Sunday, June 22, 2008

Historypalooza! Maryland Attic Gives Up Its Treasures, Journalist Goofs

The Associated Press reports that:

a Maryland family's massive collection of letters, maps and printed bills has surfaced in the attic of a former plantation, providing a firsthand account of life from the 1660s through World War II.

"Historians are used to dealing with political records and military documents," said Adam Goodheart, a history professor at nearby Washington College. "But what they aren't used to is political letters and military documents kept right alongside bills for laundry or directions for building a washing machine."
A picture of Adam decorates this post.

The papers will eventually go to the Maryland State Archives. Head archivist Edward Papenfuse notes that:

The collection also includes notes on an aspect of slavery historians know little about: the practice of renting slave labor to neighbors and plantations farther south.

"Scholars have not paid a great deal of attention to it, but this is something that helps recreate and draw back together the lives of these people who were considered chattel," Papenfuse said.

This is very exciting, particularly for those most immediately involved, but it also points to two interesting popular misperceptions about the historical profession.

One, pointing to Goodheart's comment (which was undoubtedly more complex) is that established archives primarily concern military matters and the formal political sphere, that documents from which we write social and cultural history are few and far between, and that such evidence is unlikely to be found in the collections normally used to write "traditional history." That has never been so, particularly in Southern history, but really in any field, so I find this a rather shocking little piece of misinformation. The selective quotation of Goodheart also suggests that writing about an entire world, and not just those things recorded by Great Ones, will be a real breakthrough for historians. Also not true, not since before Ulrich B. Phillips mailed all those burlap bags full of antebellum plantation documents back to Yale prior to World War I as agricultural freight (see the work of John David Smith if you want to know more about collecting and archival practices among this generation of professional historians, particularly An Old Creed for the New South: Proslavery Ideology and Historiography, 1865-1918. And a book soon to be finished by me.)

The other misperception, and we are going to assume Papenfuse was also taken out of context by this journalist on the history beat, is that if it is not general knowledge that slaves were rentable property, scholars must not be aware of it either. Also not so: for the last two decades at least the complexity of slavery as an economic arrangement has been a major focus of new work, and that includes a lot of research on how enslaved people were hired out or permitted to hire themselves out. Slave narratives, and the WPA oral histories also routinely refer to these arrangements. I cannot help but think that what Papenfuse must have meant was that Maryland, as well as other states in what Barbara Jean Fields has famously called "the middle ground" (we might include Delaware and New Jersey here, but Maryland is a special case because the mix of slave and free labor had settled into a unique system, and it did not elect to stay in the Union without some pretty dramatic persuasion) are greatly understudied and that this new archive might bring scholars who study slavery back to Maryland.

Which would be right. It will, thank heaven. Congratulations, Marylanders: the graduate students are on their way.


arvilla said...


probably the operative part of the Papenfuse quote is 'further south.' Rentals to neighbors or people relatively nearby (say in a town) we know about, but rentals to other states/regions would be news.

Adam Goodheart said...

Thanks for your interest in the Poplar Grove papers and for your very astute observations about the AP story. You're right that of course I would never have suggested that historians do not concern themselves with social and cultural history, or that manuscript collections don't commonly include receipts, handbills, etc.! My more nuanced comments about the breadth and depth of the collection ended up condensed into something I'd never have said.

It's far too early to talk about what this collection may or may not have that will change any historians' perceptions of the plantation system in Maryland or beyond. (Almost none of the tens of thousands of documents have even been read yet - 10 days ago they were still stuffed into wooden crates, steamer trunks, and peach baskets.) Of course Ed Papenfuse and I are aware that the rental of slaves is not news by a long stretch. However, the detailed documentation of slave rentals from the Chesapeake to the Mississippi Delta certainly seems unusual, and we hope it will provide fertile ground for new scholarship.

I am glad that the AP story has drawn such wide attention, though, because I hope that it will inspire other families to place their inherited documents in archives. Too many collections like this one end up thrown out in the trash (even after 200 years) because descendants assume that just because their ancestors were "not famous," their papers are worthless. We are very lucky that the Emory descendants have safeguarded their family papers and are making them available to scholars.

If anyone would like to read more about the Poplar Grove Papers and follow some of our discoveries as they unfold, we have started a blog at