Guest Editors’ JCWE December 2023 Note: Researching Nineteenth-Century African American History

Guest Editors’ JCWE December 2023 Note: Researching Nineteenth-Century African American History

In 1985, The Historic New Orleans Collection purchased one of the few known nineteenth-century paintings of a free woman of color in the United States. François Fleischbein’s Portrait of a Free Woman of Color, completed in 1837, is mounted in an elaborate and expensive goldleaf frame. The woman wears a delicately painted lace collar and bow at her throat, expensive jewelry, and a fashionable tignon, or hair covering. The name of the sitter is unknown. Prior to the museum’s purchase, people speculated that she was a servant in the Fleischbein household named Betsy, or perhaps “the voodoo queen” Marie Laveau. John Mahé, the art curator of The Historic New Orleans Collection, contracted with a local conservator, Phyllis Hudson, to clean and repair the painting. Hudson took an unusually long time to complete the work. When she returned the painting to Mahé, he and his staff were appalled.

Hudson had painted over the intricate lace collar and bow. When questioned by Mahé, she told him that she thought them unfit for a Black woman in the antebellum era and claimed that they had been added later, although she had no evidence of that. After debating whether to report Hudson to her professional organization, the board of The Historic New Orleans Collection, “fearing a lawsuit, decided not to publicly [censure] her.” However, they agreed never to hire Hudson again. For thirty years, the museum displayed the image without acknowledging the grievous damage, thereby reinforcing Hudson’s error of historical interpretation. In 2017, however, a different conservator, Craig Crawford, was able to restore the original images. When The Historic New Orleans Collection reopened following a pandemic lockdown, the painting was reinstalled with an explanation of its troubled history. The new installation is part of the museum’s commitment to greater transparency about and greater access to its collections concerning people of African descent.[1]

Left: François Fleischbein’s painting Portrait of a Free Woman of Color, as acquired by The Historic New Orleans Collection in 1985. Right: the painting after Phyllis Hudson’s work in 1988. Courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1985.212

The story of this painting reflects the evolving history of African Americans in archives and historical interpretation. The field has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1960s, when universities began institutionalizing the study of Black people in the diaspora. Yet, setbacks have also occurred as the field has developed. Advances in the field have been rooted in large part in the expansion of access to primary source material: archives, publications, oral histories, and material objects. The increase in access to primary sources has occurred in two ways. First, historians have begun asking different questions of materials that were underutilized for African American history, including plantation and legal records, government documents, personal papers, and published sources. Second, new sets of materials have been recovered, preserved, and made available. These include the Federal Writers’ Project oral history interviews with the formerly enslaved, private family papers donated to archives, visual materials such as paintings and other illustrations, the papers of organizations and institutions that worked on behalf of African Americans, and more. Paralleling this expansion of primary sources is the revolution in digital access, which has made many materials more available without travel. We caution that only a small percentage of primary sources have been digitized, and many of these sources exist behind paywalls or are only available to those at wealthier research universities. But for those who have access, digitization has provided a glimpse of the possibilities available in physical archives, preparing researchers for trips to manuscript collections. Indeed, not only professional historians but many family genealogists have made use of the ever-expanding materials available via (for a fee) and Family First (open access).

In stark contrast to this vision of an expanding world of sources for studying Black history, however, many recent scholars have lamented the flaws of “the archives” or “the archive,” noting violence, erasure, and omission from collections. The troubled history of the Fleischbein painting is the kind of nightmare that haunts historians who are interested in developing a full account of the African American past. There, a conservator erased important clues to a history that might challenge our limited views of African American life in the era of slavery; and an institution regretted the action but colluded in perpetuating the error. Less dramatically, as many scholars have noted, those seeking to create histories of the oppressed that challenge national ideologies and bring radical rethinking about identities of race, sexuality, and gender are more likely to be subject to a range of challenges in archives. Those challenges lead some scholars to claim that there is little archival evidence for Black lives and to mark invisibility as one of the most significant obstacles to writing a full history of nineteenth-century Black life.

Even scholars who have created rich histories of nineteenth-century African Americans have felt the need to begin their books with “archival laments” that apologize for the alleged thinness of their source bases—and this is true even in well-sourced studies. As well-meaning as such apologies are, they sow skepticism of the actual work and of future research possibilities. Certainly, the act of researching the past demands care- ful consideration. For that reason, we don’t wish to dismiss completely the need to discuss the complexity of archival work. Books, articles, and roundtables by scholars such as Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Martha Hodes, Stephanie Smallwood, Marisa Fuentes, Martha Jones, Tiya Miles, and many others have included important discussions of archival practices, sources, new narratives, and the particular research methods necessary to ask and answer questions about African American history.[2]

But we have also been frustrated by the almost rote claims of a limited archive at a time when historians have used an ever-expanding body of materials that is actively being recovered, preserved, and made increasingly accessible. We are attentive to startling stories of destruction of archival materials and obstruction of access to archives. But we are concerned that the talk of scant material will curb discovery and stunt research in a flourishing field. We wonder what is to be made of this para- dox of the “archival lament” amid the rich growth and expansion of the field of African American history. In this essay, we investigate this archival pessimism we hear so often today, offering a preliminary account of where it may be coming from and why it troubles us. The essay is a preface to four research-based articles that help demonstrate how much more there is to learn about the nineteenth-century Black past from research in archives and other kinds of collections.

