Monday, April 28, 2014

New Images from the Civil Rights Movement

Check out a selection of photographs from a new book by Martin Berger, Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle.  These photographs tell different stories than the iconic images that have come to define the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s in our collective memory.  As you look at this slideshow consider the ways these images are telling a slightly different story than the one in our heads.  What's different here?  What's familiar?  What questions do these images raise for you about the dynamics of the Movement?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Thinking About the Jefferson-Hemings Question

In Thursday's class, I tasked my students with designing an 3-5 panel "exhibit" on Thomas Jefferson, slavery, and Sally Hemings -- explain this group of topics to a public audience.  They were surprised to discover just how difficult it is to distill a LOT of complicated information into concise exhibit panels.  You present the content, raise the questions, but how do you deal with the "answer"?  While the task of the historian is to come up with a compelling and evidence-based argument, museum exhibitors frequently find that sometimes the most effective way to engage the public is to leave the question open-ended, to give your visitor the questions and the tools but let them piece it together.  But what do they need to piece it together?  And where will they go with the answer...?

This class got me thinking about my own explorations of the Jefferson-Hemings controversy...

Some of the facts. You can read a brief "just the facts, ma'am" account of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings at or go back in time and read Madison Hemings' 1873 memoir of his mother's relationship with Jefferson.  While serving as minister in Paris in 1787, Thomas Jefferson developed a sexual relationship with the 14-year-old slave (and the half-sister of his dead wife) who had accompanied his daughter Maria to Paris.  Then the young teenager was confronted with a terrible dilemma.  According to Madison Hemings: 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Upcoming Events! Performance Studies Roundtable

Next Monday I'll be participating in an interdisciplinary roundtable on Drama and Performance studies.  Stop by if you can!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Fall 2014 Women's American to 1865

This Fall, I'm teaching the first half of a two-semester women's history sequence.  Last year, in my previous job, I taught a single semester women's history course -- from the "beginning" to the present -- and let me tell you, that was a challenge!  There is so much to talk about, so many interesting lives and stories to explore, you just can't do it "all" in 15 weeks.  I'm really fortunate that my colleague Molly Rozum has enthusiastically decided to split the task with me.  I'll be taking us through the Civil War this Fall.  Find out more below:

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Fighting the War with Bacon Grease

Here's something to think about the next time you enjoy a pan of bacon and eggs:

"Don't throw away that bacon grease! For fats make glycerin and glycerin makes bombs... A skillet of bacon crease is a little munitions factory!"

The Atlantic just posed a great article about the Fat Salvage Committee during World War II. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Revisiting ROOTS

We're in our Slavery in Film unit now, and this past week watched excerpts from the 1977 television series Roots, based on Alex Haley's novel of the same name.  Roots was an unexpected overnight sensation, reaching an estimated 130 million viewers and airing in 85% of American homes in its week-long broadcast.  (And Haley's account of his decade-long detective work to locate his ancestors inspired a genealogical craze in the late-70s and 80s.) The series chronicles Kunta Kinte, a Mandinka warrior, and as Haley claimed, his own ancestor, who is captured by slave traders from his home in Jaffure in 1767 and struggles to survive the violence and exploitation of slavery in Virginia. 

While the accuracy of Haley's account has largely been discredited--Roots is no longer regarded as nonfiction--scholars and critics agree that the story of Kunta Kinte was a major correction to existing myths about slavery and black families that also placed African Americans at the center of popular conceptions of American history.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Out of the Archive: Mr. Southworth Goes to the Theater

In my work on theater, I also examine debates about prostitution, which was widespread in antebellum theaters and was also a major preoccupation of 19th-century reformers.  The following piece examines an article in the Friend of Virtue, Boston’s moral reform periodical, which serves as a really effective illustration of the way antebellum reformers thought about gender.  Gender is a concept that is based on the premise that the qualities of biological difference (like sex) are defined and understood differently within different contexts.  Our job as historians is to make visible the different ways historical societies have thought about gender difference, which is commonly expressed in a binary form as masculinity and femininity (but not always!). As you'll see, constructions of gender were at the center of the way reformers thought about prostitution (and the way they tried to tackle it, but that it a topic for another time). 

One March evening in 1846, Sydney Southworth paid a visit to Boston’s National Theatre.  Southworth was a radical reformer and a member of the Northampton Association for Education and Industry, an experimental utopian commune connected with the abolitionist movement.  Boston reformers of all varieties (there were many causes that inspired the religious-minded activists of the 1830s and 40s) were rarely avid theatergoers.  Theater, after all, was a morally bankrupt form of amusement that drew men and women away from the pursuits of industry, discipline, and self-betterment, leading them down a path of sensual indulgence and profligacy.  Southworth wasn’t there for mere sensual indulgence.  As he explained in his letter to the Friend of Virtue, Boston’s moral reform periodical, Southworth was there to investigate the “in-famous...third row,” the part of the theater where men and women “abandoned themselves to the most loathsome of all vice”—that is, the region of the theater set aside for arranging sexual assignations between patrons and clients.  

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Pedestrianism, Sporting Pastime of the 1800s

 Pedestrianism and boxing, sporting pastimes of the 1800s.  From Pierce Eagan, Sporting Anecdotes (London: Sherwood, Nealy & Jones, 1820).

Readers, it has happened. Somebody finally wrote a book about pedestrianism, that strangest of 19th-century sports, popular in England and the United States.  Check out Matthew Algeo's history of Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Sport.  Or listen to an interview with Algeo on NPR.  Sounds like a fun read -- and the perfect addition to a future course of leisure and sport in America.  Most people are familiar with the nineteenth-century origins of baseball, which became a national sport after the Civil War.  But how many of us would include pedestrianism in a catalog late-19th-century pastimes?

Friday, April 4, 2014

James Baldwin on Uncle Tom's Cabin

We’ve just finished up our Uncle Tom’s Cabin unit in my Race and Slavery class with a journey into the Anti-Tom novels and one of my personal favorites, Martin Delany’s unfinished 1859 novel Blake or the Huts of America. This week in my Religion class we read James Baldwin’s 1963 essay “Down at the Cross” (published in book form as The Fire Next Time). This morning, I indulged in this accidental convergence of topics by reading Baldwin’s 1949 essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” from Notes of a Native Son. You can read an excerpt or (wonderful internet!) I found a copy of the complete essay.

Baldwin is critical of what he identifies as the actual motivations behind the novel:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Out of the Archive: "What Shall the Girls Do?"

I recently put the finishing touches on a paper I'll be delivering at the Annual Meeting of the OAH (Organization of American Historians) later this month. It's based on a side project of mine on women in the lyceum lecture circuit. Because I can't get every delightful piece of research into a 20 minute paper, I thought I'd share one of my favorites with you: 

In April 1869, an anonymous letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton appeared in The Revolution, the publication of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, titled “What Shall the Girls Do?” The writer identified herself as part of “a class of girls in America” who “belong to the higher rank in life, but…are not obliged to do anything, but they feel a certain necessity for an outlet and a desire to accomplish something toward their own maintenance.” Accomplished in “history, elocution, meta-physics” as well as French and the pianoforte, our writer had dabbled in writing but exhausted her paltry “store of plots” producing “trashy affairs.” She tried to go upon the stage, but was “whisked off into the rural districts” where her “cherished dreams of spell-bound audiences and world-wide renown vanished.” And now, she longed for something more--stimulating.  "I believe in woman's home duties," she assured Stanton, "but they satisfying neither my intelligence nor my soul." What was a girl to do?