I started a newsletter.

I’ve decided to start sending out a newsletter about what’s happening in the world of American history. Every two weeks (or so) I’ll send out a list to several stories along with my commentary, highlighting examples of how the landscape of history is changing around the country. How is history being taught? Being presented to the public? What are historians talking about? It will attempt to cover everything history professionals (and those just generally interested in history!) should be aware of from the prior weeks.

It’s called “Primary Source: An American History Newsletter.” You can find it here.

Website Update

I’ve made some changes to the website. What started primarily as a blog for collecting my thoughts during coursework and my study for comprehensive exams has become something different now, so I have changed the format of the site. Since most of my writing now happens at venues other than this blog, I have added a page that lists where you can find my online writing. This space will continue to evolve as needed, and I am sure I will still use it as a space in which I can work out my research ideas.



The ‘African Church’ and Black Resistance in Antebellum Charleston

Update: An edited version of this article has been cross-posted at We’re History

Last night, Dylann Storm Roof murdered nine people in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in an act of white supremacist terror, once again introducing violence into a church with deep roots in the history of Charleston. Founded in 1818 as the first A.M.E. Church in the South and one of the largest black Methodist congregations in the country at the time, the church served as a symbol of black resistance to white supremacy from the moment of its founding. As such, it almost immediately drew the ire of white Charleston. As many have observed over the past twenty-four hours, the church’s revolutionary potential was realized in 1822, when it became implicated in the insurrection scheme planned by a free black man named Denmark Vesey. The very founding and existence of the church, however, was in itself a revolutionary and rebellious act.

Richard Allen founded the United States’ first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1816. Two years later, after disputes with the city’s Methodist church over church funds and its burial ground, black Charlestonians sought to form their own independent black church. In 1818, after being ordained in Philadelphia, a free black man named Morris Brown founded Charleston’s “African Church,”—it wasn’t until after the Civil War that it became known as Emanuel A.M.E. Over 4,000 black Charlestonians subsequently joined, making the African Church not only the oldest independent black congregation south of Maryland, but the largest A.M.E. Church outside of Philadelphia. During the era of the slave trade, 2 of every 5 enslaved people imported into the United States came through the port of Charleston, and at the time of the African Church’s founding enslaved people constituted 70% of Charleston County’s population. In a city and region so deeply invested in the slave system, defying white authority and establishing an independent black church in that space and environment was a revolutionary act.

One of the aspects of the African Church that made it a truly unique institution in black Charleston was its ability to bring together people of African descent from different backgrounds. Charleston’s black community was often divided along class, color, and status lines, as free people of color tried to distance themselves from slavery, people of mixed racial ancestry tried to derive advantage from their lighter complexions, and skilled artisans and business owners strove to increase social distance between themselves and unskilled free and enslaved laborers. The African Church’s congregation blurred the lines dividing black Charlestonians, perhaps fostering a sense of common, racial identity that may not have existed elsewhere in the city.

White authorities in the city feared the church’s revolutionary potential, and almost immediately began enacting measures to counteract it. From the moment of its founding, the African Church had to deal with regular and persistent harassment from whites and from Charleston authorities. Charleston’s city guard arrested 140 members and ministers in June 1818, including founder Morris Brown, for violating the states prohibition on educating slaves. Each of the ministers arrested were encouraged to leave the state, but offered the opportunity to pay fines or face imprisonment. Morris Brown chose prison and stayed in Charleston.[1]

Two years later in 1820, a group of prominent white Charlestonians petitioned the state legislature to express their continued concern about the presence of an independent black church in the city. The petitioners called the legislature’s attention to the “evils” they felt the African Church represented. These men pointed to the “spacious building that has lately been erected in the immediate neighborhood of Charleston for the exclusive ownership of negroes and colored people, from means supplied to them by abolition societies.” The gathering of an all black congregation was a self-evident evil, one made all the more concerning by the congregants alleged affiliation with northern abolitionists. Whites feared the possibilities of free and enslaved blacks meeting together outside the supervision and control of whites. Not only did these petitioners want to prevent this black congregation from meeting, they sought to specifically prohibit “free negroes and colored people” from visiting “the eastern states for ordination and other religious pretences and again returning.”[2] White Charlestonians felt they needed to actively prevent the independent worship free and enslaved blacks.

