Why I love what I do:

Finishing up the semester next week, and I've got one major paper left. The class is Issues and Interpretations in American History, and without being to prosaic, the professor has decreed that our final assignment is to consider and reflect on the twelve books and three articles we've read during the last fourteen weeks and use them to consider the issues and interpretations we face as future historians. So easy, it's hard.

I'm writing on the meaning of race and class in American history and the relationships of those social constructs to the notion of republicanism--which has been a foundational theme in our class. This is the opening to my paper, and the reason I love what I am doing:

Since the advent of history as a profession in the Unites States, beginning around the time Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier closed and discussed the effects this would have on "the American,” the historian has essentially waged an ongoing battle against a teleological past. That is, we have spent several hundred years constructing a history along a singular line, often blatantly leaving out many of its complications, in an attempt to tell a clean narrative. Then, around midcentury last, we realized our error: the din of missing voices was to loud to ignore, and we began again, reinterpreting our past, doing all we could to stave off that urge to make the past into one nice, clean history. Our natural compulsion leans toward a teleological storyline, and so we continue to teach schoolchildren—and sometimes, even undergraduates—from textbooks that grandly sum things up, so that they can walk away with a set of “the facts.” But the best thing about history is the din of all those voices, every interpretation and perspective, and the elementary truth that in order to tell the whole story, history can neither be simple nor short, nor known by any one person—ever.

So to embark upon a discussion of the issues and interpretations in American history is to admit that there is inherently no crisply-drawn right and wrong in the art of argument, and that all we can attempt to do is add to the historiographical conversation that began long before, hopefully in a constructive way, and come out with a better understanding of our past and the historians who have collected it.

And I plunge from here boldly into the complexities of those stubborn demons we like to muddle, misinterpret, reinterpret, deconstruct, reconstruct, and at times, ignore or pretend do not exist. Race, class, America.


Decatur Street, 2009: Lessons in Atlanta's 1906 race riot

For the first half of my history senior seminar class, we had assigned readings--articles from the Georgia Historical Quarterly--that we discussed for their knowledge and arguments but also for their technical structure and research methods. Because the ultimate goal of the course is our own senior theses, we were using these as models for what our own research would become. The length, breadth, and coverage of journal articles like this is the aim for my own project, which I'm currently tackling with success so far (overwhelming at times, but I'm handling it well). I'll explain a little more about my thesis in another post, sometime soon.  

Two of the very first articles we read were about the Atlanta race riot of 1906. (Specifically, Harvey K. Newman and Glenda Crunk, “Religious Leaders in the Aftermath of Atlanta’s 1906 Race Riot,” GHQ 92, no. 4 [Winter 2008]: 460-85; Gregory Mixon, “‘Good Negro--Bad Negro’: The Dynamics of Race and Class in Atlanta During the Era of the 1906 Riot,” GHQ 81, no. 3 [Fall 1997]: 593-621.) This event in Atlanta history had been largely brushed under the rug since it occurred, so in 2006, for the centennial anniversary of the riot, efforts were made to bring this event into public light. The class readings were my first exposure to the event, in fact, and my interest was especially sparked by trying to visualize the Atlanta in which such a violent event took place. More than the social tensions, the gubernatorial smearing, and the yellow journalism, I was also interested in the physical Atlanta; where on Decatur Street were the saloons that were targeted, where did the mobs head, which buildings are still around, and where were these spots in relation to modern-day cityscape?

 

As it turns out, there is a walking tour that answers those questions. The tour is lead by Cliff Kuhn, associate professor of history at Georgia State, and began as part of the riot's centennial events. Due to its popularity, the tour is still going, meeting at Woodruff Park at Five Points on the second Sunday of each month. I didn't have to work this past Sunday, and so headed downtown with my boyfriend Ben to see and learn about Decatur Street and the surrounding spots.

 

When the riot broke out on a Saturday night in September, it did not come as a shock to most people. For several weeks, newspapers had been reporting alleged cases of assault by black men upon white women, and tensions were coming to a head. A heavily publicized gubernatorial race between Hoke Smith and Clark Howell had the men pitted against each other over who was better, ultimately, at disenfranchising African Americans. Behind these things were the growing pains of turn-of-the-century Atlanta, as it had become a multicultural city including immigrants and women working in the new industrial factories. Change was not easy for rural Georgians who came to Atlanta and found unfamiliar faces and behavior. Part of that behavior was the lifestyle available down on Decatur Street, where Eastern European Jewish immigrants (among some others) owned saloons where men could gallivant and drink and perhaps other unholy things-- much to the dismay of Prohibitionists and rural Southerners who saw this as a dark spot on their city. Within these saloons, the intermingling of various classes and races was itself a huge threat to the way things had been. A particularly reported lynching had also fueled animosity throughout communities in Atlanta. In the days just before the riot began on September 22, newspapers were practically egging white men on, towards a response to the perceived danger posed by black men in the city.

 

The building where Alonzo Herndon's barbershop was once housedWith the atmosphere as tense as it was, Atlantan Alonzo Herndon (Atlanta's first black millionaire) decided to have the employees of his barber shop head home early. Herndon was not alone in that, and those African Americans who made it home before the violence began were lucky; violence was aimed that night--and in the days after--upon any man or woman who happened to be on the streets. Violence continued for three days after the first night. The riot intensified the social tension between blacks and whites, and actually created a split of middle- and upper-class African Americans from the lower-class, who they had to set apart as a saloon-going violent group who would have to be dealt with. This was seen as necessary in order to maintain the social and economic success that had so far been earned by Atlanta's urban black community.

 

The violent riot, which drew anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 men to the streets on that Saturday night, brought large tremors to the social situation of Atlanta, and its main response as a city was to blow on past it. Newspapers claimed the riot was mostly caused by low-class rabble-rousing white men, never mind the reports they had been printing just days earlier. On a larger scale, the city sort of entrenched itself even deeper into segregation, seeing it as the best way to deal with the friction that had brought this event in the first place. Reverberations of this outburst, although brushed away quickly for most of the public, affected many witnesses for the remainder of their lives; this includes W.E.B. du Bois, Elizabeth McDuffie (who later worked for President Franklin Roosevelt), and newspaper publisher Max Barber.

 

Henry Grady Memorial, Atlanta, Ga.There is no way to easily explain the riot or its effects afterward, and that is not my intent here; you can read more on that on your own time. My own experience seeing the downtown spots was worth the parking fee and the overzealous homeless street preachers; Herndon's barbershop is still intact, on Peachtree Street, and is now a clothing store. The Henry Grady memorial monument down Marietta Street was constructed after his death in the 1890s, and during the riots at least three men were dragged to the foot of it to their own deaths. The Atlanta newspaperman had coined the term "New South," and had believed in the South's potential while still being a white supremacist. Professor Kuhn, the tour guide, said he interprets the laying of these men at Grady's feet as a sort of cry of these southern men: "Here's your 'New South,'" Henry." The economic opportunities and other promised changes had not yet come.

 

It has taken me three years studying world history to arrive at the doorstep of my own region, and to appreciate its history. It has, more incredibly, taken me eleven years to learn that Georgia history is more colorful and unbelievable than I ever knew. I've got to spend some time getting to know my history.