Slavery, Freedom, and Family Networks: New Approaches and Methods
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Friday, April 3, 2020, 1:00 PM - 2:30 PM
Type: Paper Session
Tags: African American; Slavery
A dense web of legal, political, familial, social, and spatial relationships helped to shape and define the interactions between the enslaved and the world around them. These relationships were complex and difficult to navigate, but they reveal multidimensional layers of political expression, legal action, and strategic maneuvering. New approaches to legal records, account books, and financial records have helped historians uncover the scope of these relations and their significance.
This panel seeks to highlight three current attempts to better understand the relationship networks of enslaved individuals in the antebellum United States. The first, "The Black Family and the Archive during Slavery's Waning Days in the Pennsylvania Interior" by Cory Young (Georgetown University) seeks to highlight the sources used by the historians and genealogists attempting to retrace the networks of African-American families in the Pennsylvania interior. The unique realities of gradual emancipation have left a long paper trail for scholars to follow as they reconstruct family connections through the maternal line. Second, Patrick Hoehne (University of Nebraska) uses a GIS-centered approach to map the spatial, legal, and personal relationships embedded in the 1822 and 1834 Washington D.C. city directories. His piece, “In the Shadow of the Capital: Slavery, Violence, and the Law in Early Washington D.C.” explains the methodology for connecting legal and spatial data and explores the utility of spatially-grounded approaches to investigations of enslavement, violence, and the legal system. Finally, Sharon Leon (Michigan State University) will present “Individual Stories, Larger Understandings: Digital Representation of the Enslaved Community Owned and Sold by the Maryland Province Jesuits.” This piece explores the community and family networks of enslaved individuals held by the Maryland Jesuits. The project explores the relationships built and maintained across Jesuit owned farms before 1838, with a focus on individuality, community, and experiences.
The panel will be chaired by William G. Thomas III (University of Nebraska), who has an extensive background in studying the relationships of enslaved individuals through his work on freedom petitions and early Washington D.C. Tamika Nunley (Oberlin), whose research focuses on slavery, Washington, D.C. history, as well as on digital methods, will serve as the panel commentator. We expect the panel's focus on Washington, D.C., to attract a wide and diverse audience for this session. We also expect that teachers, scholars, students, and genealogists will all be interested in this topic, and the members of the panel collectively and individually will make efforts to address the interests of these different OAH constituencies. To involve as much audience participation as possible, we will keep our papers and commentary to 15 minutes each and leave ample time for audience questions, discussions, and personal reflections. This panel aims to make this history accessible and compelling.
Individual Stories, Larger Understanding: Digital Representation of the Enslaved Community Owned and Sold by the Maryland Province Jesuits
My work in the Jesuit Plantation Project focuses on the lives and experiences of the enslaved community owned by the Maryland Province Jesuits between 1717 and 1838, rather than on their Jesuit owners. Focusing on the enslaved community makes this project ideally suited for digital methods. With an eye to the events and relationships that formed the warp and woof of the daily lives of this enslaved community, I have worked to identify more than 1,000 enslaved people present in the documentary evidence, to situate them within their families and larger community, and to employ linked open data and an array of techniques to visualize the entire community of enslaved people and their relationships to one another across space and time. Working with the digital methodologies opens up a host of important questions about their appropriate application to the history of enslavement and the representation of the enslaved as individuals. Nonetheless, we are faced with the difficulty of providing a responsible point of entry that allows visitors to grapple with the representation of an individual and the hundreds of others who shared their lives and experiences. In this paper, I will explore the promise and difficulties of using data visualization as that entry point, specifically focusing on how historians can mitigate against erasing the significance of these individuals while providing an aggregated view of their community.
Working with the digital methodologies opens up a host of important questions about their appropriate application to the history of enslavement and the representation of the enslaved as individuals. Nonetheless, we are faced with the difficulty of providing a responsible point of entry that allows visitors to grapple with the representation of an individual and the hundreds of others who shared their lives and experiences. In this paper, I will explore the promise and difficulties of using data visualization as that entry point, specifically focusing on how historians can mitigate against erasing the significance of these individuals while providing an aggregated view of their community.
Sharon M. Leon, Michigan State University
The Black Family and the Archive during Slavery's Waning Days in the Pennsylvania Interior
This paper explores sources available to historians and genealogists who wish to reconstruct black family relationships in the Pennsylvania interior during the age of gradual abolition. Like most other places where it existed, slavery had little if any respect for the black family in the Keystone State. Even after the passage of gradual abolition legislation in 1780, enslavers could still break up families and sell children or parents to faraway places—as long as they did so within the commonwealth. Gradual abolition, however, did create a paper trail that makes it possible to reconstruct certain family relations through the maternal line. This paper will explain and demonstrate this method. After 1788 in Pennsylvania, slaveholders were required to register the children of the women they enslaved women with the county clerk or forfeit the child’s servitude. These records exist for several counties in the Pennsylvania interior, but to varying stages of completeness. In some counties, for instance, enslavers identified the mothers of the children they registered, while in others they did not. Some enslavers identified former owners, most did not. Only by constructing databases that treat these slave returns as one source among many can we begin to identify black familial relationships during the age of gradual abolition. Identifying these relationships is a crucial step in understanding how unfree black Pennsylvanians resisted and survived their continued servitude.