In 1822, whites’ worst fears about the insurrectionary possibility of the African Church came to fruition in the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, a plot that deeply implicated the African Church.[3] Many of the accused leaders of the conspiracy played active roles in the church, with some, like Vesey, serving as class leaders. The authors of the published Official Report of the plot condemned the African Church in no uncertain terms, placing blame squarely on the church for fostering an environment in which the seed of such an insurrection could grow. They decried its “inflammatory and insurrectionary doctrines.” The Report accused the church of instilling “perverted religion and fanaticism” in its congregants.[4] Many of the slave witnesses implicated the African Church as well, though certainly under pressure (if not torture) from their white interrogators, whose views towards the church would have been well known. An enslaved man named William Paul, in his testimony against one of the conspirators, claimed to have been told that “all those belonging to the African Church are engaged in the insurrection.”

Another published account of the proceedings that followed the plot’s discovery argued that “religious fanaticism has not been without its effect on this project,” and that “the secession of a large body of blacks from the white Methodist church, with feelings of irritation and disappointment, formed a hot bed” which gave “life and vigor” to insurrectionary ideas. It continued, noting “Among the conspirators, a majority of them belonged to the African Church and among those executed were several who had been class leaders.”[5] In the immediate aftermath of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, Charleston authorities directly tied the insurrectionary activity to the African Church. By all accounts, the Vesey conspiracy would not have been possible without the independent space and inspiration the African Church provided.

Denmark Vesey also allegedly used his knowledge of the bible to denounce the slave system and recruit other slaves and free people of color to his insurrectionary plot. The Official Report accused Vesey of having “rendered himself familiar with all those parts of the scriptures, which he thought he could pervert to his purpose; and would readily quote them to prove that slavery was contrary to the laws of God.” Benjamin Ford, a white Charleston resident aged 15 or 16, told the court that when Vesey came into his family’s shop, that he would readily discuss the hardships faced by blacks. Further, Ford claimed “his general conversation was about religion which he would apply to slavery,” and that “all his religious remarks were mingled with slavery.”[6] Vesey, an active member of the African Church with experience with and exposure to the political and ideological currents of the Atlantic World, espoused radical religious views and was, according to the witnesses who cooperated with white authorities, unafraid to share them with any who would listen.

Deeply implicated in the Denmark Vesey insurrection conspiracy, the African Church was burned by whites when its role in the affair became clear. Though congregants attempted to re-established the church, the state would officially outlaw independent black churches and schools in 1834. Black congregants continued to meet, often in secret, through the rest of the antebellum era. Like in many southern communities, the church was one of the first things to be re-established in the wake of the Civil War and abolition.

Though the veracity of the details of the Vesey conspiracy remain contested, they begin to reveal the ways the African Church specifically and religion more broadly played a role in the 1822 insurrection plot and in the lives of black Charlestonians. Many of the accused conspirators played active roles in the church. Beyond that, the African Church could have facilitated the planning of the conspiracy and fostered a sense of racial solidarity by bringing together members of Charleston’s black community across class, color, and status lines. The church may have even instilled in some black Charlestonians, both free and enslaved, a sense of religious duty to revolt against the slave system. At the most basic level, free and enslaved blacks leaving a white controlled congregation in 1818 to form an independent black church in the heart of the South Carolina lowcountry and the slave South represents an inherently rebellious act. From the moment of its founding, Charleston’s African Church was a site of protest, rebellion, and revolutionary possibility. It was perhaps this status as a site of black independence and rebellion that made Emanuel A.M.E. a target, and the murder of 9 people there continues a long history of white violence.

For further reading see:

Bernard E. Powers Jr., Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1885.

Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark, Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South

Douglar R. Egerton, He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in the Antebellum Charleston

[1] Bernard E. Powers, Jr., Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1885, 21.

[2] “Petition advocating a curtailment of certain rights granted to free blacks, persons of color and slaves,” October 16, 1820, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Legislative Papers, 1782–1866, Petitions to the General Assembly (Series S165015), Roll 1344, No. 143, 703–10.

