Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black-White Intimacies in Antebellum America by Sharony Green (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2017-03-08 01:41Z by Steven

Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black-White Intimacies in Antebellum America by Sharony Green (review)

Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
Volume 115, Number 2, Spring 2017
pages 289-291

Elizabeth C. Neidenbach
Department of History & American Studies
University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, Virginia

Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black-White Intimacies in Antebellum America. By Sharony Green. (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2015. Pp. xiii, 199. $36.00 cloth; $24.95 paper)

Remember Me to Miss Louisa opens with an 1838 letter from Avenia White, a woman of African descent, to Rice Ballard, a successful slave-trader-turned-planter. Ballard had recently freed White, Susan Johnson, and both of the women’s children and settled them in Cincinnati. In the letter, White requested financial aid from her former master and the father of her children. She also sent him her love. How, author Sharony Green asks, do we understand this emotional tie between White and Ballard? How do we reconcile Ballard’s actions toward White and Johnson with the fact that he owned, bought, and sold hundreds of enslaved people? More broadly, how do we comprehend sexual relationships between white male slave owners and enslaved African American women and girls? In seeking to answer these questions, Green exposes the ways in which white men served as “hidden actors in the lives of many freed women and children” in the antebellum period (p. 14).

Green uses the story of Ballard, White, and Johnson as one of three case studies to argue that even as sectional tensions over slavery intensified, some white masters made “different kinds of investments in human capital” (p. 6). Such investments were often financial—emancipation, money for resettlement in a free state, or school tuition—but they were also emotional. Without denying the sexual exploitation of enslaved women at the hands of their white masters, Green indicates how “intimacy” with white men provided some enslaved black women with opportunities for freedom and financial support for themselves and their children. Recognition of such gendered paths to freedom is not new, but Green also demonstrates how “emotional and physical closeness” with white men instilled confidence and assertiveness in enslaved women, which helped them navigate new lives as free people, particularly in urban places like Cincinnati (p. 8).

Green contributes to scholarship on gender and slavery through close readings and a creative use of new sources. Her work addresses questions on the prevalence and nature of sexual relations between white masters and enslaved black women that have long interested scholars. Yet, finding evidence to adequately answer these inquiries has proved challenging. Previous studies have relied heavily on public documents, especially court records, and thus often focus on interracial couples in relation to the law. Green, however, looks to personal papers to reveal the voices of the various actors affected by white men’s investment in black women and children.

In addition to the letters between White and Ballard, Green analyzes the memoir of Louisa Picquet, a mixed-race woman purchased at age fourteen by John Williams to be his sexual partner. Upon Williams’s death, Picquet and her children gained their freedom and relocated to Cincinnati. Picquet’s memoir illuminates intimate relations with white masters from the point of view of enslaved women “who maneuvered strategically to survive and maximize the possibility of their circumstances” (p. 64). Green also investigates the experiences of mixed-race children through a study of the ten children of wealthy Alabama planter Samuel Townsend. Using the Townsend siblings’ correspondence with one another and white patrons who assisted them in gaining their inheritance, Green extends her story beyond the Civil War. In doing so, she demonstrates both the privileges provided by Samuel Townsend’s investment in his children and the limits of that privilege in a nation that continued to oppress people of African descent.

Green’s careful analysis of firsthand accounts provides a multilayered perspective on intimate relations between white male slaveholders and enslaved black women and girls. Her attention to Cincinnati shifts the focus on this phenomenon from the South to the Midwest. At the same time, Green often looks to New Orleans for comparison due to the city’s large free people of color population and notoriety for interracial relationships. It is, therefore, surprising that she does not draw on new scholarship by Emily Clark, Kenneth Aslakson, and Emily Landau that has gone far in detangling the…

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Almost Free: A Story About Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia by Eva Sheppard Wolf (review) [Lee]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2014-06-09 02:15Z by Steven

Almost Free: A Story About Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia by Eva Sheppard Wolf (review) [Lee]

Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
Volume 111, Number 2, Spring 2013
pages 252-254
DOI: 10.1353/khs.2013.0034

Deborah A. Lee, PhD, Independent Historian
Stanardsville, Virginia

Wolf, Eva Sheppard, Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012)

In Almost Free, Eva Sheppard Wolf explores race and freedom in the antebellum South by illuminating the interesting—if obscure—life of Samuel Johnson, a free black man of Fauquier County, Virginia. He worked hard, observed rules, won friends, and acquired considerable property and respectability, but he fell achingly short of obtaining the freedom and security he sought for himself and his enslaved family. Johnson stands out in history because, between 1812 and 1837, he petitioned the legislature ten times in that cause, with the support of many white neighbors. Wolf concludes from this case study that slavery and freedom were not mere opposites; that Johnson, in his attainment of property and respectability, occupied a “broad space . . . between freedom and slavery”; and that race was “simultaneously momentous and tenuous” (p. 3).

