Sunday, April 21, 2019

Another Online Douglass Forum at Black Perspectives

This week, the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) will run another forum, "The Futures of Frederick Douglass," on its online journal Black Perspectives. The last forum took place at the end of last November and included contributions from Christopher Bonner, David Blight, Manisha Sinha, Noelle Trent, and my own piece about Anna Douglass. That roundtable focused on the life and legacy of Douglass. This one will turn to the future of the study of Douglass. 

The organizers are the same scholars who put together the conference in Paris last October, Helene Quanquin, Cecile Roudeau, and Michael Roy. (Helene will have a fantastic book coming out about men in the women's rights movement that will include Frederick Douglass next year, by the way.) Participants include Brigitte Fielder; P. Gabrielle Forman, whose Colored Conventions Project has been a great boon; Kay Wright Lewis; Robert Levine, whose Lives of Frederick Douglass is one of the most thoughtful books on Douglass's autobiographies and has a great piece on Douglass in Rome; Ezra Greenspan, who wrote a careful and insightful biography of William Wells Brown and is now looking at the wide network of Douglass's family; and Ronald Johnson, who focuses on the Atlantic World and Haiti. Oh, yes, and my lovely husband Douglas R. Egerton, who has written about slave rebels, African Americans in the American Revolution, the 1860 election, Black Reconstruction, and a Lincoln Prize-winning book about the Massachusetts 54th. Douglass popped up a lot in the last three, of course.

In other words, this should be a fascinating week of posts! 

Friday, April 19, 2019

"Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy After the Civil War" Live Stream from UConn-Storrs

Manisha Sinha, winner of the 2017 Douglass Prize (among others) for her magisterial The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition, has organized an impressive conference of historians of U.S. Reconstruction running today and tomorrow, Friday and Saturday, April 19 and 20, 2019, at University of Connecticut in Storrs.

The program includes my lovely husband, Douglas R. Egerton, who will discuss part of his forthcoming book on the later generations of the Adams Family (yes, *snap, snap* -- no, not that Addams Family, the other one). Other luminaries include Kate Masur, Heather Cox Richardson, Jim Downs, Ana Lucia Araujo, and Tera Hunter. The mighty Eric Foner will deliver the keynote address tonight, and David Blight and Steven Hahn will participate in a panel tomorrow night.

"NOW you tell me?" you may ask in exasperation, unable to run up to Storrs to register. Fear not, I post now to let you know that you can watch parts of it from the comfort of your own home via live stream HERE.

(If that link doesn't work, go HERE, find the date, and click on the "Wilbur Cross" events.)

Pulitzer Prize-winning David Blight will, of course, represent for Douglass and Reconstruction, a subject he has studied and on which he has written since his dissertation. Many of the other papers will address the African American history that went on around Douglass and of which he was a part.

[NOTE: I would be there as a guest of my man, but the unfortunate events of last September still sap my energy and I really needed a quiet weekend to work in the yard, read, and work on my next two book proposals.]

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery Annual Meeting Talk

Frederick Douglass, Anna Douglass, Helen Douglass, little Annie Douglass, Rosetta Douglass Sprague, Nathan Sprague, Louisa Sprague, Alice Sprague, Annie Sprague, Amy and Isaac Post along with their family, the Porters, Susan B. Anthony, and so many more lie buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. 

The Friends of Mount Hope care for the still-functioning cemetery and its records, as well as offer tours of the most significant elements of the site, including its geographic features, history as a burial place, and as the final resting place of so many important people in the history of the city and the nation. They, indeed, helped me with my research for the final chapter of my book; and when you visit the Douglass gravesite, remember that its condition results from their efforts. They literally care for Frederick Douglass.

Therefore, when Pat Corcoran invited me to speak at their annual meeting last week, I was more than honored. I made myself more anxious by choosing to speak about my research into the composition of the gravesite. After all, they probably know more about it than I do. Still, they proved to be a lovely audience (who bought many books), and I'm grateful for the work that they do. As I say in the introduction to my talk, everyone whose bones rest in that place were loved by someone, and they continue that care while providing a peaceful, green place of contemplation.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Seward Stories Talk: From Documentary Editing to Biography

Last Wednesday, at the suggestion of Pat Corcoran, Thomas Slaughter invited me to be the keynote speaker at the Seward Stories event at the University of Rochester. Slaughter edits and manages the Seward Family Digital Project, which lives in the Rush Rhees library there, and Seward Stories allows researchers working on the project to present interesting aspects of the project's findings and progress.

The whole endeavor is really exactly what an editing project like this should be. It makes archival material accessible to the public, annotates it for context that sometimes even scholars do not know nor understand, provides professional and scholarly experience for both undergraduate and graduate students, and facilitates collaboration within and across institutions and interest groups. This is the sort of thing of which I could only fantasize when I was at the Douglass Papers, before the technology was even available.

