Saturday, June 5, 2010

Dispatches from the Historical Society Conference, Day 1: Small Window, Big Picture?

Randall Stephens

A well-attended session on Thursday afternoon here at George Washington University dealt with what we can know or generalize about on a local level. What does the
information at the local level tell us about slavery and freedom in the antebellum South? It deserves attention here. I include videos below of the presenters (due to youtube's 10 minute limit, I've only included the first 9 minutes or so from each):

"Does It Take a Small Window to See the Big Picture?"

Chair and Commentator: Melvin Patrick Ely, College of William and Mary


Nancy A. Hillman, College of William and Mary
“Drawn Together, Drawn Apart: Biracial Fellowship and Black Leadership in Virginia Baptist Churches Before and After Nat Turner”

Jennifer R. Loux, Library of Virginia

“How Proslavery Southerners Became Emancipationists: Slavery and Regional Identity in Frederick County, Maryland”

Ted Maris-Wolf, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture
“Self-Enslavement in Virginia, 1856-1864: How Two Free Black Men Shaped a Law That Fueled the National Debate Over Slavery”

Melvin Patrick Ely, College of William and Mary
“What the Reviewers Should Have Criticized about Israel on the Appomattox, But Didn’t”

Ely summarizes the session as follows:

Histories of localities have won considerable attention over the years. Examples range from Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou and several important books on New England towns to Charles Dew’s Bond of Iron and Melvin Patrick Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox. Some distinguished
reviewers have recognized the assiduousness of the research that underpins certain of these studies and even praised the “sophisticated” analysis they may offer—yet these critics tend to write off the stories these works tell as atypical, and to deprecate their local perspective as inherently unreflective of broader realities. Eric Foner has added that “local histories, so valuable in bringing into sharp relief the details of daily life, seem to have an inherent bias toward continuity as opposed to historical change,” especially when the locality in question is rural. Such critics typically go on to praise canonical histories of entire regions (for example, “the American South”) because they “allow far more scope for generalizations.” But how useful are generalizations that turn out to be contradicted on the ground in one locality after another?

The members of this panel recognize that the historian’s job is to gather, organize, and interpret data in ways that yield reasonably broad, meaningful conclusions. But we also contend that sweeping conclusions that cannot account for the complexities pervading the lives of real people are not worth very much. A signal challenge for historians in the twenty-first century is to ferret out the particulars of life as people really lived it and to draw from those details conclusions that are both well founded and widely significant. . . .

Each of us finds that local realities seriously complicate and sometimes contradict received generalizations. Laws passed following the Nat Turner rebellion did not end black preaching and church leadership in Virginia, thanks to the assertiveness of black Baptists supported by more than a few of their white brethren (Hillman). Whites in western Maryland, far from identifying instinctively with the North at the onset of the Civil War, wrapped themselves in the mantle of Southernness and of proslavery orthodoxy—yet
within less than two years, two-thirds of the white men of Frederick County came to support Lincoln and Emancipation (Loux). The Virginia law of 1856 allowing free blacks to enslave themselves to white masters was not an expression of spiraling antipathy toward free African Americans or of a general desire among whites to reduce them to bondage; in fact, the law’s framers formulated it in concert with free blacks themselves as a measure to protect certain black individuals (Maris-Wolf). And in a society of profound inequality, many whites nevertheless adopted a live-and-let-live attitude toward free blacks (Ely). Ely chaired the panel; after the other panelists offered presentations of their work on the subjects just named, Ely offered a closing comment, drawing on those presentations and on his own work to address what this proposal has called the big questions.


Christopher said...

This is fantastic, Randall, with the video clips available to view here. Thanks for your efforts.

We discussed this particular issue just about every week in Prof. Ely's grad seminar in African American history this past semester at W&M, and had some very productive conversations.

Eduardo Marculino said...

Parabéns pelo espaço criado aqui.


Randall said...

Christopher: Thanks. It was a very thought-provoking session. Glad The question and answer part was quite good.

I think you would have been into some of the religious history panels as well.