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Center Affiliated Scholars in the News

As the country continues to confront the problems of contemporary racist state violence and discrimination, scholars affiliated with the Richards Center recently have offered historical perspectives on these ongoing problems. In Tennessee, the State Capitol Commission recently held hearings on a petition to remove a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the capitol building. Forrest was a notorious slave trader, a Confederate general who presided over the massacre of black Union soldiers after the Confederate capture of Fort Pillow, and a founder of the Ku Klux Klan following the Civil War. Dr. Timothy Wesley (PhD '10), who earned his doctorate in History from Penn State under the direction of former Center director Dr. William Blair, was among a group of scholars who addressed the commission in favor of removing Bedford's bust from the capitol building. You can follow this link to a recording of the commission meeting. Wesley, who is Associate Professor of History and the History Education Coordinator at Tennessee's Austin Peay University, begins his comments at the 1:31:50 mark.

The recent release of the movie version of the popular musical Hamilton on Disney+ has invigorated both praise for, and criticism of, the production, including complaints that it glorifies the founders and glosses over the role of slavery in the country's founding. In light of these critiques, Dr. Tyler Sperrazza (PhD '20) penned an op-ed in the July 9th issue of the Washington Post, titled "Hamilton is actually perfect for our moment." Like Wesley, Sperrazza earned his doctorate under the direction of Dr. Blair. His dissertation focused on the history of African American theater in the US. While acknowledging the aforementioned criticisms of Hamilton, Sperrazza reminds us that Lin Manuel Miranda's musical "rests on the long tradition of black and brown theater makers using their craft to subvert white America’s dominant narratives" since Reconstruction. "By putting black bodies into the roles of the founding generation, Hamilton forces white audiences to sit and consume a reinterpretation of our national mythology, which for too long has only celebrated the work of white men." Those with a subscription to the Washington Post can read his op-ed here.

Dr. Nan Woodruff, Professor of African American Studies and Modern U.S. History, spoke with Arvind Dilawar of Jacobin magazine this month about the radical efforts to establish biracial tenant farmer and sharecropper unions in the American South in the first half of the 20th century. Woodruff recounts this history in her award-winning book American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta. While these unionizing efforts ultimately succumbed to the shockingly violent and brutal opposition of white planters and local government authorities, they nevertheless had posed a serious challenge to white supremacy and the harshly exploitative sharecropping and tenant farming labor systems. Veterans of these unionizing efforts later joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and continued their fight for African American civil rights. You can follow this link to Dr. Woodruff's interview.

JCWE Publishes Special Digital Issue on Race, Politics, and Justice

In response to the efforts of activists around the country in the movement for Black Lives and in opposition to police violence against African Americans, the Journal of the Civil War Era has published a special, free, digital issue of the journal, titled "Race, Politics, and Justice: Selected Articles from the Journal of the Civil War Era." The special issue will be freely available online at Project Muse through August 2020.

Below is the introduction to the special issue, by editors Kate Masur and Gregory Downs.

Special Issue - Race, Politics, and Justice: Selected Articles from the Journal of the Civil War Era

Uprisings prompted by recent police killings of Black people, like all incidents of racist violence and anti-racist protest, must be understood in the context of their present moment. People also rightly turn to history to understand how we arrived here. The Civil War Era was a critical moment in the long struggle for racial justice. As a small gesture toward making that history more visible, the editors, with support from UNC Press and Project MUSE, are making available via open access a selected set of articles from the Journal of the Civil War Era. The articles, drawn from the journal's nearly ten years of publishing, emphasize the intertwined histories of African Americans, race, and white supremacy.

We also draw readers' attention to our freely available online forum from 2017, The Future of Reconstruction Studies. The forum includes essays by Fitzhugh Brundage, Gary Gerstle, Thomas C. Holt, Martha S. Jones, Mark A. Noll, Adrienne Petty, Lisa Tetrault, Elliott West, and Kidada E. Williams, as well as a roundtable on public history moderated by David M. Prior.

In addition to offering these articles, which will remain open through August 2020, we aim to make the journal's blog, Muster, a venue for reflections on our current moment and its connections to the Civil War Era.

Finally, we wish to amplify the many strong statements of support for activists seeking to challenge the country's longstanding commitment to white supremacy in policing, as in many parts of U.S. life, including statements by the AHA (endorsed by the Society of Civil War Historians), the OAHASALHNAISA, and LAWCHA.

Where Are They Now? Richards Center Internship Alumnus Jim Flook

FlookIn 2003, thanks to the generous support of Larry ('71) and Lynne ('72) Brown, the Richards Center created a summer internship for undergraduate students at Gettysburg National Battlefield Park. The Richards Center selected Jim Flook ('05, History) for that inaugural internship. Much has changed since Jim completed that first-ever Richards Center internship in 2003. The center expanded the internship program to consist of two positions at Gettysburg and two positions at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park each summer and, for a brief period, also sponsored internships at Antietam National Battlefield. Nearly 50 undergraduate students have taken part in these Richards Center internships, and over 30% of those interns have gone on to careers in public history, education, or libraries and archival management.

