slave artisans. Inspired by his grandfather, a wheelwright, and great-uncle, a toolmaker, he dreamed as a child of becoming an inventor. His ambitions suffered the menace of Jim Crow and the reality of a new inventive landscape in which investment was shifting from lone inventors to the new “industrial scientists.” But determined and ambitious, Headen left the South, and after toiling for a decade as a Pullman porter, risked everything to pursue his dream. He eventually earned eleven patents, most for innovative engine designs and anti-icing methods for aircraft. An equally capable entrepreneur and sportsman, Headen learned to fly in 1911, manufactured his own “Pace Setter” and “Headen Special” cars in the early 1920s, and founded the first national black auto racing association in 1924, all establishing him as an important authority on transportation technologies among African Americans. Emigrating to England in 1931, Headen also proved a successful manufacturer, operating engineering firms in Surrey that distributed his motor and other products worldwide for twenty-five years. Though Headen left few personal records, Jill D. Snider recreates the life of this extraordinary man through historical detective work in newspapers, business and trade publications, genealogical databases, and scholarly works.

In this post, Snider writes about the process of crafting a biography when few primary sources from the subject are available.

Lucean Arthur Headen is now available in hardcover and ebook editions.

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A Macro-Micro Approach to Biography

As I prepared to write a biography of Lucean Arthur Headen, I faced the all-too-familiar dilemma encountered by historians who attempt to reclaim the stories of African Americans outside well-documented fields. Writers, ministers, entertainers, lawyers, and politicians leave behind manuscripts, correspondence, sermons, songs, speeches, and legal briefs. Individuals like Headen, an independent inventor and small businessman, often have less of an eye toward their legacies, and few archives preserve the remnants of their lives. Thus, despite the fact that Headen worked as a Pullman Porter for a decade, learned to fly, earned eleven patents, designed and manufactured his own automobiles, promoted and raced in dirt-track events, and operated an engineering firm in England for over twenty-five years, we have almost no business records or personal writings on which to base his story.

Without primary sources, I had to ask myself, how could I ascertain the facts of Headen’s life, make sense of his experiences, divine his thoughts?

I was inspired to believe the task possible by the 1983 biography Free Frank. Juliet E. K. Walker’s book told the story of Frank McWorter, a slave who purchased his own freedom and as a free man established an all-black town in Illinois. Having only a few items belonging to McWorter, Walker took a unique approach. She turned to the growing scholarship on slavery and the Illinois frontier to place those items into a larger context and to flesh out a clearer portrait of McWorter.

Without primary sources, I had to ask myself, how could I ascertain the facts of Headen’s life, make sense of his experiences, divine his thoughts?

I took heart, too, that in the 2000s a cornucopia of new resources was rapidly becoming available. A sudden mushrooming of websites and online databases revolutionized access for historians to genealogical and government records, newspapers and magazines, church and organizational minutes and publications, patent documents, pamphlets, and correspondence, as well as searchable electronic finding aids that pointed to scattered materials in American, British, and other archives. These resources enabled me to pull together far-flung references to Headen and comments he made to reporters, adding substance to his portrait, and they made it possible to map out his family, social, political, religious, and economic networks, as well as those of his co-workers, business partners, and investors.

Marrying broader “macro-level” insights gained from the newest scholarship on African American history to the “micro-level” information gleaned from Internet-based tools, I was able to understand Headen’s times and make visible the networks in which he was embedded. I could then situate the odd items I had for him—a few photographs, a handful of letters, and his English identification papers—into a more meaningful context. This hybrid approach allowed me not only to document Headen’s experiences, but to better comprehend the challenges he faced, posit reasonable explanations for his life decisions, make sense of the strategies he chose to develop and market his inventions, and reflect on his personal life.

It also led to new questions. When I first imagined Headen’s life, I viewed him through the lens of individual success. As I dug deeper, I discovered a less obvious tradition of cooperation. The community of former slave artisans that produced Headen erected the schools that educated him. Its members also painstakingly built extensive networks within the Presbyterian Church, the Republican Party, and a host of social organizations, North and South, black and white, male and female, that provided Headen the emotional and financial support he later needed to pursue his ambitions.

Documenting these networks led me to unanticipated lines of inquiry, ultimately forming the many themes central to Lucean Arthur Headen: The Making of a Black Inventor and Entrepreneur. The biography explores not only the networks critical to Headen’s success, but how the South’s former slave artisans contributed to the creation of a new black middle class in the twentieth century, how black and white independent inventors in the 1920s and 1930s sometimes cooperated as they faced shrinking funds and competition from organized “industrial scientists,” how black churches helped keep entrepreneurship alive in the Jim Crow era, how black automobile owners used the new technology to maintain and add to social networks forged by their parents and grandparents, and how black women beauty entrepreneurs aided emerging transportation technologies.

Prompting new questions, the macro-micro method allowed me to interrogate arguments on invention, technology, and entrepreneurship already put forth by other historians. It simultaneously anchored Headen’s narrative in the reality of his day-to-day life and relationships, thus supplying concrete evidence through which to test the sometimes sweeping generalizations posited in the scholarship.

This method, like all methods, of course, has its Achilles heel. Establishing a narrative with a plentitude of sources is tricky, constantly challenging the biographer to identify biases and recognize untruths within the available sources and demanding that he or she remain cognizant of the temptation to infuse personal assumptions and agendas into the story. Constructing a life on the basis of scholar-defined context, bottom-up micro sources, and a small cache of personal items demands even greater vigilance, as the author will of necessity at times be forced to make educated guesses as to how events unfolded or what their subject’s motivations were. The macro-micro approach may yield considerable circumstantial evidence supporting a particular conclusion, but it is important to avoid conflating fiction and fact, and it is always incumbent upon the biographer to be forthcoming when hazarding a guess.

With this caveat, however, I believe the macro-micro method gives us an unprecedented opportunity to open conversations about lives seldom examined. And, as Headen’s story illustrates, it may encourage us to recast our views and embrace new arguments. It is my hope that as we reconstruct the lives of others using this approach, we can probe those arguments more thoroughly and discover evidence and insights missed by traditional methods.

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Photo by Vickie Hedrick

Jill D. Snider is an independent scholar in Chapel Hill, NC. She holds a B.A. in English and a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has for the past 40 years combined careers as a technical writer, program and business analyst, archivist, and historian. Dr. Snider has been a research fellow of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Air and Space Museum, the American Historical Association, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Her work focuses on African Americans in aviation history.

On Thursday, March 5th at 7PM, Jill D. Snider will give a book talk on Lucean Arthur Headen at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC.