Through a New Lens
With fresh eyes and a sense of purpose, researchers here are pushing to advance the field of African-American history in provocative new directions.
By Jim Duffy
In 2017, Professor Michael Kwass was looking forward to a quiet August so that he could prepare for the challenges ahead in his new role as chair of the Department of History. Then the phone started ringing.
In the wake of a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended in deadly violence, the City of Baltimore had decided to pull down several public monuments linked to slavery and the Confederacy. Reporters from near and far wanted help in putting these events in historical context.
“Our scholars of African-American history jumped on this opportunity,” Kwass recalls, with pride. New hire Martha Jones wasn’t even officially on the team yet when Kwass called and asked, apologetically, if she might pitch in. “The next thing I know—there’s Martha, talking on TV, radio, podcasts, everywhere.”
That hectic stretch served as a reminder for Kwass of why the department has worked so aggressively in recent years to bolster its commitment to African-American history and position itself as a national leader in the field. The subject lies below the surface of so many current events, from the election of the first black president through the rise of Black Lives Matter and the events of the Baltimore uprising. Hot-button issues like economic inequality and mass incarceration are rooted there, too, as are the debates that arise over racially tinged rhetoric surrounding current political issues.
“To try and deal with all these questions without looking at the history behind them, well, I think that’s absurd,” Kwass says. “We’re not going to be able to move forward as a society and as a nation without acknowledging the racism in our past and thinking about the ways it shapes the structures of power that are still at work today.”
Such an approach is especially apt at a research university located in a majority black city steeped in African-American history.
As to the field itself, it’s flourishing like never before. The numbers of journals and books have risen at astonishing rates in recent years. No longer are blacks regarded as background figures, filling out the larger picture. No longer is the notion that the African-American experience is a fundamental element of the American story an outlier.
The historians, scholars, and social scientists at work in Gilman Hall and Mergenthaler are playing key roles in uncovering new understandings, not only about historic topics such as slavery, but also about more contemporary issues such as redlining, incarceration, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Lives of Slaves
In the 1980s, when Philip Morgan, the Harry C. Black Professor of History, set out to study slavery, it was not at all clear that the sort of digging he had in mind would pay off. How much could historians really learn—200-plus years removed—about a seemingly faceless mass of field hands and “servants” who left behind no diaries, correspondence, or business records?
It’s been a wholesale revolution over these last 30 years. What’s going on today is just breathtaking. It’s been a privilege to have played a small part in the transformation of our historical understanding.”
“Slavery was viewed then as a static, homogenous whole—the picture everyone had in mind was of the antebellum era and the Deep South,” Morgan says. “No one was thinking much about slavery being an institution that had a long chronology, even though it obviously did, or as one that had significant regional variation.”
Morgan zeroed in on the decades around the Revolutionary War, when slavery was centered more on the Chesapeake Bay and in the Carolinas. “I wanted to look at the heterogeneity of slavery,” he says. “I wanted to see how things worked in the day-to-day ordinariness of things, and better understand how that changed across time and place.”
Morgan’s book, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry, won the 1998 Bancroft Prize in History and a slew of other honors. The book broke new ground with its big-picture revelations about the plantation economy, but perhaps more importantly, it served up a richly detailed look at the lives of enslaved blacks, delving into their family ties, religious beliefs, and cultural traits. There are telling anecdotes in the book about the diligent, sometimes ingenious ways slaves managed to find dignity and pride in a world that treated them as less than human.
“This is a big part of what makes Phil’s work so important,” says Kwass. “He doesn’t underplay the brutality of plantation slavery. But at the same time, he gives these people a voice. He shows them making a way in the world and creating a culture that is recognizably African-American.”
In more recent years, Morgan has developed a special interest in the workings of Mount Vernon, the plantation of George Washington. The Slavery Database there has tens of thousands of references to individual slaves in ledgers, correspondence, census counts, and other records.
The 600 or so people who made up that workforce over the years were no simple field hands. Highly skilled and adaptable, they managed the transition to mixed-grain agriculture after tobacco went into decline. They built and operated kilns, distilleries, mills, and shipyards.
Morgan’s judgement about Washington as a slave owner is mixed. On the one hand, he was constantly complaining about his slaves, criticizing their work habits and accusing them of stealing. He aggressively chases down those who run away.