For most of the twentieth century—beginning with the founding of the history profession—professionalization meant that archival and scholarly gatekeepers defined which topics were important.. [3] Archivists limited access to certain kinds of records, and both archivists and scholars even denied the existence of some kinds of records. Such practices, whether overt, clandestine, or simply due to a lack of knowledge about the potential range of sources, helped produce today’s climate of skepticism about archives. Sometimes scholars believe archives hold few materials on African American history because archivists have historically limited access to relevant sources. In some instances, archivists constrained access to sources because their primary focus was on preservation of materials rather than access to them. Archivists sometimes sought to limit who had access to sources, according to segregationist patterns, or because of their views of the qualifications of scholars—views sometimes rooted in raced, gendered, or classist assumptions. In other cases, archivists and scholars sought to limit which stories could be told and, as with the example of the Fleischbein portrait, held back documents or even altered or destroyed materials. Such practices may occur when archivists or scholars fear damaging the reputations of historical figures, or of the archival institution itself. In African American history, such patterns were particularly problematic when researchers asked questions that challenged white supremacist views of African American history. The most well-known example of this kind of limitation occurred early in the twentieth century, when W. E. B. Du Bois attempted to write a history of Reconstruction that went against that promulgated by the Dunning school of historians. Although DuBois had achieved a PhD in history from Harvard, Jim Crow segregation prevented him from consulting the range of southern archives that white scholars had used, and he relied on government reports and secondary sources for his path-breaking reformulation of the era.[4]

As Black women studying histories of slavery and racism in the United States, North and South, who began our engagement in the archives in the late 1980s, we have more rarely experienced active hostility but often received laissez-faire or dismissive attitudes about our research topics. When Leslie began her research on free Blacks in pre–Civil War New York City, her experiences at several New York City and State archives reflected a range of limitations. The New-York Historical Society allowed her access to all that she requested from what seemed available according to online and card catalogs. These included published court cases, the manuscript records of the Colored Orphan Asylum, and virtually unreadable rolls of microfilm of the New York Manumission Society records. But only after the exhibition Slavery in New York was mounted in 2005 (two years after she published her first book, In the Shadow of Slavery) did Leslie learn that the New-York Historical Society held a rich range of material produced by the students of the African Free Schools. Although she made many trips to the New-York Historical Society over the years, no one had ever asked her about her research interests or offered additional sources that she might find interesting. Similarly, when she visited the New York State Ar- chives in 1995, the year she completed her doctoral degree, she wrote the archivists ahead of time about her visit, explaining that she was interested in the records of early-nineteenth-century New York governors, to see whether they might hold any mention of slavery or gradual emancipation, and requested several sets of documents described in books published in the 1960s on slavery in New York State. Riding an elevator with her several days after her arrival, one of the archivists said to her, “Well, if you’re really interested in this topic, you might look at . . .” She had written before she arrived and introduced herself when she approached the desk. It’s unclear how much more “seriously” she could have presented herself or why the archivist’s suggestion wasn’t given to her earlier. In 1998, at the suggestion of a mentor, she visited the John Jay Papers Project in the Columbia University library and asked whether scholars there had uncovered any information on Jay’s ownership of enslaved people or his relationship with New York’s African Americans. The person at the front desk neither con- firmed nor denied that such documents existed but handed her a printed reproduction of a document written by South Carolinian Henry Laurens to his son John Laurens that lamented the South’s involvement with slavery and ushered her out of the office.[5]