[3] One of the most well-known insurrection plots in American history, the Vesey conspiracy deeply implicated the African Church. The details Denmark Vesey affair—in fact, the existence of a conspiracy at all—is deeply contested and controversial. Nearly all the details we have about the Vesey conspiracy come from the ensuing trials and the heavily coerced testimony of enslaved people pressured by white authorities and likely attempting to save their own lives. Michael Johnson has suggested that many of the details that emerged through these coerced confessions reveal more about the racial anxieties of white Charlestonians than they do about the alleged insurrection plot. Nevertheless, as other scholars have argued, we must be able to glean something from such an unusually detailed record of black Charleston. The Vesey affair and its related documentary trove, however imperfect and contested, reveal a great deal about the revolutionary nature of the African Church and white concerns about black freedom during the early nineteenth century. See: Michael P. Johnson, “Denmark Vesey and his Co-Conspirators,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Oct. 2001), 915–976. See also the articles in “Forum: Making of a Slave Conspiracy, Part 2,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol 59, No. 1 (Jan. 2002).

[4] An official report of the trials of sundry Negroes, Charged with an attempt to raise an insurrection in the State of South Carolina (Charleston, 1822), 23. A transcription caa be found here: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/llst:@field(DOCID+@lit(rbcmisclst0101)):

[5] James Hamilton, Negro Plot: An Account of the Late Intended Insurrection among a Portion of the Blacks of the City of Charleston, South Carolina (Charleston, 1822), 31. An electronic version can be found here: http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/hamilton/hamilton.html

[6] Official Report, 17–18; 89.

“Enslavement Narratives” vs. “Freedom Narratives” in Antebellum America

Alabama Daily Confederation, October 5, 1858
Alabama Daily Confederation, October 5, 1858

With the release of Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave, historians, journalists, and others have begun to offer insights online and in print on slavery and freedom in antebellum America. In particular, significant attention has been paid to “slave narratives” like that of Solomon Northup. Such discussions about slave narratives published in the antebellum North have led me to think about the connections between these stories and tales of voluntary enslavement from the antebellum South (for the sake of clarity, I will use the term “freedom narrative” when discussing stories published by former slaves about their life in and escape from slavery; I will use “enslavement narrative” when discussing stories of voluntary enslavement)[1]. Though these stories have received far less attention from historians, their structure and the timing of their publications seem particularly germane to some of these recent explorations of slavery and freedom.

In an excellent recent post on the Oxford University Press Blog, Mitch Kachun discusses how stories like Northup’s were particularly popular in the years leading up to the Civil War, often selling tens of thousands of copies. He also notes that some contemporaries doubted blacks’ abilities to write these narratives, suspecting they were in fact written by white abolitionists. Though some of this skepticism survived into the twentieth century (as well as a recent New York Times article), Kachun emphasizes that “a half century of intensive research has convinced most literary and historical scholars today of the general accuracy and authority of their stories.”

While these freedom narratives have proved to be largely factual, it is nevertheless true (as Kachun notes) that abolitionists played crucial roles in getting these stories published and popularized. In addition, once published, freedom narratives were crucial tools for abolitionists, providing first hand accounts of the horrors of slavery. Supporters of slavery, of course, denied the accuracy of these freedom narratives and defended the institution as benign, civilizing, and of greater service to blacks than the free labor system. I would like to suggest, however, that not only did proslavery advocates deny the accuracy of freedom narratives, they appear to have attempted to provide a contrasting view through the publication of voluntary enslavement stories in southern newspapers. Continue reading ““Enslavement Narratives” vs. “Freedom Narratives” in Antebellum America”

Pedro Romero, Race, and Respectability in Cartagena

For a few blocks near the Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad in the Getsemaní neighborhood of Cartagena, Colombia, the legend of Pedro Romero lives. On the streets surrounding the plaza and its church, elaborate works of street art adorn the walls paying tribute to Pedro Romero, the hero of Cartagena’s independence movement for the people of Getsemaní.

Statue of Pedro Romero dedicated to the "Lanceros de Getsemaní"
Statue of Pedro Romero dedicated to the “Lanceros de Getsemaní”

Born in Matanzas, Cuba in the 1740s, Pedro Romero was a free man of color, likely of mixed African and European descent. Though little is known of Romero’s early life, he worked as a gunsmith and master blacksmith in Cartagena’s arsenal in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and also ran a foundry at the entrance to the barrio of Getsemaní, home to the many of Cartagena’s slaves and free people of color.

