T.W. Gregory’s ‘Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan’ as it Resonates Today

By T. Ashton Reynolds

Intolerable and Inexcusable Acts that and All that Made them Excusable…

On July 10th, 1906, T.W. Gregory of Austin, Texas delivered a paper before the Arkansas and Texas Bar Associations entitled, Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan.[1] His opening comments defined the Ku Klux Klan as the “Invisible Empire,” springing up overnight as a dark ephemeral shadow government fielding its own army of 100,000 men bent on carrying out its bidding.  He described this Invisible Empire as one that “passed laws without Legislatures, tried men without courts, and inflicted penalties, sometimes capital ones, without the benefit of clergy.”[2] It defied state and national authorities with impunity and its every act, according to Gregory, was “in defiance of the established order and the spirit and letter of our institutions.”[3]  Indeed, the acts of cruelty and oppression committed by The Invisible Empire (in addition to those committed in its name by others with dubious connection to the Klan) were both intolerable and inexcusable.[4]

Intolerable and inexcusable as the acts of the Ku Klux Klan were, Gregory was thoroughly convinced that, given the conditions of the South between 1866 and 1872, hardly any man assembled to hear his paper “would have been other than a Ku Klux or Ku Klux sympathizer.”[5] Academically speaking, Gregory stated that no one in their right mind could approve of the Klan as an organization.  But, given that the Klan was comprised of individuals hard pressed by the conditions in which they found themselves, the Klan took on the mantle of something more than a simple organization.  The Klan became a collective of individuals, a movement that assumed the “dignity of a revolution, the protest of proud and despairing race against conditions not to be endured…desperate men, challenging fate, and swearing that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should be theirs and their children’s at any cost.”[6]

Gregory concluded that Reconstruction created an unconstitutional vacuum of liberty in the South.  Four misfortunes sucked liberty from the post-rebellion South.[7]  The first misfortune was the assassination of Lincoln along with his generously kind plan of Reconstruction for the South.  The hatred and venom “unsurpassed” directed by Republicans and Southerners alike at Andrew Johnson whose political career was “as a matter of fact” marked by “honesty and consistency,” was the second misfortune that befell the South.[8]  According to Gregory, Johnson was “endowed with such a faculty for doing the right thing in the wrong way.”[9] When it came to reforming the Union, Johnson was like a bull in a china shop.  The third misfortune was the passage of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill which removed from the Southern states the right to regulate freedmen as they saw fit and entrusted it into the hands of the War Department.  The Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, in the eyes of many white men in the South, was an intrusive attempt to disorder the inherent and necessary racial stratification of Southern society with blacks on the bottom.[10] Finally, the Reconstruction Acts suspended the constitutional rights of Southern states and their white inhabitants by unconstutionally imposing military rule over them.[11]

Ultimately, according to Gregory, these misfortunes allowed for the disenfranchisement of “substantially all of the intelligent class of the South.” Thus, into the vacuum came freedmen, who, Gregory was careful to point out, were mostly illiterate, and now comprised almost the entire electorate.  To make matters worse, Northern carpetbaggers and Southern Scalawags (who were “composed almost exclusively of the very scum of creation) controlled the black vote.[12] Insofar as Johnson was unable to check Congress, and the Supreme Court unwilling to act as the “bulwark against unconstitutional legislation and executive tyranny” as intended by the founding fathers.  Gregory wrote that, by 1867, “it seemed that every remedy had tried in vain and the limit of endurance reached.”[13]

 

The Ku Klux Klan: Defenders of The Constitution and Freedom…

 At the halfway point of his paper Gregory quotes Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People to set the scene for a full throated apologetic diatribe regarding the Klan:

“The white men of the South were aroused by the very instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of government sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interests of adventurers…There was no place of open action or of constitutional agitation, under the terms of reconstruction, for the men who were there real leaders of the Southern communities…They could act only by private combination, by private means, as a force outside of the government, hostile to it, proscribed by it, of whom opposition and bitter resistance was expected, and expected with defiance.”[14]

It was simply unbearable to be treated like some vanquished enemy fully at the whim of their conqueror.[15]  But, just when all seemed lost, “fate had prepared a potent weapon, and at the critical moment thrust it into the hands of these desperate and despairing men.”[16]

