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Reflections on the African American experience, social history, and the resurgence of conservatism in American society.

In his introductory essay to this volume, Peter Stearns suggests that conservatism is likely to prevail for a while and that social history in the United States needs some strategy sessions. Indeed, recent controversies over funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Smithsonian Museum's Enola Gay Exhibition, and the National History Standards, issued by the National Center for History in the Schools, indicate growing resistance to efforts to create a more inclusive history of the United States. These are large issues and a great deal is at stake, but this is also a good moment to reflect on past efforts to broaden the scope of U.S. history.

The struggle for a broader U.S. history is deeply rooted in American immigration, ethnic, labor, and women's history, but it is perhaps most apparent in the field of African American history. Even a cursory consideration of the African American experience is instructive, because it highlights the ongoing connection between the struggle for a fuller history and the fight for a more inclusive, just, and democratic society. A brief examination of the African American experience also suggests the need for a more sensitive treatment of the obstacles that its founders faced, the choices that they made, and the histories that they wrote.(1)

Research on the African American experience emerged in the teeth of slavery, the fall of Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow. The earliest writers, the 19th-century pioneers, confronted the expansion and consolidation of human bondage. As the slavery system moved from the tobacco-growing regions of the upper south to the cotton-producing areas of the deep south, the nation moved away from a tenuous commitment to emancipation following the American Revolution to a new commitment to slavery, as a right guaranteed by the constitution and sanctioned by God and nature. Jurists, scholars, and the clergy not only sanctioned the subordination of blacks as slaves, but justified the disfranchisement of all women, the brutal removal of Native Americans from their land, and the military conquest of Mexican territories.

George Bancroft and other early chroniclers of the nation's history explicitly used religious beliefs and moral judgments to guide their narratives. They defined the enslavement of blacks, the disfranchisement of women, and the conquest of Mexicans and Native Americans as the white man's "manifest destiny." As such, early 19th-century historians excused social injustice and crafted a narrow white male nationalist history of the United States. As George Bancroft put it in his multivolume History of the United States, "Go forth, then, language of Milton and Hampden, language of my country, take possession of the North American continent! Gladden waste places with every tone that has been rightly struck on the English lyre, with every English word that has been spoken well for liberty and for man!"(2)

Understandably, the obstacles to writing and making African American history during the antebellum era might well have caused despair. Yet, a small number of black writers - Robert Benjamin Lewis, William Cooper Nell, James C. Pennington, and Martin R. Delaney among others - rose to the occasion and produced seminal works on the black experience. Much like their white counterparts, these scholars wrote narrative rather than analytical works and emphasized the hand of God in human affairs, but unlike their white counterparts they discerned a divine hand that liberated rather than enslaved African peoples. In his Light and Truth: Collected from the Bible and Ancient and Modern History (1836, 1844), R. B. Lewis hoped to advance "correct knowledge" of both "Colored and Indian people," so that "oppressors shall not consider it an indispensable duty to trample upon the weak and defenseless."(3) J. C. Pennington was even more direct, "God is not only the all-glorious author . . . of the black man's mind as well as of that of the white man. . . . but he has produced it in the same way identically."(4) In short, despite the force of antebellum slavery and its intellectual, religious, and cultural rationales, African Americans produced an alternative history that reinforced their own humanity.

The Civil War and the emancipation years opened a new chapter in African American history. To many, a fuller and more inclusive society and history seemed imminent. Passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the constitution brought African Americans into the body politic as citizens, who theoretically shared the same rights and obligations as white Americans. Yet within less than two generations, African Americans faced the onset of a new white supremacist regime, which instituted a plethora of legal and extralegal measures which deprived them of their citizenship rights and reinforced their subordinate position not only within southern agriculture, but within the expanding urban industrial economy as well. Lynchings, disfranchisement, segregation, and racist portraits in popular and scholarly books and journals, all proceeded apace. Historian Rayford Logan described this period as "the nadir" in African American life.(5)

