Oxford AASC: Dispatches

Dispatches From the Editor in Chief

In Their Own Words

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

There are few resources that are more valuable to the student of history than original letters written within a given historical context, and our latest group of primary source documents focuses exclusively on public and private correspondence, stretching from the mid-eighteenth century to the modern era. Unlike government reports, statistics, pamphlets, and other sources, personal correspondence can reveal the historical consciousness of people through their everyday style of speech. Thus, they provide a voice to actors within history, many of whom are left out of the secondary sources of history books and newspaper articles.

Nearly a century ago, the historian Carter G. Woodson, founder of Black History Month, recognized the importance of recovering these documents by establishing the first archive of letters relating to the African American experience. His Journal of Negro History began to publish items from the collection in 1916. Ten years later, Woodson produced a groundbreaking anthology of correspondence (mainly by free blacks) titled The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in Letters Written During the Crisis 1800–1860. Woodson's effort was a direct rebuke to the racist Jim Crow narrative of black history, which denied the very existence of a written tradition produced by African Americans. We have attempted here to uncover some of these forgotten voices, including a petition by Mississippi washerwomen that was probably the first collective labor action undertaken by black women in America; a letter to the Freedman's Bureau detailing the murder of a teacher; a pledge of loyalty from freed slaves in Florida to the Spanish crown; and a letter from a slave to her daughter describing a forced migration that almost certainly separated the two forever.

Just as important, these documents help to counter some of the stereotypes and misunderstandings of historical events, along with cynical attempts to revise the historical record. One example of using letters for this purpose is James M. McPherson's What They Fought For (Anchor, 1995), in which the historian collects letters written mostly by white Union soldiers. Contrary to the claim that many soldiers were driven by the noble goal of freeing the slaves, the letters indicate that a surprising number of Union troops were in fact opposed to emancipation. One wonders how many of these soldiers would go on to deny this fact years later, once slavery had ended. In that vein, some of the letters we have included here attempt to counter similar distortions; not surprisingly, some of the most searing and poignant letters come from the Civil War era. In a newly added letter written by a freedwoman named Willie Ann Grey, we see a family torn apart by the war just as they are being emancipated. In a message sent to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, an African American Michigander begs for the opportunity to recruit black soldiers who, though not allowed to fight as part of the regular army, would be willing to fight "as guerillas" instead. In a message that most likely was intercepted en route, a fugitive slave in the Union army tries in vain to reach his wife after a long separation. And, in a surprisingly defiant example, a Union soldier named Spotswood Rice writes to his former master demanding that she release his wife, and warning her that he is on his way to her city with thousands of federal troops. Far from being a noble, glorious, Hollywood-style battle between good and evil, the war as depicted in these firsthand accounts comes across as catastrophic and capricious, disrupting especially the lives of slaves and free blacks.

Scholars have long recognized that these letters are an integral part of the African American literary canon as well. Specifically, they have helped to make a case for equality by aligning it with broader American ideals of freedom and the rule of law. One of the most famous examples of all time, in any tradition, would of course be Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, perhaps the most eloquent summation of the goals of the Civil Rights Movement ever put to paper. In this update, we have also added the famed correspondence between the astronomer Benjamin Banneker and then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, in which the former lays out an argument for equality echoed in King's plea from Birmingham. In a letter to a friend, abolitionist Lydia Maria Child relates the story of an apologist for slavery who experienced a radical change of heart. And Henry Bibb, author of one of the most famous slave narratives, writes to his old master in an exchange similar to Frederick Douglass's letter to his former owner. Both men use sarcasm, wit, and righteous anger to express their disdain for the institution of slavery.

In a recent article for The Root, I wrote about Ayuba, a captured slave who literally emancipated himself with a letter. It's a powerful story demonstrating both the resourcefulness of Ayuba and the increasingly connected world in which he lived. I wonder about the "letters" of the modern era, an even more connected age of email and social media. We've seen, for example, the amazing way in which Twitter has connected activists in the West with protesters of the Arab Spring and freedom fighters in other parts of the world. While this evolving form of correspondence is radically different from the primary sources listed above, I suspect that it will also provide future historians with the resources to refute our selective memory. In fact, our modern way of communicating may provide an even more accurate picture of historical events in real time.

Consider this: like the Union soldiers in McPherson's work mentioned above, many people who opposed the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s can now claim that they had been supporters of Dr. King all along. (Clearly, someone must have opposed the movement!) In the early 21st century, there are numerous opponents of, say, the gay rights movement, who will similarly claim, years from now, to have been in favor of marriage equality for as long as they could remember. But it will be very difficult for those same people to explain tweets and blog posts to the contrary, which can be easily found through a mere Google search. Thus, the situation could be the opposite of what Carter Woodson faced: rather than searching for misplaced paper documents and marginalized voices, historians will instead have to sift through mountains of data in order to come to conclusions about our time. Though the work may change, the goal will remain the same: rediscovering voices from the past, and giving them the space to inform a broader historical context.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
May 2013