Where Gregory begins his apologetic description of the Klan is important.  He reminded his listeners that at the heart of the story of the Klan is just a small group of young, professional men in Tennessee with time on their hands who formed a secret fraternal organization whose only purpose was to “mystify outsiders and have fun.”[17] Essentially, according to Gregory, for the first year of the Klan’s existence it was not much more than the Kappa’s throwing a raging invitation only kegger while wearing scary looking robes and chanting creepy sounding incantations in barely visible  locations.  Yet, as new chapters, or “Dens,” sprang up all over the South, members of the Klan began to come to the realization that their goal of mystifying outsiders was having an unexpected side effect: it gave the Klan “amazing influence of the unknown over the minds and actions of men.”[18]  Soon members of the Klan shifted their purpose away from a great social prank to the idea that a “great mission awaited the movement.”[19]

The great mission was to take up the banner of the Constitution which existed to protect the weak, the defenseless, and the decent.  Of course, this was based on Southern white men’s understanding of what “constitutional” meant, as well as who was “defenseless” or “weak.”  The salient point here is that the Klan viewed the carpetbaggers, scalawags, and freedpersons as the true threats to constitutionality and decent people.  This was an important principle which underlay the Klan’s purpose for existence: for the defeated South, Constitutionality took on a spiritual immutable epistemology that had nothing to do with the government empowered by the Constitution.  As the misfortunes that befell the South during Reconstruction robbed it of its constitutional rights, there were men who would keep the spirit of the Constitution, as they understood it, alive until such time as constitutionality in governmental form could be restored to the Southern states.[20]

In the end, Gregory reiterates that though he does not condone the crimes and excesses of the Klan, the ends and accomplishments of the Ku Klux Klan fully justified its existence as a movement.[21]  Even though the Klan was extra-judicial and acted outside constitutional boundaries, it was a more agreeable than the perceived form of extra-judicial, unconstitutional action imposed upon the South by the Northern states.  In reality, Gregory is not describing a battle to protect constitutional rights as much as he is describing a battle to deprive constitutional rights.  If the acts of the Klan could not be condoned, they could be excused in light of their targets.

In Case You Thought This Kind of Thinking Was Dead and Gone…

For a brief time after the end of major hostilities in the Civil War, Southern whites believed life would return to normal, save they no longer legally owned slaves.  It would not be long before the horrors of the war faded into memory and things would go back to what they were before.  For Southern whites, Congressional Reconstruction put that dream despairingly on hold.  The Ku Klux Klan was the bearer of the banner that things could be great again.  More than a banner holder, they were motivated to action by that banner.

I read this document two weeks ago at DeGoyler Library at SMU.  Though we have seen a uptick in overt and covert racist demonstrations in the last few years, in those two weeks I have repeatedly come across the very ideas Gregory puts forth in this paper he delivered in 1906, some one-hundred and six years ago.  Last week I drove past a man selling dozens of racist flags on the side of the road.  This weekend in Hilsborough, North Carolina, Klan members rallied in public outside a courthouse in full regalia.  And yet, Gregory’s maxim continues to hold true.  Most self-respecting white southerners would never put on a robe and hold a banner in public.  The Klan is repugnant, a bunch of violent fringe extremists.  But, for white southerners racism, isn’t the problem: their problem is that they believe the government is creating an environment where white people’s constitutional rights are threatened in the name of justice and righting wrongs of the past.  This is not a matter of remembering the past so we don’t make the same mistakes today or in the future.  This is a continuation of what has always been in our country.

Picture taken in North Zulch, Texas by author
Klan Rally in Hillsborough, North Carolina that happened last Saturday, August 24th.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gregory ended his talk with an ominous threat for those in the future who might try and disturb white hegemony again:

“The Ku Klux machine has been stored away in the Battle Abbey of the Nation, as obsolete, we trust, as the causes which produced it; it will stand there for all time as a reminder how useless the prostitution of forms of law in an effort to do that which is essentially unlawful; but it will also remain an eternal suggestion to the vigilance committee and the regulator.”[22]

 

[1] Thomas Watt Gregory. Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan : a Paper Read before the Arkansas and Texas Bar Associations, July 10, 1906 / by Mr. T.W. Gregory. Austin, Tex: s.n., 1906.; T.W. Gregory graduated from the University of Texas with a Law Degree, was a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas, a Trustee for Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and was actively involved in the UT Ex-Students Association serving as head from 1926-1928.  He served as Attorney General of the United States under Woodrow Wilson and was active in state and national Democratic politics.

