Still in Iceland and enjoyed eye-opening visit to the country’s only tannery yesterday. What I saw and learn is still in my mind as I take it all in, continue working on my initial mixed media piece and prepare to share the jazz documentary in Reykjavik.
I am also prepping mentally to discuss my earlier published work on the complex ties people of color had to white Americans before the Civil War.
As mentioned earlier on the Facebook page for my recently published book, I’m happy to say I’ll be discussing the Townsends (Ch. 4) at the September meeting for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in Cincinnati with University of Alabama colleagues Dr. Hilary Green and Cindy Jones, doctoral student in our Education program.
I can’t think of a better place to discuss this topic of interracial intimacies. Cincinnati, as I state in Remember Me to Miss Louisa, was ground zero for the settlement of black women and children during the antebellum period owing to its position on the Ohio River, the largest branch of the Mississippi. It was fairly easy for white slaveholders desiring to free their children with black or mixed race women to ferry them to this city. Although they faced racial hostility (there were several race riots in Cincinnati before the Civil War), these freedpeople also had local allies in abolitionists, some of whom were white people who relocated from the northeast. Job competition was stiff and, as scholar Nikki Taylor tells us, this then-frontier town was an uneasy place where people of African descent were expected to pay taxes without receiving the same services as white Cincinnatians. Still, these freed people formed community to the point that they successfully demanded to have their own high school as the century matured.
I spoke in Cincinnati about these issues and others a few years back at the Historians Against Slavery conference on a panel with University of Michigan colleague Tiya Miles.
It will be great returning here and perhaps also to the Kentucky side of the Ohio. There, I sat at the intersection where Margaret Garner, the woman whose life was recovered in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, likely walked before fleeing across the river on a chilly night to Ohio with her children from her master only to be recaptured. She killed her two year old fair-skinned child as she fought back, preferring to see her dead than return to slavery where she would almost surely endure the unwanted advances of men, among them ones who might themselves free their children with black women.
This paradoxical historical past is difficult to study and discuss, but discuss we must if we are to find meaning in our present difficulties where truth and untruths are blurred. In Ohio, some of these same children had access to an education they could not receive in the South. As early as 1833, Oberlin College opened its doors to women and people of African descent. Many of the people of African descent were the white “gentlemen’s” children from the South, according to Eliza Potter, a mixed hairdresser in the area who heard and saw much while grooming elite white women. In the late 1850s, and as the Civil War approached, Wilberforce also opened its doors to people of African descent, among them the Townsends. For more on the ASALH conference, visit Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza
35 W 5th St, Cincinnati 45202. For more, watch this talk I gave earlier this year in Montgomery, Alabama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jClU4BaPPt8