Jim is one of the intern alumni who has found a postgraduate career in public history. Following his internship, he completed an honors thesis and graduated from Penn State's Schreyer Honors College in 2005. Former Center Director Dr. William Blair and Dr. Mark Neely, emeritus McCabe Greer Professor of the American Civil War Era, served as his primary and secondary thesis advisors, respectively. Jim subsequently entered the University of Florida's graduate program in History, earning his MA and completing coursework toward the PhD before leaving academia for career opportunities in public history. He has worked as a seasonal interpretive park ranger at Gettysburg, a historian with the National Park Service's Alaska Regional Office, and as a park ranger with the Bureau of Land Management at Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area outside Las Vegas, Nevada. In that capacity, he developed education programs for local 4th grade classrooms. Jim writes, "the skills I began learning during my internship served me well as I was able to visit over 300 schools and give park passes to over 15,000 4th graders over three years," encouraging them to develop an interest in the national parks' mission of environmental stewardship. Currently, Jim is employed by the United States Air Force as the historian of the 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis Air Force Base. Tracing his career success back to that first internship, seventeen years ago, Jim wrote us to thank the Richards Center for its support of undergraduate students like him: "I can personally assure you that your investment in future historians enables students to learn critical skills that lead to interesting careers."

Shelden Discusses Continued Relevance of Political History of the Civil War Era

Shelden Discusses Continued Relevance of Political History of the Civil War Era

Dr. Rachel Shelden

Richards Center director Dr. Rachel Shelden recently participated in a podcast interview and a Facebook Live event where she discussed the state of Civil War era political history and the era's political environment. Dr. Adam Smith, director of the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University in the UK, interviewed Shelden for the institute's podcast, The Last Best Hope of Earth? Understanding America From the Outside In. The podcast series' title comes from the iconic line in President Lincoln's 1862 message to Congress. It considers what "forces have shaped the culture and politics of the US, how its role in the world has changed, and what that future might be." Smith and Shelden discussed Lincoln's frontier upbringing, his political ideals, his attitudes on race and slavery, and how all of these shaped his vision of the nation's possible future. You can follow this link to listen to the interview.

Dr. Shelden also joined Dr. Peter Carmichael, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, and John Heckman, the Tattooed Historian, for a wide-ranging Facebook Live conversation touching on the robust state of political history of the Civil War era and the political environment in the United States from the antebellum period through the Civil War. They discussed the mission of the Richards Center, creative new work being done in the political and military history of the Civil War era, and the exciting ways that historians are reaching out to the public through digital publishing, blogs, and podcasts. You can follow this link to the Facebook Live recording of their discussion.

Davis Speaks on Anti-Racist Activism in the Sports World

Davis Speaks on Anti-Racist Activism in the Sports World

Dr. Amira Rose Davis

Dr. Amira Rose Davis, Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies, recently took part in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education and appeared on WBUR's Only a Game to speak about anti-racist activism in the sports world. She spoke with The Chronicle's Emma Pettit about black collegiate athlete's calls for inclusion and equality on their campuses. These  calls have come as part of the nationwide response to the recent police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other African American citizens. Davis notes that anti-racist activism on college campuses by black college student athletes dates back to the 1960s when colleges began to integrate their campuses and athletics programs. Black athletes consistently have fought for inclusion and to eradicate a broad array of racist practices at colleges and universities across the country. Davis also participated in a roundtable discussion on WBUR's Only a Game podcast with Dr. Kenneth Shropshire, CEO of the Global Sports Institute and Distinguished Professor of Global Sport at Arizona State University, and Kevin Blackistone, Washington Post columnist and Professor of Journalism at the University of Maryland. The panelists discussed the impact of nationwide protests of police violence against African American citizens and whether these protests might lead to meaningful change in the world of sports.

JCWE Author Interview: Alaina E. Roberts by Hilary N. Green

Today we share an interview with Alaina E. Roberts, who published an article in the June 2020 issue, titled “A Different Forty Acres: Land, Kin, and Migration in the Late Nineteenth-Century West.” Alaina is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and was the 2017-18 Richards Center Postdoctoral Fellow. Her forthcoming book, I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land (University of Pennsylvania Press, Spring 2021), uses archival research and family history to upend the traditional narrative of Reconstruction, connecting debates about Black freedom and Native American citizenship to westward expansion onto Native land. Her writing has also appeared in the Washington Post, the Western Historical Quarterly, and Al Jazeera.

Thanks for participating in this interview, Alaina. Many of our readers have read your article in the June 2020 issue, but could you briefly summarize the focus and argument of your article?

“In “A Different Forty Acres,” I argue that nineteenth-century Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) allows us to see that, for some people of African descent, the acquisition of land was more important than the realization of political rights. Black women and men enslaved by Chickasaw Indians had a unique quandary: they could opt to receive 40 acres of land (as a consequence of post-Civil War negotiations between the Chickasaw Nation and the U.S. government) or they could leave the Chickasaw Nation (where they had no rights as citizens) and live in the United States, where they could share in the citizenship and political rights African Americans had just won. Surprisingly (to me, anyway!), a very large number chose to stay in the Chickasaw Nation as a people without any clear civic status. I believe this is a great case study in the diversity of Black historical actors’ definitions of freedom and belonging.”

One of the things I appreciate most about this article is how you demonstrate the value of reading the Dawes Roll testimonies for recovery of black and mixed-race Chickasaw freedpeople’s voices.  Can you talk a little about your process and any scholars guiding your reading practices?

“Two of the primary issues scholars who write about marginalized people face are a lack of sources written by the people they study and the fact that the majority of the archives we have were created to tell the stories of those with power, influence, and wealth. Following the lead of scholars like Tiya Miles and Marisa Fuentes, I read against the grain and used multiple sources to “fill in the blanks” when I could not locate any information on a specific person I wanted to write about. In this article (and in my forthcoming book, from which this article is derived), I take an archive (the Dawes Commission records) that was created to delegitimize and classify people of African descent and I use it to closely examine what Chickasaw freedpeople were trying to tell their listener about themselves, their families, and their communities.”

The entire interview can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.