[2] Gregory, Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan, p 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gregory, at one point in his paper differentiated between a revolution and a rebellion, noting that a “revolution is a rebellion which succeeds, while a rebellion is a revolution which fails.” p. 3. So, while in his estimation the KKK movement was a revolution,  by his same logic the Southern cause was a rebellion.

[8] Gregory, 4.

[9] Ibid, 5.

[10] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: the United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 50.

[11] Gregory, 6.

[12] Ibid, 7-8.

[13] Ibid, 11.

[14] Ibid, 11.

[15] It is fair to note that there was a certain whiplash to the treatment of the South during Reconstruction due to the competing understandings and goals of Reconstruction between Johnson and Congress, and even within Congress.  The everyday lesson here is, if you have a petulant child, both parents have to be on board or it just makes everything worse.  For more on Reconstruction see Negro Militia and Reconstruction by Otis Singletary and This Republic For Which It Stands: The United States and the Guilded Age 1865-1896 by Richard White.

[16] Gregory, Ibid, 11.

[17] Ibid, 12.

[18] Ibid. 13.

[19] Ibid.

[20] The Klan held an organizing convention in Nashville, TN in 1867 and adopted three (painfully ironic) points of action:

 

  1. To protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless from the indignities, wrongs, and outrages of the lawless, the violent, and the brutal; to relieve the injured and the oppressed; to succor the suffering and the unfortunate, and especially the widows and orphans of Confederate soldiers
  2. To protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and all laws passed in conformity thereto, and to protect the States and people thereof from all invasion from any source whatever.
  3. To aid and assist in the execution of all constitutional laws, and to protect the people from unlawful seizure, and from trial, except by their peers, in conformity with the laws of the land..

Gregory, 14.

[21] Ibid, 21; Though earlier he goes out of his way to show that 90% of the time the Klan used what he described as the ignorance and superstitious nature of freedmen and poor whites to simply scare them into falling in line, but if and when they did use deadly force they gave their victims at least a days warning to leave.

[22] Ibid, 22.

The Dangerous Game Donald Trump is Playing with MS-13

PhD Student Roberto Andrade Franco has a piece in the March 7, 2018 Washington Post.

Here’s a taste:

Of course, this is not the first time politicians have used a Latino group as a boogeyman for political gain. Seventy-five years ago, it was the fear over pachucos — a group of Mexican and Mexican American youths who lived along the United States’s southwest border — that rose to a hysteria, culminating in a riot that remains a historical scar. The riot alienated many Mexican Americans, which in turn helped shift their politics away from what some would consider assimilation.

Many believed that the pachucos originated in the El Paso-Juárez borderland in the early 20th century, where El Paso still bears the moniker El Chuco. From this nickname came the term “pachuco,” a name that, in many ways, symbolized the mixing of two cultures in an area that may have been defined politically as part of Mexico or the United States but still was contested in terms of cultural identities. In this space, pachucos created a bicultural identity — one that was not quite Mexican but also not accepted as American.

Read the whole piece here.

From the Outside In: How the World Should View Meghan Markle 

By Camille Davis

 

At the end of 2017, a sense of elation was shared by many women in the African American community. There were hashtags such as #blackprincess, #blackroyalty and #princessmeghan floating all over social media to celebrate the royal engagement of England’s Prince Harry to American actress, Meghan Markle.

Although there may have been previous members of the royal family with African ancestry[1] and although Markle’s official title may be “Duchess” instead of “Princess”—as in the case with her future sister-in-law, Duchess Catherine Middleton—many in the  African American  community will continue to see Markle as the  “first black princess.”

Meghan Markle’s bi-racial identity is often referred to when discussing she and Harry’s courtship and subsequent engagement. In fact, when the couple’s relationship first became public in November 2016, the British Daily Mail infamously published a headline stating, “Harry’s Girl is (almost) Straight Outta Compton.”[2]  This and other derogatory remarks from the English press prompted Prince Harry to make a speech in defense of Markle and to publicly affirm his commitment to her.[3]

Ongoing Discussions of Markle’s Racial Identity

Criticism of Meghan Markle’s ethnicity came from across the Atlantic Ocean, as well. Ironically, the source of the criticism was from a black woman. Elaine Musiwa, “a Zimbabwean writer based out of New York City”[4] complained shortly after the royal engagement about African American women referring  to Markle as “black” since she is biracial. Musiwa began her article by recounting how hard it was for her to celebrate Meghan Markle as a “black” woman because of her biracial identity. The following are her words posted to Vogue magazine’s November 28th  online  edition:

