Kidada and Crystal discuss what it means to study the Civil War today, as well as how their work as African American women is helping to disrupt the myth that the Civil War and Reconstruction are histories that belong to white men.

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Kidada Williams: Hi everyone, it’s Kidada. This is Seizing Freedom, the show where we dig into archives to bring you stories about how African Americans freed themselves during the Civil War and built new lives during Reconstruction, and where we talk to some of the historians and artists who know the archives best. In this episode: What it means to tell the history of the Civil War today.

Crystal Feimster: Those stories still haven’t been fully told, even as we are willing to say, “Yep, it was about slavery. Yep, it was about Black people moving with their feet crossing Union lines.” It’s not enough to just say that, that we have to tell the stories that show that.

I’m Crystal Feimster. I am a historian of African American history, women’s history and Southern history. I specialize in the 19th and 20th century. I love teaching. I’m from North Carolina.

KW: Crystal researches Black and white Southern women’s experiences of sexual violence.

CF: I’m currently finishing up a book called Truth Be Told: The Battle for Black Freedom in Civil War Louisiana. It is really trying to tell a story about how Black people and white people in Southern Louisiana in the context of the Civil War really tried to negotiate and define freedom.

KW: When most people think of the Civil War, they often think of white men—the white soldiers who are fighting the battles and the mostly white male historians writing about them. How did you, as a Black woman, come to study the Civil War?

CF: You know, I ask myself that question every day, girl. The leading scholars tend to be white men, writing about, you know, certain battles, certain regiments, Sherman’s March, leading commanders. You know, here I was a historian who thought I would move forward from the 18…you know…80s, into the 20th century. But somehow I found myself going back in time, and partly because the first book that I wrote really was Reconstruction to about 1930s. And a lot of the arguments that I felt like I was making about the Reconstruction moment relied on claims that I was making about the Civil War. Claims that, you know…at the time…I still think they were right, nonetheless.

But, based on just reading…sort of a general reading…I made an argument that in some ways that white women were afraid of sexual assault in the context of the Civil War, but their fear was not of Black men; It was of white soldiers…you know, based on, you know, a few documents…not a lot. ‘Cause I was really interested in the post-war period and how Black and white women were organizing after emancipation around these questions of rape and lynching.

And so at some point, I, you know, I thought, let me go back, let me go back and try to understand how Black and white women experienced the Civil War. And I think when I started presenting my work on the Civil War, there was, there were rumblings. People were like, “She ain’t no Civil War historian. Who she thinks she is rolling up in here?”

KW: Yea, you know, they’re territorial! Some of them can feel some kind of way about anyone taking attention away from this white male-centered history. So, how do you navigate that and still retain a commitment to telling the histories you thought needed to be told?

CF: I mean, it’s interesting ‘cause I do remember people saying, you know, “there’s a question, there’s a question, whether you’re a Civil War historian or not.” And I said, “well, I don’t claim to be a Civil War historian. You know, I’m a historian of the American South. Civil War happened there. I’m a historian of African American history and Black people participated in the Civil War. And I work on African-American women’s history, and Black women experienced the Civil War.” So, I initially made the argument that as a scholar, of women’s history in the South that I could write and think about the Civil War with the best of them. And I had to hold on to that claim and make a case for myself.

But I think there were already people in the field, like I think of Thavolia Glymph for example, as already sort of creating a path, so that I wasn’t blazing a new path by coming in and saying, “Oh, well, Black women matter when we think about the Civil War”—she had already had those fights, I assume, if she had to have fights about that, you know. And I had other scholars who were thinking about Black women laundresses. For example, Tera Hunter, who’d worked on Black women laundresses in the post-war period really sort of helped prop me up as a scholar of African-American women’s history who could go anywhere, including the Civil War. I mean, I think part of it too is, how do I say this without, being offensive or, um…(sigh)

KW: Well, I’ll say it. They tried to stop me too. I wanted to study the Civil War back in undergrad, and I was essentially told, “this was a white man’s war and a white man’s history of it.” And, I’d also hear things like, “well you’re not a Civil War historian.” I would say, “no, I’m not. I am an African Americanist; I follow the Black people.” And then I’d also remind them of our training—that we’re an archives-based discipline, and there are Black people in the archives of the Civil War; they know because they’ve seen them there. I think holding them accountable to the training can sometimes shut this down.

CF: Right, it’s not that, you know, Civil War historians didn’t rummage through those archives, but they weren’t interested in asking the questions that we, as scholars of African-American history and women’s history, are forced to ask, right. Nothing is ever a given, nothing can be taken for granted, right. And there is a way in which scholars in the field of Civil War history already know what happened. You know, they already know who won the war. They already know who the good guys were, right? You know, it’s a foregone conclusion, right? But as scholars of African-American history—of women’s history—that we know that once you center a different set of people, it requires asking different kinds of questions. And it actually means we come up with different conclusions.

And so I remember, you know, when I started to ask the question of, well, well, how did Black women and white women experience occupation, the violence of occupation, right? You know, people were very quick to say, “well, women weren’t raped. They weren’t raped. That didn’t happen. You know, the Union army did not rape women because they’re the good guys,” right? “Sit down and be quiet,” right? But we knew it was in the archives, right? It’s there, it’s just that they haven’t asked those questions of the sources.

