“The true condition of our race”: Centering personal narratives in writing history

By Peter Blackmer, Ph.D. student, W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst

My grandmother has a family-famous saying that she utilizes anytime someone is looking for something that is clearly within plain sight. The saying goes, “If it had teeth, it would bite you.” As I sat at my desk a couple of years back digging through massive texts on Reconstruction-era politics in an attempt to develop an analysis of the nature of political violence during this period, I stumbled upon a passage that called my grandmother’s saying to the front of my mind. After having spent countless hours reading through accounts of politically-motivated violence to find patterns in its application, I found a narrative given by Henry Adams, a freedman and astute reporter of Black experiences during Reconstruction, that would have bitten me, if it had teeth.

The original premise of this research endeavor was to determine the validity of a claim made by George Henry White, the last Black Congressman of the post-Reconstruction era, in an address to Congress in 1900 in support of his anti-lynching bill. In this address, White claimed that “since the end of the Civil War, fully fifty thousand of my race have been ignominiously murdered by mobs.” To determine the merits of this claim, I began to tear through book after book on Reconstruction to compile not only numbers, but names and narratives as well. As I read through countless harrowing accounts of individual experiences with racial terror in the post-Civil War South, my objective quickly evolved from merely validating White’s body count to promoting the historical agency of these marginalized histories and utilizing these accounts to develop an analysis of the larger role of racial violence in the political arena.

Within this context, it became my goal to employ the narratives of personal experiences in the Reconstruction-era South to transform numbers and statistics into names and stories in an effort to make this material more accessible and relatable to students and readers. The course that I was developing this project for, Professor Miller’s Writing History (HIS691W), had significant impacts on the ways that I approached and sought to present this material to my intended audiences. With a specific focus on developing historical prose for readers outside of academia, I was drawn to works we read in class, such as Robin D.G. Kelley‘s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, that utilized character-driven narratives to confront more complex historical topics in a manner accessible to popular audiences (Professor Kelley was actually a Writer-in-Residence during this semester and was an incomparable resource to have in class). Having been exposed to how effectively Professor Kelley and others crafted their character-centered approaches to writing history for readers outside of the academy, I felt that this would be an ideal approach to making the complexities of my research more accessible and translating the numbers and statistics I had been compiling into narratives that my audience could identify with. Given that I had come to this decision to center the personal narratives of those most deeply affected by the violence I sought to analyze within my research, it seemed prudent to allow those same narratives to define the terms of my larger analysis of the role of political violence in overthrowing Reconstruction in the South.

In one brief account given before a Senate Committee in 1870, Henry Adams, whom the Senate report referred to as “a man of very unusual natural abilities, and… entirely reliable and truthful,” provided the adept analysis of the formulaic nature of political violence that I had spent the better part of a semester seeking to develop. While I was busy trying to write the story of the systematic violent suppression of would-be Black voters in the post-Civil War South from my desk in Amherst, Massachusetts in 2012, Henry Adams had largely done this aspect of my work nearly 150 years earlier through his work in collecting reports of “the true condition of [his] race” across the South. Through my research of personal narratives from 1865-1876, I had discovered a pattern in the use of violence by white Democrats to first disrupt Black Republican rallies in Southern communities and then continue this style of intimidation throughout the night in the form of roving white hunting parties that would terrorize Black communities, Republican or not. While my research may have led me to the discovery of this pattern, it was the voice of Henry Adams that truly brought it to life. Responding to a question from a member of the Senate Commission on how “white people could bulldoze the Negro and prevent him from voting,” Adams described that:

“They come to a place where there is a kind of little gathering. One will take a drink…then comes out and commences to meddle with one of the colored men. Maybe the colored man will say something sort of rash like. If he does, [the white] will haul out a revolver and strike him and maybe, perhaps, shoot him. Then a passel of them will commence firing on them colored men… Now, if one of them colored men will show fight, if he hurts one of them, his life ain’t no more than a chicken’s. He may go home but he wont stay for a passel will come after him that night.”

What is remarkable about Adams’ narrative for the purposes of writing history is that through his unique experiences travelling throughout the South witnessing and reporting on the conditions experienced by Black individuals during Reconstruction, he was able to distill the narratives that he bore witness to into a contemporary analysis of the use of political violence to subvert Black political agency. Despite the historical significance of Adams’ testimony in challenging the popularly accepted dominant narratives of the failures (or overthrow) of Reconstruction, both contemporarily and historically, his narratives are largely absent from many of the major texts on Reconstruction-era politics.

Beyond merely enhancing my work for this particular writing project, the discovery of Henry Adams’ influential reporting has led me to develop a heightened appreciation of the possibilities that personal narratives can hold for not only writing history, but also for engaging in critical pedagogy and challenging dominant historical narratives in public school settings. Having briefly taught in the New York City public school system, I witnessed the marginalization of historically significant narratives such as Adams’ in the context of Reconstruction’s demise, in favor of dominant narratives centered around the imposition of supposedly “radical” Northern political ideals upon the South in the wake of the Civil War and the folly of exploitative “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags.” Not only was the textbook presentation of this material stale to my students, it was serving to promote and maintain dominant historical narratives that continue to skew the experiences of people of color in the Reconstruction-era South. My long-term hope for the application of this particular narrative-driven research is to develop a framework for cooperative learning projects, through which students will engage in the research process of locating and connecting with individual, micro-histories, and working collaboratively to weave these into a more nuanced analysis to complicate historical meta-narratives.

By utilizing works in our teaching that center the personal narratives of individuals who experienced and were directly impacted by historical events, such as Dorothy Sterling’s The Trouble They Seen, we are able to not only challenge the dominant narratives that continue to be presented in many history texts, but to also promote a more authentic education for our students by utilizing materials that provide personal voices to bring history to life. These “counter-stories,” as defined by scholar-educators Daniel Solorzano and Tara J. Yosso, represent “a tool for exposing, analyzing, and challenging the majoritarian stories of racial privilege. Counter-stories can shatter complacency, challenge the dominant discourse on race, and further the struggle for racial reform.” As broad populations in America seek to understand and analyze contentious current events that have the potential to usher in major political, social, and economic change in the nation, it is essential that we not only listen to the voices of those most directly impacted by the topics we are seeking to understand, but that we demand media outlets to center these voices. For, if these voices continue to be made invisible in favor of artificially-imposed narratives, we will continue to search for the answers to our questions, but will not find them to be without “teeth.”

Peter Blackmer is originally from Syracuse, New York and earned both his B.A. in History and M.S. in Education from Wagner College. His primary research interests center on local studies of the Civil Rights Movement in New York City, with a specific focus on community-based organizing and activism in Harlem preceding the 1964 rebellions.

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