“Meghan Markle  is half black. She is biracial, Her father is white, and her mother is black. I wrote it out and then hit send. This was my response to nearly all of the texts from friends about Prince Harry’s new black finance. With some  black  friends who I knew needed  this celebration  of  a black woman’s beauty being internationally recognized, I feigned joy: So cool! A dead giveaway of a lie—I  rarely ever use the word cool to  describe a cultural event other than modern art shows, and those will only be reduced to cool if they are hard to recognize as art…”[5]

Musiwa spent most of her article arguing that the challenges of being biracial are different than those of being “black.” She argues that “Meghan Markle is the type of  black that the majority of right-leaning white America wished we all could be, if there were to be blackness at all.”[6] In other words, Musiwa believes that main stream America’s history of preferring the appearance of some biracial blacks to the aesthetic of  blacks with more Sub-Saharan African features (dark skin, broad nose, coarse hair) makes biracial blacks not black.

Since the other Vogue  writers who have written about the royal engagement have been extraordinarily positive, it is clear that Musiwa’s views don’t reflect the general opinion of Vogue magazine. However, one ponders why Musiwa was allowed to post such an historically incorrect and professionally distasteful essay about Markle. Most people with a very rudimentary understanding of American history know that very few “black Americans” have only black/African ethnicity in their racial makeup. Additionally, Musiwa is ignoring the historical fact that since the time of slavery, blacks who have had any known percentage of black ethnicity within them were—and are—considered black. Even with the well-documented jealousies among African Americans regarding skin tone, there has been a coalescence within the  African  American community of shared identity and shared suffering– no matter the darkness or fairness of skin tone or the percentage of African or “other” blood. One wonders if Musiwa had similar troubles celebrating Barak Obama as the first black president, since he has a white mother and black father.

The Transition from the Outside to the Inside: Markle’s Character

Markle’s Second Royal Engagement with Prince Harry on January 9th

The reason women in the African American community are celebrating  Markle is because her inclusion in the royal family represents a historical turning point in Western history. Very rarely is a woman of African descent considered the ideal representation of beauty, nobility, or virtue in Western standards of positive aestheticism. Most depictions of femininity in its most ideal form are still very Euro-centric in the Western World. Women in the Western world who aren’t of pure  European descent are often seen as beautiful  and alluring in a type of sexualized or eroticized way.  They are exotic creatures to be gazed at, studied, and even conquered for sexual experimentation or exploitation. But very rarely is a black woman viewed as a woman with the whole package: beauty, brains, character, and ability. By choosing Markle,  Prince Harry is showing the whole world that an abundance of good qualities can come in unconventional packages.

The Rare Quality of Servanthood

Vanity Fair magazine placed  Meghan Markle  on the cover of its October 2017 issue. Instead of focusing on Markle’s race, they discussed her character. In the feature article of that month, journalist Sam Kashner, mentioned that “one of the strongest bonds Prince Harry and Markle share is their philanthropy.”[7] As a  strong advocate for veterans’ rights, Prince Harry began  his  Invictus games  in 2014 for “wounded, injured, and sick soldiers,”[8]  and he has recently become an advocate for mental health. Markle has been an advocate for the U.N.[9] and has brought awareness about issues such as poor water quality[10] and the  need for increased education  of women’s health  in developing countries. Arguably, this shared commitment to concern of  others’ welfare is what has  solidified their compatibility, and this will be what  makes both of them a credit to their country and to the rest of the world.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on World Aids Day, 2018.

The ability to look beyond one’s  own circumstances—whether those circumstances be pleasant or painful—is a rare quality for  any person of any race. This quality is so rare that history commemorates the few who have it.  A Mother Theresa, a Princess Diana, a Martin Luther King, Jr. come once in a lifetime, and their service and sacrifice to mankind is not ultimately remembered because of their ethnicity or nationality. They are remembered because they elevate humanity and pierce the darkness of this world  with light. Those who have a problem with Markel’s racial identity—with either the black or the white  part of it— do well to remember this.

