Life Histories, the Archives of Reconstruction, and the Historical Imagination

Endorsed by SHGAPE

Friday, March 31, 2023, 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Biography/Memoir; Civil War and Reconstruction


The Reconstruction Era has much to teach us about navigating uncertain times. This panel brings together four scholars to talk about life histories during the various crises of the Reconstruction period. The papers ask the following: How did various intellectuals, government officials, and everyday African Americans confront the refugee crisis during the Civil War (the hundreds of thousands of formerly enslaved who escaped to Contraband Camps)? How did formerly enslaved people attempt to rebuild their social support systems and find material support in the wake of a new and uncertain economy? And, how did African American communities confront sickness and trauma, such as the contagious and deadly pertussis (whooping cough) that spread through Contraband Camps? By following the life histories of both professional class and poor Americans, our papers show how individuals responded to crisis by drawing on religious rituals and symbolism, benevolent societies, intergenerational networks, and grassroots leaders who helped guide others through uncertainty. The reconstruction of life history offers conceptual tools to approach what historian Leslie Harris refers to as the “imperfect archive.” As Harris writes: “. . .there is no perfect archive, where every historical question is answered clearly and without the need for interpretation and imagination.” To that end, we draw from a rich and vast set of archival records such as, legal documents, pension files, diaries, letters, the Black press, census data, government documents and sacramental records. Each paper will conclude by thinking about what the history of Reconstruction teaches us for our present moment of uncertainty that feels familiar to those at the end of Reconstruction including racial backlash, terrorism, and a growing conservative movement against the powers of the federal government (i.e. public health mandates, and voting rights).

Papers Presented

Charlotte Forten and the Infants of Port Royal: Labor and Care during Reconstruction

“Charlotte Forten and the Infants of Port Royal” tells a story of reproductive labor and care work during the Port Royal Experiment, a staging ground for Reconstruction located in the South Carolina Sea Islands during the Civil War. Charlotte Forten Grimké, an educated, elite Black activist worked as a teacher and, for a short time, as volunteer nurse in the Sea Islands during the Civil War. Drawing on a reading of Charlotte Forten Grimké’s journal alongside letters and documents that detail the conditions in which the infants and toddlers of Port Royal lived, I argue that Forten developed intergenerational networks of care with the families on the island. These care networks informed how Forten thought about the possibilities of freedom that lay before her and the local community, and how they all navigated the trauma of pertussis (whooping cough) that affected the young children of the Sea Islands. The paper seeks to highlight reproductive labor—the labor that goes into caring for young and elderly bodies and future generations. The stories also center love. By centering Black women’s care work, I hope to consider what it means for Black women to deliver or receive a tender, caring touch in a world where blackness is stigmatized and crisis seems all around.

Presented By
LaKisha Michelle Simmons, University of Michigan

The Other Douglass: Studying the Archive of a Self-Made Black Professional in the Post-Emancipation South

This paper will analyze the work of Black pension attorneys and claims agents who represented the petitions of disabled Black veterans and the widows of dead Black soldiers to the U.S. Pension Bureau during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Anchored around the life history of the formerly enslaved Frederick C. Douglass, a self-taught grassroots black leader who established himself as a successful and influential pension attorney in New Bern, North Carolina in 1879, I reconstruct the professional world these men created shortly after federal lawmakers opened the pension system to the formerly enslaved. The paper draws on Douglass’s voluminous pension ledgers not only to reveal the expansiveness of his business but to demonstrate the legal savvy of his formerly enslaved clientele. Working on behalf of poor black men and women across the South, claims agents like Douglass provided services that went beyond filling out paperwork. At times, they took on responsibilities that mirrored those of benevolent societies, assisting with food and shelter before their benefits arrived. Bringing together insights from the fields of African American women’s history, gender and emancipation, and socio-legal history, this paper deepens historians understanding gender and intracommunal class relationships in post-emancipation Black communities. In addition to Douglass’s archive, this paper draws on an array of archival sources such as the pension files of Black petitioners, records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and cemetery records to better understand how Black professionals such as Douglass built and sustained new arenas of activism in the post-emancipation South.

