OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

OAH Distinguished Lectureship program 40 years 1981-2021

J. William Harris

Portrait of J. William Harris

J. William Harris is professor of history, emeritus, at the University of New Hampshire. He is the author or editor of seven books focusing on U.S. southern and African American history. Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation (2001) was a cowinner of the OAH James A. Rawley Prize, the winner of the Agricultural History Society's Theodore Saloutos Memorial Book Prize, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His book, The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man's Encounter with Liberty (2009), was named one of the Library Journal's best nonfiction books of the year. He has held Fulbright professorships in Italy and the Netherlands and fellowships at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University and the National Humanities Center. His current project is The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow: A History of the American South since the Civil War.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

When America's first geographer, Jedidiah Morse, toured the southern states shortly after the American Revolution, he found that they shared little in common; in Georgia alone, for example, “No general character will apply to the inhabitants at large. Collected from different parts of the world, as interest, . . . their character and manners must of course partake of all the varieties which distinguish the several states and kingdoms from which they come." Had he travelled shortly after the Civil War, of course, he would have had no doubt that (white) southerners now shared "general character" forged in a slave society that had been overthrown in war. This lecture traces the rise of "the South" as a single place and "southern" as an identity (for whites) between those two eras.
This lecture takes its theme from Mark Twain, who wrote, in Life on the Mississippi, “in the South the war is what A.D. is elsewhere: they date from it.” The cultural and political unity that created one South, rather than many Souths, and thus a southern history, was forged by the overthrow of slavery and crushing defeat in the Civil War. After the war, southern whites were determined to redeem themselves from that defeat, and they built the Jim Crow regime to confirm and cement white supremacy as the essence of what they meant by "the South." But Jim Crow was brought down in turn by Black southerners in decades of struggle that climaxed in the Civil Rights Movement. In the aftermath of that movement, the South remains a region with recognizably distinct patterns of music, religion, politics, and social values, but it is no longer true that most whites are determined that the South “shall be and remain a white man’s country,” nor are southerners–white or Black–burdened with a consciousness of a history founded on defeat. “Southern history,” as it came to be known and understood in the decades after the Civil War, has ended.
Thomas Jeremiah was probably the wealthiest free Black man in the British North American colonies in 1775. Some of his wealth was in enslaved people. He was also hanged by American patriots in Charleston, allegedly for trying to foment a slave insurrection on behalf of the British. The story of Thomas Jeremiah gives us a window into the dramatic entanglements of race, slavery, and liberty in the era of the American founding.