As a woman who devoted her life  to service  before  she had  ever met Prince Harry, Meghan Markle challenged  herself to look beyond the comforts and the success of her acting career to become someone that very few people really want to be: a servant. In choosing  servanthood, she met someone who was like-minded.  This person was a prince who elevated her personal and professional status to that of royalty.

To be sure, Meghan Markle’s ethnicity should be celebrated. She will always be an example to the world of the excellence that often emanates from women of color. Most importantly, she exemplifies that entrée onto the great stages of life does not always come  from  narcissism,  calculation and/or self-promotion. (Remember: this is the area of “the selfie.”) Sometimes, the entrance onto the great stages of life comes the old-fashioned way. Martin Luther King, Jr. once explained the old-fashioned way when he quoted this principle  from  an ancient text “ He who would be great, must first be a servant.”[11]

A Servant. This is what the world should see when evaluating “Princess” Meghan Markle.

 

[1] Tatiana Walk-Morris, “Five Things to Know about Queen  Charlotte,” November 30, 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smartnews-arts-culture/5-things-you-didnt-know-about-queen-charlotte-180967373/.

[2] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3896180/Prince-Harry-s-girlfriend-actress-Meghan-Markles.html.

[3] Zach Johnson, “Prince Harry Defends Girlfriend Meghan Markle From Sexism and Racism” on Social Media.” November 8, 2016. http://www.eonline.com/news/807834/prince-harry-defends-girlfriend-meghan-markle-from-sexism-and-racism-on-social-media.

[4] https://www.vogue.com/contributor/elaine-musiwa.

[5] Elaine Musiwa, “The Problem With Calling Meghan Markle the “First Black Princess.” November 28, 2017. https://www.vogue.com/article/meghan-markle-biracial-identity-politics-personal-essay.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sam Kashner, “Meghan Markle, Wild About Harry,” https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2017/09/meghan-markle-cover-story.

[8] Invictusgamesfoundation.org

[9] Amy Mackeldon, “6 Times Meghan Markle Used Her Celeb Status for Advocacy and Charity.” December 5, 2017. http://www.harpersbazaar.com/celebrity/latest/a13945782/meghan-markle-charity-work-philanthropy/.

[10] Worldvision Press Release: “Event hosted by Suits star Meghan Markle brings clean water to children.” https://www.worldvision.ca/about-us/media-centre/meghan-markle-brings-clean-water-to-children.

[11] Martin  Luther  King, “The Drum Major Instinct,” February 4, 1968.

A Day at the Southern Historical Association Annual Meeting

Kyle B. Carpenter is a PhD Student in SMU’s William P. Clements Department of History

Just two weeks after the annual meeting of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, this year’s Southern Historical Association annual meeting was in Dallas, just two train stops from the SMU campus. I attended Friday’s slate of roundtables, lunches, and panels and found them all quite engaging. A huge program that included a wide range of topics made it difficult to choose which sessions to attend. In the end I chose to start the day with a roundtable on Atlantic Revolutions, spend lunch networking, and finish with a panel on slavery and capitalism. Within each experience, scholars engaged in healthy academic debate that provided great lessons for a graduate student learning how the profession works.

After registering and meandering through all the publisher booths in the main hall, I sat in on a roundtable about the legacy of revolutions in the Atlantic world. Cynthia Bouton kicked off the discussion with her exploratory paper on the role of subsistence in the Caribbean during the era of revolutions. Looking at Haiti particularly, she questioned the role French colonies played in the French Revolutionary program based on the food commitments France made to the island. Building on Michel-Rolph Trouillot, she posited that peripheries drove the centers since they demanded constant attention and maintenance. Manuel Covo, in his paper, asked similar questions about the relationship between Haiti and France, but in the context of the historiography of each nation’s revolution. Noticing that Haiti rarely appears in the French national narrative, he made a call for more global histories, especially regarding the age of revolutions. Also with a nod to Trouillot, Covo claimed that national histories and historiographies too often obscure important trends, themes, and arguments made on the global stage. Caitlin Fitz shifted the discussion to the United States and its role in this period. She provided insights into how Americans viewed the Latin American revolutions, specifically the abolitionist trend that went with them. She concluded that the seeming U.S. support for Latin America’s revolutions was quite shallow as Americans tended to focus on how those revolutions related to the American Revolution. Since Latin America’s push for abolition did not seem to threaten American slavery in the eyes of Southern slave holders, it was easy to support their movements until the Panama Conference drove Latin American abolition to the U.S. political stage. Finally, Lester Langley provided his thesis that the entire Western Hemisphere needs to be studied and taught as a coherent unit. The discussion after the papers proved quite lively as the presenters debated the role the American Revolution played to initiate change while also maintaining slavery as a cornerstone institution in the United States.