Presented By
Brandi Clay Brimmer, UNC Chapel Hill

“[T]he right man in the right place”: General Oliver Otis Howard, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the Divine Providence of Colored Civilization

This paper explores the delicate transition from Emancipation to Reconstruction through a close reading of the erection (and written representations) of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, in the wake of the devastating Civil War. On March 3, 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau was established as an urgent yet temporary agency: tasked to address the expansive ex-slave refugee crisis in and beyond the South; and, to ameliorate degrading living (and labor) conditions across the American color line. Notable Christian military leader, Major General Oliver Otis Howard was federally appointed as Commissioner of the Bureau, and so would become the face of the contentious African American assimilation effort or “civilizing mission.” At the dawn of his tenure, Howard was indeed described and experienced in religious terms; positioned as a sort of messiah or “Regulator of [the] future destiny of the Colored Race.” I am interested in analyzing such religious symbolisms as an indication of early perceptions of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Further, I am looking to understand impressions of Howard and the Bureau as related to larger, varying positions on the issue of Black citizenship and potentials for racial egalitarianism. This essay is based on General Howard’s personal and professional papers, including his correspondence with both supporters and detractors. In addition, I am investigating the Black press as a way of capturing African American perceptions of Howard and the Bureau. By shifting the gaze to the early days of this state initiative, not yet overwhelmed by the challenges ahead, I hope to consider the new world that American people so desperately believed they needed, and believed possible to manifest, in the postwar period.

Presented By
Maya Sudarkasa, University of Michigan

Performing Piety: The Rites and Records of Afro-Creole Catholic Women in Postemancipation New Orleans

During the social reorganization of postemancipation New Orleans, observers regularly commented on Afro-Creole women’s dedication to the Catholic Church. Undoubtedly, many Creole women were deeply committed to the religious mission of the Catholic Church, but a careful read of church records suggests that women’s motivations to participate in church sacraments extended far beyond religious devotion. In addition to receiving religious instruction and social aid frequently administered by black church organizations, Creole women used the rites of Catholic Church to stabilize themselves. Amidst the disruption of the postemancipation period, sacramental records show that women used the Church to reconstitute their kinship ties and friendship circles after migrating to New Orleans from the surrounding rural areas. Baptismal records contain evidence of vulnerable women and children forming complex godparentage networks comprised of single mothers, married women, and extended kinfolks who could provide additional support. Beyond the creation of social networks, some women carefully planned their engagement in religious rites in order to maximize the benefits of participation. Marriage records reveal Creole women’s strategically timed and carefully arranged nuptials that ensured women’s legal rights to their partner’s property. Still other women intentionally manipulated the records of the Catholic Church and provided record keepers with false or misleading information, often done in an effort to improve their condition. This paper begins to explore the ways that Afro-Creole women used the rites of the Catholic Church not only as a demonstration of piety, but as a means to create security and opportunity for themselves and their children in the postemancipation South.

Presented By
Natasha L. McPherson, University of California, Riverside

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Quincy Mills, University of Maryland, College Park
Professor Quincy T. Mills earned his doctorate in history from the University of Chicago in 2006. Prior to arriving at Maryland, he was a faculty member at Vassar College. Mills specializes in 20th-century African American business and social movement history. In 2013, he was awarded a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. He has discussed his research on media outlets such as NPR and MSNBC. Mills's first book, Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America (2013), chronicles the history of black barber shops as businesses and civic institutions, demonstrating their central role in civil rights struggles throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With Benjamin Talton, Mills co-edited Black Subjects in Africa and Its Diasporas: Race and Gender in Research and Writing (2011). With Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Mills coauthored “Truth and Soul: Black Talk in the Barbershop” in Harris-Lacewell’s Barbershops, Bibles and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought (2004). He is currently at work on his second monograph, tentatively titled The Wages of Resistance: Financing the Black Freedom Movement, which examines how civil rights and black power organizations negotiated fundraising imperatives with their political ideologies as functions of movement building.

Presenter: Brandi Clay Brimmer, UNC Chapel Hill
Brandi C. Brimmer (she/her/hers) is an associate professor of history at University of North Carolina. Her research recovers poor and working-class Black women’s social justice vision and battles for citizenship during the nineteenth century. She is the author of Claiming Union Widowhood: Race, Respectability, and Poverty in the Post-Emancipation South (Duke University Press, December 2020), which won Honorable Mention for the Letitia Woods Brown Book Prize, presented by the Association of Black Women Historians. She is also the author of scholarly articles that have appeared in the Journal of Southern History and the Journal of the Civil War Era.