At the time, Leslie ascribed some of these early career experiences to her own youth and inexperience. But Daina’s more recent experiences caused us both to question that narrative. In 2017, while an associate professor at the University of Texas, Daina was overseeing a major project on the his- tory of the domestic slave trade in Texas and saw that The Historic New Orleans Collection held some documents relevant for her and her three students. She had become quite familiar with the collection because she had given a workshop for teachers on the museum’s traveling exhibit Purchased Lives: The American Slave Trade from 1808 to 1865.[6] Therefore when she and her students, along with archivist Rachel Winston, planned a trip to New Orleans, she wrote to the staff ahead of time, explaining that she would be visiting with students and that they were all working together on this project. In her correspondence, she enclosed the list of documents that she thought were relevant to their project and received a courteous acknowledgement in reply. When Daina arrived with her students, however, the archivist in charge of the reading room that day placed her and her students at distant tables from each other so that they could not collaborate in looking at the documents together as Daina had hoped. This archivist also questioned why Daina wanted to see the sources she requested and repeatedly suggested that she be in touch with Walter Johnson and Joshua Rothman, white male colleagues and peers of Daina’s who had used the collections for their own books on slavery and the slave trade. The archivist seemed unable to imagine that Daina was intimately familiar with these scholars’ research or that she had any idea about what kinds of documents might make sense for her own project, but she also did not suggest additional documents that might have been helpful. This was shocking and disappointing especially since Daina had just published The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.[7] The archivist’s condescension and dismissiveness was obvious even to Daina’s students, who gained an unfortunate but necessary lesson in staying cool in the face of being underestimated.

We know we’re not alone in having had experiences like these and that such experiences are not necessarily limited to women, African Americans, or to the topic of African American history. And much of our work in archives has been exactly the opposite of these experiences. We are aware of and have benefited from the recent transformation in archival practices, in which archivists and museum professionals have actively engaged visiting scholars not only as researchers but also as consultants, to strengthen institutional knowledge of African American history and their own collections.[8] For historians, some of the richest research relationships can occur when we collaborate with archivists and librarians to explore a topic; when an archivist shares her knowledge on a topic with an historian; or when an historian is able to survey an archive anew, and share new knowledge with archivists about the collections they preserve. Daina has experienced this working with Rachel for almost a decade. But when a researcher has only limited time and money to engage in research, dismissive experiences also matter. Scholars may not have the time or financial resources to return for a second visit or even know that they should prioritize an archive if their first visit is unhelpful.

In addition to the practices of archivists, we believe a long history of questioning the reliability of Black sources has helped produce today’s climate of archival lament. For much of the twentieth century, when the majority of whites were at best skeptical of the project of racial equality and at worst completely hostile to it, the slave narratives produced by self- liberated Blacks and supported by white radical abolitionists in the nineteenth century, and the oral histories of the formerly enslaved recorded in the first half of the twentieth century, were considered less reliable than the records of enslavers (from personal papers to government documents). Many twentieth-century academic historians assumed that the politics of the antislavery movement tainted the sources or testimony produced by those who were subject to enslavement more than the politics of white supremacy tainted the sources produced by enslavers.

The events in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl were all critically researched in the post–World War II era through meticulous work in contemporary materials.[9]  While we are grateful for that effort, the need to exhaustively verify these narratives was not only in the pure pursuit of information but also part of the struggle to prove that those who endured slavery had a unique knowledge of enslavement that should inform our interpretation of the system itself and of the meaning of freedom in the United States. It has taken time to turn back the common assumption stemming from the slavery era that Black people could not adequately express the reality of slavery, racism, or US history. White- dominated institutions have long judged people of African descent as lacking the intellectual ability to be historically accurate, but also lacking moral honesty, being too emotional, and prone to exaggeration. And the perceived need for extraordinary verification, or extraordinary questioning of the veracity of sources can lead to the dismissal of these sources.

Assumptions about scant or unreliable evidence impacts scholars’ approach to archival research—particularly younger scholars. For too long, some faculty, librarians, and archivists have falsely claimed that there were not enough sources on slavery, in particular, and African American his- tory, in general. We have heard colleagues say to young scholars some version of “Maybe the reason no one has written about that is that there are no sources on that,” even when the scholar making the judgment has not been to the archives in question. Others have said, “We’ve unearthed every- thing there is to know about slavery” or “Those sources about slavery have no content about sexuality,” the latter even when the scholar has done no research or teaching in the field of sexuality. Even when said with the best of intentions, such moments can have a chilling effect on individual scholars, or on whole fields of study.

Archives have the potential to be reinterpreted or remade when scholars ask new questions of them. For example, one of Daina’s former students asked questions about enslaved people with disabilities when reviewing the plantation and census records that scholars have used for decades.[10]Questions open new avenues of research and provide original perspectives. Stemming these questions, explorations and rereadings of archival materials and primary sources lead to truncated investigations and ultimately the occlusion of whole groups of people and topics from our written histories.

