Sunday, November 07, 2010

I attended the weekend sessions of the Southern Historical Association in Charlotte this weekend.

At the Saturday AM session - "Mobilizing for Freedom: Agency and Constraint in the Post-Emancipation Carolinas" - there were three papers of local history on race relations in the Reconstruction era. The panelists represented a generation of scholars who reached professional maturity after the civil-rights-era generation. Those earlier scholars had had to combat the myth of the passive Negro and to bring out examples of black agency as a matter of pride as well as national self-understanding. The next generation did not have to "look over its shoulder at the Dunning school," as Brian Kelly (Queen's University, Belfast), one of the panelists, put it. The commentator, Julie Saville of the University of Chicago, questioned the way in which all three papers were framed. She was of an age, she reminded us, to remember the dismantling of Jim Crow. She did not take kindly to histories that seemed to emphasize black disability instead of resistance and subversion and organization. Generational sparks seemed ready to fly. "I don't recognize my paper" in the commenter's description, said one of the presenters.

In that first session, I liked a paper by Bruce Baker (University of London, Royal Holloway) that discussed the history of Greenville, South Carolina in the late nineteenth century. Parallel with the political disenfranchisement of blacks was their exclusion from economic opportunity. In the immediate post emancipation period, the author documented how blacks, though a minority in Greenville, dominated professions such as draymen and carpenters and sidewalk hucksters. Once the railroad connected Greenville to Atlanta and Charlotte, the city grew in size and wealth. Regulation of public space crowded out the small-scale sellers who were largely freedmen, a local rail line obviated the work of hauling cargo from the train station into town, and falling cotton prices (this pointed out from the audience) brought more whites into town to compete with blacks for positions such as carpenter. The overall result was the "casualization" of black labor - rolling back whatever steps they had taken towards independence and making them dependent on white employers, who now owed them only for the labor they did and not for year-round care and feeding as they had under slavery. A lot of these same trade-offs can be found in Charlotte's history - efficiency came at the expense of displacing black laborers and destroying their economic toeholds. This pattern continued right through the era of urban renewal (dubbed "Negro removal" by inner-city residents). No wonder the proposal to merge two mostly black high schools in Charlotte last month evoked such heartfelt protest - there's a legacy of blacks absorbing the costs of plans imposed by local leaders. No mention of convict labor in this study, though that's not an example of making the workforce more casual, but of controlling it.

In the afternoon I attended a session on North Carolina in the civil war, specifically the respect (or lack of it) for civil liberties. Governor Vance, as a paper by Jaime Amanda Martnez (UNC Pembroke) on the impressment of slave labor explained, tried to maintain the state's right to regulate the use of labor, so that the state's own needs would be met before anything would be spared for the Confederacy. He had little enforcement power, however. In another paper, Steven Nash of ETSU went over the struggle to define loyalty in Western North Carolina after the war. Unionists who had gone over to the secession side after Sumter now wanted recognition from the Federal authorities of their patriotism. The Feds saw them as Rebs, but the dyed-in-the-wool Rebels saw them as enemies. There was a riot in August, 1865, in Hendersonville at the time of an election. Another paper - and the most interesting of a good bunch - talked about the Act of Sequestration. It was passed by the Confederate government in Richmond in retaliation for a similar act in Washington. It allowed for the seizure of land and assets owned by enemy aliens for the good of the Confederate cause. Each state appointed "receivers", who administered the sale of such contraband that their team of investigators had found. North Carolina was more active in implementing this law than other states, and the receiver for the district including Mecklenburg county was the most active of all. The researcher (Rodney J. Steward, University of South Carolina - Salkehatchie) did some great detective work to conclude that people were turning in their neighbors to seize their property and that the receiver was keeping for himself or sharing with his cronies (all members of the Southern Rights Party) much of the proceeds that by rights belonged to the Richmond government.

The vendettas, the bushwhacking, the corruption, the blindness to local differences among the occupiers and the temptation of slaves to run off to the enemy all reminded me strongly of the Revolutionary era. I am convinced that there is a great work to be done there, showing those two wars as part of the same struggle.

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