I met with students who are working on impressive dissertations, with the history department chair, with the library dean, with the digital lab technicians, and with the archivists in special collections. Everyone was wonderful, but the last two left me with gifts.

The digital lab techs have created 3-D printing software for copies of the Douglass bust owned by the University of Rochester, and when I gushed about making plans to get to my local library to have them make one for me on the 3-D printer their, one of the techs said, "hey, here, have this one." So, swag!

"Claire Strong" is for my 5-year-old niece, 
who is recovering from leukemia.
Then, the special collections librarians did one better. They brought out the volume of sheet music that contains "Farewell Song to Frederick Douglass," composed by Julia Griffiths and her brother T. Powis, the one performed at the big Douglass gala in Rochester last December. They let me touch it! Without gloves! And had a great acquisitions story! And share my horror at auction houses that don't want to know provenance prior to their own purchase!

After the tours and lunch, we went to the auditorium in the library for presentations, which included reports on the work with seniors who collaborate with the students in transcribing letters, two charming discussions of unusual names in the project and the regular appearance of pets in the correspondence, and a rumination of the importance of this intimate view of the Seward family.

My own paper, conceived separately from these presentations, seemed to touch on some of the same issues. As you can see if you watch or listen to the video, I decided to explain the ways that my book evolved from my annotation of the Douglass correspondence. The paper fit right in methodologically and theoretically.

We all go so deeply into the details of our subjects' lives in annotation, but we are looking primarily at the alleged "private" side, finding that such distinctions are not accurate, even if they are the language of our subjects and thus the ways that they tried to explain the bargains and boundaries of their own lives.

Monday, April 15, 2019

A Day of Loss, and a Significant Win

My intention today was to post a video of one of my two talks that I gave last week in Rochester but, alas, the news cycle seems to have overtaken that.

First, I awaken to the news that David Brion Davis, the great historian of slavery, has died. He became an important voice in twentieth-century scholarship in situating U.S. racial slavery in the global history of slavery and then conceptualizing the challenge that its existence presented to a society that claimed to be based on equality. If you've read a book about slavery written in the past thirty years, it was influenced by him. One of my first college classes in history was with one of his former students, Steven Mintz.

Then came the news that Notre Dame, which has suffered centuries of warfare, revolutions, Nazis, and city planning, has fallen to that bane of history: fire. This is relevant only in that I passed it every single day at the Douglass conference in Paris last October (where I let my gremlins be my muses) and that its loss seems emblematic of so many other losses to world culture, to history, to our ability to write history, and to its value.

Although he did not have a copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in his library, preferring instead Les Miserables for his Hugo, Douglass did actually see Notre Dame himself when he travelled to France in 1886-87. You can read a bit more about his journeys in Paris at the Frederick Douglass in the City of Lights: Walking Tour or in part one of his 1887 speech "My Foreign Travels." (That section of his and Helen's travel diaries are blank. They were neither in the habit of keeping journals.) He merely said, "...after exploring the aisle and crypts of Notre Dame and more old churches than I have time to mention and which speak to us of the dead past, I turn to the living present..." and described the French courts and government, all part of performing the American tourist comparing the decrepit Old World institutions to the vigorous New World's while also critiquing the hypocrisy of that vigorous New. Later, he described a boat trip -- similar to one that I took in 2012 -- that took passengers "down by solemn old Notre Dame, with her grim old walls and lofty towers, down by the Ille Saint Louis, the home of poet Theodore Tilton" whom he visited while in Paris.

The Baedeker guide that he and Helen brought with them described the Notre Dame that he saw. The cathedral that he saw had only been restored in 1845 after being left to decay during the Revolution. Although used as a military encampment by the communards a decade an a half before his visit, the fire they set on their retreat had caused minimal damage.  All of this according to the guide, of course. Still, the Douglasses, too, could have gone up the two front towers for the view of the city while petting the grotesques that protected the cathedral. They, too, would have seen the statue of Charlemagne in the Place.  Then, behind, they could have visited the Morgue, where the unidentified body of Ottilie Assing had been discovered on display after her suicide three years earlier. The memorial to the Jewish deportees during the Occupation now sits on that spot.

Finally, good news:  David Blight's biography of Douglass, Prophet of Freedom, racked up another award and won the Pulitzer Prize. This could not happen to a more generous and deserving scholar. The committee consisted of some fine historians whose own research and prose make me turn into Wayne and Garth: Annette Gordon-Reed, Tiya Miles, and Marcus Rediker. (Marcus Rediker, incidentally, trained my husband in the trade.) That's two African American women and a Marxist, for those keeping score, one who has written about a Founding Father, one who has written about borderlands, and one who has written about the sea. Oddly enough, I think Douglass fits into all of those categories in one way or another. Their good opinion and judgement is well worth having. I'm very happy for David (and Douglass) and hope he is happy for himself!

So, we shall save the videos of last week's talks for another time.