Recent currents in interdisciplinary scholarship have also contributed to the archival laments we hear today. Scholars have productively asked whether some sources were written or materials collected with the explicit intention of obscuring or silencing African Americans and whether those factors mean that legitimate histories are impossible to retrieve. Saidiya Hartman’s influential 2008 essay “Venus in Two Acts” is a compelling discussion of this issue in the context of African women’s presence in and experiences of the Middle Passage. Hartman states that we don’t currently know of first-person accounts from women of their experiences in the transatlantic slave trade, and historians have largely overlooked the significance of gendered experiences of the slave trade until recently. Following Michel de Certeau, Hartman argues that historians and historically minded scholars must be willing to attend to and recruit “the past for the sake of the living.”[11] To overcome the white-supremacist limits of the sources that do exist, Hartman emphasizes the need for “critical fabulation”: the creation of narratives that expose histories deliberately hidden or deleted from sources and from archives. Hartman, trained as a literary scholar, uses Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred as her example of this work. And we too would point to many other novels that perform a similar kind of work, from Toni Morrison’s Beloved to Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench and beyond. Tiya Miles’s award-winning, paradigm-shifting first book The Ties That Bind explicitly uses Morrison’s Beloved as an historical source.[12]

Indeed, much in Hartman’s work feels familiar to us as historians. Historians of all kinds have recovered the past in service to the present; many historians see that as central to historical practice. The conversation between past and present, mediated through individual and generations of historians, is what renews our knowledge of the past. In addition, historians have long used historical imagination and “reading against the grain” for the same reasons that Hartman supports critical fabulation: to create spaces for people who may not appear in the archives to the degree we might hope, so that we can imagine their lives, rather than simply leave them invisible. Many historians believe such practices are in fact necessary to creating greater honesty and better interpretations in historical practice. We also believe that imagining such possibilities may alert scholars and archivists to ways to read their archives or to collect materials to answer these questions.

Unfortunately, however, we find that many have implicitly or explicitly focused on Hartman’s idea of the lack of the archive, specifically in relationship to the histories of nonelites (including but not limited to the histories of nonwhites, enslaved, non-cis-gendered, and queer people) to dismiss the possibility of archival research. Similarly, we are concerned that some of the limits of particular seventeenth- and eighteenth-century archives and sources may be interpreted as true of all archives and sources, even though the nineteenth-century archival and source base is quite different from that of earlier centuries. For example, in her Petition to the Massachusetts General Court, February 14, 1783, Belinda Sutton, a woman enslaved by the Royall family of Massachusetts, described her childhood in Africa, her kidnapping, and what she chose to reveal of her experience in the Middle Passage.[13]13 Deep reading in the existing historical literature and in available primary sources are crucial in creating the intellectual context for “critical fabulation,” “reading against the grain,” or historical imagination. In addition, historians must continue the archival work itself, which includes collaborating with archival institutions, reading extensively in primary sources, and continuing to think expansively about where African Americans might appear in the historical record.

Finding relevant sources for African Americans takes time. Historians seeking to understand a community whose histories must be disentangled from an often dissembling or dishonest bureaucracy, from newspapers that interpret Black culture in white-supremacist ways, or from mentions of individuals in passing must immerse themselves in documents as a whole, to understand the fuller context in which depictions of historical actors, honest and dishonest, are created. In other words, archival research demands time and patience to read through and understand how one’s questions might be answered in a time, place, and language that is often initially foreign to us or may even be distasteful and distressing. Many historians have discussed the experience of delving into white suprema- cist sources that document racism, physical violence, and other negative acts against people of African descent. But we believe historians take on a responsibility to witness, recover, and communicate the full range of these histories, to the best of our abilities.

We would argue that absences in the archives encourage creativity and imagination—the “critical fabulation” Hartman argues for, and the “historical imagination” Leslie sees as evident in the very best histories, regardless of the state of the archive. As Durba Mitra and Anjali Arondekar, historians of gender and sexuality in South Asia, have asked, “what would it mean to write histories ‘unmoored’ from our attachment to ideas of loss and absence in the archives of marginalized pasts?” Similarly, Jennifer L. Morgan states that “there is an imperative to return, to understand the past through the very records created to do the very opposite of what we ask of them.”[14] In her stunning work Wicked Flesh, Jessica Marie Johnson acknowledges that “searching slavery’s archives for enslaved and free Black lives and knowledge requires additional labor from historians.” Following Marisa Fuentes’s theory that historians must “read along the bias grain” to “’create more elasticity,’” Johnson, as did Fuentes before her, and many others, create works that challenge us all to expand our ideas of what it’s possible to know, to interpret and to imagine.[15]

Some discussions of archives, sources, and interpretation are also appropriate at a particular historiographical moment, serving as signposts to a new way of thinking. For example, discussion of Walter Johnson’s introduction to his 1999 book, Soul by Soul was for years a signal moment in Leslie’s graduate class. Johnson detailed the multiple truths contained in fugitive slave narratives and the multiple methods of analyzing them. In so doing, he aligned himself with a tradition of Black and white historians such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Herbert Aptheker, John Hope Franklin, John Blassingame, and others who turned away from the “master narrative of American history” to listen to the testimony of the enslaved and formerly enslaved. Johnson’s other main group of sources are two hundred court cases of disputed slave sales that had only been discovered as sources for history in the 1980s. Johnson states that he “generally read the docket record as if they contain only lies.” This statement provided an important way to rethink and reverse the assumptions of who held the truths of slavery. It was even more powerful because a white male historian said it, when many white male historians had previously upheld ancestral lies claiming that only whites held the truths of slavery, and Blacks were unable to tell truths about the institution. Such prior claims had reinforced the idea of whites as able to be objective—without political motives—and Blacks as always subjective: both emotional (an old trope about people of African descent) and politically dishonest. Johnson’s claims were an important refutation of these oft-repeated implications and assertions in the historical literature.[16] But what do they mean for other scholars?

