Archives par mot-clé : Black Historians

Compte rendu du colloque “Black Historians” dans la revue Transatlantica



Un compte rendu du colloque “Black Historians and the Writing of History in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries: What Legacy?”, rédigé par Liess Benlalli (doctorant, Université Paris 13) et Lamia Dzanouni (doctorante, Sorbonne Nouvelle), est disponible dans le dernier numéro de la revue en ligne Transatlantica

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

Compte rendu du colloque Black Historians



Les historiens noirs et l’écriture de l’histoire au XIXè siècle et au début du XXè siècle aux Etats-Unis : quel héritage ? (Black Historians and the Writing of History in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries: What Legacy ?)

Colloque international qui s’est tenu à l’Université Paris Diderot les 12 et 13 juin 2014, dans le cadre du projet EHDLM (Ecrire l’histoire depuis les marges, le cas des  Africains-Américains de la COMUE Sorbonne Paris Cité.

Organisation : 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)

A partir de la fin du XVIIIè siècle, les Africains-Américains libres ont commencé à faire connaître leur histoire, personnelle et collective, par le biais de récits dans lesquels ils racontaient leur vie d’esclave, leur fuite ou leur libération, puis les difficultés de leur intégration au sein de la population de la jeune nation américaine. A compter du milieu du XIXè siècle, certains d’entre eux ont entrepris d’écrire une histoire systématique de ce peuple noir, parfois en l’incorporant à de grands récits de l’histoire noire, des origines africaines à la captivité en Amérique, sans oublier la révolution haïtienne. Après la guerre de Sécession et la fin de l’esclavage, des historiens noirs, amateurs puis professionnels, ont produit de grandes histoires de leur communauté, en menant un strict travail de consultation d’archives (mais pas seulement), à l’instar des historiens blancs qui pourtant les ignoraient, et ce à un moment où se mettait en place la ségrégation. Ce n’est qu’après la Deuxième guerre mondiale que l’histoire des Africains-Américains devint l’une des grandes thématiques de l’histoire nationale aux Etats-Unis, et qu’historiens noirs et blancs embrassèrent son étude ensemble.

Le colloque « Les historiens noirs… » a rassemblé à Paris les spécialistes internationaux (Etats-Unis, Australie, France) des historiens qui travaillèrent au sein d’institutions universitaires noires au début du XXe siècle, telles que Howard University, publiant leurs articles dans des revues spécialisées, comme le Journal  of Negro History, longtemps dirigé par Carter G. Woodson, le « père » de l’histoire noire. L’objectif de ce colloque était de rappeler l’importance de ces pionniers universitaires, dont le travail scientifique se doublait d’un engagement politique ; mais il s’agissait plus précisément de souligner la dimension novatrice de leurs travaux. A la recherche des sources de l’histoire des Noirs aux Etats-Unis, en majorité esclaves avant 1865, les historiens noirs du début du XXè siècle ne pouvaient se contenter des documents officiels, et eurent recours à l’histoire orale (C. Corbould), aux chants de la communauté esclave, aux œuvres d’art, et à bien d’autres sources dont les historiens blancs n’auraient alors pas reconnu la validité, comme les œuvres d’art (M.A Calo, J. Smalls, A. Spingarn). On doit les considérer comme des pionniers de l’histoire sociale contemporaine, et c’est sans doute l’un des acquis principaux du colloque que d’avoir rappelé cette dimension d’innovation, à une époque où dominait encore l’histoire diplomatique et politique.

