Happy Juneteenth! I want to follow up today on some of the dynamite panels on pre-emancipation African American women’s history I saw at the Berkshire Conference last weekend.
Researching and Writing the Lives of Unfree Women, Friday June 13. I reported briefly on this panel on Sunday, but want to follow up because it was so good. The room was jam-packed, so that when Natalie Zemon Davis arrived after the session had already started, a thoughtful junior scholar gave up her seat so that NZD could sit. Other senior scholars like Tera Hunter and Elaine Forman Crane were in Standing Room Only (although Historiann tried to get them to take her seat)! The session was chaired by Annette Gordon-Reed, whose work on Sally Hemings (and new book on the Hemings family) is justifiably admired. All of the presentations were interesting, but I thought that these were especially fascinating:
- Terri Snyder’s discussion of researching Jane Webb (ca. 1682-1764), a sometimes-enslaved, sometimes free woman of color in Virginia and her efforts to secure the liberty of her seven children
- Cassandra Pybus’s presentation on Mary Perth (ca. 1772-1800), an enslaved Virginia creole whose life she has traced to Nova Scotia (as one of the “Black Loyalists”) and then to Sierra Leone. Pybus spoke of the frustrations of the gaps in the historical record, and her reluctance to “make it up,” although other panelists said that all history has gaps that must be reconciled, and so they’re perfectly comfortable with sketching out a series of possible scenarios in their writing.
- Sharon Wood spoke about Priscilla Baltimore (ca. 1801-1882), a locally famous St. Louis and western Illinois entrepreneur and alleged conductor on the Underground Railroad. Wood’s presentation offered some insight into researching in local archives, and a guide for people interested in African American women’s history in the western U.S.
- Angelita Reyes gave a wonderful presentation on Vicey Skipwith (ca. 1856-1930), a woman born in Virginia in slavery, who became a landowner after emancipation. Reyes’s work illustrated the sequential connections from freedom, to marriage, to property ownership, and thence to “respectability,” and brought it all home (literally!) with her work uncovering the Vicey Skipwith Home Place and getting it on the National Register for Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. The preservation of material culture and landmarks like the Skipwith Home are vital to African American history, and was especially welcome at the Berks given our emphasis on public history in many panels, roundtables, workshops, and seminars.
This roundtable discussion was a clarion call to get back into the archives, particularly into the state and local archives, do some old-fashioned social history, and discover the lives of unfree and recently emancipated women in order to (in Pybus’s words) uncover the “specificity of African American lives.” Many panelists gave high praise to the genealogists and archivists whose work has enabled their work tremendously. The sources and stories are out there, and they are recoverable.
Surviving Dislocation, Separation, and Sale: Enslaved Women in the Americas, Saturday June 14. V.P.Franklin chaired and commented on two papers, one by Jessica Millward (“Abandoned Lands and Abandoned Plantations: Enslaved Women and Mobility in the Age of Revolution”) and Daina Berry (“‘Young Girls are First on the Stand': Enslaved Females and the Domestic Market.”) There is no better evidence of the return of social history than Berry’s database of 81,000 slave valuations and her efforts to give us a nuanced portrait of the prices set on enslaved people according to age, sex, health, etc. in Antebellum slave markets. Particularly interesting was her discussion of “fancy girls,” enslaved women who were used as sex workers, and of the self-mutilation (chopping off a hand or a foot) enslaved people engaged in as resistance, in order to decrease their market value.
That’s all for today–if you saw these panels, please comment further. If you saw other great African American panels, please report on those! (I’ve heard that the discussion in Stephanie Camp’s seminar Sunday morning was terrific–but I wasn’t there myself, unfortunately!) I hope you all honor our ancestors and enjoy a nice picnic today!