At the same time, a second generation of American historians announced the arrival of a new, more scientific, and professional history. These scholars denounced the old narrative, moral, and religious approaches to American history as the work of romantics, often ministers and especially philosophers whose work they believed distorted reality by idealizing and spiritualizing life. As John Higham noted three decades ago, "the early professional historians dreaded most an entangling alliance with philosophy."(6) Still, the new so-called scientific history left intact the earlier portrait of blacks as inferior, but substituted so-called scientific or factual data for biblical or other forms of impressionistic evidence. Unfortunately, the subsequent rise of the so-called progressive historians with their relativistic emphasis in historical scholarship did little to loosen the grip of the racist paradigm in scholarship on the African American experience. As the southern historian U. B. Phillips put it during the early 20th century, African Americans were innately inferior peoples whose documents of their own past were biased, unreliable, and invalid accounts which should be ignored by professional historians.(7)

No less than in the early to mid-19th century, when slavery dominated the social order, the barriers to writing and influencing African American history during the segregationist era might have immobilized large portions of the African American population. On the contrary, however, this period energized a new generation of African American scholars, who launched the black history movement. Much like their earlier forbears, the new writers understood and mastered the methodological approaches of their white counterparts, but used them to write a history designed to liberate blacks from charges of inferiority, based upon assumed racial defects in intellectual and physical capacity. Building upon the pioneering works of historian George Washington Williams, namely his two-volume History of the Negro Race in America (1882), W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson symbolized the florescence of the black history movement during World War I and the 1920s.

Du Bois and Woodson recognized the growing importance of university training in historical research. At a time when the system of segregation posed increasing problems for the higher education of African Americans, Du Bois received his undergraduate education at Fisk University and graduate training at Harvard and the University of Berlin. For his part, Woodson attended undergraduate school at Berea College in Kentucky and graduate school at the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of Chicago, and Harvard, where he received his Ph.D. in 1912.

In the face of stiff resistance from within and outside the academy, Du Bois, Woodson, and a few other black contemporaries adopted the prevailing canons of the expanding historical profession. They moved beyond the earlier use of biblical texts and worked hard to advance "objective" portraits of the black experience. Specifically, they employed a broad range of primary resources - newspapers, organizational records, statistics, archival manuscripts, and oral interviews - and emphasized a more rigorous, systematic, and analytical approach to African American history. Reflecting their growing commitment to the historical profession, black scholars soon founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (1915), the Journal of Negro History (1916), Negro History Week (1916), and the Negro History Bulletin (1933). Through these innovations, they not only emphasized the ways that African Americans shaped their own lives under the conditions of slavery and Jim Crow, but illustrated the contributions of black labor and culture to the life and history of the nation. African American scholars believed that they had an obligation to preserve and publish the records of blacks, as Woodson put it, "that the race may not become a negligible factor in the thought of the world."(8)

African Americans continued to fight for a more inclusive history and society in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II. It was during the depression years that scholars focused greater attention on the lives of ordinary blacks and first broke ranks with the contributionist approach, which invariably emphasized the role of black elites. In his ground-breaking study of reconstruction during the period, W. E. B. Du Bois emphasized the part that slaves played in their own emancipation and set the stage for a new interpretation of the Civil War and reconstruction, which would gain increasing acceptance among white scholars during the postwar years. During the depression period, historian Lawrence Reddick also advocated an approach to African American history which would bring black workers and the poor into the foreground. During the war years, a few white scholars such as Herbert Aptheker joined their black colleagues in emphasizing the need for a broader multiracial U.S. history and multiclass African American history. In other words, these years demonstrated that the struggle for a more inclusive history was both an inter- and intra-racial one.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s would gain sustenance from as well as invigorate the struggle for a fuller American and African American history. Indeed, historians of the black experience would play a key role in the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which struck down the separate but equal ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and helped to hasten the fall of Jim Crow. As historian John Hope Franklin notes,

The historians and the lawyers were an unusually effective team. The historians provided data that traced the evolution of the concept of equality, with its culmination in the writing and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. . . . The lawyers were then able to take the materials provided by the historians, place them in their legal setting, and by tracing legal precedents as well as changes in the political and social climate, argue quite convincingly that the original intent of the Fourteenth Amendment had indeed been nullified by the actions of its enemies, who were racial segregationists.(9)

Over the next three decades, historians of the black experience not only continued to produce studies with poignant policy implications, but slowly helped to revamp our understanding of U. S. history itself. Studies of slavery, emancipation, and increasingly the industrial age transformed our perspective on the role of race in the shaping of the national experience.(10)