Johnson’s statement has recently begun to seem too simple to our stu- dents. The field and our students had advanced to a degree that the interpretive move necessary in 1999 was seen as overly blunt by 2015. Scholars had repurposed the sources of which Johnson was critical to reveal new methods of enslavement and new accounts of the responses of the enslaved. Two standout examples are the works on women enslavers by Thavolia Glymph and Stephanie Jones-Rogers. Their rereading of the sources produced by enslavers demonstrate new truths that historians had overlooked: Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage reveals the ways women enslavers used violence to control the enslaved and how relationships between Black and white women changed from slavery through emancipation, with Black women rejecting the terms of labor to which white women had become accustomed during slavery. Stephanie Jones-Rogers’s They Were Her Property exposes the ways white women, with the cooperation of the white patriarchs in their lives, owned slave property and were present in markets where Johnson claimed they were not. Where historians had previously believed the letter of laws that called for coverture—for husbands to take control of the property of their wives—Jones-Rogers shows the ways such laws were subverted by fathers who wished their daughters to maintain incomes independent from their husbands. Further, both Glymph and Jones-Rogers reveal the ways women were trained to “mastery”: to control over enslaved men and women.

The paradigm-shifting work of Johnson, Glymph, and Jones-Rogers is only partly due to finding “new” archives. Rather, it is also about reading many of the same sources that previous historians examined but asking different questions of them. Daina Ramey Berry’s questions about enslaved people’s responses to commodification changed the way slavery and capitalism scholars discussed economics. By questioning the logic of the records of the slave trade—which have been pored over by hundreds if not thousands of scholars—Jennifer L. Morgan shattered decades of scholarship that insisted that men always outnumbered women on slave ships and as enslaved laborers in the Americas.[17] At the same time, archi- vists have become more open to the questions historians are asking. We are advancing beyond the days when the young John Hope Franklin did his research in separate reading rooms or only when white scholars were not present; or when the mention of the word slavery in relationship to the Founding Fathers result in a polite dismissal. We hope that this is not because the archives have been cleaned up in a way that supports erasure— and indeed, the works of Annette Gordon-Reed and others indicates the near impossibility of doing so.[18]

Even the history of the Fleischbein painting with which we began this introduction demonstrates how difficult it is to completely erase the histories of marginalized people. To a great degree, Phyllis Hudson’s belief that the woman in the portrait could not possibly have worn or owned the lace collar and bow was rooted in misrepresentations of the history of women of African descent. In erasing the fancy lace collar and bow, Hudson was making plain the belief that only whites could achieve such wealth and that Blacks, particularly Black women, were only servile.

In its current interpretation of François Fleischbein’s Portrait of a Free Woman of Color, The Historic New Orleans Collection is transparent about its previous errors, stating: “Our display and interpretation of the work made us complicit in the erasure of the sitter’s identity and dignity.” The label expresses the institution’s recommitment to historical preservation: “Caring for objects that document an already marginalized community is a special responsibility, and we acknowledge and share this painting’s history to begin repairing any harm we have done to the sitter’s memory. We hope to someday identify this unknown woman and tell her story more completely.” Courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection

In exposing this painting’s troubled history and the ongoing discussions and debates about its meaning, The Historic New Orleans Collection reveals that the present is never a perfect guide to the past. When we act solely on judgments rather than deeply and critically investigating the archival and the scholarly record, we distort the history and tarnish the historical record. Histories are never solely a matter of sources but how historians judge them useful and interpret them. Nor are histories perfect simulacra of the past or literal reports from the archives. Rather, the art of writing history occupies a position between the sources that remain and are available to us, and our interpretation of what they can tell us about the past. It is also about how willing we are to think broadly about multiple interpretations and how we question parts of the record when we don’t always have answers. This is true not only for African American history but for all histories. As Leslie has argued in an earlier piece, there is no perfect archive.[19]