And we know that there are many, many stories to be told and that there’s no singular answer to the question of how did Black people experience the war. We can’t just say “well, they were emancipated. They were all emancipated.” We know that they were not all emancipated at the same time that, you know, how Black people experienced freedom in the context of the war looks different in Louisiana than it did in, you know, Maryland and Delaware, right?

KW: But you only know that if you’re actually looking at them, and spending time with what you find in the sources. The proof for this is in an essay you wrote a while ago called “Not So Ivory” where you recount the experience of having your research attacked because you were focusing on the lynching of Black women. Tell us a little bit about that research and why you think you encountered so much pushback.

CF: I think in part, in the same way that we can talk about, you know, how the history of the civil war has been written and who has been centered, right? It is usually a male narrative. It’s a…it’s a narrative about, you know, men fighting wars against one another, right? Whether it’s about, you know, the economics or slavery or, you know, the Union, these are the politics of men, right? That’s the way the history of the Civil War has been written. And I think the history of lynching was written in a similar vein, that it’s about white man’s, you know, patriarchal and white supremist power. Their efforts to control Black men’s political, economic and social mobility, right. That this was, you know, a battle between white men and Black men. And, and yes, that’s one story that we can tell about the history of lynching.

But I was, I was interested in trying to understand, not just that thread. I was in college in the moment of Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas. Right? And he mobilized you know, the metaphor of a high-tech lynching to erase Anita Hill’s claim of sexual assault. And scholars, African-American women historians, came out of the woodwork right, to, to counter that narrative, and to make a claim and an argument for history to narrate Black women’s experiences. Whether, you know, we go back to Elsa Barkley Brown’s article or, you know, Nell Painter, Toni Morrison…I mean, Black women scholars across the disciplines were calling for this, this history, and really challenging us to ask different questions.

And I never thought I was going to undermine the narrative, but I was going to complicate it and pull back the curtain and say, well, there was a reason that the NAAC foreground, the lynching of Black men. First it happened in much larger numbers. Right. But also it was a means of, you know, resurrecting, the image of Black manhood, right? There was funds at stake, there, all these things. But the interesting thing was that I didn’t get push back from African American scholars, people in the field of African-American studies, the pushback really came from the old school, Southern white historians, right?

In part, I think, you know, they didn’t want to reckon with white women as victims of mob violence. They didn’t want to reckon with, I think, an argument that I was making about what sexual violence really looked like in the South. Right? And it wasn’t Black men, raping white women. It was white men raping Black and white women—let’s be clear. And so not only was I trying to push up against the lynching narrative, but I was trying to say that what we understand about the politics of sexual violence is really narrow. Right? And that, because we have put our efforts in trying to undo the Black rapist myth, we have overlooked Black women as victims, right? And because white women did not want to out their white men as anything but manly protectors of, you know, Southern ladyhood and Southern white virtue.

KW: We were just talking about how we use our wider knowledge of archival sources to interpret specific records. And to that point I want to talk about a woman named Rose. Rose was an enslaved woman who leads a rebellion in Pineville, South Carolina, during the last months of the war. And we know her story today, because Thyvolia Glymph found Rose and the rebellion in historical records and centered her in a history of the women in the war. Rose didn’t tell her story herself. She was executed when scouts put down the rebellion. Slaveholding women talked about Rose and the rebellion in their letters and diaries. So the question then becomes, how do we work with using sources that people like Rose themselves didn’t create, to tell a fuller story about them?

CF: I don’t care what kind of history you do, you are going to have to rely on sources and documents that were not produced by the people that you’re writing about to tell their story. But white historians do it all the time, like, let me just say like, so the, in some ways, you know, as historians, we are trained to read our documents, right, and to read them with a critical eye and all of those things. What makes African American history particularly challenging in the same way that I imagine for scholars who do Native American history, right? That we have to reckon with the white supremist nature of those documents.

And so, you know, if I was a white historian who was doing labor history, right then I might have to deal with the classist or the sexist nature of documents about working class, you know, white women in the factories, whatever. But I think for us as scholars of, of African American history in life, what becomes the challenge is reading against those narratives, right, of white supremacy that is telling that story from their vantage point. And so then we have to imagine what was at stake for the Black people. I say, imagine, but we know they’re going to be free, right?

But a lot of the assumptions that I make, if, if I call them assumptions or intellectual or analytical leaps that I make are building off of other scholarship. I have read enough testimonies of Black women recounting their rapes. And I, I take from Darlene Clark Hine this idea that there is an inner life that Black women have that may be closed off in some way, but it’s not illegible, right? You know, you mentioned Rose and I’m like, who Rose, but in some ways I probably am swimming in the same water with Thavolia so that I can understand a Rose. You know, we, people want to say,’ Oh, it’s critical fabulation’ but I’m like, no, she’s swimming in the water with us.

KW: And if you’re swimming in the water, then you know the contours, you know the nature of the current, the depths, and you’re going to find underneath the water, et cetera. Because you’ve got all of the other sources that indicate the sort of larger possibilities or what might have informed those actions that we see documented in some of the individual records we’re examining.