For lunch, the Southern Historical Association provided graduate students the opportunity to sit down with established scholars and discuss academic branding. I sat with Drs. Andrew Torget and Max Krochmal alongside five other graduate students in similar fields. The conversation supplied many helpful tips for young historians to make their way in the profession. Dr. Torget gave insightful points about maintaining and protecting an online presence. He offered the simple suggestion that a well-kept website does a lot of the grunt work of making one’s professional history and accomplishments easy to access and consume without the drawbacks that come with social media. Dr. Krochmal gave the equally helpful advice that the networks young historians make with their peers often prove to be the most rewarding down the line. Overall, the lunch provided a wonderful experience to learn from established scholars and meet fellow graduate students from other institutions interested in similar topics as me.

SMU at the Southern Historical Association Meeting

The last panel I attended for the day featured the topic “The Culture of Capitalism and Slavery.” All the papers added significantly to the discussion of that contentious field. Ian Beamish showed that, in fact, planters kept terrible accounting records, meaning they likely did not contribute specifically to modern corporate accounting as the historiography previously hypothesized. Justene Hill presented her research that suggests that ideas of efficiency and paternalism combined in the discourse of the slave economy which fed into the proslavery arguments of the mutual dependence of slaves and slaveowners and slavery as a positive good. John Lindbeck, in the last paper of the panel, connected evangelicalism to the ideas of slavery and capitalism. He argued that planters ran efficient evangelical finance networks to create “God’s proslavery kingdom.” The kinship and finance networks planters built in the church tied faith and family to the business of slavery. Afterward, the discussion revealed the divide among historians about the validity of the study of capitalism and slavery. While the panelists fielded questions about the definitions of capitalism and paternalism, the debate spilled out into the crowd as individuals provided their own commentary to the questions asked. The fireworks that concluded the panel provided insights into how historians work out contentiousness in their field.

I really enjoyed my day at the Southern. I made good connections with other scholars and learned a lot about individual topics as well as how the profession works. The grad lunch provided the most rewarding personal experience since the setting broke down many of the social barriers to initiate conversation, but the roundtable and panel demonstrated the quality of historical work being done and how conference presentations help make an individual’s scholarship better and more polished. I look forward to presenting my own work at the Southern in the future.

The Annual Meeting of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History: A Graduate Student Perspective.

Andrew Klumpp is a Ph.D. Student in American religious history in the Graduate Department of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University.

One of the underappreciated advantages of attending graduate school in a sprawling urban area like DFW has to be that every once and awhile national conferences take place right in your backyard. This past weekend the Society for US Intellectual History (#USIH2017) rolled into town, and when the call for graduate student volunteers went out, I eagerly signed up. On Thursday afternoon, I trekked up to the conference hotel in Plano and immersed myself in the four-day event. By helping at the registration desk, I managed to introduce myself to many of the scholars at the conference, learn about some of the logistics involved in pulling off an event like this, and connect (finally) with people I’ve been chatting with through Twitter’s #twitterstorians for months.

Heading into a busy season of conferencing—the Southern Historical Society is in town in a few weeks and AHA is just around the corner—I did what many academics may be prone to do. A few weeks ago, I headed to the Dallas Public Library and checked out books on how to network effectively. (Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone proved particularly useful.) Armed with a fount of new knowledge, I dove into the conference. And, to be honest, it kind of worked. Of course, this was due in part to the size of the conference (around 200 attendees) and the graciousness of many of those in attendance. I managed to hear about fascinating research, get a few leads on archival sources, build relationships with people working on similar projects to my own, and even get one of my books signed by the author (shout out to Andrea Turpin).

Of course, I also attended a spate of engaging panels. The topics ranged from Christian nationalisms in the Early Republic—which included an excellent paper by SMU’s Kate Carté Engel—to grassroots birth control advocates and explorations of resonances between social and fiscal conservatism in the late twentieth century. One of the most thought-provoking questions that undergirded many sessions queried what counts as intellectual history and what kinds of sources might inform it. Are the ideas of self-proclaimed intellectuals necessarily more systematic and consistent than those of everyday folks? If we think so, what might that say about our views of everyday people and their role in intellectual history? If not, what might that mean for the need to reevaluate complex intellectual figures, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson? At times, these questions bubbled up in lively question and answer sessions, but more often, they simmered in enriching ways beneath the surface of the conversation.