A tavern-keeper before and after emancipation, Samuel Johnson was resourceful and determined. After enlisting a third party to lawfully conduct the transaction, he earned five hundred dollars to purchase his freedom. Next, with much support and assistance from local whites, including a U.S. senator, he successfully petitioned for the right to remain in Virginia. This step complied with an 1806 law that otherwise required emancipated people to leave the state within a year. Only then did he complete the manumission. In the decade it took him to raise the money, however, he had married an enslaved woman named Patty and with her had two children, Lucy and Samuel Jr. To obtain more freedom and security for his family, he purchased them from their owner. Reluctant to free them without permission to remain in the state, and even more reluctant to leave Virginia, he repeatedly petitioned the legislature in their cause, with tremendous support of white neighbors. The case reached urgency as his daughter neared adulthood, so that as a free woman she could legally marry.

Wolf’s methodology and conclusions align with those of Melvin Patrick Ely in Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War (2004). Their observations of considerable interracial cooperation and a wide—yet still constrained—range of possibilities for free blacks in Virginia largely refutes Ira Berlin’s earlier thesis, summed up in the title of his seminal work, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (1974). In her study, Wolf focuses on the way local people, white and black, variously ignored, challenged, circumvented, and maintained racial boundaries. While this shifting ground was remarkable, she concludes that “color often mattered more than behavior,” property rights were stronger than personal rights, and dark skin sometimes conferred a kind of invisibility (p. 40). Berlin and Wolf agree that white antipathy grew and racial attitudes hardened over time, narrowing possibilities for free blacks, but rather than occurring after the American Revolution, Wolf places this phenomenon in the 1820s.

Wolf does a beautiful job of narrating this complex story with limited sources, especially from Johnson’s perspective. She engages in necessary speculation about his thought processes and emotions in a particularly effective way, describing various alternatives. It was difficult, however, to get a sense of the black community from this study, though sources such as legislative petitions suggest that an African American counterculture thrived in the region. Nonetheless, the book clearly demonstrates the value of local history and helps readers understand the South in more complex and nuanced ways. Not least, Wolf points out that the story demonstrates how much family, freedom, and autonomy mattered to people such as the Johnsons and how they also make history…

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“Turning Up Their Noses at the Colonel”: Eastern Aristocracy, Western Democracy, and Richard Mentor Johnson

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, United States on 2014-02-07 01:50Z by Steven

“Turning Up Their Noses at the Colonel”: Eastern Aristocracy, Western Democracy, and Richard Mentor Johnson

Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
Volume 111, Number 4, Autumn 2013
pages 525-561
DOI: 10.1353/khs.2014.0022

Miles Smith
Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas

In February 1849, the Kentucky legislature debated who would represent the state and fill the open seat in the U.S. Senate. At the completion of the election that followed the debate, the count stood at ninety-two for Whig leader Henry Clay and forty-five for the Democrat, Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson. After his defeat, the onetime Indian fighter and hero of the War of 1812, U.S. representative, senator, and vice president, finally retired from public life. Virtually unknown to the twenty-first-century public, Johnson remains best known to historians for his domestic life. The standard narrative, embraced since the mid-nineteenth century, asserts that Johnson maintained a slave mistress whom he regarded as his common-law wife. He acknowledged their two pretty daughters and introduced them into polite society. During the election of 1836, some genteel Southerners (Virginians especially, the story goes), offended by Johnson’s scandalous domestic and racial situation, obstructed the democratic nomination process and sent the election of the vice president into the Senate, where the senators elected Johnson along party lines.

Historians painted Johnson’s lack of support as an indication of southern displeasure over his relationship with Julia Chinn. In fact, it was Johnson’s egalitarian politics that finally proved to be what aristocratic planters in the old southern states feared. Along with openly engaging in miscegenation (what Johnson’s contemporaries called amalgamation), Johnson championed radical policies aimed at politically displacing southern elites with yeomen farmers and workers. Carolina and Virginia patricians feared Johnson’s brand of political egalitarianism. While Jefferson promoted the political aesthetic of being a simple farmer, he was, in fact, a Piedmont grandee. Jeffersonians ostensibly promoted agrarian equality, but certainly these supposed democrats were nothing more than planters who needed a political vehicle to protect agrarianism and their aristocratic prerogatives. Richard Johnson conceptualized Jacksonian democracy and subsequently the Democratic Party as a truly egalitarian institution where planters, small farmers, and even urban workers and immigrants found equal voice for their needs and concerns. While his relationship with Julia Chinn provided an acceptable public pretext to hamper Johnson’s political aspirations, Tidewater Jeffersonian aristocrats feared the rise of frontier farmers, largely because these backwoods Americans considered merit and service more important than station and acreage. To coastal patricians, Johnson and western democracy represented a very real threat to the political preeminence of the Tidewater and Carolina planters.