So we have these recently discovered or examined accounts. How do we create space for them in the stories that we tell about this larger story of the Civil War and Reconstruction which we are told is already a complete history—both in terms of scholarship and the larger public?

CF: I think the challenge, and this is what I often tell my graduate students. What are you telling me that I don’t already know? How are you upsetting what I think I know, right, even if I already know it. So I think we do it a couple of ways. One way is the way that you’re doing it, right? You know, I’m someone who believes in narrative history. What does that look like? On the page is one way, you know, in a podcast is another way, right, in the work that you’re doing.

You know, I think someone like, Natasha Tretheway does beautiful work that plays and riffs off of primary documents that speak and, and reflect the voices of Black folk, right? We can think of Toni Morrison, right, and Margaret Garner and Beloved, right? So we can do it in creative ways and we can do it in historical ways. Oh, you know, Beyonce be doing it up in there with Louisiana plantations and the Forts, right? So I think there are many ways that we can do it. In terms of a historian, who is really trying to upend, you know, how people have understood the Civil War, have written about the Civil War.

You know, I, I do think it’s important to center Black voices whenever we find them. We can even go back to, you know, Frederick Douglass, who said that the revolution was going to depend on Black people and enslaved Black people. But I think we still, those stories still haven’t been fully told, even as we are willing to say, “Yep, it was about slavery. Yep. It was about Black people moving with their feet crossing Union lines.” It’s not enough to just say that, that we have to tell the stories that show that, right? That we have to bring to life the individuals who made daring life choices. And we have to bring to life, those who stayed put, right? You know, we can’t just know cause we know, I mean, we know don’t get me wrong, but that as historians you need evidence, you know, and you need your sources. How we reread these sources in 2021 will matter.

KW: Right, but say more about that. Unpack that.

CF: Well, as I said to you, like, if I think about the moment in which I decided that I was going to do research and revisit Ida B. Wells, right, in 1992 in the context of Anita Hill, right? It informed the questions that I ask. I know that we want to sort of believe that we are, you know, these objective, unbiased, you know, scientists going in, but we are all a product of our time and place. And so I imagine…No, I don’t imagine…I know it to be true that whatever I write about the Civil War, right, it’s going to be informed by the moment in which we’re living.

And I think the last decade, right, when we think about the ways in which Black bodies have been policed and systemically brutalized…In the context of, you know, we can think about it as peacetime, but I think there will be a generation after us who will write about the, you know, the nineties as, you know, a kind of full-on war against Black folks…That Black lives matter is a slogan and a movement that comes out of real violence and murder of Black people, right?

And so for me to live through this time and then to go back and think about how Black people experienced the Civil War, how they resisted, it gives me—I don’t want to say imaginative material—but it makes it easier for me to imagine how Black people experienced military occupation. how women felt about losing their children in the context of war, right? And I’m not saying it’s the same, but it gives me some empathetic power or emotional baggage that helps make it possible for me to write narrative history that is about showing the depths of humanity.

KW: Dr. Crystal Feimster is an associate Professor of African American Studies, History and American Studies at Yale University. She is the author of Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching.. Her article “Not So Ivory” is published in Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower, a collection of essays edited by Deborah Gray White.

crystal feimster

About the Guest

Crystal Feimster is an associate professor at Yale University in the Departments of African American Studies and History and the Programs of American Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is Co-President of the Coordinating Council for Women in History and the Associate Editor of the journal of Civil War History.

At Yale, she teaches a range of courses in 19th and 20th century African American history, women’s history, and southern history, including “Critical Race Theory” and “The Long Civil Rights Movement.” Over the course of her career Feimster has taught at Boston College, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Princeton. She has received numerous teaching and mentor awards and been a fellow at the American Academy of Art Science, the Dubois Institute, and the Institute for Advanced Study.

She is the author of Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, a history of how black and white women were affected by and responded to the problems of rape and lynching in the 19th and 20th century US South. Southern Horrors was awarded the North East Black Studies Association’s 2010 W.E.B. Du Bois Book Prize and received Honorable Mention for Organization of American Historians’ 2010 Darlene Clark Hine Award.

Feimster has published peer-reviewed essays in The Journal of American History and Daedalus, has co-edited a special issue of The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era on Centennial Anniversary of Woman’s Suffrage, and has written numerous book chapters and encyclopedia entries. Her essay, “Keeping a Disorderly House in Civil War Kentucky,” in the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society was awarded the Kentucky Historical Society’s Collins Award for best article in 2020. Her article “General Benjamin Butler & the Threat of Sexual Violence During the American Civil War” in Daedaus was noted as a “Must Read” in the New York Times “Idea of the Day Blog.” Outside of academic journals, she has published essays in the New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Slate and has been interviewed on NPR and Democracy Now.

Feimster is currently working on two book projects, Truth Be Told: The Battle for Freedom in Civil War Era Louisiana and Beauty and Booty: The Life and Times of Madam Julia Dean.


Seizing Freedom is a co-production of VPM and Molten Heart