Les participants au colloque ont également tenu à rappeler le rôle de leurs prédécesseurs du XIXe siècle qui, sans être des « professionnels » de l’histoire, posèrent des jalons majeurs dans le développement d’une histoire structurée, et documentée, de la communauté noire aux Etats-Unis : en rappelant l’histoire de leur communauté dans le texte de pétitions pro-abolitionnistes (Nicole Topich), en collectant des anecdotes sur les Noirs proches de Lincoln (Kate Masur), en lançant des projets d’encyclopédie diasporique  (Michael Benjamin), en devenant des journalistes militants dont les argumentaires puisaient dans l’histoire de la communauté (M. Jones) et qui en projetaient une image positive (A. Pride). C’est probablement autour de ces historiens « amateurs » du XIXe siècle que se noue actuellement le débat intellectuel  le plus fécond : John Ernest, auteur célèbre de Liberation Historiography (2004) a proposé une relecture de l’ouvrage de William Wells Brown The Negro in the American Rebellion (1880), dont la structure narrative, sorte de collage de différentes sources sur la guerre de Sécession, journaux, poèmes, diffère profondément des travaux historiques classiques. Pourtant cette structure même nous permet de pénétrer au cœur des tensions idéologiques et raciales qui informèrent la guerre et participe d’une certaine conception de l’histoire, l’histoire comme guide, qui s’oppose délibérément à une histoire dite « objective ». D’autant que la constitution même des fonds d’archives officiels aux Etats-Unis au XIXe siècle (comme ailleurs) relève d’une logique politique rarement remise en cause. A l’inverse, Stephen G. Hall a démontré que les écrits des premiers historiens noirs aux Etats-Unis partagent un grand nombre de repères culturels avec les écrits de leurs contemporains blancs. Enfin, Claire Parfait a rappelé l’importance du format des travaux historiques produits par les Noirs américains au XIXe (du pamphlet à l’ouvrage publié) et de leur mode de commercialisation et de distribution, tous sujets éminemment politiques en cette période de ségrégation.

A l’issue du colloque, une table ronde a rassemblé les participants. La discussion a mis en relief le rôle structurant que joue encore le corpus historique réalisé par les historiens noirs des XIXe et XXe siècles au sein de la communauté africaine-américaine aujourd’hui. Comme l’a montré N. Martin-Breteau en retraçant la vie de l’intellectuel W.E.B. Du Bois, il était « historien de lui-même, et historien de sa «race » ». Si la question de la race reste effectivement  (et évidemment) au cœur des études consacrées aux historiens noirs aujourd’hui, les spécialistes nord-américains semblent inscrire leurs travaux dans un cadre strictement national, peut-être réducteur, alors que les historiens noirs du XIXe et du début du XXe siècle conservaient très souvent les perspectives diasporiques ou panafricaines à l’esprit, en n’oubliant jamais la révolution haïtienne par exemple. Ce rapport au passé diasporique devint problématique dès les années 1930, lorsque les historiens afro-caribéens  présents en Amérique du nord durent lutter pour imposer leur histoire, panatlantique et panafricaine, face aux Africains-Américains (V. Showers-Johnson). Les historiens de la « marge » furent eux-mêmes divisés.

Le bilan de ce colloque international permet surtout de mettre en lumière les innovations épistémologiques et méthodologiques que l’on peut attribuer aux historiens africains-américains du XIXe siècle et du début du XXe siècle : écriture de l’histoire entre rupture et classicisme au XIXe siècle débouchant sur une « hyper-objectivité » elle-même très politique au début du XXe siècle ; synergie permanente entre engagement, résistance et construction d’un corpus raisonné de grands récits historiques comme de sources alternatives ; recours à des archives publiques en parallèle de l’utilisation de papiers privés ou de sources d’histoire sociale pionnières (entretiens oraux, productions artistiques). La « marge » à partir de laquelle travaillèrent ces historiens fut donc très productive. Un autre colloque en 2015 se propose d’explorer plus largement la notion d’ « historiens en marge », et la notion de « marge » elle-même, en ouvrant la perspective à l’histoire mondiale.

Rédaction : MJ Rossignol, avec l’équipe des organisateurs

Ce compte rendu sera publié dans la revue Écrire l’histoire en 2015

Conference Program: “Black Historians and the Writing of History in the 19th and early 20th century: What Legacy?” (12-13 June 2014)

Black Historians and the Writing of History

in the 19th and early 20th centuries

What Legacy?

