Friday, December 13, 2013

When past meets present

I was given some books from the library of David Herbert Donald, the teacher, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Lincoln biographer, after his death in 2009. Lacking shelf space myself, I chose with care. At the time I was researching the antislavery movement in New Hampshire and was pleased but not surprised to find a good run of relevant books in Donald’s library. He had, after all, grown up on a Mississippi cotton farm before developing a national perspective and a sterling reputation as an American historian.

Many of his books about slavery now fill a shelf on a bookcase upstairs, and I sometimes pull one out. I’d love to read them all cover-to-cover, but that’s a pipe dream.

David H. Donald (1920-2009) in the library at his house in Lincoln, Mass.
In this regard, Donald did far better than I expect to, as most of the books bear his neat penciled markings. His habit was to draw a vertical line down the outside margin of a passage and place a small check mark beside the line. When I come to one of these, I pause to wonder why he checked that particular sentence or phrase. Because he agreed with it? Because it gave him an aha moment? Because it caught the heart of the author’s judgment? I wish he were still around so I could ask him.

The other day I took out Donald's copy of American Negro Slavery by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, a leading early 20th century historian. Like Donald, Phillips had southern roots, a lucid writing style and an Ivy League pedigree.

An ambitious researcher in original records of large southern plantations, Phillips concluded that “plantation slavery was not very profitable, had about reached its limits in 1860, and would probably have faded away without the American Civil War, which he considered a needless conflict,” according to his Wikipedia entry. “He praised the entrepreneurship of plantation owners and denied they were brutal. Phillips argued that they provided adequate food, clothing, housing, medical care and training in modern technology – that they formed a ‘school’ which helped ‘civilize’ the slaves. He admitted the failure was that no one graduated from this school.”

The Wikipedia entry also assesses where Phillips’s work fits into scholarship on slavery. “The Phillips school asked, what did slavery do for the slaves? [The answer] was that slavery lifted the slaves out of the barbarism of Africa, Christianized them, protected them, and generally benefited them. Scholarship in the 1950s then moved to the question, what did slavery do to the slaves, and concluded it was a harsh and profitable system. More recently, scholars . . . asked, ‘What did slaves do for themselves?’ They concluded [that] through family, community and religion, slaves struggled for a measure of independence and dignity.”

For his groundbreaking work, Ulrich Bonnell
Phillips (1877-1934)  found and used plantation
records other  historians had ignored.
I have just begun reading American Negro Slavery, but I found an arresting paragraph in Phillips’s preface. The book was published in 1918, and Phillips wrote the preface at Camp Gordon, Ga. When he was there, Jim Crow ruled the South, and the United States was engaged in World War I. Here is the passage, which reminds us as readers to consider how a historian’s view of the present might affect how he or she sees the past:

“My sojourn in a National Army Camp in the South while this book has been going through the press has reinforced my earlier conviction that Southern racial asperities are mainly superficial, and that the two great elements are fundamentally in accord. That the harmony is not a new thing is evinced by the very tone of the camp. The men of the two races are of course quartered separately; but it is a daily occurrence for white Georgian troops to go to the negro companies to seek out their accustomed friends and compare home news and experiences. The negroes themselves show the same easy-going, amiable, serio-comic obedience and the same personal attachments to white men, as well as the same sturdy light-heartedness and the same love of laughter and of rhythm, which distinguished their forbears. The non-commissioned officers among them show a punctilious pride of place which matches that of the plantation foremen of old; and the white officers who succeed best in the command of these companies reflect the planter’s admixture of tact with firmness of control, the planter’s firmness of instruction, and his crisp though cordial reciprocation of sentiment. The negroes are not enslaved but drafted; they dwell not in cabins but in barracks; they shoulder the rifle, not the hoe; but the visitor to their company streets in evening hours enters nevertheless a plantation atmosphere. A hilarious party dashes in pursuit of a fugitive, and gives him lashes with a belt ‘moderately laid on.’ When questioned, the explanation is given that the victim is ‘a awnrooly nigger’ whose ways must be mended. In the quiet which follows, a throng fills the quarter with an old-time unmartial refrain:

I ain’ go’ study war no mo’,
I ain’ go’ study war no mo’,
Study war no mo’.

“. . . It may be that the change of African nature by plantation slavery has been exaggerated. At any rate a generation of freedom has wrought less transformation in the bulk of the blacks than might casually be supposed.”

Professor David’s copy of Phillips’s book was a 1952 reprint, not the 1918 edition. He put one of his pencil marks beside the last two quoted sentences. What did those lines evince in him? Agreement? Skepticism? An assertion to be weighed against the text to come? I don’t know the answer.

I can tell you what stopped me in the passage: the word freedom. I understand that the word was used simply as the opposite of slavery, but I wonder if Professor Phillips, a Georgian himself, really believed that the freedom he took for granted was the same as the freedom he claimed for African-Americans. For them separate was not equal. Educational opportunity was not equal. Voting rights were denied or at least proscribed. Fear and intimidation were common. To display evidence of material success or intelligence was dangerous. The Ku Klux Klan was riding high. Whites perpetrated and tolerated lynching.

In fact, 64 African-Americans were lynched in the South in 1918, the year Phillips wrote his preface. Eighteen lynchings occurred in Georgia, including a mid-May rampage in Valdosta during which 10 were lynched.

One of the 10 was Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, who had the audacity to protest the innocence of her husband after he was lynched. Local whites set out to “teach her a lesson.” On May 19, 1918, a mob of hundreds hanged her by the ankles from a bridge, doused her with gasoline and ignited her. Before she died, a man in the mob slit open her belly, and the fetus fell to the ground, where the mob stomped it to death.

I don’t mean to suggest that Phillips accepted or condoned this state of affairs, but his reading of the jovial “plantation atmosphere” he witnessed at Camp Gordon strikes me as the work of a historian wearing blinders.

His book has a few passages on lynching. He traces its roots to antebellum times, using as one of several examples a Georgia case in which a judge condemned an African-American defendant to death. White residents who believed the jury got the verdict wrong petitioned the governor, who bought their argument and pardoned the convict. A lynch mob quickly turned the pardon into a death warrant.

Later in the book, in what seems to me a casual, rationalizing, almost forgiving assessment, Phillips wrote: “Rural Southern lynch law in that period . . . was in large part a special product of the sparseness of population and the resulting weakness of legal machinery, for as Olmsted* justly remarked in the middle ’fifties, the whole South was virtually in a frontier condition. In the post bellum decades, on the other hand, an increase of racial antipathy has offset the effect of the densification of settlement and has abnormally prolonged the liability to the lynching impulse.”

Living in times when memories of the immediate past are fresh can be enabling for historians. Phillips took full advantage of his chance to research slavery in the South while some of the old plantations were still active and documents about them were readily available. But living in their own times can also limit historians. Phillips seemed unable to see that what he called “freedom” for African-Americans in the South was a woefully debased version of the freedom he himself enjoyed.

I am not surprised to know as I wade into American Negro Slavery that Phillips concluded that slave-owners were benevolent, not brutal, and that slavery would have withered away without the Civil War. These opinions are consistent with his rosy view of life in the South half a century after slavery was abolished.

*Frederick Law Olmsted, a renowned 19th century landscape architect and social critic.

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