Cory James Young, Georgetown University
In the Shadow of the Capitol: Slavery, Violence, and the Law in Early Washington, D.C.
In the summer of 1835, Washington, D.C., simmered with racial tension. In August, a strike in the Navy Yard fueled a citywide race riot. Meanwhile, Francis Scott Key’s brother-in-law Roger B. Taney saw his stalled nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court suddenly resurrected. After Chief Justice John Marshall’s death in July 1835 and the riots in August, President Andrew Jackson nominated the controversial Taney for the second time. Amid this political turmoil, forty-year-old Daniel Bell launched a delicate and potentially dangerous bid to free his wife Mary and their six children. As Key pursued a conviction and Taney vied for a seat on the nation’s highest court, Daniel Bell managed to buy his own freedom, escape the slave trade, and for the moment, keep his family together. Little has been written on this significant series of events and the way enslaved people used the law and navigated the city’s networks. This paper seeks to explore the intersection of slavery, violence, and the legal system by applying a spatial analysis to early Washington, D.C. By mapping out the city directories from the years 1822 and 1834, this piece will examine the tensions, changes, and structures that helped facilitate the events of the summer of 1835. Through a combination of digital methods and traditional research, this paper hopes to shed new light on this history of slavery in the nation’s capital, as well as on popular violence and the law in the Jacksonian era.
Patrick Tyler Hoehne, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Chair: William G. Thomas III, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
William G. Thomas III is the John and Catherine Angle Chair in the Humanities and Professor of History at the University of Nebraska. He served as Chair of the Department of History from 2010 to 2016. He was selected as a 2016 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow. Thomas is currently working on a book called “Ordeal for Freedom: The White Marsh Trials and the Fate of American Slavery, 1789-1861,” chronicling the history of black, white, and mixed families in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and the burst of freedom suits and manumission in the Chesapeake after the Revolution. Using legal records to reveal family and kinship networks of early Washington, D.C., and Prince George’s County, he is also producing a series of experimental essays and animated historical films. These burrow into the historical record to explore how we know what we know about family histories and why we need moral imagination to confront what we find in the past. He served as the co-founder and Director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia, where he was an Assistant and Associate Professor of History in the Corcoran Department of History. He was a co-editor the award-winning digital project, Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War. With Edward L. Ayers, he co-authored “The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities,” one of the first pieces of digital scholarship published in the American Historical Review. He serves on the National Historical Records and Publications Commission (NHPRC) of the U.S. National Archives.
Presenter: Patrick Tyler Hoehne, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Patrick Hoehne is a 19th Century American History Ph.D. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Patrick graduated Magna Cum Laude from Colorado State University with a B.A. in History, along with a second B.A. in German Language and Literature and International Studies. Patrick went on to earn his M.A. in History from Colorado State, focusing on American History and writing his thesis on patterns of violence within the 1863 New York City Draft Riots.
Patrick’s interests lie primarily in the years surrounding the American Civil War. His current research interests include the Draft Riots, slavery, irregular violence, and environmental histories of the conflict. Patrick is also interested in digital methods, and continues to work extensively with GIS in his research. He is currently involved in digital scholarship as a research assistant for the O Say Can You See project through the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.
In addition to his interests in 19th Century and Civil War history, Patrick also has a passion for environmental and public history. He has, in the course of his graduate studies, completed internships and practicums for both the United States Forest Service and the National Park Service.
Presenter: Sharon M. Leon, Michigan State University
Sharon M. Leon is an Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University, where she specializes in digital methods with a focus on public history. She is also the director of the Omeka suite of web-publishing platforms. Currently, she is at work on a digital project to surface and analyze the community networks and experiences of the cohort of people enslaved and sold by the Maryland Province Jesuits in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Dr. Leon received her bachelors of arts degree in American Studies from Georgetown University in 1997 and her doctorate in American Studies from the University of Minnesota in 2004. Her first book, An Image of God: the Catholic Struggle with Eugenics, was published by University of Chicago Press (May 2013). Prior to joining the History Department at MSU, Dr. Leon spent over thirteen years at George Mason University’s History Department at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as Director of Public Projects, where she oversaw dozens of award-winning collaborations with library, museum, and archive partners from around the country.
Commentator: Tamika Nunley, Oberlin College
Tamika Nunley is an Assistant Professor of American history at Oberlin College and Conservatory. Her research and teaching interests include slavery, gender, nineteenth-century legal history, digital history, and the American Civil War. At Oberlin, she created the History Design Lab which allows students to develop scholarly projects that involve methodological approaches such as digital humanities, public history, and curatorial practices. Her book manuscript, At the Threshold of Liberty: Women, Slavery, and the Boundaries of Freedom in Washington, D.C. examines how black women strategically used the laws, geography, and community networks of the nation’s capital to make claims to liberty during the Civil War era. Her work has been supported by the Mellon and Woodrow Wilson foundations as well as the American Association of University Women.
Presenter: Cory James Young, Georgetown University
Cory James Young is a PhD candidate and graduate student worker at Georgetown University. He is currently at work on a dissertation entitled, "For Life or Otherwise: Abolition and Slavery in South Central Pennsylvania."