In 1810, José Ignacio de Pombo described Romero and his son by stating “We have in the master Pedro Romero, and his son Stephen, two intelligent artists in this profession [Blacksmithing], or better yet, two intelligent men that the force of their genius…has elevated to a degree of perfection and delicacy that is truly admirable.”[1] As an artisan, Romero had significant contact with Cartagena’s white creole and Spanish elite (particularly in the form of military contracts), allowing him to establish a reputation for himself in Cartagena as a respectable pardo. Continue reading “Pedro Romero, Race, and Respectability in Cartagena”

40 Million Dollar Slaves with Bomani Jones

This entry is cross-posted from the official Race Scholars at Rice Blog

Last week, Race Scholars at Rice held our bi-annual “Dialogue Partners” event, where we discussed William C. Rhoden’s 2006 book 40 Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. This session of Dialogue Partners was unique, as we for the first time had an outside expert join in our discussion. Bomani Jones, a writer and media personality who frequently addresses issues of race and culture in the sporting world, was kind enough to video chat with the group as we addressed Rhoden’s argument and discussed the issues raised in the book.

In the book, Rhoden argues that from the time sports were introduced to plantations in the antebellum South through the present, black athletes have been exploited and denied a place within the power structure of American athletics. Whenever black athletes are perceived to have gained too much power or to pose a threat to white cultural values, the rules are changed to detriment of blacks. In essence, the rules of modern athletics are rigged against black athletes to ensure that they are barred from positions of power.

Much of our discussion focused on the collegiate athletics system, and how it functions to the detriment of black athletes. One participant asked Bomani if he could discuss how college athletics reflects the “plantation” model that Rhoden describes. Bomani argued that in addition to not being paid for their efforts, the playing field remains the only aspect of college athletics that have been integrated. Coaches, administrators, the press, and the fans, all remain largely dominated by whites.

One of the most interesting aspects of the conversation for me, was the idea that perhaps Rhoden adhered to strictly to a black-white binary. Major League Baseball, for instance, utilizes a “conveyor belt” system to cheaply cultivate Latin American talent in a manner largely similar to the way the NFL and NBA lure black players from the inner city, with a similar disregard for the well being of athletes (see, for example, <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/03/baseball-dominican-system-yewri-guillen?page=1"the death of Washington Nationals’ prospect Yewri Guillén)

An aspect of Rhoden’s book that I thought didn’t really get enough attention during our discussion (not that the discussion of athlete exploitation couldn’t have lasted far longer by itself) is the unwillingness of prominent black athletes to speak out about racism and other social issues. While Rhoden may be kinder to historical actors than he is to present-day athletes, I agree with Rhoden that it seems to be a problem that black athletes don’t use their prominent public roles to take stronger stances on issues of social justice.

Nevertheless, the conversation was extremely enlightening for both sports fans and non-sports fans, and was, at least to me, one of the most interesting and successful Dialogue Partners to date. You can find the full video of our discussion on YouTube here:

Free Black Exclusion Laws and Illegal Immigration

I haven’t posted anything here in a few months because I’ve been studying for my comprehensive exams, but when the Supreme Court of the United States starts talking about southern states excluding free black immigration and residency in the Old South, I guess that means it’s time to start writing again.

As you surely know already, the Supreme Court, in a 5-3 majority decision, struck down three of the provisions of Arizona’s harsh immigration law, while upholding what many consider the most controversial part of the law, the provision allowing law enforcement officials to demand proof of immigration status, the “show us your papers” provision.  Some are viewing this as a “reasonable accommodation of various views.”

Justice Antonin Scalia, in partial concurring opinion, argued yesterday that the entirety of Arizona’s strict immigration law should have been upheld.  Justice Scalia attempted to support this opinion, in part, by noting that during the antebellum period, southern states passed various immigration and residency restrictions on “freed blacks.”  Scalia is right to draw parallels between the situation of undocumented immigrants in the twenty-first century U.S., and free blacks during late eighteenth and early nineteenth, but for a completely different reason.