Jacksonian Democracy is somewhat inappropriately named. In the South and in the slaveholding West, large planters exercised an outsized influence in local and regional political matters during the so-called Era of the Common Man. And while Andrew Jackson exemplified the movement and served as its rallying figure, he did not “found” American democratic politics. In fact, many early Jacksonians were anything but common men. Andrew Jackson, James Polk, John Tyler, and other prominent Jacksonians garnered the political support of small farmers and workers, but each guarded the prerogatives of the planter class jealously. As Edward Pessen pointed out in his magisterial Jacksonian America, a broadened suffrage allowed American farmers and wage laborers to vote for men who assumed the aesthetic of the common man for political purposes. Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin updated and nuanced Pessen’s thesis, but their argument is simple: Democrats and Whigs were largely similar, and the terms democracy and aristocracy were more often than not political rhetoric. This statement is true, but not universally so…

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New Orleans After the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom by Justin A. Nystrom (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Louisiana, Media Archive, United States on 2014-01-29 17:33Z by Steven

New Orleans After the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom by Justin A. Nystrom (review)

Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
Volume 111, Number 4, Autumn 2013
pages 617-619
DOI: 10.1353/khs.2014.0023

Aaron Astor, Associate professor of History
Maryville College, Maryville, Tennessee

Nystrom, Justin A., New Orleans after the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

The narrative arc between the birth of Radical Reconstruction and its final death in Jim Crow is bookended by two events in the city of New Orleans. The infamous “Riot of 1866” showcased for the nation the unwillingness of defeated Confederates to concede any political power to the black masses of the South emerging from slavery. The massacre of black Republicans at the Mechanics’ Institute would play a key role in undermining Johnsonian Reconstruction in the congressional elections of that year. Thirty years later, a mixed-race New Orleanian named Homer Plessy would challenge the Louisiana Separate Car Act, only to have the United States Supreme Court enshrine the “separate but equal” doctrine for the nation at large. But between these tragic moments of racial oppression and humiliation was a remarkably complex, multifaceted, and highly contingent struggle between myriad ethnoracial, class, regional, and partisan forces that complicated any teleological understanding of the rise and fall of Reconstruction.

Justin A. Nystrom’s lucid and colorful account of New Orleans after the Civil War explores this remarkable and ongoing battle for power and dignity among the various forces converging on the streets and in the local and state legislative halls. Nystrom’s portrait of nineteenth-century New Orleans reveals the webs of kinship that seamlessly crossed the color line and lent the city caste system a distinctive three-class character—whites, black slaves, and mixed-race Afro-Creoles. The delicate balance of New Orleans society, further complicated by sizable white ethnic immigrant populations pouring into the city in the 1850s, would explode as early as April 1862 when the Union navy captured the city with hardly a fight.

Nystrom’s study follows the interconnected lives of southern white elites like Ezekiel John Ellis and Frederick Nash Ogden, Afro-Creoles like Charles St. Albin Sauvinet and Louise Drouet, white Creoles like Arthur Toledano and Aristee Louis Tissot, white and black “carpetbaggers” like Algernon Sydney Badger, Henry Clay Warmoth, and Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, and ex-slaves like Peter Joseph. The intersection of these colorfully named characters produced an entropic political culture with self-serving factions vying for power in the city, the state, and the region. Nystrom expends considerable effort detailing epic street clashes like the “Battle of Liberty Place” in 1874, when a new Democratic White League movement briefly wrested control of the city from its Republican Customs House–based leadership. Added to the paramilitary violence were competing Mardi Gras floats with explicitly political messages that inscribed new and competing racial discourses that undermined the legitimacy of the mixed-race political order. Nystrom’s analysis reveals a tumultuous era of intraparty factionalism that simultaneously complicated revisionist accounts of postwar Republicanism, while also showcasing the difficulty that “Redeemer” factions faced in shaping a white supremacist order long after 1877.

This is an important book for understanding postwar urban politics in the largest city in the South. It is deeply researched, splendidly written, and well contextualized within the larger historiography of Reconstruction. There are some limitations to the personality and kin-based methodology, however. The two infamous bookending moments—the 1866 riot and the Plessy case—ironically receive only cursory treatment in this book. Nystrom’s central characters were mostly bystanders to these events, which meant that they appeared only in the narrative shadows despite their national significance. Another problem, of course, is the exceptionalism of New Orleans itself. For several obvious reasons, New Orleans was (and is) simply atypical as a southern locale. As such, a study of the city is going to have limited implications for understanding the national drama of Reconstruction. Still, Nystrom manages to extrapolate from the complex and contingent history of New Orleans to make the convincing case that the racial politics of the post–Civil War South was much more unpredictable and contested than even post–Foner historians have appreciated…

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