I’m currently researching a book on African American families in the post-Civil War South. I’m specifically interested in the what families gained with emancipation and then lost to paramilitary violence.
Historians have done a herculean job documenting postwar violence and illuminating its political, social, and sexual dimensions. I am attempting to add to this rich scholarship by excavating the ways in which African American survivors articulated their understandings of violence’s impact on their families.
As this Thomas Nast image illustrates, violence like night riding strikes inflicted a range of deep wounds on black southerners. Additionally, although men were often the primary targets of this violence and dominate much of the research conducted on the subject, Nast’s drawing echoes archival records by showing they weren’t its only victims. Whether they were present during attacks or absent, physically injured themselves or a witness to the injury of others, all family members were sucked into the violent vortex.
My research on this project builds upon my long term interest in understanding how African Americans experienced lynching and other forms of racial violence. Using both the testimonies and census records, I am seeking to illuminate the ways in which nightriding survivors interpreted violence; how violence affected families psychologically, economically, and sociologically; and if and how families recovered. My hope is that this book will enrich our understandings of the histories of Black families after the Civil War and ways night riding compromised their stability.
Phase 1 of the project involved gathering all the witnesses’ testimonies at the hearings. Although there are nearly 1000 testimonies, I focused on the Black ones because, as an African Americanist, I wanted to learn more about what Black folks experienced and thought about this violence, their attackers, and the responsibility of elected officials to stop violence and help them get justice.
For phase 2, I read through the WPA Slave Narratives for ex-slaves’ recollections of night riding strikes, which they also called Ku Klux, Jayhawks, and whitecaps. Historians go back and forth over whether or not we should use these records. I use them for a number of reasons, including my trust in African Americans’ understandings and representations of what happened to them and their loved ones. I am also convinced by the authentication of such things mentioned in the interviews as slavery in Indian Territory, the domestic slave trade, the inner lives of enslaved people in subsequent research as well as arguments made by Marie Jenkins Schwartz and Edward Baptist that the WPA narratives don’t require any more consideration and critical analysis than any other sources we consult. See this great introduction to the collections. Finally, I know that many of the women and men interviewed would have been anywhere from tweens through young adults during Reconstruction, old enough to understand what was happening and to assess its meaning.
During winter 2014, I read all the narratives, with a critical eye, for commonalities in their references to violence. I also sussed out the occasional instances where some interviewees conflated night riding with slave patrolling. I discovered both vague and specific recollections about night riding, indicating the ways some people learned of it from a general collective memory or second or third hand sources and others witnessed it first hand or heard very specific, detailed stories about family members who endured this violence. Mapping 1871 witnesses’ accounts revealed to me that a lot of the discrepancies had to do with the geographies of emancipation and night riding.
James Lucas’s account represents the vagueness of some ex-slaves’ representations of this violence. These recollections are interesting but I zoomed in on the more specific accounts.
Phase 3 required searching for witnesses in the population and agricultural censuses, work I completed spring 2015. Early in my research on the testimonies, I noticed that several witnesses referenced census enumerators coming through just before or after they were attacked. I expected these records would provide a snapshot of survivors’ lives either before or after nightriders visited them. The work was hit or miss. I could not locate every victim, which is probably due to a number of reasons, ranging from the non-standardize spellings of names and witnesses’ overly vague descriptions of their residences and families to the fact that some victims were displaced from their homes and communities when assessors came through. But for witnesses I could find, this work allowed me to flesh out the details of their lives–where they lived, who their people were, etc. It also allowed me to track some victims over time.
Another component of this project has involved processing the data. Reading Elena Friot’s Thickening the Data: How Excel Helped Me Become a Better Historian persuaded me of the benefits of shifting from taking notes by hand or typing them into MS Word to entering them on a spreadsheet like Excel or Google Sheets. As Friot predicted, processing my notes in categories allowed me to look at the data differently. Creating categories for things like displacement, attempts to get justice, and dispossession made it easier to determine on what I could write and how.
The increasing production of projects and tools visualizing history as well as an informative DH workshop at Wayne State put on by Tracy Neumann and Anelise Shrout allowed me to think about mapping my data. I’ll need to plug in stories for survivors and learn more of the fancy tools to make this more aesthetically pleasing and useful but this was a good enough start to help me think about the geography of the strikes.
The amount of data I had collected and the ways I had processed it combined with academic leave, thanks to a generous internal award available to mid-career faculty, generated a desire to write this spring. As of now, there will be eight chapters and an introduction and epilogue. I still have a bit of research to conduct and I want to fine tune data I’ve been processing for visualization but I’m feeling pretty good about the project and my progress on it as my leave ends.