However, we can improve archival practices and are doing so. Both The Historic New Orleans Collection and the New-York Historical Society, to name only two, have greatly improved access to their collections. The recovery of the Fleischbein painting is only one example of the many ways The Historic New Orleans Collection is recommitted to reexamining and reinterpreting the past and the institution’s place in it. The museum has diversified the staff in its reading room, and its archivists are collaborating with archivists and scholars locally, nationally, and internationally to engage in discussions about interpretations of other holdings in its collections. The New-York Historical Society followed its pathbreaking 2005 Slavery in New York exhibition with a commitment to digitizing and making avail- able on its website some of its early African American history holdings. It has also created an array of resources for teachers that begins to reflect the diversity of its own archives and of New York’s and the nation’s history. Both institutions have had and are planning additional exhibitions and events that highlight African American history more fully. The actions of The Historic New Orleans Collection and the New-York Historical Society demonstrate the possibility of recovery, repair, and new collaborations as more voices and interpretations continue to be incorporated into archival practices, and they are far from alone in these efforts.[20]

The four articles that follow demonstrate some of the richness of avail- able sources. Historians must continue to read and reread the known sources, and to demand access to those that may have been kept from them or ignored in different times. Archivists too must continue to expand their understanding of what questions can and should be asked and answered, for every scholarly professional provides potential new pathways to sources that will lead us to new answers to old and new questions.

Our four essayists demonstrate a variety of possibilities for rethinking the archives available for the study of Civil War–era African American his- tory. Each has already written important works that challenge the limits of current interpretations and encourage new uses for sources. As one archivist has noted, many, if not most, of those sources are not hiding but are in plain sight, waiting for historians to use them.[21]

Thomas A. Foster’s essay “‘No Perfect Archive’: Recovering Histories of Enslaved People at Abingdon Plantation” asks us to reexamine our assumptions about when we use historical imagination and when we don’t. His 2014 book, Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Search for a Relatable Past, explores why and how historians and the general public have created personal lives for the traditional founders even when sources are missing. In his essay on Abingdon Plantation, today the site of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Foster points out that the white owners of Abingdon and those who were enslaved there have similarly limited sets of personal sources. Yet the interpretative panels at the airport create knowledge about the lives of the enslavers as they make excuses for the lack of knowledge about the enslaved. Foster demonstrates what might be possible interpretively by using existing documents, archaeology, and secondary sources.

Kimberly Welch’s first book, Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South, demonstrates that despite laws and beliefs that Black people had no individual standing before the law, both enslaved and free Blacks brought cases to local courts that asserted their property rights in the antebellum South and won against white and Black defendants.[22] Her essay for this issue, “The Stability of Fortunes: A Free Black Woman, Her Legacy, and the Legal Archive in Antebellum New Orleans,” examines what the 350- page court case Macarty et al. v. Mandeville might tell us of the financial acumen of Eulalie Mandeville Macarty, a free Black woman who was the common-law wife of Eugene Macarty, a white man, and who was prob- ably the wealthiest Black woman in the antebellum United States. Is the Fleischbein portrait an image of her or of someone she knew? It’s hard not to imagine that possibility.

Jasmine Cobb’s “Partial Portraits: African Americans in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” critically examines images of slavery and enslaved Black people that white artists created for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in the decade before the Civil War. She notes that the magazine did not engage Black artists whose work was in circulation at the time and who offered different forms of representation than that created by white art- ists. In showing that these images are interpretations rather than illustrations of reality, Cobb asks historians to examine these images as critically as they examine written texts. This essay builds on her first book, Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century, which describes the ways that a range of visual imagery charted a path to understanding African American freedom and citizenship.[23]

Brandi Brimmer’s essay, “Tracing the Intimate Histories of Poor Black Women in the Late-Nineteenth-Century US South,” uses testimony in Civil War pension records to demonstrate how working-class Black women understood their relationships with their husbands and friends. Her first book, Claiming Union Widowhood, demonstrates how Black women presented themselves as respectable citizens in order to claim widow’s pensions.[24] In this essay, Brimmer works to understand how we can use these records to understand Black women’s lives, even given the limits of the context.

These historians expand our understanding of the archives and what we can learn from them. Indeed, we hope this discussion is a beginning of conversations about the myriad possibilities of archival research.

Authors’s Note: Many people contributed to this special issue. We’d like to thank Kate Masur and Greg O’Malley for their enthusiastic support of our ideas for it, and their intellectual guidance. The peer reviewers provided excellent suggestions that deepened our engagement with the questions we explore here. Each of our essayists provided rich and thoughtful essays—and kept to our deadlines!! Rachel Shelden, director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center, and her staff provided a meaningful virtual space for us to meet amid the challenges of the pandemic. We’d also like to thank Daniel Hammer, President and CEO of The Historic New Orleans Collection, for honest conversations about the history and changes at his institution and in the museum world, and his staff.