Thursday 12 June 2014: 9:00-6:00

Friday 13 June 2014: 9:00-6:30

University Paris Diderot

Room Pierre Albouy (685 C)

(Grands Moulins de Paris, C Wing, 6th floor)

International Conference

Project Writing History from the Margins (Sorbonne Paris Cité)


Thursday 12 June 2014

9:00       Registration

9:30       Opening address: François Brunet (University Paris Diderot)

10:00    Plenary session: Pero Dagbovie (Michigan State University)

From the Margins to the Mainstream: Reflections on a Century of the African American Historical Enterprise

11:00    Coffee break

11:30    Writing the History of the Diaspora

Chair: Claire Bourhis-Mariotti (University of Cergy-Pontoise)

  • Patrick Rael (Bowdoin College): Slave Resistance and Antislavery Ideology: The Haitian Revolution and the Coming of the Civil War
  • Violet M. Showers Johnson (Texas A&M University): Writing Afro-Caribbean History into African American History in the 1920s and 1930s: The Claims, the Rows and the Legacy
  • Michael Benjamin (Armstrong Atlantic State University): From the Margins: Self-Taught Black Historians and the Project to Publish a Diasporic Encyclopedia

1:00       Lunch

2:30       Alternative Sources: Art(s) and History

Chair: Claudine Raynaud (University Montpellier 3)

  • James Smalls (University of Maryland): Freeman Murray and the Art of Social Justice
  • Mary Ann Calo (Colgate University): Art History, Racial Art Theory and Adult Education: Remembering Alain Locke’s Negro Art: Past and Present (1936)
  • Adena Spingarn (Stanford University): James Weldon Johnson’s Black Manhattan and the Popular Stages of History

4:00       Coffee break

4:30       Historians or “Leaders of the Race”      

Chair: Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry (University Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3)

  • Nicole Topich (Harvard University): Black Histories and Historians in Petitions
  • Zachery Williams (University of Akron): From the Bottom to the Top: Howard University Historians and Policy History in the United States
  • Glenn Jordan (University of South Wales): A Vindicationalist Voice: George Washington Williams and History From the Margins

6:00       Cocktail party


Friday 13 June 2014

9:00       Pre-session coffee

9:30       Plenary session: Claire Parfait (University Paris 13)

Early African American Historians: a Book History Perspective

10:30    Coffee break

11:30    The Writing of African American History: the Construction of Specific Objects and Methods

Chair: Marie-Jeanne Rossignol (University Paris Diderot)

  • John Ernest (University of Delaware): The Negro in the American Rebellion: William Wells Brown and the Design of African American History
  • Stephen G. Hall (Alcorn State University): One Hundred Years Before Woodson: Assessing the Development of African American History in the 19th Century

12:00    Race and History, Race in History

Chair: Chris Weedon (Cardiff University)

  • Martha S. Jones (University of Michigan): Who Were the “Negro Historians”?: Reading William Yates on Race and Citizenship
  • Nicolas Martin-Breteau (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales): Historian of Himself, Historian of His Race: W. E. B. Du Bois and the History of Race Oppression in the U.S.

1:00       Lunch

2:30       Incorporating Slavery into the Historical Narrative

Chair: Myriam Cottias (CNRS, CIRESC)

  • Clare Corbould (Monash University): Talking and Writing about Slavery in the Interwar Years, and the Origins of American Social History
  • Kate Masur (Northwestern University): “The Colored Side of Lincolniana”: John E. Washington and the Black History of the Lincoln Presidency

3:30     Taking up the Challenge: Publishing African American Historical Works

Chair: Claire Parfait (University Paris 13)

  • Cheryl Knott (University of Arizona): Merl R. Eppse and the Publication of The Negro, Too, in American History
  • Aaron Pride (Kent State University): Selling The Souls of Black Folk: The Legacy and Tradition of the Trotter Family in the African American Historical Enterprise

4:30       Coffee break

5:00       Roundtable with all the participants: Black Historians: What Legacy?