Free blacks have long fascinated historians as the seeming anomaly of southern race relations, and have gained increasing scholarly attention since the 1960s and 1970s.  Since that time, however, scholars have noted that these laws, which barred free blacks from residing in, or immigrating into almost every southern state, were only intermittently, if ever, enforced; rather, free blacks continued to live, and sometimes prosper, in southern states, establishing deep, lasting ties to communities across the South.

While these laws represented the legislative concretization of a racist ideology that viewed people of color as a threat to the stability of slave societies, they were rarely used to forcibly deport free blacks from southern states, or to deny them residency.  Instead, free blacks frequently performed menial labor that whites felt was too dirty or too demeaning, especially in urban areas.  They cut hair, they laundered and mended clothes, and they served as housekeepers and personal servants; they worked as painters, carpenters, and day laborers.  Some free blacks found wealth and success through mastering a skilled craft, laying the foundation for the black entrepreneurship that would prove so crucial in 20th century; most did not.  Because they provided such crucial labor to the southern economy, and perhaps more importantly, because they were able to establish individual, personal relationships with whites in southern communities, free black exclusion laws were almost never enforced in the Old South.  As Melvin Patrick Ely notes in his 2004 study of a particularly stable community of southern free blacks in antebellum Virginia, “many southern whites felt secure enough to deal fairly and even respectfully with free African Americans partly because slavery still held most blacks firmly in its grip.  That paradox helped make room for a drama of free black pride and achievement to unfold in an Old South where ties of culture, faith, affection, and economic interest could span the barrier between black and white.”[1]

A class of citizens legally barred from residence, permitted to live there anyway because they perform labor essential to the local economy, and establish significant ties to the community that mitigate more abstract aversions to their residency.  If that sounds familiar, it should, and it points to the great irony in Scalia’s citation of such laws.  Perhaps his citation of these laws at the state level is in fact sufficient legal precedent to uphold the Arizona law in its entirety; I’m not a legal scholar, and I will gladly defer to someone else on that aspect of this issue.   I even agree with him that immigration in America’s past is more complex than the “‘[m]yth of an era of unrestricted immigration’ in the first 100 years of the Republic,” that is often presumed; Scalia, however, simply replaces one myth with another myth by citing the immigration and residency restrictions placed on free people of color.  Much of the last forty years of scholarship has demonstrated how and why these laws were rarely enforced, and that they represented little more than an abstract, racist ideology that viewed people of African descent as a menace to society, and incapable of surviving in freedom.  Maybe this is the United States to which Justice Scalia would like to return. The fact that these laws can in any way still be relevant legal precedent shows how much the United States has really evolved in the last 200-some-odd years, it emphasizes that the idea of a post-racial America is truly a myth, and it highlights the continued importance of the study of history.

Oh, and self-deportation? Yeah, the Old South had that too: “Self-Enslavement Laws: Introduction and Initial Historiography Review.”

[1] Melvin Patrick Ely, Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War, (New York: Knopf Press, 2004). For additional reading, see: Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1974); Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark, Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South, (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1984); Juliet K. Walker, The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship, Volume I, to 1865, Second Edition, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).  These are only four among an enormous and extensive historiography on the complicated history of free blacks in the Old South. (go back)

Shame On You, Chronicle

Shame on you, Chronicle of Higher Education. Shame. I truly can’t believe you would post this anti-intellectual garbage from Naomi Schaefer Riley. By now, anyone looking at this blog has probably seen it already, but here’s the link to her blog post, titled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.”

First of all, she phrases the title of her post as if the readers of the Chronicle have been aching for legitimate reasons to eliminate black studies. Obviously not the case, but whatever. She proceeds to spew anti-intellectual, racist garbage towards individual black studies graduate students. Real classy, Schaefer Riley. Real classy.

But even before she does that, doesn’t take her own advice: readings the dissertations. Her blog post should be titled “Are you looking for reasons to condescend to black academics? Read the titles of their dissertations and a couple sentences about them, and then judge them.” Schaefer Riley is incredulous that graduate students would even waste their time studying things like black women’s authoritative knowledge on childbirth, racism in the housing crisis of the 1970s, or black Republicans since the 1980s.

I won’t even go into how off base this is, because I shouldn’t have to. I just honestly can’t believe that the Chronicle of Higher Ed is giving space to this kind of thing. For shame.

Edit: Pressed send too quickly. Should have just said “Read this.