[1] Leslie’s mother, Merle Ann Triche Harris, a longtime member of The Historic New Orleans Collection, alerted her to this story. See Molly Reid Cleaver, “Identity Theft,” Historic New Orleans Collection Quarterly 39 (Summer 2022): 2–7. The article also refers to the work of Lucia Momoh, “The Art of Erasure,” Iron Lattice, April 5, 2020, erasure. Momoh was completing her master’s degree in Art History at Tulane University when her thesis advisor, associate professor of art history Mia Bagneris, directed her to the painting. Momoh completed her master’s thesis on the painting and its twentieth-century history: “The Art of Erasure: The Story of a Portrait of a Free Woman of Color From Antebellum New Orleans” (2019). In 2005, as a Harvard graduate student, Bagneris began investigating the painting for a course paper. According to Momoh’s thesis, the “head curator, Judith Bonner, would not grant her permission to use their image or access to their files on the painting.” Without that material, Bagneris was unable to continue her research on the piece and its fate at the hands of Phyllis Hudson. Bagneris encouraged Momoh to return to this question in 2016 (11).

[2] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of His- tory (Boston: Beacon, 1995); Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 211–12; Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 1–8; Marisa Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Martha Jones’s November 23, 2021, New York Times piece, “Enslaved to a Founding Father, She Sought Freedom in France,” recounts the author’s ten-year journey to recover the life of Abigail, a woman enslaved by John Jay in late- eighteenth-century New York, Martinique, and Paris. Tiya Miles, All that She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake (New York: Random House, 2021). See also two important roundtables: Laura Helton et al., eds., “The Question of Recovery: Slavery, Freedom, and the Archives,” special issue, Social Text 33 (December 2015): 1–61; and Brian Connolly and Marisa Fuentes, eds., “From Archives of Slavery to Liberated Futures?” History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History 6 (Fall 2016): 105–215.

[3] These limitations are probably best described in Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[4] David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963 (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), 361. Lewis notes as well that Du Bois’s busy schedule was a factor in his research strategy.

[5] In 2022, Leslie was not surprised to learn of the recovery in the New York State Archives of the 1828 court case concerning the efforts of Isabella Van Wagenen—later Sojourner Truth—to save her son from kidnapping and enslavement in the South. Van Wagenen would win his freedom, and go on to describe the trial in her narrative, which she published in 1843 as Sojourner Truth, the name under which she became one of the most well-known Black women of the nineteenth century. See Kenneth C. Crowe II, “State Archives Find Sojourner Truth’s Historic Court Case,” Times-Union (Albany, NY), February 1, 2022.

[6] In addition to giving an opening workshop, Daina took UT Austin classes to visit the exhibition. See “Purchased Lives: The American Slave Trade from 1808 to 1865,” professional development workshop for teachers, Bullock Museum website, https:// workshop-20170211.

[7] Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Boston: Beacon, 2017).

[8] In preparing this introduction, Leslie had a long conversation with Daniel Hammer, president and CEO of The Historic New Orleans Collection, during which they discussed the changing world of museum and archival practices. Our comments here about the changing goals of archives, from preservation to greater access, are in part rooted in that conversation. In addition, Leslie’s experiences with the staff of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archive, and Rare Books Library at Emory University early in her career reset her understanding of what was possible in terms of collaborative research relationships with archivists and librarians. Leslie and Daina have both consulted with a number of museums over the course of their careers, including The New-York Historical Society; The Owens-Thomas House of Telfair Museums; Historic Hudson Valley; Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Neill-Cochran House Museum; The African American Museum in Philadelphia; The Georgia Museum of Art; The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum; The Calaboose African American History Museum; the Witte Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[9] Dickson J. Preston’s preface to his book The Young Frederick Douglass: The Mary- land Years (1980; repr., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), describes both antebellum skeptics and those of the late twentieth century (15–16). The recovery and editing of the Northup narrative is recounted in Mary Niall Mitchell, “All Things Were Working Together for My Deliverance,Commonplace: The Journal of Early American Life 14 (Winter 2014) working-together-for-my-deliverance/. Until Jean Fagan Yellin’s research validated Harriet Jacobs’s narrative, most believed it was a fictional work written by white abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. See Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, 1861, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981); Karen Woods Weierman, “‘This Narrative Is No Fiction’: Harriet Jacobs in the Archives,” Reviews in American History 38, no. 1 (2010): 61–66. Stephanie Shaw’s “Using the WPA Ex- Slave Narratives to Study the Impact of the Great Depression,” Journal of Southern History 69 (August 2003): 623–58, gives a wonderful overview of historians’ critiques of the narratives, including the concern that interviewees are likely to be more concerned with their conditions in the Jim Crow South than with telling the truth about slavery. As Shaw demonstrates, a careful parsing of the language in the interviews can provide a way of distinguishing twentieth-century concerns from nineteenth- century memories. In addition, of course, some interviewees discussed their experiences of enslavement with seemingly little inclination to self-censor. For a close read of the early editions of WPA narratives versus the published ones, see Daina Ramey Berry, “Let the Enslaved Testify,” Not Even Past (blog), Department of History, University of Texas Austin, February 25, 2011, handle/2152/81284/Let%20the%20Enslaved%20Testify%20-%20Not%20Even%20 Past.pdf ?sequence=2&isAllowed=y.

