Black Historians Conference Summary


Black Historians and the Writing of History in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries: What Legacy?

This international conference was held at Université Paris Diderot on June 12-13, 2014. It was organized as part of the wider EHDLM project (Writing History from the Margins, the case of African Americans initiated by the COMUE (Consortium) Sorbonne Paris Cité.

Organization: Claire Bourhis-Mariotti (Paris 8-Vincennes St Denis), Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry (Sorbonne nouvelle), Claire Parfait (Paris 13), Matthieu Renault (Paris 13), Marie-Jeanne Rossignol (Paris Diderot)

Starting in the late 18th century, free African Americans began documenting their life stories – on a personal level and as a community. At first these testimonies essentially came in the form of narratives in which they set out to  narrate their lives as slaves, their flight as runaways and their manumission, as well as their subsequent struggles when attempting to integrate into the early American Republic’s national fold. Then, in the mid-19th century, some endeavored to write the history of the Black people more systematically, sometimes including it in great narratives of Black history – from African origins to bondage in America, and also covering the Haitian Revolution. After the Civil War and the end of slavery, at first amateur then professional Black historians put forth great histories of the Black nation through rigorous archival research (among other approaches), using methods similar to their White counterparts who still refused to acknowledge them, at the time, incidentally, when segregation was being institutionalized. Not until the aftermath of World War II did African American history become a major theme in the national historical narrative in the United States, and did Black and White historians work together in joint scholarly pursuits.

The “Black Historians” Conference brought together international scholars from the United States, Australia, and  France studying African American historians who worked at early 20th-century Black collegiate institutions such as Howard University while publishing in specialist journals (e.g. the Journal of Negro History—long directed by Carter G. Woodson, the “father” of Black history). This conference aimed to stress the significance of those groundbreaking scholars, whose work had both academic and socially relevant political meaning. More specifically, though, it set out to highlight the innovative nature of their work. In their quest for primary sources to write the history of Blacks in the United States – who were for the most part enslaved until 1865 – early 20th-century Black historians could not exclusively rely on official documents. They made use of oral history (C. Corbould), the slave community’s song repertoire, works of art, and many other sources not yet sanctioned by White historians – artworks being a case in point (M.A. Calo, J. Smalls, A. Spingarn). They should be regarded as pioneers of contemporary social history, and one of this conference’s main contributions was that it shifted the focus back to how innovative their work was at a time when diplomatic and political history still ruled the historical discipline.

Several conference participants also made sure to point out the role played by these historians’ 19th-century predecessors who – though they may not have been “professional” historians themselves – nonetheless paved the way towards the development of a structured, well-documented brand of African American history. This was achieved through recalling their community’s history by writing it into the text of pro-abolitionist petitions (Nicole Topich), gathering anecdotes about Blacks in Lincoln’s entourage (Kate Masur), initiating projects for diasporic encyclopedias (Michael Benjamin), and launching into journalistic militancy with commentaries that tapped into the community’s history (M. Jones) and that reflected positively on it (A. Pride). These 19th-century “amateur” historians probably constitute the subject matter on which today’s most fertile scholarly debates hinge. Liberation Historiography’s (2004) renowned author John Ernest thus suggested re-reading William Wells Brown’s work The Negro in the American Rebellion (1880), whose narrative structure – a collage of miscellaneous sources on the Civil War, including newspapers and poems – represents a marked departure from traditional historical scholarship. And yet this very structure provides an insight into the heart of ideological and racial tensions that informed the war. It also partakes of a certain view of history – history as guide, in sharp contrast to purportedly “objective” history writing. This is all the more compelling as the very institutionalization of official archival records in 19th-century America – as elsewhere was on based on a political rationale that is seldom called into question. Conversely, Stephen G. Hall showed that the writings of the first Black historians shared a large number of cultural references with those of their White counterparts. Finally, Claire Parfait called attention to the significance of the various formats in which 19th-century African Americans’ works of historical scholarship reached their audience (from political pamphlets to published works) and to their marketing methods and distribution channels – all of which had eminently political ramifications at a time when segregation was forcefully enforced.

Participants gathered for a round table at the end of the conference. The discussion that took place highlighted the structuring role still being played in today’s African American community by the historical works that were put together by Black historians in the 19th and 20th centuries. As N. Martin-Breteau made clear when he wrote intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois’ biography, the man was both a “historian of himself, and a historian of his ‘race’.” While race is still undeniably – and rather self-evidently – a central issue in scholarship about Black historians today, North American specialists of the field seem to have restricted the scope of their explorations within a narrowly and somewhat restrictive national setting, whereas 19th– and early 20th-century Black historians themselves typically focused on diasporic and pan-African perspectives, the Haitian Revolution being a case in point. The connection with a diasporic past became problematic as early as the 1930s, when Afro-Caribbean historians in North America had to struggle to have their own pan-Atlantic and pan-African history embraced by African Americans (V. Showers-Johnson). Historians “of the margins” then experienced a dividing rift.

The most valuable accomplishment of this international conference was perhaps bringing to light epistemological and methodological innovations that can be traced back to 19th– and early 20th-century African American historians, including an evolution from 19th-century writing between a break from the past and classicism towards early 20th-century politically charged “hyper-objectivity”; constant synergy including political involvement, social resistance, and building of a rational corpus comprising major historical writings as well as alternative sources; and the utilization of public archives in addition to private papers and groundbreaking social history sources (such as oral interviews and artistic productions). The “margin” from where these historians worked thus proved very productive. Another conference in 2015 will aim to explore more widely the concept of “historians in the margins” as well as the notion of “margin” itself, while broadening the perspective to include global history.

Written by Marie-Jeanne Rossignol with the team of organizers

Translated from the French by Arnaud Courgey