This conference also piloted a new “Guided Discussion” session format. More interactive than a traditional roundtable, in this model the four panelists each briefly posed a question to the group around a common theme—in this case, how historians use words with contested or complex meanings. After each panelist posed his or her particular question, the audience broke into groups based on which question each person wanted to ponder and then discussed it with their small group. My group consisted of a historian of religion (me), a historian of science, a historian of disability and two philosophers. This proved to be a remarkably fruitful discussion of terminology. It shone light on the assumptions that particular subfields bring to certain terms and parsed the tensions involved in using terminology that reflects our sources while also attempting to be precise and avoid terms now deemed offensive. Did we solve the underlying problem? Certainly not! Yet, these varying voices did push me to consider my own use of language and to sharpen my own practices when using contested concepts.

On Saturday evening, Annette Gordon-Reed delivered an outstanding keynote address to a packed crowd. She focused her remarks on how memories kept alive the stories of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship Sally Hemmings—an enslaved woman owned by Jefferson. Gordon-Reed recounted her own work to uncover this relationship and how it relied on taking seriously the memories of Hemmings’ children. What is more, she explored how the memories of Hemmings’ children and their descendants shed light onto the relationship between Hemmings, Jefferson and their children. In a spirited question and answer session, Gordon-Reed deftly engaged questions that ranged from how Jefferson ought to be commemorated to how to label relationships between white men and enslaved women.

As the weekend drew to a close, I came to appreciate the privilege of having such an excellent conference take place right here in Dallas. As a native of a hamlet in Northwest Iowa, I’m admittedly rather unfamiliar with national organizations showing up in town—aside from glad-handing presidential candidates, of course. I can, however, now tell you from experience that I’d rather shake hands with a crowd of intellectual historians than road-weary politicians any day.

Becoming a historian in 2017

What a moment to start a graduate career in history.  Anxiety about the decline of the humanities has come to be tempered by whiffs of hope that critical thinking about society is highly valued, not just by intellectuals but by Capitalists.  But even more important, as the United States has been overtaken by a violent contest over its own past, historians – and historical thinking – have become a part of mainstream discourse.  A recent graph created by the Southern Poverty Law Center has been shared widely across the internet, explaining in a snapshot something that Americans desperately need to understand: public monuments praising Confederate military heroes were produced many years after that war, not to memorialize the dead but rather to intimidate and terrorize those Americans whom the likes of Lee and Jackson committed treason to enslave.

Image from Southern Poverty Law Center

 

It’s a complex argument, but it’s been amazingly successful: Confederate monuments don’t represent the Confederacy, but the tyranny of the Jim Crow era and resistance to African Americans being included in full citizenship rights. Even the descendants of Stonewall Jackson have made the argument.

For the moment, and in the present context, I’m focused less on the civics lesson being made here than on the role of historians in the process, and the wider trend of historians using new media to build historical knowledge in the American public.  The SPLC graphic is a great example of the kind of visualizations being done by digital humanists.  The growth of graphical interpretations of history is one of the most exciting trends in the field.  It has allowed historians to present enormous amounts of careful research to a much wider public audience, encapsulating complexity and encouraging exploration of humanistic data.  The New York Times’s Upshot series bends towards the social scientific, but its influence on public discussion has included more than a little history as well.  Then there are the many ways that this argument has been disseminated.  The Washington Post has a new series that presents historical arguments.  Scholars like Kevin Kruse and Joanne Freeman have leveraged Twitter to build followings.  Group blogs, like Religion and American History and the Junto, get thousands of hits, and they use their platforms to speak to issues that are topical and historical.  Podcasts, like Ben Franklin’s World, bring scholarship to a public that might be scared off by a book full of footnotes, but is more than willing to hear the complex insights contained within.

The current generation of history graduate students has an opportunity, and a challenge, to think through what these various mediums mean for the discipline.  What kinds of arguments are best suited to what venue?  How can we best help inform public discussions about issues that cry out for historical framing?  How can we bring what we study – the arcane questions that animate us – to the public arena at the right moment?