[10] Jenifer L. Barclay, The Mark of Slavery: Disability, Race, and Gender in Antebellum America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021).

[11] Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (June 2008): 1–2, 12.

[12] Octavia Butler, Kindred (New York: Doubleday, 1979); Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987); Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Wench: A Novel (New York: Amistad/ HarperCollins, 2010); Tiya Miles, Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

[13] See David Kazanjian, “Freedom’s Surprise: Two Paths Through Slavery’s Archives,” In Connolly and Fuentes, “From Archives of Slavery,” 135–39, for a critique of Hartman as focusing on a particular kind of source—autobiography—as best to develop an understanding of enslaved women’s experiences in the Middle Passage. Kazanjian points to a range of other sources that were more accessible to production by enslaved people that might yield interpretive possibilities. His critique reminded us of the Sutton petition. See Belinda Sutton, Petition to the Massachusetts General Court, February 14, 1783, original manuscript, Massachusetts Archives, Boston, and transcription available at Royall House & Slave Quarters website, https://royallhouse. org/belinda-suttons-1783-petition-full-text/. Although the Royall House claims that the 1783 petition “had long been known to scholars,” we find that it is rarely mentioned, perhaps because it does not refer to southern slavery. See “Belinda Sutton and Her Petitions,” Royall House & Slave Quarters website, belinda-sutton-and-her-petitions/. See also Sophie White and Trevor Burnard, eds., Hearing Enslaved Voices: African and Indian Slave Testimony in British and French America, 1700–1848 (London: Routledge, 2021), a collection that interrogates the possibilities of testimony inclusive of and beyond autobiography.

[14] Durba Mitra, Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), 9, citing Anjali Arondekar, “In the Absence of Reliable Ghosts: Sexuality, Historiography, South Asia,” Differences 25 (December 2014): 99. Jennifer L. Morgan, “Archives and Racial Capitalism: An Afterword,” in “The Question of Recovery: Slavery, Freedom and the Archive,” special issue of Social Text 33 (December 2015): 157.

[15] Jessica Marie Johnson, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), 5. Johnson cites the “bias grain” phrase from Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives, 78.

[16] Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cam- bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); 9, 12. Johnson also describes in detail how the testimony of fugitives from slavery has been discounted. See also John Blass- ingame, Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobi- ographies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977); Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, The Slave’s Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[17] Berry, Price for Their Pound of Flesh; and Jennifer L. Morgan, Reckoning With Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021).

[18] John Hope Franklin describes his archival experiences in the 1940s in Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005). See also Lorna Peterson, “Mirror on Our Libraries: A Southern Historian’s Life Reflects American Racism through Its Segregated Institutions,” Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 78 (January 2008): 123–27. Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997) critiques the range of archival and interpretive stances that sought to protect Thomas Jefferson’s reputation. Her magisterial The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008) was possible not least because of her persistence and the changes in attitudes at Monticello about the history and interpretation of slavery there, including the crediting of the oral history held by descendants of Hemings and Jefferson.

[19] Leslie M. Harris, “Imperfect Archives and the Historical Imagination,” Public Historian 36 (February 2014): 77–80.

[20] As one example of The Historic New Orleans Collection’s collaborations, see Jason Wiese, “Acquisition Spotlight: Double Portrait of Two Men, Possibly Father and Son,” Historic New Orleans Collection Quarterly 39 (Summer 2022): 25–26. The New-York Historical Society digital collections include “Examination Days: The New York African Free Schools,” New York Historical Society website, accessed July 6, 2022,; and its “Curriculum Library,” accessed July 6, 2022, curriculum-library, as well as a wealth of online programming. In 2011, the New-York Historical Society also mounted “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn,” which by linking the US, French, and Haitian Revolutions, raised critical questions about how people of African descent were central to the questions of freedom and citizenship that emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. See Thomas Bender, Laurent DuBois, and Richard Rabinowitz, Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn (London: D. Giles, 2011).

[21] B. M. Watson, “Please Stop Calling Things Archives: An Archivist’s Plea,” Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, January 22, 2021, history/january-2021/please-stop-calling-things-archives-an-archivists-plea.

[22] Welch expands on the Natchez sources Ariela Gross uses in Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). At the time that Gross accessed the Natchez cases, she was the first person to have untied them since the nineteenth century. Welch uses those cases and cases in rural Louisiana as well; she notes in her introduction that they are currently not well-preserved. Welch, Black Litigants in the Antebellum American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 6–8.

[23] Jasmine Nichole Cobb, Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

[24] Brandi C. Brimmer, Claiming Union Widowhood: Race, Respectability, and Poverty in the Post-Emancipation South (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

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