The new scholarship not only owed its insights and contributions to the ongoing work of history making but to the integrally related task of history writing. The black history movement of the early 20th century and the beginnings of a more class conscious black history during the 1930s and 1940s offered important intellectual foundations for the new social history of the Civil Rights era. As Eric Foner wrote in his massive synthesis, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, "In many ways, [Du Bois's] Black Reconstruction in America anticipated the findings of modern scholarship. At the time, however, it was largely ignored."(11) Recent emphases on proletarianization or the making of a black urban industrial working class are also indebted to both the new social movements and the pioneering work of the inter-World War years.(12)

As we confront the resurgence of conservatism in the United States, we should learn from scholars who worked under even greater strictures than our own. African American history is not only an example of how scholars should continue their commitment to research on underrepresented aspects of American society, but a case study of how difficult it is to function effectively within a hostile social and political climate. The resurgence of conservatism and its concomitant attack on the nation's affirmative action programs, for example, might reduce the number of minorities and the poor who are able to study, work, and teach in the nation's educational institutions.(13) If the poor, African Americans, and other minorities lose ground within the larger political economy, we will no doubt find it exceedingly difficult to fashion and execute new projects. Should our research suffer, we will likely face even greater challenges influencing the treatment of the larger American story within and outside the classroom.

Still, the African American experience can and should inform social history's search for appropriate responses to our times. The development of African American history offers a great deal of hope for the future. It shows that despite as well as because of the onset of slavery, racial violence, disfranchisement, and the segregationist system, the first two generations of African American historians fashioned new research, writing, teaching, and public projects. They deepened their understanding of the ongoing and vital links between their own scholarship and the changing social relationships in our nation and the world.

Although their findings were largely ignored by the predominantly white historical and teaching professions, early black scholars produced seminal works on the black experience. Early works formed the baseline for the later explosion of scholarship on the role of race in the development of a people and a nation. As such, the black experience also reminds us that social history is not merely the product of new forces of the past two to three decades, but the result of myriad long-standing efforts to create a broader U.S. history to mirror the struggle for a more inclusive, humane, and democratic society. In short, the African American experience is loaded with significance about the promises as well as the perils of social history during a period of adversity.

Department of History Pittsburgh, PA 15213


1. For fuller references to the issues discussed below see Joe W. Trotter, "African American History: Origins, Development, and Current State of the Field," OAH Magazine of History 7, no. 4 (Summer 1993): 12-18. Also see Earl Lewis, "To Turn as on a Pivot: Writing African Americans into a History of Overlapping Diasporas," American Historical Review 100, no. 3 (June 1995): 765-787.

2. Quoted in David Levin, History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman (New York, 1959), p. 82.

3. Quoted in Clarence E. Walker, "The American Negro as Historical Outsider, 1836-1935," Canadian Review of American Studies 17, no. 2 (Summer 1986): 138-39.

4. Ibid., p. 139.

5. Rayford W. Logan, The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson (1954; reprt. New York, 1965), pp. 88-104.

6. John Higham, History: Professional Scholarship in America (New York, 1965), p. 98. Cf. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (New York, 1988).

7. See Joe W. Trotter and Earl Lewis, eds., African Americans in the Industrial Age: A Documentary History of the Inter-World War Years (Boston, forthcoming, 1996), preface.

8. See August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, Black History and the Historical Profession, 1915-1980 (Urbana, 1986), quote, p. 9; Darlene Clark Hine, ed., The State of Afro-American History: Past, Present, and Future (Baton Rouge, 1986), especially the essay by William H. Harris, pp. 139-153.

9. John Hope Franklin, "The Historian and the Public Policy," in Franklin, Race and History: Selected Essays 1938-1988 (Baton Rouge, 1989), pp. 309-320.

10. See Meier and Rudwick, Black History and the Historical Profession; Clark Hine, The State of Afro-American History; and the special African American editions of Labor History 35, no. 4 (Fall 1994) and the Journal of Urban History 21, no. 4 (May 1995).

11. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York, 1987), p. xxi.

12. See Joe W. Trotter, "African-American Workers: New Directions in U. S. Labor Historiography," Labor History 35, no. 4 (Fall 1994): 495-523.

13. Mary Francis Berry, "The Case for Affirmative Action: What Black People Have to Lose," Emerge: Black America's Newsmagazine 6, no. 7 (May 1995): 28-41.
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Title Annotation:Special Issue: Social History and the American Political Climate - Problems and Strategies
Author:Trotter, Joe W.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Feb 5, 1996
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