6:00       Closing address: Pap Ndiaye (Sciences Po Paris)

CFP : Black Historians and the Writing of History in the 19th and early 20th century: What Legacy?

As part of the project EHDLM (Writing History from the Margins) funded by the PRES Sorbonne Paris Cité, a conference will be held in Paris, University Paris Diderot, June 12-14 2014, on


Black Historians and the Writing of History in the 19th and early 20th centuries: What Legacy?

woodson williams dubois

Organizers: Marie-Jeanne Rossignol, Claire Bourhis-Mariotti, Hélène Le Dantec-Lowry, Claire Parfait, Mathieu Renault

Scientific committee: Ira Berlin (University of Maryland, College Park), Myriam Cottias (CNRS, CIRESC), Elisabeth Cunin (IRD, CNRS), Pap N’Diaye (Sciences Po), Martha Jones (Michigan), Jean-Paul Lallemand (EHESS, CENA)

Abstracts: 300 words + one-page CV to be sent to by November 1, 2013

“History has thrown the colored man out.”

William Wells Brown 1860, in Benjamin Quarles, Black Mosaic 1988, 111

robert b lewis


Almost 100 years after The Journal of Negro History was founded by Carter G. Woodson, we would like to reassess the legacy of those black historians who wrote the history of their community between the 1830s and World War II. Through slavery and segregation, self-educated and formally educated black Americans wrote works of history in order to inscribe, or re-inscribe, African Americans in American history. This served a two-fold objective: to make African-Americans proud of their past and to enable them to fight against white prejudice.

Over the past decades, historians have turned to the study of these pioneers, but a number of issues remain to be addressed. At first, before African Americans received doctorates in history or taught history at all-black colleges, activists wrote the first histories of their community (and beyond). We propose to address the following questions:  who published these books; how were they distributed, read and received? How can we assess the work of these “amateurs” from a historian’s point of view, at a time when the writing of history was becoming professional in Europe as well as in the United States? What do these publications reveal about the construction of professional history in the nineteenth century when we examine them in relation with other works by Euro-Americans whether working in an academic setting or as independent researchers?

Regarding the more “professional” generation that slowly emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century (Du Bois, Woodson, Logan, and others), a number of questions also remain unanswered. These historians wrote history “from the margins” of the profession, launching journals, organizing conferences and developing institutional tools for their segregated scientific activity. The process of integration was slow and mostly started after the Second World War. Yet one can wonder whether the marginal position of these historians was a hindrance or whether it might also have been an asset. Could it be argued that their use of alternative sources made them pioneers in developing a type of social and cultural history which would later be exemplified by the Annales school in France? If so,the intellectual contribution of the black historians who wrote professional history in the first half of the twentieth century must be re-assessed globally as well as nationally: what does it mean to write history from the margins?


Finally, the work of these early historians must be placed squarely within the longer term historiographical development of African American and American history: African American history emerged as a major field of investigation in American history in the 1970s and 1980s, and, with the rise of Atlantic history in the 1990s and 2000s, it has now become one of the principal preoccupations of American historians. The groundwork had, however, been laid long before in a climate of segregation: the slave trade, US-Haitian relationships, and other key issues were the objects of major studies before the Second World War. How were these books circulated, read and received beyond an educated black public? Are these historians fully recognized for their pioneering work outside of their community, or have they been relegated to the margins of professional historical memory?

William C. Nell

Plenary speakers: Pero Dagbovie, Michigan State University, and Claire Parfait, Université Paris 13

This conference is sponsored by

And the following research teams : CIRESC/CNRS, LARCA, CREW, CRIDAF/Pléiade.

It will be held at University Paris Diderot