Brimmer’s research has been supported by the African American History, Culture, and Digital Humanities Project at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Benjamin Quarles Humanities Institute at Morgan State University, the College of Liberal Arts at Case Western University, the Ford Foundation, the North Caroliniana Society and the National Humanities Center.

Brimmer’s current project expands her earlier study by analyzing the work of attorneys and claims agents who represented the petitions of disabled black veterans and the widows of black soldiers to the U.S. Pension Bureau. The narrative is anchored around the life history of Frederick C. Douglass, a self-taught freedman, who emerged as an influential community leader and successful claims agent in New Bern, North Carolina, after the Civil War. She employs intersectional analysis and digital mapping tools to recover the autonomous black spaces that prepared a cadre of Reconstruction-era Black professionals to mediate the relationships between the black poor, the black middle class, and the federal government.

Presenter: Natasha L. McPherson, University of California, Riverside
Natasha McPherson is an Assistant Professor of African American History at the University of California Riverside. Professor McPherson received her Ph.D. in History from Emory University. Her research examines the lives of African American women living in the aftermath of slavery and Reconstruction. She is currently completing her book manuscript, Women and the Making of Creole New Orleans. Professor McPherson’s book demonstrates how Creole women’s work in their households and neighborhoods not only helped to stabilize the Creole community but their efforts became fundamental to the development of popular beliefs about the Creoles as an ethnically distinct and privileged class of African Americans. Natasha’s next manuscript will examine southern black women and concubinage after slavery.

Presenter: LaKisha Michelle Simmons, University of Michigan
LaKisha Michelle Simmons is a historian of African American gender history specializing in Black girlhood, history of the family, southern history, history of sexuality, reproductive health and Black geographies in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Simmons is the author of Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans (UNC Press, 2015), which won the SAWH Julia Cherry Spruill Prize for best book in southern women's history and received Honorable Mention for the ABWH Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award for the best book in African American women's history. And the co-editor of the forthcoming book, The Global History of Black Girlhood (Illinois, summer 2022).

Simmons has written about Black girlhood and historical method in the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, about Black college students and sexual cultures in the 1930s for Gender & History, on southern Black girl writers in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, and most recently on Black mothers and histories of infant and child loss in Signs. She has also published “Geographies of Pain, Geographies of Pleasure” in Walking Raddy: The Baby Dolls of New Orleans, “Pull the Sorrow from Between My Legs: Lemonade as a Rumination on Reproduction and Loss” in The Lemonade Reader, and a blog post on Lemonade’s southern, plantation landscapes.

She is the co-organizer and co-creator (with Corinne Field) of the Global History of Black Girlhood Conference, which first convened at UVA in 2017. Simmons co-edited a special issue on Black girls and kinship for the journal Women, Gender, and Families of Color.

Simmons is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer, on the editorial board of the Journal of American History, and was awarded the Henry Russel Award in 2021, which is considered the "highest honor" for early and mid-career faculty at the University of Michigan.

Presenter: Maya Sudarkasa, University of Michigan
Maya Sudarkasa is a first year, PhD student in the Department of History at the
University of Michigan. She is a scholar of 19th century United States history; namely Reconstruction and Post Emancipation. Her research probes questions of race, freedom, citizenship, and capital, as these terms were being defined, debated, and codified in the post Civil War period. She is currently working on a paper about General Oliver Otis Howard, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the contentious issue of African American assimilation (and possibilities for Black citizenship and egalitarianism) after the Civil War.

Maya attended Vassar College for undergraduate school where she obtained a double B.A. degree in History (with departmental honors) and French/Francophone Studies in the Spring of 2018. Her senior thesis, titled “Looking Backward, Looking Forward: W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, the Black Reconstruction, and the Intellectual Roots of the Western Restorative Justice Movement,” won her two prizes; The Virginia Swinburne Brownell Prize for excellent work in History, and The Douglass Saunders Memorial Thesis Prize for writing of considerable intellectual vigor with an adventurous and creative approach. Since beginning at U of M, Maya
has been awarded two competitive fellowships: The Rackham Merit Fellowship for underrepresented graduate students with impressive academic achievement, and The Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies Fellowship for scholars who expect to focus their work around the theme of “emerging democracies past or present.” In and beyond her graduate career, Maya hopes to produce engaging, public-facing scholarship which might speak to the concerns, goals, and developments of contemporary movements for social change such as Restorative Justice and/or for reparations.