“As a taskmaster, he is demanding, stern, austere. He pushes them quite hard,” Morgan says. “But if he were here to speak in his own defense, he would describe himself as rigorous but fair. He might talk about how he held up his side of the ‘bargain,’ providing food, clothing, and shelter. He respected family ties. He didn’t throw old people out on their own.”
Washington was just 10 years old when he assumed ownership of his first slave. He spent his entire lifetime deeply entangled with the day-to-day affairs of his workers. “He spent more time around slaves than he did around soldiers,” Morgan says. “He spent more time around slaves than he did marshaling the government bureaucracy.”
A portion of a list written by George Washington in July 1799 detailing the names, ages, and skills of the enslaved people he rented from his neighbor, Mrs. Penelope French. [Courtesy of Washington Library]
With 40-plus years in academia under his belt, Morgan ranks as an elder statesman in the field today. He finds himself astonished by the growth of his field and eager to see what new revelations lie on the horizon.
“When I started, no one thought that we should spend a lot of time learning about Africa,” he says. The narrative in Slave Counterpoint basically begins and ends on North American soil. “We all knew back then that the first Africans in Virginia arrived in 1619. But if you had tried to tell me then that we would know today in a highly specific way what part of Angola those first blacks came from, I would have said, ‘No, that’s impossible.’”
He marvels over the way historians have succeeded in “disaggregating” the African coast and linking different polities and cultures there with highly specific locations in the New World. More surprises are coming, Morgan predicts. Those connections between Africa and America are going to become even more richly detailed. There is much to learn, too, about the way slavery worked on smaller farms. One of Morgan’s students is looking at manifests from ships working the internal slave trade between Baltimore and New Orleans and finding remarkable levels of detail—surnames, heights, occupations, and much more.
“I suspect that we are already at a point where we know more about the Africans who came to America—their migration patterns, their gender ratios, perhaps their skills—than we do about Europeans who came to America,” Morgan says. “It’s been a wholesale revolution over these last 30 years. What’s going on today is just breathtaking. It’s been a privilege to have played a small part in the transformation of our historical understanding.”
In the 1990s, when Martha Jones joined the ranks of African-American historians, she found herself standing on the shoulders of giants. The field dates to the late 19th century, when George Washington Williams wrote his two-volume History of the Negro Race in America. A few decades later, Carter Woodson founded the Journal of Negro History and launched Negro History Week.
But a strong argument can be made that the field dates back further, to the orators and pamphleteers who told the stories of African-Americans while fully engaged in the fight for the abolition of slavery and then the push for equality during Reconstruction.
“Ours is an old field,” says Jones, the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, “but it has always had a different sort of character and texture than other scholarly endeavors.” In her eyes, that texture arises from the ways the journeys of its pioneering historians mirror the broader African-American experience. Like their subjects, these historians battled discrimination and found themselves shuttled off to the margins of academic society.
In its very origins, the field has always been an insurgent undertaking—a critique of power, a critique of hegemony.”
A native of Harlem in New York City, she came to this insurgent undertaking a little later in life, after a decade of practicing public-interest law. She moved into the top ranks of her second-career field over a 16-year stint at the University of Michigan, where a good chunk of her work was focused on the history of black women.
That subspecialty still ranked as a fledgling affair when Jones took it up, with just a handful of top-flight academic books in circulation. She points out how dramatically times have changed by waving an arm toward the abundance of volumes on the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in her office.
“That’s been a truly exciting thing for me, to have seen and been a part of that growth in the last 20 years,” she says.
Jones’ other subspecialty, legal history, is what first drew her to Baltimore. She was already at work on a book set predominantly in the city when she joined the Johns Hopkins faculty last summer.
That book, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, has a publication date that coincides with the July 2018 sesquicentennial anniversary of the 14th Amendment, which incorporated full citizenship rights for African-Americans into the highest law of the land. Just 11 short and war-torn years before its passage in 1868, the country had moved in the exact opposite direction via the infamous Dred Scott decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Up until now, the story of black citizenship has been told mostly through those two events, both set in the loftiest corridors of power. Birthright Citizens takes the story into fresh territory, tracking the grassroots experiences of free black men and women as they showed up in local courtrooms seeking to clarify their uncertain status in society.
Baltimore was a hotbed of this activity. Though still legal in Maryland, slavery had mostly fallen by the wayside in the city during the later years of the antebellum period. The city had a large and growing population of free black people, and while everyone understood that these people were something other than “property” in a legal sense, no laws spelled out what, precisely, that something else might be.
Were these “free” people entitled to a travel pass? Could they get a gun permit? Could they sue to void a child’s apprenticeship contract, if its terms had been violated? Could they form legal entities to operate a church or launch a business partnership?
Local courts often answered these questions in the affirmative. The issues at stake in any one case may never have approached the level of birthright citizenship outlined in the 14th Amendment, but considered in unison, all this legal striving took free blacks further along the road to a full measure of freedom than historians have previously recognized.
“In textbooks, Dred Scott tends to be the only story we hear when it comes to race and citizenship,” Jones says. The fuller story told in Birthright Citizens puts black people in the thick of the action—teaching themselves key legal principles, crafting creative arguments, making temporary common cause with local lawyers of various political stripes, and preparing all manner of deeds and contracts.
Jones is already at work on another book project, a biography of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, the Marylander who wrote Dred Scott.
Jones will be the first African-American historian to confront Taney in a biography. In her eyes, the justice ranks as exactly “the sort of figure we need to understand in a thoroughgoing way in order to more fully understand the history of race and racism in the United States.” Indeed, she sees this project as her individual piece in a much larger project on the horizon for her field.
“What comes next, I think, is that African-Americanist historians are going to be returning to some seemingly well-established subjects in U.S. history, and we are going look at them again,” she says. “You’ll frequently hear people in this field say insistently that ‘African-American history is U.S. history,’ but it also works in the other direction. There are many opportunities out there to come back to subjects that we think we know all about and look at them again through this lens of African-American history.”
Exploring Lived Realities
During the mid-2000s, when Assistant Professor Jessica Marie Johnson steered her career into this field, African-American history seemed poised on the brink of big things. “All of this fantastic work was coming out,” she says. “I felt right away like I had entered into an incredibly exciting moment.”
We have an exciting opportunity in front of us, a chance to build a cohort of fantastic students in the field of African-American and African diaspora history and continue the resurgence in the field.”
But the moment was precarious, too, especially when it comes to the study of women in Johnson’s chosen subspecialty of slavery and African diaspora. An early landmark publication in that space was Deborah Gray White’s Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. Staffers at the Library of Congress had to create a brand new filing category for that 1985 book.
“Think about how recent that is,” Johnson says. “And then think, too, about how for so long people of color have been told that writing their histories is somehow an act of propaganda. The field may be rich and vigorous, but when the focus is on black women, it’s still young and fragile.”
She has seen the same dichotomy in play on the Homewood campus since her arrival in Baltimore in 2016 from Michigan State, drawn in no small part by Johns Hopkins’ history department’s commitment to building African-American history into an institutional focus of excellence. “We have an exciting opportunity in front of us, a chance to build a cohort of fantastic students in the field of African-American and African diaspora history and continue the resurgence in the field,” she says.
Still, there are reminders of that precariousness, including one that hit especially close to home: While preparing to co-teach a spring 2018 class, Black Womanhood, with Jones, a colleague informed Johnson that the class would mark the first-ever graduate-level course in the humanities at Johns Hopkins to be taught by a black woman—and, in this case, two black women.
Johnson’s historical focus is the French Atlantic. Her book manuscript in progress, Practicing Freedom: Black Women, Intimacy and Kinship in New Orleans Atlantic World, tells the stories of enslaved and free black women who journeyed from Senegal to the mouth of the Mississippi River in the 1700s.
“My short summary is this: It’s a black feminist history of the founding of New Orleans,” she says. A longer summary would get into the intimate ties that these women established—with free and enslaved Africans, with Native-Americans, with Europeans—while striving to build meaningful lives in the most daunting of circumstances.
“Their experiences have a lot to teach us about what freedom can look like in a slaveholding society,” she says. “And the ‘practice of freedom’ they engaged in is something that helps to create the black community that develops over time in New Orleans.”
Race, gender, and sexuality all work together in interconnected ways as that community takes shape.
One case study in the book involves a Senegalese woman who crosses the Atlantic as a paid passenger on a slave ship before ending up in New Orleans. Her free status at the outset of that journey speaks to the complex social and economic dynamics that were at play around the slave trade in Senegal—and throughout West Africa.
“We still have a lot to learn about those dynamics,” Johnson says. “Studying New Orleans’ Atlantic world can change everything about what we know about the lives of enslaved and free black people, and it can make the ways we think of race here in the U.S. seem so limited.”◾